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Māori and the Mormon Church during the war

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Lachy Paterson
11 April, 2021

As in a number of faiths active among Māori during the Second World War, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints faced challenges through the war, but nevertheless tried to continue and grow in the changed environment.  Like the other Churches, many of its activities operated within its own bubble, to which the war was a mere backdrop, or something that intruded occasionally.  In a time before weekend shopping and television, the Mormon Church provided opportunities for group activities that kept its members involved and engaged, perhaps to a greater extent than other religions.  Like some other churches that serviced Māori at this time, such as the Anglicans, Methodists and Catholics, it was still very rooted to its mission beginnings, but differed in its pervasive American influences.  The Latter-Day Saints membership was also very Māori; its 6,551 Māori members in 1945 may have only been 6.63% of the total Māori population, but they made up 84% of the Church.[1]

 The activities available to members in the 1930s and 40s were various but gendered.  Young children attended Sunday School, and those under 14 attended sessions organised during the week by the Primary Organization (also known as Te Paraimere), engaging in Spiritual, Ethical, Health and Play themes.  The youth also became members of the Mutual Improvement Association (M.I.A, or Te Miutara), which was divided by gender.  Boys progressed from being “Boy Scouts” at the age of 15, to “Cubs”, and between 17 and 23 to “M-Men”; the equivalent girls’ divisions were “Beehive Girls”, “Junior Girls”, then “Gleaner Girls”.  On reaching 23, the men and women could meet together.  All adult males who were full members of the Church were considered part of the priesthood.  Groups of these men, known as “quorums” met weekly, “to study important subjects in sacred or profane fields and to consider one another's welfare, as well as the needs of the Church”.  Older women formed the Relief Society (Hui Atawhai), which involved both religious study, but also looked after the sick and poor, as well as organising “bazaars, excursions, social evenings, and a variety of other activities for the advancement of women”.  In addition members also served on the many positions required to run the Church’s many branches, including “a presiding officer with two counsellors; a secretary with an assistant, and a corps of teachers and other helpers.”  Adults could also attend Genealogical Class (Hui Whakapapa), “derived from the doctrine of the Church pertaining to the salvation for the dead”.[2]  Some branches also promoted cultural activities. For example, a number of branches formed choirs, Nūhaka also had their Singing Mothers, and Hastings even had a string quartet.[3]

 As well as the regular branch activities, other events features on the Church’s calendar.  Branches hosted Hui Pariha (normally lasting two days) which were advertised to other branches, attracting people from other areas.  For example, The Hauraki members organised their hui in May 1940 on a marae at Manaia.  About 200 attended; “on Saturday, Ngāti Kahungunu came on, Nopera and his party, the Saints from Māngere and Waikato”.[4]   Dances were generally held.  This was a chance to attract new members and make the church’s work better known.  For example, the tāngata whenua of the marae were not church members, but helped in the organisation, and  the Manaia Maori School performed waiata pōwhiri, haka and poi.[5]  Christmas parties for children were put on, as well as Mothers’ and Fathers’ Days, and each year, branch M.I.A.s held Green and Gold Balls, often featuring a “queen” who had successfully raised cash in a fund-raising competition. 

 In the spacious and attractively decorated Recreation Hall, the Kaikohe M.I.A. held a successful Gold and Green Ball on October 25 [1940]. A capacity house was in attendance. A Fairyland-like charm was effectively fused into the decorations, adding immensely to the beauty of the occasion. Miss Eva Wihongi was the successful Queen candidate and was crowned by Mr. G. Fraser, manager of the Ford Co. The evening's takings was most satisfactory, the major portion of which was handed over to the Patriotic Fund.[6]

 The major event of the year was the Hui Tau, when Church members from branches all over the country congregated for about four days.  “The Maori attendance predominates and the native Latter Day Saint measures his calendar year from ‘Hui Tau to Hui Tau.’”  In 1939 about 2500 attendees were expected.[7] Te Puea Hērangi hosted the event at Ngāruawāhia in 1938 and 1939 prior to the outbreak of war.[8]  The first wartime Hui Tau, in March 1940, was held in the Mormon stronghold of Nūhaka.  Considerable preparations were involved, with the  Marae Committee conducting “a beautification programme including new concrete paths, new tar-sealed tennis court, planting of shrubs and flowers, and general clean-up and paint-up campaign.”[9]  Despite the war, many attended.  Three lorries were hired just to bring Ngāpuhi, and special deals were arranged with the Railways to bring the costs down.[10]  As well as the church activities, the meetings were opportunities for people to meet, perform kapa haka, and generally have fun.  They also allowed the Mormons to interact with Māori of other faiths.  As Hirini T. Heremaia of Northland wrote:

 Rakaipāka, I mihi to your marae.  I thank you for the fineness of the marae, its cleanliness, the amounts of food, the well-set tables, how well the serving staff spoke, the quality of the hot food, and that everyone was of one mind, despite some being Anglicans, some Ringatū, some Rātana, and some Mormons, that is, Saints.[11]

Matthew Cowley was the President of the Mormon mission based in Auckland.  He initially arrived in New Zealand from America in 1914, served as a missionary for five and a half years. During this time he became fluent in te reo, and together with Wī Duncan and Stuart Meha revised The Book of Mormon.  In 1938 he returned to New Zealand as the head of the mission and, according to Peter Lineham, became truly loved by Māori.[12]  He stayed on in New Zealand until his replacement A. Reed Halverson arrived in July 1945.[13]  One of Cowley’s duties was oversight of the monthly periodical, Te Karere which, by the 1940s, was mainly in English, but still with significant Māori-language content.[14]  The Church used this paper as a means of teaching Mormon ethics and doctrines, but also to project the notion of modernity to Māori, and that the Church was not unusual or strange.  What made the Church appeal to many Māori was that they could be progressive, modern and belong to a global church yet still be Māori.  Many of its activities were also family-orientated fun.  As Te Karere stated, the Church “teaches that a long face and pious handshake is by no means considered a passport to heaven”.[15] 

 Despite the busy bubble of church activity, the war of course had many impacts.  The first, of course, was the enlistment of the young men into the armed forces. 

 In spite of the numerous enlistments among the younger men which have depleted the ranks of some of the branches, the Saints remaining are carrying on and are praying for the safe return of their boys who are fighting valiantly in defense of our country.[16]

 Petrol rationing, introduced almost as soon as the war started, impacted on week-end door knocking, or attending hui, such as hui pariha.[17]  People tried their best;[18] “Despite the difficulties with fuel for the cars, the intention to go to these church meetings has not diminished.”[19]  Petrol was obviously in hot demand.  At a meeting at Northland in 1942, “An interesting diversion was the work of the Pipiwai Platoon, Home Guard, under the command of Lt Hetaraka Anaru. Visitors had no fear of any losses of petrol.”[20] In 1943, Te Karere emphasised that any fuel rations for church business could not be used for any other purpose, otherwise the offender would not only be prosecuted for breaking the Oil Fuel Regulations, but would be subject to Church discipline as well.[21]

 Of more concern for the running of the mission was the departure of the American missionaries at the end of 1940.  These young men, unemcumbered with family or other work commitments, ran much of the business of the branches they were assigned to.  When the news of their imminent departure came in October, Church members were told:

 As long as conditions in the world continue as at present there will be no more missionaries sent to New Zealand from the United States. This will mean that the burden of all mission and Church activities in New Zealand will soon develop upon the local Priesthood and that all district, branch, as well as proselyting activities, will be under local control…. In too many of the districts and branches of the mission the local office-holders and members of the Priesthood have shifted responsibility to the Zion Elders.[22] 

 Matthew Cowley and his wife, Eva, were the only two American missionaries remaining in New Zealand.

 In a similar tone to the Presbyterian journal, Te Waka Karaitiana,[23] Te Karere initially attributed the war as a failure of the Christian nations and the evil of Nazism, and therefore reluctantly supported it. “Although it is a sin to force war upon anyone, President Joseph F. Smith once said that it is both righteous and just to defend our lives, liberties, and homes with the last drop of our blood. It was also his belief that the Lord would justify us in such.”[24]  By April 1940, the paper had a photograph of the New Zealand warship, H.M.S. Achilles, on its cover, and mention of its role in sinking the Graf Spee. It also referenced Britain as the “Mother Country”, something perhaps unexpected in a magazine then run by American missionaries.[25]  In November, members also participated in the King’s prayer that God might end the war and bring peace to the world.[26]

 The Māori Mormon members also threw themselves into patriotic fund-raising efforts.  Members were used to raising money for church purposes, so used these channels for the war, as well as being involved in wider school and community fund-raisers.  For example the branch choirs performed local patriotic events, concerts, and farewells to troops.[27]  Of particular note were the Green and Gold Balls organised each year by the various branches or districts, and the associated queen competitions.  Each competition was involved a number of fund-raising activities that culminated in the crowning at the Ball.  In 1940 the Waikato District reported:

 Throughout the past month many functions have been held in honour of the Gold and Green Ball Queens. Parties, dances and concerts have been held to raise funds for queen votes, which in turn is to go to the patriotic fund.[28]

 That year, the Ball Committee from Nūhaka, a relatively small Māori community, raised £145/6/8 for the local Patriotic Committee.[29]  In March 1941 Te Karere commended the M.I.A.’s patriotic fundraising in the previous year’s ball season, and noted that “we see from this that the Mutual is now without little funds”, and profits from the Hui Tau would go to the M.I.A.[30]  In September, the M.I.A. Board instructed that all ball profits that year would be split in three, with one third sent to the Board’s office, one third for patriotic purposes, and one third kept by the branches.[31]  It is likely a greater percentage went to the war effort the following year.  For example in Hawkes Bay:

 During the months of August and September, the Hastings Patriotic Zone Funds were handsomely augmented by the Maori people of the district. Of the £1,300-odd collected, was the wonderful contribution of the Mutual Improvement Associations of Korongata, and the combined Te Hauke, Waipawa, Waimarama and Hastings Green and Gold Balls, which accounted for more than £1000 of the total.[32]

 In February 1945, Te Karere informed its readers that the Church has responded to Cowley’s call to raise money for the war effort, and that “to date the Mutual has contributed approximately £50,000. A proud effort indeed!” 

 Unfortunately for the Church, it was unable to hold its Hui Tau 1942 due to war-time contraints.  But in 1943, the Church decided to hold a special “Patriotic Hui Tau”, with all profits going to the rehabilitation of returned soldiers, both Māori and Pākehā. One of Cowley’s aims was also to normalise the Church within New Zealand society, and fundraising for patriotic efforts was one way of achieving this.  

 In sponsoring this patriotic effort the Church is submitting itself to the scrutiny of the general public. If the hui is the success we hope it to be, it will do more to elicit the admiration of those not of us than anything we have done in recent years. It will also demonstrate in a very convincing manner the spirit of patriotism that is instilled within the hearts of faithful Latter-day Saints.[33]

 The Hui was held in Hastings, with more than 2,000 attending and Sir Apirana Ngata as a featured speaker. The local branches were asked to raise money, but the main fund-raiser was a queen carnival organised by the M.I.A.  Mrs Apikara Paewai of Dannevirke was the winner, her campaign having raised almost £8000.[34] In the end,

 The New Zealand Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can justifiably point to this great effort with pride in sponsoring an effort which brings approximately £13,000 into the funds of the Patriotic Societies of this country.[35]

 But for Cowley:

 it was one of the best missionary endeavours sponsored in New Zealand. How well the conference was conducted and the patriotic fund campaign was carried out is now well known, not only by those who were in attendance at the conference, but by people in all parts of the Dominion who have read the reports in the leading newspapers.[36]

 Reading through Te Karere, one gets a sense of how the war is impacting on Māori Mormon communities, especially through the “News from the Field” section, in which branches gave news on their activities, including births, deaths and marriages, fundraising, and Church activities, but also on those in the military.  For example, in May 1940, readers were informed that there were about 50 Mormons amongst the Māori Battalion at the Palmerston North camp, who organised their own services while there.[37]  The branch news also often involved updates on who was leaving for training, men home on leave, news about those already there, and those returning.  For example from the Mahia District in November 1941:

 Leading Aircraftsman Sydney Taurima (Opoutama) has been home on leave[.] Sister Lena Taurima and family wish to thank all those who presented Bro. Sydney with gifts and telegrams of good wishes.

    Word has been received that Brother Ponti Te Kauru, [38] who was wounded in Crete was picked up by the German Red Cross, and was flown to a hospital in Greece, and is now a prisoner of war in Germany. Bro. Ponty reports that he is well treated, and wishes to be remembered to all.

    We are proud to announce that another group of our Nuhaka boys have left for Papakura Camp, including Benjamin Christy, Tilly Whaanga, John Smith, Stan Smith, Edgar Smith, George Haronga, Rajah Karangaroa. Bro. Tuehu Smith now has four sons in camp, Cleo is a corporal, while Riki has been transferred to Trentham, where we understand he is to be given the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. Congratulations boys! Nuhaka is proud of you all.[39]

 The Home Guards were formed locally, and Mormons also served in these units.  Judea, near Tauranga, had their own Home Guard, as did Pipiwai in the far North, and most of the available Korongata Mormon men belonged to their local unit.[40]  The 37-strong Tahoraiti platoon was commanded by Lieut. Lui Paewai from a prominent Mormon family.

 Some of the members include Wi Duncan, Karauria Wirihana, William Thompson, William Harris, Leonard Snee and Ronald King. With a few more exercises and route marches, you will notice a big change with some of these brethren, especially Bro. Wi Duncan, who is the biggest member in the platoon.[41]

 Of course, those at home would have been suffering from worry about those posted overseas.  No doubt the upbeat messages from those overseas, passed on to their wider cicles in the Church, were meant to alleviate the anxiety.

 Private Ritchie Tatana of Auckland and Waikato, now serving with the Maori Battalion in the Middle East, sends greetings back, per medium of "Te Karere," to all his friends in the North Island. He reports that he is well and that the land of the Pharoahs is all that he expected it to be.[42]

 Word has been received from Sister Wiki Katene,[43] who is nursing overseas, that she is well grounded and her duties as a V.A.D. keep her forever on her feet. What little time she has off is spent, always, with some member of the Maori Battalion. Her brother, Georgie,[44] has spent much time with her, showing her the sights. Wiki has not had time enough to herself to get homesick—yet! Apparently Georgie sees to that. Incidentally the letter she was writing had to be brought to a close because Major E. T. W. Love[45] had arrived on the scene to "show her the town."[46]

 Invalided Māori soldiers were returning by late 1941. Many of those returning from overseas came back through Wellington, where they welcomed by politicians, Māori elders and Ngāti Pōneke, the cultural club for Māori based in Wellington. Porirua had a strong Mormon presence, and Church members were generally either present or participating in these welcomes.[47]  Te Karere also occasionally published photographs of Māori soldiers who had been captured and killed.[48] News of those who did not return was both sombre and poignant.

 We welcomed into our midst Sister Ao Elkington, wife of the late Arthur Elkington[49] of Madsen, and her son Angus, Arthur's sister, Polly, Bro. Turi Ruruku, relatives and friends. The gathering was a sad one, for we mourned the loss of our dear Bro. Arthur, who was killed in action recently. Shortly afterwards we learned of the death of Herbert Elkington,[50] twin son of Bro. and Sister James Elkington and nephew of Arthur's, who lost his life serving his country. To the relatives of these two fine men we extend our sincere and heartfelt sympathy in their loss, but we realise that what the gospel has taught us on life and death will help us bear our sorrows.[51]

Members of the Mormon Church in many ways carried on their lives very much how they had done so before.  The Church provided ways for its people to feel uplifted both spiritually and materially while maintaining their culture.  It also offered many different ways they could be involved and keep busy, and interact with Māori from other branches, perhaps to a greater extent than other churches.  But the war at times disturbed this Church-centred life.  The President of the Mormon Mission, Matthew Cowley, saw the war as a way of bringing the Church more into the mainstream, and further encouraged the patriotic work that its Māori members were already engaged in.  The war also touched their lives due to the great number of their young men, and at least one woman, who volunteered to serve overseas.  Families no doubt worried about them, waiting for the war to end and for them to return home.


Image: Cover of August, 1940 issue of Te Karere.  “Proud we are of the splendid showing the Maori boys are making in the present call to service. The number who have responded to the enlistment call is truly a credit to the race. It is ample proof, in itself, that the native New Zealanders have become whole-heartedly British.” (p.285.)


[1] Based on figures from the 1945 census.  In the 1936 census, there were 5,257 Māori members, who made up almost 88% of the Church.  See The New Zealand Official Year-Book, 1947-1949. Statistics New Zealand: Digital Yearbook Collection, (Accessed 26/3/2021).

[2] Te Karere, February 1942, pp.38-40. Some of these terms are no longer in use in the Church. See: “LDS Church terms no longer in use”, Deseret News, 24/1/2008. (Accessed 25/3/2021.)

[3] For example, Te Karere, May 1940, p.185; June 1940, 226; July 1940, pp.268, 269. 

[4] Te Karere, May 1940, p.161.  “I te Haterei ka eke mai a Ngati Kahungunu, a Nopera me tona ope, nga Hunga Tapu o Mangere me Waikato.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] Te Karere, December 1940, p.485. 

[7] Te Karere, April 1939, p.121. 

[8] Ibid; Te Karere, June 1939, p.189.   

[9] Te Karere, March 1940, p.103.   

[10] Te Karere, April, 1940 p.140; May 1940, p.164.   

[11] Te Karere, May 1940 p.164.   “He mihi au ki te marae Rakaipaka.  Kia ora koe te pai o te marae, te ma, te nui o te kai, te pai o nga tepu kai, te pai o te reo mai o nga tuari, te wera o te kai, te papai o nga kai, te kotahi o te whakaaro ahakoa he Mihinare ke etahi, he Ringatu ke etahi, he Ratana ke etahi, he Momona hoki etahi ara he Hunga Tapu.”

[12] Peter J. Lineham. “Cowley, Matthew”, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (Accessed 25/3/2021.)

[13] Te Karere, August 1945, p. 188.

[14] Te Karere is available online. For example, see

[15] Te Karere, August 1940, p.303.

[16] Te Karere, July 1940, p.267.

[17] Te Karere, October 1939, p.361; November, 1940, p.441.

[18] Te Karere, October 1940, p.394.

[19] Te Karere, January 1940, p.7.

[20] Te Karere, June 1942, p.185.

[21] Te Karere, July 1943, p.171.

[22] Te Karere, October 1940, pp.390-391.

[23] For example, Te Waka Karaitiana, September 1939, pp.98-99.

[24] Te Karere, November 1939, p.406; January, 1940, pp.20-21.

[25] Te Karere, April 1940, pp. 131, 148-149.

[26] Te Karere, November 1940, 425. “I te karanga a to tatou kingi ko te waru o nga ra me inoi katoa nga hahi katoa o te ao kia arohaina hoki tatou e te Atua kia whakamutua tenei whawhai kia tau iho he rangimarie ki te whenua.”  See also:

[27] Te Karere, January 1940, p.23; July 1940, p.269; July 1941, p.736; June 1942, p.185; December 1944, p.327.

[28] Te Karere, October 1940, p.394.

[29] Te Karere, November 1940, p.440.

[30] Te Karere, March 1941, pp.594-595.

[31] Te Karere, September 1941, p.778.

[32] Te Karere, November 1942, p.306.

[33] Te Karere, March 1943, p.62.

[34] Te Karere, June 1943, pp.134-136.

[35] Te Karere, June 1943, p.133.

[36] Te Karere, June 1943, pp.134.

[37] Te Karere, May 1940, p.184.

[38] Poneke Te Kauru.  See

[39] Te Karere, November 1941, p.847.

[40] Te Karere, July 1941, p.736; June 1942, p.185, November 1943, p.291.

[41] Te Karere, April 1943, p.100.

[42] Te Karere, December 1941, p.881.

[43] See

[44] See

[45] See

[46] Te Karere, July 1942, p.213.

[47] For example, see Te Karere, December 1941, p.881, February 1942, p.54; August 1942, p.242; April 1943, p.101; September 1944, p.239.

[48] For example, see Te Karere, September 1942, p.254; January 1943, p.9.

[49] See

[50] See

[51] Te Karere, August 1943, p.194.

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