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Samuel Marsden (1765–1838)

by A. T. Yarwood

This article was published:

Samuel Marsden (1765-1838), chaplain, missionary and farmer, was born on 24 June 1765 at Farsley, Yorkshire, England, the son of Thomas Marsden, a blacksmith. He attended the village school, was then apprenticed to his father and grew up in an area and amongst a class much influenced by the Methodist religious revival. Well known locally as a lay preacher, Samuel gained the interest of the Elland Society, an Evangelical group within the Church of England which sponsored the education for the ministry of promising but ill connected youths. Aged about 24, he went to Hull Grammar School, where he met the Milners, members of the Clapham sect, and through them William Wilberforce, doyen of humanitarian and missionary projects, who was to influence decisively the course of Marsden's life. In December 1790 the society sent him to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he was admitted a discipulus. This career was cut short, for on 1 January 1793, after much persuasion, he accepted the appointment to which Wilberforce had recommended him as assistant to the chaplain of New South Wales. A proposal in March 1793 invited Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Fristan of Hull, to take up the cross and share life's travails and pleasures with him across the seas. The couple were wed on 21 April; Samuel was ordained deacon on 17 March at Bristol and priest in May; on 1 July they left for New South Wales in the William. After a journey made memorable by Samuel's clashes with the captain and by the accouchement of Elizabeth as the ship was buffeted by a storm off Van Diemen's Land, they arrived in Sydney Cove on 10 March 1794.

In some significant ways the pattern of Marsden's life was set during his first year in New South Wales. As assistant to Rev. Richard Johnson, after a brief visit to Norfolk Island in 1795, he was stationed at Parramatta. It was an important centre in the colony and Marsden remained there after Johnson's departure, although for some years he was the only Anglican clergyman on the mainland. He was promised the position of senior chaplain in 1802, but was much vexed at receiving only part of its stipend, and was not formally promoted until after his return from England in 1810. Governor Lachlan Macquarie allowed him to live at Parramatta 'as being more convenient and centrical for the execution of his general superintending duties', and in September directed that Marsden should be regarded 'as the resident chaplain in that district'.

Marsden had quickly and deeply committed himself to farming, although he was inexperienced in it. By 1802 he had received 201 acres (81 ha) in grants, and had purchased 239 (97 ha) from other settlers; he had 200 acres (81 ha) cleared and grazed 480 sheep. Three years later he had over 1000 sheep, 44 cattle and 100 pigs on his farm which by then had increased to 1730 acres (700 ha) seven miles (11 km) from Parramatta. In 1798, with Surgeon Thomas Arndell, he had made a valuable report on the colony's agriculture; in 1803-05 he made several reports to Governor Philip Gidley King and to Sir Joseph Banks on the prospects of sheep-breeding and wool-growing. King thought Marsden 'the best practical farmer in the colony', and when he visited England on leave in February 1807 he was recommended by Governor William Bligh as one who had made the 'nature and soil' of the colony 'his particular study'. He concentrated on the development of strong heavy-framed sheep such as the Suffolk breed, which had a more immediate value in the colony than the fine-fleeced Spanish merinos imported by John Macarthur. In 1808 he had his own wool made up into a suit by the Thompsons of Horsforth in Yorkshire, and so impressed George III that he was given a present of merinos from the Windsor stud. Four years later more than 4000 lbs (1814 kg) of his wool was sold in England at 45d. a lb. Marsden was an important promoter of the wool staple, even though his contribution to technology, breeding and marketing was far eclipsed by that of Macarthur.

Marsden satisfied his English correspondents that 'it was not from inclination' that he and Johnson first accepted Lieutenant-Governor Francis Grose's offer of land, but from the duty to assist the colony to avert the threat of recurring famine. This explanation was wilfully misleading when published in An Answer to Certain Calumnies in the Late Governor Macquarie's Pamphlet, and the Third Edition of Mr. Wentworth's Account of Australasia (Lond, 1826), for in 1827, when his holdings totalled 3631 acres (1469 ha) by grant and 1600 (647 ha) by purchase, his inclinations took him to Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling with an unsuccessful request for permission to buy another 5000 acres (2024 ha) of crown land. Undoubtedly the offer of land and convict servants to work it appealed enormously to Marsden, with his ox-like strength and restlessly active disposition. It brought financial security for a large family, and social acceptability and power to which he could not have aspired in England. Contemporary pietists placed great emphasis on an individual's own efforts, and Marsden, an apostle of personal conversion, believed that material advance was a proof of the genuineness of his personal sense of salvation. At the same time he was spurred by the temper of the colony on his arrival. The officers had begun their single-minded pursuit of wealth. Grose and Johnson were completely estranged and Marsden was soon complaining that Macarthur, the senior officer at Parramatta, frustrated his attempts to secure Sabbath observance by the convicts. The eager materialism of this frontier society, the crude irreligion of his convict charges and their tendency to associate the chaplain with their other scourgers, helped to confirm Marsden's drift into worldly undertakings.

The advent of the more religiously inclined Governor John Hunter in 1795 recognized the chaplain's efforts to reclaim the convicts' souls or at least to achieve an outward observance of moral and religious injunctions; but this effect was counterbalanced by Marsden's appointment as a magistrate and superintendent of government affairs at Parramatta. Clerical justices were common in England at the time but his magisterial posts kept him occupied with heavy temporal duties, and they also further estranged him as a clergyman from the convicts to whom he dispensed justice. No aspects of Marsden's activities did more harm to his pastoral work or to his historical character in Australia than his reputation for extreme severity as a magistrate. This was firmly set by September 1800 when, in the course of an inquiry into a suspected Irish uprising, Judge Advocate Richard Atkins and Marsden had a suspect flogged mercilessly in the hope of securing information about hidden weapons. This particular action was scarcely defensible, but Marsden was not the only magistrate who ordered the infliction of illegal punishments. His general severity can be attributed to his high-mindedness, his passionate detestation of sin and his conviction that Parramatta was such a sink of iniquity that morality could be preserved only by the most rigorous disciplinary measures. For all that, the flogging parson, like the hanging judge, is commonly regarded as an unattractive character.

Meanwhile he continued to carry out his professional duties. He wrote to friends in England in 1799 of his exertions in opening a Sunday school and forwarding the building of a new church, St John's, Parramatta, which was opened in April 1803. He took an active and well-publicized interest in the establishment and administration of an orphan home and school, and declined to accept the fees due to him as treasurer. When in England in 1807-09 he was busy in drawing the attention of the authorities in church and state to the shortcomings of the colony's religious establishment, and was able to recruit additional assistant chaplains. Later he attracted the attention of Mrs Elizabeth Fry by his zeal for improving the lot of female convicts on the transport ships and in the colony, and he startled respectable people in England with his account of the immorality and crime that prevailed in Parramatta, which he thought largely due to the dilapidated condition of the female 'factory', though he did not mention his own prolonged lack of interest in its inmates. But it seems probable that his years as chaplain and magistrate confirmed his early doubts of the possibility of reclaiming the souls of the convicts, so steeped were they in vice and idleness, defeating the best of regulations with their 'invincible depravity'.

Feeling thus frustrated in evangelizing the convicts, Marsden looked elsewhere for professional fulfilment. He tried to civilize and convert the Aboriginals but his efforts were unsuccessful and, by the time Governor Macquarie founded the Native Institution, Marsden had abandoned all hopes of success with these people; by rejecting the material civilization of the European they baulked at what Marsden saw as the necessary first step towards conversion. 'The natives have no Reflection — they have no attachments, and they have no wants', he wrote. He had far more confidence in missions aimed at the people of the Pacific Islands, in whom he had become interested even before he was stimulated by the arrival in Sydney in 1798 of Rowland Hassall and a party of fugitives from Tahiti. He was able to combine evangelization with the promotion of trade with the islands, which he saw as a civilizing if also profitable activity. He had a chief's sons brought to live with him at Parramatta. After 1801 he had the local superintendence and financial management of the London Missionary Society, and was constantly concerned with the affairs of the Church Missionary Society and the British and Foreign Bible Society.

Marsden's absorbing interest as a missioner was in the Maoris of New Zealand, whom he described to Rev. Josiah Pratt during his visit to London in 1808 as 'a very superior people in point of mental capacity, requiring but the introduction of Commerce and the Arts, [which] having a natural tendency to inculcate industrious and moral habits, open a way for the introduction of the Gospel'. This English sojourn from early 1807 to May 1809 prepared the way for establishing the mission to the Maoris, in which enterprise Marsden displayed the qualities of courage, tenacity and resourcefulness that have made his name revered in New Zealand. Convinced from the first of the need to introduce industrious habits, Marsden engaged at his own initial expense craftsmen who were to return with him and teach the Maoris carpentry, shoemaking and ropemaking. His plans were interrupted by news of the massacre of the crew of the whaler Boyd at the Bay of Islands in 1809, but in 1813 he formed the New South Wales Society for Affording Protection to the Natives of the South Sea Islands and Promoting their Civilisation, and on 28 November 1814 set out with a party in the brig Active, which he had bought for £1400, to maintain the Maoris' contact with civilization.

This was the first of Marsden's seven voyages to New Zealand between 1814 and 1837. They yielded much in terms of self-realization but brought weighty problems of management, finance and discipline. Marsden found that the subordinates he left in New Zealand, no less than the missionaries he superintended in the South Seas, were very human men and women, peculiarly exposed in their tiny groups to rivalries, quarrels, pecuniary temptations and carnal desires that hindered their higher objectives. In April 1820 he reported that the missionaries at the Bay of Islands, heedless of warnings, had bartered muskets and powder for hogs and potatoes. Even the newly appointed superintendent, John Butler, and John Kendall had taken part in this traffic, so disturbing to the equilibrium of Maori society. Yet for all the abuses and the slow pace of conversion the missionaries 'stood between the Maori and the dregs of the oceans that congregated in the Bay of Islands'. Though Marsden regarded the establishment of an official settlement as most improbable, and even undesirable, 'as the Soldiers would be too much exposed to temptation from the Native Women', he suggested in 1830 that the posting of a naval vessel in New Zealand waters would 'prevent much mischief'. Certainly the missionary activities which he promoted paved the way for established government and organized European settlement soon after his death.

In the ten years before Marsden went to England in 1807 he enjoyed fairly cordial relations with the governors, his tranquillity being broken only by enmity towards John Macarthur and by such petty quarrels as that with George Caley, whose dog worried the chaplain's pet rabbits. He was absent at the time of the Rum Rebellion, though in England he clearly showed his antipathy to the rebels and according to Macarthur did great mischief to their cause. But soon after his return to Sydney on 27 February 1810, signs of trouble appeared. The Sydney Gazette, 31 March 1810, informed Marsden of his appointment to the board of trustees of the Parramatta turnpike road, in company with two well-to-do ex-convicts. Considering this association derogatory to his sacred functions, Marsden declined, arousing Governor Macquarie to a fury which indicated that the latter's military training caused him to view an opposing opinion as insubordination. This was intensified when Marsden refused to read from the pulpit, as was customary, a proclamation directed against food speculators in the drought of 1814, a refusal which earned the chaplain a reprimand from the Colonial Office and the archbishop of Canterbury. Marsden, like Commissioner John Thomas Bigge later and many other influential colonists, strongly opposed Macquarie's sympathy with emancipists, despite the attempts of his patron Wilberforce to mediate between the two and to modify the chaplain's apparent intolerance. In turn Macquarie developed an inveterate suspicion of Marsden that betrayed him into judgments which were sometimes illiberal and unfair. He suppressed Marsden's tentative use of an unauthorized version of the Psalms. He interpreted Marsden's well-justified demand for convict barracks at Parramatta as a criticism designed to discredit his administration. In November 1815 Marsden preached a funeral panegyric of Ellis Bent which seemed to many to be a criticism of the governor, who in turn blamed the chaplain for a further criticism sent to the Colonial Office early next year, though in fact its author was Nicholas Bayly. Soon after Macquarie received the dispatch asking for his comments on these allegations, he learned that Marsden had taken a deposition concerning his action more than a year before in ordering three men to be flogged for trespassing in the Domain. He summoned the parson to Government House and there in front of witnesses described him as 'the Head of a seditious low Cabal and consequently unworthy of mixing in Private society' and commanded him to avoid his presence except upon public duty. Five months later, in May 1818, Marsden applied for leave to visit England for personal reasons and to recruit clergy for the colony. He had had considerable success in this on his previous visit in 1807-09, but Macquarie refused to allow him to go on the grounds that his services could not be spared. The governor probably feared, with some justification, that Marsden, through his many influential friends and patrons in London, would increase the growing opposition to Macquarie's policies; but it was quite untrue for him to add that Marsden 'had repeatedly visited his Native Country', when he had gone only once in twenty-four years. The antipathy between the two men sprang in part from different policies on various matters of public concern, especially the place of the emancipists in the community; it was intensified by the chaplain's wish that the separate character of the church in the official establishment should be recognized, as the colony was ceasing to be purely a penal settlement. This inevitably drove him to oppose the authoritarian governor, just as the law officers had shown a similar desire to assert the independence of the judiciary.

Equally disturbing to Marsden's peace were the attacks he suffered from the Sydney Gazette, which showed how much less saintly a figure he was in colonial than in English eyes. In March 1814 in a series of sarcastic letters he was taken to task for his failure to carry out what was said to be a promise he had made to donors in England that he was collecting books to establish a circulating library for adult education in the colony. Again, on 4 January 1817, an attacker, sheltering behind the nom de plume Philo Free, suggested inter alia that the chaplain's interest in the Pacific missions was aroused by hopes of material profits. In this case Marsden instituted libel actions which resulted in the conviction of the governor's secretary and official censor of the Gazette, John Thomas Campbell, who could only attempt to excuse his conduct as a natural reaction to the chaplain's snub to Macquarie's efforts to civilize the Aboriginals.

Public dispute and official disapproval continued to be Marsden's lot under Macquarie's successor. In 1822 Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane suspended him, with other magistrates of the Parramatta bench, for refusing to sit with a colleague, Dr Henry Grattan Douglass, against whom they had brought a variety of charges, and in the next four years Marsden tasted humiliation many times. He was passed over when Thomas Scott was appointed archdeacon. His allegations against Douglass were unanimously rejected by a committee of inquiry, comprising the governor, Archdeacon Scott and Chief Justice (Sir) Francis Forbes. He was rebuked for his part in convicting a female convict, Ann Rumsby, against all the evidence brought forward and sentencing her to be transported to Port Macquarie. His name was publicly linked with the colonial practice of judicial torture of convicted prisoners; and Bathurst told him that he was unconvinced by his apologia on the matter. He was convicted of improperly allowing one of his assigned servants, James Ring, who sang in his choir, to 'be on his own hands', and was accused of intentionally not recapturing Ring when he later absconded to New Zealand and ran into Marsden there. In August 1826 Bathurst told Governor Darling that in the Douglass affair Marsden's behaviour was 'little becoming the character which he ought to maintain in the colony', and that in future Marsden was to 'repress that vehemence of temper which has too frequently marked his conduct of late, and which is as little suited to his Age, as it is to the profession to which he belongs'. Nothing daunted, Marsden published a Statement, Including a Correspondence Between the Commissioners of the Court of Enquiry, and the Rev. Samuel Marsden … (Sydney, 1828). This, wrote Forbes, was 'a very incorrect account of the proceedings … Mr. Marsden seems to think that all who may happen to differ in opinion with him, must be influenced by impure motives'.

In 1826 Darling appointed him to the board of management of the Female Factory and made him one of the trustees of the Clergy and School Lands. He was one of the small superintending committee of the Church and School Corporation and of the committee which considered the plan of Archdeacon William Grant Broughton for the formation of an Anglican grammar school. He continued 'in the sole charge of a very extensive Parish' until 1831 when a regular assistant was first appointed. In 1834-36 he took charge of Church of England affairs during Broughton's visit to England, and in 1836 Broughton appointed him one of the three commissioners in the Consistorial Court he was then establishing. His early evangelicalism seems to have mellowed, and he did not oppose the anti-evangelical Broughton; but he did not shrink from controversy, publishing A Letter from the Rev. Samuel Marsden to Mr. William Crook … (Sydney, 1835) in answer to charges which John Dunmore Lang had made in his An historical and statistical Account of New South Wales … (London) the previous year, and in 1836, in keeping with the bitter anti-Roman Catholicism which had marked his whole career, taking a leading part in the opposition to Governor Sir Richard Bourke's proposal to establish National schools in New South Wales.

Three years after the death of his wife Marsden died on 12 May 1838 at St Matthew's Parsonage, Windsor, where he had gone in ill health for a rest. He was buried at St John's, Parramatta. Posterity has tended to judge him adversely on three counts: illiberality towards the emancipists, cruelty as a magistrate and undue materialism. On the first count he may be shown to have been more in touch with contemporary feeling than Macquarie. On the second, his colonial reputation was confirmed by Commissioner Bigge, who wrote that his character as a magistrate was 'stamped with severity'. Third, as Bigge pointed out, the variety of Marsden's activities and his temporal interests resulted inevitably in his ministry in the colony being somewhat overshadowed by that of some of his subordinates, like William Cowper and Robert Cartwright. But other historians have laid greater stress on Marsden's Evangelical piety, though this caused some contemporaries to criticize him as 'methodistical'; his life, though often embittered by controversy, was relieved by substantial achievement and sustained by a confidence in the future of his adopted country. A son, Charles, and five daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 2-7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 1-18
  • O. Gregory, Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Character, Literary, Professional, and Religious, of the Late J. M. Good (Lond, 1828)
  • J. B. Marsden, Life and Work of Samuel Marsden, ed J. Drummond (Christchurch, 1913)
  • J. R. Elder (ed), The Letters and Journals of Samuel Marsden (Dunedin, 1932)
  • S. M. Johnstone, Samuel Marsden (Syd, 1932)
  • E. Ramsden, Marsden and the Missions: Prelude to Waitangi (Syd, 1936)
  • M. H. Ellis, Lachlan Macquarie (Syd, 1952)
  • M. H. Ellis, John Macarthur (Syd, 1955)
  • C. M. H. Clark, A History of Australia, vol 1 (Melb, 1962)
  • M. Saclier, ‘Sam Marsden's Colony: Notes on a Manuscript in the Mitchell Library, Sydney’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 52, part 2, June 1966, pp 94-114
  • manuscript catalogue under Samuel Marsden (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

A. T. Yarwood, 'Marsden, Samuel (1765–1838)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Samuel Marsden (1765-1838), by Joseph Backler

Samuel Marsden (1765-1838), by Joseph Backler

Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, National Library of New Zealand, ATL ref. G-620

Life Summary [details]


24 June, 1765
Farsley, Yorkshire, England


12 May, 1838 (aged 72)
Windsor, New South Wales, Australia

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