Samuel Marsden

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
18th September 2007

Tagged: australian history

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Since white settlement, shipping has been one of the central activities of our city. Sydney is an important Naval port. But more importantly still it has been a centre of mercantile shipping.

It was by ships that the world's population came to our city. It was also by ships that the gospel first visited our land. The first minister of the gospel Rev. Richard Johnson travelled with the first fleet in 1788.

But a gospel minister and ministry that was more associated with seafaring than Johnson was the second chaplain Rev. Samuel Marsden.

His reputation today has little to do with seafaring. Some people remember him as the “flogging parson”—a violent, sadistic, hypocritical minister. Yet in other circles he is remembered as the “Apostle to New Zealand” – a Christian pioneer who risked his life out of his compassion for others.

In 1794, Samuel Marsden arrived by ship to the prison colony. At that time Parramatta was rivalling Sydney as the most significant settlement in the new colony. For the next 44 years he was the rector of St John’s Parramatta. He baptised, married and buried thousands. He conducted services industriously. He started new parishes and built new churches.

This colourful and energetic man was an unambiguous servant of the gospel. He was absolutely committed to the grace of God. He knew that this grace was found in the justifying work of the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures.

The corruption and degeneracy of the settlement was a great trial to him. He stood out against the rum trade that had so corrupted the colony. His opposition to the immoral leaders of the community created many powerful enemies.

He knew that the only hope for moral improvement was the mercy of our heavenly Father. So he preached the message of salvation tirelessly. But he did not just preach against problems, he also worked to overcome some. He was actively involved in every part of early colonial life.

He started and organised both schools and orphanages. He tried to care for the aborigines around Sydney and bring the gospel to them. He was one of the colony's first farmers. He sent back to England the first commercial wool cargo. He encouraged the merchants and traders that turned Sydney from a prison to a city. He served on boards of schools, hospitals and orphanages. And for some time he was the local magistrate.

It was in this last capacity that he earned his dreadful reputation. It is very hard to get any objective evaluation of his work as a magistrate. They were, from our perspective, brutal times. Parramatta was something of an open prison. The community was under threat from rebellion. The free settlers were living in fear of their lives. Punishments were routinely harsh.

His involvement in the justice system gave his powerful enemies great opportunity for criticism. These criticisms have been recycled down the years by people who would oppose Marsden for other reasons than his work as a magistrate.

Yet for all this work for Sydney, he can best be remembered as a missionary statesman who was the “apostle to New Zealand”. For he used some of the good profits he made farming to spread the gospel in the Pacific. He returned to England by ship to recruit missionaries and sent them into the islands. He bought and maintained ships to transport his missionary friends. His concerns stretched from Tahiti to New Zealand.

His interest in shipping and transport was not limited to sitting in the rectory at Parramatta. He himself took the risky trip across the Tasman to preach the gospel. On Christmas day 1814 he became the first man to preach the message of salvation in New Zealand. It was a dangerous trip that he repeated six more times.

Samuel Marsden's engagement in mercantile shipping enabled him to establish the mission of Christ in New Zealand. And so win for him the appellation “the Apostle of New Zealand”.

In the Town Hall entrance to our Cathedral there is a large memorial stone reminding us of how God used this extraordinary pioneer. We should join with our New Zealand brothers in remembering him with gratitude for the inheritance that we received from his labours.