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John Stenhouse

South Pacific Christianities

A new history

Modern Australian history began in the late 18th century as Protestant Britain spewed criminals and rebels, including not a few Irish Catholics, thousands of miles south to its Pacific gulag. In the penal colonies of Botany Bay and Van Diemen's Land, representatives of the Anglican Establishment such as the Reverend Samuel Marsden, the "flogging parson," whipped the convicts into line. From the beginning, many white Australians felt deeply ambivalent about a Christian Establishment that had cast them into the outer darkness. In 21st-century Australia, the campaign to cut ties to the British crown and turn the nation into a republic has almost succeeded.

British settlers began trickling into New Zealand during the 1840s, a period in which Quakers and evangelical Christians, having successfully spearheaded the campaign to abolish slavery, sought to protect indigenous peoples from the perils of British colonization. Their Christian humanitarianism found political expression in the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840 by the Crown and Maori chiefs, which recognized Maori rights to their lands, forests, and fisheries. In return for ceding sovereignty to Britain, the treaty gave the Maori all the rights and privileges of British subjects. Over the next three decades, however, as missionaries, humanitarian officials, and Maori Christians championed Maori rights and welfare too systematically for many of the colonists to stomach, "enlightened" settler-politicians condemned "political parsons" and missionary "do-gooders" for "interfering" in politics—and elbowed humanitarian Christianity from New Zealand's public square.

Western Christians sent missionaries to the Pacific Islands throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Most island peoples, at different rates in different contexts, made Christianity their own. In the settler colonies of Australia and New Zealand, Christian activists, many of them women, fought to create godly societies in the great reform movements of the late 19th ...

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