This week, I am traveling throughout New Zealand and Tahiti, partially as a vacation and partially as an initial foray into two of the countries that I write about in my dissertation. As someone who works on Mormon missionaries in the South Pacific and Great Britain, I spend a lot of time reading the journals, diaries, and letters of Protestant missionaries who have encountered Mormons in their mission stations and among their congregations. Sometimes their comments are unsurprising – the usual vituperative rants about golden plates and polygamy that you would expect to find in the writings of any non-Mormon who had encountered Mormon missionaries for the first time. At other times, the letters and diaries that I read can be surprising in their lack of interest and nonchalance about the appearance of sudden appearance of Mormonism. When Mormon missionaries arrived in Tahiti and the Society Islands in the mid-nineteenth century, for example, many of the missionaries responded to their presence with alarm. In a letter to the directors of the London Missionary Society, the Congregationalist missionary George Platt wrote that the Mormons used the same edition of the Scriptures as other Christians but “they pervert them, and fill the peoples minds with idle tales.” A Maohi man had asked him, “Where Zion was? Whether it was not in America.”[*] Platt responded that the only Zion that existed was a Heavenly one. The Maohi man responded that they were going to America. I can only imagine Platt’s indignation at this response. In another letter, Platt’s colleague William Howe wrote that “Satan” had “sent forth another class of his agents… in the shape of Mormonites to divert the minds of the people from as it is in Jesus.” David Darling reported that the Mormons “were equally as bad as the Catholics, if not worse.” He prayed, “May God preserve our people from such Blasphemy and nonsense.” Not everyone reacted this way, of course. Robert Thomson reported that the Mormonism had initially caused excitement because of “the novelty” but that it was “already on the decline” and that “even some of their proselytes seem to be wavering… and begin again to visit the English chapel.” Even the Mormon missionaries were attending. Another missionary told the directors that the Mormons were too old to learn the language and that their skills in communicating to the native Maohi were too limited for them to spread anything but the simplest of gospels. He simply wasn’t worried about their presence.
Although I don’t plan to do much research, I have been briefly skimming some of the publications of Protestant missionaries in New Zealand (Thank you to archive.org and to Google Books!) Mormon missionaries initially started proselytizing in New Zealand in the 1850s but did not encounter much success until the 1870s when they begin reaching out to the Maori. What I have discovered is that the responses of Anglican missionaries in the area were just as varied as their Congregationalist cousins in Tahiti. Anglican missionaries scoffed at the pretensions of Mormon men who had traveled to the region with little education or formal organization. Local newspapers and magazines made off-the-cuff comparisons between Mormons and “Hottentots” and some local missionaries found themselves attacked with volleys of rotten eggs when they tried to preach. Not everyone viewed Mormonism with alarm, however, and the vast majority of New Zealanders in the nineteenth century did not react to their presence with violence.
When the church historian Eugene Stock wrote a history of the Church Missionary Society, for example, he noted that the Maori people had “grave moral defects” in his opinion and were “easily influenced by new superstitions. He cited the popularity of Mormonism among them as evidence, noting, “the Mormons have found them an easy prey; and like all uncivilized races, they are prone to believe in witchcraft.” Although most nineteenth-century Mormons would object to the association between Mormonism and witchcraft, what is more interesting is that Stock spends the next few paragraphs of his work trying to rehabilitate the Maori people. “Travellers,” he wrote, “see the least reputable of them n the large towns and on the tourist routes, and know nothing of the peaceful and thriving communities that are supporting their own churches and clergy…. The Blue Ribbon movement [temperance], at one time so popular in England so popular in England, effected a wonderful working in New Zealand, having been introduced there in 1883 by the Rev. T.S. Grace, jun., now Archdeacon in the diocese of Nelson. Great Maori gatherings which had before that time been scenes of frightful drunkenness and debauchery became perfectly quiet and orderly. In the Wanganui district in 1884, while the local Police News recorded the fining or imprisonment of two or three white men every week, only one Maori was brought up under similar charges in twelve months.” Stock’s comments about the Maori evince some of the racist assumptions of his time but he is trying to also demonstrate their value and worth to his readers many of whom likely thought of the Maori as a dissolute, dying people.
Reading the thoughts of people like Stock and Thomson isn’t as much fun as reading the more sensational comments like those made by Platt or Howe. We – and I include myself in this – prefer our history to be fun and rollicking. The more reasoned accounts, however boring they may be, may represent a more accurate version of history. Although Mormon missionaries often meet with violence, they are more often met with bored indifference or amusement. The most common response to Mormon missionary work isn’t Ann Eliza Young’s Wife No. 19 or the Godmakers, it’s “eh.” As I write my dissertation this is something that I struggle to remember, there’s a temptation to focus on the more sensation, the more interesting, the more tellable, but if we focus too much on those moments, we risk forgetting the ennui and boredom with which many people viewed and still view Mormons and Mormonism.
[*] Maohi is the term typically used to refer to the native people of Tahiti and the island chains and archipelagos that surround it.