Story: Yate, William

Page 1 - Biography

Yate, William

1802–1877

Missionary, writer

This biography was written by Judith Binney and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 1, 1990

William Yate was born on 3 November 1802 and baptised in Bridgnorth, Shropshire, England, the son of Betty and John Yate of the parish of St Mary Magdalene. He was brought up in Bridgnorth, and at the age of 14 was apprenticed to a grocer. After finishing his apprenticeship, he determined to become a missionary. His motivation was, in part, the desire to better himself. He attended the Church Missionary Society's teaching institution at Islington, London, in 1825. There he acquired all his formal education. He was ordained deacon on 18 December 1825, and priest, specifically for work in the 'Colonies', on 21 May 1826. Having spent a year as a curate at St Swithin's Church in east London, Yate sailed in 1827 for New Zealand as a CMS settler. After a brief stay with Samuel Marsden, chaplain of New South Wales, at Parramatta, he arrived at Paihia, on the missionary vessel Herald, on 19 January 1828. He was to work among the Maori at the Bay of Islands until June 1834.

Yate's tasks were to make a study of the Maori language, and to teach in the mission schools. Considered 'intelligent and gifted', he acquired, at least in English-speaking circles, a reputation as a powerful preacher. Much of his time was spent, with William Williams and William Puckey, in preparing the first mission texts. In 1830 he was sent to Sydney to print their first effort: 550 copies of an untitled collection of biblical extracts, the Ten Commandments, some hymns, and two catechisms in Maori. He brought back a printing press. However, his own craftsmanship was not a success. He managed to produce a few hymn sheets and another catechism, Ko te katikihama III (1830), before 'forswearing the business as hopeless'. In November 1832 he returned to Sydney with the manuscripts of two further booklets to be printed: Ko te pukapuka inoinga, a collection of prayers, hymns and catechisms; and Ko te tahi wahi o te kawenata hou o ihu karaiti te ariki, a selection of scriptural passages. By March 1833, 1,800 copies of the first had been printed, and a similar-sized edition of the second soon followed. This work was the beginning of the substantial publication of scriptural texts in Maori.

Yate also had published, in London in 1836, translations of letters written to him by Maori men and women seeking confirmation in their new faith. They reveal the intensely emotional experience of conversion that Yate expected of them, and on which he fed. He worked primarily at Kerikeri and Waimate North, and initiated the Puriri station in the Thames in December 1833. In June 1834 he left for England without permission. The visit was ostensibly to fetch his sister, Sarah, and to recruit others. On the voyage he drafted from his working journals the manuscript of An account of New Zealand; and of the formation and progress of the Church Missionary Society's mission in the northern island. The earliest published history of the mission, it went through two editions in 1835. But it was printed without the knowledge of his fellow workers and was received by them with considerable anger. They considered that it unduly elevated his personal role and had misrepresented their real difficulties.

Yate also launched a successful campaign for money for the Waimate church. He acted against the will of both the CMS in London and the missionary settlers in New Zealand, who considered that Waimate was too small for such a grand edifice. Yate insisted that it be considered as his church; vanity and a sense of self-righteousness pervade his correspondence in all these matters. Momentarily famous in England, he gave evidence before the House of Commons' Select Committee on Aborigines in February 1836, was entertained by William IV at Brighton Pavilion, and had his portrait painted in miniature by the fashionable society artist C. John M. Whichelo. It reveals a thin-faced, bespectacled, elegant young parson. Flushed with his successes, he sailed for New Zealand, accompanied by his sister as far as Sydney, on the Prince Regent in February 1836.

Rumours arising from his relationship on the voyage with the third mate of the vessel, Edwin Denison, ultimately led to Yate's dismissal from the CMS in 1837. When he reached Sydney in June 1836, he was appointed temporarily as chaplain to St James' Church and before he could return to New Zealand, the scandal had broken. Four sworn affidavits from Maori youths, his pupils, were subsequently sent from New Zealand by the missionaries as testimony of his having practised oral sex and mutual masturbation. But Yate consistently denied his guilt, and because there was no evidence of sodomy, no legal charges could be brought against him. In September 1836 an informal inquiry, held under the authority of William Grant Broughton, bishop of Australia, could not reach a decision, although Yate's suspension from duties was subsequently confirmed. He returned to England in December, determined to clear himself, but was dismissed by the CMS on the confusing grounds that he had refused an investigation into the allegations. He made extensive, but vain, efforts to force the CMS to reopen his case.

Because of the taint Yate was unable to obtain work. Nevertheless he sustained his relationship with Denison, which he always protested was innocent. Finally in 1846 powerful evangelical patrons obtained for him the position of chaplain at the abandoned St John's Mariner Church at Dover. He worked with seamen until his death there on 26 July 1877. His 'fall from grace', like that of the earlier missionary Thomas Kendall, intrigued the writer Frank Sargeson and formed the basis of 'An imaginary conversation' conducted between Samuel Butler and William Yate, which was published in 1966. Sargeson explored the idea that the Christian sense of sin is not universal, but merely cultural. That was a discovery which Yate never made.