At least until the mid-20th century, few Māori were secular.
Traditionally Māori recognised a pantheon of gods and spiritual influences. From the late 1820s Māori transformed their moral practices, religious lives and political thinking, as they made Christianity their own. By the mid-1840s, probably a larger proportion of Māori regularly attended services than Victorian Britons in the UK. Te Hāhi Mihinare, the Anglican Church, attracted the largest following (and remains the largest Māori denomination), followed by Methodists and Catholics. Māori Christians often practised their faith in distinctively Māori ways, and many took the new faith seriously.
Religion and resistance
Some prophetic Māori religious movements developed with a strong focus on resisting the loss of Māori land. After confiscating massive areas of land, the secular colonial state sometimes punished Māori religious movements that posed a practical or symbolic threat.
Pai Mārire and Kīngitanga
Independent Māori Christian movements such as Pai Mārire (goodness and peace) flourished during the wars of the 1860s, as disillusionment grew with missionaries, settlers and government. During the 1850s and 1860s Māori King-movement Christianity provided moral authority for Māori armed resistance to the government. During the Waikato war, Ngāti Hauā chief Wiremu Tāmihana fought to defend God, (Māori) King and country against what he (and many others) saw as British aggression.
An offspring of Pai Mārire was the Ringatū faith, founded in 1867 by Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Tūruki while he was imprisoned in the Chatham Islands. Te Kooti converted his fellow prisoners to his new religion, named Ringatū (raised hand) after the ritual used as a tribute to God. Te Kooti was pursued by government soldiers through the Urewera from 1869 to 1872. Ringatū became strong in the Bay of Plenty.
Te Whiti-o-Rongomai was a Taranaki prophet and leader who called himself the ‘mouthpiece of Jehovah’ and a ‘small Christ’. A resistance movement developed around his settlement at Parihaka, with ploughmen disrupting government attempts to survey and occupy the confiscated land of the Waimate plains. In 1881 the government sent more than 1,500 troops into Parihaka. Te Whiti (and others seen as ‘fanatics’) were arrested and imprisoned without trial for weeks.
Rua Kēnana, known as the Māori Mihāia (Messiah), developed a ‘City of God’ at Maungapōhatu in Te Urewera from 1907. The community took its children out of government schools, and refused to fight alongside the British in the First World War. In 1916 armed police marched into the village to arrest Rua for selling liquor without a licence. In the gunfight that erupted, two Māori, including one of Rua’s sons, were killed. Rua was convicted of ‘morally’ resisting arrest and sentenced to two-and-a-half years’ prison with hard labour.