A Significant Step in Latter-day Saint Church History in New Zealand

Special text with Church history information in New Zealand

By Mel Whaanga - New Zealand Church History Advisor.

History was made on 8 November 2014 when over 200 people came from across New Zealand for a day-long symposium in Hamilton, to remember early Maori leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Many participants had been labour missionaries, or students at Church College of New Zealand. Most people heard about the event by word of mouth, or through a panui (notice) on facebook, which in turn spread rapidly across social media.


The symposium, organised by Waikato University, also marked the 160th Anniversary of the arrival of the first LDS missionaries in New Zealand, and the 125th Anniversary of the first translation of the Book of Mormon into the Maori language, by Henare Potae, Whatahoro Jury, Piripi Te Maari and others.

As is the custom, proceedings commenced with a mihi whakatau (welcome) from the local mana whenua (people of the land), from the Tainui tribe. Mutual Broadhurst gave an interesting account of the longstanding relationship between the kingitanga (Maori King movement) and the LDS Church, including hosting major Church hui tau(national meetings) held at Ngaruawahia’s Turangawaewae marae, and the interactions of their tribal leaders such as Princess Te Puea with many church dignitaries eg, Matthew Cowley, George Albert Smith.

Prominent Maori leader, Professor Whatarangi Winiata gave the keynote address on Maori Leadership and Spirituality. A champion of Maori self-determination he stressed the importance of advocating for greater Maori representation referring to the transformation in recent times of the Anglican Church of NZ in recognizing matters Maori. He encouraged us to believe in ourselves and put our faith and trust in our own abilities to live as Maori, to worship as Maori,and fully participate as global citizens.


The symposium also included the launch of the publication Turning the Hearts of the Children: Early Maori Leaders in the Mormon Church,[1] edited by Dr Selwyn Katene of Massey University. He said, “Maori church leaders’ experiences, and character-building and faith-promoting stories should be documented and shared to uplift and inspire those in need. As peoples’ memories fade by the day today’s generation are a vital link in remembering the legacy of our tupunas’ (ancestors), and ensuring that the futures of our tamariki (children) and mokopuna (grandchildren) are well assured.”

Twenty-eight times a visitor to New Zealand in various church leadership capacities, Elder Glen L Rudd said, “This book on New Zealand is unbelievable. As I’ve gone through page after page of this lovely book, looking at the pictures and remembering the people, they are all familiar. I treasure this book.[2]

Two concurrent sessions were held where commentaries were given by whanau of their tupuna (Maori forebears), based on their chapter contributions in Turning the Hearts of the Children: Early Maori Leaders in the Mormon Church.

Rosanna Whaanga, whose tupuna Raihi Ngawaka was the last ruling wahine rangatira (woman chief) of the Ngati Rehua tribe of Great Barrier Island, chaired one of the sessions. That session focused on three great Ngati Kahungunu men: Stuart Meha, Whatahoro Jury and Hirini Whaanga.

Dr Arapata Meha from BYU-Hawaii recounted the experiences of his grandfather Stuart Meha from Waipawa. Entitled A Saviour on Mt Zion, he discussed how Stuart pioneered genealogical and historical research for the purpose of advancing temple work of benefit for many generations of Maori.

Rawiri Smith spoke about his tupuna, the politician Whatahoro Jury. In Between Two Worlds: Whatahoro Jury, Rawiri said his tupuna was one of the architects of the Maori Parliament established at Papawai marae, Wairarapa in 1895 in response to mass Maori land confiscations by the settler government.

Dr Robert Joseph presented a session on The Maori Lehi: Hirini Whaanga of Nuhaka, explaining how the influential paramount chief of the Ngati Kahungunu tribe heeded the promptings of Maori prophets such as Arama Toiroa, joined the church and along with his family migrated to Utah in 1886 to perform temple work for their Maori ancestors. While there he became NZ’s first Seventy.

Makere Reeves, a granddaughter of Polly Duncan who was President of the New Zealand Mission Relief Society for 21 years, led another session.

Hori Manuirirangi, a non-member, spoke about his great grandfather and patriarch, Turake Manuirirangi of Taranaki as being the embodiment of a Bird of the Heavens.

Nolamay Campbell, representing one of the more numerous Maori LDS family’s in New Zealand, the Ruruku/Elkington/Hemi/Hippolite/Selwyn whanau, presented on He Matakite – A Visionary: Wetekia Elkington. Nolamay’s tupuna Wetekia, was an influential woman and the matriarch of her whanau from D’Urville Island.

And finally, Bill Heperi gave an account of his grandfather, Ngapuhi leader, and Maori High Priest: Hohepa Heperi. For 25 years Hohepa Heperi was a Maori High Priest and Special Missionary who traversed the country proselyting the gospel during extremely difficult times (eg, the Great Depression and World War Two), and at a time when local Maori leadership provided much needed stability in the absence of American missionaries.

One session participant, Georgina Paerata from Tokomaru Bay said, “It was special to see people we know and who, like us, were enjoying the sessions about our early Maori leaders – both men and women. They were giants in the church, all those years ago”. Another participant, and chapter author of A Man of His Time: Percy Going, Patricia Going, valued the “opportunity to participate in the sessions and be rewarded so richly by the wealth of sharing that took place. It’s a wonderful experience and has made a profound impact on me”.

A panel comprising Dr Leland Ruwhiu, Pierre Lyndon, Eldon Paki, and a recently converted member, Michael Taiapa held a spirited discussion on a 125 year retrospective view of Maori and the Book of Mormon. It was clear that Maori understood the new scriptures, which had a powerful converting influence on them. However, the panel lamented that there were not enough Maori members fluent in te reo (Maori language) and that there seemed to be fewer active Maori members in the church today.

Historian, Dr Nepia Mahuika chaired the final session. Dr Mahuika summed up the session saying: 'This symposium provided a vital space, in which Maori members of the Church particularly women could contemplate the importance of being Maori, the blessing of speaking Maori, and essentially understanding the Church through Maori eyes”.

The NZ Church History Centre was also featured, with director, Elder Randy Olsen and others proudly displaying LDS promotional material at the symposium to a regular stream of visitors throughout the day. The lives of Maori pioneers were also on display and a number of families took advantage of the occasion to showcase and talk about their tupuna to interested hui participants.

With the younger generation well represented at the symposium Whitney Hippolite, currently a Masters student at Waikato University and great great granddaughter of Wetekia Elkington, summed up what most people felt about the symposium and book launch when she remarked, “It’s been an eye opener to see how so many people have come together to learn our history, and remember the achievements of our early Maori leaders, and to see the caliber of present Maori leadership. Our tupuna challenged the status quo, role modeled the right behaviours, and inspired a shared vision for all of us younger ones to follow.”

It is hoped another hui can be arranged for Maori LDS members in early 2016. Feedback suggests there is a need to continue the dialogue and communication and further consider many of the challenges and opportunities discussed, including prospects of a forum to advance Maori and the Mormon Church.