Born on 21 February 1835 in Chiddingly, Sussex, England, Alfred Feist was the second son of William Feist, a butcher, and his wife, Martha Holman. In his youth Alfred went to London, and was working as a house steward when he married Elizabeth Veale, on 7 February 1860. They had two children: Frank Alfred (born in 1861) and Edith Lydia (born in 1863).
Late in 1864 Alfred, now a master hosier, and his brothers, Edwin and Egbert, decided to follow their brother William to New Zealand, taking passage on the Mallard, which arrived in Wellington on 4 April 1865. Elizabeth Feist had died in Farnham, Surrey, on 2 April 1865, and Martha Feist followed Alfred on the Commodore, arriving in January 1866, bringing his two children with her. Alfred became involved in the early Brethren movement and among its supporters he met Mary Roots. They were married in Wanganui on 25 April 1868. There were no children of this marriage.
In 1869 Feist was publicly baptised in a Wairarapa stream – such Brethren ceremonies greatly distressed other settlers – and by 1870 he was the recognised itinerant leader of the branches of the movement in Carterton and Masterton. He then extended his preaching to the west coast. A small chapel was erected in Foxton, and his work soon extended to Otaki, Bulls, Feilding and Wanganui.
Feist was an arresting figure, with a large head, prominent forehead, deep-set eyes and a bushy beard. He was a powerful, charismatic preacher, whose sermons exhorted his hearers to separate from the evil world (whether secular or nominally Christian) and experience an outpouring of spiritual blessing. Mary Feist drowned while crossing the Waingawa River in May 1869, and Alfred is reputed to have sought to raise her from the dead.
Among his followers Feist was revered for his apostolic stance – he wrote in Pauline style 'To the Saints in Christ Jesus at the No 2 Line and Matarawa' – but others feared or despised him, and some members of his own family cut him off. His autocratic style was unacceptable to many others in the democratic lay structure of the Brethren. He excommunicated those who disputed his doctrines, and young converts whom he could easily dominate he appointed elders. By 1872–73 the tensions thus generated had overwhelmed some of the little gatherings. Feist's health deteriorated, and he died in Wellington on 3 December 1873. Some of his followers then formed a communitarian farm at Halcombe, near Feilding, under Joseph Bridgeman Roots, his brother-in-law. Roots was as tyrannical as Feist; the congregation slowly waned, and by the early 1890s its last members were received into the Open Brethren.
Alfred Feist was a millenarian: he expected the end of the world and acted as one convinced that community reactions ought to be ignored. In the nervous and fragile communities of Wairarapa and Manawatu his movement was popularly known as Pakeha Hauhauism. Later congregations built on different foundations, avoiding the impracticalities of Feist's extremism.