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Ngā hāhi – Māori and Christian denominations

by Hirini Kaa

From 1814, when the first Anglican missionaries came to New Zealand, there have been many Māori converts to various Christian denominations. Since the mid-20th century the challenge for churches has been how to give Māori recognition and power within their structures.

Anglican Church

Spreading Christianity

Te Hahi Mihinare – the Māori name for the Anglican Church, meaning ‘the missionary church’ – had its beginnings in 1814 when the young Ngāpuhi chief Ruatara brought Samuel Marsden and other members of the Anglican Church Missionary Society to Oihi in the Bay of Islands. From there much of the work of spreading Christianity was carried out by Māori teachers and evangelists such as Piripi Taumata-ā-Kura in Ngāti Porou and Īhāia Te Ahu in Te Arawa. By 1853 there were 440 of these ‘native agents’ across the country, working alongside 23 Pākehā missionaries.

Ngā Hīnota o Waiapu

The first four hīnota (synods, or annual conferences) of the newly formed Anglican Diocese of Waiapu, on the North Island’s East Coast, from 1861 to 1865 were held entirely in the Māori language, with a mainly Māori membership. Some of those present later became major figures in the politics of the region, including Rāpata Wahawaha, who led Ngāti Porou’s military efforts, Wī Pere, later MP for Eastern Māori, and Ānaru Mātete, who converted to the Pai Mārire religion and become an armed follower of Te Kooti.


Building the church

George Augustus Selwyn, the first Bishop of New Zealand, resisted ordaining Māori for some years. However, in 1853 Rota Waitoa (Ngāti Raukawa) was ordained the first Māori deacon, and was made a priest in 1860. The 1857 constitution that founded the dioceses did not include Māori, although there were initial attempts at power sharing within the church, such as the first four Waiapu diocesan synods, which were conducted entirely in the Māori language.

After the New Zealand wars Māori were relegated to a less important role in the church, as they were in other areas of New Zealand society. In this period Māori struggled to be involved in decision making in the wider church. In 1891 they called unsuccessfully for prayers to the Māori King to be included in the Anglican Prayer Book.

Māori schools

Māori church schools have been a backbone of the national educational system since its establishment. All major denominations had schools that produced leadership for both church and Māoridom. The Young Maori Party which grew out of the Anglican school Te Aute College, and included men such as Apirana Ngata and Māui Pōmare, was probably the most famous example of such leaders.

A new generation

By the turn of the century a new generation of Māori leaders were pushing Māori and the Anglican Church in a new direction. They included Apirana Ngata, who was strongly shaped by the church as a student at Te Aute College, one of two church schools set up for Māori boys. Ngata led the call for a Māori bishop and, despite opposition from some non-Maori Anglicans, in 1928 Frederick Augustus Bennett from Te Arawa was ordained as the first Pihopa o Aotearoa, or Bishop of Aotearoa. This position was at first funded by iwi dairying schemes.

Urban developments

After the Second World War the Māori Anglican Church faced significant challenges as Māori moved to the cities in large numbers. New urban communities were established, such as Tātai Hono marae in Auckland under Kīngi Matutaera Īhaka. Minita-a-iwi, or iwi-appointed volunteer ministers, gave the church a more Māori and more community-focused character.

A three-tikanga church

The struggle for Māori to assert themselves in society and in the wider church culminated in a new constitution – Te Pouhere – which came into effect in 1992. This set up three tikanga, or cultural streams – for Pākehā, Māori and Pacific peoples. Under this new system Māori had full autonomy within the church to establish bishops and run the church as they saw fit, as well as power-sharing at a provincial level. All Anglican priests received training in the Māori language. In 2013 Māori made up 13% of Anglican Church members.

Methodist Church

Methodist missions

In 1822 Methodist missionaries established themselves at Whangaroa in the Far North. As with the Anglicans, Methodist missionaries took some time to move beyond Northland, but eventually spread down the west coast of the North Island. By 1840 Methodist mission stations were dotted across the country. Māori Methodist communities were still strong in parts of the Far North and down the west coast to Taranaki in the early 21st century.

Colonial continuity

Methodist ministry amongst Māori was often carried out and made effective by Māori themselves. Māori ministers in the church were paid less than their Pākehā colleagues, but had a large effect on its growth, especially after the New Zealand wars, when churches were widely distrusted for supporting the government and its military forces. Work with Māori came under Pākehā structures, and Māori were only admitted to the Methodist Annual Conference in 1919. Constitutional changes in 1874 and 1910 did little to improve the status of Māori in the church.

Interdenominational relations


Although early interdenominational relations were often uneasy, over time strong relationships developed between most churches, often based more on tribal connections than on European-inspired doctrine. The National Council of Churches Maori Section was set up in 1947 and became a strong voice for Māori in society, leading debate on the place of the Treaty of Waitangi in the 1980s.


Māori response

In 1971 Rua Rakena, who later became tumuaki (leader) of the Māori Methodist Church, published The Māori response to the gospel. This was a watershed in the recognition of biculturalism in the Methodist Church. It was written as a response to Māori Methodist expressions of Christianity, and prompted calls for fundamental change in Māori–Pākehā relations in the church, which were acted upon over the following decades.

In 1983 the Methodist Church established a bicultural committee to give Māori and Pākehā an equal voice in the direction taken by the church. By the early 21st century Te Taha Maori, the Māori component of the church, was a significant aspect of the decision-making process of the entire church denomination. In 2013 Māori made up 10.8% of Methodist Church members.

Catholic Church


Jean Baptiste Pompallier, the first Catholic bishop in New Zealand, arrived with other Catholic priests in 1838 and first celebrated mass at Tōtara Point in the Hokianga. As with other denominations, where the Catholic missionaries first arrived remained an area of strength for their faith, as local Māori converts and their descendants remained committed to their early choice of faith. In 1839 seven priests of the Marist order arrived to join Pompallier and the denomination relocated its headquarters to Kororāreka (later renamed Russell) in the Bay of Islands. From there the missions spread to elsewhere in Northland, and to Waikato.

Missionaries among Māori

Following the New Zealand wars James McDonald was the sole Catholic missionary to Māori for many years. From 1886 the St Joseph Society for Foreign Missions, known as the Mill Hill missionaries, ministered amongst Māori Catholic communities in the Auckland diocese. This, along with Suzanne Aubert’s (Sister Mary Joseph’s) work in Hawke’s Bay and then Jerusalem on the Whanganui River, kept Māori missionary work alive. Although the missionaries struggled to retain Māori converts, many Māori communities kept their loyalty to the denomination alive through their own perseverance. In 1944 Wiremu Te Āwhitu, from the Hawke’s Bay Māori mission, was the first Māori to be ordained a priest of the Catholic Church.

Post-war church

From the 1940s the church fostered Catholic Māori clubs in urban centres to support the religious and social needs of Māori who had migrated from rural areas. These clubs were organised nationally by the Central Council of Federated Clubs. In 1946 this council launched the first of what became known as Hui Aranga, annual Easter gatherings for cultural performances and religious expression. Some Pākehā Catholics criticised these hui for going against a wider social trend towards integration of the races. New urban marae such as Te Ūnga Waka in Epsom, Auckland, became centres for the many Catholic Māori relocating to the cities.


The Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s allowed a more pluralistic view of cultural differences in the Catholic Church and gave wider scope for Māori Catholic aspirations. By the 1980s the concept of biculturalism was embraced by the leadership of the church, and Te Rūnanga o Te Hāhi Katorika ki Aotearoa (National Catholic Māori Council of New Zealand) was established in 1984 to guide the pastoral care of Māori Catholics across the country. In 1988 Max Takuira Mariu was appointed Auxillary Bishop of Hamilton, with a mandate to work across Māoridom as the first Māori Catholic Bishop. Māori made up 13% of Catholic Church members in 2013.

Presbyterian Church

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.


Māori mission

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.

Post-war church

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.

New institutions

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.

Mormon Church

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.

Salvation Army

Arrival of the Salvation Army

The Māori term for the Salvation Army is Te Ope Whakaora, which means ‘the army that brings life’. Salvation Army officers first arrived in New Zealand from the UK in 1883, at a time when Māori were growing increasingly disillusioned with mainstream Christian churches. The Salvation Army at first concentrated its efforts in towns and cities, and as most Māori lived in outlying rural areas, few of them joined the colourful new movement in its first years. Those who did included ‘Maori Joe’ Solomon of Kaiapoi and Maraea Morris, a high-born East Coast woman who became colour-sergeant of the Gisborne corps.

Missions to Māori

In 1888 Salvation Army Captain Ernest Holdaway and his wife Lizzie began a mission to Māori on the Whanganui River. They gained an influential convert in Tamatea Aurunui, a chief of Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi. He made available his house at Jerusalem for their meetings and presented the officers with a canoe named Rangimarie (Peace). Holdaway later travelled to other large Māori communities, meeting leaders such as Tāwhiao, Te Whiti and Te Kooti, and leading Māori concert parties to international Salvation Army gatherings overseas.

Notorious rehab

In 2008 a fifth-generation Salvation Army officer, Major Lynette Hutson, and her husband Ian were invited by Edge Te Whaiti, a leader of Hawke’s Bay’s Notorious chapter of the Mongrel Mob, to set up a residential programme for Māori addicted to the drug methamphetamine (‘P’). The first programme was held at Kākahi, near Taumarunui. Of the 12 Notorious members who took part, 10 stayed free of the drug, while two who relapsed attended a second programme in Tūrangi. Leaders of both the Black Power and Tribesmen gangs joined Māori Party co-leader Tariana Turia at the closing ceremony of the Tūrangi camp.


20th century onwards

Policy changes by the Salvation Army’s national administrators reduced its work in Māori communities, and support for the Army among Māori declined in the early 20th century. However, Major Robert Prowse ran a mission on the East Coast for more than 30 years, until his death in 1967.

Since 2000 work among Māori has become important to the Army again. Auxiliary Captains Joe and Nan Patea (of Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi and Ngāti Porou respectively) became national leaders of the Salvation Army Māori Ministry in 2006.

Ringatū and Rātana

The Ringatū movement

Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Tūruki was a prophet who came to prominence after escaping from the Chatham Islands (Rēkohu), where he had been imprisoned by the Crown. During his imprisonment he believed he was instructed by God and told to teach the people. He escaped in 1868 by capturing a supply ship, the Rifleman, and took along 300 fellow prisoners (including women and children). When they arrived back on mainland New Zealand they raised their right hands in thanksgiving to God, which is the origin of the name Ringatū (the upraised hand).

Founding Ringatū

In 1875 Te Kooti turned the movement into a church. Rather than having church buildings, Ringatū services are held at marae. Ministers are known as tohunga. In 1915 Ringatū tohunga were gazetted as ministers under the Marriage Act. In 1928 a formal constitution for the church was registered under the Incorporated Societies Act. Initially, the leader of the church was known as a bishop, but this later became president. At a large gathering held at Ruatoki in 1938, the decision was made to call the head of the church the Poutikanga. In 2018 there were  more than 10,000 Ringatū adherents.

Important Ringatū days

The sabbath is observed by Ringatū on the Saturday, and gatherings are held on the 12th day of the month. Additionally, there are four important days, or ra, on the Ringatū calendar, which are known as ngā pou o te tau (the pillars of the year). They are 1 January, 1 June, 1 July, and 1 November. The importance of 1 January originates from Exodus 40:2, which makes reference to observing the first day of the first month. 1 July marks the beginning of the seventh month, the ‘sabbath of the sabbath’. Te huamata, the planting rite, is on 1 June, while te pure, the harvesting rite, is held on 1 November (or 1 December in some areas).

Te Haahi Rātana – the Rātana Church

The founder of the Rātana Church

The leader of the Rātana Church, Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana, was born in 1873 and became prominent as a spiritual leader and faith healer. Rātana was to have a series of visions which prompted him to unite Māori under God and turn away from old superstitions. Under his leadership, a small town began to emerge in the 1920s on the Rātana farm, east of Whanganui, which would become known as Rātana . Initially, Rātana encouraged his followers to continue to attend their own churches. However, due to theological differences Rātana eventually decided to form his own church.

The founding and spread of the church

The creed of faith for the Rātana Church was drawn up in 1925, and Te Haahi Rātana was registered as a separate church that same year. Rātana is seen as the māngai (mouthpiece). The Rātana Church has a five-pointed star as its main tohu (symbol). The belief systems of the church include the Christian trinity; Matua, Tama and Wairua Tapu (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), ngā Anahera Pono (the faithful angels) and te Māngai (the mouthpiece).

The Temepara (temple) of the church, with its distinctive twin bell towers, was opened in 1928. A number of other Rātana churches, in the same style, have been since built around the country. In 2018 the Rātana Church was the largest Māori denomination in New Zealand, with more than 40,000 adherents.

Pentecostal churches

The Pentecostal Christian revival movement reached New Zealand in the early 20th century, and emphasised faith healing, miraculous interventions and adult baptism. Some of these features attracted Māori to join the new movement. In 1928 a British Assemblies of God evangelist, Stephen Jeffries, prayed for a Māori chief dying of cancer, with apparently miraculous results. Many Māori converts were said to have resulted. In 2013 Māori made up 13% of Pentecostal church members.

Partioning petition

In May 1976 an English-born member of the Whangārei Assemblies of God, George Anderson, promoted a petition to ban or limit the teaching of Māoritanga in schools, on the grounds that it conflicted with Christian principles. The pastor and some members of Anderson’s local church supported his petition but the national Assemblies of God later apologised to local Māori for the offence he had caused. Anderson eventually left the church.


Assemblies of God

The largest of the Pentecostal Churches, the Assemblies of God, gained relatively few Māori members. This was mainly due to the church’s focus on urban areas, where few Māori lived, and its foreign-born leaders who had little knowledge of the language or cultural traditions of Māori.

In 2007 the church’s general council expressed concern at its failure to achieve more Māori participation and appointed Pastor Peter Hira to head an enquiry into the issue.

Apostolic and New Life churches

In the 1940s and 1950s the Apostolic and New Life churches held tent crusades, often in rural areas, which attracted large numbers of Māori. Developing Māori leaders was a clear priority in the mid-20th century and Pastor Manuel Renata became chairman of the Apostolic Church’s highest leadership body.

Large revival meetings were held in key Māori centres such as Tūrangawaewae. At one of these, in 1979, Brian Tamaki, joined the church and later became one of its most prominent leaders. However, since his departure in 1994 the place of Māori within the Apostolic Church diminished.

Destiny Church

Brian Tamaki (Ngāti Ngāwaero, Ngāti Maniapoto) was raised a Methodist but joined the Apostolic Church at age 21. He became leader of Rotorua’s Lake City Church, then the second largest Apostolic Church in New Zealand. In 1994 he and his congregation broke away from the Apostolic Church over a disagreement about paying fees to the national organisation. In 2001 Tamaki launched Destiny Church, which grew rapidly to around 7,000 regular attendees, with many more viewing live broadcasts of its services. The church estimated that 75% of its members were Māori and in 2008 it became an urban Māori authority – a pan-tribal organisation eligible for government funding to provide economic, social and cultural services to urban Māori.

In 2005 Tamaki was ordained Bishop of the Destiny Church and in 2009 he referred to himself as ‘Te Māngai’ or the mouthpiece of the Māori people, a title previously used for T. W. Rātana, the founder of the Rātana Church. In 2018 the number of Destiny Church adherents was 1,722.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Hirini Kaa, 'Ngā hāhi – Māori and Christian denominations', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 September 2021)

Story by Hirini Kaa, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Mar 2017