Many New Zealanders question if our nation ever had a strong heritage of Christian faith. Wiremu Tamihana is the answer to their doubts.
As a young Ngati Haua chief, Tamihana found faith in the early 1830s under the teaching of the CMS missionaries in Matamata. He renounced warfare and instead led his tribe on a different path – establishing the Christian villages of Tapiri and Peria. They included farms, houses, a flour mill, a school and a church that could accommodate 1,000 (perhaps New Zeland’s first so called “mega-church”).
Today you can visit the sites by following Peria Road out of Matamata and looking for the Matamata Historical Society plaques. Most people on this road are looking for Hobbiton – little do they realise it is the road to a far more significant but little known part of New Zealand’s lost Christian legacy.
Wiremu Tamihana went on to become a key player in establishing the Maori King movement. Indeed he was known as the kingmaker and presided over the coronation of the first king Potatau Te Wherowhero with prayer and Bible readings. It was a movement he hoped would bring unity among Maori and help prevent the ongoing alienation of Maori land by reinforcing chiefly authority.
Some might say it was a strategic mistake to set up another “King” rather than simply calling the new leader a paramount chief. The settler government used the formation of the Maori King as evidence of a rebellion against the sovereignty of the Crown. On this basis an inevitable conflict ensued with dire consequences for Maori – including the disintegration and dispersion of Tamihana’s Christian communities in the Waikato.
Perhaps the label “king” was a mistake. However Wiremu Tamihana never was a sly political strategist. He was simply a humble Christian chief who tried to lead his people in the ways of justice and righteousness. As the land now returns to his people, may his legacy of faith also.