Bruce Patrick examines a dramatic incident in New Zealand’s colonial mission history and the example it gives of the importance of understanding others’ world view perspectives. 

CMS missionary, later bishop, Octavius Hadfield had a close encounter when, at the age of 25, he was almost tomahawked by a chief, Te Mātia. This occurred at Ōtaki during Hadfield’s first weeks on the Kāpiti coast. He and his mission were endorsed by what tangata whenua saw as an act of God; his mana was established and the progress of the gospel enhanced. Many years after this incident took place, Hadfield wrote the story:

Matenga te Matia was a chief next in rank to Te Whatanui. He was a hard man, not perhaps cruel, but not very considerate of the lives of others. When Te Rauparaha incited Ngatiraukawa to attack Ngatiawa in September, 1839, just before my arrival, Te Matia was the man he enlisted to organise the war…He lost caste by this expedition and its results. He occasionally, on Sundays when I had prayers with and preached to the converts, came for the purpose of making a noise and interrupting us. On one occasion this interruption went rather too far. On the following Monday I walked to his abode for the purpose of remonstrating with him. I found him in his garden with several of his people. But he took no notice of me. So I sat down on the ground and thoughtlessly took up a piece of kumara and bit it. This was on my part an infraction of a tapu. It afforded him an opportunity, which perhaps he had been looking for, of ridding himself of me and my proceedings. He rushed at me with his tomahawk, and was about to strike me as I sat on the ground, when his daughter, the wife of Te Whatanui’s eldest son Te Roha, and Morowati, son of Kiharoa, an important chief, immediately came and placed themselves between me and my assailant, placing their hands over my head so that it became impossible for him to strike me without first striking them. Others then came forward. After some time his rage abated, and he sat down.

I then endeavoured to explain that I, as a foreigner, who had not been long among them, was not aware that I was doing anything offensive. But before I could finish my explanation the Maori priest, Hereiwi, who had gone through his karakia making the kumara ground tapu, interrupted by pronouncing a curse upon me which was necessarily to lead either to my death, or to my removal from Otaki. In the evening several of my friends came to me in very low spirits. They wanted to know what I intended to do, and what I thought would be the effect of the curse. I assured them that I should take no notice whatever of the curse, but should go on with my work as usual. They expressed a fear that, having been degraded by the curse, no one in future would pay any attention to what I said or taught. They then left me. Early next morning I went to Waikanae. On my return after a few days’ absence, I learnt that Hereiwi had died during the night after the affair in the kumara garden. This produced a profound impression on the natives, who attributed his death to his cursing me. In vain I endeavoured to explain that I had heard from some Englishmen who knew him that he had been suffering from a complaint in his lungs, and that his death was occasioned by the rupture of a large blood vessel. Not altogether convinced they resolved not to meddle any more with me, but to allow me in future to disregard all their tapu ceremonies, and go where I liked. After that Te Matia and I were on friendly terms, at least we lived in peace. Many years after that Te Matia was baptised and named Matenga, and became a regular communicant.1

Supernatural power

Anglican Bishop David Pytches related an incident he observed in Chile where he served as a missionary.2 A mentally ill woman in the town of Petraco was violent and a menace to her community. Her family eventually consulted a group of evangelical Christians in the town, who called in a pastor from a neighbouring town. He came. He prayed simply and publicly for her: “I cast this spirit from you in the name of Jesus.” The woman fell to the ground but soon stood and was praising God for her deliverance. Many who knew her were convinced of the power of God and they also became followers of Jesus Christ. David Pytches concluded, “This is a Biblical pattern. The church of God will grow wherever there are manifestations of God’s power.”3

Yale University historian Ramsay MacMullen wrote Christianizing the Roman Empire, AD 100-400 as an objective secular historian.4 He showed that the supernatural power of God continued to be manifested after the time of the apostles. Researcher C Peter Wagner agreed: “Historical research is showing that there never was a time when miracles ceased, particularly on the frontiers where the gospel of the kingdom was penetrating new groups.”5

One curious feature of the Te Mātia incident related by Bishop Hadfield was the naturalistic interpretation he himself offered to those who concluded they had witnessed God’s intervention.6 In their animistic world view, it was obvious to them that the Creator God himself was upholding his servant who had come among them. They had witnessed a power encounter: the Creator God of Hadfield was more powerful than the atua of Hereiwi.

The excluded middle

While professor of anthropology, religions and South Asian studies at Fuller Seminary Los Angeles, Paul Hiebert addressed this world view issue in an article in 1982 when he identified what he called the ‘excluded middle’.7 

He began by pointing out that when John the Baptist’s disciples came to Jesus to ask if he was the one (Luke 7:20), the response of Jesus was not a carefully reasoned argument but rather a statement about his works of power in curing the sick and casting out demons. 

As a missionary in India, Hiebert had no experience of this dimension. Like most Western Christians, he said, he had a two-tiered world view. There was an upper tier where God reigns, the cosmic power in the universe.  There was a lower tier of everyday life. But in India their world view included a middle tier of spirits, demons, lesser gods, curses, ancestors, ghosts, magic, witchcraft, mediums and the miraculous. 

This middle tier was also present in the pre-European world view of the Māori. “The middle zone is very real to them”, said Hiebert speaking of three billion people in many cultures and countries around the world. Surprisingly, Hiebert concluded, “So long as the missionary comes with a two-tier world view with God confined to the supernatural, and the natural world operating for all practical purposes according to autonomous scientific laws, Christianity will continue to be a secularizing force in the world.”8

Later in his ministry, Hadfield predicted the rise of indigenous religions among Māori. He saw this as an inevitable response to their disillusionment with English Christianity in the light of the Land Wars. What he may not have seen was that the world views of Hauhauism and the Rātana and Ringatū faiths were consistent with the pre-European Māori three‑tier world view and the three‑tier world view of the Gospels and the New Testament itself.

Whatever Hadfield’s theology in regard to the death of Hereiwi, the people of the region (Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa and other iwi), saw the tohunga’s death as evidence that Hadfield proclaimed the living God whose power could intervene in their affairs. Hadfield was given great respect as a person of undeniable mana among them, and elevated above all restrictions of tapu. The impact of the gospel was accelerated throughout the region and within several years, thousands had become lifelong followers of Jesus Christ.  

Contributor: Bruce Patrick

Bruce with his late wife Jinny was senior pastor of Wanganui Central Baptist and Auckland Baptist Tabernacle.  Between these ministries he was Baptist home mission director and founder of Vision New Zealand (now NZ Christian Network). Before retirement he had several short-term ministries. He is currently an Otago University research student.

  1. Octavius Hadfield, Maoris of By-Gone Days (Gisborne: H.W. Williams, Te Rau Press, 1902), 3-4. (Note: spellings in the extract are as per the original text.)
  2. David Pytches, born 1931, was Anglican bishop of Chile, Bolivia and Peru. He was also vicar of St. Andrew’s in Chorleywood, England. He authored many books and is founder of New Wine conferences.
  3. C Peter Wagner, The Third Wave of The Holy Spirit (Ann Arbor Michigan: Vine Books, 1988), 91-92.
  4. Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire: AD 100-400 (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1984).
  5. C. Peter Wagner, The Third Wave, 82.
  6. Jay Ruka, Huia Come Home (Raglan: Oati, 2017), 30-31. In his helpful discussion of world view, Ruka shows how in the 1700s and 1800s enlightenment thinking shifted a Christian world view in the direction of scientific rationalism.
  7. Paul Gordon Hiebert (1932-2007) was an American missiologist. He has been described as “arguably the world’s leading missiological anthropologist”. Hiebert authored numerous books, making a major contribution to the field of missiology. He is quoted by Jay Ruka.
  8. C Peter Wagner, The Third Wave, 30-35. See also chapter 7, “The Power Source for Missions”, in C Peter Wagner, On The Crest of The Wave, Becoming a World Christian (Ventura California: Regal, 1983), 123-142, which offers a global sweep of contemporary evidence of supernatural ministries and the resulting growth of the church.