The Legacy of Robert Henry Codrington

By Davidson, Allan K. | International Bulletin of Mission Research, October 2003 | Go to article overview

The Legacy of Robert Henry Codrington


Davidson, Allan K., International Bulletin of Mission Research


In the preface to his book The Melanesians: Studies in their Anthropology and Folk-Lore (1891), Robert Codrington wrote, "One of the first duties of a missionary is to try to understand the people among whom he works." He himself reflected a deep commitment to this value. Over his many years with the Melanesian people, he gained a deep knowledge of their society, languages, and customs through a close association with them. Codrington was careful, however, in making claims about his understanding, quoting with approval the words of the Methodist missionary Lorimer Fison: "When a European has been living for two or three years among savages he is sure to be fully convinced that he knows all about them; when he has been ten years or so amongst them, if he be an observant man, he finds that he knows very little about them, and so begins to learn." (1)

Codrington and the Melanesian Mission

Codrington was born in 1830 in Wroughton, Wiltshire, England; both his father and his paternal grandfather were Anglican clergymen. (2) Codrington attended Charterhouse from 1845 to 1848 and then Wadham College, Oxford, graduating with a B.A. in 1852 and an M.A. in 1856. He was elected to a fellowship at Wadham, which he held from 1855 to 1893. Ordained a deacon in 1855 and priest in 1857, he served as a curate to Edmund Hobhouse in Oxford. Hobhouse became the first bishop of Nelson (New Zealand), and Codrington followed him out to New Zealand, serving at Collingwood for eighteen months from 1860 to 1861 and then at Waimea. Codrington was a moderate High Churchman. He was not impressed with colonial society and found himself very much at home working in the Melanesian Mission. Codrington was not an ambitious man, declining both the post of first bishop of Dunedin and the missionary bishopric of Melanesia after Patteson's death.

The Melanesian Mission, inaugurated in 1849 by the Anglican bishop of New Zealand, George Augustus Selwyn, was unique in its missionary approach. The mission "was a mixture of pragmatism, given ... [Selwyn's] inadequate financial and human resources, and romantic idealism associated with his vision," which was "'to make my diocese the great missionary centre of the Southern Ocean'." (3) Working in the Solomon Islands and the northern islands of what is now know as Vanuatu, Selwyn recruited young men and later young women to come back to New Zealand for training, with the hope that when they returned home, they would become evangelists among their own people. From the outset the mission took a positive approach to Melanesians and their society. Selwyn rejected the evangelical language and attitude of his age, which condemned people as "vile," "poor heathen," or "perishing savages." (4) John Coleridge Patteson, who was consecrated as the first missionary bishop of Melanesia in 1861, built on this approach, writing that "every single man, because he is a man, is a partaker of that nature which is common to all, and that is the nature which at the right hand of God is united to the Divine Nature in the Person of Christ." (5) The mission was noted for its egalitarian ideals and emphasis on the common humanity shared by all people. There was from the outset a strong desire to create a "native church" under Melanesian leadership. (6)

While the Melanesian Mission represented a creative and innovative approach to mission, it had its limitations. Faced with the huge diversity of languages in Melanesia, it opted to use Mota, a language used in the Banks Group, as a common language. For many Melanesian students, Christianity was thus conveyed through the medium of a second language. The use of the Book of Common Prayer and the adoption of Anglican patterns of ministry brought their own impositions. The model of schooling adopted, first in Auckland, and then from 1867 at Norfolk Island, introduced Melanesians to a formal approach to education, which contrasted with their own informal methods. …

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