How long can we flog this parson?

The second chaplain to New South Wales—Samuel Marsden—was born 250 years ago on 28th July 1764.1 He was slandered for most of his life, and the epithet ‘flogging parson’ has (sadly) stuck down the years and prejudiced thousands against a mighty man. Wise historians have recognized that standing so alone for Christ in a colony made up largely of soldiers and convicts it is no wonder Marsden was vilified.2

Consider this entry in Marsden’s diary as a sign of his theology and godliness—as he faced the challenges of gospelling native inhabitants:

“What would I have given to have had the book of life opened which was yet a sealed book to them—to have shown them that God who made them and to have led them to Calvary’s mount that they may see the Redeemer who had shed his precious blood for the redemption of the world… but it was not in my power to take the veil from their hearts. I could only pray for them and entrust the Father of mercies to visit them with salvation. I felt very grateful that a Divine revelation had been granted to me, that I knew the Son of God had come and believed that He had made a full and sufficient sacrifice or atonement for the sins of a guilty world.”3

Early Life

Marsden grew up in Yorkshire England and was probably named after one of Charles Wesley’s siblings.4 He trained in Cambridge and served a curacy under Charles Simeon. When the need for an assistant chaplain in New South Wales became evident he cut short his theological studies to go—with the encouragement of Simeon and William Wilberforce. He was 28 when he sailed for Sydney with his new wife Elizabeth and they arrived on 10th March 1793. He and the senior chaplain Richard Johnson were expected to help the ‘morals’ of the colony but Johnson and Marsden were gospel men first and foremost. They conducted Sunday services under difficult conditions—there was no church building till August 1793—and sought to evangelize the settlers, soldiers, convicts and aboriginals. Marsden set up his home in Parramatta and was described by Joseph Banks as the best practical farmer in the colony.5

Mission to New Zealand

Marsden was concerned for the Aboriginal people but found them unresponsive to his ministry. He was naïve in setting up farming districts for them to settle into—as if to change their nomadic lifestyle. This lack of success probably contributed to his desire to reach New Zealand and in 1814 he bought a ship called the ‘Active’ (largely with his own money) and made the first of seven trips to New Zealand. On Christmas Day 1814 he conducted the first ever service and sermon on New Zealand soil. He preached on Luke 2:10, “I bring you good news of great joy”. These visits to New Zealand (from 1814 to 1837) were remarkably fruitful. Thousands and thousands responded to the gospel and by the time Marsden was an old man making his last visit the crowds came out in great numbers just to sit on the ground and see the revered ‘apostle to New Zealand’. It was Marsden who not only took the gospel to New Zealand but sheep as well!


Macquarie had asked Marsden to do magisterial duty in the colony and he agreed to do so partly out of respect for the Governor, partly to bring leniency to the role and partly because there were so few who could do the job. But it was expected of Marsden that he would hand down the sentences stipulated for various crimes by the Governor. This meant that Marsden was blamed for harshness when he had no options. It is probably true as Iain Murray says that he was a man of his age in accepting standards of punishment that were designed to deter others but the accusations of cruelty were misrepresentative of the man.6 When he sought to relinquish the role Macquarie threatened to send him home to England.

The early biographies of Marsden (JB Marsden and SM Johnstone) tend to be supportive and sympathetic. Later biographies (AT Yarwood, and especially R Quinn) less so. In fact Quinn sets out to get New Zealanders against Marsden as much as Australians are!7 So Marsden is also accused of being malicious, miserly, self-interested, dangerous and mentally unfit for office. His own response was to do his work knowing that “the day is coming with the Judge of all the earth would do right”.8

Civilization and Conversion

Marsden held the view that some measure of civilization was necessary for gospel progress. He wrote “civilization must pave the way” meaning some education and civility was necessary for the reception of the gospel since ignorance of language and culture was a barrier. CMS respectfully disagreed saying “the principle of civilizing then Christianizing the nations is wholly a mistake. The foremost object of the mission has been to bring [them] under the saving influences of the gospel [then] such useful arts and knowledge as might improve their social condition.”9 Whether Marsden was right in seeking to educate to communicate or was naïve in expecting fruits before roots he steadily inclined to the view that the gospel was primary and that only the gospel would bring any change or hope.


Not only did Marsden evangelize in New South Wales and over in New Zealand, but his trips around the Pacific brought the gospel to many of the islands. He consecrated churches like St John’s Parramatta, St Matthew’s Windsor, St Philip’s in the City and St James in King Street. He set up a seminary in Parramatta to train young men for the ministry, an orphanage for girls and set a standard in family life and farming life which was both respected and envied. His one trip home to England in 1807 was to recruit missionaries, teachers, and tradesmen for the great needs of the colony. He brought back to Australia carpenters, shoemakers, and school teachers. He also brought cows, merino sheep, and various seeds for the farmers.

Final legacy

Marsden died on 12th May 1838 aged 73. His wife Elizabeth had died in 1835. He served in Australia for 44 years in total after Johnson returned to England in 1800. James Hassall, the son of Marsden’s son-in-law, wrote that Marsden was “the only one” reproving vice and promoting godliness so “no wonder he was hated, maligned and misrepresented”. At the same time “no one was more beloved and esteemed by the upright” than Samuel Marsden.10 At the end of his life Marsden wrote “the full conviction in my own mind is that I am in the situation Divine wisdom has placed me… I have nothing to complain of, I have no grounds for complaining for goodness and mercy have followed me all the days of my life”.11 He also wrote to a lady in the colony “you will want Jesus to be set before your eyes continually… with the Saviour you will be happy, without him you never can be… seek all your happiness in him… build your hopes on that chief cornerstone… then you will never be ashamed through the countless ages of eternity.”12

We have good reason to thank God for Samuel Marsden.

  1.  According to early biographers like JB Marsden (no relation) and SM Johnstone, and historians like Manning Clark. AT Yarwood thinks Marsden was born in 1765.
  2.  E.g. James Hassell and Iain Murray.
  3. JR Elder, Letters and Journals of Samuel Marsden, p. 264.
  4. Marsden’s other brothers were John and Samuel like the Wesley boys.
  5. S Johnstone, Samuel Marsden, p. 48.
  6.  I Murray, Australian Christian Life From 1788, p. 32.
  7. R Quinn, Samuel Marsden Altar Ego, p. 7–9.
  8.  Manning Clark, A History of Australia, p. 376.
  9. JB Marsden, The Life and Labours of The Rev Samuel Marsden, p. 41–58.
  10. James Hassall, In Old Australia: Records and Reminiscences from 1794, p. 157.
  11. JR Elder, ibid., p. 516.
  12.  JB Marsden, ibid., p. 205.

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  1. Pingback: Time To Stop Flogging This Parson (via Simon Manchester) | mgpcpastor's blog

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