Spreading the Mormon message
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church, spread its message amongst Māori from 1881 and gained many followers by the early 20th century. Reasons for this rapid growth included parallels between the Mormon faith and Māori beliefs such as a shared emphasis on whakapapa or ancestry. Early Mormon missionaries emphasised a common bond with Māori through the Book of Mormon, which identifies Polynesians as one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Both Māori and Mormon traditions referred to waves of migrations across great distances, by a culturally distinctive people under divine sponsorship.
Pāora the prophet
At a large hui in March 1881 at Te Ore Ore marae near Masterton, the prophet Pāora Te Pōtangaroa predicted that a new and great power would come from the direction of the rising sun. The first Mormon missionaries arrived in New Zealand later that year, and some Māori interpreted the prophecy as referring to the Mormon Church, which came from the US – the east. By 1883 hundreds had joined the Mormon Church in Wairarapa.
From the early 1880s the sayings of several influential Māori prophets, including Arama Toiroa and Pāora Te Pōtangaroa of Ngāti Kahungunu, and Tāwhiao, the Waikato paramount chief and Māori king, were interpreted by some to refer to the arrival of Mormon missionaries among Māori. This encouraged large numbers of Māori, especially in rural communities in Northland and the East Coast of the North Island, to adopt the new religion.
Growth of Mormonism
The Mormon Church at first accepted the use of the Māori language in its services. Since Mormonism emerged in New Zealand after the divisive impacts of the New Zealand wars, it lacked the damaging political ‘baggage’ associated with earlier Christian denominations whose leaders had taken an active part in the conflicts. Unlike earlier missionaries, Mormons made no attempts to acquire Māori land. They lived a simple life among the people they aimed to convert, and baptised them in rivers and streams already sacred to the Māori.
Mormons succeeded in attracting Māori away from other churches in areas such as Hawke’s Bay, where Māori had earlier resisted selling their land. Some chiefs who had been devoted members of other denominations changed allegiance to the Mormon Church. About 3,000 Māori, or 1 in 12, belonged to the Mormon Church by 1890.
Partly due to its growth at the expense of other churches, the Mormon Church frequently came into conflict with Māori of other faiths. In Ngāti Porou, for example, there was often pointed resistance to Mormons.
Church leadership swung between a policy of assimilation and empowerment for Māori, especially in the period after the Second World War. By then many Māori had moved to the cities, and far fewer lived in small, close-knit communities where their shared faith could flourish. The use of Māori language in Mormon activities became discouraged. However, the church consistently brought Māori into positions of leadership and continued to grow among Māori in the 21st century. Māori made up 46% of members of the Mormon Church in 2013.