The first decades of the twentieth century were a low point for Māori, both in numbers and in spirit. During the nineteenth century, Māori lost their tribal way of life, lands, traditional religion and their mana. Christianity had been accepted, but the missionaries had acted as chaplains to the colonial forces fighting against their Christian converts who were defending their land. Many Māori regarded the missionary clergy as agents of the Government in a deep-laid plot to subjugate the Māori people.
From the 1860s, prophets such as Te Ua Haumene, Te Kooti, Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi put the words of the Bible into terms Māori could understand. The dislocation of colonialism had strained Māori society and led to a belief in a saviour to come.
In 1918, Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana saw a vision, which he regarded as divinely inspired, asking him to preach the gospel to the Māori people, to destroy the power of the tohunga and to cure the spirits and bodies of his people. Until 1924, he preached to increasingly large numbers of Māori, and T.W. Ratana established a name for himself as the "Māori Miracle Man". Initially, the movement was seen as a Christian revival but it soon moved away from mainstream churches. On 31 May 1925, Te Haahi Ratana (The Ratana Church) was formally established as a separate church, with its founder acknowledged as Te Mangai or the mouthpiece of God. Hostile attitudes have caused the church to be guarded towards its teaching and founder.
The Ratana movement was made up of the Ture Wairua or spiritual mission and the Ture Tangata or the secular activities. These two were symbolically represented by the aeroplane and the automobile, with a rope ladder leading from one to another. By 1924, the Church Committee was taking control over religious matters and T.W. Ratana was able to descend from the spiritual to deal with the material requirements of the morehu or church followers.
In 1924, a group including T.W. Ratana journeyed to Europe to unsuccessfully present a petition to George V and the League of Nations on land confiscations and the Treaty of Waitangi and later trips were made to the U.S. and Canada. These trips were not without controversy. The New Zealand Government acted to prevent the petition being presented to the monarch and the visit to Japan on the way back from Europe created allegations of disloyalty and of flying the Japanese flag over the church settlement of Ratana Pa.
When the Ratana temple Te Temepara Tapu o Ihoa (The Holy Temple of Jehovah) was completed on 25 January 1928, Ratana declared his spiritual work was complete. Calling himself Piri Wiri Tua or the campaigner, he called the four seats in Parliament reserved for Māori the koata or the quarters of his body. From the Maori language and literally meaning a quarter, it is applied to each of the four New Zealand Maori seats and the Ratana movement Members of Parliament who held them.
As early as 1923, Ratana had declared an interest in party politics and Haami Tokouru Ratana, his eldest son, had stood for the Western Māori seat as an independent candidate. Now Ratana was determined to capture the Māori seats to give a voice for his movement.
In January 1928, Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana called himself Piri Wiri Tua or the campaigner and called on four followers to be the quarters of his body and rule the land. The 'first cut' was Paraire Karaka Paikea in the North, Haami Tokouru Ratana in the West, Pita Moko in the East, and Eruera Tirikatene in the South with Pita Moko being replaced later by Tiaki Omana in the 'second cut'. The covenant signed by the men promised they would not rest, and their wives separately agreed that they may go barefoot and in rags, in order to represent the Ratana movement. All four went on to capture the Maori seats between 1932 and 1943.
Ratana candidates stood in the 1928 and 1931 General Election and in the 1930 by-election in Western Māori following the death of Maui Pomare but without success. The first Ratana movement MP was Eruera Tirikatene, elected in a by-election for Southern Māori in June 1932. He was followed by Haami Tokouru Ratana (known as Toko) in Western Māori in the 1935 general election. In the 1938 election, the third Māori seat of Northern Māori was captured by Paraire Karaka Paikea and the last, Eastern Māori, was won by Tiaki Omana in the 1943 election.
The Ratana Independent Members of Parliament were the first to represent a political party where most party members were Māori. Statutory recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi, righting the confiscation grievances of the Māori people, and equality in social welfare for Māori were major aims of the movement.
Following the 1935 General Election of the First Labour Government, the two Ratana MPs agreed to vote with Labour. This alliance was formalised with the Ratana movement joining the Labour Party in a meeting between T.W. Ratana and Prime Minister Michael Savage on 22 April 1936. The Prime Minister was given four symbolic gifts — a potato, a broken gold watch, a pounamu hei-tiki and a huia feather. The potato represented loss of Māori land and means of sustenance, the broken watch the broken promises of the Treaty of Waitangi, and the pounamu the mana of the Māori people. If Savage could restore these three, he would earn the right to wear the huia feather to signify his chiefly status. The gifts were regarded as so precious they were buried with Savage at his state funeral in 1940.
The four Māori seats were held by Ratana-affiliated members of Labour for decades — until 1963 for the Eastern Māori seat, 1980 for Northern Māori and 1996 for Western and Southern Māori seats.
Ratana movement members of Parliament have included Tapihana Paraire Paikea, Haami Tokouru Ratana, Matiu Ratana, Iriaka Ratana, Koro Wetere, Paraone Reweti, Matiu Rata and Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan. Mita Ririnui, as of 2006 a List MP and who held the Māori seat of Waiariki from 1999 to 2005, is a Ratana minister.
In both the parliaments of 1946-1948 and of 1957-1960, the formation of a Labour Government depended on the votes of the Ratana Movement members. Not all Labour Party Māori MPs have been members of the Ratana Church, but the alliance with Ratana allowed Labour to hold on to all four Māori seats from the 1940s until 1996.
Although the dominance of the Labour Ratana over the Māori electorates has been broken, the Ratana movement is still a major force in New Zealand politics. Labour Party ministers and MPs attend the annual celebrations at Ratana Pa on the date of Ratana's birth. The 2006 celebration was attended by Labour leader and Prime Minister Helen Clark, leader of the National Party Don Brash, co-leaders of the Māori Party Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples, and leader of New Zealand First Winston Peters.