Religion, Western Presence in the Pacific

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Religion, Western Presence in the Pacific

The Christianization of the Pacific world can only loosely be described as a "Western" process. As in many parts of Africa, it was the large number of indigenous teachers and clergy who prompted conversion. The role of European or American missionaries was important, and Christianity arrived in conjunction with Western imperial expansion, but it was accepted (or not) for indigenous reasons.

The earliest attempts at Christianization are a case in point. Spain claimed the entire Pacific for its empire in the early modern period, but did little to explore or colonize it beyond the routes of the silver galleons between the Americas and the Philippines. One exception was a series of expeditions between 1567 and 1605 that produced brief and unsuccessful attempts to settle colonists in the Solomon Islands and elsewhere. These small, tentative settlements included Roman Catholic clergy but were abandoned quickly amid internal dissent, high mortality from disease, and indigenous hostility.

Only at the end of the eighteenth century were renewed attempts made to Christianize the Pacific, and this time it was the expanding empire of the British that took the lead. Some of the earliest British Protestant missions, which began in 1797 with the London Missionary Society, were as unsuccessful as the earlier Spanish ones had been. The sending societies persisted, however, and by the mid-nineteenth century, there were thriving British missions in many island groups, including New Zealand and a strong American presence in Hawaii.

British colonies had also been established in Australia (from 1788) and New Zealand (in 1840), although the connection between colonization and indigenous Christianization was not a straightforward one. Australia's Aboriginal peoples, nomadic and diverse, were relatively unenthusiastic about Christianity well after settlers had arrived in large numbers. Only later in the nineteenth century, when dispossession and disease began to bite more deeply, did the mission stations find it easier to persuade Aboriginal groups to stay with them. A partnership between governments, missions, and churches in Australia eventually led to the establishment of residential schools for Aboriginal children. The degree to which Christianization was a matter of choice under these conditions is debatable, and the legacy of the mission stations and schools is a deeply controversial one.

The story in New Zealand and other Pacific Island groups is very different. Here, indigenous Protestant teachers and their missionary patrons were extremely successful throughout most of Polynesia long before the islands were formally colonized by European powers or the United States. One explanation might be the hierarchical nature of Polynesian societies, including the Maori in New Zealand, whereby the conversion of chiefs led to the conversion of their people. Other explanations concern the nature of indigenous belief systems. Polynesia's polytheism, with its priesthoods and temples, could be compared with the polytheistic societies described in the Bible. For their own reasons, then, Polynesians were interested in the new faith and adopted it rapidly.

To counter these Protestant influences, French Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in the early nineteenth century with the fathers of the Society of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (known as the "Picpus Fathers") in 1834. This society and others found that Roman Catholicism was welcomed by islanders, especially where indigenous power struggles created a fruitful climate for Christian sectarian rivalry. This situation mirrored the political rivalry by which Tahiti and the Society Islands became a French colony in 1843, followed by the western island of New Caledonia in 1853. Both Europeans and Islanders used religious commitments for their own purposes.

Sometimes a combination of acceptance and resistance was found in the shape of syncretic movements, such as the early "sailor cults" in Polynesia, where a rudimentary Christianity gained from European beachcombers was combined with indigenous religious practices. In other cases, indigenous prophets arose to create distinctive Christianities that were denounced by the mission stations. Western influences could also prompt the rejection of Christianity, as in the cargo cults of Vanuatu in the western Pacific. These cults drew inspiration from the sudden arrival of Western people and goods during World War II.

Where Christianization was most successful, the role of indigenous teachers and clergy was most critical. This did not mean an easy transition, however, from mission stations to indigenous-led churches. It was often difficult for indigenous teachers to obtain ordination, let alone independent leadership of their own congregations.

Indigenous ordination became more common by the early twentieth century, but the status of Pacific churches was still in question. Many remained under the supervision of missionary societies, or of Australian or New Zealand bishops, reflecting the degree to which Pacific peoples were often considered to be childlike Christians unready for full responsibility. By the early twentieth century, the Anglican mission in Papua New Guinea began recommending revised liturgy for islanders, acknowledging the importance of indigenous cultural perspectives, but treating them condescendingly as well.

Missionaries are still active in the Pacific, and Pacific Christianity is more diverse than ever, including Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Pentecostal groups alongside the long-established denominations. The process cuts both ways, however: the Pacific also sends missionaries to the Western world. Indigenous clergy concerned about liberalizing attitudes toward the ordination of women in the Anglican Church of Australia, for example, feel that their own conservatism better reflects true Christianity. Like their Asian and African counterparts, many Pacific Christian leaders feel that the Western world is losing its way. Historical distinctions between a "heathen" Pacific and a "Christian" Western world are being reversed.

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


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Religion, Western Presence in the Pacific

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Religion, Western Presence in the Pacific