Latest news & views

Our Story: The Night that Transformed a Mission and Established a Church

By Malcolm Falloon. 

The following is the first resource from the Our Story Hui: a transcript of Malcolm Falloon's talk. More resources will be coming shortly.

One of the outstanding features of the late 1830s and 40s in New Zealand history was the widespread movement of Māori to embrace missionary Christianity. Beginning in 1830 with a handful of Māori Christians closely associated with the CMS mission stations of Rangihoua, Kerikeri and Paihia, the movement grew until by 1842, some 70-75% of Māori professed to be Christians and ten years later, in 1852, that percentage had increased to perhaps 90-95% of the Māori population. Historians have proposed a number of broad theories as to why Māori converted to Christianity, each identifying a key moment, period, or “turning point” in the prospects of the mission.

For instance, some have suggested that the launching of the missionary schooner the Herald in 1826 gave the Missionaries a degree of economic independence from Māori that led to Māori viewing the missionaries with a greater level of respect. Others have opted for a later period, perhaps after 1835, when the missionaries for the first time were able to distribute printed portions of the Bible in sufficient quantities leading to a thirst for literacy among Māori, a literacy closely identified with the Christian religion. In reaching these conclusions, however, historians have often paid little attention (if any) to whether the missionaries themselves had identified any significant transitions in the work of the mission.

As it happens, a close reading of the missionary letters and journals does point to a distinct change in tone, or perspective, in the missionary correspondence, occurring at the beginning of 1830. Before this date, the missionaries would report, at most, only gradual progress in the mission and instead be looking forward in faith to a time when God would pour out his blessings upon Māori. After 1830, however, the missionary correspondence is marked with thanksgiving for what God had already accomplished amongst Māori and prayer for God's nurture and protection of a work already taking place.

For instance, Williams Williams in reviewing the year at the end of 1828 wrote to London:

The past year has been an eventful one, but it has not been marked by any change among the Natives: yet we must acknowledge that the prospect brightens before us.

Yet in March 1830, his outlook was distinctly different:

We have now abundant cause for gratitude to our heavenly Father for what he is carrying on among us... now I trust the time is arrived when poor New Zealanders shall receive the Gospel of Christ.

The examples could be multiplied, and taken together they clearly demonstrate that for the missionaries, 1830 was a year of transformation, beginning in the month of February at the Paihia mission station. February 1830 began with 3 significant baptisms, including that of Taiwhanga, the leading Māori of the Paihia mission. But the month ended with an even more significant event, a Wednesday evening Prayer Service, led by the missionary Richard Davis, on 24 February 1830 – the night that transformed a mission and established a church!

Brands plucked from the burning

Although the CMS mission to New Zealand Māori began in 1814, it was over ten years before missionaries baptized their first convert, Karaitiana (Christian) Rangi, in 1825. Karaitiana Rangi was a displaced Te Parawhau rangatira from Whangarei living with his hapū at a kāinga on the Waitangi River, a short distance from the mission station at Paihia. Karaitiana Rangi’s baptism left the missionaries jubilant - despite the fact that he was baptized on his deathbed and died the next day from the last stages of tuberculosis, known in those days as consumption. The missionaries were jubilant because they were convinced that a true work of God had taken place in this elderly rangatira’s life and that God had answered Rangi’s prayer for a new heart - a heart for which the missionaries were urging Māori to pray. Henry Williams called him a “brand plucked from the burning”, by which he implied not only the unexpected nature of Rangi’s conversion, but also the hope of a greater harvest to come.

Karaitiana Rangi’s conversion did have some immediate affect on the mission Māori of Paihia. Marianne Williams noted a new “spirit of inquiry” that was abroad among them. Yet, it seems, that most Māori in the surrounding area had concluded that Rangi’s death was caused by listening to the missionary karakia (prayer and preaching) and throwing off the tapu (sacred customs). The exception was Rangi’s immediate family, a number of who were deeply affected. For instance, his brothers, Tioka and Wini, wished to follow in his footsteps and began praying themselves for a new heart. Yet their prayers, unlike those of their brother, had gone unanswered: “Perhaps,” said Wini, “God will not hear us: we have called upon him for a long time without perceiving any great change.” Despite these frustrations, the family had established a strong bond of friendship with the mission that continued in the years that followed.

However, this conversation with Wini highlights something of the missionary dilemma. The missionaries sought to baptize converts to Christianity not just those who professed the faith. But conversion was, in the end, the work of God not the work of human hands. For the missionaries to baptize professors would have been a relatively easy thing, for Māori were at times very welcoming of the missionary message. But the missionaries wanted Māori to become “he tangata hou”, “new men”, like themselves, with new hearts full of love for God in place of old hearts full of fury and hate toward their enemies.

Many Māori rejected the missionary message for this reason. Although it was common for Māori to keep the Rātapu (Sabbath) by abstaining from all work, the requirement to give up their native ways was considered by Māori to be both inappropriate and impossible, and they ridiculed those Māori who took seriously the missionary karakia. Many Europeans also declared it to be impossible and were critical of the mission for being naïve, inhospitable and a colossal waste of money.

All the missionaries could do in response was to urge Māori to persist in using the “means of grace” (prayer and spiritual instruction) and point them to the power of God’s Spirit to accomplish that which humanly speaking is impossible – to be remade new from the inside out.

Along with Karaitiana Rangi, there were a number of other such “brands plucked from the burning” that gave encouragement to the missionaries during these years, 1825-1829 - Māori who grew stronger in their faith even as their bodies grew weaker and death approached. The missionaries mentioned nine such “brands”, the last of whom was Ropata (Robert) Urunga, the second adult Māori whom the missionaries baptized, in November 1829. He also died two weeks later from a long-standing illness, presumably consumption again. William Williams, who conducted the baptism, may have hoped that Urunga’s faith and death would have inspired others, but it was not to be: “His death has not excited much thought among the natives:” wrote Williams in his journal, “they are content with thinking that he was a believer and is gone to heaven without desiring the same blessing for themselves.”

Taiwhanga’s Baptism

There was, however, at least one Māori who was thinking otherwise. Taiwhanga told Williams that he “felt inclined to come forward to be baptized, but that he did not like to do so of his own accord.” Taiwhanga was a rangatira of considerable mana, having served with distinction as one of Hongi Hika’s toa (warrior). But after the battle of Te Ika-a-ranga-nui against Ngāti Whatua in early 1825, he turned his back on fighting and settled with his wife among the missionaries at Paihia. Here he built himself a house and planted an extensive garden. He had previously lived as a single man with John Butler at Kerikeri and had visited Samuel Marsden at Parramatta, and so was well acquainted with European agricultural techniques. He was a highly literate man, writing perhaps the earliest extant letter in te reo Māori (Māori language), addressed to Samuel Marsden. He was also most probably present to witness Karaitiana Rangi’s baptism in September 1825.

Taiwhanga’s reluctant to put himself forward for baptism was not uncommon among mission Māori. If the missionaries were reluctant to baptize Māori before there was clear evidence of a spiritual re-birth, Māori were even more reluctant to claim a spiritual knowledge beyond their capacity or experience. Taiwhanga had already written to request that the missionaries might baptize his four children who were growing up on the mission. He addressed the letter to “Mr Davis and Mother Davis [Richard & Mary Davis], Big Mr Williams and Mother Big Mr Williams [Henry & Marianne Williams], Brother and Mother Brother [William & Jane Williams. William, being Henry's brother, was called Parata], Mr Fairburn and Mother Fairburn [William & Sarah Fairburn].”

As for himself, he declared: “I have left off my native rights and my native thoughts also, and am now thinking how I may untie the cords of the Devil and (so) loosen them that they may fall off together with all sin.” William Williams agreed to baptize his children and quickly translated the baptismal service to do so. The baptisms took place in August 1829 to which Richard Davis added his prayer, "O, that they may be baptised with the Holy Ghost and with fire!"

Along with Taiwhanga, Pita & his wife, Meri, had also discussed baptism with Williams around this time. But it wasn’t until Williams raised the subject again in January 1830 that the three of them agreed to be baptized.  The baptisms took place on 7 February 1830. Marianne Williams (wife of Henry Williams) wrote that she saw Taiwhanga “advance from the other end of our crowded chapel with firm step but subdued countenance an object of interest to every native as well as every English eye, and meekly kneel where six months before we had at his own request stood sponsors for his four little children. I deeply felt that it was the Lord’s doing and wonderful in our eyes.” Taiwhanga took the name Rāwiri (David) at his baptism.

Wednesday Evening Prayer

No sooner had Rāwiri Taiwhanga and Pita & Meri been baptized, than four other mission Māori wrote to Henry Williams also requesting that they might become baptismal candidates. Williams began to meet with them each evening for further conversation and prayer. But as the month went on, the numbers gathering each evening began to build. Henry Williams saw this as a true mark of their sincerity, for as he had observed, usually the Māori living at the mission would retire early and spend their evenings in dancing, singing and talking. But now, noted Williams, “this appears altogether laid aside, and now they assemble in each others houses for prayer, and I trust the Lord is with them.” As the end of the month drew near, the missionaries began to realize that something extraordinary was taking place, a true spiritual awakening, the strength of which was about to revealed itself.

On Wednesday evening of the 24th, as they did each evening, the Māori of the Paihia mission had gathered for prayer led by one of the missionaries. Chapel attendance was a condition of living at the mission. On this occasion, it was the turn of the missionary Richard Davis to lead the liturgy and to address the gathered congregation.

Now, the Paihia station had grown from its beginnings in 1823 to become the largest of the three CMS stations in New Zealand. By 1830, Paihia was nearly twice the size of Kerikeri and Rangihoua combined, with a population of between 150-200 Māori and Europeans living together. So on this particular Wednesday evening there would have been a little over 100 Māori who gathered, about two thirds of whom would have been men and boys.

Richard Davis would have little suspected what was about to unfold, but as he told a friend, it was a night he would never forget. After he had read the prayers of the church, he tells us he addressed the natives as usual. It must have been a great trial for Māori, after a long day of often very physical work, to concentrate on what was being said. But to Davis' surprise, he noticed that on this occasion the congregation was especially attentive to what was being said. So much so, that when he finished his address, he gave an appeal – all those who were “particularly desirous for the salvation of their souls”, said Davis, were welcome to follow him home and continue to “converse” on those things which “belonged to their everlasting peace.” Where upon about 30 men and boys responded and followed Davis back to his house, “and I had,” recorded Davis in a letter to London, “the pleasure of spending such an evening as scarcely falls to the lot of mortals.” There was a similar response from the women who met separately with Davis’ oldest daughter, Mary Ann.

Spiritual Conversation

After the meeting, Davis recorded snatches of their conversation in a letter to London the following week:

I requested them as we were met to be free in their conversation and make me acquainted with the state of their minds in order that I might be enabled to give them a suitable word of advice.

After we had supplicated a throne of grace for a blessing one of the newly awakened Natives stood up and spoke in a very affecting manner. He requested all present to be seriously attentive to the things which were told them by us, whom he stiled [styled] Messengers of God, to leave off and forsake all sin, and to go to God continually by prayer for grace to enable them so to believe that their souls may be everlastingly saved, etc.

Another said, "yes let us all do as you say; let us live to God and then we shall be happy."

Peta spoke next in a very pleasing way and said, "Yes it is a happy thing indeed to believe in God, for I have found it is; it is the only good thing in the world, etc.

Another said, "Since I have continued to pray and to think upon God my heart has been full of light, consequently I am happy."

Another said, "I am very much afraid of everlasting fire; at times, it seems as though I were near to it, etc".

Another said, "My heart is hard, and it has been so for a long time. Some time ago my heart was not dark but light; this was when I used the means of grace, but having been home for a time (he being a Native from Tauranga), and having also neglected the means of grace, my heart has become hard like a stone."

Some said they had a great desire, others said they had a little desire to believe in God, etc.

At the close of their several conversations I endeavoured to give each person a suitable word of advice, and from what I have heard from them since at recent Meetings, I have reason to hope that my labour has not been in vain.

A mission transformed

It soon became clear that this “spiritual awakening” had taken on a permanent character. The week following, William Williams wrote that the interest of a few had now become almost general, surprising even the Māori living at Paihia. “One youth observed to me this evening,” said Williams, “that a fortnight ago in the house in which he lives there was nothing but bad language. He went away to see his friends for a week and on his return this language was no longer heard.”

The spiritual renewal continued into March despite the whole of the Bay being engulfed in the conflict known as the Girls War, which left 200 Māori killed or wounded. The small company of believers at Paihia, however, continued to meet together undisturbed by the commotion going on all around. “Our little settlement,” wrote Davis, “is the only spot for miles round where people are not living in terror and dismay.” At the end of March, Henry Williams reported:

The conduct of the Natives belonging to the Settlement is most pleasing, all circumstances considered: each at his occupation through the day, and in the evening the greater part assembly at one house or other for spiritual instruction and prayer: the Natives without gaze and wonder.

By April the transformation began to affect the other two mission stations, though as yet, the wider Māori population was left unaffected. Samuel Marsden had arrived in the Bay on his sixth visit to New Zealand and he witnessed the next four baptisms that took place on Easter Sunday at Paihia. He was astonished by the changes he saw: “The good old Gentleman’s heart seemed to overflow,” wrote George Clarke, a missionary stationed at Kerikeri, “with love and gratitude to God for what He had done. He said he could hardly have expected to see so much done in his days, knowing as he did the difficulties which were in the way of benefitting them in a spiritual point of view.”

Another visitor to Paihia in April who witnessed the changes taking place was from a very different quarter: a Polynesian Christian from Tahiti who had arrived on a passing ship. “Our Natives are much interested in him,” wrote William Williams, “and have now a living instance of the power of divine grace in other parts of the world.”

By the end of the year, Henry Williams reflected, “When we look back and compare the present day with those we have witnessed, we cannot but thank God and take courage. His promise is sure, we have found it so: and His arm has been very manifest on our behalf, for nothing but the Spirit's operation could have wrought upon the minds of this people."

A church established

Perhaps the most significant and lasting consequence of the transformation that occurred at Paihia in February 1830 was that it brought into existence a community of baptized and enquiring Māori. In short, February 1830 witnessed, in a very real sense, the birth of Te Hāhi Mihinare (The Missionary Church, as the Anglican Church is still designated).

Before this time, it was not that Māori were merely passively dependent on the Missionaries for their understanding of the Christian message. Mission Māori in particular had always played key roles in negotiating, translating, interpreting and explaining the Gospel to other Māori. A role exemplified by Ruatara, Te Ara mō te Rongopai (The Gateway for the Gospel), in 1814. They provided a vital context in which the Gospel could take root in New Zealand soil. But now a community of believers was established that increasingly was able to provide for its own spiritual welfare - though not independent of the missionaries, at least alongside them and with their consent and encouragement. Māori and missionaries were now equal partners in the cause of the Gospel.

The Christian Māori continued to meet together to pray and to read the Scriptures. Richard Davis was delighted to overhear them praying for God to give them grace to become missionaries to their own people. “In fact,” said Davis, “some of them already act the part and do the work of a Missionary.” This “missionary” work included sharing in the itinerant preaching of the mission to surrounding villages. But perhaps the clearest example of this new church at work was the conversion and deathbed baptism of Rape in August of that same year, 1830.

Rape had been living with Henry Williams for the past five years, but was what the missionaries described as “careless”, by which they meant he had a careless indifference to the things of God and a careless inattention at school, which he avoided whenever he could. However, earlier in the year Rape became seriously ill and appeared unlikely to recover. Davis felt convicted to speak publicly about his spiritual condition at the next service of Evening Prayer and to request them to visit Rape and, as Davis put it, “so to use the means of grace, that, under the Divine Blessing, the poor lad may be plucked as a brand from the burning.”

That very same evening the converted Māori gathered around Rape and prayed for him and with him. At first it was to no effect. Matiu (Matthew) Poutu, who was one of those baptized at Easter, was discouraged by the hardness of Rape’s heart. But Davis encouraged them to persist. A week later Matiu was overjoyed to report to Davis that Rape “had begun to love Jesus Christ.” The missionaries were gratified by the change that had taken place in his manner. Rape told William Williams that "My body has not been baptised, but Jesus Christ will baptise my soul by His Holy Spirit." Williams replied, “if he is sincere in believing in Christ we will baptise his body now; for that Christ has told us to baptise those who believe.” He was baptised a week later taking the name Hoani (John) and four days later, “his happy soul was dismissed from its clay tenement”, as Davis described it. For Davis and the others, however, not only was Hoani Rape a “glorious triumph of divine grace” but also he was the first fruit of the indigenous church. Not only had God graciously revealed himself in a saving way to the hearts of Māori, he was in turn using those same Māori as instruments of his grace for the conversion of others such as Hoani Rape.


If a turning point in the prospects of the CMS mission in New Zealand is to be identified at all, then it makes good sense to locate it where the missionaries themselves did - in the month of February 1830. It was truly a month of spiritual awakening. The month began with three significant baptisms only to burst into full bloom three weeks later with an extraordinary prayer meeting.  It was a night that transformed a mission and established a church.

It transformed a mission, for the CMS mission, which had been so hemmed into the Bay of Islands, would in the space of a few short years, be spread through the length and breadth of the North Island: from Kaitaia to Kapiti; from Whanganui to Waiapu. An expansion made possible in no small way by this night.

It was also a night that established a church. It was not an English Church, nor was it a church of "'bell-pulling' and 'Sabbath-keeping'", as many of the early settlers liked to believe. This was a church thoroughly converted by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A transformed church, that neither abandoned the old nor watered down the new, but allowed the Gospel to incarnate itself fully within a Māori context. It was on this night that Te Hāhi Mihinare became visible for the first time.

Many years later, in 1867, in the year of his brother’s death, the now Bishop William Williams published his account of the CMS in New Zealand entitled Christianity among the New Zealanders. He wrote to refute those who, in the light of the recent terrible conflicts, charged that Māori were never really converted and that the efforts of the missionaries was all for nothing. In doing so, he made especial reference to this month and in particular to that evening of prayer led by Richard Davis. Williams described it as, “a time of peculiar encouragement, a season of peaceful calm, and it seemed as though the hour of triumph was at hand.” William Williams was only too aware that many severe trails lay ahead for the mission and its fledgling church. Yet despite all those trials, he was also aware that a Temple to the Lord had been erected that summer’s evening.