Posts Tagged ‘Anglicanism’

‘I’ Review of Book on the Alma Fielding Poltergeist Case

October 12, 2020

Last Friday, 9th October 2020, the ‘I’ published a review by Fiona Sturges of the book, The Haunting of Alma Fielding, by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury, £18.99). Fielding was a woman from Croydon, who in 1938 found herself and her husband haunted by a poltergeist, the type of spirit which supposedly throws objects around and generally makes itself unpleasant. The review states that she was investigated by the Society for Psychical Research, in particular Nandor Fodor. Summerscale came across the case while going through the Society’s files.

I’m putting up Sturges’ review as I’ve friends, who are members of the Society and very involved in paranormal research, as are a few of the great peeps, who comment on this blog. Ghost hunting is also very big at the moment, and there are any number of programmes on the satellite and cable channels, as well as a multitude of ghost hunting groups across the UK, America and other countries. Despite its popularity, there’s a big difference between serious paranormal investigation of the type done by the SPR and ASSAP and the majority of ghost hunting groups. The SPR and ASSAP contain professional scientists as well as ordinary peeps from more mundane professions, and try to investigate the paranormal using strict scientific methodology. They contain sceptics as well as believers, and are interested in finding the truth about specific events, whether they are really paranormal or have a rational explanation. They look down on some of the ghost-hunting groups, because these tend to be composed entirely of believers seeking to confirm their belief in the paranormal and collect what they see as evidence. If someone points out that the evidence they show on their videos actually is no such thing – for example, most researchers believe orbs aren’t the souls of the dead, but lens artefacts created by floating dust moats – then the die-hard ghost hunters tend to react by decrying their critics as ‘haters’. Many of the accounts of their encounters with the supernatural by the ghost hunters are extremely dramatic. They’ll describe how members got possessed or were chased by the spirits on their home. I’m not saying such events don’t happen at all. I do know people, who have apparently been possessed by spirits during investigations. But the stories of such supernatural events put up by the ghost-hunters seem more likely the result of powerful imaginations and hysteria than genuine manifestations by the dead.

Academic historians are also interested in spiritualism and supernatural belief in the past because of what they reveal about our ancestors worldview and the profound changes this underwent during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Psychical research emerged in the 19th century at the same time as spiritualism, and was founded partly to investigate the latter. Both can be seen as attempts to provide concrete, scientifically valid proof of the survival of the soul after death at the time science was itself just taking shape and religious belief was under attack from scientific materialism. As the review says, spiritualism and psychic research were particularly popular in the aftermath of the First World War, as bereaved relatives turned to it for comfort that their loved ones still lived on in a blessed afterlife. One famous example of this is Conan Doyle, the creator of the arch-rationalist detective, Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was a spiritualist, who helped, amongst other things, popularise the Cottingley Fairies in his book, The Coming of the Fairies. Another of his books in this area was Raymond, an account of his contact with the spirit of his son, who was one of those killed in that terrible conflict.

But the history of spiritualism is also interesting because of what it also reveals about gender roles and sexuality, topics also touched on in the review. Mediums stereotypically tend to be women or gay men. At the same time, historians have also suggested that there was an erotic element to seances and investigations. More intimate physical contact between the sexes was permitted in the darkness of the séance room that may otherwise have been permitted in strictly respectable Victorian society. At the same time, there is to modern viewers a perverse aspect to the investigation of the mediums themselves. In order to rule out fraud, particularly with the physical mediums who claimed to produce ectoplasm from their bodies, mediums were tied up, stripped naked and examined physically, including in their intimate parts. Emetics could be administered to make sure that their stomachs were empty and not containing material, like cheesecloth, which could be used to fake ectoplasm.

The review, ‘Strange but true?’, runs

In February 1938, there was a commotion at a terraced house in Croydon. Alma and Les Fielding were asleep when tumblers began launching themselves at walls; a wind whipped up in their bedroom, lifting their eiderdown into the air; and a pot of face cream flew across the room. The next morning, as Alma prepared breakfast, eggs exploded and saucers snapped.

Over the next few days, visiting journalists witnessed lumps of coal rising from the fireplace and barrelling through the air, glasses escaping from locked cabinets and a capsizing wardrobe. As far as they could tell, the Fieldings were not responsible for the phenomena. One report told of a “malevolent, ghostly force”. The problem, it was decided, was a poltergeist.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the writer Kate Summerscale, best known for the award-winning The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, was in the Society for Psychical Research Archive in Cambridge looking for references to Nandor Fodor, a Hungarian émigré and pioneer of supernatural study, who investigated the fielding case.

She found a dossier of papers related to Alma, compiled by Fodor, containing interviews, séance transcripts, X-rays, lab reports, scribbled notes and photographs. The file was, says Summerscale, “a documentary account of fictional and magical events, a historical record of the imagination.”

The Haunting of Alma Fielding is a detective novel, a ghost yarn and a historical record rolled into one. Blending fact and fiction it is an electrifying reconstruction of the reported events surrounding the Fieldings, all the while placing them in a wider context.

The narrative centres of Fodor, who at the time was losing faith in spiritualism – the mediums he had met were all fakes, and the hauntings he had investigated were obvious hoaxes. He was increasing convinced that supernatural occurrences were caused “not by the shades of the dead but by the unconscious minds of the living”.

But he was intrigued by Alma, who now experiencing “apports” – the transference of objects from one place to another. Rare stones and fossils would appear in her hands and flowers under her arms. Beetles started to scuttle out from her clothes and a terrapin appeared in her lap. She would later claim to be able to astrally project herself and give herself over to possession by spirits.

Summerscale resists the temptation to mine the more comic aspects of the story. She weaves in analysis on class, female emancipation and sexuality, and the collective angst of a nation. At the time, spiritualism was big business in Britain, which was still suffering the shocks of mass death from the First World War and Spanish flu. Seances to reach the departed were as common as cocktail parties. There was dread in the air, too, as another conflict in Europe loomed.

Alma became a local celebrity, released from domestic dreariness into the gaze of mostly male journalists, mediums and psychiatrists. Chaperoned by Fodor, she made frequent visits to the Institute of Psychical Research, where she submitted to lengthy and often invasive examinations.

We come to understand how Fodor stood to benefit from the cases, both in furthering his career and restoring his faith in the possibility of an afterlife. You feel his pain, along with Alma’s, as the true story is revealed.

It sounds very much from that last paragraph that the haunting was a hoax. There have been, unfortunately, all too many fake mediums and hoaxers keen to exploit those seeking the comfort of making contact once again with deceased relatives and friends. There was even a company selling a catalogue of gadgets to allow someone to take a séance. But I don’t believe for a single moment that all mediums are frauds. There is a psychological explanation, based on anthropologists study of the zar spirit possession cult of one of the African peoples. This is a very patriarchal culture, but possession by the zar spirits allows women to circumvent some of the restrictions of women. For example, they may be given rings and other objects while possessed through the spirits asking, or apparently asking, through them. It’s been suggested that zar possessions are a form of hysteria, in which women, who are frustrated by societal restrictions, are able to get around them. The same explanation has also been suggested for western mediumship and alien abductions. Many of the women, who became mediums and who experience abductions by aliens, may do so subconsciously as these offer an escape from stifling normal reality.

I also believe that some supernatural events may well be genuine. This view was staunchly defended by the late Brian Inglis in his history of ghosts and psychical research, Natural and Supernatural, in the 1990s. As an Anglican, I would also caution anyone considering getting involved in psychical research to take care. There’s fraud and hoaxing, of course, as well as misperception, while some paranormal phenomena may be the result of poorly understood fringe mental states. But I also believe that some of the supposed entities contacting us from the astral realms, if they exist, are deliberately trying to mislead us. The great UFO researchers, John Keel and Jacques Vallee, came to the same conclusion about the UFO entities. One of Keel’s books was entitled, Messengers of Deception. There’s also the book, Hungry Ghosts, again written from a non-Christian perspective, which also argues that some of the spirits contacting people are malevolent and trying to deceive humanity for their own purposes.

If you are interested in psychical research, therefore do it properly using scientific methodology. And be aware of the possibility of deception, both natural and supernatural.

Scientists Demand Outlawing Teaching of Creationism in Wales

September 6, 2019

Here’s a different issue to Brexit and the Tories, but one which, I think, also raises profound questions and dangers. According to today’s I for 6th September 2019, David Attenborough has joined a number of other scientists backing a campaign to ban the teaching of Creationism as science in Welsh schools. The campaign was started by Humanists UK. The article, titled ‘Attenborough calls for creationism teaching ban’, by Will Hazell, on page 22, runs

Sir David Attenborough is backing a campaign urging the Welsh Government to outlaw the teaching of creationism as science from its new curriculum.

The broadcaster is one of dozens of leading scientists to sign a letter calling for evolution to be taught at primary level as well as an explicit ban on teaching creationism as science.

Humanists UK, which organised the letter, claims the draft national curriculum does not teach evolution until ages 14 to 15.

The letter reads: “Pupils should be introduced to [evolution] early – certainly at primary level – as it underpins so much else.

“Without an explicit ban on teaching creationism and other pseudoscientific theories as evidence-based, such teaching may begin to creep into the school curriculum.”

In 2015, the Scottish Government made clear that creationism should not be taught in state schools, while in England, state schools – including primaries – have to teach evolution as a “comprehensive, coherent and extensively evidence-based theory”.

The new Welsh curriculum, due to be rolled out in 2022, set out six “areas of learning and experience”, including science and technology.

A spokeswoman for Wales Humanists said it “could allow schools much more flexibility over what they teach”. “This is very worrying, as it could make it much easier for a school to openly teach creationism as science,” she added.

But a spokesman for the Welsh Government denied the claims, saying: “It is wholly incorrect to claim that evolution will only be introduced at 14 to 16.

“We believe that providing children with an understanding of evolution at an early age will help lay foundations for a better understanding of wider scientific concepts later on.”

Both Mike and I went to an Anglican comprehensive school, which certainly did teach evolution before 14 or 15 years of age. In the first year I can remember learning about the geological history of the Earth and the formation of the continents. We were also taught evolution, as illustrated by the development of the modern horse from ancestral species such as Eohippus.

Theories of Evolution before Darwin

I am also very much aware that the history of religious attitudes towards evolution is much more complex than the accepted view that Christians and other people of faith are uniformly opposed to it. One of the first books promoting the evolution of organisms from simpler ancestral forms was written by Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather. Erasmus Darwin was part of the late 18th century scientific group, the Lunar Society, who were the subject of book, The Lunar Men, published a few years ago by the British writer and academic, Jenny Uglow. I think Erasmus was a Quaker, rather than a member of a more mainstream Christian denomination, but he was a religious believer. In his book he argued that the evolution of different organisms made the existence of a Creator ‘mathematically certain’. Erasmus Darwin was followed in turn by the great French scientist, Lamarck, who published his own theory of evolution. This was highly influential, and when Darwin was a student in Scotland, one of the lecturers used to take him and the other students to a beach to show them the shells and other fossils showing the evolution of life. And one of the reasons why Darwin himself put off publishing his magnum opus, The Origin of Species for so long was because of the reception of another, preceding book on evolution, Joseph Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Chambers’ book had caused a sensation, but its arguments had been attacked and refuted on scientific grounds. Darwin was afraid this would happen to his own work unless he made the argument as secure as possible with supporting facts. And he himself admitted when it finally was published that even then, the evidence for it was insufficient.

The Other Reasons for Darwin’s Loss of Faith

Darwin certainly lost his faith and it’s a complete myth that he recanted on his deathbed. But I think the reasons for his loss of faith were far more complex than that they were undermined by his own theory, although that may very well have also played a part. Rather, he was disturbed by the suffering in nature. How could a good God allow animals to become sick, prey on each other, and die? I might also be wrong here, but I think one of his daughters died, and that also contributed to his growing atheism. As you can understand.

Christian Acceptance and Formulation of Theories of Evolution

At the same time, although Darwin’s theory did cause shock and outrage, some Christians were prepared to accept it. Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, when he debated T.H. Huxley on Darwin’s theory, opened the debate by stating that no matter how uncomfortable it was, Christians should nevertheless accept the theory if it were true. And after about two decades, the majority of Christians in Britain had largely accepted it. One of the reasons they did so was theological. Some of the other theories of evolution proposed at the same time suggested that evolution was driven by vital, supernatural energies without the direction of a creator. The mechanistic nature of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection rebutted the existence of these non-materialistic forces, so that Christians could still believe that God was in charge of the overall process.

In the 1840s in Britain, Samuel Baden-Powell, a professor of Mathematics at Oxford, proposed a view of evolution that attempted to prove that it was driven by the Almighty, by comparing it to the manufacturing process in factories. In 1844 the Polish writer, Juliusz Towianski, published his Genezis z ducha – ‘Creation through the Spirit), an explicitly religious theory of evolution. He believed that God had created the world at the request of disembodied spirits. However, these were given imperfect forms, and since that time have been striving to ascend the evolutionary ladder back to God through a process of transformation and catastrophe. By the 1900s in many Christians eye evolution had become an accepted theory which posed no obstacle to religious faith. The term ‘fundamentalism’ is derived from a series of tracts, Fundamentals of Christianity, published in America in the early 20th century. This was published as a response to the growth in religious scepticism. However, it fully accepts evolution.

Scientists Against Evolution

The Intelligent Design crowd have also pointed out that rather than being the sole province of churchmen and people of faith, many of Darwin’s critics were scientists, like Mivart. They objected to his theory purely on scientific grounds.

Creationism, Christianity and Islam

If the history of the reaction to Darwin’s theory is rather different than the simplistic view that it was all just ignorant religious people versus rational scientists, I also believe the situation today is also much more complex. A decade ago, around 2009 when Britain celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of the Species, there was a determined attack on Creationism, particularly by the militant New Atheists. Some of this was driven by anxiety over the growth of Creationism and the spread of Intelligent Design. This was framed very much as combating it within Christianity. The problem with that is that I understand that most Creationists in Britain are Muslims, rather than Christians. There was an incident reported in the press in which one Oxford biologist was astonished when a group of Muslims walked out of his lecture. This was Steve Jones, who presented the excellent Beeb science series about genetics and heredity, In the Blood back in the 1990s. One male student told him frankly that this conflicted with their religion, and walked out of the lecture hall, leaving Jones nonplussed. The far right Christian Libertarian, Theodore Beale, alias Vox Day, who really has some vile views about race and gender, caustically remarked on his blog that this showed the powerlessness of the scientific establishment to opposition from Islam. They were so used to Christians giving into them, that they didn’t know what to do when Muslims refused to cave. That said, I would not like to say that all Muslims were Creationists by any means. Akhtar, who led the demonstrations against the Satanic Verses in Bradford in the late ’80s and early ’90s, angrily declared in one of his books that Salafism – Islamic fundamentalism – did not mean rejecting evolution, and he could point to Muslims who believed in it.

Scepticism Towards Evolution Not Confined to the Religious

Another problem with the assumption that Creationism is leading to increasing scepticism towards evolution is that the statistics seem to show the opposite. Back around 2009 there was a report claiming that 7 out of 10 Brits didn’t believe in evolution. One evolutionary biologist was quoted as saying that this was due to the marginalisation of the teaching of evolution in British schools, and demanded that there should be more of it. Now it might be right that people don’t believe in evolution because of its teaching or lack therefore in British education. But this was the same time that the New Atheism was on the march, led by Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion. This was supported by statistics showing that Christianity and church attendance was well in decline in this country. According to the stats, although many people identified as Christians and about 70 per cent at the time declared they believed in God, the actual number who go to church is far smaller. Only a few years ago further polls revealed that for the first, atheists were in the majority in this country. The growth of disbelief in evolution can’t simply be explained as the product of Creationism, whether Christian, Muslim or whatever.

Atheists and the Problem of Persuading Creationists to Accept Evolution

There’s also the problem here in that, however, well meant Humanists UK’s campaign may actually be, at one level they and Richard Attenborough are the last people, who should be leading it. They’re atheists. A few years ago Attenborough was the subject of an interview in the Radio Times, in which he photographed chatting with Dawkins. He was also quoted as saying that he had stopped believing in God when he was child, and at school he used to wonder during services how anybody could believe in such rubbish. He’s not the first or last schoolkid to have felt that. But it does mean that he has a very weak personal position when dealing with Creationists. Many Creationists object to the teaching of evolution because not just because they think it’s unscientific, but because they also believe that its a vehicle for a vehemently hostile, anti-Christian or simply irreligious and atheist political and intellectual establishment to foist their views on everyone else. A campaign insisting on the teaching of evolution by an atheist organisation like Humanists UK will only confirm this in their eyes.

Anti-Creationist Campaigns also Attacking Reasoned Critique of Materialist Views of Evolution

Another problem with the campaign against Creationism is that is leading scientists to attack any critique of the contemporary neo-Darwinian theory or materialist views of evolutionary. Gordon Rattray Taylor, a former Chief Science Advisor to the Beeb and editor of the Horizon science series, himself published a detailed critique of conventional evolutionary theory, The Great Evolution Mystery, shortly before his death in 1981. He states in it that he doesn’t want to denigrate Darwin, but he concludes that it is not so much a theory, as a subset of greater theory that has yet to be formulated. He also quotes another evolutionary biologist, von Bertalanffy, who said

‘I think the fact that a theory so vague, so insufficiently verifiable … has become a dogma can only be explained on sociological grounds’.

Rattray Taylor himself concludes

Actually, the origin of the phyla is not be any means the weakest point in the Darwinian position. Many facts remain inexplicable, as we have seen. Modern biology is challenged by ‘a whole group of problems’ as Riedl remarks. Now, however, the attempt to present Darwinism as an established dogma, immune from criticism, is disintegrating. At last the intellectual log-jam is breaking up. So we may be on the verge of major advances. The years ahead could be exciting. Many of these advances, I confidently predict, will be concerned with form.

It is unfortunate that the Creationists are exploiting this new atmosphere by pressing their position; this naturally drives the biologists into defensive attitudes and discourages them from making any admissions.

Evolutionists have been blinkered by a too narrowly materialist and reductionist approach to their problems. But the trend of the times is away from Victorian certainties and Edwardian rigidities. In the world as a whole, there is growing recognition that life is more complex, even more mysterious, than we supposed. The probability that some things will never be understood no longer seems so frightening as it did. The probability that there are forces at work in the universes of which we have scarcely yet an inkling is not too bizarre to entertain. This is a step towards the freeing of the human mind which is pregnant with promise.


This is an effective rebuttal to the charge that challenges to materialist conceptions of evolution are a science-stopper, or that they will close minds. Rattray Taylor’s book was published in 1983, 36 years ago. I have no doubt that it’s dated, and that scientific advances have explained some of the mysteries he describes in the book. But I believe he still has a point. And I am afraid that however genuinely Humanists UK, Attenborough and the scientists, who put their name to the letter, are about making sure Welsh schoolchildren are scientifically literate, that their efforts are also part of a wider campaign to make sure materialist views of evolution are not challenged elsewhere in society and academia.

The Secularist Persecution of Christianity in French Colonial Madagascar

June 7, 2013

The spread of Christianity in Africa is usually associated with European imperialism. Although Christian missionaries were often separate from the European colonial administrations, they usually expected the state to aid them in their evangelisation of indigenous Africans. The colonial authorities could also occasionally obstruct missionary activities, particularly of Christian denominations that were not the official or national church in the colonising nation. Thus the French colonial authorities attempted to block Protestant denominations from evangelising in their parts of Africa. There were also periods when official French culture was militantly secular. Under these regimes the authorities also tried to prevent the spread of the Gospel and actively persecuted the churches. This occurred during the French colonial administration of Madagascar from 1895 to the end of the Second World War.

Anglican missionaries from the London Missionary Society first reached Madagascar in 1818. They translated the Bible into the indigenous language, Malagasy, and established the foundations of a church. Christianity was persecuted under the brutal reign of Queen Ranavalona. Thnis particular monarch was so paranoid that she made dreaming about her carry the death penalty. She built a number of roads on the island, whose workers she then massacred in order to prevent her enemies knowing where they were. After her death it was found that the numbers of Christians in Madagascar had actually increased. The first Anglican bishop of Madagascar was consecrated in 1874. The Anglican Church is very much in a minority in Madagascar. In 1965 it only comprised 5 per cent of the non-Roman Catholic Christian population. The majority denominations are the Lutherans in the south, and the Congregationalists and Quakers in the centre and north. The Church did have good relations with these denominations, but the French Jesuits have been much more hostile. Madagascar’s status as an independent nation was recognised in a treaty signed between Britain and France in 1865. Thirty years later, however, French troops took Tananarive, the nation’s capital, overthrowing its monarchy. The French administration at this time was extremely anti-Christian and anti-clerical. Hundreds of Christian schools were closed, as were also a number of churches. At the end of the war there were plans for an indegenous uprising that would have resulted in the massacre of all the foreign, non-Malagasy people on the island.

Clearly the history of Malagasy Christianity shows that Christian mission in Africa has been dependent on the attitudes of the colonial administration. While the European colonial regimes have been eager to promote their own particular, national denominations – Anglican and Protestant in the British colonies, Roman Catholic in the French – it also shows that aggressively secular, anti-Christian administrations have also actively wished to end Christian evangelisation and persecute the church. Thus anti-Christian administrations can be as active in implementing their views with force and violence as administrations more favourable to Christianity have actively supported it. Atheists and secularists can therefore not claim that their ideologies have not also persecuted Christians for their faith when they wielded power.

Missionaries and the British Annexation of New Zealand

April 15, 2008

Christianity has been attacked for its role in supporting and promoting European colonialism. According to some critics of Christianity, its character as a universalist religion and mission to convert those outside the faith was used to support European imperialism and the conquest and displacement of indigenous peoples. Christian evangelism provided the pretext and legitimised the dispossession of indigenous, non-Christian peoples from their lands, the destruction of their way of life, and their exploitation and enslavement by their new colonial masters. 

Now some of the most vicious and expoitative imperialist regimes did indeed attempt to justify their conquest of and expoitation of their new, non-European subjects through the claim that they were saving the souls of the indigenous peoples by bringing them Christianity. The Spanish Conquest of the New World, for example, was based on the theological notion originating from the Crusades, that as God was lord of all creation, pagan states and political structures, which failed to recognise Him had no validity. It was the duty of the Amerindian nations to convert to Christianity. If they did not, the Spanish crown had the right to impose Christianity by force and overthrow them. 1The atrocities committed by the Spanish against the Amerindians during the conquest of South America became notorious, though they were hardly alone. Other nations, such as the Portuguese and British, also committed atrocities in their campaigns of imperialist expansion and colonisation.

Demand for Missionaries and Missionary Opposition to Imperialism in New Zealand

However, the justification of European imperialism was one aspect of a complex relationship between European states, the churches and indigenous peoples. Elsewhere Christian evangelism was invited and encouraged by indigenous leaders because it brought their peoples literacy, modern medical care, and access to European goods and markets, while Christian missionaries also acted as peacemakers between warring indigenous nations. Nor did Christian missionaries always see indigenous peoples as inferiors to be colonised by Europeans. While most, if not all, certainly believed in the superiority of European culture, many also took the view that contact with Europeans brutalised and exploited extra-European peoples. As a result, some missionaries were strongly opposed to imperialism, while others supported it as a means of controlling and punishing the lawless behaviour of European traders and settlers who were already encroaching on indigenous territories. This was the case in New Zealand in the early 19th century, where British missionaries such as Henry and Edward Williams, and Dandeson Coates of the Church Missionary Society, supported the annexation of New Zealand by Britain under the Treaty of Waitangi as a means of protecting the Maori against oppression by European colonists.

Beginnings of Christians Missionary Work in New Zealand

Missions to New Zealand by citizens of the British Empire began in the second decade of the 19th century. In 1808 the Anglican Church’s Church Missionary Society proposed sending missionaries to New Zealand.  Six years later, in 1814, Thomas Kendall and William Hall, two Anglican lay readers from New South Wales, and the Anglican clergyman Samuel Marsden established a mission at the Bay of Islands. They were followed by the Wesleyan Methodists, who under Leigh and William White, established a missionat Whangaroa in 1821. Their activities were closely monitored by Maori chiefs, who, in return for allowing the missionaries to preach the Gospel and attempt to convert their subjects, expected the missionaries to promote trade between themselves and the Europeans, teaching their subjects the necessary skills for successful commerce. If the missionaries failed to provide these practical, commercial benefits, they were threatened with dismissal and being replaced by those of a rival denomination. 2 Furthermore, missions were vulnerable to attack and looting by the Maori. In January 1827 the Wesleyan mission at Whangaroa was destroyed, forcing the missionaries to flee to Kerikeri, and the Church Missionary Society’s stations at Rotorua and Tauranga were also occasionally attacked and looted in the 1830s. At least in the early 19th century Christianity was not imposed on the Maoris by force. Indeed, the Maoris themselves welcomed the missions, with distant Maori communities demanding their own missionary. 3

Opposition of Christian Missionaries and British Imperial Authorities to Exploitation by European Colonists

Europeans began trading with the Maori in the late 18th century, with merchants and traders arriving from Britain and Australia to acquire kauri wood for ship’s masts, and hunt whales and seals. 4 Most of the traders viewed Maoris with contempt as savages, and frequently abused and exploited them. The only groups that did not do so and treated the Maori with respect were the Quakers and Congregationalists from New England. 5 The British government, however, soon became concerned at the lawlessness and brutality of many of the European colonists and settlers towards the Maori. By 1813, the governor of New South Wales, Lachlan MacQuarrie, declared that the Maori were under British protection in order to stop their brutalisation and exploitation. In 1817 the British parliament passed an act that, while recognising New Zealand as an independent state, provided for the punishment of those committing murder or manslaughter outside British imperial territory. It granted the authorities of Britain and New South Wale the powers to enforce British law on British subjects in New Zealand. Further acts were passed in 1823 and 1828 granting the courts of New South Wales and Tasmania the powers to try Britons for misdemeanours committed in New Zealand. Missionaries were granted powers to act as justices of the peace and enforce the law. In 1831 the governor of New South Wales also prohibited the trade in tattooed heads. Under pressure from the missionaries to bring law to New Zealand, and permit colonisation from the land speculators, the British government sent James Busby from Sydney to New Zealand as the official British Resident in 1833. 6 These measures to bring law to New Zealand and protect the Maori were strongly supported by Marsden. Although he considered Maori culture as ‘barbarous’, he also declared them to be ‘a noble and intelligent race and prepared to receive the blessings of civilisation and the knowledge of the Christian religion’. 7 He and the other missionaries believed that the Maoris had become suspicious and violent towards Europeans because of their maltreatment by them. He believed firmly that Maori confidence in Europeans would be restored through contact with Europeans, and the acquisition of new skills and practical and religious instruction. When the expected change in Maori attitudes was slow in appearing, Marsden blamed the lack of improvement on the absence of a recognised authority, the lack of regulations governing settlement and trade, disputes over trade in alcohol, firearms and women, and European involvement in local conflicts. 8 In 1837 he lamented the lawlessness in Waimate, complaining that Europeans were running public houses and encouraging every type of criminality, including drunkenness, adultery, and murder without any laws, judges or magistrates. He concluded that ‘Some civilized government must take New Zealand under its protection or themost dreadful evils will be committed from runaway convcts, sailors and publicans.’ 9 Marsden’s view of the brutalisation and corruption of the Maori by lawless Europeans agreed strongly with the conclusions of a House of Commons Select Committee which met in 1836-7 to debate the question of securing justice for the indigenous peoples of British colonies, as well as promoting civilisation and the spread of Christianity. The Select Committee on Aborigines was the result of a campaign by the great antislavery campaigner T.F. Buxton to protect the indigenous peoples of the British – Canadian Indians, Polynesians, Aboriginal Australians and the Black and Khoi-San peoples of South Africa, as well as the Maoris, who were threatened by European expansion and colonisation. 10 It concluded that contact with Europeans had been disaster for indigenous peoples, that Europeans were generally responsible for the conflicts generated. The only way the situation could be improved was through government intervention. In fact, the Committee declared that from the view of economy, security, trade and Britain’s reputation, non-intervention was a disastrous policy. It also viewed that the British had been granted their immense global power for reasons beyond commercial prosperity and military success glory. Britain had a responsibility under God for educating and civilising indigenous peoples, and giving them the Christianity and commercial benefits under which Britain had prospered. The Select Committee’s Report stated

‘The British empire has been signally blessed by Providence and her … advantages, are so many reasons for peculiar obedience to the laws of Him who guides the destinies of nations. These were given for some higher purpose than commercial prosperity and military renown … He who has made Great Brtain what she is, will inquire at our hands how we have employed the influence He has lent to us in our dealings with the untutored and defenceless savage; whether it has been engaged in seizing their lands, warring up on their people, and transplanting unknown disease and deeper degradation … or whether we have, as far as we have been able, informed their ignorance, and … afforded them the opportunity of becoming partakers of that civilization, that innocent commerce, that knowledge and that faith with which it has pleased a gracious Providence to bless our own country.’ 11

Public Demand for Colonisation, British and French Colonial Rivalry and the British Annexation of New Zealand

However, without an established system of courts, enforced by a police force and supported, if necessary, by the army and navy, the missionaries were unable to prevent the violence and criminality. Furthermore, there was pressure in Britain and Australia for a programme of commercial colonisation. This began in 1829 with the publication in the Morning Chronicle of two articles, ‘The Act of a Proposal for Colonising Australasia’ by Robert Couger, and ‘A letter from Sydney’ by Edward Gibbon Wakefield. These recommended the colonisation of Australia and New Zealand through the sale of land and the establishment of planned settlements and the British class system there. Busby attempted to end the lawlessness by making the missionaries Justices of the Peace and the Maori chiefs constables, but he was unable to enforce his authority and on several occasions the criminals successfully defended themselves from arrest with firearms. His authority was further challenged by Baron de Thierry from France, who, laid claim to a large block of territory and styled himself ‘sovereign chief of New Zealand’. 12 The French arrived in New Zealand 1838, and by 1844 had established 12 missionares staffed by 41 missionaries, strongly supported by the French navy and diplomatic service. The British annexation of New Zealand was therefore motivated party by religious rivalry between Protestants and Roman Catholics, as well as geopolitical rivalry between Britain and France. 13 In order to defend the Maori from such colonialist claims and force the Maori chiefs themselves to become responsible for justice, Busby in October 1835 Busby persuaded 35 northern chiefs to sign a declaration of independence, proclaiming them as the ‘united tribes of New Zealand’ under British protection. Furthermore, British policy in the 1830s was of indirect rather than direct rule by advising and placing diplomatic pressure on indigenous institutions. It is possible that if the new tribal federation had been supported by Maori militia and police force under British officers, annexation would have been postponed. However, parliament was under increasing pressure from the New Zealand Association and land agents in Sydney to promote colonisation and sales of land there, as well as the increasing opinion that the British crown had the right to demand foreign territories to submit to British administration in return for protection. Thus the British government eventually decided to annex New Zealand in order to bring law and justice to both the Maori and British. New Zealand was to become a dependency of New South Wales, administered by a lieutenant-governor under the governor of New South Wales. A British naval captain, William Hobson, was despatched to make the final arrangements with the governor, George Gipps, before acquiring sovereignty from the Maori through their ‘free and intelligent consent … expressed according to their established usage’, and become the nation’s first consul and lieutenant-governor. 14

The Treaty of Waitangi and the Dispossession of the Maori the Result of Cultural Misunderstanding not Fraud

The Treaty of Waitangi was translated into Maori on the 4th February 1840 Henry Williams and his son, Edward. It was read to 40 Maori chiefs from Hokianga and the Bay of Islands at Busby’s house the next day. After considerable debate, with some influential chiefs urging its rejection, it was signed by 43 chiefs on the 6th February. 15 The Treaty of Waitangi has been extremely controversial because of its role in giving legality to the British annexation of New Zealand, and the appropriation of Maori lands by the colonial authorities and the subordination and replacement of Maori tribal authority by British governmental institutions. In the 1980s many Maori felt that the true intentions of the Treaty of Waitangi, which in their view retained Maori autonomy and lands, had been betrayed by the British colonial authorities. There were Maori demonstrations in New Zealand demanding that the Treaty should be honoured and the return of Maori lands unfairly appropriated by the colonial authorities.

Many New Zealand historians, on the other hand, believe that the Treaty was not a deliberate fraud, and that rather than being a deliberate deception it was a case of both sides mistakenly assuming that their concept of landholding was shared and understood by the other side. The first article ceded to the British crown complete sovereignty over all New Zealand ‘without reservation’. It did not, however, suggest that the Maori would become subject to British law or be required to assume the roles and duties of British subjects. Thus the Maori assumed that while they would be under the protection and authority of the British Crown, traditional Maori tribal institutions and authority would still be preserved.

The Treaty’s second article was also a cause of serious misunderstanding between the British and Maori. The Treaty stated that the Maori would retain the ownership of their lands, estates, forests, fisheries and other properties. However, the British assumed that the Maoris owned only the lands that they immediately occupied, such as the marae, pas and the land immediately surrounding them. The rest of country was seen as unoccupied waste land whose ownership would naturally pass to the British government, to be disposed of and developed in whatever manner they considered suitable. 16 The Maori, however, viewed the unoccupied lands as rightfully theirs. Although these lands were not permanently settled, the Maoris nevertheless considered the land their possession as it was used and exploited by the Maori as a source of a wide variety of foods in the Maori hunter-gatherer culture. They were also culturally important as the site of tribal marae, sacred burial grounds, and memorials to ancient battles and the heroic events of ancient legends. The Maori therefore assumed that they would still retain their ancient rights to this unoccupied land, with the British Crown merely acting as an overall guardian. 17 These misunderstandings over the nature and role of Crown authority and Maori landownership, with the assumption of cultural superiority by the British, led to the eventual subjection and dispossession of the Maori as New Zealand was annexed by the British Empire.

Missionary Support for Treaty of Waitangi

The missionaries played a leading role in the drafting of the Treaty and its translation into Maori. Six of them had assisted Hobson when he drew it up, and it has been alleged that Williams was deliberately vague in his translation of the Treaty through his political support for annexation. However, while the missionaries supported Crown involvement and control in New Zealand, they were strongly opposed to colonisation. They advocated the extension of British authority to New Zealand as a way of protecting themselves and the Maori against European criminals and occupation by the Roman Catholic French. 18 Moreover, there was considerable pressure in New South Wales and Britain to annexe New Zealand regardless of the attitudes of the missionaries. New Zealand was regarded as a highly suitable territory for British colonisation, as was made clear to Hobson in the orders for the country’s annexation given to him on 14 August 1839. These stated that regarding New Zealand, ‘there is probably no part of the earth in which colonisation would be effected with a greater or surer prospect of national advantage’. 19  New Zealand possessed valuable natural resources, but the increasing violence and lawlessness of European settlers, provocative acts by American merchant ships and a major outbreak of tribal warfare in 1837 convinced the British authorities that the system of government under a British resident and tribal federation had failed to provide stability and order. The British thus considered that they to annexe New Zealand in order to impose peace and law in the islands, while taking possession of the country’s economic resources. Some historians have therefore suggested that New Zealand’s annexation and colonisation by the British was inevitable in these circumstances. 20

As for Williams personally, it has been suggested that his possession of land made him an interested party and so led to his support for annexation. However, the missionaries had been informed that following annexation there would be an official investigation of land claims. If Williams’ possession of his lands had been illegal or in any sense dubious, then he would not have supported Hobson in bringing New Zealand into British possession. Williams has also been criticised for the term he used to translated ‘governorship’ in the Treaty. Instead of using the existing Maori term ‘mana’, Williams coined a new term ‘kawanatanga’, and this may have played a role in the misconception of the nature of British authority that led the Maori to cede complete authority to the British Crown without really understanding the full implications for their own traditional political structures. 21 However, ‘Protestant Missionary Maori’ was the common Maori of the time, and that the Waitangi Tribunal in 1985 declared that it considered that Williams’ use of ‘kawanatanga’ for ‘governorship’ was ‘fair and apt’ and ‘an appropriate choice of words’. 22 Thus, rather than deliberately deceiving the Maori, Williams and the other missionaries were genuinely trying to protect them through the Treaty, which they saw mainly as a device for restraining and controlling European abuse of the indigenous New Zealand peoples.

‘Williams saw the Treaty mainly as a device for controlling British settlers, Faced with a unilateral decision by Britain to annex New Zealand, he saw it his duty to assist the government in such as  way that his flock would be best advantaged. He did not perpetrate a ‘pious fraud’. Later misuse of the Treaty to defraud its Maori signatories should not impugn evil intentions to missionaries who were forced to translate and advice their charges ina  matter of days, and who for a time believed they could control the hand that held the sword of state’. 23

Conclusion: British Missionaries Reluctant Imperialists, who Supported British Imperialism as Action against Colonisation

 Thus, far from being enthusiastic supporters of British imperialism and the exploitation of indigenous peoples, the Protestant missionaries in New Zealand were hostile towards European colonisation. The complete annexation of the country by the British was very much a last resort, after gradual, piecemeal attempts to impose British authority on the European colonists who had already settled there, including the creation of a united, independent Maori state under British protection, had failed. The missionaries supported British imperialism out of a genuine belief that it was the only way the Maoris could be protected from further European brutalisation, exploitation and corruption. Furthermore, rather than being imposed upon the indigenous peoples by force through a powerful, expansionist European state, Christianity, at least at this period in New Zealand history, was not  imposed through military conquest but by missionary work from the religious denominations themselves beyond the British imperial state. The missions also had the support of the Maori themselves through the educational and trading opportunities they offered to aspiring chiefs and tribes, and missionary expansion was initially at the request of the indigenous peoples, who subjected the missions to their own tribal authority. In this instance, rather than being enthusiastic supporters of an imperialist campaign to exploit and dispossess indigenous peoples through the imposition of Christianity by force, missionary support for British imperialism was very much a last resort, taken in order to protect the Maori from a process of exploitation and dispossession that was already occurring, and which, to the missionaries, could only be restrained, regulated and corrected through the power of the British state. In fact the annexation of New Zealand did indeed lead to the dispossession of the Maori and its colonisation by the British. While this process was arguably almost inevitable given European cultural, and economic and political assumptions of the time, it was against the missionaries’ will. It was a tragedy of history that the missionaries who worked hard to gain protection for the Maori against other European from the British state ended up through the imposition of imperial rule inadvertently causing the very dispossession they wished to avoid and so vehemently condemned.


1. Mark A. Burkholder and Lyman L. Johnson, Colonial Latin America (Oxford, OUP 2004).

2. Laurie Barber, New Zealand: A Short History (London, Hutchinson 1989), p. 32.

3. Barber, New Zealand, p. 34.  

4. Barber, New Zealand, p. 34.

5. Barber, New Zealand, p. 35.

6. Barber, New Zealand, p. 38.

7. Letter from Marsden and others to the Secretary of the Church Missionary Society of 25 October 1815, cited in Andrew Porter, Religion Versus Empire? British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700-1914 (Manchester, Manchester University Press 2004), p. 141.

8. Porter, Religion Versus Empire?, p. 141.

9. Porter, Religion Versus Empire?, p. 142.

10. Porter, Religion Versus Empire?, p. 139.

11. Report from the Select Committee on Aborigines (British Settlements) (1837), cited in Porter, Religion Versus Empire?, p. 143.

12. Barber, New Zealand, p. 38.

13. Porter, Religion Versus Empire, pp. 154-5.

14. Barber, New Zealand, p. 39.

15. Barber, New Zealand, p. 40.

16. Barber, New Zealand, p. 41.

17. Barber, New Zealand, p. 41.  

18. Barber, New Zealand, p. 42.

19. Barber, New Zealand, p. 43.

20. Barber, New Zealand, p. 43.

21. Barber, New Zealand, pp. 41, 43.

22. Barber, New Zealand, p. 43.

23. Barber, New Zealand, p. 43.