The story of Samuel Leigh, founder of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Australia and one of Methodism’s premier missionary pioneers, is so replete with adventure, passion and the marvels of divine grace that readers would be astonished that so much was accomplished by this inspiring figure in so short a time. In September, Wesley Mission Sydney celebrated the 200th anniversary of Leigh’s arrival with a celebration service at the Wesley Centre.

It was an act of providence that Leigh came to Australia; he really wanted to be sent as a missionary to Canada but that was overruled and, as it happened, the ship in which he would have travelled sank with the loss of almost all lives; that was Australia’s gain for, in the meantime, Methodists in the colony of New South Wales sent an impassioned plea for a missionary to come out to them - to that “fatal shore”, as novelist Robert Hughes forebodingly named the convict colony.

Samuel Leigh

PICTURE: Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.

So Leigh, a quiet, studious young man from the English countryside, was thrust into a violent and dangerous country halfway around the world.

Even the sea journey to New South Wales was dramatic as Leigh, initially derided as a “Jonah” by the sailors, was later credited with saving the ship from wreck by the power of prayer and - almost as great a feat - caused the rough-tongued, hard-bitten captain to stop swearing and start reading the Bible.

Leigh landed at Port Jackson in August, 1815. His beginnings were miserable. First, the Methodist pioneer who was to play host to him, the ex-convict and lawyer Edward Eagar, told him brusquely that the governor would send him packing. Then there was the comedy of errors as Eagar discovered that the letter sent to London asking Leigh to come with “furniture for a house” had been garbled into a directive to bring “furniture for a horse” and so Leigh had arrived with a saddle and bridle but no bed, table or chairs. Finally, when Leigh went to meet Governor Lachlan Macquarie, he was advised to give up missionary ambitions and take a government job and become “rich”.

By force of character Leigh turned matters around, convincing Macquarie that the colony stood to benefit from Wesleyan missionary work. The colonists who had asked for a missionary to be sent out from Britain had specifically asked for one who was not too radical a Dissenter from the established Church of England, and Leigh was faithful to this directive. It was a prudent strategy for he needed the goodwill of the Anglican authorities to start on his work.

By the grace of God, the chief Anglican chaplain, Samuel Marsden, came from a Wesleyan family and saw both Anglicans and Methodists united in one endeavour to bring salvation to men and women convicts living brutalised lives. Macquarie and Marsden helped Leigh with land for chapels, contacts, funds for importing Bibles, help with dangerous journeys through the Australian bush and the opportunity to bring Methodism to New Zealand as well.

Leigh began his ministry in The Rocks area in Sydney, then the most sordid place in the colony. He began preaching and holding prayer meetings. His indomitable Christian spirit attracted influential supporters who helped him set up and run Sunday schools for convict children, an asylum for the destitute and provide funds to build chapels and later a handsome little church.

On his horse, Old Traveller, Leigh rode miles to the settlements around Sydney and scattered homes, chopping his way through the impenetrable bush with an axe, braving murderous bands of bushrangers as well as Aboriginal warriors angered by the dispossession of their heritage by the colonists. Leigh rode through heat and storm to reach the merest handful of remote settlers, often going hungry. He wrote to a friend: “What can one missionary do in a country like this? Yet I have seen many penitential tears. I sometimes travel twenty miles, preach to twenty persons, retire to rest with twenty thousand blessings, and go off again in the morning singing for joy”. Methodist communities grew in all the settlements.

Years later, first one and then other Methodist missionaries joined him but Leigh, who had no lack of friends and supporters in the colony, strangely had prickly relationships with his fellow missionaries; age and ideology divided them.

With Marsden’s encouragement, Leigh went to New Zealand in 1819 and later in 1822, and there he faced untold dangers with ferocious cannibal chiefs. He was completely fearless, once even halting a village from feasting on a slaughtered boy. Leigh built a settlement, Wesleydale, in Whangaroa. The Maori descendants of the warriors who had menaced Leigh when he landed in New Zealand have built a rock cairn in the town of Kaeo, near where Wesleydale used to be, to honour the legendary missionary.

By now, however, Leigh’s health had been failing for some years and he was close to death. He returned to Australia and settled in Parramatta with his wife, Catherine Clewes, who he had married in 1820. Leigh tried hard to continue his missionary work but was a shadow of his former self, having plundered his inner reserves in the early years of ministry.

Finally, tragedy struck when Catherine, ministering to the sick in Parramatta, became ill herself and died. Heartbroken, Leigh returned to England. There he recovered somewhat and continued to exert himself in ministry, travelling widely to address crowds passionately on the need to support missionary work in Australia and New Zealand. He was felled by a stroke in mid-speech at one such rally and died a few months later.

The Leigh Memorial Centenary Church in Parramatta, NSW perpetuates his name. In England, there is the Leigh Memorial Methodist Church in Milton, Leigh’s birthplace. I visited and preached at that church three years ago while in the UK to make a film on the life of John Wesley and I was struck by the plaque dedicated to “the first Methodist missionary to Australia and New Zealand”.

Rev George Findlay, co-author of the History of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, offers this acute appraisal of a great man: “Leigh was recognised as a man of uncommon activity, both of mind and body, of high courage and robust faith, wholly free from self-seeking, and animated by the enthusiasm of the first Methodist preachers...He was nobly fitted for the work of a pioneer evangelist, and met the hardships and perils of his task in Australia and New Zealand with a simple heroism and a cheerful trust in God beyond all praise.”

Rev Dr Keith V Garner is the superintendent/CEO of Wesley Mission. His book, 'Samuel Leigh: The first Methodist missionary to Australia and New Zealand', is published by Wesley Mission Sydney.