Country Profile

New Zealand

Visit any New Zealand Latter-day Saint congregation and you will be warmed by the happy participation of people of all ages and many cultures who keep this primarily lay church thriving. 

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

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

Elder Cooke accompanied Thomas Holder to Karori, where he baptised Thomas’s mother, Martha, on the last day of 1854 – the first convert in New Zealand.  By April 1855, he had organised a branch of the Church at Karori with ten members, including Thomas’s sister Louisa (11).  Cooke proselytised in both North and South Islands 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 jeweller who was baptised when he visited Church headquarters in Liverpool, England in 1864.  He returned to Christchurch and located LDS 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.

From January 1879 headquarters of the Australasian Mission were in New Zealand, but from 1 January 1898, the mission was divided into the Australian and New Zealand Missions.  By the turn of the century, 28 Pākehā (New Zealand European) branches of the Church had been organised, though not all continued as their members relocated to Utah and branches were amalgamated.  More than 1,170 Pākehā converts are known by name on the Church records for this period. About 45% 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 LDS message to Māori, on one occasion preaching to a gathering of between 100-150, but it was not until 1881 that sustained efforts were made to preach among Māori.  In October that year William J. McDonnel, a part-time local missionary in Auckland, who could speak te reo Māori (the Māori language) baptised a chief named Ngātaki, reputed to be one of King Tāwhiao’s advisers.  Ngātaki was the first Māori to join the LDS 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 pa, learnt 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 LDS 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 baptised in the Waikato River, near Cambridge. They were supported by their Pākehā friends, LDS 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 LDS branch was formed at Waotu on 25 February 1883. As Māori conversions escalated in other areas, branches were organised in Papawai (26 August 1883), Manaia (2 December 1883) and Te Ore Ore (16 December 1883).

Manihera Te Whenuanui Rangitakaiwaho and Ihaia Hopu Te Whakamairu, influential chiefs in the Wairarapa, were both baptised on 21 July 1883. When the Papawai and Te Ore Ore branches were organised, 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 travelled 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 or Christian mission school. This focus on education led to the establishment of the Māori Agricultural College (M.A.C.) at Korongata, Hastings in 1913. During the 18 years it operated, the M.A.C. nurtured many Church and community leaders. Among its notable Old Boys 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 organised in 1888.  

At a conference in January 1885 (held in a meeting house especially built by Otene Meihana) it was reported that there were 811 Māori and 265 Pākehā on the records of the LDS 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 attracted many non-LDS 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 LDS 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 labour missionaries built the temple and college near Hamilton.  Church President David O. McKay dedicated the Hamilton New Zealand Temple on Sunday, 20 April 1958 and the nearby Church College of New Zealand (C.C.N.Z.) the following Thursday.  Building missionaries – more than 600 over a twenty-year period – continued constructing dozens of distinctive white chapels complete with classrooms and recreations halls across both islands.

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

C.C.N.Z. was closed in 2009 but significant buildings and parkland have been preserved as a heritage legacy for visitors and Church members alike.  An entry-free Church history museum at Temple View shares many LDS stories of faith and devotion from throughout Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. 

Style Guide Note:When reporting about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, please use the complete name of the Church in the first reference. For more information on the use of the name of the Church, go to our online Style Guide.