Christianity was founded inby nineteenth-century European missionaries and settlers, with a leaven of American influence. Anglican missions (1814) followed by Wesleyans (1822) and Roman Catholics (1838) made slow progress. Missionaries were frequently used by astute chiefs like Hongi (1777-1828) to further their political aims. Communication was difficult, and missionary lives were more persuasive than their preaching. They were often peacemakers in tribal wars, and freed slaves frequently assisted the work of conversion ahead of missionaries. The King Movement inspired by W. Tamihana (1802-66) combined Christian and Maori ideas, but aroused deep official suspicions. Bitter land wars and unjust confiscations gave the missions an irrevocable setback and inspired Hauhauism (c.1863) and Ringatu founded by Te Kooti (c.1830-93). By 1900 there were few Maori clergy, and even in the heavily Maori Waiapu Diocese no native synodsmen till 1900.
The healer, T.W. Ratana (1870-1939), inspired a significant independent church combining Maori and Christian religion, which had by 1931 linked with the Labour Party and played a vital role in improving the social lot of the Maori, as did those like Sir A. Ngata (1874-1950) educated at Te Aute College (1854). Ngata's important religious ideas had more influence on J.G. Laughton (1891-1965) and the Presbyterian Church than his own Anglican Church, which belatedly consecrated F.A. Bennett (1871-1950) as suffragan bishop to counter the impact of Ratana. Numerical European dominance hampered the development of indigenous Maori Christianity, though K. Ihaka (1921- ) and R.H. Rangiihu (1912- ) are significant leaders. After World War II, migrants from Samoa and the Cook Islands introduced a vigorous Polynesian Christianity, since 1969 largely Presbyterian.
European Christianity was dominated by Anglicans, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, and Methodists. Outside Wakefield colonies like Presbyterian Otago (1848) or Anglican Canterbury (1850), there was no attempt to create an established church. Formerly national churches often found it difficult to adjust to being free churches. Even after the abolition of the provinces, regional loyalties remained strong and nationwide denominations developed slowly, especially among nonepiscopal churches. Presbyterians united in 1901 and Methodists in 1913. Shortage of clergy, isolation, and egalitarianism all contributed to greater lay participation than in Britain, notably among Anglicans, due to the Constitution of 1857, the first in the British Empire to reestablish synodal government.
Despite strong resistance to establishment, cooperation of churches and government has always been important in medical and welfare work and is increasing. Initially churches played a major educational role, but the 1877 Education Act established a free, secular, and compulsory primary system which effectively ended Protestant Schools and left religious instruction on a voluntary basis of doubtful legality till 1962. Led by Bishop P. Moran (1832-96), Roman Catholics established at great sacrifice a virtually complete school system. Apart from some notable secondary schools like Christ's College (1851), Protestants have worked within the state system. In Dunedin and Christchurch, churchmen were active in foundation of universities, though no faculty of theology emerged till 1945 at Otago. Theological colleges like St. John's College (1844), the Theological Hall (1876), Holy Cross College (1900), and halls of residence like Knox College (1909) have been the main Christian contribution to tertiary education. Scholars like J. Dickie (1875-1942), H. Ranston (1878-1971), J.A. Allan (1897- ), and E.M. Blaiklock (1903- ) have been of more than local importance. New Zealand culture has not been strongly influenced by Christianity, though writers like J.K. Baxter (1926- ) are a sign of change.
Interdenominational cooperation has grown steadily from the Bible in Schools movement, through the first National Council of Churches in the Commonwealth (1941) to reunion negotiations which since 1964 have included Anglicans, Associated, Congregationalists, Methodist, and Presbyterians. Protestant-Roman Catholic relations varied from bad to correct, but since 1945, the leveling influence of war and rapid population growth has strengthened previous tendencies to shed inherited and imported denominational differences. and the establishment of a Joint Working Committee in 1967 led to important cooperative ventures like Inter-View '69 and an ecumenical faculty of theology at Otago University (1972).
Radicals like O.E. Burton (1893- ) or L.G. Geering (1918- ) have been rare, but R. Waddell (1850-1932), J. Gibb (1857- 1935), C. Julius (1847-1938), C. West-Watson (1877-1951), J.J. North (1871-1950), J. Liston (1881- ), and P.B. McKeefry (1899- ) have been distinguished national religious leaders, while A.A. Brash (1913- ) and A.H. Johnston (1912- ) have contributed to the international ecumenical movement. Sir W. Nash (1882-1967) and A.H. Nordmeyer (1901- ) have made important Christian contributions to politics. New Zealand Christianity is sober, conservative, and practical, still very British, but increasingly aware of its Pacific and Asian brethren.
J.J. Wilson, The Church in New Zealand (1910-26); J. Elder, History of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand (1939); J.M. Henderson, Ratana (1963); J. Binney, Legacy of Guilt (1968); J.M.R. Owens, “Religious Disputation at Whangaroa 1823-7,” Journal of Polynesian Society (1970); W.P. Morrell, The Anglican Church in New Zealand (1973); E.W. Hames, Coming of Age (1974); J.M.R. Owens, Prophets in the Wilderness (1974); P. Clark, Hauhau (1975); J.E. Worsfold, History of the Charismatic Movements (1975).