In the period of adjustment, during which their own religious beliefs were being abandoned and some Christian ones were being accepted, the Maori people created cults which provided an outlet for repressed fears and tensions. The best known of these was Hauhauism. This movement marked one of the first efforts of any Polynesian peoples to incorporate elements of Biblical teaching into their own traditional religious beliefs. Although it combined Maori and Christian customs it was not an advanced doctrine. Its appeal was simple and direct. It promised eternal salvation from the Pakeha and it could well have become a national religion involving some degree of political unity had its prophecies been fulfilled more successfully. The goal, if realised, of total destruction of Pakeha and Maori non-Hauhau believers would have seen all Maori dead rising from the grave and confronting the prophet and founder, Te Ua Haumene. All sick and crippled Maori people would have been cured and knowledge of all the best in European culture taught to the Maori. These were the teachings of Te Ua, who gained prestige during 1863 when claiming to be inspired by the Angel Gabriel and performing apparent miracles. Other commandments led to his founding the Pai Marire religion. He urged peaceful methods but, after the battle of Ahuahu in 1864, the cured heads of slain Europeans were sent to distant tribes to gain support for the movement.
Scholars differ over the word Hauhau but it occurs in the expression Rire, rire, hau, hau and its use came from that context. Hau also refers to wind, and Te Ua believed that Jehovah sent the angels upon the four winds to enter the bodies of the believers by streamers attached to the pole of worship. Hauhau gradually replaced Te Ua's original term Pai Marire, by which it was known in the early stages of its existence.
The act of worship centred on the Niu pole on the village marae. It was 15–80 ft high, straight, and crossed by yardarms with two curved knobs representing the gods Ruru and Riki. Rope streamers descended from the pole on the top of which was a flag. After assembling in military order, the followers marched clockwise round the pole to the accompaniment of chants of mixed nautical, military, and Biblical origin. With the increase in pace of marching, giddiness and emotional fervour caused people to stumble and impede the flow round the pole. This marked the end of a service of which there might be several each day.
Conversion was done through visiting a Hauhau village, being spoken to in “Hebrew”, and being told to gaze at the pole. After conditioning, the converts joined in the march and became Hauhaus. Some accounts say that scoffers at the service later began to tremble and eventually joined in. Protection in battle was believed possible by raising the right hand and repeating incantations which caused bullets to miss the faithful; any failure in the charm was attributed to lack of faith. Hauhauism brought people together against a common enemy and aided the development of an efficient military force. It introduced certain Christian beliefs into Maori life and by making the people conscious of religion it paved the way for its influential successor, the Ringatu religion.
One who rejected Pai Marire teachings was Te Whiti-o-Rongomai who settled at Parihaka in 1868 and devoted himself to a study of the Maori Bible. He became influential as a prophet and leader with a firm belief in passive resistance. Peace through self-sacrifice and goodwill by always showing hospitality were features of Te Whiti's teachings. He identified Maori with Jew: “Kenana (Canaan) was our first Hawaiki; our last Hawaiki was Rangiatea.” His movement was noted for its pacificist principles, its reliance on ancient Maori culture especially the poi dance and its symbol of the white feather worn in the hair. Followers of Te Whiti, although not numerous today, still meet at Parihaka on the eighteenth of each month.