Roots of Faith
September 1989

“Roots of Faith,” Ensign, Sept. 1989, 44

Church in New Zealand

Roots of Faith

The Church first took root among European settlers, then flourished among the Maoris. In recent years, it has brought both groups together in a fellowship of faith.

Natives call it Aotearoa—the “Land of the Long White Cloud.” Visitors simply call it beautiful. New Zealand, land of pastoral peace and lovely landscapes, is the home of the Maori people and many of their Polynesian cousins from Tonga, Samoa, and the Cook Islands. It is home, too, for the many pakehas, or people of European ancestry who have migrated there.

Long before white men discovered these islands, the Maoris found their way here from other places in the vast Pacific Ocean. God has watched over and cared for them, and in the days since the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ, he has fulfilled promises that were made to their ancestors by prophets long ago.

Today, the Church in New Zealand is quite strong, well-respected, and firmly established among all New Zealanders. It has a temple, beautiful chapels throughout the land, sixteen stakes, two missions, and a fine residential secondary school. But all of these blessings are a result of hard and trying years of sacrifice and struggle.

In 1852, President Brigham Young sent more than a hundred missionaries to distant parts of the world—places like India, Siam (Thailand), and Australia. From Australia, elders found their way to New Zealand. Mission president Augustus Farnham and two companions arrived in Auckland on 27 October 1854.

From that time until 1879, LDS missionary work in New Zealand was an on-again-off-again proposition. Converts were baptized, and branches and conferences (districts) were established—but the Church was small and weak. However, in 1879 the mission headquarters was moved from Australia to New Zealand, and a more concerted missionary effort followed. By the end of 1880, there were 7 branches, 133 baptized members, and 65 children of record in New Zealand.

Before the 1880s, LDS missionaries had considered their call to be to the pakehas, and many of their converts emigrated to Utah as soon as they could. At the beginning of that decade, the time was right for the establishment of the Church among the Maoris. President Joseph F. Smith told mission president William M. Bromley to concentrate missionary efforts on these people. President Bromley and his companions followed President Smith’s counsel, but almost two years passed before significant numbers of Maoris began joining the Church.

In March 1883, President Bromley assigned Elders Alma Greenwood and Ira N. Hinckley, Jr., to move south to the Wellington district, near the tip of New Zealand’s North Island, to teach among the Maoris. These two were largely responsible for the organization of thirteen Maori branches and the baptism of several hundred souls. They spread the gospel to villages from Wellington northeast to Poverty Bay. By the end of 1884, there were 1,076 members of the Church in New Zealand—265 pakehas and 811 Maoris. At the end of 1887, there were 2,573 Latter-day Saints, and by the year 1900, there were nearly 4, 000 members (mostly Maori) in seventy-nine branches.

Polynesians of many island groups have accepted the gospel well, but the Maori people seemed to be prepared in special ways for the coming of the LDS missionaries. At least five Maori tohungas, or priests, each operating separately, had prophesied concerning the coming to New Zealand of the true church. One of the prophecies came in 1830.1 Perhaps the most well-known prophecy was offered by Paora Potangaroa of the Ngatikahungunu tribe in 1881. At a meeting, tribal chiefs were considering which of all the Christian churches they should recommend for their people to join, in order to preserve unity among the Maori. They put the question to Paora Potangaroa, whom they considered the wisest among them. He retired to meditate, pray, and fast. Three days later he returned to give them a prophecy which allowed Maoris to identify the Church when LDS missionaries came among them.2

The priesthood was bestowed upon many Maori brethren soon after the organization of the Church among them. With that authority, they presided over their own branches and led their own people.

In addition, the Book of Mormon was translated and published in the Maori language by April 1889. This accomplishment followed several years of devoted translation effort by Elders Ezra F. Richards and Sondra Sanders, assisted by three Maori priesthood leaders—Henare Potae, Te Pirihi Tutekohi, and James Jury.

Beginning in 1885, the Church held annual all–New Zealand conferences. These meetings came to be called the Hui Tau (Annual Meeting). They were usually held at the same time as general conference in Salt Lake City, around April 6. “From the beginning, feasts and socializing were part of the Hui Tau, but as the years passed, the event gradually became more elaborate, with games, sports, Maori dancing, oratory, dramas, and so forth. During the twentieth century, the Hui Tau not only served the spiritual and social needs of the New Zealand Saints, but it also helped preserve Maori culture.”3

On 1 January 1898, Australia and New Zealand were separated into two missions. The old name, the Australasian Mission, was changed to the New Zealand Mission.

From 1898 until 1919, Church growth in New Zealand stabilized. Leaders focused their attention on meeting needs of the members: Church auxiliary organizations, chapels and meeting halls, and schools for children and youth. Church leaders organized the Relief Society—the Hui Atawhai—in 1901, the Mutual Improvement Association in 1907, and finally, the Primary in 1913.

A pressing need was education. The New Zealand Mission became involved in primary education in 1886 because the government did not provide schools in Maori villages at that time. Between that year and the end of World War I, LDS chapels housed as many as ten schools for the Maori children. Missionaries acted as teachers and attempted to provide English-language education because the government required English in all of its schools.

But primary education was not enough. By 1904, mission leaders, both pakeha and Maori, felt the need for creation of a secondary school for Maori boys. It would be a residential college—the equivalent of an American high school. Such a school was justified, they felt, because the LDS youth were becoming less active while they attended secondary schools sponsored by other churches.

The First Presidency gave authorization in 1907 to plan for the Maori Agricultural College (MAC). Newly called mission president Rufus K. Hardy, who later served in the First Council of the Seventy, was charged to follow through on the project. Acting for the Church, he purchased 130 acres of land near Korongata in 1908. In 1911, another mission president, Orson D. Romney, received permission to begin construction. The MAC was dedicated by yet another mission president, John Johnson, on 6 April 1913. First and foremost, the school was to provide religious education. Beyond that, it was to give practical training to the Maori youth, with emphasis on farming skills.

Over the years, enrollments were seldom large—usually only twenty-seven to thirty boys. The largest class—eighty boys—was enrolled the last year of the school’s existence. Various problems plagued the school, including occasional lack of support among the members, lack of money, and the refusal of the New Zealand Department of Education to recognize the school. Evidently the government did not trust the school, perhaps because the faculty changed so often and the teaching methods followed the American style of education.

In October 1930, the First Presidency informed the mission president that the school was to be closed after the 1930–31 school year. They cited two reasons: the Church was reducing its number of schools, and the First Presidency believed that LDS youth could gain a good education from government schools.

Then, on 3 February 1931, while the school was closed for vacation, a destructive earthquake hit the area and left the college buildings too dangerous to enter. The school’s doors were closed forever.

The MAC has loomed large in New Zealand Church history. The alumni formed into a group called the MAC “Old Boys.” Elder Matthew Cowley expressed well the impact of the “Old Boys” when he said, “As I went around among the native people, I discovered that the leaders of the natives … today are not those who went to the Church of England school or … Catholic schools—the leaders in the native race are the young men who learned at the feet of the Mormon elders at the Maori Agricultural College.”4

World War I engulfed Europe between 1914 and 1918. As part of the British Commonwealth, New Zealand was involved from 1914 until the end. More than one hundred thousand New Zealanders fought in the war, but New Zealand itself was not greatly affected. The Church carried on much as usual.

Of note during the war years was the publication of a second edition of the Book of Mormon (1918) and a new Maori translation of the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price (1919). Young Elder Matthew Cowley, a missionary who had learned to speak Maori like an educated native, was the translator.

The end of the war brought the beginning of more than a decade and a half of economic struggle for New Zealand, but the Church continued to grow and prosper. In spite of occasional difficulties in getting missionaries into the country and some serious health problems among them, the work progressed.

The construction and dedication of the Hawaii Temple contributed to the spiritual strength of the New Zealand Saints. Like other members in the Pacific, the New Zealand Saints rejoiced when plans for the first temple in the Pacific were announced in 1915. On 5 May 1920, the first excursion of Maori Saints left New Zealand for Hawaii. Between 1920 and 1935, groups of New Zealand members traveled to the Hawaii Temple almost yearly.

One of the spiritual highlights of pre-World War II Church history in the Pacific was Elder David O. McKay’s visit to the missions of that vast area. And one of the most important events of that tour occurred during the Hui Tau of 23–25 April, 1921. Elder McKay spoke at least seven times during the three days of meetings, but as he began his first talk he said: “O, how I wish I could speak to you in your own language to tell you what is in my heart, but since I cannot, I am going to pray that while I speak in my own tongue you may have the gift of interpretation and discernment. While you may not understand my words, the Spirit of the Lord will bear witness to you of my words that I give to you under the inspiration of the Lord.” Gordon C. Young, one of the missionaries who was there, later described what happened as Elder McKay continued to talk:

“He spoke several sentences and then Stuart [Meha] would interpret into Maori. Then he’d make another statement in English and Stuart would interpret. All at once everything was quiet, and all over the congregation the Maoris … called out, ‘Stuart, sit down, don’t interpret, we can understand what the Apostle is saying.’ They didn’t [all] speak English, and they didn’t understand anything President McKay was saying before, but now they were calling out to Stuart to sit down. He was rather disconcerted. … Stuart didn’t know what to do, so he started to interpret again. The calls came again, ‘Stuart, sit down. Don’t interpret.’ So Stuart just sat down, and President McKay went on and gave one of the most beautiful talks I have ever heard in my life, and those people all understood what he was saying.”5

Elder McKay and his traveling companion toured most of the districts of New Zealand before departing for Australia. His was the first visit of a General Authority of the Church to New Zealand.

By the mid-1930s, the Church in New Zealand had grown to 8,600 members—with 400 Melchizedek Priesthood holders in 83 branches. Although Church leaders had made occasional attempts to expand membership among the pakehas, eight of every nine Saints were Maoris. When Matthew Cowley became president of the New Zealand Mission in 1938, he encouraged the missionaries to learn the Maori language and to love the Maori people. The Church was thought of in New Zealand as a Maori church.

In 1939, at a time when the Church was gaining acceptance and widespread public approval through radio broadcasts of the Tabernacle Choir and through press interviews of interest, World War II began in Europe. There was a general call to arms. In June 1940, the First Presidency informed President Cowley that no new missionaries would be sent during the remainder of the war. From that time on, the mission prepared local members and missionaries for any emergency. An emergency soon came. In October 1940, all American missionaries sailed for Hawaii, and home. But President and Sister Cowley stayed in New Zealand. For the next five years, they worked at keeping the Church organized and moving forward, despite difficulties imposed by the war.

The Cowleys did not arrive home from their mission until September 1945. Within a month Brother Cowley was sustained as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. Soon his assignments took him to the entire Pacific and to Asia. It was not long until his love for the Polynesians and his ability to speak to the hearts of all people made him a beloved leader of the Church.

Probably in no other country in the Pacific area is the contrast between the prewar and postwar status of the Church more marked than in New Zealand. The general shift from a Maori church to a Maori and pakeha church is the most obvious change.6 The great majority of New Zealand’s people are of European ancestry. It was only logical that the time would come again when missionary work would be vigorously pursued among them. Since World War II, every mission president has encouraged the teaching of the gospel to every interested person. As a consequence, growth among the pakehas has altered the LDS life-style in New Zealand; typical European concern for efficiency has merged into the warmth and friendliness of the Maori and Polynesian people, and all members have grown together.

The greatest period of growth and change occurred between 1948 and 1958. Until 1948, the Church was largely led by members who had served in their positions for twenty years or more. But after World War II, the Church moved rapidly toward organizational and leadership patterns similar to those found in other areas of the Church. By the late 1950s, New Zealand was developing rapidly in virtually all matters relating to organization, teaching methods, experience of local leaders, access to Church materials, and so forth. And a steady stream of General Authorities has visited, blessed, and taught the Saints for more than a decade.

Four major developments culminated in 1958. The Church College of New Zealand (CCNZ) and the New Zealand Temple were dedicated; the first stake in New Zealand was organized; and the mission was divided. These developments, together with several others such as the labor missionary program, gave great impetus to accelerating Church growth.

Many stalwart men and women contributed to these developments. Gordon C. Young, who had returned to New Zealand to serve as a mission president there, bought the first tract of land for the CCNZ on behalf of the Church. President Sydney J. Ottley and President Ariel Ballif directed the construction efforts. President Ballif emphasized priesthood training and district organization that paralleled those of stakes. Hundreds of men and women volunteered their time and energies to construct the CCNZ, the temple, and the village of Temple View where the faculty members were to live.

Construction began in 1951, but because progress was slow, the participants at the April 1952 Hui Tau sustained a proposal to implement a volunteer labor program. From a small beginning, that effort grew into the labor missionary program. Eventually dozens of chapels and the temple were constructed by labor missionaries. From beginning to dedication, the CCNZ project took seven years.

In January 1955, President David O. McKay had visited all of the island missions. One of his purposes had been to select a site for a temple. At a farm near the CCNZ construction site, he announced: “This is the place to build a temple.”7 Through a heroic effort by hundreds of labor missionaries and other members, the school and temple were both ready for dedication in April 1958.

Dedicatory services in the temple began on April 20. President McKay presided and offered the dedicatory prayer. On April 26, he dedicated the new college. He gave the 342 new students, their faculty, and the large congregation a profound challenge to pursue the highest values and truths. “Character,” he said, “is the aim of true education; and science, history, and literature are but means used to accomplish this desired end.”8

Through the years since 1958, the complex formed by the college, the temple, and the village of Temple View has stood as the flagship of the Church in New Zealand.

Within a month of the temple and CCNZ dedication celebrations, the Auckland Stake was created, followed by the division of the mission, establishing a New Zealand South Mission. Since that time, the Church has sent to or called from New Zealand greater and greater numbers of missionaries. Between 1958 and 1966, Church membership in New Zealand grew from around 17,000 to nearly 26,000. By the end of 1987, there were almost 60,000 Latter-day Saints in New Zealand.

With the establishment of stakes, leadership became more and more localized. With stakes came quarterly and then semiannual conferences, and the end of the Hui Tau. The need for country-wide meetings declined, and the First Presidency suggested to New Zealand Church leaders that they concentrate on stake or district conferences.

Many important developments have occurred since 1958—and continue to occur—but three especially should be noted. First, in 1968, seminary and institute leaders in Salt Lake City decided to implement the seminary program in New Zealand. Under the direction of Rhett S. James, a corps of local teachers was trained, and by February 1970, the first classes were being taught. During 1971, four full-time and three part-time teachers were employed, and by the end of that year, 1,187 students were enrolled. Since then the program has grown, and institutes of religion have been established at several New Zealand universities.

Also of importance was the New Zealand Area Conference in 1976. Some people called it the greatest Hui Tau. Twelve thousand New Zealand Saints gathered at Temple View to see and hear President Spencer W. Kimball and other General Authorities of the Church. The meetings and socializing had a binding and strengthening effect for months and years following.

Many current Church leaders and other members retain a closeness to New Zealand because of earlier service there. For Elder Robert L. Simpson of the First Quorum of the Seventy and Elder Glen L. Rudd of the Second Quorum of the Seventy, associations with New Zealand go back more than fifty years. Both served as missionaries there in the late 1930s. Elder Simpson has been president of the New Zealand Mission, and later Area supervisor and also president of the Pacific Area. Elder Rudd has been president of the New Zealand Wellington Mission and president of the New Zealand Temple. He is currently First Counselor in the Pacific Area Presidency.

For New Zealanders, however, it was an important milestone when a native, Elder Douglas J. Martin, was sustained to the First Quorum of the Seventy on 4 April 1987 and to the Second Quorum of the Seventy on 1 April 1989. As the first General Authority called from New Zealand, he represents many New Zealand priesthood leaders who, like him, have served as bishops, stake presidents, temple sealers, and regional representatives. He symbolizes the status and maturity of the restored Church in New Zealand.

New Zealand, once weeks away from Church headquarters, is now only hours distant by jet, or a fraction of a second away by telephone. More important than temporal closeness, however, is the closeness of the Spirit. The best indicator of the maturing of New Zealand in the Church is the ever growing number of Latter-day Saints enjoying full participation in gospel blessings.


  1. R. Lanier Britsch, “Maori Traditions and the Mormon Church,” New Era, June 1981, pp. 38–46.

  2. Ibid., p. 42.

  3. R. Lanier Britsch, Unto the Islands of the Sea, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1986, p. 280.

  4. Henry A. Smith, Matthew Cowley—Man of Faith, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954, p. 213.

  5. Interview with Gordon Claridge Young, 1972, for the James Moyle Oral History Program, Church Archives, typescript, pp. 9–10.

  6. Britsch, Unto the Islands of the Sea, p. 317.

  7. David W. Cummings, Mighty Missionary of the Pacific, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, Inc., 1961, p. 52.

  8. Ibid., p. 102.

  • R. Lanier Britsch is vice president for academics at Brigham Young University—Hawaii and a high councilor in the BYU—Hawaii Second Stake.

[illustration and photo] Barrett’s Hotel in Wellington (far right; Barrett’s Hotel, Wellington, 1843, by Samuel Charles Brees) was probably the site of some of the earliest LDS preaching in New Zealand, in the mid-1850’s. Missionaries to the Maoris (below) posed for their photo, late in the last century, in a marae, or community meetinghouse, where LDS meetings were held.

The first LDS baptisms among Maoris were performed in the Waikato River (below; photo by Roseanne Jones) near Cambridge. Many visiting Church leaders stayed in the Duncan home (right), owned by a Maori Latter-day Saint pioneer family. (Bottom right) Tumanako Taurima, Gladys Mitchell, William H. Christy, and Heeni Christy recall Church meetings in the Kahungunu wharenui (meetinghouse). (Photo by Roseanne Jones.)

Many local Church leaders attended the Church College of New Zealand (left; photo by Roseanne Jones) or its predecessor, the Maori Agricultural College (below left). Sister Te Ata Pene and Brother Wanaga Kingi, descendants of Dannevirke’s first fifteen LDS families, in front of the first chapel at Dannevirke. (Photo by Roseanne Jones.) Like many older Church buildings, it has since been replaced by a newer, more modern building.

Former missionaries Sherri McNeely and Louisa Hansen of Salt Lake City; Ellene Matthews of Kaitaia, New Zealand; and Larissa Sinclair of Las Vegas, Nevada, examine The Christus statue that is a central focus of the New Zealand Temple visitors’ center. (Photo by Roseanne Jones.)