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.
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.
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.
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 announced his intention to establish a separate church, Te Haahi Rātana. The authority of Rātana apostles (ministers) to conduct marriages was formally recognised on 21 July 1925.
The Rātana Church embraces other Christian denominations and expresses tolerance towards other faiths. The Rātana cosmology includes the Christian trinity; te Matua, te Tama and te Wairua Tapu (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), adding ngā Anahera Pono (the faithful angels) and sometimes Te Māngai (the mouthpiece) to prayers. Its central book is the Bible, although the Blue Book, written in Māori and containing prayers and hymns (many composed by Rātana), is used in all church services.
The main tohu (symbol) of the church is the five-pointed star and crescent moon, the whetū mārama (shining light), worn on the lapels of mōrehu (the scattered remnant, Rātana followers) and at pivotal points on church buildings. The golden crescent moon (symbolising enlightenment) can face different parts of the coloured star: blue represents te Matua (the Father), white is te Tama (the Son), red is te Wairua Tapu (Holy Spirit) and purple is ngā Anahera Pono. Te whetū mārama represents the kingdom of light or Māramatanga, standing firm against the forces of darkness (mākutu).
Rātana had envisioned a magnificent temple embodying deep biblical truths along with his own revelations. Te Temepara Tapu o Ihoa (the holy temple of Jehovah) with its two imposing bell towers was opened on 25 January 1928, Rātana’s 55th birthday. Officiating was the Japanese bishop Juji Nakada – Rātana and his party had stayed with him in Japan in 1924. At the opening, Rātana stated that his spiritual mission was complete, and church apostles and officers would take on the work.
In forging the 1936 alliance between the Rātana Church and the Labour party, Rātana handed Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage symbolic gifts. The first was three huia feathers projecting from a potato, representing alienated Māori food-growing land. The second was pounamu (greenstone), symbolising lost Māori mana. The third was a broken watch, representing shattered Crown promises. The last was a pin of Te Tohu o te Māramatanga (the symbol of enlightenment) on which is found the star and crescent moon, the emblem of the Rātana Church. Savage was profoundly moved by the gifts.
Rātana’s focus was more political from this point. Rātana harnessed the support of ngā mōrehu to gain representation in Parliament for his koata e whā (the four quarters of his body – symbolic of the four Māori Parliamentary seats). In 1932 Eruera Tirikātene became the first Rātana MP. He was joined in 1935 by Rātana’s son, Tokouru. In 1936 the Rātana movement and the Labour party forged an alliance: the Rātana Church pledged itself to Labour, in return for Labour backing Rātana electoral candidates. By 1943 Rātana had captured all the Māori seats, a stranglehold only broken by the New Zealand First party 50 years later.
In the early 21st century the Rātana Church was the largest Māori denomination in New Zealand, with a 2018 membership of more than 40,000. The movement’s head (tumuaki) is typically a direct descendant of Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana. In 2016 the seventh leader was his grandson, Harerangi Meihana. The church’s governing body is the Kōmiti Haahi Matua (the head church committee) and a synod of church leaders meets every Easter to discuss church matters. Rātana has 127 parishes in New Zealand serviced by 160 registered apostles. There is also an Australian branch which serves several thousand Rātana faithful.
T. W. Rātana gave hope to his people that they were custodians of an important pan-tribal legacy that would help shape New Zealand. They were encouraged to look to te Wairua Tapu (Holy Spirit) and the angels so they would continue the legacy of bringing comfort and healing to the people.
The annual January celebrations of Rātana’s birth attract thousands and are a real spectacle. Rātana’s ‘garden of flowers’ gather at Rātana Pā, including the roopu raupō (psalmists or custodians of the mysteries) brightly adorned in gold, the āwhina (sisters) in purple and white habits, the apotoro rehita (registered apostles) in purple and white robes, the apotoro wairua (lay-readers or spiritual counsellors) in blue and red robes, and the ākonga (disciples) in gold and white. Seven brass bands, each with their own distinctive uniforms, welcome guests, and alongside them are choirs which play an important part in church services.
The celebrations are also a political forum, with politicians queuing up to be welcomed and to speak on the marae. Whereas in the past Labour politicians dominated proceedings, since the early 2000s politicians from other parties have also attended. The event signals the beginning of the political year and affirms the importance of the church in national life.
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Te Whetu Marama [Rātana official magazine] 1924–.