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South Seas

Christianity in this area began with Jesuit missionaries to the Marianas (1668-1769). There are tantalizing hints of Catholic influence in the Marquesas, Hawaii, and parts of Melanesia before rapid expansion of European contacts in the nineteenth century. Protestant missions began with the London Missionary Society in Tahiti and Tonga in 1797, at a time when many Polynesians were dissatisfied with traditional social and religious patterns and willing to undergo major changes to take advantage of the new horizons opened by Europeans. In Hawaii, Kamehameha I (1735-1819) made important political changes, and his wife Kaahumanu and son Liholiho overthrew traditional religion before American missionaries were admitted on trial (1820) after careful consultation with Tahitians about their experience. The Gilbertese similarly rejected their traditional culture for literacy and Christianity in 1868-69.

Enormous variety in language and culture, especially in Melanesia, made evangelism unusually difficult, and missionaries' attempts at individual conversion initially bore little fruit. Alongside considerable aversion to missionary teaching, difficulty of translating Christian concepts like sin often led to serious misunderstanding. When conversions came, they were often linked with the political aims of chiefs like Pomare II of Tahiti (c.1782-1821) and Cakobau of Fiji (1817-80), plus a desire for literacy as a key to European wealth, as in the Cook Islands (1821) or Samoa (1830). The resulting tribal movements created serious problems of education and pastoral care, and few missionaries realized the extent to which islanders were accepting Christianity on their own terms. On Tanna, European goods were obtained through the Queensland labor trade, and missionary preaching had no effect from 1842 till 1904, when the labor trade had ceased.

Early missionaries were often unprepared for island life. Of the ten pioneer artisans landed in Tonga, three were killed, one went native, and the remainder thankfully escaped to Australia. Deep dedication and a growing stock of experience led to an increasingly important religious impact. Allied with Islander readiness to travel for the Gospel, just as their ancestors had traveled for trade and war, this led to remarkable indigenous missionary effort, without parallel elsewhere in the nineteenth century. Great missionaries like J. Williams* (1796-1839) helped to inspire the pattern by leaving eight Tahitian teachers in Samoa (1830), but Tongans arrived in Fiji independently about 1823. Others reached parts of the New Hebrides by 1842 and the Loyalty Islands by 1841, thirteen years before European missionaries. Ta'unga from Rarotonga worked in New Caledonia and left a striking journal. Work in Melanesia was much more difficult because of language barriers and hostility to strangers, but pioneer evangelists like Soga and Marsden Manekalea laid the foundations of the church on Ysobel, and in 1925 Ini Kopuria founded an important missionary order-the Melanesian Brotherhood.

Protestant rivalries were sometimes sharp, but implicit or explicit comity agreements frequently led to Christian “kingdoms” like Tahiti and Tonga where missionaries exercised a considerable political role strikingly in contrast with their free church backgrounds. Their wishes to exclude undesirable European influences foundered on the resistance of traders and a combination of French imperialism and Roman Catholic missionary zeal (partly focused by P. Dillon, 1785-1847) which led to the annexation of Tahiti (1843) and New Caledonia (1853). Oceania was divided initially between the Picpus Fathers and the Marists, and though both were as anxious to convert Protestants as heathens, notable pioneering was done by P.M. Bataillon (1810-77) on Wallis and Futuna, which led to their conversion by 1849. Islanders utilized sectarianism to their own advantage, as in Fiji (1844), and by the end of the nineteenth century there were few groups without strong Catholic communities, organized in apostolic vicariates. The South Seas Evangelical Mission (1904) has also been used within the context of traditional tribal rivalries.

German annexation of Papua (1885) introduced yet another major denominational pattern into the Pacific. Although Australia assumed control of German territories in 1914, the work of the Neuendetteslau and Rhenish Missions (1886 and 1887) has resulted in a good-sized and well-organized Evangelical Lutheran Church, responsible since 1956 for its own affairs. The work of C. Keysser (1877-1961) and the success of his “tribal conversion” methods have profoundly affected missions on this huge island, where the Dutch began work in 1861, the London Missionary Society in 1871 with men like J. Chalmers,* S.M. McFarlane (1837-1911), and W.G. Lawes (1859-1907), not to mention Ruatoka of Mangaia and numerous other Polynesian pastors. Marists followed in 1885, Anglicans in 1891, Seventh-Day Adventists in 1914, and the Unevangelized Fields Mission in 1932, with expansion inland carefully controlled by the Australian government in order to ensure as far as possible missionaries' safety.

By the end of the nineteenth century a number of strong churches had emerged, and missionaries played a vital part in lessening the disastrous effects of European diseases, the labor traffic, and the brutal exploitation of some traders. Depopulation was heavy. In 1875, some 30,000-40,000 died from measles in Fiji alone, and in Hawaii population fell from c.300,000 in 1775 to 30,000 in 1900. Combined with the end of the labor trade and the needs of planters for workers, it led to the introduction of Asians, with particularly serious results in Fiji, where Indians now outnumber Fijians.

The relation of Christianity to traditional culture is still an unsolved problem, and in Melanesia has led to a number of movements with affinities to African independent churches. The Valaila Madness (1919), John Frum (1941 on), Marching Rule (1940s), and Federal Council (1951) are the most notable examples, and the administration and churches alike have found them very difficult to handle. The latter are still largely dominated by Europeans despite valiant official attempts at devolution of responsibility in line with developments elsewhere since 1945. In the Anglican diocese of Melanesia, for instance, local suffragan bishops were elected as late as 1963 and a house of laity was only introduced in 1958. The development of political independence in Western Samoa (1962), the Book Islands (1965), Nauru (1968), Fiji (1971); rapid moves toward responsible government in Papua-New Guinea and the Solomon Islands; and some devolution of responsibility in French territories have already had profound effects on the churches because of the unusually important place that they have in the community.

Migration and urbanization have already created serious social problems, and the development of secondary and tertiary education has necessitated radical changes in theological education inter-island and ecumenical cooperation, symbolized by Pacific Theological College in Suva (1966) and the Melanesian Council of Churches (1946), the Pacific Conference of Churches (1966), and the United Church of Papua-New Guinea and the Solomons (1968). Substantial pockets of paganism still exist in Melanesia and many village Christians are ill-equipped for dealing with their new political responsibilities. Most island economics cannot support welfare policies and rising economic expectations without substantial external aid, and few churches are as well placed as Lutherans where extensive plantations help to finance schools and hospitals.

European Christianity has helped to end cannibalism and tribal warfare, contributed some new economic skills, and significantly influenced family life, but the process has not been one-way colonialism. In many areas Christianity has been closely integrated into Island societies on local terms, and Christians can face their future with an enviable sense of community.

C. Marau, Story of a Melanesian Deacon (1906); A.A. Koskinen, Missionary Influence as a Political Factor in the Pacific Islands (1953); C.R.H. Taylor, A Pacific Bibliography (1965); R. and M. Crocombe, Works of Ta'unga (1968); A.R. Tippett, Solomon Islands Christianity (1968); A. and S. Frerichs, Anutu Conquers (1969); R.P. Gilson, Samoa (1970). See also The Pacific Islands Yearbook; N. Rutherford, Shirley Baker and the King of Tonga (1971); F. Steinbauer Melanesische Cargo Kulte (1971); A.R. Tippett, People Movements in S. Polynesia (1971); R. Jaspers, Die Missionarische erschliessung Ozeanieus (1972); R. Williams, The United Church (1972); S. Latu Kefu Church and State in Tonga (1974); N. Threlfall, A Hundred Years in the Islands (1975).