Former Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives, “Tip” O’Neill, is well known for saying All politics is local. By that he meant that voters choose who they support based on how it effects them locally, instead of on major national ideological issues. While how true this is may be debatable (don’t here, its off topic), I think it extends to history also. All history is local.
Too often the history that is most popular, and even that produced by academics, is concentrated in events and periods that capture the public’s imagination. In the U.S., look at the lineup for the History Channel or what appears on the bookshelves of large bookstores—you might get the idea that U.S. history is mostly the Civil War and World War II. In Mormon history, the concentration is on the Joseph Smith period and on the territorial Utah period. I sometimes wonder if Mormon history for most LDS Church members stopped by 1890!
Along with this period bias in Mormon history there is a similar bias towards what happened at Church Headquarters and those saints who gathered to be with the bulk of the Church. What happened in Utah is usually more important than what happened in California or the Eastern U.S. or anywhere else. Even in the Mormon histories that do look at Mormonism on the peripheries it is unusual to find citations to sources in libraries outside of Utah or in languages other than English. I don’t want to overlook the difficulties in finding and using such sources, but I also don’t want to ignore the fact that much of this problem stems not from the difficulty in getting sources, but from a lack of interest in the local.
Which brings me back to my extrapolation of Tip O’Neill’s statement. Since all historical events and movements have to happen in some location, the local context is often very important. The discovery of previously unknown history and connections can only happen when researchers have explored multiple local contexts or compiled enough information on important events in many separate locations that inferences can be drawn from events. Since general histories are often based on studies done of many events in many different places, I wonder how much confidence we can have in any general history of 20th century Mormonism, given that so much local history has not been sufficiently explored.
New Zealand Mormon History
The above thoughts made me very interested in reading Tiki and Temple: The Mormon Mission in New Zealand, 1854-1958, a substantial local history of an area that I know little about. Before reading this book, all I knew about Mormonism in New Zealand was that the Church had been very successful among the Maori (90% of Church members in New Zealand in 1955 were Maori), that Apostle Matthew Cowley had served mission there (what an understatement that turns out to be) and spoke in General Conference about the faith and faithfulness of the Maori, and that New Zealand has more Mormons per 1000 people than the US.
Of course, those facts are just trivia in comparison to the larger story about this country and it’s people. Tiki and Temple is full of wonderful and colorful stories about the rather long history Mormonism there which make for an engaging read. I liked the stories of long-time members, like the Going family (think of family member and New Zealand rugby star Sid Going, who was mentioned in General Conference) whose history in the church goes back more than 100 years. The family once cut down the largest tree on their property to provide all the timber needed (from a single tree!) for a wooden framed LDS meeting house. The story of the translation of the Book of Mormon is here (much more interesting than the tepid version published recently in the Deseret News). I liked learning about the service of Mormons in both world wars (there were both heroes and casualties, including a member of the Going family in World War I). And I loved the story of Maori LDS Church member Rangikawea Puriri, who, at the start of World War II, traveled 175 miles to Wellington to enlist as a chaplain. Rejected because of his age, he returned home and died the following year at age 102. Having already served in three wars, he was buried with full military honors.
More important than these stories are the issues that this local history raises for Mormon history in general and for local Mormon history elsewhere. These issues show how local Mormon history is important and something that even the average Church member who doesn’t live in an area should want to read.
For example, New Zealand Mormons struggled with a varied of cultural issues through the entire length of the period covered, trying to reconcile Maori customs, from the significant, like the lack of a formal Maori marriage ceremony, to the more mundane, like how “appropriate” is the traditional Maori dance, the “haka,” which mission president alternately prohibited and permitted at Church functions. Complicating these cultural issues are the health, welfare and other problems associated with those customs, the difficulty of integrating them with Western economic and cultural systems, and even the moral issues that arise when Maori customs conflicted with church teachings. In addition to teaching western farming and hygiene, Mormon leaders faced issues like how to deal with Maori customs like giving away children of all ages to extended family and friends, regardless of the relative or friend’s religion. The cultural issues Mormonism faced in New Zealand are likely just the local version of what the Church has and is facing elsewhere.
Another significant issue throughout the book are the challenges that missionaries faced from a variety of issues, like government interference, language, illness and a lack of financial resources. Like many other countries, mission presidents in New Zealand faced visa problems starting in 1916, which may have arisen because of negative perceptions of Mormons and the influence of competing clergy. Resolution took years and decades, and often involved negotiations between Aukland, Washington D.C. and London.
Because missionaries in New Zealand had more success among the then predominantly rural Maori, the missionaries spent much of their time traveling between various Maori settlements, generally on foot but sometimes on horseback. This meant leaving each area for weeks or months at a time, and sometimes returning to find a rival preacher taking advantage of the missionary’s absence.
Just as in much of the rest of the world, the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918 had a huge effect on the missionaries and mission in New Zealand, with missionaries not only struggling to stay healthy, but also working to keep others alive. The mission also faced significant financial difficulties, largely stemming from the fact that the concept of tithing was so foreign to Maori culture that missionaries didn’t even try to teach it until the first decades of the 20th century — Maori weren’t really expected to pay tithing! Since many of the difficulties that the mission faced are things I’ve heard of elsewhere around the world, I wonder what conclusions might be drawn from these difficulties.
The development of local leaders, another issue in the book that is relevant to Mormon history elsewhere, is somewhat unusual in New Zealand. While the mission initially acted like other missions and put missionaries in leadership positions throughout the mission, an acute shortage of missionaries led to Maori branch and district leaders throughout the mission by 1928. But later local leaders were released and missionaries were again made district leaders throughout the mission. From today’s perspective, that might seem odd, since we try to have local leaders as early as possible. Given that local leadership was an issue in at least one other mission (Mexico, where it led to the Third Convention schism), I wonder what conclusions might be drawn from the changes in policy over the 20th century?
Perhaps more than any other mission in the Church before 1960, the building program in New Zealand was a significant part of member lives and the efforts of local missionaries. Starting as early as 1913, the mission built first one residential High School (called the Maori Agricultural College, which lasted until 1931) and then a second (the Church College of New Zealand, 1958-2009), followed by a Temple (dedicated 1958). These projects were, of course, in addition to many local meetinghouses and the very unusual “carved house” project, a community building employing Maori craftsman using traditional techniques. As a result, building projects make up a significant part of this book (which at one point almost becomes a building history), as it no doubt did for many other areas of the Church during the 20th century.
In all of these broad subject areas, local Mormon history in New Zealand has something of value to say about Mormon history in general. The New Zealand experience either adds to or even, on occasion, exposes heretofore unexplored history. We all owe a debt to Marjorie Newton, and to other local historians (insert shout out to Ardis here!!), who not only open these lines of inquiry, but also put a human face on the Mormon experience.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that this book is all that it could be. While I see it as very valuable, I’m not sure that publisher Greg Kofford saw that perception in the Mormon market, and perhaps limited the amount of editorial work put into the book (either that or the author was in a hurry and wouldn’t put the work necessary into making the text better). Chief among the problems is the failure to connect the story to larger contexts, both to the larger New Zealand context and to the context of general Mormon history. In addition, I didn’t quite understand the organization of the book. Chapter divisions seemed to be as much about the length of the chapter as the content, instead of any natural divisions in the chronology or content, at least as far as I can see.
The text also suffers from the author being a bit to close to the subject, which seems to be the best explanation for omitting facts that are, I assume, obvious to the author, but not likely to be clear to those of us who do not live in New Zealand. For example, the author mentions a “Church Trust Board” in a couple of places, but never explains what that is. The text also includes a number of cultural terms like Waitangi, heritage (based on context it clearly isn’t just the dictionary meaning of the word) and Patriotic Fund that are never explained or defined. Thorough editing could have resolved problems like this, cleaned up chapters 6 and 7, which read kind of like a General Authority travelogue and building chronology, and perhaps even fixed the fact that the maps included don’t show the location of many of the places mentioned in the book (and the text generally doesn’t help by listing nearby landmarks on the map).
But, the overall contributions made by Tiki and Temple far outweigh these weaknesses. The book is still a fascinating and enjoyable read—something that can, perhaps after a little thought and study, add to everyone’s understanding of LDS Church history, regardless of where we live.
[Note: The publisher, Greg Kofford Books, provided an advance reading copy for this review.]