Oceanic Religions: New Religious Movements

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Oceania comprises a "sea of islands" within 181 million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean (approximately one third of the earth's surface). At the beginning of the third millennium, the Pacific Islands, New Zealand, and Australia had a total population of thirty million people, which is only half of one percent of the world population. Yet there are almost one thousand distinct languages spoken in Oceania, or about a quarter of the world's languages. Language diversity is indicative of the cultural, social, and historical diversity of the region. Oceania is commonly divided into three main cultural groupings: Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. New Zealand is included in Polynesia. While the Australian subcontinent geographically lies outside Oceania, indigenous Australians (1.5% of the Australian population), have cultural ties with Oceania. Formerly, traditional religions predominated; today, however, over 90 percent of the people of Oceania profess to be Christian.

The first inhabitants of Melanesia and Australia are thought to have arrived about 50,000 bce during the Ice Age of the Pleistocene era. Some five thousand years ago Austronesian-speaking people began voyages to the islands of Oceania, finally reaching AotearoaNew Zealand about one thousand years ago. Ferdinand Magellan from Portugal was the first European to sail into the Pacific by way of South America's southern tip, reaching Guam in Micronesia in 1521. European influence continued into the colonial period, accompanied by Christian missionary efforts. Many Pacific states achieved independence only in the later half of the twentieth century. New religious movements have emerged within this sociohistorical context.

Religious Movements New and Old

Despite the term new applied to Oceanic religious movements, scholars claim that there were religious movements in the traditional culture prior to Western contact. Ronald Berndt (19521953) and Richard Salisbury (1958) have documented religious movements in New Guinea prior to European colonization or missionary evangelization. Garry Trompf (Swain and Trompf, 1995, p. 168) points out how the giant statues on Rapanui (Easter Island) reflect an extraordinary burst of cultic energythis being followed by the "Birdman Cult," which was still active into the mid-1860s. Other scholars refer to traditions of ritual innovation in precontact culture. Chris Ballard (2003, p. 24) points out how in the Papua New Guinea highlands, the foreign was anticipated in a tradition of ritual innovation, so that when Westerners did appear, they were seen as having been prefigured in Melanesian cosmologies. What are often referred to as "cults" may well be examples of innovative indigenous tradition, rather than a response to contact with the West.

Whether new or old, religious movements have been documented throughout Oceania right from the time of early Western contact. These movements combine social, political, and religious elements. In New Zealand, for example, religious movements appeared among the Maori at a time when the population was in decline and the indigenous people were being alienated from the land. In 1863 most of the Taranaki region was proclaimed a confiscated area. In response, Maori prophet Te Whiti-o-Rongomai began teaching about the day of takahanga, or freedom from Pakeha (European) authority. He and the people of the Parihaka community tried to assert ownership over the land while at the same time avoiding armed warfare. He sent out men to plough and to build fences across the roads built by the colonial government. The ploughmen were arrested but considered martyrs by Te Whiti and his followers. They were empowered by a millennial vision of aranga, or day of reckoning, when the results of their struggle would be harvested in communal prosperity.

Cultural factors and the colonial and postcolonial experience of people in Oceania have continued to influence religious movements. Some movements are strongly influenced by indigenous cultural forms. Others manifest clear links with Judeo-Christianity. They have been labeled variously as movements, cults, and independent churches. While many individual movements have been studied and documented, the bewildering variety of these movements both fascinates and frustrates scholarly attempts to grasp their causes and to understand the phenomenon as a whole.

Connection to Indigenous Forms

Indigenous cultural forms, ranging from traditional religious elements to the influence of political and social structure, exert a strong influence on religious movements in Oceania. The Siovili movement appeared in Samoa in the 1830s. Siovili's prophetic activity was a mixture of the traditional taula aitu activity (spirit possession) and preaching influenced by Christianity. Religious experiences such as taula aitu were familiar to Samoans. Thus, many phenomena associated with the movement, such as being under the power of a spirit and speaking in tongues, were ritual activities familiar to the people.

Political and social influences on the Siovili movement become apparent if one compares it with the Mamaia movement that arose in Tahiti in 1826. In Samoa, traditional religious forms were closely associated with tutelary deities worshiped at the family level. By contrast, in Tahiti, religion was the basis for overall political authority. Thus, in Tahiti, when the Mamaia movement began, it spread quickly by means of traditional political alliances. As with Samoa, prophetic figures possessed by spirits were nothing new in the Society Islands. Thus it was not novel when Teau, the leader of the Mamaia movement, prophesied that he was inspired by the spirit of God to proclaim that the millennium had commenced and that he and his followers could communicate with God without the Tahitian Bible provided by the missionaries. However, the movement was also strongly influenced by local political forces. Mamaia found its greatest support in Taiarapu, where there had traditionally been an atmosphere of revolt against both the Pomare dynasty and the Europeans. According to Jukka Siikala (1982, pp. 248249), the Mamaia movement can be interpreted as the attempt of the Taiarapu chiefs to manifest mana (respect deriving from authority and control) superior to that of Pomare and the chief judges supported by the missionaries.

Even in the 1990s, Christian Pentecostal and revival movements, though outwardly against traditional culture, often showed evidence of indigenous forms in healing, glossolalia, prophetic dreaming, possession, and the like. Franco Zocca (1995, p.181) points out how the millennial and magical components in many new religious movements and in Pentecostal churches fit into the pattern of traditional Melanesian religious experience.

Influence of Judeo-Christianity on New Religious Movements

Mission influence spread swiftly throughout Oceania, and today the majority of people in the region profess to be Christian. Some religious movements arose in opposition to Christianity. The so-called nativistic movements offered an alternative to the Christian denominations and even to the traditional religion. Later movements have tended to develop as offshoots of Christian churches.

Leaders in many movements see parallels between their situation and that of the Israelites in the Old Testament. Te Ua, the leader of the Pai Marire movement in New Zealand in the 1850s, referred to New Zealand as Kenana, the "land of Canaan." Aotearoa-New Zealand was seen as an island in two halves that needed to be restored (as a new Israel). Just as God had promised the land of Canaan to Abraham, God would restore Aotearoa to the Maori. Thus, Te Ua created a myth-history that linked Maori followers to the Israelites, as well as to their Polynesian ancestors. Dancing around special poles and repeating Pai Marire prayers, people entered into a trance, uttered prophecies, and spoke in tongues.

More than a century later, in Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, the Moro movement promotes traditional values and the chieftainship system against the incursion of the West. Members of the movement say that the Bible is for whites and that tradition contains the same truths for islanders. Moses and Jesus, for example, have parallel figures in Guadalcanal legend. During the violent political crisis in the Solomon Islands in 2001, many of the Guadalcanal fighters wore emblems from the Moro movement, which they believed would protect them against the superior firepower of the Malaita Eagle Force, a militant group that undertook armed action on Guadalcanal. Together with disaffected police officers the Malaita Eagle Force seized control of key installations in Honiara and took Prime Minister Ulufa'alu hostage and forced him to resign.

The Christian Fellowship Church, also in the Solomon Islands, broke away from the Methodist Church in 1960. The founder, Silas Eto (sometimes known as "Holy Mama") believed that the Holy Spirit had visited his people as manifested in the taturu phenomenon of mass enthusiasm involving drumming, crying out, and involuntary movements during church services. Their theology is basically Methodist, though Eto would read scripture in the light of the taturu phenomenon. Eto has since died, but he continues to influence the church by appearing to members in visions. The 1999 census in the Solomon Islands recorded almost ten thousand people claiming to be members of this charismatic independent church.

Scholars debate the degree to which Christian revival movements, common throughout the region in the latter years of the twentieth century, are indeed movements building on indigenous forms or the rejection of those forms. In the revival movements, people seek to purify their Christian lives by setting aside inherited traditions and earlier religious practices. Yet, at a deeper level, traditional understandings often continue to provide the structure by which a new syncretism of Christian beliefs is organized.

Influence of the Colonial Experience on the Development of Religious Movements

Having had to deal with a number of colonial powersSpanish, American, Dutch, British, German, Australian, and New Zealandmany countries in the Pacific are now independent states. However, even today Niue and the Cook Islands are not fully independent, having free association with New Zealand. France continues to maintain territories in the Pacific with French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, and New Caledonia regarded as French overseas territories. In Micronesia the peoples of the Mariana Islands, the Carolines, the Marshalls, and Palau ratified constitutions in 1980 and chose either commonwealth status, free association, or republicanism, all of which guarantee a continued aid package from the United States. The Marianas became a commonwealth in political union with the United States in 1986 (with the exception of Guam, which is an unincorporated territory of the United States). The Caroline Islands divided into two separate entities: Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia. Palau became an independent nation with free association with the United States in 1994. With the termination of the Trust Territory of the Pacific in 1986, the Federated States of Micronesia and Marshall Islands gained independence and free-association status with the United States.

During the colonial experience, Pacific Islanders were adept at making their own adjustments, and religious movements were sometimes part of this. When competing for local resources the Europeans were resisted, but as a new resource they were utilized. Exploitation of European's fighting skills and equipment was a common phenomenon throughout Polynesia. Missionaries too often found themselves pawns in local power politics.

While most islanders (with the exception of Tonga) lost their political independence at some stage, there were other important issues, such as language, cultural integrity, the priority of local custom, and the persistence of practices of kinship and exchange. New religious movements offered alternative values to help the local people deal with such issues.

The Tuka movement appeared in the late nineteenth century in Fiji (tuka meaning life or immortality). It has been seen variously as an anticolonial resistance movement and a millenarian movement; however Martha Kaplan has sought to reinterpret it as a movement of "people of the land" (itaukei ) trying to assert their ownership of the land through ritual and political means. Navosavakaua, the leader of the movement, and his people were opposing the encroachment of coastal chiefs and of Westerners with their Christian God and their colonial powers. He challenged the coastal chiefs and colonial authority, proclaiming that the world would shortly be turned upside down and that the existing state of affairs would be reversed so that whites would serve the Fijians and chiefs would become commoners. Kaplan rereads the Tuka movement as an elaborated version of an important Fijian invulnerability ritual known as kalou rere (Kaplan, 1990, p. 10).

Vailala Madness is the name given to an early millenarian movement beginning at Orokolo station in 1917 and spreading throughout the Toaripi region of the Papuan Gulf. During collective trance states people destroyed traditional ceremonial items. The leader, Evara, claimed to be contacting the dead through an artificial wireless antenna, with hopes that a ship crewed by the ancestors would come over the horizon. The body movement and curious sounds convinced government anthropologist Francis Williams that the situation was pathological. Later studies of the movement are less condemnatory, though many agree that the movement arose in response to the collision between traditional cultures and the colonial order (Trompf, 1991, p. 191). Movements of this type have been called cargo cults because of the people's expectation of the arrival of large quantities of European items, from food to firearms to refrigerators. The term cargo cult is unfortunate in that it tends to reduce a complex matter to just one exotic dimension.

There are many occurrences of anticolonial movements throughout the region, including the Modekngei movement, which appeared on Palau in 1906 in protest at German colonial government reforms. The movement continued into the 1960s and 1970s as a religio-political movement, affirming Palauan identity and independence.

In Malaita in the Solomon Islands following World War II, a movement known as the Maasina (Marching Rule) developed as an expression of both self-determination and spiritual independence. In the postwar period in nearby Vanuatu, on the island of Tanna, many people believed that a mythical figure named John Frum would come from the United States bringing gifts for his devotees. Also in Vanuatu, the Nagriamel Federation Independent United Royal Church appeared as an offshoot from a land reform association movement on the island of Espiritu Santu. The movement sought to reclaim indigenous land in the 1960s, sought national sovereignty in the 1970s, and proclaimed successionist independence in 1980. Nagriamel is decidedly political, but its cultural and religious dimensions are also important. One of the leaders of the movement, Jimmy Stephens, claimed to be Moses leading his people to the promised land. The movement has been in decline since Stephens was arrested by Papua New Guinean forces in 1980.

Developments with Political Independence of Pacific Nations

Church leaders have made a considerable contribution to political leadership in the region. In Vanuatu, Walter Lini, an Anglican priest, was the first and longest-serving prime minister, while the first leader of the opposition was a Catholic priest, Gerard Laymang. In Papua New Guinea, priests, former priests, seminarians, and Protestant ministers have held prominent political roles. Other church leaders, like Bishop Patelesio Finau of Tonga, have been politically active without taking a formal political post.

Associated with political independence, some established churches have become independent. For example, the Presbyterian Church in Vanuatu has been declared an independent New Hebridean church. In 1968 in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, the Methodist, Wesleyan, and Papua Ecclesia churches joined to form the indigenous independent United Church. In 1975 the Anglican Diocese of Melanesia (encompassing Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands) was officially localized, separating from the New Zealand church to become a province of its own.

Recent writings on cults and movements in the Pacific have focused on the role these movements play in the interpretation of changing colonial and postcolonial relations. An intriguing example is that of Matias Yaliwan and the Peli Association in the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea. Through traditional religious means, such as dreams, Yaliwan came to perceive the survey marker on Mount Hurun as symbolic of European trespass and invasion of traditional lands and life. At Christmas 1969, he and his followers removed the survey marker from the top of the mountain. In the 1970s, as Papua New Guinea prepared for independence, the movement developed into a prosperity cult known as the Peli Association. After national independence in the late 1970s the movement combined with the New Apostolic Church, a millennial Christian group offering 144,000 "firstlings" an opportunity to become citizens of a "new heaven and new earth" (Rosco, 1993, p. 292). Paul Roscoe points out how people were following Yaliwan not just as a traditional leader or "bigman" who could manipulate tangible commodities such as pigs and shell wealth, but one who could produce and manipulate knowledge and ideas. The explanatory schemes with which the Peli Association leaders attracted followers were a series of eschatologically colorful scenarios involving military-style marching, the actual election of Yaliwan to the Provincial Assembly, and his rumored crucifixion and resurrection as the Black Jesus. Canadian missionaries of the New Apostolic Church helped provide legitimacy to this scenario.

Since the 1990s on the island of Bougainville in the North Solomons province of Papua New Guinea, successionist leader Francis Ona has been promoting his idea of Mekamui (sacred land)a state independent of Papua New Guinea. Mekamui also has strong links with the Tomo cult, which is a mixture of Christianity and traditional forms. The term tomo refers to ashes, which have particular significance in a culture that practiced cremation of the dead.

In the post-independence period, politicians in the Pacific invoke the political support of churches. Responses vary, with leaders of established churches wary of political control, often taking a critical stance, and leaders of newer church groups, particularly those with a conservative fundamentalist theology, willing to cooperate in exchange for legitimacy and material benefits.

Independent Churches

Aside from the examples given above of established churches becoming independent, there are also "independent churches" that take a separatist stance towards the churches introduced by the missions. For example, in New Zealand there are several independent Maori churches, the best known being that started by Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana in 1928. Ratana's healing ministry and his warnings about some aspects of Maori ancestral beliefs were welcomed at first. However, when the Anglican Church condemned him as a false prophet, his followers convinced him to start his own church, which exists today. The independent Ratana Church has been influential in both ecclesial and secular politics, motivating the formation of a Maori bishopric in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa-New Zealand and promoting four Maori seats in the New Zealand parliament.

Since the 1970s, revival movements have flourished throughout Oceania. These movements tend to be Pentecostal in character and generally opposed to traditional religious systems (Tuzin, 1997; Robbins, 2001). Influenced by revival, people tend to condemn their traditional religion, destroying their former sacred places and the paraphernalia used in traditional rituals. They seek to purify their Christian lives by setting aside inherited traditions and what they perceive as forms of syncretism. Paradoxically, although the focus of these revival movements is the rejection of tradition, the parallels with traditionlegalism, fear, and a dualistic worldview labeling everything as belonging either to God or Satanmake it easier for people to accept their teaching. Revival often begins within an established church, but in many cases their beliefs and practices go beyond what is considered acceptable by the church leadership and the movement develops into an independent "local" church, as has happened in a number of cases in Papua New Guinea with groups breaking away from the Lutheran, United, and established Pentecostal churches to form indigenized local variants of Christianity.

In the 1990s and in the lead-up to 2000, many revival movements that had been characterized by such Pentecostal elements as shaking, possession, and glossolalia took a more apocalyptic turn, with frequent reference to the number 666 from the Book of Revelation (e.g., those possessing the 666 will have access to wealth), the sinister meaning of bar codes, spiritual warfare, and the antichrist. Besides addressing the question of what might happen at the end of the millennium, these apocalyptic-oriented movements provide an outlet for people struggling to deal with escalating violence and socioeconomic insecurity. Established churches are condemned along with traditional culture as being retrograde and idolatrous. There is often a global dimension to these local churches, for as Ernest Olson (2001, p. 24) notes, people in an all-night Pentecostal prayer vigil in Tonga would share more in common with Pentecostals in Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea, than the Tongan all-night kava drinking sessions just down the street.

Typology of the Movements

Attempts to develop a typology of religious movements in Oceania tend to fall short in oversimplification, or to founder in the complexity of the phenomena under study. Anthony Wallace used the term revitalisation movements, by which he meant the "deliberate, organized, conscious effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture" (Wallace, 1956, p. 265). He differentiated between "nativist," "millenarian," and "messianic" movements. Subsequently, many alternative interpretations have been offered. Harold Turner's spectrum from "primal revival," through "syncretist," to "church revival" (1978, pp. 7ff.) is one of the more promising attempts at classification.

Some scholars see the movements as examples of irrational human behavior (Williams, 1976). Others see them as the product of tensions arising from collisions between traditional culture and the colonial order (Worsley, 1968). Alternatively, they have been viewed as specific Melanesian expressions of indigenous spirituality and value systems (Burridge, 1960; Lawrence, 1964). The weakness of many such interpretations is their tendency to reduce these phenomena to just a few of their respective aspects, or to lump together ideas and practices that may have little in common. Attempted classifications may reveal more about Western rationalism than about the Melanesian ideas and practices to which the classification systems are meant to refer in the first place.

For example, the frequently used term cult denotes religious activity but carries with it negative overtones. Moreover, it does not reflect the fact that the sacred and secular are generally distinguished but not separated in Oceanic cultures. Kaplan argues that cults are often created and analyzed in Western terms, serving the purpose of colonizers responding to obstacles to their attempts at "development." Many movements are only truly irrational in the context of Western discourse.

Mircea Eliade (1954) detects a pervasive form of millennialism belonging to an ancient complex spread throughout the Pacific region during the migrations of Austronesian-speaking people. He identifies a theme involving the renewal of the cosmos through the destruction of all existing forms, a regression to chaos, followed by a new creation. Thus, millennial movements are not only a postcontact, post-Christian phenomenon. There were traditions that entailed expectation of a new era and the beginning of a time of well-being. However, for many people of the Pacific, confronted by the encroaching Western powers, their world was ending. Not only were people becoming alienated from their ancient traditions, but their leaders appeared impotent, and in some places their land was being divided and sold. The power of chiefs and ritual experts to mediate between the people and the gods declined. In this context Christian millennialism may have a special appeal for Pacific Islanders, because it has features in common with traditional myths of return.


Religious movements have been a constant part of the experience of people in Oceania. However, since the arrival of Europeans and colonial rule, new elements entered into that experience. These movements are a way indigenous people try to deal with change within a world that does not separate religion from the rest of life. In general, the new religious movements arise in the context of social and cultural conditions characterized by disharmonies of opportunity, status, and political and socioeconomic stress generated when a traditional culture is faced with modernization. Which factors are relatively more important is a mater of debate.

From a rational, secular viewpoint the movements appear to be examples of delusion and aberrant behavior. However, from the perspective of indigenous hermeneutics, they may be perceived as the work of visionaries trying to make sense of a changing world in religious terms.

Some new religious movements continue into the twenty-first century, often transformed into local churches and even political parties. In addition, millenarian beliefs continue to animate religious movements in the form of Holy Spirit and Christian revival and apocalyptic movements. Some even become tourist attractions, with cargo cult websitesincluding a John Frum homepage.


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Philip Gibbs (2005)