I must admit, before my trip to New Zealand over the holidays I had never heard of the Mormon Maori prophecies. I knew that there are many Polynesian church members. I was aware that the most popular religion in the island of Molokai (the spiritual center of Hawaii) is Mormonism, and that there are many Samoan and Tongan church members.
As for the Maori, I knew that they were Pacific Islanders and that their dances and clothing bore some resemblance to other Pacific Island cultures but a little warmer due to climate. I knew the men danced the haka and the women danced with poi balls. I knew that they once practiced cannibalism (practice makes perfect!) and were considered fierce by early European seafarers who visited the islands. I knew that one of their greetings (touching foreheads and sharing a breath) is similar to the Eskimos (rubbing noses).
So I was not a complete noob. And yet, I had no idea that many Maori converted to Mormonism in the 1880s. In the early days, 90% of the membership in New Zealand were Maori. Even as recently as the mid-90s, 60% of church members in New Zealand were Maori. We attended church twice when we were there; in Hamilton I would estimate 60-70% of the ward were Maori. The Queenstown Branch had only six members in attendance, two of whom were Maori.
What are the Maori Mormon prophecies?
Here’s a quick primer on the Maori prophecies for my fellow novices. Maori families are patriarchal and elder members of the extended families are often considered to be prophets. While many Maori had converted to Christian sects as a result of European missionary efforts, some were unsatisfied with their standing in these new religious communities.
- Potangaroa was a Maori prophet. In March 1881, he spoke in a gathering of several thousand Maori family members. When he was asked what the right church was for the Maori, he fasted and prayed for three days. Then he returned and said: “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.”
- Tawhiao was a Maori king, leader of the Waikato tribes who died in 1894. In the 1880s, a newspaper quoted Tāwhiao as claiming a belief in Mormonism: “I was some time ago converted to a belief in the Mormon faith, and I now altogether hold to it. My people in the North are believers also in Mormonism, and it is my wish that all the Maori should be of that faith.” While it’s recorded that he met with LDS missionaries along with other Maori leaders, the church has no record of Tāwhiao being baptized. Other Māori joined the Church based on a prophecy they claimed Tāwhiao made in the 1860s—that messengers of God would come from over the Sea of Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean), traveling in pairs and teaching the Māori people in their own language. When some who heard Tāwhiao’s prophecy observed pairs of Mormon missionaries from the US teaching in the Maori language, they immediately accepted Mormonism. It was also claimed by some Māori converts that Tāwhiao accurately predicted the site of the Church’s Hamilton New Zealand temple, built in 1958.
- In 1830, a patriarch named Arama Toiroa told his extended family: “‘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 (religion), 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.” In 1884, two missionaries followed the path that Arama Toiroa had described. According to Brother Whaanga: “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.”
Before we get too excited about the uniqueness of these prophecies, Wikipedia also notes that Maori converts to other faiths also joined due to familial prophecies. These faiths include the Ratana church, founded by Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana; the Ringatu church, founded by Te Kooti; and the Church of the Seven Rules of Jehovah, founded by Simon Patete.
Where Have All the Maori Gone?
Ex-Mormon discussion boards point out that many Maori have fallen away from the LDS church, although based on my own experience, there are still more Maori overall than Pakeha (white) members in New Zealand. Apparently, many Maori converts came to believe they were descendents of Hagoth’s people in the Book of Mormon. Is there any reason to believe the Polynesians or Maori are descendents from Hagoth or from Israel? Gina Colvin of Patheos discusses the origin of this idea in her post “What Ever Happened to Hagoth?”:
The Mormon’s [sic] weren’t the first people to come up with this idea of a semitic origin for Māori. Samuel Marsden, the first CMS missionary to New Zealand was touting it back in 1814. This idea of being ancestrally related to an oppressed class of Israelites roaming landless in the wilderness was a compelling one, particularly when settlers began appropriating Māori land through legislative violation in the 19th century. Māori adaptations of the Christian/biblical tradition were extraordinary and are worth studying in their own right. But the Mormons bought their own brand of relevance to their 19th century Christian preachings. Not to be outdone by the Anglicans, Methodists, Ratana and Ringatu, the missionaries adapted the story of the Book of Mormon to give it some compelling local relevance. In doing so they hit on the story of Hagoth. A 55BC ship builder who sailed off the coast of America never to be heard of again.
She concludes that the DNA, culture, and linguistics don’t point to Israel:
So I grew up feeling somewhat proud of Native American connections and studied Thor Heyerdahl and those of his ilk religiously in my 20’s. Yet this active pursuit of an understanding as to the ancestral origins of Māori has not over the intervening years lead me to Israel or South America at all, rather it has lead me to the Lapita culture of the Bismark Archipelago, to Melanesia, a West- East migration from Asia (including Taiwan) to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. And an eventual migration from Eastern Polynesia where the roots of the typically Māori material and linguistic culture began to take hold.
Likewise, the migratory timelines are an obvious mismatch for New Zealand specifically as the Maori only populated the islands 800 years ago, about 1250 years too late for Hagoth, but just in time to conquer the people who were there before them, of whom we know little (well, our taxi driver in Rotorua claimed to know a little). There are many Polynesian members who see themselves as descendents of the Book of Mormon people, and there are statements from prominent church leaders promoting the same claim. These statements are taken very seriously by converts who see themselves in the stories of the church. When science doesn’t support the claim, some leave. On the other hand, apologists claim the science is complex. And we also have the Malay theory of the Book of Mormon that has been discussed here, here and here. If the Book of Mormon took place in an Asian setting, the Polynesian connection is restored (as well as resolving issues of geography, steel, horses, and elephants).
Marjorie Newton provides an in-depth look at the history of the LDS church in New Zealand in her book “Tiki and Temple: The Mormon Mission in New Zealand, 1854–1958.” Her book points out that these prophecies were not universally accepted as referring to the Mormon faith. She also notes that many Maori converts were unwilling to forsake their own healing traditions for the laying on of hands done by the Pakeha elders. She also reveals that much success was owing to Hirini Whaanga, a Maori convert and immigrant to Utah in the 1890s who returned to New Zealand to preach to his native people. Other Maori cultural practices caused new members to feel conflicted between loyalty to their heritage and their new faith, including the practice of facial tatoos:
These tattoos had hereditary meaning for the Maori and signaled their rank and status within the community. Mormon missionaries, however, believed that they violated the Word of Wisdom and sought to discipline any member who received the tattoos after baptism or augmented already existing ones. The frequency with which such transgressions occurred, however, forced missionaries to treat the tattoos cautiously. One woman whom a local Maori branch leader had excommunicated had her sentence remitted to a simple act of public confession.
Louis Midgley describes his experiences teaching Maori during his New Zealand mission in the 1950s, and in specific how they responded to the Book of Mormon:
The Maori read the Book of Mormon differently than I did. I was anxious to find proof texts and was busy harmonizing its teachings with what I understood to be correct doctrinal teaching back in Utah. The Maori, in contrast, saw it as a tragic story of families in conflict and subtribes and tribes quarreling with each other and bent on revenge for personal insults and factional quarrels. They looked more at the larger patterns of events and less at what might be construed from particular verses. They saw stories of ambitious rivals to traditional authority trying to carve out positions of power and territory for themselves. They perceived how ambition led to quarrels within families and between extended families and tribes. They understood the atonement as an exchange of gifts between our Heavenly Father and his children, somewhat in the way their own relationships were marked by reciprocal acts of hospitality as manifestations of love.
He elaborates that in teaching Maori families, many of whom did not convert (although nearly all were welcoming and inviting), they gave their reasons for not committing to the new faith:
They explained that their problems were not with our message but with sin. I was stunned by their candor. They explained in painful detail that they were too weak, too addicted to beer or other vices, to join the church. They pointed out that they were very much like the people described in the Book of Mormon; they lacked the spiritual strength to stay on a righteous path for long. In fact, they saw the Nephite book as a description of their own situation, and they saw themselves as, at least partially and in some way, descendants of Lehi’s colony in America.
What do you think?
- Are the Maori of Israelite descent, or was this wishful thinking and proof texting on the part of early converts and zealous missionaries?
- Does DNA evidence disprove the historicity of the Book of Mormon or are there alternate workable explanations? Were church leaders’ statements just cultural artifacts based on their own understanding or were they prophetic pronouncements?
- Were the Maori prophecies messages from God about the truth of the Mormon church or did the Maori imagine the connections to Mormonism to be stronger than they were? Were the prophecies so vague as to be meaningless?
- Is this an example of why signs and “proof” are not good methods of conversion and ultimately fail to change hearts? Or is God’s hand evident in the Maori prophecies, and while the spirit is willing the flesh is weak?
- Did cultural factors – heritage vs. new faith – cause Maori to leave the LDS church? Does the church still need to be more culturally sensitive to the traditions of converts or have we learned this lesson the hard way?
*Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords is of Maori descent (his mother was Maori). He is not a Mormon. Incidentally, if you go to the Rotorua Museum and see the introductory film (which is so frequently unintentionally hilarious that I began to question if it was intentional) that’s Bret McKenzie in the role of volcano victim Edward Bainbridge. That dude is everywhere in New Zealand! (He is also FIGWIT in LOTR).