Review: Marjorie Newton, "Tiki and Temple: The Mormon Mission in New Zealand, 1854–1958"

July 9, 2012

Title: Tiki and Temple: The Mormon Mission in New Zealand, 1854–1958
Author: Marjorie Newton
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Genre: History
Year: 2012
Pages: 343
Binding: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-58958-1210
Price: $29.95
Reviewed by Amanda Hendrix-Komoto
Note: The term Pakeha refers to the white settler population of New Zealand, while the Maori are the islands’ indigenous peoples.
Tucked in the back of Marjorie Newton’s Of Tiki and Temple is a Maori glossary. It is possible to read and understand her work without referring to it to discover that a mihi is a greeting or welcoming ceremony or that quarterly conferences were called hui pariha in the Mormon Church in New Zealand. The glossary’s existence, however, is evidence of Newton’s commitment to writing a history of the Mormon Church in New Zealand that recognizes the contributions of indigenous Maori culture to the church and is meticulous in its detail. Newton also carefully reconstructs the lives of early Pakeha converts to the church. As I read Of Tiki and Temple, I was consistently impressed with her careful research and attention-to-detail. Newton has written the most comprehensive history of the Mormon Church in New Zealand and her work should serve as an example on how to write an engaging local history.
Newton begins her book with William Phelps’ description of the Maori people in The Evening and the Morning Star in which he rhapsodized about the beauty of their features and the fact that the Lord would not forget them and would eventually bring the gospel even to the islands of the sea. Missionaries would not travel to the South Pacific for eleven years and New Zealand for twenty-one years, but Newton dates the beginning of the New Zealand mission from this date because it was the inauguration of interest in the Pacific. She next traces the histories of families who converted to Mormonism in the 1850s and 60s when the church had difficulty maintaining a missionary presence in the islands. Early members of the Mormon Church in New Zealand, she points out, were often Pakeha who had converted to the church in England or Germany before moving to the Pacific. Such men and women could go years without seeing a missionary or finding a Mormon tract. In addition to these difficulties, early Pakeha converts discovered that disaffected members of the church who had immigrated to New Zealand told their neighbors stories about the theocracy that was growing in the American West and the adoption of polygamy by many of the church’s leaders. Stories about polygamy fueled an anti-Mormon sentiment and attracted attention to the few missionary efforts that the Mormon Church was able to produce in these years (20 – 21). Although little attention has been paid to the conversion of Pakeha in mid-nineteenth-century New Zealand, Newton maintains that we would be remiss to ignore the conversion and faith of these men and women.
Of course, the far impressive story numerically is the conversion of many Maori to Mormonism. It is a story that Newton tells well. Mormon missionaries first began serious proselytizing among the Maori in the 1880s. Although a few Maori Saints in Hawkes Bay and Wairarapa were quite wealthy, living on large farms with scores of horses, sheep, and cattle, most lived in poverty (44 – 45). The expropriation of Maori land as a result of the Treaty of Waitangi and the increasing power of the settler government in areas once considered to be under indigenous control had led to a sense of dislocation among many Maori. In the 1880s, a series of Maori prophets made predictions about the arrival of a church that would challenge the supremacy Church of England and restore the sovereignty of the Maori over New Zealand. As Newton points out, these predictions were interpreted in a myriad of ways with many groups claiming that they legitimated their church’s authority and claim on the Maori community (41 – 43). One of the churches who claimed these prophetic announcements as their own was the Mormon Church, which saw them as preparing the Maori for the arrival of the gospel.
Newton’s willingness to place these prophesies within their wider historical context and to admit that they were not universally interpreted as heralding the Mormon faith is just one instance of her sensitivity to Maori culture and belief. She also writes sympathetically about the unwillingness of Maori converts to completely forsake their healing traditions for the administrations of white elders (106 – 107) and describes the role that Hirini Whaanga, a Maori convert who had immigrated to Utah in the 1890s before returning to New Zealand as a missionary, had played in spreading the gospel among native New Zealanders (81 – 89). Although Newton is clearly sympathetic to the Maori people, she maintains respect and deference to church authorities throughout the book. She offsets criticisms of the LDS Maori Agricultural College, for example, which failed to maintain academic standards and was eventually censured by the New Zealand government, with praise for the work that the college did in developing the testimonies of the young men who went there (184 – 192).
If I were to find fault in the book it would be here. Newton frequently points to areas where Mormon missionaries and church authorities misunderstood Maori culture and acknowledges the difficulties Maori converts had in meeting the expectations of Maori culture while maintaining the standards of the church. She discusses, for example, the challenge that missionaries faced in dealing with the facial tattoos, which had been an important part of Maori culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but were falling into disuse by the twentieth. These tattoos had hereditary meaning for the Maori and signaled their rank and status within the community. Mormon missionaries, however, believed that they violated the Word of Wisdom and sought to discipline any member who received the tattoos after baptism or augmented already existing ones. The frequency with which such transgressions occurred, however, forced missionaries to treat the tattoos cautiously. One woman whom a local Maori branch leader had excommunicated had her sentence remitted to a simple act of public confession (105). Newton could have used this instance to explore the tensions within the indigenous Maori community in New Zealand over issues of tradition and faith. Her analysis, however, refuses to push her interpretation this far. Instead, she simply recounts the incident without engaging in any deep analysis of it.
Still, her book is an important one. It is one of the few works to explore the history of the Mormon Church in New Zealand and is thoroughly researched and documented. My desire to see her go further in exploring the meanings of the Mormon faith within Maori culture is evidence of the strength of the book rather than its weakness. Of Tiki and Temple is one of the few books to take the indigenous Maori perspective seriously and as a result, gives the ability to ask such questions of Mormonism.