New Book by R. F. Keam Dissolving Dream

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Dissolving Dream 
ISBN 0-476-00421-7


Born from the passionate endeavours of a young American semi-invalid to better the conditions of Maori people living in the Rotorua lakes district of the North Island of New Zealand, the first Baptist Maori Mission had an unusual history and an even more unusual fate. This was no saga of a visionary Christian group sallying forth from the home of civilization to evangelise the world. It began almost by accident, was originally conceived not as a Baptist task at all, and arrived on the scene nearly seventy years after the gospel had first been proclaimed on these South Pacific shores. Nevertheless for a time it exerted a profound influence on the local indigenous population and briefly claimed the support of a substantial non-conformist denomination.

Only the barest outlines of this intriguing story have been told before, and then only in relatively inaccessible places. It deserves to be better known. Interactions between some of the participants were dramatic and unexpected. The geographic setting made its own contribution: remarkably and perhaps uniquely, in the end not only did the mission vanish, so also did the mission field.


New Zealand Geographic, Number 69, September-October 2004, pages 14, 16

Dissolving Dream – The Improbable Story of the First Baptist Maori Mission

Ron Keam became fascinated by the Rotorua thermal region as a boy and has been publishing on that region since [1955]. In 1988 he produced the magnificent Tarawera: the volcanic eruption of 10 June 1886 – in my opinion the finest self-published book yet produced in the country, and one that would find few, if any, rivals among the products of regular publishing houses. Although that lavish volume seemed definitive, to the enquiring mind there is no such word and Keam continues to labour on a series of books about Tarawera. Dissolving Dreamis the first to be completed.

It is worth noting here that Keam is a professor of physics at Auckland University, where he teaches relativity among other things, and carries out geophysical research (among many other things). Where Tarawera combined a lot of history with a sprinkling of geology, Dissolving Dream is pure history. It is the story of the settlement of Te Wairoa, which was destroyed by the 1886 eruption and is today known as the buried village. The book is derived from meticulous and extensive historical detective work carried out by Keam, the sort of work a professional historian would be proud of. That it has been produced by a physicist is remarkable.

William and Anstis Snow were an affluent American couple in their 20s, who travelled to New Zealand in 1880. They came partly to escape the heat of the Californian summer and partly in the hope that New Zealand’s famed hot springs would improve William’s indifferent health. While in Tauranga and the Rotorua district, they were distressed at how Maori were being destroyed by alcohol and they instigated a temperance drive at Te Wairoa. The village was the departure point for visits to the famed pink and white terraces at Rotomahana, and perhaps the main tourist centre in the Rotorua district. Payments from visitors for guiding and transport made local Maori quite affluent and they could easily afford liquor. William induced many Maori to sign the pledge, led by chief Aporo Te Wharekaniwha who “told us all plainly that he had become such an habitual drinker that he doubted whether he had the strength to keep his resolution… He did try and eminently proved himself master of his appetite.”

The temperance movement became a Maori mission, affiliated with the Wellesley Street Baptist Church in Auckland, a church that had as its pastor Thomas Spurgeon, son of Charles Spurgeon, the most outstanding English preacher of the second half of the nineteenth century. Alfred Fairbrother, a recent graduate of [Charles] Spurgeon’s Pastors’ College in England, was appointed as missionary to Te Wairoa.

The Snows left New Zealand early in 1883, but William died aboard ship en route to Europe. Anstis returned to Rotorua in January 1885 accompanied by her mother-in-law, Margaret Snow. Anstis and Alfred quickly developed a mutual attachment and were married by Spurgeon in Auckland on May 26, 1885.

However, things were not going well with the mission. Alfred Fairbrother expected more commitment from the Maori than they were ready for, and unlike the patient William Snow, he sometimes reacted angrily to their shortcomings. A group of Maori wrote to the Wellesley Street Baptist Church asking to have him removed. Another applied to have him retained. Alfred and Anstis shifted to Ohinemutu and Alfred and the church agreed that he should resign from being their missionary. He was not replaced at Te Wairoa, but remained as an independent missionary/pastor at Ohinemutu until just a few days before the June 1886 eruption.

Alfred and Anstis were actually leaving the district and had got as far as Cambridge when the Tarawera eruption occurred. Alfred at once returned to Te Wairoa where he helped for some weeks with rescue and relief efforts. Scores of the Maori they had worked with had been killed. The couple then left the country, never to return.

And what of the mission? As Keam drily remarks, “not only did the mission vanish, so also did the mission field.” By curious coincidence, within weeks of Fairbrother’s resignation, the Baptists in New Zealand set up a missionary society with a focus on India. Not until the 1950s did they again direct any efforts specifically towards Maori.

Keam’s book covers no great sweep of history, no wars, nothing of great political or social moment, although its scope is not as narrow as the subtitle suggests. The book shines a penetrating beam into a dusty corner of our history and it contains many illuminating extracts from William Snow’s writings in particular. He regularly sent material back to his hometown newspaper in Fitchburg, Massachusetts where it was all published.

Snow’s observations of Maori were sympathetic and detailed and provide a fascinating snapshot of a time of considerable transition in New Zealand. Many of his comments are not irrelevant to the racial tensions that now bedevil us. For those interested in New Zealand history this book is well worth considering.

For purchase information go to or contact the author at Auckland University.

Warren Judd
[Editor, New Zealand Geographic]

  • Download New Zealand Geographic Review (30.5KB Microsoft Word)
  • Download New Zealand Baptist Review, Volume 120, Number 5, June 2004, page 23 (25.5KB Microsoft Word)

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