Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Religion and society

by John Stenhouse

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.

European origins

A secular society?

Some people have described New Zealand as a largely secular society in which religion never much mattered. Others believe that, with the arrival of European settlers, religion shaped New Zealand society in significant ways. New Zealand had no one dominant form of religion – but it was still important in the country’s development.

Disruptive religion

Europeans who settled in New Zealand brought their religious traditions, loyalties and sometimes hostilities with them. Religion was often dynamic and socially divisive, especially between the 1830s and 1930s, despite the idea that New Zealand left Old-World religious divisions behind and became a world exemplar of social tolerance and harmony. Religious and secular visions of the good society inspired bridge-building that often brought communities together. However, religious divisions remained, sometimes leading to conflict, and to harsh treatment of religious communities that did not fit in.

The United Kingdom background

Religion was a dynamic force in the United Kingdom in the 19th century. The established church, integral to the workings of the state, was the United Church of England and Ireland (known as the Anglican Church). Until the constitutional revolution of 1828–32 – just a decade before the Treaty of Waitangi – only Anglicans were able to participate fully and freely in state and society. The repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828, Catholic emancipation in 1829, and a substantial extension of the electoral franchise to small-property owners in 1832 eliminated many, though not all, of the disabilities imposed on dissenters and Catholics.

Breaking free


More than 400 ministers who left the Presbyterian Church to establish the Free Church of Scotland in 1843 believed that congregations as well as patrons should have rights in their choice of ministers. One of the oldest ministers to join the Free Church was Thomas Burns. Lacking a secure living, he was attracted to the idea of going to Otago, and became the new settlement’s minister.


North of the border, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, governed by male elders, played a similar establishment role until 1843, when many of its most talented and committed ministers and laypeople formed the Free Church. They left because they thought the church was failing to keep in touch with the mass of the people, not because they rejected the idea of an established church.

Protestant dissenters

Throughout the 19th century religious outsiders continued to attack establishment privileges. They included Protestant dissenters, Catholics, and a small but lively assortment of secularists (atheists, rationalists, agnostics and freethinkers). These conflicts affected politics, the law, economics, science, intellectual life and family relations.

While most people identified with a faith, Protestant dissenters – Methodists, free Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Brethren, Quakers and the Salvation Army – were more active, not only in church and chapel, but also in reform movements such as antislavery, Chartism, unionism, temperance, sabbath observance and women’s suffrage campaigns. Most dissenters voted for the Whig (later Liberal) party. Anglicans and Presbyterians, though normally baptised, married and buried under church auspices, were less likely to attend church regularly or to support socio-political change. Many Anglicans, devoted to ‘church and King’, voted for the Tories (Conservatives).

Irish Catholics

Amongst Irish Catholics, the Irish potato famine and a devotional revival sent mass-going rates soaring from the late 1840s. By the late 19th century almost all Irish Catholics went to mass at least once a week. Irish nationalism and Catholicism strongly coalesced. Partly in response, Irish Protestants – especially in the north – grew more committed and sectarian.


A small but vocal minority of secularists – atheists, rationalists, agnostics and freethinking liberals – resembled in their activist style the dissenters and Catholics, with whom they sometimes cooperated. Increasingly influential in the universities, science and literary circles, they sought to reduce the power of the churches, if not to eradicate religion.

Church adherence and attendance, 1840–1920

No established church

Until 1920 over 90% of European people in New Zealand adhered to a Christian denomination, and more than three-quarters were Protestant. Those who had been a majority in their country of origin – English Anglicans, Scottish Presbyterians and Irish Catholics – found themselves a minority here (Presbyterians in Otago and Southland partly excepted). At a national level, no denomination had the numbers to set itself up as the official state church. This balance of power probably encouraged cooperation. Everyone had to win support from other denominations to get things done.


Adherents of the Church of England, the largest denomination, with about 40% of the population in 1900, took a relaxed approach to churchgoing. Less than a quarter of adult Anglicans usually attended church on a Sunday. The most observant tended to be Evangelicals at the Protestant (low church) end of the spectrum, and high church (Anglo-Catholic) adherents, who were closer to Catholicism.

Many ordinary Anglicans used the church almost as a public utility for baptisms, weddings and funerals. They attended mainly at Easter and Christmas, and during the Harvest Festival. Anglicans were more numerous in Canterbury (especially Christchurch), which had been founded in 1850 as a Church of England settlement. They were also common in Marlborough, Nelson city and much of the North Island.


Presbyterians, mostly Scottish by birth or background but also some northern Irish, comprised over one-fifth of all Pākehā from the 1870s. Around 40% usually attended church. Presbyterians were particularly numerous in Otago (founded by Free Churchmen in 1848), Southland and rural south Canterbury.


Methodists, mostly English in origin and comprising about 10% of the population, were the keenest churchgoers among the four largest denominations. Well over half attended church each week. Methodism was strongest where English and Cornish labourers settled, as in Taranaki, Manawatū and the suburbs of and rural areas close to Christchurch. By the end of the 19th century younger Methodist leaders had begun to abandon the enthusiasm of the movement’s roots and embrace the more sedate tone of the Anglican–Presbyterian community. Methodism began a long, slow numerical decline.

Strong influence


Although Congregationalists were never numerous in New Zealand, they exerted considerable influence, especially in progressive causes. Their members included Kate Sheppard, leader of the movement for women’s suffrage; George Fowlds, a left-wing Liberal cabinet member and prohibitionist; George Hogben, for 16 years a reforming secretary of education; and David McKee Wright, a distinguished poet and temperance advocate.


Evangelical sects

Baptists, mostly of English origin, numbered around 2% of the population from the 1870s. Over 40% usually went to church. The denomination was strong in Auckland city and in Dunedin, especially amongst the skilled working class of its southern suburbs. Almost 60% of Congregationalists regularly attended church.

The Salvation Army arrived from England in 1883 and soon drew people to its lively services – although many would not have claimed Army membership in the census. The Army’s war on sin, especially the lucrative liquor trade, attracted hostility from male larrikins, and from respectable town councils who restricted the Army’s outdoor proselytising with bylaws.

The smaller Protestant denominations – Church of Christ, Brethren and Lutherans (who were largely German or Scandinavian in origin) – each struggled to reach 1% of the population. Quakers and Unitarians were smaller still. The size of these groups made it difficult to establish viable congregations, especially in country areas.


Catholics, who were mostly Irish, and initially poorer and less literate, comprised about 14% of the population from the 1870s. Larger concentrations, drawn by the gold rushes, settled in Central Otago and especially on the West Coast. About 40% of colonial Catholics went to church regularly – a lower proportion than in post-famine Ireland. By 1920 almost 60% of Catholics were going to mass.

Other faiths

Tiny faith communities flourished alongside larger denominations. Jews, mostly from Britain and Europe, contributed disproportionately to political, business, civic and cultural life. They included lawyer Ethel Benjamin, politicians Julius Vogel and Samuel Shrimski and clothing manufacturer Bendix Hallenstein. Chinese gold miners arrived in the 1860s, bringing Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist traditions.

Rise and fall


Some churches arrived from America to soar spectacularly and then crash. A Temple of Truth, founded in Christchurch’s Latimer Square by the charismatic American preacher A. B. Worthington, attracted congregations of several hundred during the early 1890s. Urging the faithful to embrace God’s law of love, Worthington enthusiasticaly practised what he preached. When local ministers revealed that ‘Sister Magdala’ was actually his eighth wife by bigamous marriage, the Temple of Truth tumbled.


New religious movements from the United States came too. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), born in upstate New York, flourished from the 1880s among Māori disillusioned with the British churches, despite hostility from local Pākehā communities. Spiritualism, also originating in New York, burgeoned from the late 1860s, sparking disputes amongst church folk, men of science and freethinkers. Touring spiritualists, often charismatic women, attracted large audiences to their public séances. Many supported liberal causes such as women’s rights and socialism.

Seventh Day Adventism, founded by American prophet Ellen White, built branches of its Sanitarium health-food company as well as churches from the end of the 19th century.

Secularism, gender and politics


Small but vocal minorities of secularists – atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and rationalists – flourished alongside Christian and Jewish communities. In 1856 Charles Southwell, early Victorian Britain’s most flamboyant atheist, alarmed the government by establishing a strongly anti-Māori, anti-missionary and pro-settler newspaper, the Auckland Examiner.

Organised freethought flourished during the 1880s, after attempts to exclude Charles Bradlaugh, Britain’s leading secularist, from the House of Commons for refusing to take the religious oath of allegiance. Freethought leaders Robert Stout, a Dunedin lawyer, and John Ballance, a Whanganui newspaperman, became premier in 1884 and 1891 respectively, earning New Zealand a reputation as a freethinkers’ paradise.

Secular liberal and left-leaning views were more likely to be found among university academics and writers. Even at organised freethought’s peak in 1891, the combined number of freethinkers, atheists, rationalists and agnostics never rose above 2% of the population.

Men and women

Men dominated all varieties of secularism until the late 20th century. In the freethought, rationalist and secular societies established in the 1870s and 1880s, men outnumbered women by at least four to one. Dominated by strong-minded men who agreed on little apart from the evils of organised religion, such organisations struggled to contain their internal differences. The Dunedin Freethought Association, the largest and liveliest in the country, imploded in 1885 over spiritualism. Atheists and rationalists dismissed spiritualist claims, sometimes contemptuously, offending less sceptical freethinkers.

In contrast, women numerically dominated most church congregations, especially when it came to active religiosity such as church attendance, communion, teaching Sunday school, fundraising, community outreach and social welfare. While men owned the pulpit, women and girls dominated the pews. They were the backbone of the churches and of household religion.

No established church

The legal and financial privileges enjoyed by the established churches in Britain were not transplanted to New Zealand. Churches struggled to adjust to being voluntary organisations dependent on lay supporters. The Church of England suffered between 1840 and 1865 because many Anglican settlers felt that most of the clergy and missionaries supported Māori rights and welfare too enthusiastically.

The first New Zealand Parliament, enshrining ‘a perfect political equality in all religious denominations’1 in 1854, separated church and state more sharply than in the Australian colonies. The Education Act 1877 established a nationwide system of free, compulsory and secular primary schools. Voluntary organisations such as scientific societies, trade unions and service clubs sometimes discouraged members from discussing religion. There was a desire to secure harmony by keeping religion private.

A secular prayer?

When Parliament held first met in May 1854, James Macandrew immediately requested a prayer to acknowledge the ‘divine being’.2 This was opposed by Frederick Weld, a Catholic, because it would imply a state-endorsed religion. Edward Gibbon Wakefield, however, argued that a prayer was common practice elsewhere and did not imply a state religion. The Speaker asked the sergeant-at-arms to find the first available clergyman of any denomination to conduct prayers. Later the Speaker conducted prayers himself. The joke was that he would look left, look right, and then pray for the colony.


A secular New Zealand?

In rejecting a state church, New Zealand was more secular than its parent societies. Yet (as in the United States) religion has sometimes flourished in societies that separate church and state. New Zealand’s secular state and primary schools owed more to Christian and Jewish hostility towards established churches than to the influence of a few strong secularists.

Weekly churchgoing peaked in the late 1890s at 30–40% of the population. Many adults, especially Anglicans, attended less regularly – once or twice a month or for major festivals – without considering themselves non-religious. In any given year, most adults went to church at some point. In the early 20th century at least two-thirds of all children attended Sunday school, reflecting a widespread parental commitment to educating their children in the Bible and Christian teaching.

Some have suggested that the working class rapidly rejected Protestant churches. But in south Dunedin, heavily urban and industrial, working-class families dominated most Protestant congregations between 1890 and 1940. Working-class women and girls were especially numerous in evangelical congregations (Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Brethren and Salvation Army). The churches were probably fairly socially inclusive and were never exclusively middle-class institutions.

    • Quoted in G. A. Wood, ‘Church and state in New Zealand in the 1850s.’ Journal of Religious History 8, no. 3 (1975), p. 255. Back
    • New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 1854, p. 4. Back

Māori and religion

Māori Christianity

Until the mid-20th century, few Māori were secular.

Traditionally Māori recognised a pantheon of gods and spiritual influences. From the late 1820s Māori transformed their moral practices, religious lives and political thinking, as they made Christianity their own. By the mid-1840s, probably a larger proportion of Māori than Britons in the United Kingdom regularly attended services. Te Hāhi Mihinare, the Anglican Church, attracted the largest following (it remains the largest Māori denomination), followed by Methodists and Catholics. Māori Christians often practised their faith in distinctively Māori ways, and many took the new faith seriously.

Religion and resistance

Some prophetic Māori religious movements with a strong focus on resisting the loss of Māori land developed. After confiscating massive areas of land, the colonial state sometimes punished Māori religious movements that posed a practical or symbolic threat.

Pai Mārire and Kīngitanga

Independent Māori Christian movements such as Pai Mārire (goodness and peace) flourished during the wars of the 1860s, as disillusionment grew with missionaries, settlers and government. During the 1850s and 1860s Māori King-movement Christianity provided moral authority for armed resistance to the government. During the Waikato war, Ngāti Hauā chief Wiremu Tāmihana fought to defend God, (Māori) King and country against what he (and many others) saw as British aggression.


An offspring of Pai Mārire was the Ringatū faith, founded in 1867 by Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Tūruki while he was imprisoned on the Chatham Islands. Te Kooti converted his fellow prisoners to his new religion, named Ringatū (raised hand) after the ritual used as a tribute to God. Te Kooti was pursued by soldiers through the Urewera from 1869 to 1872. Ringatū became strong in Bay of Plenty.

Te Whiti-o-Rongomai

Te Whiti-o-Rongomai was a Taranaki prophet and leader who called himself the ‘mouthpiece of Jehovah’ and a ‘small Christ’. A resistance movement developed around his settlement at Parihaka, with ploughmen disrupting government attempts to survey and occupy confiscated land on the Waimate plains. In 1881 the government sent more than 1,500 troops into Parihaka. Te Whiti was among those seen as ‘fanatics’ who were arrested and imprisoned without trial for months.

Rua Kēnana

Rua Kēnana, known as the Māori Mihāia (Messiah), developed a ‘City of God’ at Maungapōhatu in the Urewera from 1907. The community took its children out of government schools, and refused to fight alongside the British in the First World War. In 1916 armed police marched into the village to arrest Rua for selling liquor without a licence. In the gunfight that erupted, two Māori, including one of Rua’s sons, were killed. Rua was convicted of ‘morally’ resisting arrest and sentenced to 2½ years in prison with hard labour.

Religion and politics

Conflict over Māori rights

The churches played significant, often controversial, roles in politics. Between the mid-1830s and early 1860s Anglican missionaries, clergy and laymen led the humanitarian campaign to uphold Māori rights and welfare. An even larger number of Māori Christians, also often Anglican, defended their land and political rights. Dissenters, secularists and anti-clerical Anglicans led the settler attack on what they saw as a reactionary clerical–Māori alliance determined to keep land and power away from ordinary settlers.

Evangelical reforms

Between the 1870s and the 1930s Scottish Presbyterians joined forces with other dissenters – Methodists, Baptists, Brethren, Congregationalists, the Church of Christ and the Salvation Army – to form a powerful evangelical coalition. Bringing activism from Britain, they spearheaded the great reform movements of the age, campaigning for:

  • Bible in schools, to introduce some form of Christian education into schools
  • sabbath observance, to keep Sunday a day of rest
  • anti-gambling
  • votes for women
  • prohibition, the largest social movement in New Zealand history, intended to eliminate the sale of liquor.

With support from at least 40% of the population, including the most active churchgoers, evangelicals sought to use the power of the state to tame individual behaviour (especially that of drinkers), civilise society, and make New Zealand more like God’s Own Country (as they imagined this).

Although evangelicals never attained all their goals, they had considerable success. Women won the vote in 1893; the Nelson system of a weekly session of non-denominational religious education before school began in the mornings steadily expanded to reach around 80% of primary schools by the 1960s; and Sunday trading and liquor laws remained restrictive until the 1980s.

Know thy enemies


The evangelical campaigners aroused considerable hostility. In the first decades of the 20th century the New Zealand Truth newspaper, reflecting the values of the Pākehā working man, often demonised evangelicals as ‘wowsers’, an army of bossy female killjoys in league with hypocritical parsons. To Truth writers and cartoonists, these ‘Puritan Pharisees,’1 attacking male pleasures and freedoms, wielded far too much public and political influence.


In these cultural conflicts the most significant divide was not between religious believers (the vast majority) and secularists (still relatively few), but between evangelicals and adherents of the Episcopal churches (Anglicans and Catholics). Although this divide was never absolute, many Anglicans and most Catholics were hostile toward evangelical crusades, which they saw as theologically mistaken, puritanical and coercive.

‘Applied Christianity’

In the 1880s, as political parties emerged, outsiders – dissenters, Catholics and secularists – often supported the centre-left parties in New Zealand’s relatively narrow political spectrum. The Liberal government (1891–1912) of John Ballance, a moderate freethinker, Richard ‘King Dick’ Seddon, an Anglican populist, and Joseph Ward, a Catholic, attracted significant support from all three groups (as did Anglican Prime Minister William Gladstone’s Liberal Party in the UK). So did the early Labour Party, even though keeping such diverse groups together over issues like prohibition and Bible in schools proved difficult.

From 1912 members of the Protestant-dominated Reform party of ‘Farmer Bill’ Massey, a Presbyterian from an Ulster background, sometimes criticised Labour as overly influenced by Papists (Catholics) and godless Bolsheviks (socialists).

Political success eluded Labour until 1935, when leaders such as Michael Joseph Savage (who returned to his Catholic roots) and Walter Nash, an Anglican socialist, moved the party closer to the ideological centre. A dozen ministers or ex-ministers of religion stood for Parliament in 1935. Labour won a landslide victory by presenting itself as the party of practical Christian compassion, which it contrasted with the heartless and anti-family depression-era coalition government. Savage famously described Labour’s Social Security Act 1938, intended to provide security for all from cradle to grave, as ‘applied Christianity’. One of the law’s chief architects was Arnold Nordmeyer, a Christian socialist who was the Presbyterian minister at Kurow before entering politics.

Labour also forged an alliance with the Rātana Church which lasted until the 1990s. Much subsequent expansion of the welfare state occurred under National governments, testifying to the enduring significance of ‘applied Christianity’ in the middle ground of politics.

    • New Zealand Truth, 14 November 1914, p. 1. Back

Sectarian conflicts


Many colonial Catholics from poor Irish backgrounds brought with them long memories of British Protestant oppression. Some were quick to see old injustices resurfacing. There was a minor skirmish between Catholics and Protestants at Ōkārito on the West Coast in 1865. Three years later in Hokitika when local Catholics expressed support for the Fenians (militant Irish nationalists), 800 special constables were sworn in. Catholics attacked Protestant Orange marches in Christchurch and Timaru on Boxing Day 1879.

Mock funerals

In March 1868 the West Coast’s Catholic community heard that three Fenians had been hanged in Manchester for killing a police sergeant. Catholics in both Charleston and Hokitika organised funeral processions in the men’s honour. In Hokitika on Sunday 8 March the procession numbered about 800, and marched for over 22 kilometres around the district. When it reached the local cemetery, the priest, Father Larkin, conducted a burial service in Latin, and a memorial Celtic cross was erected in honour of ‘the Irish patriots’.


State aid to private schools

The Education Act 1877 denied funding to schools outside the state primary system. This annoyed Dunedin’s Bishop Patrick Moran, an Irishman, who saw it as forcing Catholics to fund both state and Catholic schools. From 1883 until 1897 Moran’s Tablet newspaper carried a standing editorial denouncing this ‘double tax’ as ‘tyranny, oppression, and plunder’.1 The bishop founded a Catholic movement to win state aid for private schools, which finally succeeded in 1975. Although many Catholics got on well with their Protestant neighbours, separate schools sustained a distinct Catholic subculture. This constituted a significant division in society into the 1970s, and has not entirely disappeared.

First World War

The campaign for state aid for private schools inflamed Catholic–Protestant tensions during and immediately after the First World War.

  • New Zealand became the only part of the British Empire where Catholic teaching brothers (and even a bishop) were called up for military service.
  • In 1917 Auckland Baptist minister Howard Elliott founded the Protestant Political Association, which soon claimed 200,000 members and had enough political clout to unseat Catholic politician Joseph Ward in 1919.
  • In 1920 New Zealand was the first country in the British Empire to pass legislation against the supposed implications of the Vatican’s 1908 Ne Temere decree against mixed marriages.
  • In 1922 Bishop James Liston was charged with sedition for allegedly describing the ‘martyrs’ of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 as ‘murdered by foreign troops’.2

Non-religious victims

The state – supposedly secular – sometimes treated non-religious citizens harshly. Making minimal allowance for religious conscientious objectors to military service, the wartime government refused to recognise non-religious objectors at all. In 1922 John Glover, secularist editor of the Labour journal the Maoriland Worker, was tried for blasphemy, charged with reviling ‘Christ and the Last Sacrament.’3

In its treatment of ethno-religious minorities – Catholics, secularists and Māori Christians – the state often operated as a de facto Protestant state. Immigration legislation aimed at excluding the Chinese was also seen as protecting the country from immoral heathens.

    • Tablet, 31 August 1883, p. 15. Back
    • Rory Sweetman, Bishop in the dock: the sedition trial of James Liston. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1997, p. 11. Back
    • G. Troughton, ‘The Maoriland worker and blasphemy in New Zealand.’ Labour History 91 (2006), p. 115. Back

Religious cooperation and nation-building, 1920–1970


From the late 1920s the divisive, sectarian forces in society galvanised by war and prohibition waned. Community-building became stronger. Southern and northern Presbyterians united in 1901, followed by all four major strands of Methodism in 1913. Ecumenical (religious cooperation) and peace movements emerged in Protestant churches between the wars and became stronger after the Second World War.

Secular nationalism

Nation-building took secular as well as religious forms. Cultural nationalists celebrating a distinctive New Zealand identity emerged in literary and academic circles. The more secular, such as historian and poet Keith Sinclair, were ambivalent about if not hostile towards churches that shackled New Zealand to the Old World and puritanism.

Religion and politics

With the partial exception of the Presbyterian New Life movement, which set out to attract new followers to the church in the 1950s, Protestant church adherence and attendance declined slightly in the post-war years. Church leaders still enjoyed close and friendly relations with politicians, who generally had a church or Sunday-school background. Several, such as Labour’s Walter Nash and Arnold Nordmeyer, and National’s John Marshall, maintained strong Anglican or Presbyterian connections throughout their lives.

Preaching to the masses

When Billy Graham visited New Zealand in April 1959, only sports stadiums with grandstands were large enough for the crowds – Carlaw Park in Auckland, Athletic Park in Wellington and Lancaster Park in Christchurch. It is claimed that Graham preached to over a quarter of a million people, more than 16,000 of whom publicly committed themselves to follow Jesus.


Churchgoers such as Baptist lawyer Oswald Mazengarb, the Reverend Jack Somerville, a liberal Presbyterian, and Lucy O’Brien, president of the Catholic Women’s League, served on the 1954 government committee of inquiry into teenage ‘moral delinquency’. In 1959 several government departments cooperated to facilitate the tour of American evangelist Billy Graham. A shadow Protestant establishment remained near the heart of social, cultural and political life in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Second Vatican Council (1962–65) relaxed the Catholic Church’s hostility toward the modern world, encouraged the use of local languages instead of Latin, and supported working with other Christians. It also had the effect of reducing Protestant–Catholic tensions.

Towards secularism and religious diversity, 1970–21st century

Fewer Christians

Adherence and attendance rates in the three big Protestant churches declined more quickly from the mid-1960s. The proportion of the population who were Anglicans, Presbyterians or Methodists fell by over half from 1966 to 2006, with Anglicans showing the largest fall (from 33.7% to 14.8%). Catholics were 13.6% of the population in 2006 (a smaller decrease, down from 15.9%). By 2013 Catholics were 12.6% of the population, Anglicans 11.8% and Methodists 2.6%.

Sunday-school and Bible-class attendance figures also plummeted. By the 1990s many New Zealand children were growing up without much knowledge of any religion. The proportion professing no religion or some form of secular world view in the census rose from just 1.2% in 1966 to 41.9% in 2013.

Previously most secularists had been male, but the gender gap narrowed as growing numbers of younger, university-educated women embraced non-religious world views. Non-religious or anti-religious outlooks were more common amongst academics, politicians and the media than in the general public.

Many community organisations – political parties, sports clubs and service clubs – also declined from the late 1960s, sometimes faster than churches. Both religious and non-religious institutions were affected by broader socio-economic changes that meant people had less time to devote to voluntary groups. These changes included economic pressures, the mass entry of women into the paid workforce, and the spread of private entertainment such as television and (later) computers and the internet.

Continued religious influence

Although religious belonging declined, spirituality remained significant in New Zealand. The most charismatic and controversial public intellectual of the period was probably James K. Baxter, an alcoholic, poet, prophet and Catholic, whose sudden death in 1972 gripped the nation. Probably more New Zealanders joined the Jesus marches of 1972 than marched against the Vietnam War.

Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk forged a friendship with Dunedin Catholic journalist John Kennedy, editor of the Tablet, and took a conservative position on abortion, one of the most contentious political issues of the 1970s. Labour politicians who joined the anti-abortion Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) outnumbered their National counterparts. Marilyn Pryor, an articulate Māori Catholic, represented SPUC’s public face. Heated battles within the churches over abortion and then homosexuality during the 1970s and 1980s suggested that moral and religious values remained strong.

Dressed in white

An unusual protest against the presence of the South African Springbok rugby team in New Zealand in 1981 involved the former vicar of Porirua, Geoff Walpole. At the Springboks’ game against Auckland Walpole dressed up in a referee’s white uniform. He marched onto the field at the start of the game, picked up the ball and kicked it into the stands.


Some churches espoused liberal positions. The Methodist Church was the first New Zealand church to ordain women as ministers, in 1959, followed by the Presbyterians in 1965 and the Anglicans in 1977. Penelope Jamieson became the first Anglican woman bishop in the world to head a diocese in 1990. Liberal religious leaders also played important roles in social movements. Sporting contacts with apartheid-era South Africa were opposed by leaders in the Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian churches, and by the National Council of Churches. Catholic Archbishop Thomas Williams and Presbyterian minister John Murray were prominent in protests against the 1981 Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand. The churches were also active in educational efforts to support the Treaty of Waitangi.

Christian political parties

The conservative Christian Heritage Party contested general elections in the early 1990s but attracted little support. In 1996 it formed a short-lived coalition with the Christian Democrat Party (later Future New Zealand) that came close to the 5% threshold for representation. Christian Heritage disbanded in 2006 after leader Graham Capill was convicted of sexual offences.

In 2000 Future New Zealand formed a coalition with the United Party as United Future New Zealand, which won eight seats in the 2002 election.

Destiny New Zealand, a political party centred on the Destiny Church, was active between 2003 and 2007.

Māori religion

Secularising processes and ideologies had little effect on Māori until after the Second World War. As growing numbers left rural communities for the city in search of work, links with the marae, churches, ministers and elders at home weakened. Even then, few at first embraced fully secular world views – the Rātana healing movement, church and political organisation was popular among detribalised urban Māori from the 1920s.

The early 2000s saw the rise of the Destiny Church, a Pentecostal movement led by Māori Christians, with similarities to African-American evangelical churches. Some observers have suggested that Māori spirituality, widely adopted on public ceremonial occasions, has become modern New Zealand’s unofficial religion. In 2013 the proportion of Māori with no religion (46.3%) was higher than that of the whole population (41.9%). However, it remained common to begin Māori hui and ceremonial occasions with a prayer.

Recent immigrants and religion

For many of the Pacific Islanders who arrived in growing numbers from the 1950s, church remained at the centre of community life. In the 2013 census over three-quarters of the Pacific population were Christian and only 17.5% said they had no religion. Pacific Christian sports stars such as All Blacks Michael Jones and Va’aiga Tuigamala became prominent figures.

As immigration from a growing range of countries accelerated from the 1990s, mosques and temples were built. As in Europe, some politicians sought to capitalise on community fears of difference. In the 2002 election campaign, Winston Peters, leader of the New Zealand First party, warned that new immigrants threatened to import sectarianism and increase ethnic and religious conflict in New Zealand. A tightening of immigration requirements suggested that Peters had struck a chord.

The churches continued to assist newcomers. As the government rolled back the welfare state in the 1990s, church-based social service agencies worked hard to fill the gap. From 2001 leaders of the six churches involved in the Council of Christian Social Services met regularly with senior ministers to discuss social-service issues. Applied Christianity continued to have an influence on politics.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: John Stenhouse, 'Religion and society', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

He kōrero nā John Stenhouse, i tāngia i te 5 o Mei 2011, reviewed & revised 4 o Āpereira 2018