Missions, in the Pacific

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Missions, in the Pacific

The relationship of Christianity and colonialism in the Pacific Islands has varied. At different times and in different places Christian missionaries have been defenders of the independence of indigenous governments, supporters and opponents of imperial expansion, willing partners and critics of colonial administrations, and backers of nationalist and independence movements.

Christianity was brought to the Pacific Islands by missionaries from Western Europe. From the 1660s Spanish Roman Catholic priests, from their base in the Philippines, began missionary work in several island groups of the North Pacific. In the South Pacific, missionary activity was dominated by evangelical Protestantism. The first permanent mission was commenced by British missionaries of the London Missionary Society (LMS), which sent its first agents to eastern Polynesia in 1797. During the nineteenth century, many other branches of Western Christianity established missions in the Pacific Islands. These included Anglicans, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, French Reformed, Lutherans, and Seventh-day Adventists.

The great majority of Protestant missionaries of this period were British and American; Roman Catholics were mainly French. Having already been exposed to Western trading contact, the islanders embraced Christianity, largely by choice and for reasons that seemed valid to them at the time. Through the agency of Pacific Island teachers, Christianity spread rapidly in the eastern and central Pacific (Polynesia and Micronesia). In each island group, the first mission to introduce Christianity usually received the support of the majority of the population. The evangelization of the more populous and fragmented societies of the southwest Pacific (Melanesia) was a much slower process and, in the island of New Guinea, is incomplete at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

With the exception of Australia, Christianity was planted in the region before the extension of European colonial rule. In Australia, the founding of the first convict colony in 1788 was accompanied by the introduction of British Christianity and the beginnings of missionary work, on a small scale and initially with little success, among the Aboriginal people.

In the Pacific Islands, the early Protestant missionaries supported independent indigenous governments. Seeking to create Christian societies, they encouraged converted island chiefs to promulgate codes of law that combined indigenous custom with the ideals of evangelical Christianity. In some island groups, such as Tonga and Hawaii, missionaries assisted in the creation of monarchies with a Western-style constitution and machinery of government. When indigenous governments proved unable to deal with aggressive Western powers or to provide political stability, missionaries began to favor annexation by their respective countries. Because of this they were widely seen as trailblazers of empire. In New Zealand, for example, Protestant missionaries played an important role in gaining acceptance of the Treaty of Waitangi (1840), through which the Maori tribes accepted British sovereignty and New Zealand became a white settler colony.

Between the 1840s and the 1890s almost every island group in the Pacific was brought within one of the Western colonial empires: Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. Missionaries did not oppose imperial expansion in principle. Despite tensions, they usually cooperated with colonial governments, especially those of their own nation, and colonial administrators often encouraged their subject peoples to accept Christianity. Missions were almost entirely responsible for the provision of primary education and medical services in island villages. Missionary paternalism fitted well with the authoritarian rule and limited expectations of colonial governments, but sometimes missionaries were critical of government policies that they regarded as unjust or harmful to the islanders.

After the end of World War II in 1945, the Protestant and Anglican missions moved slowly toward their goal of creating self-sustaining island churches with an indigenous ministry. This process paralleled moves by Western colonial powers in the postwar years toward decolonization. In every island group, these missions had evolved into self-governing churches before the achievement of political independence in the 1960s and 1970s. The Roman Catholic missions, committed to a celibate and Latin-educated priesthood, moved more slowly toward the indigenization of their leadership.

In each island group, the churches often helped to create a sense of national identity. Their schools and theological colleges produced many of the first generation of political leaders. In the Anglo-French condominium of the New Hebrides (since 1980 the independent state of Vanuatu) and the French overseas territories of French Polynesia and New Caledonia, the Protestant churches were deeply involved in independence movements.

As newly independent Pacific Island states assumed responsibility for village education and health services, the older churches began withdrawing from these areas, which in turn reduced their need to rely on overseas funding. They turned their attention toward rural development, social services, and the creation of a theology that was based upon indigenous religious concepts and ways of thought. For the first time, they were also seriously challenged by such bodies as the Mormons, Baha'is, and Pentecostals.

Almost all Pacific Island political leaders claim a Christian affiliation, as have the leaders of the armed coups that brought down several postindependence governments. In many island groups, large sections of the dominant churches have formed a comfortable relationship with ruling elites, but within the churches there are also radical voices that challenge the status quo and campaign on such issues as political corruption, social justice, and the protection of the natural environment.

see also Religion, Roman Catholic Church; Religion, Western Perceptions of Traditional Religions; Religion, Western Perceptions of World Religions; Religion, Western Presence in the Pacific.


Garrett, John. To Live Among the Stars: Christian Origins in Oceania. Geneva: World Council of Churches; Suva, Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, 1982.

Garrett, John. Footsteps in the Sea: Christianity in Oceania to World War II. Suva, Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific; Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1992.

Garrett, John. Where Nets were Cast: Christianity in Oceania since World War II. Suva, Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific; Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1997.

Gunson, W. N. "Missionary Interest in British Expansion in the South Pacific in the Nineteenth Century." Journal of Religious History 3 (4) (1965): 296-313.

Harris, John W. One Blood: 200 Years of Aboriginal Encounter with Christianity: A Story of Hope, 2nd ed. Sydney: Albatross, 1994.

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Missions, in the Pacific