Taupotiki Wiremu Ratana (1870-1939) was the founder of the Ratana Church and a major force in the spiritual, political, and material development of the New Zealand Maori people.
Taupotiki Wiremu (Bill) Ratana was born on January 25, 1870, to Urukohai, or Wiremu Kowhai, a farmer reputedly possessed of prophetic powers, and Ihipera. His upbringing appears to have given little indication of the role he was later to play, although the formative influence of an aunt, Mere Rikiriki, should be noted. She was renowned as something of a prophet, and in 1912 she indicated that her nephew would become the focus of the aspirations and striving of his people.
His relative lack of formal education—he ended his school career in the fourth grade—served to distinguish him from other Maori leaders such as those active in the Young Maori Party, but this lack of a high level of European style education did not disadvantage him. The post World War I era saw some disillusionment with things European and with the traditional hierarchial structure of Maori society. Returning soldiers who had fought for a better society saw little in the way of change for the better. More Maori land had been alienated and little seemed likely to change. One of their concerns was to find a leader with a standing based upon achievement recognized within their own society rather than upon things European.
The outbreak of the influenza epidemic in 1918 produced a major shock to the society. It is said that the Maori mortality rate, at over 22 per thousand, was more than four times that of the European population. One result of the shock was to produce an audience whose mood was receptive to Ratana's accounts of religious experiences that he had at this time. War and influenza provided the catalysts which speeded the development of Ratana's influence.
The spiritual message he offered was timely for the many affected by the loss of family and friends. Ratana himself was only slightly affected by the epidemic although many of his close kin died. In November 1918 he experienced a vision when a cloud rose out of the Tasman sea and moved towards him. A voice told him:
Ratana, I appoint you as the mouthpiece of the God for the multitude of this land. He became convinced that the prophecy of his aunt and the earlier voices he had heard in the fields were sufficient to mark him as one who had been called to promote the causes of Christianity and unity among his people and to act against superstitions and tribal affiliations and structures.
He had many examples of previous leaders who had been held in awe as having religious standing as well as political. King Tawhiao, Te Ua Haumene, Te Kooti Rikirangi, and Te Whiti O Rongomai had all held power at least partially derived from their espousal of religious beliefs fundamentally based upon the Judaic-Christian message of the Bible.
Spiritualist faith healing formed a fundamental part of the way in which the early movement spread. Ratana's fame spread directly from the cure of his own son, Omeka, in 1918 to the cure of some one hundred at the Christmas 1920 gathering of 3,000 people. This took the form of a multi-denominational celebration under the control of his second cousin, Robert Tahupotiki Haddon, a minister of the Methodist Church.
The Ratana Church grew rapidly and initially attracted support from the established church. A settlement developed which became known as Ratana Pa, and at its peak the movement had approximately 20,000 members, about two-thirds of Anglican Church membership.
From an early date, however, political issues were woven in with the religious ones. Ratana's journey overseas in 1924 with a petition on the Treaty of Waitangi followed the steps of Parore in 1882 and Tawhiao in 1884. No interview with the British king or prime minister was achieved by Ratana, and a visit to Geneva found the League of Nations not in session.
By 1924 there was a break with the established church. Ratana Church matters were left increasingly to others, and from 1928 the political aims absorbed most of Ratana's energies. A dual role was always emphasized, both in statement and in the pictorial presentation of the movement. The Bible contained the spiritual message while the Treaty of Waitangi signed by Maoris and the British in 1840 represented the political one. The events of the Depression in the 1930s boosted support for the movement. An informal alliance was struck with the Labour Party, and this led to the exertion of some degree of influence as eventually all of the four Maori seats in the House of Representatives were won by Ratana members. Ratana himself took an active part in these events up until his death on September 18, 1939.
Ratana had associated himself with the ordinary people, rather than with the traditional leaders. His Christianity was couched in terms that were easily understood rather than cloaked in intellectual mystique, and it was a Christianity which was strongly tinged with socialist leanings. His movement had challenged the existing order. He saw, in the 1930s, the demise of both Coates, as representative of that order among the Europeans, and, in the political defeat of Sir Apirana Ngata in 1934, the demise of the more traditional alternative leadership among the Maoris.
Tauhupotiki Wiremu Ratana is listed in the standard works of history and biography on New Zealand, including: A Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, G. H. Scholefield, editor (1940), vol. 2; New Zealand Encyclopaedia, Gordon McLauchlan, editor-in-chief (1984); The Oxford History of New Zealand, W. H. Oliver, editor (1981); and The New Zealand Book of Events, Bryce Fraser, editor (1986). Longer accounts of his life are to be found in J. McLeod Henderson, Ratana: The Man, the Church, the Political Movement (1972) and in H. H. Bolitho, Ratana, the Maori Miracle Man (1921).