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George Augustus Selwyn

By Robert H. Codrington

From S.L. Ollard and Gordon Crosse, eds. A Dictionary of English Church History

London: Mowbray and Co., Ltd, 1912, pages 550-551.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, 2007

SELWYN, George Augustus (1809-78), founder and organiser of the province of New Zealand and of the Melanesian Mission, was educated at Eton and Cambridge, where he was Second Classic. He returned to Eton as private tutor, and became Curate of Windsor. His great natural gifts, his cultivated powers of mind and body, his religious fervour, seemed already to mark him out for some great career. The call came in 1841 to be the first Bishop of New Zealand, and was at once obeyed. The bishopric was established by the Crown in the early days of the colony; Letters Patent conveyed legal powers, and extended the diocese far into the Northern Pacific. A letter from Archbishop Howley, in terms which were never forgotten and singularly fulfilled, bade him regard his see as 'the central point of a system extending its influence in all directions, a fountain diffusing the streams of salvation over the islands and coasts of the Pacific.' New Zealand had been opened for colonisation by missions of the C.M.S. The bishop arrived to find the natives mostly Christians of the English Church. The colonists, not half so numerous as the natives, scattered, of many sects, had no Church organisation. The [550/551] bishop, who learned Maori on his voyage, took the Native Church as his first care, and kept his love for it to the last. His next care was to visit the English in their widely separated towns and settlements, journeying on foot, fording and swimming rivers, sailing along uninhabited coasts. In less than a year after his arrival he had surveyed his diocese, and had formed his plans of education and of synodical constitution. He founded his College of St. John for the religious and industrial education of both races, with a view to the supply of clergy and citizens alike. This he called the 'key and pivot' of his work. His plans for synods, with admission of faithful laity, much on the American model, did not from the first lack support among the colonists. A synod of bishops and clergy met in 1844, 'the first in the Church of England since the silencing of Convocation.' A second met in 1847. In 1850 the six bishops of Australasia met in Sydney, and recommended a synodical constitution with lay representation.

Selwyn was now able to turn to the islands of the Pacific. Having ascertained that his field must be Melanesia, he began in 1849 his admirable work among those untouched islands. Persuaded that every man, however savage, was able and even likely to receive the Gospel if presented, and that every one who should receive it would be able and willing in some measure to impart it, he sought from the first to find teachers of the heathen among themselves, to 'catch men in a black net with white corks.' Risking no life but his own, landing alone on many a dangerous beach, he sought and found among crowds of savages the boys whom he would teach to be the teachers of their people, and, with a strange success, he brought them to his college.

The grant of self-government to the colony gave the opportunity to the Church. The bishop visited England, and made clear the way for the division of his diocese, the organisation of the province, the establishment of the Melanesian diocese. As a result the Church in New Zealand was soon at work with a system of trusts and co-ordinated synods. In 1859 the First General Synod was attended by five bishops, with clerical and lay representatives. But the progress of the Church, and of religion, was for ten years sadly hindered by a native war. The bishop ministered equally on both sides; the natives were in revolt against English rule and religion; the colonists were angry with the friends of the natives. But in this time of unpopularity the bishop was really making himself better known to both races. This was shown when both bade him farewell, when, much against his will, he had become Bishop of Lichfield; it was then shown that twenty-six years of labour among them were understood and valued.

Bishop Selwyn accepted translation to Lichfield in 1867, where he laboured abundantly and fruitfully. Twice he visited the sister Church in the United States. He had to grieve for the death of Bishop Patteson (q.v.), to rejoice over the consecration of his own son to take the vacant place. Bishop Selwyn belongs to New Zealand; but it should be remembered that the grass of the Cathedral Close at Lichfield was long worn by the feet of the black-country people who visited his grave. [R.. H. C.]

G. H. Curteis, Life; personal recollections.

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