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Oceanic Religions: Missionary Movements


Although nearly all Pacific Islanders are Christianswith the exception of the inhabitants of inland New Guinea, where Christianity has made only some inroadsa few villages, families, and individuals maintain a "heathen" religious status. Although Christianity is deeply entrenched in the Pacific, it is only one of the several cosmological planes on which the islanders simultaneously exist without feeling a sense of contradiction. Families still decide which son will be trained to be a chief; which will receive a European education in order to become a civil servant, Protestant pastor, or Catholic priest or cathechist; and which will stay in the village to learn the traditional religious lore to keep open the old paths to the invisible world.

The Christianity of Pacific Islanders has a predominantly mythical quality. Maurice Leenhardt (1922) captured the essence of Pacific Islanders' understanding of Christianity in his account of Melanesian soldiers passing through the Suez Canal in 1915. These soldiers were astonished to learn that they were near the lands of the Bible. They wrote home to express their surprise: they had never thought that the places mentioned in the Bible actually existed. Even today many islanders do not recognize the historical and even geographical value of the biblical narrative; for them it is merely a story, and Jerusalem and other holy places have only a symbolic existence. However, they rarely say this to a white person. The testimony of the few islanders who have been to Israel carries little weight with the rest.

History of Christian Missions in the Pacific

There are both Protestant and Catholic communities on most of the Pacific Islands, with adherents of Protestantism usually being in the majority. The most recent missions have been those of the Seventh-day Adventists, Assemblies of God, Jehovah's Witnesses, Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Baha'i. Among these groups only the Seventh-day Adventists and the Mormons have had substantial success. In Hawai'i, Tahiti, and the Tuamotus, and more recently in Fiji, Mormon missionary activity has given rise to a breakaway church, the Kanito (or Sanito) movement.

In earlier times, Protestant churches carefully divided the Pacific area into regions in which the different missionary groups would carry out their activities. In 1795 the newly formed London Missionary Society chose Tahiti as its first field for missionary work. After many difficulties it expanded its operations to the Austral Islands, the Cook Islands, Samoa, the Loyalty Islands, western and eastern Papua (southeastern New Guinea), and the Torres Islands. The Wesleyan Missionary Society, which was founded in London in 1814, did its first work on Tonga, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, and New Zealand. The Anglican Church, represented by the Melanesian Mission based in Auckland, New Zealand, was active in northern Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides Islands and Banks Islands) and the eastern Solomon Islands. The South Seas Evangelical Mission, based in Queensland, Australia, and theoretically nondenominational though predominantly Baptist, worked in the central Solomons. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, founded in Boston in 1820, was active in Hawai'i and the parts of Micronesia that had not been converted to Catholicism after the time of the explorer Ferdinand Magellan (the Gilbert Islands, now known as Kiribati). The Scottish Presbyterians converted the inhabitants of southern and central Vanuatu. New Zealand was shared among the Church Missionary Society (founded in London in 1799), the Wesleyan Mission, and the Anglican Church. In New Guinea the authorities tried to organize mission work by allocating specific areas to different groups, but before 1914 the northern part of the country had been under the control of Germany, which allowed the Lutheran Church and the Catholic orders to conduct missionary activities in that area. After about half a century the Methodist and Presbyterian churches of New Zealand and Australia took over responsibility in those islands from the churches in the mother countries; the Presbyterians would assign the west coast to Australian missions and the east coast to New Zealand missions.

Roman Catholic missions were rarely the first to arrive in any part of Oceania, and this explains why Catholics are in the minority on most of the islands. The Marist Fathers (Société de Marie) founded in Lyons in 1818, missionized the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, New Zealand, Bougainville, the Wallis and Futuna Islands, and New Caledonia; in the last three places Catholics today constitute a majority of the population. The Fathers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, based in Paris, have been active in Hawai'i, Tahiti, and the Marquesas Islands. The Fathers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, originally of Issoudun, France, worked first among the natives of Papua and later in New Britain, the Admiralty Islands, the Gilbert Islands, and Nauru. Other Catholic orders have been successful elsewhere in the area. Catholic Marists who became martyrs include Monseigneur Epalle in the Solomons in 1845 and Father (Saint) Pierre Chanel in Futuna in 1841. The murder of Brother Blaise Mamoiton in Balade, New Caledonia, in 1845 is explained by the people there as resulting from his assignment to look after the mission's food supplies with the assistance of a large dog he had trained to run after and bite the Kanak. There was a famine, and the Marist Fathers refused to share their provisions with the local people. The Kanak killed both the dog and the brother to take food in a time of need.

The history of Christianization shows some regularities, inasmuch as all the Protestant and Catholic missionary bodies used the same technique. Mass conversions were precipitated through the conversion of members of the local aristocracy. Before direct colonial administration was instituted, native leaders often became Christians to obtain official recognition from European powers. Thereafter, they asked for and were sold firearms, which they used to overcome local enemies and establish dominant dynasties. Rival chiefs adopted different faiths, and there were religious wars in Samoa, Tonga, the Wallis Island, Fiji, and Ouvéa and Maré in the Loyalty Islands between Catholic and Protestant converts. The Seventh-day Adventists, to the discomfort of the well-established churches, thrived by converting groups whose politics did not agree with those of the majority church. The Assemblies of God, the Jehovah's Witnesses, and to a lesser extent the Mormons have made gains in a similar fashion.

Christian missions in the Pacific have frequently become involved in local disputes over land and social status. Missionaries were often used by one party to thwart the ambitions of another. There were examples of this in western Tanna in Vanuatu, where the Presbyterian mission was involved in the city of Lenakel, and in Wagap in New Caledonia, where the Marist Fathers were used by a party in a land squabble. The Marists panicked when they were caught in a row with dancing armed Kanaks and called for military reinforcements. The officer in charge decided to shoot a group of chiefs who had been called in to negotitate. The Wagap mission had to be closed because of the bloodshed. Scottish missionary John G. Paton left Port Resolution in the night to save himself from would-be murderers, who actually had resorted to theatricals to end his interference in their daily lives. Paton came back with a British man-of-war and had the village shelled, with the loss of only a few pigs and coconut trees. That overreaction blocked the Christianization of the area for half a century. There have been a number of similar cases, the best documented having occurred on Samoa.

To consolidate the effects of sometimes hurried conversions, missionaries established programs to educate native youths as future leaders in the movement to spread the Christian faith. All the missions set up boarding schools, to which children were brought at an early age; these children were separated from their parents for many years and were taught by often untrained and sometimes self-appointed teachers. When the children grew up, the missionaries would arrange Christian marriages for them.

This system of conversion and indoctrination was employed first by the London Missionary Society, after initial difficulties in Tahiti, with a view toward using Christian couples from one island to establish the mission's influence on other islands. After this period Europeans were introduced as missionaries only in areas where their safety was assured. Thus, except for the Reverend John Williams, who was killed on Eromanga in Vanuatu in 1839, and the Reverend G. N. Gordon, who was killed in the same place in 1861, most of the Christian martyrs in New Caledonia and Vanuatu were Polynesians or, later, Melanesian teachers from the Loyalty Islands in New Caledonia proper; those teachers later worked in Papua and the Torrès Islands.

There were few martyrs. It was Polynesian evangelists who began the public burning of wooden "idols," and in general these native missionaries used highly militant and sometimes violent tactics to gain converts. The best-documented cases of violent conversion occurred in Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Fiji, and southern Vanuatu. However, these incidents occurred only because the missionaries who perpetrated them had wide popular support; rapid mass conversion was seen either as a means of obtaining recognition from European powers or as a way of discouraging European encroachments, which could be shown to be breaches of Christian ethics.

Impact of Christian Missions

Protestant missions tended to build village parishes around nuclei of adult communicant members, deacons, and native teachers or, much later, pastors. These teachers and their wives had been trained in centralized institutions, and they often replaced the European missionaries who had performed the initial conversions. The desire to have a resident white man who could provide protection against all others, and the prestige derived from that man's presence, resulted in a type of long-lasting collective sorrow when a white missionary left and was replaced by a native teacher, as occurred on the island of Futuna in South Vanuatu when Dr. Gunn departed, and on the island of Mota in the Banks Islands when the Anglican Theological College's staff and students were sent to the Solomon Islands. The London Missionary Society and the Anglican Church added strong Bible study groups and women's associations to this structure. Catholic missionaries usually were content with installing a catechist in each village to promote further conversions. The first Kanak priest, Robert Sarawia, was consecrated by the Melanesian Mission in 1874; other missions waited the better part of a century before following suit.

Missions eventually became involved in promoting trade between Europe and the islands. The impetus for that trade came in part from the newly converted natives, who from the outset wanted access to European money and goods. The London Missionary Society, the Anglicans, and the Church Missionary Society bought or leased ships to supply food to their widely dispersed converts and established chains of local trading stations. Those well-organized local mission stations prospered and also acted as a means of bringing native produce to European markets. Eventually, the missions also acquired plantations.

At first the missionaries claimed that this was done to prevent Europeans from staking claims to large tracts of land. Eventually, however, missions began to obtain lands for their commercial potential and to support their work, and the native inhabitants suffered economically. In some cases, disputes over land acquired by the missions still have not been resolved. Those missions became a source of controversy for the churches, and sometimes the land was taken back by the local inhabitants at the time of independence. Mission general stores were intended to provide native converts with access to European goods at a reasonable price. On islands that came under colonial rule, these stores were denounced by European settlers, most of whom wanted to garner quick profits from trade with the natives and establish themselves as agricultural barons. The resulting bad relations between the missions and the local Europeans continued until the time of independence.

Nuns and missionaries' wives trained women and girls in new ways of dressing, sewing, and cooking, as well as new methods of child care and general hygiene. This explains the early popularity of portable sewing machines among women over all the islands. They also taught the women to read and write in their own languages, while their husbands taught the same skills to the native men. The acquisition of literacy was welcomed by the islanders and helped them deal with the pressures introduced by the whites.

There were as many Catholic nuns involved in mission work as Catholic priests and brothers. The nuns attended to the daily needs of the priests, ran mission schools, and sometimes did medical work. Local orders, which recruited native women, were often founded on the islands.

It was in the area of intellectual life that missionaries had their greatest impact on Pacific Island societies. The London Missionary Society commissioned the German philologist F. Max Müller to design a system of writing for the Oceanic languages, and Protestant clergymen devoted much of their time to learning native languages and translating the Bible into them. Newly literate islanders were proud to acquire Bibles and other religious publications, such as John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Since the content of the Bible was familiar to nineteenth-century Europeans, it could serve as common conceptual ground and a medium of communication between native inhabitants and Europeans.

The islanders adopted biblical patterns of speech and behavior to make themselves acceptable to Europeans. They also put forth the biblical kings David and Solomon as models of Christian statesmanship in an attempt to deter Europeans from establishing colonial control over the islands. However, the Kingdom of Tonga (which managed to evade any sort of colonial system) and Western Samoa have managed to maintain a rather carefully drawn line between European ideas and traditional patterns of political behavior.

The curricula of the missionary schools in the mid-nineteenth century were strikingly modern. In the lower grades, classes were taught exclusively in the vernacular. In the upper grades instruction in the native language was supplemented by education in English or French for the most promising students. Eventually parents demanded a thoroughly European education for their children. In the 1930s, the Seventh-day Adventists were the first to open schools with curricula modeled on the European system and taught completely in European languages; other Christian groups quickly followed suit. However, these schools have been returning (in some cases) to the original system of classes taught in the native tongues with English or French as a second language, particularly as islanders have begun to work for the preservation of their languages and cultures.

The medical work of the missions was difficult in the early years. Western medicine had few remedies for tropical diseases and was not much more successful at curing illnesses such as smallpox, measles, influenza, tuberculosis, and venereal diseases, all of which had been brought to the islands by Europeans. The natives died in large numbers while the missionaries preached. Gonorrhea was an enduring scourge that rendered women unable to bear children and kept the islands' populations low for two centuries. Syphilis was rare, however, because of its cross-immunity with yaws. Eventually missionary organizations added trained doctors to their staffs and set up the first modern hospitals in the islands.

Much has been written about the connections between the French and British governments and their national missionary bodies, and missionaries often called upon their nations' naval vessels to provide them with protection. However, those warships also proved to be an effective means of controlling the activities of unscrupulous traders, land hunters, and labor recruiters for Queensland plantations. Thus, conditions might have been worse for the natives without the French and British naval presence.

One aspect of nineteenth-century mission activity in this area that has received comparatively little attention is the churches' resistance to colonial annexation of the islands by European powers. Missionary organizations wanted their governments' sanction and protection against the encroachment of rival missions, but they only slowly became reconciled to the establishment of direct colonial rule. In this way missionaries protected the cultures of the island peoples. Overall, except in Hawai'i and Tahiti, the early arrival of missionaries helped preserve indigenous ways of life from destruction at the hands of the settlers who arrived later. Contemporary independent island nations owe much to the isolated and stubborn missionaries who refused to recognize any authority other than that of their god, and in some cases most of the islander politicians who control these newly independent countries were trained by the Christian missions. Much of what has been preserved of the native cultures was kept underground, without the missionaries knowing, and even the native staff maintained silence on the subject.

By the 1980s, missions in the Pacific had become a thing of the past, albeit of the very recent past. Most missionary stations disappeared as such, although schools and hospitals remained. European staff remained in technical positions under the authority of the local church. The more important missions gave birth to independent Presbyterian (French and Scottish), Methodist, and Anglican churches. Evangelical churches, mostly American, maintained their former missionary structure in New Guinea, centering on smallish mountain airports where their planes provided the only link with the outside world. Mostly in the towns they took over, they continued the fight against alcohol and tobacco that the majority churches had essentially abandoned. People wanting to relinquish drink flocked to these churches with their families. Local governments viewed this development with some anxiety in the case of millenarian churches such as Jehovah's Witnesses. The autonomous government of Tahiti, however, was much more tolerant of the presence of Mormons than the French colonial government had been.

Both Catholic and Protestant churches centered their theological studies in central schools established in Fiji that worked cooperatively with the University of the South Pacific in Suva. These schools produced many independence-minded native scholars. The criteria of academic success in these schools eventually reached international standards. Dropouts became more numerous, although with a higher intellectual level, and sometimes caused trouble when they returned to their churches of birth. Two of them, one Catholic and one Protestant, were implicated in the events in Ouvéa and the murder of Jean-Marie Tjibaou.

In Tahiti the activities of the Catholic charismatic movement, using the methods of the American evangelical churches, had an unforeseen consequence through an uncontrolled offshoot of the movement on the island of Fa'aite in the Tuamotu Islands, where fathers and mothers were burned at the stake by their own children, who believed that the Devil had gotten inside them.

The islanders' attachment to Christianity has remained strong. Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, the prime minister of Fiji, remarked in the 1970s that Pacific Islanders were the only ones to still take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. The islanders feel that Christianity, having been abandoned by the white men who brought it, now belongs to them.

Methodological Problems

In regard to the methodological problem of studying the growth of Christian churches in Oceania, much of what has been published deals with the history of missions and missionaries, missionary methods, and missionary influence. There have been few studies of indigenous evangelists. Usually, the foreign missionaries did not really know the people they converted. Even if they worked with islanders for years, the details of their status within their own society remained unknown to the missionaries. The missionaries' correspondence and memoirs list the Christian names of their helpers and little else. Most historians have not had the time or the means to find out who really was behind these Westernized designations.

The missionaries were taking charge of a society about which they knew very little. The islanders who were Christianized ended up knowing more about the missionaries than the missionaries knew about them. Documented cases in which the white clerical staff was manipulated by the converts, often for generation after generation, are appearing more often. The Pacific Islanders were never passive and often played tricks on their self-appointed white masters. The story of how Christianity gained ground on the islands has not been written from the viewpoint of the islanders, and the psychological and sociological complexities of conversion have seldom been examined. Maurice Leenhardt was one of the only missionaries to show an interest in this line of research.

Another issue is the rise of prophetic movements after World War II. The question here is not what type of missionary behavior led to these movements but why some groups, such as the Anglican Melanesian Mission, never had to deal with them. This points to the infrequently applied methodological technique of studying within a society not only the areas where a specific institution exists, but also the areas where it is absent.

See Also

Christianity, article on Christianity in the Pacific Islands.


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Jean Guiart (1987 and 2005)

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