The tattered, brown leather photo album was unearthed recently in the Auckland New Zealand Harbour Stake library. Entitled Historical Record of New Zealand Missionaries, it contains photos of more than one hundred missionaries who served in New Zealand from 1915 to 1920. Some of the photographs are unidentified. Others are instantly recognizable, such as the one signed “Matt Cowley 1916.” It is unquestionably the same man who served so faithfully here as a mission president before and during World War II, and who was beloved by New Zealand members when he was Elder Matthew Cowley of the Quorum of the Twelve.
Almost seventy years later, would missionaries like young Matt Cowley or well-liked Elder Leslie Burbidge, or the thousands of other missionaries and members who have helped build up the Church in New Zealand be pleased with the growth of the Church here?
The response might well be “Yes. The Church in New Zealand has made tremendous progress. But, as always, more can be done.” The Church’s interesting, often inspiring, past in New Zealand has been only the prelude to a bright future.
Though the gospel was first introduced in New Zealand in the 1850s, the country’s first stake, in Auckland, was not organized until 1958. Today, New Zealand has sixteen stakes, two districts, and two missions. Latter-day Saints now worship in more than one hundred beautiful chapels scattered throughout the North and South Islands. And, of course, the focal point of the Church here is the New Zealand Temple, at Temple View near Hamilton, dedicated thirty-one years ago in 1958.
Members in New Zealand have felt a strong bond with the South Pacific Area presidency Elder F. Arthur Kay and his two counselors, Elder Glen L. Rudd and Elder Douglas J. Martin. Elder Rudd’s association with New Zealand has spanned half a century, and Elder Martin is New Zealand’s first General Authority.
This presidency has set goals that local priesthood leaders and members are working hard to realize: to help more fathers receive and magnify the Melchizedek Priesthood; to increase convert baptisms; to increase numbers of young men and older couples who serve missions; to increase seminary enrollment and youth activity; and to increase temple attendance and work for the dead.
Renewed commitment to these goals comes at a time when Church members, along with other New Zealanders, increasingly feel worldly influences pressing in on them. In earlier decades, New Zealand was sometimes thought of as a sleepy little place about thirty years behind the rest of the world. In recent years, as the progress of the Church has accelerated, so too, it seems, has the encroachment of worldliness.
Parents like Sheryl and Scott Butters of Wellington work closely with their seven children, ages two to twelve, to counteract changing community standards. The Butters family live in Wellington’s central city area; Brother Butters is bishop of the Wellington West Ward. They have been concerned about an increase in inappropriate language and disrespect in the school their children attend. There are also drinking, smoking, and drug problems.
“We try always to be as positive as we can,” says Sheryl. “We teach our children that although many people in the world may be unhappy, it doesn’t mean that everyone has to be miserable. During our family scripture study, we help the children see how life around them is similar to what happened in Book of Mormon times. We relate the messages of the scriptures to our everyday lives.”
After school each day, Sheryl gathers her children around her to talk about their day. Family home evening is another strengthening influence.
Following the goals set for Church growth in New Zealand, the Area Presidency has recognized seminary as a powerful means of helping youth gain gospel knowledge, faith, and testimony.
Fourteen-year-old Janet Swaney of Springfield, near Christchurch, is an example of a young Latter-day Saint who draws strength from the gospel. She is the only young woman among the small group of Latter-day Saints at Burnham, part of the Christchurch New Zealand Stake. She is also one of only three LDS students at her high school.
“Sometimes I wish there were other Latter-day Saint young women nearby,” Janet says. Nonmember friends at school respect her membership in the Church. But Janet must turn to family scripture study, family home evening, and home study seminary to build her spiritual strength.
Encouraging spiritual growth through seminary is related to the Area Presidency’s goal of increasing the number of young men who serve missions. Seminary graduates take greater proselyting power into the mission field and add strength to wards and stakes when they return home.
As he prepares for temple marriage, returned missionary Kingi Newton of the Wellington West Ward recognizes the great blessings that have come into his life through the gospel. Bishops, teachers, good friends, and a loving grandmother who reared him in the Church helped direct him along the right path. Seminary was also a strong influence. “The daily scripture study and fellowship with other young men and young women were a great strength,” Kingi recalls. He is also grateful for the spiritual discipline he gained through missionary service. This self-mastery is necessary to help LDS youth conquer the evils facing them today, because, he says, “The most fierce battles ever fought are in our own hearts.”
The Church College of New Zealand, at Temple View, continues to make significant contributions in strengthening the testimonies of young Latter-day Saints. The college, a high-school-level institution by U.S.–Canada standards, has 680 students ages twelve to eighteen; 93 percent of them are LDS. In addition to traditional academic subjects, the school aims to teach students faith in Christ and the gospel and leadership skills that will benefit their families, the Church, and the nation.
Principal Robert Perriton was a pupil in the school when it opened in 1958 and has worked there for seventeen years. “I think the school has been an anchor in New Zealand Church society,” he says. “It is certainly fulfilling the goal for which it was established—to build strong young people in the gospel.”
CCNZ students do well academically and athletically. The sportsmanship of CCNZ teams and the enthusiasm and ability of its music and cultural groups have set good examples throughout New Zealand. In addition, attendance at CCNZ seems to have lasting spiritual effects that benefit young people and the Church. For example, more than one-fifth of the current stake presidents and bishops in New Zealand attended the Church College. In 1988, 50 percent of the missionaries trained at Temple View were CCNZ alumni; so, too, were 30 percent of those married in the New Zealand Temple last year.
“I think the quality of the students coming to us is constantly improving,” Brother Perriton comments. This is manifest by the numbers of LDS students who are going on to universities—a trend that has gained strength over the past ten years. “Last year in Waikato University alone,” Brother Perriton says, “sixty of the sixty-six LDS students were from the Church College of New Zealand.”
The Church in New Zealand today is built on a foundation of faith laid largely by Maori members between the 1880s and the 1950s. Maoris and other Polynesians still make up a larger proportion of Church membership than their proportion in New Zealand’s population.
Beginning in the 1880s, the Maoris began to embrace the gospel in large numbers. Most early pakeha members—those of Caucasian descent—were emigrating to Utah at that time, so the Maori members held the Church together in New Zealand until its resurgence among the general population in the 1950s. Now the Church’s multicultural composition is seen as a strength in an era when New Zealand’s society as a whole has been experiencing increasing ethnic intolerance.
Government census figures show that New Zealand-born Maoris and pakehas currently make up 84 percent of the Church membership here. Polynesians from Pacific islands who have come to make their homes in New Zealand constitute another 11 percent. To meet their needs, there are a number of Samoan, Tongan, and Niuean Church units throughout the country. The rest of the Church membership is a mixture of Australians, British, Europeans, Asians, and North Americans.
Many current Church leaders are second- or even first-generation members, yet their confidence and depth suggest much longer tenure.
Keith Thompson, a second-generation Latter-day Saint, is first counselor in the Auckland New Zealand Harbour Stake presidency, and a lawyer by profession. He is a firm believer that “we were born in New Zealand for a reason, and we need to stay and build up the leadership. When good people leave, we lose ground,” he says.
In 1958, William Roberts of Milford, Auckland, was called to be a counselor in New Zealand’s first stake presidency in Auckland. Two years later, he became the first New Zealander to be called as stake president. At the time, the LDS population of the Auckland area was 2,400. When President Roberts was released ten years later, it had grown to 10,000. Now there are six stakes where he once led one. More than 400 full-time missionaries serve in the country’s two missions, and more than 1,500 converts were baptized last year.
This growth, and New Zealanders’ efforts to measure up to gospel opportunities, are gratifying, Brother Roberts reflects. But he cautions that members must live the truths they know or these truths are of little use. “We cannot be complacent about the gospel,” he says.
Reactivation is a high priority among New Zealand Saints. For example, last year the New Zealand Auckland Mission helped reactivate more than one thousand people, says President Herschel Pedersen. “Reactivation to strengthen the stakes is a major area we need to work in,” he explains, so that new converts will find immediate fellowship and opportunities for growth.
Harsh economic conditions in New Zealand during recent years have affected the life-style of Church members. New Zealanders have faced high interest rates (sometimes 20 to 30 percent), high inflation, and high unemployment (a national rate above 10 percent). These conditions have placed financial strain on families, particularly among those with many children; often both parents have to work to provide a livable income. Still, many faithful LDS families are making ends meet and finding time to serve as well.
Manu Nikoia, of the Auckland New Zealand Henderson Stake’s Twenty-ninth Ward, works fourteen hours a day at two different jobs to support his family of seven children, ages three to seventeen. His wife, Judy, supplements their income by doing computer bookkeeping from their home and by working through the night once a week in a bakery. Judy still finds time to serve as stake Primary president, while Manu is a counselor in their ward’s bishopric.
“The great thing about the gospel is that, though you know you won’t necessarily be spared hardship, you also know you won’t be left on your own. You will eventually come through,” Judy says. “We have always paid our tithing. As a bookkeeper, I know that we have had weeks when, on paper, the money that was going out didn’t balance with the money that was coming in. But somehow it has always worked out. When you do your part, the blessings come.”
That kind of faith is common among Latter-day Saints in New Zealand. It is also seen in a number of other measures of gospel growth. In 1977, for example, when groups from Australia, Tonga, Tahiti, and Samoa shared the New Zealand Temple with the New Zealand members, fifty-two thousand endowments were performed. Eleven years later, with four additional temples (Apia Samoa, Nuku’Alofa Tonga, Papeete Tahiti, and Sydney Australia) serving the same area, New Zealand Temple endowments totaled more than eighty thousand. Several factors have helped members to increase their temple attendance: more flexible temple session times, more stake temple trips, and more short-term “patron” missions by members of the New Zealand stakes.
C. Sydney Shepherd, regional representative for the Wellington New Zealand, Christchurch New Zealand, and Hawkes Bay New Zealand regions, says the greatest increase in temple work has come from members who have to travel the farthest: “Wellington, Upper Hutt, and Kaikohe stakes have all shown remarkable faithfulness, traveling up to eight hours each way.”
Temple workers have noticed not only greater numbers of people attending the temple, but also more members receiving their own endowments.
Eliza Wilson of the Hamilton stake’s First Ward is one of those for whom temple work is a very personal blessing. She was baptized in 1984, a year after the death of her husband, William. The plan of salvation and baptism for the dead were two gospel principles that attracted her to the Church when the missionaries taught her. “You know, I love my husband even more now than I did when he was on earth,” she says. “The closeness I feel to him through our temple sealing is a blessing.”
There are additional blessings in Church membership for Sister Wilson. She and her husband did not have children, but now, as a Primary teacher, visiting teacher, and librarian in the family history center, she is developing close ties with children and other members.
While the growth of the Church has been measured in the past by numbers of buildings and congregations, today there are more subtle signs of continuing maturation in the gospel. Local members rejoice in such indicators of progress as the existence of a missionary training center in New Zealand and the easy accessibility of family history resources through nineteen family history centers. Last year’s visit by the Tabernacle Choir was a historical event. Every Latter-day Saint felt a surge of pride and uplift because of the choir’s success.
The pace at which the Lord’s work continues in New Zealand will depend on the faith and efforts of local members. That tattered old missionary photo album discovered in Auckland is a reminder of how far the Church has come since the early part of this century. Perhaps, in another sixty years, Latter-day Saints in New Zealand will open the Ensign and look back on the Church as it was here in the late 1980s. How well we live today will determine the progress they will see in the span between our era and theirs.
Tina Dil is public communications director for New Zealand.