Story: Meha, Stuart

Page 1 - Biography

Meha, Stuart

1878–1963

Rangitane and Ngati Kahungunu; farmer, Mormon leader

This biography was written by Peter J. Lineham and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Stuart (Te Tuati) Meha was born at Wanstead, Hawkes’s Bay, probably on 29 December 1878. His father, Arapata Meha, a prominent member of Ngati Kahungunu and Ngati Ruatotara of Rangitane, was a successful sheepfarmer and landowner from Te Tapairu, near Waipawa. His mother, Mere Te Hau, was of Ngati Rakaipaaka. The family had a distinguished ancestry and before Stuart was born it was prophesied that he would save his ancestors: this was later seen as a prediction of the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead.

Missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived in Wairarapa in 1883 and soon made an impact among Ngati Kahungunu. Stuart’s parents were baptised into the church on 15 July 1885 within two weeks of hearing George S. Taylor and Edward Newby preach in southern Hawke’s Bay. Stuart was baptised when he was eight. Mormon missionary diaries record that early converts greatly enjoyed the church's teaching and despised the traditional churches, but retained many Maori customs and did not accept all the Mormon practices. This was the world in which Stuart Meha grew up.

After attending Te Aute College he assisted on his father’s small farm, eventually taking it over. Highly respected within his own tribe, he served as chairman of the Waipawa marae committee and on various other Maori bodies including a committee that was set up to discuss the rating of Maori land. At 19 he married Meri Hineiturama Tapihana of Te Arawa at Dannevirke. They had at least three sons and a daughter. Meri died in July 1912, and at Waipawa on 28 April 1914 Meha married Rosina Jane Edith Morris of Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki and Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti. The couple had three boys and a girl when Rosina died in July 1920. The following year, at Dannevirke on 5 October, Meha married Rosina’s sister, Ivory Tepora Morris. They had four daughters and three sons; Ivory died in February 1937.

The Mormons had a strong following among Maori in southern Hawke’s Bay. In 1913 the area became the home of the church’s Maori Agricultural College, which was destroyed in the 1931 earthquake. Meha was secretary to the college’s board of education from 1913 to 1924, and assistant secretary in 1931. He served on the board from 1925 to 1929.

Meha was one of the few Maori to visit Salt Lake City before 1920: he attended the temple ordinances (baptism of the dead) there in 1913 along with five others. His temple sealing was of great importance to him and he later attained the office of high priest. From December 1916 he also had the unusual distinction, not normally permitted to Maori, of serving on a mission, which visited various villages. With his mentor and friend Wiremu Duncan, he was involved between 1917 and 1919 with the American missionary Matthew Cowley in revising the Maori translation of The book of Mormon and two other Mormon classics: Doctrine and covenants and The pearl of great price. In 1921 when one of the Mormon apostles visited New Zealand and attended the annual Easter hui, Meha translated his messages.

In the 1920s many Mormons drifted out of the church and followed T. W. Ratana. Meha read the Ratana covenant to the 1929 Mormon hui, but the mission president rejected Ratana’s suggestion that the two churches join together. Meha remained loyal to his own church. He was first counsellor to Eriata Nopera, the first Maori president of a Mormon district in New Zealand; Nopera was appointed president of the Hawke’s Bay district in 1928. In due course Meha succeeded to this position.

After 1928 the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New Zealand gradually passed into the hands of Maori at local level and Meha was a key associate of the American leaders of the church. He constantly worked to make a bridge between it and the Maori world. He loved Maori traditions and reinterpreted them in the light of his Mormon values. He visited many old tohunga to search out information about the ancestors and legends of his people. In 1932 he was appointed head of a mission genealogy committee set up to encourage Maori to explore their genealogy for use in temple ordinances: increasing numbers of Maori were going to the Mormon temple in Laie, Hawaii, the temple nearest to New Zealand. Through his efforts, the names of thousands of his ancestors were placed in Mormon temples. This work was his major contribution to the church.

During the Second World War Meha became a close associate of Matthew Cowley, the mission president who cemented the Maori identity of the Mormon church. In the postwar years Meha was respected by Mormon Maori as a great patriarch: when the site for the New Zealand temple was being chosen by the church president in 1955, he had the honoured role of giving voice to an old prophecy that Hamilton would be the site. Yet he saw that American church leaders were undergoing a dramatic turn-around in policy: they were abandoning respect for Maori values. Soon after the arrival of a new president, Gordon Young, in 1948, most of the elderly Maori district presidents including Meha were dismissed. As an act of appeasement, Meha was recognised, along with three other rangatira within the church, as a special ‘Nephite’ missionary to travel among Maori Mormons, who warmly honoured him.

Stuart Meha died on 7 November 1963 in Waipukurau, survived by 10 children. A short, solidly built farmer with an air of great dignity, Meha was the symbol of the time when the Mormon church in New Zealand was a Maori church.