Maori People and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
R. Lanier Britsch, New Era, 1981
Latter-day Saint missionary work did not begin in New Zealand until 1854, and even then progress was slow. Because of difficult conditions for the Church in Utah, the mission in New Zealand was an on-again, off-again operation until the late 1870s. By that time several branches of the Church had been established among the European part of the population. But little had been done by our missionaries to attract the native people, the Maoris, to the Church.
Most Maoris had been converted to Protestant and Roman Catholic Christianity by the 1850s; but because they believed they had been cheated in land deals by the whites, whom they called pakehas, the Maoris made war on the pakehas. These wars lasted from the late 1850s until the 1870s. When the wars ended, the time seemed to be right to take the restored gospel to this outstanding part of the Polynesian race.
When William Bromley was called as New Zealand mission president in 1881, President Joseph F. Smith told him that the time was right to take the gospel to the Maoris. The first successes among them came in 1883, but once the Maoris and the Latter-day Saints got together, Maori converts flocked into the Church.
By the end of 1884 the missionaries had firmly established the restored gospel among the Maori people. The next several years were very satisfying to most of the elders and sister missionaries (several couples were sent to New Zealand beginning in 1885). In August 1885, there were 16 Maori and 4 pakeha branches of the Church, and this number continued to grow steadily for the next 15 years. At the close of 1887, there were 2,573 Latter-day Saints, and by the turn of the century there were nearly four thousand members of the Church in New Zealand. Most of the Maori tribes, including large numbers in the north, around Whangarei and the Bay of Islands, had been introduced to the gospel. In 1901 there were 79 branches. Clearly, since the early years in Hawaii, the Church had not enjoyed so much success with a Polynesian people.
Why did the LDS Church appeal to the Maoris? On the surface the Maoris seem very little different from their Polynesian brothers and sisters elsewhere in the Pacific. But even though Polynesians of all island groups have taken well to the restored gospel, the Maoris appear to have been prepared in special ways for the coming of the Latter-day Saint missionaries.
In pre-Christian times the Maoris had a well-developed form of religion. Tohungas, or priests, supervised worship and all else that was involved in this primitive religious system. Sometimes these men took roles similar to the shamans of northeast Asia. They became mediums for the atua, gods, whom they served. In these roles, according to Eric Schwimmer, the tohunga would give oracles, cure diseases, and admonish their people. After the establishment of Christianity, however, some old tohungas continued to carry on their former practices but now claimed to receive their revelations from a different source. In other instances family patriarchs, village elders, and chiefs acted as prophets and were “regarded with feelings of reverence and were credited with possessing supernatural powers.” No fewer than five such men made prophecies concerning the coming to New Zealand of the true church. As a result of such prophetic utterances, a number of Maoris ultimately joined the Church.
Each instance of prophecy is of great interest to Latter-day Saints. Two of these can serve as examples. In 1830, the year the Church was organized, an aged patriarch named Arama Toiroa, who lived in the area of Mahia, gathered his children, grandchildren, and relatives together and gave them some advice. (At that time most of his descendants had joined the Church of England.) His people, who considered him a seer, listened carefully to what he said:
“‘My dear friends, you must leave that church, for it is not the true church of the God of heaven. The church you have joined is from the earth and not from heaven.’ Upon hearing this his people asked, ‘Where then can we find a church where we can worship the true God?’ “Arama Toiroa answered, ‘There will come to you a true form of worship; it will be brought from the east, even from beyond the heavens. It will be brought across the great ocean and you will hear of it coming to Poneke (Wellington) and afterwards its representatives will come to Te Mahia. ‘They will then go northward to Waiapu but will return to Te Mahia. ‘When this “Karakia,” form of worship, is introduced amongst you, you will know it, for one shall stand and raise both hands to heaven. “‘When you see this sign, enter into that church. Many of you will join the church and afterwards one will go from amongst you the same way that the ministers came even unto the land from afar off.’” Fifty-four years passed before Arama’s words were fulfilled. In 1884 Elders Alma Greenwood and Ira Hinckley brought the gospel to the Wellington area and then made their way to Hawkes Bay. There they were joined by President William E. Stewart, and together they traversed the path Arama had predicted. It was at Korongata, however, and not at Mahia, that Arama’s descendants first accepted the gospel. Brother Whaanga described the day when the gospel was first preached to Arama’s people: “In journeying northward they reached … Korongata, where many of us were assembled on the Sabbath day. Amongst the people who were there was a grandson of Arama Toiroa whose name was Te Teira Marutu. The meeting was conducted by Elder Stewart and his friends. The services were opened with singing and prayer, and a Gospel address was delivered, after which they sang again, and Brother Stewart arose to dismiss with prayer. In doing so he raised both hands and invoked God’s blessing upon the people. As soon as the grandson of Arama Toiroa saw this he arose and declared that this was the church of which his forefather prophesied which would surely be firmly established amongst the Maori people. He and his wife applied for baptism, and they and their children were thus initiated into the Church by Elder Stewart.” Subsequently the missionaries returned to Mahia and held meetings with other descendants of Arama Toiroa. After seeing the sign, these people said, “This is indeed the church for us, for did not our revered forefather, Arama Toiroa, prophesy about it?” Largely as a result of this prophecy, every person in Korongata joined the Church, and a large number of Maoris in Mahia entered the waters of baptism.
In 1845 a second prophet, Toaroa Pakahia, spoke words similar to those of Arama. And again in 1877. Apiata Kuikainga, an ancestor of Stuart Meha who was a faithful leader of the Church in New Zealand for many years, predicted that when the true church came, its ministers would teach salvation for the dead. In 1885, when this doctrine was preached to the Meha family by Elders George S. Taylor and Edward Newby, they all desired baptism. In 1881 Elder John Ferris wrote that Maoris had told him that “more than a year ago the king [Tawhiao] said a white man would come across the sea and preach to them the true gospel, and they affirm that they believe he [Ferris] is the man.” Elder Ferris wrote to the Deseret News in Salt Lake City that three Maori chiefs considered him to be the man spoken of by the king two years before. He had come from “a far country and would give them the good church.” The complete text of King Tawhiao’s prophecy was later quoted in the Improvement Era in 1932: “Our church is coming from the east—not a church paid with money. Its ministers go two by two; when they pray they raise their hands. They will not come to go among the Pakeha (Europeans) but will dine, live, talk, and sleep with you. The sign will be the writing of the names of males, females and children. … Those churches that have already come are nothing, but when these come that I speak about, do not disturb them—that will be your church!” The Latter-day Saints interpreted the “sign of writing names” to be a reference to genealogical work and work for the dead. During 1885–86, 7 branches, having 537 souls, were raised up in the Waikato.
The best known and most important prophecy, as far as most New Zealand members of the Church are concerned, is that from Paora Potangaroa. In March 1881, Elder Matthew Cowley reported, a large convention was held among the Ngatikahungunu tribe. Many Maori chiefs assembled at Te Ore Ore, near Masterton, to discuss political, social, and religious problems. The established churches were well represented, but the chiefs shared a feeling of discontent about the lack of unity among them. Why, the natives asked, were there so many different churches within the bounds of Christianity? Which one should the Maoris join so that unity could again be restored among them?
After considerable debate and discussion, the chiefs decided to place the questions—specifically “Which of the churches is the church for the Maori race? Which of them should we join?”—before the most respected and wisest chief among them. This was Potangaroa, who, when asked the questions, answered with one word, “Taihoa,” which means “wait.” He retired to his own home and meditated, fasted, and prayed about the problem for three days. When he returned to the convention, he addressed his people, saying:
“My friends, the church for the Maori people has not yet come among us. You will recognize it when it comes. Its missionaries will travel in pairs. They will come from the rising sun. They will visit with us in our homes. They will learn our language and teach us the gospel in our own tongue. When they pray they will raise their right hands.” Potangaroa then asked Ranginui Kingi to write his words as he continued to answer the questions which had been put to him. He called the transcription of his words “A covenant for remembering the hidden words which were revealed by the Spirit of Jehovah to Paora Potangaroa.” We again quote from Elder Cowley, who translated the document: “First, this is the day of the fulness (1881).” Brother Cowley points out that later that year the fulness of the gospel was taken to the Maoris. Actually, President Bromley and his colleagues first visited a Maori village, Orakei, on March 6, 1881, ten days before the “covenant” was given to the Maoris at Te Ore Ore. “Second, the year 1882 would be the year of the ‘sealing’ (or the year they would learn the sealing ordinances). Third, the year 1883 will be the year of ‘the honoring’—of ‘great faith’—as it is written: ‘render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.’ (Romans 13:7)” In that year the Maoris began to honor the true God by rendering their dues to him and entering The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Members of the Ngatikahungunu tribe, especially, began to enter the Church in large numbers. The Te Ore Ore Branch was organized on December 16, 1883.
The document concludes in these words: “This covenant is to be remembered by the generations which follow after us. And the fruits of that which is set forth above [in the covenants] are—we are the lost sheep of the House of Israel. [We will learn of] the scepter of Judah; of Shilo; of the king of peace; of the day of judgment; of the kingdom of heaven; of the sacred church with a large wall surrounding; of the increase of the race; of faith, love, peace, patience, judgment, unity. All this plan will be fulfilled by the people of Ngatikahungunu Tribe during the next forty years. “March 16, 1881 Ranginui Kingi”
Elder Cowley identified the “sacred church with a large wall surrounding” with the Salt Lake Temple. He also pointed out that the only Maoris to participate in all the ordinances of the gospel during the next 40 years (until 1921), including the temple rites, were members of the Ngatikahungunu tribe. Later many members of other tribes participated in all blessings of the gospel. There is no question as to the authenticity of the prophecies of Potangaroa or of the document that Elder Cowley used. Potangaroa was well known in his time. In fact the Anglican hierarchy in New Zealand was aware of his activities as we have described them above, but concluded that he had not accomplished his ends.
Shortly after leaving New Zealand in 1884, Elder Alma Greenwood wrote about Potangaroa’s influence. “Many of the natives were led to investigate the new and somewhat strange religion, which had come in their midst. This, too, was in accordance with some predictions previously made by a Maori prophet: that in 1883, a new religion would come [at this time the restored gospel was unknown among the Maoris of the Wairarapa], and all other religions would be inferior to the new one. The prophecy and its literal fulfillment gave the gospel prestige and influence among that people.”
There were a number of other reasons for the Mormon-Maori connection. The Maori prophets identified some of the characteristics of the Mormon missionaries: In addition to traveling in pairs, eating, sleeping, and visiting with the Maoris in their homes, the elders also learned the Maori language so that they could understand the Maoris and their thinking. The elders willingly endured various privations and discomforts in order to remain among the Maori people. All this touched the Maoris with the sincerity of the new gospel messengers. Some elders sweated beside Maoris building chapels, schools, and halls, and almost all elders traveled through storms from time to time to reach isolated destinations. As Barker states it, “The habitual enthusiasm, friendliness, devotion and sincerity of most of the elders impressed the Maoris. Both Mormons and Maoris placed high premiums on hospitality and friendliness.”
But the foregoing were but surface reasons for the Latter-day Saint impact on the Maoris. Ian Barker captures the essence of the Mormon-Maori connection in these words: “Important features of Mormonism appeared to have deep roots in Maori tradition. Conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not involve a sharp break with the past that conversion to Christianity had. To the Maori, the adoption of the Latter-day Saint faith implied a restoration of traditional sacramentals in a modified form. Historical, social, mythological and religious similarities enabled the elders and the Maoris to establish bonds of sympathy and understanding, which in no small part contributed to Latter-day Saint successes.”
The doctrine of the Latter-day Saints had a familiar ring to the Maoris. It must be remembered that by the time LDS doctrine was introduced to the Maoris, they were but one or two generations removed from their pre-Christian religion. Although most Maoris had given up the past, they still remembered many of their old traditions and practices. Even before Latter-day Saint doctrine, the Maoris had turned to millennial faiths and various adjustment cults in an effort, generally a conscious one, to bridge the gap from the past to the present. Latter-day Saint doctrine, too, emphasized the coming time of peace which would be ushered in by the Savior. Of great importance to the Maoris, as they discovered Latter-day Saint doctrine and used it to make the adjustment to the pakeha world, was that the elders did not reject Maoritanga, Maori cultural traditions, in their entirety. The missionaries, too, believed that the Maoris were being brought again into a fold from which they had strayed, but from which they had not wandered too far.
Before 1865 the typical Maori probably would not have made any connection between the Maori God Io and the Latter-day Saint God Jehovah. Before that date Io was a secret deity who was known only to a few high-ranking tohungas. Io was the one god, the creator, omniscient, omnipotent, and uncreated. Although non-Mormon scholars have doubted that the idea of a supreme god in Polynesia antedated Christianity, LDS missionaries and members have always believed and even expected that the Polynesians would have a remnant of the truth as they knew it. It did not surprise the LDS to hear that Io reigned supreme over many other gods who carried out various functions in heaven and on earth. Nor did the concept of the hereafter, wherein the dead were ushered through one of four doors, rather than through the Pearly Gates or into hell, surprise the Latter-day Saints. They had always believed that men would be sent to many mansions, some to glory but most to one or another degree of happiness in accordance with their works and disposition. The atua or lower gods were generally identified with elements of nature, but there was a latent belief in anthropomorphism within the Maori religion. While sectarians struggled to remove all vestiges of such belief, the Latter-day Saints not only condoned but strongly affirmed that God the Father and Jesus Christ were immortal men, who looked like men, even though they were gods. All this seemed to make more sense to many Maoris than did the doctrines of mainline Christianity.
The Maoris had intense interest in and love for their families. The Mormon concept of eternal families immediately appealed to many Maoris. They had long revered their dead, and when Christianity was brought to them, the Maoris feared for the pagan spirits of their ancestors. But unlike the orthodox missionaries, who could suggest no alternative to eternal burnings, the elders taught a message of hope and salvation.
Not only did the Mormon missionaries teach about salvation for the dead, but they also taught the Maoris the doctrine of eternal increase. The resurrection was to be a literal physical rebirth. Men would be men and women would be women; and husbands and wives, if they had been faithful in living the gospel and keeping the commandments, were promised the blessing of eternally producing offspring similar to whom the eternal parents had created.
The Maori tohungas had sought and received revelations from God. They considered it their responsibility to be seers and lived so that they could carry out this function. The tohungas also performed healings and exorcised evil spirits. These functions were also performed by village elders and patriarchs after the introduction of Christianity. Continuous revelation, healing, and exorcism were generally discounted by the Protestant and Catholic missionaries as being superstitions from a bygone era, or as parts of the gospel that were no longer in vogue. The Mormon elders, however, taught the necessity of contemporary revelation as well as of all other gifts of the Spirit as taught in the New Testament. A main tenet of the restored gospel was that the priesthood had been given again to man. Maoris accepted this idea, and as has been illustrated several times before (and could be shown by numerous examples even by 1887), many miracles—mostly healings—were performed by the elders.
Some Latter-day Saints suggested even before LDS missionary work was started among them that the Maoris were of the house of Israel. This may be explained by the fact that following the introduction of Christianity, the Maoris soon identified themselves with Judah. Then, as the competition for land became more intense between them and the pakehas, and particularly as the Maoris began to realize that they were coming out on the short end in most transactions, the persecutions of Judah became all the more real to them. When the Mormon elders began teaching about the history of the Church, it became evident that the Mormons, too, were a persecuted people. This helped to establish a bond between Latter-day Saints and Maoris—they understood each other.
But there was much more to the idea that the Maoris were of Israel than merely shared persecutions. Far more important was the Mormon belief that the Maoris, like their Polynesian brothers and sisters elsewhere, were literally of Abraham through his posterity who immigrated to the American continent, as is told in the Book of Mormon. Since the days of George Q. Cannon in Hawaii (1851–54), the Church leaders had more and more frequently alluded to the idea that the Polynesians were descendants of Lehi, the early Book Of Mormon prophet. Although the relationship between the Polynesian peoples and the adventurer Hagoth (see Alma 63:5–8) is not clear—he being a Nephite and the Polynesians appearing to be Lamanites—Church leaders have time and time again referred to the Polynesians as children of Lehi. In the Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 4, father Lehi blessed the offspring of his evil sons Laman and Lemuel and promised them that their posterity would one day have all the blessings promised to Abraham. The Latter-day Saints believe this refers specifically to the blessing of membership in the Lord’s church and of holding the priesthood. Latter-day Saint missionaries believed and taught that the Maoris were chosen sons and daughters of Abraham. The elders expected the Maoris to accept easily the restored gospel and to assume their rightful place as leaders in the Church. There was almost no racial prejudice on the part of the Mormons toward the Maoris.
Although the first Maoris who were offered the priesthood were hesitant to accept it, it was not long before they assumed nearly all of the positions of leadership in the branches. Many Maoris were ordained to positions in the priesthood. In this way, the LDS church became their own church. They led it, taught the members, blessed their own sick, and guided their own families through personal revelation.
After reading the foregoing, one might ask why the Lord would go to so much trouble for the Maoris. Why were they warned of the coming of the restored Church? Why did they find it so easy to accept the Church when it came? These are not easy questions to answer, and this writer does not wish to speculate. The only explanation I have found that answers these questions with authority is in a letter from the First Presidency, (Joseph F. Smith, Anthon H. Lund, and John Henry Smith), written to the Maori Saints on the occasion of their annual Hui Tau (conference) in 1911. In answer to the specific question as to why the Polynesians seemed to be more blessed and favored of the Lord than the Lamanites on the American continent, they answered:
“The Lord … directed their course away from this continent [America] to their [the Polynesian ancestors’] island homes, that they might not be left to be preyed upon and destroyed by the more wicked part of the House of Israel whose descendants still roam upon this continent in a fallen and degraded state. … This is the secret of the overruling hand of providence which has been over you all from that time until you received the gospel through the preaching of the elders, and until the present time. …
“And we repeat, the reason that few of the islands of the sea have been more highly favored and blessed in the Lord than those of your brethren of this continent is because of the worthiness of your forefathers who were led away and separated from their brethren of this continent, and because of the blessing of the Lord which has attended you, their children, from that time to the present.”