John Coleridge Patteson is said to have been born at Bloomsbury, London, England, on 1 April 1827, the eldest son of John Patteson, barrister, and his second wife, Frances Duke Coleridge, a niece of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1830 his father became a judge of the court of King's Bench and was knighted.
'Coley' Patteson was educated at Eton College and from 1845 at Balliol College, Oxford; he graduated BA in 1848, MA in 1853, and DD in 1861. After taking his BA degree, he travelled in Europe and studied German, Hebrew and Arabic. Languages were to be a lifelong interest. Although his academic career had shown diligence rather than distinction, he was elected in 1852 to a fellowship at Merton College, Oxford. He was ordained deacon in 1853 and priest in 1854 by Bishop Henry Phillpotts of Exeter. In 1853–54 he was curate of Alfington in the parish of Ottery St Mary, near his family's home in Devon.
Patteson was brought up in a devout High Church atmosphere. Both sides of his family had been active in assisting the overseas expansion of the Church of England, and his uncle, Edward Coleridge, was a trusted adviser of Bishop G. A. Selwyn. In 1854, during Selwyn's visit to England, Patteson offered himself for missionary work in New Zealand. He arrived in Auckland with Selwyn on 5 July 1855.
Patteson had been recruited to assist in the Melanesian mission. Since his first missionary voyage to the south-west Pacific in 1849, Selwyn had insisted that the only way the fragmented peoples of Melanesia could be evangelised was by taking young men to New Zealand for instruction in Christianity, then sending them home as teachers of the new religion to their own people. Although this novel scheme was regarded by critics as 'visionary and impracticable', Patteson admired Selwyn's single-mindedness and breadth of vision. In 1856 he made his first voyage to Melanesia on the new mission ship Southern Cross.
As Selwyn's missionary chaplain Patteson taught at the mission's school in Auckland, assisted in parochial work, and made annual voyages to Melanesia, collecting and returning students. Almost every year from 1858 onwards he lived for a few months on one of the islands of the Loyalty, Banks or Solomon groups. He was devoted to his pupils. Whereas Europeans often found him introspective and moody, with Melanesians he was warm and affectionate. In 1859 the Melanesian school was moved from its initial base at St John's College to new buildings at Kohimarama, on the shore of Waitemata Harbour. Much of the cost of building St Andrew's College at Kohimarama was met by Patteson's cousin, Charlotte Yonge, who gave the royalties of her popular novel The daisy chain.
The creation of a missionary bishopric in Melanesia had been central to Selwyn's strategy. With his practical experience and influential family connections, Patteson was the obvious choice for the post. On 24 February 1861 he was consecrated in St Paul's Church, Auckland, by three Old Etonian bishops, as missionary bishop for the western islands of the south Pacific Ocean. From then on Patteson was free to modify Selwyn's scheme according to his own ideas. The central school became a permanent institution and the language of Mota in the Banks Islands supplanted English as the principal medium of instruction. In 1867 Patteson moved the school from Auckland to the warmer climate of Norfolk Island.
During his years in Auckland Patteson took a keen interest in New Zealand affairs. On most issues he shared the views of Selwyn and Sir William Martin, who were his closest friends. During the first Taranaki war, like them, he was critical of settler attitudes and the policies of Governor Thomas Gore Browne. Representing the only missionary diocese of the Anglican Church in New Zealand, he attended the general synods of 1862, 1865 and 1868.
Although a firmly orthodox High Churchman, Patteson's views on the need to adapt Christianity to Melanesian culture were advanced for their time. He wanted to avoid making ' English Christians of our converts'. A skilled linguist, he learned to speak more than 20 Melanesian languages and printed grammars of 13 of them. His missionary philosophy greatly influenced the subsequent policies and ethos of the Melanesian mission.
Totally absorbed in his work, Patteson never married, nor did he revisit England. By 1870 he was tired and ill, and the influence of the Melanesian mission was being disrupted by the labour trade, as recruiters extended their activities into the northern New Hebrides (Vanuatu). On 20 September 1871 Patteson's name became inextricably linked with the labour trade when he and his party were attacked by inhabitants of the island of Nukapu in the Santa Cruz group. Patteson was clubbed to death. He was buried at sea the next day from the Southern Cross. Two of his assistants, the Reverend Joseph Atkin and Stephen Taroaniara, died a week later of tetanus resulting from arrow wounds. At the time it was almost universally assumed that the attack was in revenge for the abduction of some young men from Nukapu by a labour recruiter a few days earlier, but other explanations are equally plausible. In New Zealand, and in the Australian colonies, the news of the bishop's violent death produced a wave of newspaper editorials, public meetings and resolutions of regret and sympathy, all urging effective control of the labour trade. In Britain it hastened the introduction into Parliament of a bill to regulate the recruitment of Pacific islanders by British subjects.
Among Anglicans in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, Bishop Patteson was widely acclaimed as a martyr. Portrayed as a missionary-hero, a symbol of self-sacrifice, he was commemorated in church memorials and stained-glass windows and became the subject of numerous pious biographies. At the Melanesian mission headquarters on Norfolk Island, the Patteson memorial chapel of St Barnabas, with fine interior furnishings, was completed in 1880.
Patteson's estate, valued at £13,000, was bequeathed to the Melanesian mission. The anniversary of his death is observed in Anglican churches in New Zealand and the Pacific islands.