Christmas Day 1914 — just 100 years ago — witnessed an astonishing scene: German and Allied soldiers shaking hands in No Man’s Land, tentatively at first, and then more boldly as a Christmas truce marked a lull in the bitter fighting of World War 1.
Even more surprising were the football matches that took place between the opposing forces. But it did not last. Soon the guns resumed their thunder; men fell dead in relentless heaps as the cruelties and suffering of war broke out once more.
Another scene enacted on Christmas Day 1814, exactly 200 years ago, was equally surprising but far different in its long-term results.
A courageous man is standing not far from the beach in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand. He is preaching the Christian gospel in that land for the very first time. His hearers, a wild-looking gathering of Maori tribesmen, are scantily clad with spears at the ready.
Some of those standing listening are the very ones who had recently killed and eaten 67 British men, women and children on board a vessel that had anchored off their shores.
Samuel Marsden’s text that day was the message of the angels to the shepherds of Bethlehem: ‘Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy’.
Here was a divine ‘Christmas Day truce’; one that would not turn into renewed hostilities, but become the effective beginning of the power of Christianity in New Zealand.
Who was this man of such intrepid heroism? A scene like this could not have seemed remotely possible to a blacksmith and his wife living in the village of Farsley, West Yorkshire, when their son was born in 1764.
Privileged with a free grammar school education, Samuel Marsden had then worked on his uncle’s farm. An earnest Christian, he had used every opportunity he could to preach in the surrounding villages until he was unexpectedly granted a scholarship to study for the Christian ministry at Cambridge.
Then came another surprising development. In 1793, probably due to the suggestion of fellow Yorkshireman William Wilberforce, Marsden was asked to travel to far off New South Wales, Australia, to take up a post as a chaplain to the British colony there.
Largely made up of convicts conveniently dumped in that distant land, the chaplaincy of such a colony was a daunting prospect. Before sailing on a ship packed with criminals, Samuel asked a brave young woman, Elizabeth Tristan, to marry him.
A stormy five month voyage amongst angry, sad and resentful convicts was not an easy backdrop for Elizabeth’s first pregnancy and the birth of her daughter. But at last, in March 1794, Australia — land of opportunity, but also of extraordinary sorrows and misunderstandings for the Marsdens — came in sight.
A complex character, Samuel was firstly an earnest Christian, secondly a business man with keen entrepreneurial skills, and thirdly a man of deep compassion yet rigidly just principles.
Stationed at Parramatta not far from Sydney, his first hearers, mainly comprising men and women wrenched far from home and already bent on evil ways, formed an unlikely congregation.
Things became yet more difficult when the 30-year-old chaplain was also appointed as magistrate for the colony. In this dual role he was scarcely likely to win many converts, especially as some of the penalties he imposed for wrongdoing were considered over-severe at times. For this his reputation was sadly besmirched, both in his lifetime and frequently since.
Added to this, personal tragedies distressed Samuel and his wife Elizabeth as two of their infants died in grievous accidents. A two-year-old son fell from his mother’s arms when their fast-moving chaise bumped against an obstacle; shortly afterwards, another infant died after being scalded by a falling pan of boiling water.
Much of the land around Parramatta was wild and barren and its population of migrants and convicts sometimes reduced to near starvation. But with the eye of a farmer and a business man, Marsden realised the great potential of agriculture.
Availing himself of a grant of land and employing some of the convicts, he began cultivation. Within a few years he had purchased more land, and soon woodland was cleared, roads built, crops harvested and sheep reared for wool and meat. Much of the proceeds were used to better the lives of those among whom he worked.
Nor were Marsden’s plans limited to his ever-growing farming projects. In addition to his preaching and his magisterial work, he was concerned about the children of the settlers and soon had schools built for them.
Yet more troubling was the state of women convicts, exiled from England for prostitution and similar offences. Degraded and desperate, they needed shelter and protection. Marsden pleaded their needs with the British government and eventually built communal housing where many could live and work. But, despite all these endeavours, this noble man was criticised mercilessly by his contemporaries.
And still Marsden’s primary aim of establishing the Christian gospel in the southern hemisphere remained dominant. Time and again his thoughts turned towards New Zealand, so near and yet destitute of any message of salvation through Jesus Christ. How could he hope to reach that land?
The answer came as the result of his kindness to a broken and seriously ill man, Ruatara, an adventurous Maori tribesman. This young man’s treatment at the hand of the Europeans on the various ships he had served as a crew member had been dastardly.
Whipped and robbed of his rightful pay, Ruatara was destitute when Marsden found him and gave him shelter and employment. Returning to his own tribe in the Bay of Islands, Ruatara acted as an ambassador for Marsden, as he tried to dispel suspicion and antagonism against all white men.
This proved of vital importance owing to a fearful disaster that had occurred in 1810. Another Maori chief had been on board an English ship called The Boyd. Like Ruatara he too had been disgracefully mistreated.
Returning home he waited for his moment of revenge. When The Boyd next anchored near the Bay of Islands, Maori tribesmen swarmed aboard. Attacking passengers and crew alike, they killed and ate 67, saving only two women and a boy as slaves — a gruesome atrocity.
In the light of such cannibalism, it is not surprising that the Governor of the New South Wales colony was reluctant to allow Marsden the use of a ship to sail to the Bay of Islands to preach the Christian gospel.
Instead, with steely determination, this intrepid evangelist saved up from his own resources until he had accumulated enough to buy a small vessel of his own, which he named The Active.
In October 1814, he and the crew, together with two other missionaries and their families, 35 in all, set sail for New Zealand.
Ruatara had done his work ably. He had spoken well of Marsden, introduced his fellow Maoris to the wonders of a crop that could actually be turned into flour to make bread, and told them of a strange animal that white men used that could even carry a man on its back — a horse.
On 14 December 1814 The Active cast anchor near the Bay of Islands. When Marsden and his friends disembarked, he spoke through an interpreter to the gathered tribesmen and their chiefs, telling them of the object of their visit: to bring peace between the warring tribes, teach their children, plant crops and build boats.
Any lingering suspicions were calmed and the chiefs even accepted an invitation to board The Active. The missionaries were in danger, for the Maoris far outnumbered them, but trust had now been established.
Gifts were exchanged and when all were back on shore Marsden and his fellow missionaries presented the Maori chiefs with horses, cows and sheep — animals never seen before on the island.
Then came that historic Christmas Day, 1814. Ruatara and his friends had everything prepared for that first Christian service on New Zealand soil.
Upturned canoes were made ready as seats for the mission party, with a pulpit from which Marsden would preach — also part of a canoe, covered with cloth.
The ‘congregation’, swords and switches still in hand, stood in wary order as Samuel Marsden mounted his makeshift pulpit and began to sing the Old One Hundredth,‘All people that on earth do dwell’.
Then, in respectful astonishment, they listened as he told them of those good tidings from the God of heaven to the Maori peoples — a message of forgiveness for their past, even their warring and cannibalism — through the child of Bethlehem, Jesus Christ.
Though understanding little at first, these warlike tribes did not turn away from that Christmas Day message and, within a few weeks, Marsden was able to purchase 200 acres of land as a permanent base for the missionaries.
He himself returned to the islands a number of times. The flame of the Christian gospel, lit that Christmas Day from a pulpit made from a canoe, grew, and still shines steadily in New Zealand.
Faith has written extensively in Christian biography, including books on Lady Jane Grey, John Bunyan, Selina Countess of Huntingdon, and William Grimshaw