Ever since the Enlightenment, scholars in a variety of disciplines have depicted the Western world as growing inexorably more secular. Modern, secular, and scientific modes of thought, they insist, have steadily driven religion out of the public square. Many have portrayed the secularization of the public sphere as not only inevitable but desirable—a Good Thing. In this article, a case study of the New Zealand wars of the 1860s, I question these assumptions. In Victorian New Zealand during this period, settlers and politicians ejected Christianity from the public square for dark and murky reasons. The Enlightenment grand narrative of secular light banishing religious darkness must be seen for what it is: a powerful modern myth whose historical inadequacies ought carefully to be exposed.
Some context for this case study is essential. Up until the 1860s race relations in New Zealand, Britain's southernmost colony, had been mostly peaceful. The indigenous Maori people had generally welcomed Westerners—explorers, whalers, traders, missionaries, and settlers—into New Zealand. These incoming Pakeha (that is, whites in Maori) lived in a Maori world largely on Maori terms. The Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840 between many Maori chiefs and the British Crown, guaranteed the tribes full, exclusive, and undisturbed possession of their lands, forests, and fisheries, and all the rights and priveleges of British subjects. In return Maori ceded sovereignty of New Zealand to the Crown. The Treaty required Maori to sell land to the Crown, not private parties.