Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana came to prominence as a powerful Māori spiritual leader and faith healer. He founded a religious movement and headed a pan-tribal unity movement campaigning for social justice and equality based on the Treaty of Waitangi.
Rātana was born on 25 January 1873 at Te Kawau, near Bulls. His father was Wiremu Kōwhai and his mother was Ihipera Kōria. The family had connections with several iwi, identifying themselves most strongly with Ngāti Apa. Rātana was brought up by an adoptive mother, Ria Hamuera, and received spiritual guidance from his aunt, the prophetess Mere Rikiriki. He attended school at Awahuri before working on the family farm at Awahou. Rātana enjoyed rugby, racing and beer. He was also a champion ploughman and wheatstacker. In 1893 he married Te Urumanaao Ngāpaki and they had eight children.
Prophecies and visions
Mere Rikiriki had prophesied that Rātana and his two sons Ārepa (Alpha) and Ōmeka (Omega) would play important roles in New Zealand’s future. A sign that he, like Christ, had been called to be a ‘fisher of men’ (evangelist) came when two whales stranded while Rātana was fishing with his family at Whangaehu. When Ōmeka became critically ill after a needle pierced his leg, Rātana began to fast and pray. He said he received a divine visitation on 8 November 1918 and had a series of visions urging him to unite Māori under ‘Ihoa o ngā Mano’ (Jehovah of the thousands), heal the people, and turn them from superstitions and fear of tohunga and the old atua (gods).
Rātana changed his lifestyle, and his prayers were answered when his son revived. This, and the cure of others with a variety of ailments, led Rātana to become a healer. By the 1920s a shanty town had sprung up on the Rātana farm south-east of Whanganui – later named Rātana Pā. The settlement attracted the largest pan-tribal gathering of Māori for many decades. It was the beginning of a new era for a dispossessed people eager to witness Rātana’s miraculous healing power, and hear about healing their land sickness or māuiui. His teaching gave ordinary people a renewed sense of spiritual and political direction.
Mixing religion and politics
Te Haahi Ratana (the Rātana Church), representing Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana’s spiritual mission, is distinct from the political Rātana Movement, although they are essentially two arms of the same body. In a famous quote Rātana spoke of having the Bible in his right hand and the Treaty of Waitangi in his left. If the spiritual side was attended to, the physical side would follow.
Treaty of Waitangi
In April 1924 Rātana and some of his supporters went to London to seek an audience with King George V. The group wanted to discuss Māori grievances concerning alienation of their land, and breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. Rātana planned to present a petition, signed by 45,000 Māori (two-thirds of the Māori population), calling for the Crown to honour its Treaty commitments. But the New Zealand government feared it would be embarrassed by such a meeting, and opposed any official presentation. Nonetheless, the visit ultimately helped bring the treaty back to public prominence after decades of Crown neglect.
Rātana initially had the full support of the Anglicans, Catholics and other Christian denominations, and urged his followers to continue attending their existing churches. However ongoing theological debate over the role of the angels, and Rātana’s use of the term māngai (the mouthpiece) to describe himself when he was inspired by the Holy Spirit, became highly contentious. Fed up with theological challenges – mostly from those who wanted to keep his followers in their own congregations – Rātana said he would go his own way. He had a creed of faith drawn up and on 31 May 1925 declared the existence of a separate church, Te Haahi Rātana, which was formally registered on 21 July 1925.