Country Profile

New Zealand

With a growing membership of more than 113,000 in New Zealand, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a vibrant center of spiritual life in the country.

The first known New Zealanders to join the Church were baptized in Australia in 1853 and 1854. One of them, 18-year-old Thomas Holder, decided to return to his family in Karori, near Wellington. He traveled back with the first missionaries to visit New Zealand — Augustus Farnham, president of the Australasian Mission, and Elder William Cooke — arriving in Auckland on October 27, 1854.

Elder Cooke accompanied Thomas Holder to Karori, where he baptized Thomas’s mother, Martha, on the last day of 1854 — the first convert in New Zealand. By April 1855, he had organized a branch of the Church at Karori with ten members, including Thomas’s 11-year-old sister, Louisa. Cooke proselytized on both the North Island and the South Island before returning to Sydney a year later.

A second branch of the Church was established in Kaiapoi, near Christchurch, in December 1867 through the efforts of Carl Asmussen, a Danish immigrant jeweler who was baptized when he visited Liverpool, England, in 1864. He returned to Christchurch and located Latter-day Saint settlers William and James Burnett and their families in Kaiapoi, and the three men began spreading the message of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.

Beginning in January 1879, the headquarters of the Australasian Mission were in New Zealand, but on January 1, 1898, the mission was divided into the Australian Mission and the New Zealand Mission. By the turn of the century, 28 Pākehā (New Zealand European) branches of the Church had been organized, though not all continued, as Church members relocated to Utah and branches were combined. More than 1,170 Pākehā converts are known by name on the Church records for this period. About 45 percent of the 19th-century New Zealand Saints emigrated to Utah, as encouraged by the Church leadership at this time. Many others stayed and built up the Church in New Zealand.

In 1872 James Burnett made the first known attempt to take the Church's message to Māori, on one occasion preaching to a gathering of between 100 and 150, but it was not until 1881 that sustained efforts were made to preach among the Māori. In October that year William J. McDonnel, a local part-time missionary in Auckland who could speak te reo Māori (the Māori language), baptized a chief named Ngātaki, reputed to be one of King Tāwhiao’s advisers. Ngātaki was the first Māori to join the Church in New Zealand.

More missionaries were now available, and Māori searching for a true religion listened to their preaching. Māori were impressed because these missionaries lived in their villages, learned their language, ate their food and respected their land and culture. Many Māori, particularly in the Waikato, Wairarapa, Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne, Nelson and Northland regions, believed that prophecies of the early tohunga matakite (seers) indicated that the Church was the true church they had been waiting for.

On Christmas Day 1882, Māori chief Hare Teimana, his wife Pare and another man were baptized in the Waikato River, near Cambridge. They were supported by their Pākehā friends, Latter-day Saint shoemaker Thomas Cox and his wife, Hannah. Within two months there were 65 Māori members of the Church in that area, and the first Māori branch was formed at Waotu on February 25, 1883. As Māori conversions increased in other areas, branches were organized in Papawai (August 26, 1883), Manaia (December 2, 1883) and Te Ore Ore (December 16, 1883).

Manihera Te Whenuanui Rangitakaiwaho and Ihaia Hopu Te Whakamairu, influential chiefs in the Wairarapa, were both baptized on July 21, 1883. When the Papawai and Te Ore Ore branches were organized, each of these men was called to serve as a branch president, Manihera in Papawai and Ihaia in Te Ore Ore. Manihera was described as very tall, intelligent and witty, with a keen understanding of the scriptures. Ihaia was a justice of the peace who had been appointed a native assessor by Governor George Grey and had been a lay minister in the Church of England for many years.

Dozens of other Māori branches followed — about 60 by 1895. Influential Māori like Hawke’s Bay chiefs Otene Meihana and Takarei Ihaia traveled with the missionaries, assisting with translation, preaching and teaching.

The missionaries began opening primary schools for Māori children in villages where there was neither a government nor a Christian mission school. This focus on education led to the establishment of the Māori Agricultural College (MAC) at Korongata, Hastings, in 1913. During the 18 years it operated, the MAC nurtured many Church and community leaders. Among its notable students were All Black “Invincibles” George Nepia and Lui Paewai and other top representative rugby players. Former student Puti Tipene (Steve) Watene captained the victorious New Zealand Rugby League team in 1936–37 and in 1963 became a Member of Parliament. Watene’s grandparents were founding members of the Kirikiri Branch, organized in 1888.

At a conference in January 1885 (held in a meetinghouse especially built by Otene Meihana) it was reported that there were 811 Māori and 265 Pākehā on the records of the Church in New Zealand. Ten years later, the annual report of the mission showed 3,398 members, of whom 359 were Pākehā. Māori have continued to add energy and spiritual maturity to the Latter-day Saint community. An important milestone was achieved when Ko Te Pukapuka a Moromona (the first Māori language edition of the Book of Mormon) was published in 1889.

Annual hui tau (mission-wide conferences) were held almost every year from 1885 to 1960, usually at Easter. The various Church districts vied for the privilege of hosting hui tau, which eventually attracted thousands of members to the four- or five-day gatherings. They listened to conference speakers, ate and slept in huge tents, and participated in or watched cultural and sporting competitions. Hui tau not only united Māori and Pākehā Saints but also attracted many visitors.

In the late 1890s, Church leaders in Utah began asking overseas converts to stay and help build up the Church in their own lands. Visits to temples were encouraged, however, and in the following decades many New Zealand families, both Māori and Pākehā, sacrificed to attend either the Salt Lake or Hawaii Temples. Influential Māori leader Hirini Whaanga, his wife, Mere, and some of their extended family left Te Mahia for Utah as early as 1894, living for many years near the Salt Lake Temple. During the 1920s and 1930s, several Māori groups from all over the mission participated in expeditions to the Laie Hawaii Temple, sailing on Matson liners and usually spending two or three weeks at the temple.

Beginning in the early 1950s, faithful volunteer labor missionaries built the temple and college near Hamilton. Church President David O. McKay dedicated the Hamilton New Zealand Temple on Sunday, April 20, 1958, and the nearby Church College of New Zealand (CCNZ) the following Thursday. Building missionaries — more than 600 over a 20-year period — continued constructing dozens of distinctive white chapels complete with classrooms and recreation halls across both islands.

These buildings and those who built them attracted much publicity, raising the public profile of the Church. New Zealanders from many cultures embraced the gospel, and membership grew from 17,000 in 1958 to 100,000 50 years later. Immigrating Latter-day Saint families came from the islands of the Pacific, and today the Church in New Zealand enjoys great cultural diversity.

CCNZ was closed in 2009, but significant buildings and other spaces have been preserved as a legacy for visitors and Church members alike. A free Church history museum at Temple View shares many stories of faith and devotion from throughout Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific.

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