God’s Messenger: J F Riemenschneider and Racial Conflict in 19th Century New Zealand
The lives of missionaries in 19th century New Zealand have tended to end up being documented in two forms. The first amounts to little more than slightly edited collections of the missionaries’ own writings. Lawrence Rogers’ volume on Henry Williams’ early journals is probably the most familiar example. The second category – the biography – is a much more demanding form, the benchmark having been set by historians such as Judith Binney with her masterful work on Thomas Kendall.
God’s Messenger – Peter Oettli’s study of Johann Friedrich Riemenschneider – while not of the scale of Binney’s work, and perhaps lacking some of the broader context, nonetheless makes a very valuable contribution to the biographical literature on the spread of Christianity in New Zealand in the 19th century, as well as offering readers a comprehensive insight into a little-known missionary life.
The book opens with a survey of the religious and cultural environment of Bremen, in North Germany, where Riemenschneider was born and raised. The rocky birth of Protestantism is covered succinctly, Oettli avoiding the temptation to overplay some of the doctrinal issues that were prevalent in the region three centuries earlier. More is rightly made of the revivalist movement that influenced Riemenschneider in his formative years, and that had a bearing on his later missionary work in New Zealand – including his preference for working with Wesleyans rather than Anglicans.
Riemenschneider arrived in Nelson on 16 June 1843 – the day before a dispute between the New Zealand Company and local Maori over a land purchase at Wairau was about to spill over into open conflict. It was a startling introduction to New Zealand life for the missionary. His initial plan had been to establish a mission for Maori in the Nelson region, but Anglican and Wesleyan missionaries had preceded him, and so he diverted his efforts to ministering to the small German community in the area. This was only ever going to be an interim arrangement, and by September the following year, Riemenschneider had shifted to the Maori settlement of Motukaramu, on the upper Mokau River, in the North Island. This was a difficult posting, and after two lonely and often disappointing years he moved to Warea in the west of Taranaki. Oettli recounts with measured empathy and useful detail the harsh, isolated, and frequently cash-strapped existence that people such as Riemenschneider led in the cause of spreading the message of the Gospels.
By the latter half of the 1850s, tension was rising in the Taranaki region, due to a volatile mixture of inter-hapu disagreements, settler animosity towards Maori, and the Crown’s hamfisted involvement in land purchases. In an effort to secure the spiritual and increasingly the temporal welfare of his flock, Riemenschneider became involved in small efforts at diplomacy, and came to see himself “as a sentinel of peace” in the region. This section of the book is where Oettli invests most detail about his subject, and where some of the issues outside the normal orbit of Riemenschneider’s missionary work surface.
The reference in the book’s subtitle to racial conflict in the country at this time, while not inappropriate to the subject of the book, does raise expectations that may not be fulfilled to everyone’s liking. Alan Ward’s seminal work on racial “amalgamation” in 19th century New Zealand comes to mind as a study in a similar field, but whereas Ward’s book dwelt on major themes, Oettli has chosen to focus on the issue of racial conflict as seen through the eyes of one person. This is a more intimate though unavoidably more subjective approach, but it does bring to the fore what it was like to live in a place where racial friction was mounting, as opposed to the more conventional, bird’s-eye view presented by some histories.
The prose in God’s Messenger is a bit pedestrian at times: for example, “Riemenschneider’s life is a remarkable story about a remarkable man.” Occasionally the detail included is too pedantic (listing, for instance, the precise weights of each item of food that made up the daily rations on the voyage to New Zealand is the sort of material that could have been omitted). However, a sparkling literary style ought not to be a major criterion for assessing the value of a work such as this. Ultimately, it is the depth of research and the quality of interpretation that the writer applies which should be of most concern. In these areas Oettli has produced a solid and engaging piece of research in an area that does not receive much attention.
Another aspect of this book which deserves some comment is its production. In particular, the publishers have followed the less fashionable convention of providing footnotes at the bottom of the page where the reference appears, rather than bundling them together at the end of the book. Some might consider this a cumbersome approach, but it does allow the reader to see immediately the source of a quotation or opinion, rather than having to leaf through to another section of the book to find it.
In the centre of the book is a section devoted to the 16 illustrations selected for this work. The choice of some of these images, though, seems to have been a little casual – particularly a photograph of a patch of grass that was once the site of a mission station, and another photograph of a lemon tree planted by the Wesleyan missionary John Whiteley. These are minor quibbles, however, and do not in any way detract from the value of the book as a whole. Oettli has done a great service for anyone interested in this aspect of our history, producing a scholarly yet accessible portrait of a troubled missionary.
Paul Moon’s latest work This Horrid Practice: The Myth and Reality of Traditional Maori Cannibalism will be reviewed in our next issue.