Between God and a Hard Place: A Re-examination of Church Missionary Society Evangelisation of Māori 1814-1840

Michael Corboy. O’Corrbui, 2022. 410 pages.

This substantial and self-published book covers a significant era of New Zealand history. Its topic is the Church Missionary Society (CMS[1]) efforts to convert the Māori to Anglican Christianity between its beginning with Samuel Marsden in 1814 up to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 and shortly before the tectonic arrival of British immigrants en masse

Samuel Marsden preaching the first Christian sermon in New Zealand – 25 December 1814, on Luke 2:10

The book is valuable on two grounds.

First, it presents the activities of CMS missionaries between 1814-1840. As such, it is an informative read not only for those exploring the subject for the first time but also for those already familiar with the general history. Corboy makes extensive use of primary source materials from that time including diaries, letters, records, etc. For readers unfamiliar with the history, the following are some of the major brushstrokes:

  • The arrival of Rev. Samuel Marsden as the first Christian preacher in New Zealand, his subsequent visits from New South Wales and his ambitions for a mission station which would proceed by teaching the Māori the ways of Christian British civilization.
  • The doleful struggle of the first missionaries to survive at their station in the Bay of Islands. Poorly prepared, equipped, and supplied, they relied heavily on the goodwill and generosity of the tribes they were meant to impress and convert, and in desperation resorted to trading in muskets and gunpowder in order to acquire food and other necessities.
  • The deplorable decline of the tragic figures Kendall and Butler, but also their vital progress made in the early years in learning and codifying the Māori language.
  • The change in fortunes under the leadership of the newly arrived Henry Williams, together with a change in organizational matters and methods in evangelistic work.
  • The varying interactions with and opinions of the Māori regarding the missionaries and their mission schools, particularly parents of the children in these schools, and of the complex relationship of warlord Hongi Hika. 
  • The later expansion of the mission to new stations beyond the Bay of Islands and the Far North; a task increasingly done by the Māori themselves and often at their own initiative.
Chiefs Waikato, Hongi Hika, and M meet with missionary Thomas Kendall

Second, Corboy’s book considers key historical issues that have been debated by historians. As the title indicates, it is a “re-examination” and as such it investigates claims made by prior historians in light of what the primary sources reveal. The introductory chapter covers the positions taken by a series of key historians and publications on these subjects. Corboy’s aim is to explore the sources to consider whether previous positions need to be “confirmed, modified or discarded in the light of documentary evidence.”[2] The key issues Corboy examines in his book include:

  • Why there was such a lack of progress in the evangelisation of the Māori even under Henry Williams’ leadership, prior to 1830.
  • Why did the Māori convert to Christianity when they did? The first non-deathbed baptisms occurred some fifteen years after the arrival of the missionaries, and seven years even after the reinvigoration of the mission under Williams’ leadership. Several factors are discussed throughout the course of the book: the now-discredited “fatal impact” theory which posits that a collapse in Māori cultural confidence induced them to adopt an apparently superior culture and religion; the role of literacy (by European missionaries in Te Reo Māori and by the Māori in written texts); and the influence—at different times supportive or antagonistic—of Hongi Hika’s patronage of the Bay of Islands mission stations.
  • What counted as “conversion”, as far as the missionaries were concerned, thus qualifying one for baptism.
  • Understanding the missionaries’ work in light of their own understanding of what they were doing. Prior attempts at explicating the missionaries’ work have done so through a secularist interpretive lens, leading to a deficient and usually unfairly negative view of their work. In this regard, Corboy’s work stands within the recent and helpful attempts on the part of intellectual historians of religious subjects to “see things their way”, as indicated by the title given to a recent excellent collection of essays: Seeing Things Their Way: Intellectual History and the Return of Religion.

I myself was introduced to this book during a presentation by the author at a research seminar at Laidlaw College. Corboy claimed to have no vested interest in the historiographical questions, as he quite candidly explained himself to be a humanist (i.e., atheist) and as such felt no need defend the missionaries. His stated motive in researching and writing the book lay in his own interest in the history and in his opinion that the missionaries had not been given a fair hearing by many historians and wanted to set the record straight. Corboy was happy to be corrected wherever he might have erred in his book, but only by those who had examined all the primary source evidence for themselves. As he stated in his book,

“This inquiry is not an attempt to commend and congratulate, to disapprove or pillory. It appreciates the effort, dangers, frustration and many other emotions felt by the apostles singing their Lord’s praises in a strange land. Missionaries, however, did not always act or live by their espoused principles. It is not flawed historiography to point out failure of individuals to hold to their professed values and those of their missionary organization.”[3]

Reading this book from my own standpoint as a New Zealand Christian from the evangelical clan of the Christian world, I found that much of the book was certainly embarrassing—there is a great deal of “dirty laundry” aired in the course of the book, particularly in the earlier stages of this history. Nonetheless, the gospel of Christ has advanced—at times despite the misdemeanours of his ambassadors! Corboy’s lengthy and thorough work carefully illuminates this fascinating and important era of New Zealand’s history.

Between God and a Hard Place: A Re-examination of Church Missionary Society Evangelisation of Maori 1814-1840, is available at for NZ$60 (Oct 2022).

The Stone Store and Kemp House remain important historical sites and popular tourist attractions, located just out of Kerikeri.

[1] The evangelical Anglican overseas mission agency based in London, founded 1799.

[2] Pages xxv-xxvi.

[3] Page xxviii.