One People, One Destiny

Samuel Marsden

Today I would like to talk about two figures in Australian history. Both of these figures have received a bad press from the secular media. This is due, I believe, to a wrong understanding of the nature and character of God. I say that because, as a Christian, I can identify with these men. I can understand where they were coming from. To a non-Christian, this may not be so clear.

The two men I am referring to are Rev. Samuel Marsden, “the flogging parson” and Governor George Arthur, whose name will forever be associated with the penal settlement of Port Arthur, in Tasmania.

Samuel Marsden came to Sydney in 1794 as assistant chaplain to Richard Johnson. He then became chaplain when Johnson returned to England in 1800. Like Johnson, Marsden was an evangelical Anglican, who had been strongly influenced by the Wesleyan revival of the 1700s.

Marsden later, reluctantly, agreed to become a magistrate as a favour to his friend, and fellow-Christian, Governor John Hunter. It is in this role that he imposed sentences that have led to him being called the flogging parson.

Two points need to be made here: First, NSW was a military colony and flogging was the standard punishment, so Marsden was not doing anything out of the ordinary. Secondly, recent evidence has brought into question whether Marsden actually did order the excessively severe floggings for which he has been blamed.

Those who hold these critical points of view justify their position by referring to the love of God. What they are really saying is that, because he was a Christian, Marsden should have imposed milder sentences than other non-Christian magistrates. Let’s apply that to the present day. Should Christian judges impose milder sentences than non-Christians? Personally, I believe that, in many instances, true justice demands that tougher sentences should be imposed, for the protection of the innocent and the greater good of society.

My opinion is based on the knowledge that there is another side to God, which is generally ignored by non-Christian commentators. That is, although He is most definitely a God of love and mercy, He is also a God of justice and judgement. If we ignore that aspect of God, we imperil our own eternal destiny. We will return to this theme when we look at George Arthur.

Marsden had his greatest success in New Zealand, where he has had a much kinder press. In 1814, he and three assistants sailed to Rangihoua, on the shores of the Bay of Islands, to establish a mission. On Christmas Day, he preached the first sermon delivered in New Zealand. He visited New Zealand seven times altogether, and earned the affectionate title of “Greatheart”.

It is true that Marsden was human, and he did have weaknesses, one of the main ones being a predisposition to take offence. However, as his New Zealand biographer says, he was essentially ". . . simple-minded and honest, even to a fault. He was also open-handed, almost prodigal with his time and his money. He . . . looked with pity on the fallen and the lost; he often befriended convicts. He was extraordinarily generous towards those who disappointed him, or even those who hated him. As he was always ready to admit, he could make mistakes, from human weakness, or from lack of counsellors in times of trouble.” (G.S. Parsonson, The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Vol. 1, p. 273)