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Diverse Christian churches

by Mark Derby

Smaller Christian churches have had a significant presence in New Zealand. In the 19th century the Congregationalist Church was known for its temperance and suffrage activists. Quakers have long opposed conscription and war, and many Māori have been drawn to the Mormon and Destiny churches. In the 21st century some people chose to worship online, in a virtual Anglican cathedral.

Baptists and Congregationalists

A last-minute verbal addition to the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, sometimes called the ‘fourth article’, guaranteed freedom of religious belief in New Zealand. Since then successive administrations and governments have upheld New Zealanders’ right to follow any or no religion.

Of the new religions introduced since European settlement, Christianity has been by far the most dominant, although in a wide variety of denominations. The Anglican, Presbyterian, Catholic and Methodist churches have had the largest memberships, but many smaller Christian denominations have also had a significant presence.


The Baptist Church arose among dissenters from the Church of England in the early 17th century. Its members believed in the full-immersion ‘baptism of believers’. They did not practise infant baptism, but instead baptised adults and older children who were able to make a commitment to the church.

Growing numbers of Baptists migrated to New Zealand from the 1840s. Decimus Dolamore became New Zealand’s first Baptist minister in 1851 when he arrived in Nelson, where he remained for the next 40 years.

By 1882 there were 22 Baptist churches around the country, and in that year the Baptist Union of New Zealand was formed as their central organisation. A prominent figure was the Reverend Thomas Spurgeon, son of a famous London Baptist preacher, who was minister of the Auckland Baptist Tabernacle from 1881 to 1889 and later a nationwide evangelist. By 1900 New Zealand Baptists numbered 16,000.

Women can do anything

The progressive Baptist minister Samuel Edger migrated to New Zealand with his family in 1862. He believed in greater equality for women and supported his daughters undertaking higher education. Kate Edger graduated with a BA in mathematics and Latin in 1877, the first New Zealand woman to gain a university degree. In 1890 she married Welsh Congregational minister William Evans and ran a private school in Wellington while raising three sons. She campaigned for women’s suffrage and saw women gain the vote in 1893.

Baptist missionaries

Missionary work has been an important part of the Baptist faith. Unlike larger Christian denominations, the New Zealand Baptist Church did not begin with missions to Māori, but a temperance-based mission worked with Rotorua Māori for several years from 1880. The New Zealand Baptist Missionary Society was formed in 1885 and its first missionary, Rosalie Macgeorge, was sent to India the following year. She died in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), during her voyage back to New Zealand. In the 1990s the Baptist Missionary Society changed its name to tranzsend and shifted its focus to cities in South and South-East Asia and the South Pacific.

The New Zealand Baptist Theological College was founded in 1924 in Penrose, Auckland, to train ministers and missionaries for the church. In 1992 it was renamed Carey Baptist College after the 18th-century Englishman William Carey, the first Baptist missionary to India. Te Whare Amorangi, in Papatoetoe, Auckland, is a Baptist theological college for Māori. One graduate is the former Mongrel Mob leader Tuhoe Isaac.

In 2013 there were about 54,300 New Zealand Baptists in 244 churches and fellowships.

Congregational Church

The Congregational Church was named for its democratically organised, independent local congregations. The Reverend Barzillai Quaife became New Zealand’s first Congregationalist minister after settling in the Bay of Islands in 1840. The country’s first lasting Congregational church opened in Wellington in 1849, in Woodward Street, which was named after Jonas Woodward, a pioneer member of the church. Congregational churches later opened in Auckland (in 1851), Dunedin (1862) and Christchurch (1864). Their central organisation, the Congregational Union of New Zealand, held its first meeting in 1884. It had 6,700 members by 1900.

Congregationalist activism

Congregationalists in New Zealand have had an influence out of proportion to their modest numbers. Women’s rights activist Kate Sheppard was a member of Trinity Congregational Church in Christchurch. Church members were also active in the temperance and prohibition movements.

Missionary work by Congregationalist missionaries in the Pacific Islands in the 19th century meant that a large proportion of New Zealand’s post-Second World War Congregationalists were of Pacific Islands origin. The first Pacific Islanders’ Congregational Church was formed in 1948 in Newton, Auckland. In 1969, with falling church membership, a majority of Congregationalist ministers and congregations chose to become part of the Presbyterian Church.

In 2013 there were almost 10,000 members of the Congregational Church in New Zealand. Of these, over half were affiliated with Cook Island and Samoan churches.

Quakers and Unitarians


The Society of Friends was formed in Britain in the 17th century. It gained the alternative name of Quakers when its founder, George Fox, declared that those around him should tremble at the name of the Lord. Friends worship in silence until they feel moved to testify. They have no priests or ministers, and believe in the absolute equality of all people.

Regular Quaker meetings began in Nelson in 1842 and in Auckland in 1885. Although there were few Quakers in early colonial New Zealand, they were known for their concern for the welfare of Māori people and opposition to the use of force against them. The New Zealand Society of Friends numbered 300 in 1900.

Peaceful people

Opposition to military service has always been central to Quaker beliefs. In 1864 all Lower Hutt men aged between 16 and 40 were ordered to enlist in the militia. Pioneering New Zealand Quaker Thomas Mason and his sons, of Taita, refused and were eventually exempted. Mason later wrote, ‘The case has given me the opportunity of stating the reason why Friends refuse to bear arms, and I would hope some good may result.’

Anti-war activism

In the 20th century Quakers opposed conscription and acts of war. They supported the establishment of schools and ran a hostel in Wellington from 1909 to 1945, to enable rural children to attend secondary schools. In 1920 the Quakers opened a co-educational primary school in Whanganui. After it closed in 1969, a nearby site became the Friends Educational Settlement, nicknamed ‘Quaker Acres’. In the 2010s this was home to several Quaker families.

The Māori name ‘Te Hāhi Tūhauwiri’ (meaning ‘people moved by the winds of the Spirit’) was given to the New Zealand Friends in 1994. In 2013 there were approximately 966 Quakers in New Zealand.


Unitarianism is so named because it originally affirmed that God is one being, rather than the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) of other Christian faiths. Unitarianism arrived in New Zealand from the United Kingdom around 1863, when the Reverend Franklin Bradley held the first formal meeting in Auckland. The first Unitarian church opened in Auckland in 1898, for ‘free-thinking people who disagree with some of the teachings of Orthodox Christianity’.

In 1923 the Auckland church elected as its president Harriet Morison, who was active in the trade-union and women’s-suffrage movements. In the 1920s the congregation also appointed New Zealand’s first woman minister, Wilna Constable, who shared the role with her husband. 

A radical minister

Other Unitarian churches were formed in Wellington (in 1904), Timaru (1912), Christchurch (1917) and Blenheim (1988). The Reverend James Chapple worked as a minister in Timaru and Christchurch. A radical and controversial figure, he was imprisoned for sedition during the First World War, and later became the inspiration for the central character in the 1978 novel Plumb, by his grandson Maurice Gee.

In 2013 there were about 339 Unitarians in New Zealand.

    • Quoted in Margaret West and Ruth Fawell, The story of New Zealand Quakerism, 1842–1972. Auckland: N.Z. Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, 1973, pp. 64–65. Back
    • Vann Knight, ‘A short history and theology of Unitarian universalism.’ (last accessed 8 February 2011). Back

Lutheran, Dutch Reformed and Brethren churches


The Lutheran Church is the world’s oldest Protestant church, formed in the early 16th century by the German priest Martin Luther. Five Lutheran missionaries worked in the Chatham Islands from 1843, but made little impact and left after several years.

The Upper Moutere area, near Nelson, was settled mainly by Lutheran migrants from Germany, from about 1843. Lutheran missionaries accompanied them, sponsored by the North German Mission Society. Pastor Johann Wohlers soon left to work among Māori on Ruapuke Island, near Stewart Island. Pastor Johann Riemenschneider moved to Taranaki and set up the first North Island Lutheran mission. Pastor Johannes Heine remained in Nelson, where 4% of the population was Lutheran in 1861.

Lutherans also arrived from Scandinavia in the 1870s and settled in Manawatū, northern Wairarapa and southern Hawke’s Bay. By 1900 New Zealand Lutherans numbered 450.

Making Marton

In 1860 German Lutherans arrived in Wellington and walked up the coast to settle in Marton, Rangitīkei. Church members and their descendants converged on Marton in October 2010 to celebrate the 150-year anniversary of this settlement. Pastor Mark Whitfield of St Paul’s Lutheran Church in Wellington trekked up the beach highway to St Martin’s Lutheran Church in Marton, following in the footsteps of his great-great-great-grandfather, Heinrich Goile.

Discrimination against Lutherans

During the First World War membership of the Lutheran Church dropped because use of the German language was banned and many German migrants were interned. St Paul’s Church in Christchurch was confiscated, and in 1918 its bells were melted for scrap metal. St John’s Church in Halcombe, Manawatū, was burned down. Church numbers rose again after the Second World War with an influx of European migrants. In 2013 there were about 3,900 New Zealand Lutherans.

Dutch Reformed Churches

The Dutch Reformed Church was one of many new churches established across Europe during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The various present-day Reformed Churches regard the old and new testaments as the inspired and infallible word of God.

In the late 1940s migrants from the Netherlands settling in New Zealand hoped to find Reformed churches like those they had left behind. The Reformed Churches of New Zealand were officially established in 1953 in Wellington, representing congregations in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. In 2013 members of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand numbered about 4,600.

Brethren churches

The Brethren movement was founded in the UK around 1825, mainly by evangelical ex-Anglicans. The name ‘Brethren’, an archaic word for ‘brothers’, was given to members of the movement because they referred to each other as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. Brethren believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. The church split into Exclusive and Open Brethren in 1848. 

Behind the scenes

In 2005 members of the Exclusive Brethren were the subject of nationwide publicity when it was revealed that, although forbidden to vote by their religious beliefs, they had secretly (but unsuccessfully) campaigned against the Green Party and the re-election of the Labour-led government. These and similar activities led the government to introduce the Electoral Finance Act.

Exclusive Brethren

James Deck brought the Exclusive Brethren religion to New Zealand in 1853 and settled in Motueka, where the religion was still strongest in the early 21st century. Although its principles vary among different churches and different countries, Exclusive Brethren are generally discouraged from socialising with outsiders. New Zealand Exclusive Brethren are discouraged from watching television, using the internet or cellphones, reading fiction and listening to non-religious music.

Open Brethren

Open Brethren do not face the same restrictions as Exclusive Brethren. In May 1900 English-born Edward Whitehead opened the Bible and Tract Depot in Palmerston North, to produce publications for the growing number of Open Brethren assemblies. Many New Zealand Open Brethren have served as missionaries in other countries. The first group of five left for Penang, Malaya, in the early 20th century.

In 2013 members of the Exclusive Brethren numbered 219, the Plymouth Brethren (a branch of the Exclusive Brethren) 5,388 and the Open Brethren 7,844.

Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses


Officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (‘latter-day’ means present-day or recent), the Mormon Church was formed in the US in 1830. Its members believed they were restoring the original Christian faith which had elsewhere fallen into decay. They forbade consumption of alcohol, tobacco, tea and other addictive substances. William Cooke and Augustus Farnham were the first Mormon missionaries to New Zealand, arriving in 1854. They preached in Auckland and Nelson with only modest success. By 1880 seven branches of the church had been established, with 133 members.

Māori and Mormonism

In 1881 the Ngāti Kahungunu prophet Pāora Te Pōtangaroa predicted a new church for Māori – a prophecy which some have interpreted as referring to the Mormon Church.

The Mormon emphasis on genealogy (since deceased relatives could be baptised into their church) matched the importance placed by Māori on whakapapa (lines of descent). Many Māori, especially in rural communities in Northland and the East Coast, quickly adopted the new religion. The Book of Mormon, the church’s sacred text, was first published in Māori in 1889, and other translations followed. By 1900, there were nearly 4,000 New Zealand Mormons, 90% of them Māori, in 79 branches.

20th-century Mormonism

A Mormon-run school to train young Māori in useful skills, the Maori Agricultural College in Hawke’s Bay, opened in 1913 but was destroyed in the 1931 Napier earthquake. A new teaching institute, the Church College of New Zealand, was built largely by volunteer labour and opened in Hamilton in 1958. In the same year the Auckland Stake (a stake is a formal branch of the church) was created. It was the first stake to be set up outside North America. After the Second World War Māori became proportionally less significant in the church. In 2013 there were about 40,700 Mormons in New Zealand, almost half of them Māori.

Seventh-day Adventists

In the 1830s William Miller, a former US Army captain, preached that Jesus would shortly return to earth. This emphasis on the advent, or coming, of Christ, gave Miller’s new church its name. Seventh-day Adventists have their day of worship on a Saturday. US pastor Stephen Haskell was the first Seventh-day Adventist missionary to reach New Zealand, in 1885. He was joined by evangelist A. G. Daniells, who opened the first Seventh-day Adventist church, in Ponsonby, Auckland, in 1887. Daniells later became the world president of the church. New Zealand Seventh-day Adventists numbered about 860 by 1900.

Many Seventh-day Adventists were committed vegetarians, prohibitionists and feminists. Church members ate special diets, with an emphasis on vegetables and other unprocessed foods. They set up a health centre called the Sanitarium at Papanui, Christchurch. In the early 1900s Seventh-day Adventists launched the Sanitarium Health Food Company, which by the 1930s owned a factory in Christchurch and had health-food shops and vegetarian cafés in main centres.

The Pukekura Training School was opened near Cambridge, Waikato, in 1908 to teach members and missionaries of the church. It relocated to Longburn, near Palmerston North, in 1913, and in 1986 was renamed Longburn Adventist College. In 2013 New Zealand Seventh-day Adventists numbered about 14,600.

Rules and regulations

In 2009 the national convenor of the New Zealand Jehovah’s Witnesses, John Wills, said his church refused to allow its members to receive blood transfusions even when their lives were at stake. Voting, military service, drinking alcohol, dancing, smoking and card-playing were all discouraged by the New Zealand church, but not forbidden.

Jehovah’s Witnesses

A Bible study group in Pennsylvania, USA, developed into the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1870s. The church arrived in New Zealand in 1903, when it is thought to have had just two members.

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the world will end soon. They are discouraged from voting, holding public office, serving in the military and saluting national flags. In 1940 the church was declared illegal in New Zealand, although restrictions on its activities were at partly lifted the following year. The attorney-general said that its members devoted themselves to ‘vilification of religion, of their fellow-citizens, of the state, and of the Government’.1

In 2013 there were about 17,900 Jehovah’s Witnesses in New Zealand, meeting in about 100 ‘Kingdom Halls’.


Pentecostal and Destiny churches

Pentecostal churches

The Pentecost is a Christian festival held seven weeks after Easter Sunday. It celebrates a biblical event – the descent of the Holy Spirit on Christ's disciples after the resurrection. Pentecostalists believe in the fundamental truths taught in the Bible. English plumber-turned-evangelist Smith Wigglesworth advanced the Pentecostal movement in New Zealand with a series of revival and spiritual healing meetings between 1922 and 1924. A. H. Dallimore, who had lived in New Zealand as a young man, returned as an evangelist in 1927 and influenced many people to become Pentecostals.

Early churches

The earliest offshoots of the New Zealand Pentecostal movement are the Assemblies of God and Apostolic churches. A New Zealand branch of the US-based Assemblies of God was formed in 1927. During the 1960s the Assemblies of God came to be the largest Pentecostal denomination in New Zealand. The Apostolic movement arose in Wales in 1904–5. New Zealand followers formally linked to this British parent church in 1927. A Māori mission of the Apostolic Church began in Bay of Plenty in 1934.

Present-day churches

New Zealand’s Pentecostal movement grew rapidly after the Second World War as overseas evangelists arrived. In 1961 Tauranga-based evangelists Rob and Beryl Wheeler held revival meetings in a large tent in Christchurch. US evangelist Oral Roberts held ‘crusades’ in Christchurch, Wellington and Rotorua in 1965, the largest Pentecostal meetings then seen in New Zealand.

The Pentecostal Church of New Zealand merged with the British-based Elim Church in 1952. In 2016 there were 36 Elim churches throughout New Zealand. Former members of more traditional Christian churches such as Anglicans and Presbyterians, and immigrants from the Pacific Islands, further swelled the numbers of New Zealand Pentecostalists. By 2016 there were almost 80 churches in the New Life group of Pentecostal churches.

Man and beast

Evangelist A. H. Dallimore arrived in New Zealand in 1927 and held giant healing services in the Auckland Town Hall, supported by a large orchestra. His ‘Revival Fire’ meetings, at which farm animals as well as people were reportedly cured of serious ailments, attracted widespread scepticism as well as support, and he was banned from using the town hall. His meetings continued in other venues for several decades.

Pentecostal missionaries

The first overseas missionary of the Pentecostal Church of New Zealand was 70-year-old Miss I. Burnett of Auckland, who travelled to Tonga in 1926. Soon afterwards other missionaries left for the South Pacific, India and the Congo. In 1975 the Associated Pentecostal Churches of New Zealand was formed to represent all main branches of the movement. In the 2013 census almost 74,300 people identified themselves as members of Pentecostal churches.

Destiny Church

The Destiny Church is a Pentecostal fundamentalist Christian movement formed in New Zealand and based in Auckland. The church was launched in 2001 by Pastor Brian Tamaki, who previously headed other churches in Te Awamutu, Rotorua and Auckland. A large proportion of Destiny Church members are Māori or Pacific Islanders. Destiny Television, a ‘televangelist’ ministry, began broadcasting on national television and in the South Pacific and Australia.

‘Enough is enough’

In 2004 Destiny Church led the ‘Enough is enough’ march to Parliament to protest against changes to the drinking age, the decriminalisation of sex work and the introduction of the Civil Union Bill. In 2005 Tamaki was ordained as bishop of Destiny Church. In 2008 Destiny formed an urban Māori authority, Te Runanga a Iwi o Te Oranga Ake. Urban Māori authorities represent Māori who have lost contact with their iwi, and run government-funded health, education, parenting and restorative justice programmes.

In the 2010s Destiny Church had churches in 11 New Zealand cities and in Brisbane, Australia.

Orthodox churches

Greek Orthodox Church

The Greek Orthodox Church is related to the Russian and other Eastern Orthodox churches. Greek and other migrants from eastern and central Europe brought these Orthodox forms of Christianity to New Zealand from the mid-19th century. In 1910 Russian-born Nicholas Manovitch became the first Orthodox priest based in New Zealand, at St Michael’s Church in Dunedin, the country’s first purpose-built Orthodox church.


After the Second World War large numbers of migrants displaced from homelands in the eastern Mediterranean and Europe arrived in New Zealand, adding to Orthodox congregations. In 1970 New Zealand was granted its own Metropolis, or church parish, separate from Australia. Dionysios Psiachas became the first Archbishop of the Holy Metropolis of New Zealand.

From the 1980s further waves of migrants from the eastern Mediterranean and the former Soviet Union enlarged the Orthodox Church. The first New Zealand-born Orthodox clergy were appointed in the early 2000s. In 2016 there were nine Greek Orthodox churches in New Zealand, based around the Archdiocesan Church of St Andrew the First-called, in Miramar, Wellington, and serving around 2,500 church members.

Coptic Orthodox Church

The term ‘Coptic’ comes from a Greek word meaning Egyptian. The contemporary Coptic Orthodox Church is a Christian church based in Egypt (where most of the population is Muslim). It is part of a group of Orthodox churches which also include the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches.

Immigrants and refugees from the Middle East and North Africa introduced the Coptic Church to New Zealand. In 1999 Bishop Suriel was appointed the first Coptic bishop for Australia and New Zealand, based in Melbourne. In the 2010s there was a Coptic church in each of New Zealand’s four main centres. St Mary and St Athnasios Coptic church in Christchurch was badly damaged in the September 2010 earthquake.

There were about 411 Coptic Orthodox Church members in New Zealand in 2013.

Newer forms of Christianity

Asian community churches

Most Christian denominations found in New Zealand have been introduced by migrants, and new forms of Christianity continue to appear as new migrant communities develop. Some of the more recent migrants to New Zealand have been from countries where Christianity is not the dominant religion, for example China, South Korea and India. However, a large proportion of those migrants are members of Christian faiths and have contributed to the diversity of the Christian church in New Zealand. Some have joined existing churches, while others have formed their own churches.

Chinese churches

Small groups of Chinese migrants have lived and worshipped in New Zealand since the mid-19th century. The New Zealand Chinese Anglican Mission Church was founded in 1907, in Frederick Street, Wellington. Branches were later formed in Ōtaki, Levin, Palmerston North, Dannevirke and northern Hawke’s Bay, where Chinese worked mainly as market gardeners. An Anglican Chinese community centre opened in Thorndon, Wellington, in 1969.

From the 1980s growing numbers of Chinese migrants to New Zealand led to the formation of new churches in most main centres. Christchurch Chinese Church was formed in 1989, and had services in Mandarin and English. In 1997 it began holding Cantonese and English services, and from 2007 it offered English-only services, for New Zealanders of Chinese origin who spoke little or no Chinese, and for those of other origins.

Korean churches

The great majority of Koreans who have migrated to New Zealand are Christians and regular churchgoers. The support of a local church is often very important to Korean migrants settling in New Zealand.

Most major Christian churches, including Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Catholics, offer services with Korean ministers and in the Korean language. In addition, centres with relatively large Korean populations have churches specifically for Koreans. These include the New Zealand Onnuri Church in Birkenhead, Auckland, and the Christchurch Korean Presbyterian Church. This opened in 1988, and was the first Korean church in the South Island. In the 2010s it offered Korean language lessons and a variety of social as well as church services.

Internet Christian communities

Almost all Christian denominations in New Zealand, and many individual churches, have websites for communicating with their congregations and recruiting new members. Some have gone further and developed internet-based Christian communities. These carry out many of the activities of traditional churches – collective worship, discussion, support, preaching and evangelising – through computer-based communications.

In some cases the online church exists alongside the physical church. It serves those church members who are unwilling or unable to attend their local religious community, perhaps because they are housebound and unable to reach a physical church. There are also internet Christian communities that have no physical equivalent. Both types of online church are generally accessible to worshippers from throughout the world, and growing numbers of New Zealand Christians choose to practise this form of religious observance.

Anglican Cathedral of Second Life

In 2007 the Reverend Mark Brown, an Anglican priest who was then CEO of the Bible Society of New Zealand, set up a ‘virtual’ Anglican cathedral. It is based in Second Life, an international virtual online community accessed through the internet, which had several million members in 2010. Some 400 of those, from more than 20 nations, regularly attended services at the online cathedral. For some, this was the only church service they attended. They did so for convenience and to worship with a worldwide congregation.

Bishop Tom Brown of the Anglican diocese of Wellington is one of two bishops who support the Anglican Cathedral of Second Life, and he has preached in it on occasion. He says, ‘It was felt that Second Life was a new frontier where the church needed to be represented and able to offer Christian and Anglican pastoral and spiritual support.’1

Online Christian communities have attracted criticism from people who question the value of a faith community whose members do not come into actual contact with each other.

    • Email communication from Tom Brown, 20 October 2010. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Mark Derby, 'Diverse Christian churches', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 20 April 2018