A settler church
Presbyterianism began in New Zealand as a church for the settler population, particularly those from Scotland, but soon extended its influence to Māori communities. The church’s founder in New Zealand, John Macfarlane, had learned the Māori language on the voyage from Glasgow. After his arrival, he criticised the New Zealand Company for failing to set aside for Māori the tenths of land in the Wellington region, as it had promised. Presbyterian missionary efforts among Māori were not very successful until 1895 when James Fletcher made progress among the Ngāti Tūwharetoa people of Taupō. This mission work was later extended to Nūhaka in northern Hawke’s Bay.
Hihita and Hoani
Deaconess Sister Annie Henry was a Presbyterian missionary from Southland who in 1917 began 32 years of ministry in Ruatāhuna in the Urewera. In that time she became a key figure in this mainly Māori community and served in many community roles including president of the Ruatāhuna Rugby Football Club. She was known by the local people as Hihita, or ‘beloved sister’. Her contemporary John Laughton, originally from Orkney, Scotland, was appointed to establish a mission and school at Maungapōhatu in 1918. Laughton, known as Hoani (Māori for John), ministered across the Urewera and Taupō and became an acknowledged scholar of the Māori language.
From the early 20th century Presbyterian missionary work with Maori was often carried out by deaconesses such as Sister Annie Henry. They focused on providing mission schools in the small central North Island communities of Ruatāhuna, Maungapōhatu, Waiōhau, Matahī, Waimana and Kawerau. In Nūhaka the deaconesses were active in welfare. Alongside the deaconesses, Presbyterian minister John Laughton’s ministry in Te Urewera and elsewhere led, in 1931, to the ordination of Timu Teoke as the first Māori Presbyterian minister.
Laughton also developed a complex and lasting relationship with the prophet Rua Kēnana, and this became the basis for the ongoing connection between the Presbyterian faith, Rua’s own church of the Iharaira (Israelites) and Ringatū, the church founded by the prophet Te Kooti. In 1936 Laughton was appointed superintendent of the Presbyterian Māori missions, and this body grew into a full synod (division) of the Presbyterian Church in 1956.
In 1945 Hēmi Pōtatau, the first Māori moderator of the Māori synod, called for Māori to be appointed to positions of leadership within the Presbyterian Church. Te Maungarongo marae was opened at Ōhope in the Bay of Plenty in 1947 as a base for Māori in the church. As with other Christian faiths, the Māori Presbyterian Church tried to meet the needs of Māori who migrated to the cities, and by the 1960s the church had established four hostels in Auckland to offer practical and spiritual support for young Māori Presbyterians from rural areas. Changes to social attitudes also had to be accommodated. In 1961 the Presbyterian Māori synod publication A Maori view of the ‘Hunn report’ strongly criticised the direction of government policy toward Māori, and foreshadowed a growing impatience with Pākehā domination of the church.
Te Wananga a Rangi was established to provide Māori-focused theological education. A new category of Presbyterians ministers known as Amorangi, or volunteer ministers in Māori communities, was created. Both developments were an expression of Māori autonomy and a new direction for the Māori Presbyterian Church. Just over 5% of Presbyterian Church members were Māori in 2013.