The Dictionary of Australasian Biography/Selwyn, Right Rev. George Augustus
Selwyn, Right Rev. George Augustus, D.D., first and last Anglican bishop of New Zealand, was the son of William Selwyn, Q.C., the eminent jurist, who was selected to instruct Prince Albert "in the constitution and laws of his adopted country." The Bishop's mother was Letitia Frances, daughter of Roger Kynaston, of Witham, Essex, and he was born at Church Row, Hampstead, Middlesex, on April 5th, 1809. His elder brother, the Rev. William Selwyn, was, it may be here mentioned, an eminent divine, who was offered the bishopric of New Zealand prior to its being proposed to himself. Another brother, the late Lord Justice Sir Charles Jasper Selwyn, was an eminent lawyer and judge. Bishop Selwyn was primarily educated at a large private school at Ealing, where the two Newmans, cardinal and theist, received their early training. Later on he went to Eton, where Mr. Gladstone was one of his schoolfellows and personal friends. His future coadjutor Bishop Abraham was also amongst his contemporaries at Eton, where Selwyn was equally prominent as a scholar and athlete. In 1827 he left Eton for Cambridge, where he was scholar and subsequently Fellow of St. John's. In 1829 he rowed seventh in the Cambridge boat in the first inter-university boat race. In 1831 he took his degree, coming out junior optime in mathematics and second classic of his year, and after a brief visit to the Continent settled down at Eton as private tutor to the sons of Lord Powis, who were at the school In 1833 Mr. Selwyn was ordained deacon, and acted as curate to the vicar of Eton. In June 1839 he married Sarah, daughter of Sir John Richardson, one of the judges of the Court of Common Pleas, a step which compelled him to resign his Fellowship at St. John's College, Cambridge. In 1841, whilst still curate of Eton, he was offered the newly constituted bishopric of New Zealand by Bishop Blomfield, of London. This he accepted in May of the same year, lodging a protest, however, against the wording of the "letters patent" appointing him to the see, in which the Queen was referred to as giving him "power to ordain." On Oct. 17th, 1841, the Bishop was consecrated at Lambeth, and on Dec. 26th he set sail from Plymouth in the Tomatin, acquiring the Maori language on the voyage out from a young New Zealander named Rupai, who had been educated in England, and was returning to his native country. On April 14th, 1842, the Tomatin cast anchor in the harbour of Sydney, N.S.W., where Bishop Selwyn spent some weeks with the Bishop of Australia, Dr. Broughton. Ultimately he left for New Zealand in a small brigantine called the Bristolian, reaching Auckland on May 30th, 1842. Here he was for a short time the guest of Captain Hobson at Government House. He soon, however, took up his permanent quarters, at the Waimate, where he remained till 1844, when he went to reside at Auckland, appointing the Rev. Henry Williams to the charge of the locale as Archdeacon of Waimate. The Bishop early undertook a visitation of his wild and almost impenetrable diocese in both islands, and founded St. John's College at Auckland for the training of Maori candidates for holy orders. He quickly acquired a strong influence over the Maoris and frequently offered his mediation in the various conflicts between the two races. In 1844 Captain Fitzroy, the then Governor of New Zealand, proposed to the Legislative Council to increase his salary and allow him expenses, but the proposal was rejected by a majority of two, in vindication of the principle of the equality of the various denominations in the eye of the State. In 1844 he convened a Church synod in New Zealand, this being the first assembly of the kind brought together under the auspices of Anglicanism since Convocation had been silenced in 1717. There were present the Bishop, three archdeacons, four priests, and two deacons, and questions of Church discipline and Church extension were discussed. But this meeting was held to be illegal by the British authorities. So in 1847 a second synod was held, when the Bishop read a correspondence between the Archbishop of Canterbury and Mr. Gladstone, then Colonial Secretary, proposing a Church constitution in which bishops, clergy, and laity should be represented. The six bishops of Australasia met at Sydney in 1850 and likewise recommended a constitution for the Australasian Church in which the laity should be united with the clergy. Two years later the laity of New Zealand, headed by the Governor, petitioned to be allowed to take part in Church legislation. And at length in 1859 the first General Synod was held, at which five bishops and a large number both of clergy and laity were present. The Church of New Zealand, thanks to the labours of Bishop Selwyn and Sir William Martin, aided not a little by Sir George Grey, was definitely founded on personal consent, and has been the most independent of external trammels of any of the Australasian Churches. Bishop Selwyn was what is called a High Churchman, and at first did not get on well with the Nonconformist missionaries labouring in New Zealand. Gradually, however, reciprocal feelings of respect sprang up; and when Bishop Selwyn left New Zealand, some of the warmest tributes paid to his high qualities emanated from Nonconformist sources. Bishop Selwyn having acquired the Maori language himself, was able consistently to render the knowledge of the native tongue a condition precedent to ordination for his missionary clergy. The Bishop was early brought into conflict with the New Zealand Company, whose resort to physical force for the acquirement of Maori lands he protested against from the first as part of his Christian duty. The company therefore ignored him in initiating the Otago and Canterbury settlements. He was not very favourable in his prognostications as to the success of the latter, and in a letter written in Dec 1848 expressed a preference for the Hawke's Bay district, the heads of the Waipu and Waikata rivers, the plain of the Thames, and the vicinity of the Wairoa, and Kaipara rivers as respectively superior sites for prosperous exploration. In 1847-8 he paid his first visit to the Polynesian islands in H.M.S. Dido. His second visit was accomplished in 1849, in the little schooner Undine. In 1850 Bishop Selwyn attended the first Pan-Australasian Synod at Sydney. Out of this assemblage sprang the Australasian Board of Missions, which found funds for a missionary vessel of a superior class, The Border Maid, in which the Bishop, accompanied by his former college friend and fellow-oarsman Bishop Tyrrell, of Newcastle, N.S.W., paid his third visit to the South Seas in 1851. On the last day of the year 1853, Bishop Selwyn sailed from New Zealand on a visit to England, and did not return to Auckland till July 5th, 1855. He was very shortly involved in the Maori war troubles, and had the mortification of seeing the major part of his native flock abjure Christianity for the degrading Hau Hau superstition. In the meantime he had brought back with him from England Mr. John Coleridge Patteson to superintend the Melanesian Mission, of which he constituted New Norfolk the future centre. In 1861 Mr. Patteson became the first Bishop of Melanesia, and was destined to have as his successor Bishop Selwyn's own son. By the year 1867, when Dr. Selwyn again left New Zealand to attend the first Pan-Anglican Synod at Lambeth, he had succeeded in his long-conceived plan of dividing his diocese, Bishop Harper being placed in charge of the Southern Island as Bishop of Christchurch. The two islands were still further subdivided by the consecration of Bishops Abraham and Williams to Wellington and Waiapu in the North, and of Bishops Hobhouse and Jenner to Nelson and Dunedin in the South Island. Thus seven sees took the place of the one over which he had had sole charge. The Church, too, had got its constitution into working order; theological training schools had been established, and a native ministry ordained both for Maori and Melanesian service. Whilst in England in 1867, he was offered by the then Premier, Lord Derby, the bishopric of Lichfield, which, however, he at first refused, on grounds thus stated by himself: "(1) Because the native race requires all the efforts of the few friends that remain to them; (2) because the organisation of the Church in New Zealand is still incomplete; (3) because I have still, so far as I can judge, health and strength for the peculiar duties which habit has made familiar to me; (4) because my bishopric is not endowed; (5) because I have personal friends to whom I am so deeply indebted that I feel bound to work with them so long as I can; (6) because a report was spread in New Zealand that I did not intend to return, to which I answered that nothing but illness or death would prevent me. I could work with all my heart in the Black Country if it were not that my heart is in New Zealand and Melanesia." Ultimately, under pressure from the Primate and from the Queen, Bishop Selwyn recalled his refusal, and at Windsor on Dec. 1st, 1867, personally intimated to her Majesty his acceptance of the Lichfield see, and on Jan. 9th, 1868, was enthroned in Lichfield Cathedral. Having got his new diocese into something like working order, he set sail on July 2nd, 1868, to pay a farewell visit to New Zealand, accompanied by his wife and his son John, the future Bishop of Melanesia. They chose the Panama route, and on the steamer reaching Wellington were transhipped into a Colonial steamer, which ran upon a rock in Cook Straits, and slipping off, went to the bottom, after giving those on board barely time to escape in the boats. On arrival at Auckland Bishop Selwyn presided for the last time at the General Synod of the Church of New Zealand on Oct. 6th. He was presented with numerous farewell addresses from both whites and natives, and finally sailed from Auckland on Oct. 20th, 1868, arriving in England on the last day of the year. The Bishop strongly opposed the disestablishment of the Irish Church in 1869, and was one of the bishops who protested against the consecration of Dr. Temple to the see of Exeter in the same year. Bishop Selwyn died at Lichfield on April 11th, 1878, and was buried in the cathedral. Almost his last intelligible words—"It is light"—were spoken to Sir William Martin in Maori. Amongst the pall-bearers at his funeral were Mr. Gladstone and Sir William Martin; his coadjutors in England and New Zealand, Bishops Abraham and Hobhouse, being also present.