W hat I believe to be genuine and authentic the collected publications of William Colenso

Colenso on truth, beauty and faith

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Colenso on truth, beauty and faith

And here, permit me to observe… that my whole life—particularly these last 30 years,—has been spent in an eager search after Truth: whether in Religious, Ecclesiastical, Social and Natural Science….72
The Reverend William Colenso was born in 1811 and died in 1899. He therefore lived through the Victorian age, when the perception of truth changed forever. As a young man he was taught that the word of God was absolute truth. As an old man who had met Darwin, who had met and corresponded with Hooker, who had corresponded with Huxley—whose own cousin had famously written that the first five books of the Old Testament were not the Word of God, but often inaccurate accounts of Jewish history—he had acquired evidence that questioned his faith, that questioned the Church, that questioned even whether those qualities traditionally said to separate man from the “lower animals” had any basis in reality.

As with many Victorians, he was preoccupied therefore with the nature of truth. He scattered quotations about truth, honesty and simplicity through his writing.

We delight in things that are true, that is, that are faithful, simple, permanent; such as are vain, false, deceitful we abhor.”


He approvingly quoted Stansfield Parkinson’s introduction to the published journals of his brother Sydney Parkinson,

I have heard many of the surviving companions of this amiable young man dwell with pleasure on the relation of his singular simplicity of conduct, his sincere regard for truth, his ardent thirst after knowledge, his indefatigable industry to obtain it, and his generous disposition in freely communicating with the most friendly participation to others, that information which none but himself could have obtained…. it should be said of his journal… that its only ornament is truth, and its best recommendation, characteristic of himself, its genuine simplicity.”73

Colenso could see much of himself in this.

His determination to be truthful would not be diverted by less worthy considerations such as friendship, failure to convince, or misunderstanding by others.

He quoted 4th century Pope Clement’s Recognitions, and contemporary Oxford Professor Benjamin Jowett...

It very frequently happens that he who defends the truth does not gain the victory, since the hearers are either prejudiced, or have no great interest in the better cause.”


We cannot express any truth without involving ourselves in some degree of error or occasionally conveying an impression to others wholly erroneous.”

Benjamin Jowett. 74

He became preoccupied with the scientific method, and stressed the importance of good education in instilling into learners a disciplined way of discovering truth.

Now what I mean by a scientific education is, the teaching of the power of observing; the teaching of accuracy; the difficulty of attaining to a real knowledge of the truth; and the methods by which one may pass from that which was proved, to the thought of that which was also capable of being proved. The first thing to learn is the power of observing, the power of seeing things in their relations to other things, and the modifications they might undergo; this, though a difficult thing, is attainable. Science teaches not only how to observe, but how to record facts, and how to arrive at general conclusions upon facts. The habit of accuracy which Science inculcates, makes a man accurate in the ordinary business and pursuits of life.75

We can be too easily diverted from that accurate scientific approach by bias, by fancy, by pet theories and preconceived notions, and by ignoring evidence properly attained by others. Colenso quoted…

Past experience of the chance aims of human fancy, unchecked and unguided by observed facts, shows how widely they have ever glanced away from the gold centre of truth.”

Richard Owen.

Every kind of evidence is made to tell by writers who have a theory to defend.”

Max Müller.

Time erases the fictions of unfounded opinions;

but confirms the judgements which are in accordance
with truth.”


The truth is perilous never to the true,
Nor knowledge to the wise; and to the fool,
And to the false, error and truth alike.
Error is worse than ignorance.”

Bailey, Festus.

If an offence come out of the Truth,

better is it that the offence come
than that the Truth be concealed.”


It being now evening time with me, and through my having noticed the many crude theories which have been broached concerning the Whence of the Maori, not a few of which, by their several writers, have been laboriously propped and buttressed with all and every item, however insignificant, far-fetched, and vague, they could possibly impress and bring forward, but in which, in my estimation, they have notwithstanding signally failed, because they laboured to build up a pet fancy or hobby of their own rather than the truth; some even starting with assuming the very proposition which they had to prove. For my own part, I altogether disclaim all such; I have no pet theory; I only seek the truth; to do what little I may towards establishing it;...”.76

I did not intend to write another line on this subject of the Moa age, but in this same volume (xxv.), in the Proceedings of the Wellington Philosophical Society, are many observations made at different meetings of the Society by the members present on this theme. Some of them I am really sorry to find recorded there, because they are merely the old, old stories and tales which have long ago been answered, and shown to be untenable, and refuted, and therefore such should not be again resurrected. Indeed, in so doing, the truth—the “true facts”—will never be arrived at;77 and that true and proper remark of Max Müller (in his late lectures at Glasgow, as brought forward by me in a paper in this same volume, p. 496) is very applicable here: “What is of immense importance in all scientific discussions is the spirit of truth. To make light of a fact that has been established, to ignore intentionally an argument which we cannot refute, to throw out guesses which we know we cannot prove—nay, which we do not even attempt to prove—is simply wrong, and poisons the air in which true science can breathe and live.”78

I might justly and properly add… the great and good matter of State Education—civil and scientific, reasonable and truly religious,—recently undertaken by the Government of our Country: but this is yet in its infancy, and would require a whole paper to do it justice. Thus much, however, I would say, as it bears greatly on our subject of “Sabbath Observance,”—that the sooner the various and dissonant old Church Catechisms are altered, (Like the new Bible Commentary, and the new translation of the Bible,) and so made conformable to truth, and to truthful religious and scientific teaching, the better for the children, (especially those at Sunday Schools,) and for the future generation,—aye, for the rising state of New Zealand.—And here I would call attention to some solemn words of a late Archbishop of the English Church,—words well worthy of being weighed by all Teachers,—whether of Sunday or of Day School—by religions as well as scientific Teachers of all classes:—“He who propagates a delusion, and he who connives at it when already existing, both tamper with Truth. We must neither lead nor leave men to mistake falsehood for Truth. Not to undeceive, is to deceive. The giving, or not correcting, false reasons for right conclusions, false grounds for right belief, false principles for right practice,—the holding forth or fostering false consolations, false encouragements, or false sanctions, or conniving at their being held forth or believed,—are all pious frauds. This springs from, and it will foster and increase, a want of veneration for Truth: it is an affront put upon the Spirit of Truth.” On these words I would ask one question—of Ministers and Sunday School Teachers. How can we serve the Living and True God, except so far as we are servants of the Truth? And how can we be servants of the Truth, if we knowingly shut our eyes to facts which we do not like, because they conflict with our preconceived notions; and if we not only do this ourselves, but attempt to close, or to keep shut, or to throw dust in, the eyes of others under our influence, that they may not be able to see the facts which God’s wise Providence, in this age of the world, has made known to us for our instruction and guidance in life?79

Furthermore, the motivation for seeking the truth should simply be the love of truth, because only from that purity of purpose can the world’s beauty be understood and appreciated: “there is a rapture in gazing with a trained eye on this wondrous world.”

In student-life there are those who seek knowledge for its own sake, and there are those who seek it for the sake of the prize, and the honour, and the subsequent success in life that knowledge brings. To those who seek knowledge for its own sake the labour is itself reward. Attainment is the highest reward. Doubtless the prize stimulates exertion, encourages and forms a part of the motive, but only a subordinate one, and knowledge would still have a “price above rubies” if there were no prize at all. They who seek knowledge for the sake of a prize are not genuine lovers of knowledge. They only love the rewards of knowledge; had it no honour or substantial advantage connected with it they would be indolent. It is a spurious goodness which is good for the sake of reward. The child that speaks truth for the sake of the praise of truth is not truthful; the man who is honest because “honesty is the best policy” has not integrity in his heart. Would that the parents of families here in Hawke’s Bay could be brought to duly consider this, and to perceive the great and lasting advantages and benefits and true pleasures arising from the following of Nature and her manifold teachings, and so direct and lead their progeny into something better than the low frivolities and transient pleasures and waste of time of the present age.

For, believe me, there is a rapture in gazing with a trained eye on this wondrous world. Let us not depreciate what God has given. The highest pleasure of sensation comes through the eye; she ranks above all the rest of the senses in dignity. He whose eye is so refined by culture and discipline that he can repose with pleasure upon the serene outline of beautiful forms has reached the purest of the sensational raptures. There is a joy in contemplating the manifold forms in which the All-beautiful has concealed His essence—the living garment in which the Invisible has robed His mysterious loveliness. In every aspect of nature there is joy; whether it be the purity of virgin morning, or the sombre grey of a day of clouds, or the solemn pomp and majesty of night; whether it be the chaste lines of the crystal on the yonder Ruahine Mountain-range, or the waving ever-changing outlines of distant hills (as those south beyond Havelock and north towards Wairoa) tremulously visible through the slanting rays of the setting sun; the minute petals of the New Zealand daisy, or the overhanging forms of mysterious ancient forests: it is a pure delight to see. I hope a better day is at hand for our Government schools, when Education Boards (if existing) or Committees (when formed of proper literate men) will pay full attention to this one great qualification, or main desideratum, on the part of teachers seeking situations—viz., their love for natural science and for scientific study, and their aptness to teach such both out of school as well as in school. Such a teacher in a country school would prove a real blessing to the youths under his care, and be a great means of keeping them from degenerating on leaving school, as well as preserving them from “larrikinism.” Scientific study should be largely inculcated by kind and plain words, by manuals, and by example, for science has extended into all portions of life. What I mean by a scientific education is not the mere confined knowledge of that one branch taught, or one thing brought more particularly under consideration, whether Euclid’s problems or natural science—the science of living things, as seen in the wondrous, complex, yet perfect and beautiful structure of a fly, a shell-fish, or a moss (for beauty’s best in unregarded things)—the mention of which as a useful study is too often met with a “Cui bono?” For the opinion is often expressed that certain scientific pursuits are not compatible with the business pursuits of life. But there is no greater fallacy than this, as we may see in the living

The Maori legends were allegories of truth...

I would, however, again observe,—that while the details, the dress, of a legend are always false, and not unfrequently variously fashioned and contrived, the legend itself contains a kernel of truth; a mere invention never becomes a legend.80

The celebrated myths of dry land and sky; of Maui fishing up the North Island of New Zealand; of his obtaining fire for man; of his seizing and beating the sun, to have longer daylight; and of the untimely death of the hero through the laughing of the little New Zealand flycatcher; of the ascent to heaven of Rupe and of Tawhake; of the arrival of the first New Zealanders in this country; and many others; are all so many indications of the mind of man groping after truth in ages long past. In the writer’s opinion many of those myths will be found to be allegorical.81

He admired Maori for their “ideality”, their Aristotelean quest for a perfect state, and there are places where he gave hints of a metaphysical concept of a unifying theory, a connectedness, a “theory of everything”.82

Here, however, let me pause awhile to explain clearly, yet briefly, what I mean by the term Ideality: I mean that superior faculty—that conception of the natural and beautiful, the truthful and symmetrical, which has ever been found to pertain to the higher races, or varieties of men, and in particular to the more gifted among them. As Cousin says (On the Beautiful): — “The Ideal appears as an original conception of the mind. ... Nature or experience gives me the occasion for conceiving the ideal, but the ideal is something entirely different from experience or nature, so that if we apply it to natural, or even to artificial figures, they cannot fill up the condition of the ideal conception, and we are obliged to imagine them exact.” Kant lays it down— “By ideal, I understand the idea, not in concreto but in individuo, as an individual thing, determinable or determined by the idea alone.” On this subject, also, Emerson impressively writes:— “I hasten to state the principle which prescribes, through different means, its firm law to the useful and beautiful arts. The law is this: The universal soul is the alone creator of the useful and the beautiful; therefore, to make anything useful or beautiful, the individual must be submitted to the universal mind. ... Beneath a necessity thus almighty, what is artificial in man’s life seems insignificant. He seems to take his task so minutely from intimations of Nature, that his works become, as it were, hers, and he is no longer free. ... There is but one Reason. The mind that made the world is not one mind, but the mind. Every man is an inlet to the same, and to all of the same. And every work of art is a more or less sure manifestation of the same. ... We feel, in seeing a noble building, much as we do in hearing a perfect song, that it is spiritually organic; that is, had a necessity in nature for being; was one of the possible forms in the Divine mind, and is now only discovered and executed by the artist, not arbitrarily composed by him. ... The highest praise we can attribute to any writer, painter, sculptor, builder, is, that he actually possessed the thought or feeling with which he has inspired us.” That delightful writer on Art, J. Ruskin—whether considered as artist or art critic—always in love with the Beautiful, and possessing the wonderful power of telling it in such charming language, says:— “I call an idea great in proportion as it is received by a higher faculty of the mind, and as it more fully occupies, and in occupying, exercises and exalts, the faculty by which it is received. ... He is the greatest artist who has embodied in the sum of his works the greatest number of the greatest ideas.” Then Ruskin contrasts the old Venetian worker in glass, with his profusion of design, his personality of purpose, and his love of his art, with the British worker with his mechanical accuracy. “Everything the old Venetian worker made was a separate thing — a new individual creation; but the British worker does things by the gross, and has no personal interest in any one article.”

... According to Cicero, there is nothing of any kind so fair that there may not be a fairer conceived by the mind. He says:— “We can conceive of statues more perfect than those of Phidias. Nor did the artist, when he made the statue of Jupiter or Minerva, contemplate any one individual from which to take a likeness; but there was in his mind a form of beauty, gazing on which, he guided his hand and skill in imitation of it...”.

Possibly some one may say, or think: “Do you really believe that any thing of that kind, or power, ever appertained to the mind of a New Zealander?” And my reply would be: “Yes, undoubtedly, and that in no small degree.” 83

The circle is “the perfect, first, most beautiful form,” wrote Aristotle. Maori showed a similar aesthetic, wrote Colenso. They...

...greatly excelled in order and regularity, which they carried into almost everything they did; as shown in their parallel carving, regular in its wildness, and in tattooing the right and left faces and posteriors, with circles and scrolls almost mathematically exact;84

In the building of their war-canoes .... The exquisite regularity and symmetry of both sides of the vessel, including even that difficult one of carved concentric circles worked in filagree, were astonishing;85

He sought signs of a Grand Design. Ancient Greek philosophers speculated that the diversity we perceive masks links that if visible would reveal an underlying unity. Colenso wrote to David Balfour...

... it would be a really good thing if every plant—however useless or noxious, or insignificant,—could first be known, and accurately described before it gets polished off! For all such (animal & vegetable) are wanted to make up the unbroken chain;— that links animate & inanimate nature together.86

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.”——

Science then (and of course the afterlife), would discover the truth, the eternal invisible chain of gold and diamonds that ties everything to its ordered place, would thereby reveal the divine purpose of the Creator, and would thus strengthen, rather than weaken, faith.

Some of you now present have heard me quote pertinent language from Sir J. Lubbock bearing on this subject; words which I would were engraved in brass or in marble, or written in letters of gold and stuck up in the forum; words which I now again with pleasure repeat:—

Every increase in Science—that is, in positive and ascertained knowledge—brings with it an elevation of Religion.... The immense services which Science has thus rendered to the cause of Religion and Humanity has not yet received the recognition which it deserves. Science is still regarded by many excellent, but narrow-minded, persons as hostile to religious truth; while, in fact, she is only opposed to religious error. The time is approaching when it will be generally perceived that, so far from Science being opposed to Religion, true Religion without Science is impossible.”—(Origin of Civilisation, p. 292.)

For my strong and growing belief is, that there is an eternal invisible golden or adamantine chain, extending alike through all, and continually and securely binding all together in their proper sequence for good: future times will show the truth of this. Now and then, here and there, a link of this chain is found, hit upon accidentally as it were, discovered (much as we daily hear of gold, and precious stones, and still more precious medicines,) by energetic ever-seeking ever-advancing man, for the common good of our race.88

Three months before he died Colenso quoted seventeenth century English poet Francis Quarles:

True Faith and Reason are the soul’s two eyes.”

and in the end that is his credo: integration of what he was taught and what he learned, of belief and observation, of art and science, of beauty and truth.

Beauty is truth, and truth beauty,”—that is all ye
know on earth and all ye need to know.

Keats, Ode on a Grecian urn, 1819.


Acknowledgements & conventions

Pigmæi sumus, gigantum humeris impositi. 89

I have relied heavily on AG Bagnall and GC Petersen’s 1948 classic William Colenso—printer, missionary, botanist, explorer, politician—his life and journeys. AH & AW Reed, Wellington; to a considerable extent I believe they underestimated Colenso, particularly the work after his retirement.

I wish to thank the staff of the libraries and museums from which much of this material has been sourced: the Alexander Turnbull Library (ATL), New Zealand National Archives (Archives), the Hocken Library Uaretaoka o Hākena (Hocken), the Auckland Museum Library, Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi (MTGHB), Puke Ariki New Plymouth, the Australian National Library, the Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales, the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office, State Library of Tasmania, the Morrab Library and the Penlee House Gallery and Museum, Penzance, the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

The work has been supported by Lottery Grants which financed the copying and subsidised publication of Colenso’s collections. A Winston Churchill Foundation Fellowship assisted with funding my visit to Kew, the British Museum (Natural History) and the Darwin Project at Cambridge University.

I thank Sean Carroll for permission to quote from his excellent book Remarkable creatures.

I also acknowledge colleagues in the Colenso Society whose help and support, one way or another, I value highly: Peter Wells, Ann Collins, Sydney Shep, Gillian Bell, Sarah Carter, Kay Morris Matthews, Tony Gates, Gordon Sylvester, Bev. Park, Pam Hyde.

Much of the text has been scanned from original documents or photocopies. I take full responsibility for any transcription errors.

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