Politics and the prophet

by Paul Diamond / 21 February, 2009
A shorter history of the influential Ratana Church.

The religious and political movement founded by Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana in the 1920s continues to have influence. In the 2006 Census, more than 50,000 people listed Ratana - the largest Maori Christian church - as their religion. The movement's political significance was underlined by the strong turnout of politicians at the celebrations marking TW Ratana's birthday last month.

In 1918, TW Ratana had a vision of the Holy Spirit, after which he was known as the mangai, or mouthpiece, and began practising faith-healing.

As visitors flocked to Ratana's home, his reputation grew and a village formed.

He toured the country spreading his ideas, and the Ratana Church was established in 1925. During the 1920s, the movement became more political and stood candidates in the 1928 election. An alliance between the Labour Party and the movement was formed in 1936, and by 1943 Ratana members held all four Maori seats.

For such an influential movement, historical information has, until recently, been surprisingly thin. In Paradise Reforged, his 2001 New Zealand history, James Belich argued, "The antagonism of some Maori, many Pakeha, and the established churches, coupled with [the movement's] own policy 'not to publicise its teachings, except orally', has left the Ratana movement with less historical attention than it deserves."

Keith Newman, an Auckland-based journalist and writer, has done exhaustive research over 20 years in an effort to remedy this. Ratana: The Prophet is a condensed version of his 2006 book Ratana Revisited: An Unfinished Legacy.

According to Newman, both books are "factual and respectful 'interpretive accounts' of the life of TW Ratana and the political, spiritual and social impact of his life and the movement he founded". Describing himself as "a Pakeha of English-Irish descent", Newman has found his Christian faith, and in particular "the life and teachings of Ihu Karaiti and years of Bible study", essential to his understanding of "the true heart of Ratana". Whereas his earlier book was criticised by one reviewer as "incredulous and marred by Pentecostal Christian proselytising", Ratana: The Prophet largely lives up to its billing as "an accessible, illustrated narrative, not a detailed academic reference".

From the outset, the implementation of the Treaty of Waitangi was at the heart of Ratana's political philosophy; the movement brought the Treaty back into the public mind. Newman's explanation of how Ratana's non-tribal approach to achieving this clashed with the methods of contemporaries Apirana Ngata and Te Puea Herangi is fascinating. Documents and photos also illuminate the tours Ratana led to Europe, the US and Japan.

The book features a large number of illustrations, including some taken by Ans Westra, who has played a vital role in documenting the movement. Many other images (including a rare photo of Te Kooti) are from the Ratana Community Archive Trust, which was set up separately from the Ratana Church hierarchy and holds material donated by morehu (faithful survivors) from around the country. Despite the trust's efforts, key texts such as Ratana's diaries and an unpublished history remain in the hands of Ratana family members or the church office.

Some key figures associated with the movement remain strongly opposed to Newman's research, which may account for an unevenness in the book's survey of the period following Ratana's death. Although some areas (for example, the careers of Ratana MPs Eruera Tirikatene and his daughter, Whetu Tirikatene--Sullivan) are covered extensively, there is scant reference to Raniera Ratana, TW Ratana's son, who was the tumuaki or church president from 1991-98.

Ratana: The Prophet is an accessible narrative, but highlights the need for more analytical accounts exploring areas not addressed here. For example, with the antagonism between Ratana and Apirana Ngata and Te Puea identified, it'd be interesting to know more about the underlying factors such as class and social difference. Despite its shortcomings, Ratana: The Prophet will bring the Ratana story to a wider audience, and with Newman's earlier book, will be invaluable for future researchers.

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