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Story: Religion and society

Although church and state have always been separate in New Zealand, most people were religious until the 1960s, and the first Labour government described the introduction of the welfare state as ‘applied Christianity’. However, in the 21st century religious influence was waning.

Story by John Stenhouse
Main image: Brian Tamaki of the Destiny Church is anointed as a bishop

Story Summary

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Early Pākehā settlers

European settlers brought their religious traditions, loyalties and conflicts with them to New Zealand. More than 90% of Pākehā were Christian, and more than three-quarters were Protestant.

Religious group membership

From the 1870s to the 1930s:

  • Anglicans were about 40% of the population
  • Presbyterians, mostly from Scotland, were more than 20% of the population
  • Methodists, mostly from England, were about 10% of the population
  • Catholics, mostly Irish, were about 14% of the population
  • evangelical groups included Baptists, Congregationalists and the Salvation Army
  • Jews were small in number but important in New Zealand’s cultural and economic life
  • Chinese had Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist traditions
  • small groups of secularists (non-religious people) also flourished.

Some churches had been a majority in the countries where they originated, but in New Zealand no one group dominated and there was no state church.

Māori religion

From the late 1820s many Māori converted to Christianity. The largest group were Anglicans.

Independent Māori Christian movements developed, often in resistance to the loss of land.

  • Pai Mārire (meaning goodness and peace) flourished during the 1860s wars.
  • The Ringatū faith was founded in 1867 by Te Kooti Arikirangi. Government soldiers later pursued him through the Urewera.
  • Te Whiti-o-Rongomai was a prophet and resistance leader in Parihaka, Taranaki. The government sent over 1,500 troops to arrest him and his followers.
  • Rua Kēnana built a ‘City of God’ in the Urewera, and was arrested by armed police in 1916.

Religion and politics

In the mid-19th century Anglicans led the campaign for Māori rights and welfare, which many settlers opposed.

From the 1870s to the 1930s Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists and others worked together, campaigning against gambling and alcohol, and for votes for women.

The Labour Party, which won power in 1935, presented itself as the party of practical Christian compassion. Many Labour politicians were church ministers, and the party formed an alliance with the Rātana Church.

Conflict

Conflict sometimes emerged between Catholics and Protestants, as it had in Ireland. Catholic schools were denied government funding until 1975.

Non-religious conscientious objectors were forced to go to war and sometimes punished.

Towards secularism

From the 1960s church membership and attendance declined, and in 2013 42% of the population said they had no religion. However, many Pacific Islanders were still Christian. Mosques and temples were built as new immigrants arrived from a wider range of countries.

How to cite this page:

John Stenhouse, 'Religion and society', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/religion-and-society (accessed 20 November 2017)

Story by John Stenhouse, published 5 May 2011, updated 14 Mar 2017