Page 4 – Fixing God's house

The work of Henry Williams

By 1823 three Church Missionary Society (CMS) stations had been established in the Bay of Islands, and Henry Williams took over the leadership of the society's operations in New Zealand.

Williams, who had been ordained a priest in 1822 'for the cure of souls in his majesty's foreign possessions', inherited a mission beset by problems. Not a single Maori had been converted, and the missionaries were still largely dependent on Maori for food and supplies. Under the leadership of Thomas Kendall and John Butler, the mission had been torn apart by bitter personal disputes.

Williams sought to limit the mission's involvement with the traders at Kororareka and to reduce the dependence on Maori for supplies. Determined to end the musket trade, he imposed regulations on the missionaries' trading. Under his direction, the schooner Herald was completed in 1826, and this made the mission independent of local influences.

Unlike Samuel Marsden, Williams believed too much time and energy had been devoted to teaching 'useful arts and agriculture' as a prelude to conversion. He reorganised the mission so that more time was devoted to spiritual teaching.

To achieve this, mission members needed to spend more time learning the Maori language, preaching in the surrounding area and teaching in the mission schools. Staff were concentrated at Paihia where the missionaries had regular Maori lessons together. Henry Williams was boosted by the arrival of his brother, William, in 1826. William had a great talent for languages.

The increased proficiency in Maori language and the revitalisation of schooling for Maori children began to pay dividends.

The 1830s was a decade of achievement and progress for the CMS mission. By 1842 over 3000 Maori in the Bay of Islands had been baptised. Whether the years of warfare had taken their toll or the patience and perseverance of the missionaries was finally paying off, for Williams the baptisms were a clear measure of success after many fruitless years. Increasingly, missionaries began to take the gospel outside the Far North.

Although Maori reasons for baptism were mixed and there was considerable backsliding in later years, by 1840 Henry Williams had reason to feel a great sense of satisfaction about his efforts since 1823.

Missionary women

Men such as Marsden stressed the importance of the Christian family in helping to spread the word. While they may have gained the fame (and in some cases notoriety), many missionary wives worked tirelessly in helping with the day-to-day work of the mission in New Zealand. Marianne Williams, for instance, played a key role in the revitalisation of missionary schools.

How to cite this page

'Fixing God's house', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/missionaries/henry-williams-era, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 25-Mar-2014