Christianity in the Pacific

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CHRISTIANITY IN OCEANIA

Christianity is the dominant religion in Oceania and the Pacific. Christians make up 44 percent of the population of Australia, 37 percent of New Zealand, 64 percent of Fiji, 85 percent of New Caledonia, 99 percent of Papua New Guinea, 97.4 percent of the Solomon Island, 93.3 percent of Vanuatu, 94 percent of Guam, 97 percent of Kiribati, 97 percent of the Marshall Islands, 95 percent of Micronesia, 79 percent of Nauru, 87 percent of Palau, 98 percent of American samoa, 97 percent of Samoa, 96 percent of the Cook Islands, 94 percent of French Polynesia, 99 percent of Tonga, and 99.6 percent of Tuvalu. [Source: Wikipedia]

As we said before Christianity is far and away the predominate religion in Oceania (See Above). According to Encyclopedia.com: 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.

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.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “To this day, new groups of missionaries are arriving and expanding throughout Oceania, but those early representatives were especially significant, not only in terms of their effects on the customs and beliefs of Pacific islanders but also because their presence constituted a major factor in the development of commerce and accompanying demands for the establishment of colonial governments and services. |~|

The early European missionaries initially had great difficulty converting the inhabitants of New Guinea. One mission on the Mandang coast went 13 years without baptizing a single native. Many resorted to giving natives steel items and food in exchange for their conversions. Many people in New Guinea converted to Christianity to waylay their fears of evils spirits and sorcery. Now according to some sources Papua New Guinea is 99 percent Christian.

Early History of Christianity in the Pacific Islands

Christianity was brought to the Pacific Islands by missionaries from Western Europe. According to Encyclopedia.com: 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. [Source: Encyclopedia.com]

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.

Later History of Christianity in the Pacific Islands

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. Encyclopedia.com 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. [Source: Encyclopedia.com]

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.

Introduction of Christianity to the Pacific — A Great Success

Manfred Ernst wrote: The introduction of Christianity in the Pacific Islands is first of all one of the most successful stories in the history of Christian mission. In a span of less than 200 years the vast majority of Pacific Islanders became Christians. The fact that the Gospel was brought by missionaries from Europe and the United States is today reflected in the variety of “historic” or “mainline” churches that are still dominant in the various islands of the region. [Source: Manfred Ernst, La transformación del Cristianismo en Oceanía: un panorama regional Christianismes en Océanie : un panorama régional, p. 29-45, 2012]

Today, there is no island nation in which new Christian denominations or religious groups have not been registered; some after breaking away from an already existing church or, more often, as a result of missionary activities usually originating from the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Europe or even Korea. This has led to an unprecedented number of different and commonly competing religious bodies in each island nation with the result that today — even for villages in remote areas — it is quite common to be divided along denominational lines, with one or another of the historic mainline churches plus a variety of newer arrivals. There is clear evidence that the establishment and growth of new churches takes place at the expense of the historic mainline churches.

The growth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses is in general in line with worldwide trends. The LDS Church is especially well established in Polynesia (Tonga, Samoa, American Samoa, and French Polynesia) where they represent close to or over more than 10 percent of the respective populations. These three religious organizations have not much in common regarding doctrines or worship but all of them originate from the USA and feature a very centralized hierarchical worldwide structure with headquarters in the USA. Among the three the SDA Church is the only nonhistoric mainline church that is well established in all of the Pacific Islands with steady and solid growth rates. The Jehovah's Witnesses are also established almost everywhere and experienced modest growth but do not exceed 2 percent anywhere.

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. [Source: Encyclopedia.com]

Centrality of Christianity to Pacific Culture and Why This So

Manfred Ernst wrote: In the Pacific Islands, one is struck by the extent to which religion has been central to them. It can be argued that Christianity in particular has been the single most powerful globalising force throughout the Pacific Islands. To answer the question why religion has been so central to globalisation in the Pacific Islands it is worthwhile to reflect on the following: It was the missionaries and the agents of the colonial powers that took the leading role in bringing western culture to the Pacific Islands. Seeing little economic potential, colonial officials showed little interest in training or educating their subjects and left oversight and the development of key secular institutions such as health care and education to the missionaries.[Source: Manfred Ernst, La transformación del Cristianismo en Oceanía: un panorama regional Christianismes en Océanie : un panorama régional, p. 29-45, 2012]

The first converts — usually chiefs — were in many cases quick to adopt the explanatory values of Christianity as the key to the new global world they were to enter. The subsequent rapid conversion of the vast majority of the populations explains why Christianity became so central in the experience of Pacific Islanders.

However, the process of inculturation was not without difficulties. According to Press “Many of the missionaries used the dualistic language of darkness and light in condemning the pre-Christian culture as sin”. Nevertheless, Christianity was accepted in Oceania on the terms of social and cultural norms of Pacific Islanders. The dualistic thinking became part of the Pacific Christian identity. This echoes to some extent the situation of other contextual Christologies, which arose from a deeply local experience of the presence of Jesus Christ in the cultural background of the people. 4 In the process of replacing traditional religions in many islands Christianisation resulted in varying degrees in a kind of syncretism, in which Pacific Islanders modified doctrinal, ritual and organizational aspects to make them fit with the elaborate traditional hierarchies that continued to be a fundamental part of social life.

Organization and Politics of Christianity in the Pacific

Manfred Ernst wrote: The historical mainline churches in the Pacific Islands cooperate internationally through the ecumenical movement at national level in form of National Councils of Churches, at regional level through the Pacific Conference of Churches, and internationally via the World Council of Churches in Geneva. However, commitment and contributing to the ecumenical movement has dramatically decreased in the region as well as worldwide. [Source: Manfred Ernst, La transformación del Cristianismo en Oceanía: un panorama regional Christianismes en Océanie : un panorama régional, p. 29-45, 2012]

Since the years of gaining independence the states and leaders of the Pacific Islands have drawn heavily on Christianity in formulating and shaping their political cultures. Usually governments of the region welcome new churches and support them to preach their versions of Christianity to huge audiences in usually packed venues in the larger cities.

It is not unusual that Evangelists such as Benny Hinn, Bill Subritzky, or Reinhard Bonnke are treated by the respective governments like heads of state. Many governments are regularly active and willing in supporting, organizing and participating in evangelization activities, prayer meetings and prayer breakfasts of the newer churches. Similar to the USA many Pacific Island politicians in power, if facing problems, are quick to ask the public to pray for peace and forgiveness of sins and to ask God for guidance, instead of looking at the root causes for social, economic and political problems.

Changing Christianity in Oceania

In the 1990s, the well-known Pacific Church historian Charles Forman described “a new wave of Christianity that is trying to supplant the old”. Ernst wrote: Without overdramatizing there is a lot of evidence that if the current trend of change in religious affiliation continues, the majority of Christians after the year 2050 will not anymore belong to the variety of Protestant Churches and the Roman Catholic Church that established themselves first and represented up to the 1960s over 90 percent of the indigenous populations.[Source: Manfred Ernst, La transformación del Cristianismo en Oceanía: un panorama regional Christianismes en Océanie : un panorama régional, p. 29-45, 2012]

There is a clear decrease in the percentage of members of one or the other of the historic mainline churches. Especially the historic Protestant mainline churches, namely the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, the Congregational Christian Churches in Samoa, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Papua New Guinea, the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma, and the United Churches in Papua New Guinea are — while still growing numerically — in a process of decline as it is shown by the decrease in the percentage of adherents in relation to the total population. There are remarkable differences regarding to the degree of decline in different island nations. The historic mainline churches included in the table above have in common that they represented more than 90 percent of the respective island populations fifty years ago and enjoyed a status of de facto state churches. 6 The Roman Catholic Church represents the highest total number of adherents of all the different denominations in the Pacific Islands and is well established everywhere.

The Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church have so far successfully integrated charismatic oriented adherents within their organizational structure by providing space and time for charismatic worship and activities. This is seen as the main reason why they have not experienced major decline or breakaways like the other Protestant historic mainline churches such as the Methodist Church in Fiji, the Congregational Churches in Samoa, the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in PNG.

One clear correlation exists between the diversification of religious affiliation with the rise of newer groups and the occurrence of a fundamental transformation in Pacific Islands' societies and cultures. Rapid changes in society were caused by World War II, with the need of supplies for the respective armies of goods for the army, which resulted in the development of infrastructure and jobs. The suddenly close contact of Pacific Islanders with soldiers of the allies from western countries contributed to the development of new ideas of equality and self-determination.

Rise of Evangelical Christianity in the Pacific

Since World War II, Christianity in the Pacific region has been characterized by a rise of Pentecostal-Charismatic (Evangelical) Christianity, a form of Christianity that emphasizes the mystical, emotional, and supernatural aspects of religion — miracles, signs, and "the gifts of the Spirit" (charismata), especially "speaking in tongues" (glossolalia), faith healing, and "casting out demons" (exorcism). Great importance is placed on filled with or possessed by the Holy Spirit.

Ernst wrote: The Assemblies of God is the most widespread and numerically leading denomination of all the churches that belong to the spectrum of the Pentecostal-Charismatic renewal movement. They had the advantage of time as they started mission work and evangelization usually in the first half of the 20th century while most of the other Pentecostal-charismatic denominations arrived after WW II in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Though the AOG are well established today they have not yet surpassed the ten percent benchmark in any island nation as they present in most of the islands clearly below five percent of the respective populations. One interesting development is that wherever the AOG are well established, like for example in Samoa and Fiji they have experienced a number of schisms and breakaways that usually led to the establishment of new Pentecostal churches and thus prevented higher growth rates. The combined number of adherents of churches in the category of Pentecostal-charismatic churches surpasses only in Samoa and American Samoa the 15 percent mark but represent in the other islands less than 10 percent.[Source: Manfred Ernst, La transformación del Cristianismo en Oceanía: un panorama regional Christianismes en Océanie : un panorama régional, p. 29-45, 2012]

The dynamic style of worshipping in Pentecostal and charismatic churches attracts primarily the younger generations. All the newer churches maintain strict rules and regulations regarding the “right way of living”. The prohibition of smoking, alcohol, kava and gambling, the promotion of healthy food and a harmonious family life attract in particular women. Therefore it is not surprising that young people and women are commonly the first to convert. In addition the newer churches offer numerous possibilities for members to gain status through their involvement in weekly activities, worship or mission work. The newer churches also collect money from their members and most of them apply a combination of tithing and free will offerings. But in contrast to adherents of the historical mainline churches members feel that they get something back in case of material needs, in times of natural disasters or through paying school fees. Because of their excellent standard of facilities and the high level of discipline the schools of the Mormons and the Seventh-Day Adventists are usually attractive to non-members too.

Traditional Religions and Evangelical Christianity in the Pacific

Manfred Ernst wrote: Some cultural aspects specific to the Pacific Islands have definitely contributed to the successful spread of especially Pentecostal and charismatic movements in the region, since these groups fit, to some extent, easily within traditional belief patterns. For example, Pacific Islanders traditionally believe in the presence of spirits endowed with extraordinary powers. They also believe that somebody can be possessed by these spirits and be given extraordinary power as well. Phenomena such as ecstasy, trance, speaking in tongues, and divination were common in traditional religions too and attributed to the presence of spirits, especially the spirit of ancestors. [Source: Manfred Ernst, La transformación del Cristianismo en Oceanía: un panorama regional Christianismes en Océanie : un panorama régional, p. 29-45, 2012]

There has been a decrease of adherents of traditional religions, especially in the Melanesian nations of Papua New Guinea (PNG), and Vanuatu. Recent research revealed that there is a correlation between successful mission activities of newer denominations from the Pentecostal-charismatic spectrum, resulting in conversions of followers of traditional religions . If we lump together all rapidly growing Christian religions from the Pentecostal-charismatic variety and include Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses, the extend of change becomes clearer as over the past 50 years the percentage of all non-mainline churches in Pacific countries studied increased substantially. Subsequently the percentage of the combined historic mainline churches declined significantly.

Pacific Islanders have always placed importance on good relationships as being essential for health and healing, not only for individuals but also for the whole community. Pentecostal and charismatic groups are also well known for the emotional involvement of participants in their services. Dramatic baptisms, powerful confrontations between the power of God and evil, emotional public confessions and testimonies, rhythms and songs full of enthusiasm are characteristic for these groups. All this is attractive to people whose traditional religious experience was also characterized by dramatic initiation forms, powerful singings, emotional mourning, and exciting mythical dances.

Millennium expectations — beliefs in the coming age that will be morally just and equitable for all — have also been part of the mind frame of Pacific Islanders in the past. Dreams and visions have been the most common link in the traditional societies between the living and the dead, between the people and all kinds of spirits. The historic Protestant mainline churches mostly repressed these millennial aspirations by teaching a rational view of human progress and development and postponement ad infinitum of the final coming of God's Kingdom. Although common in scriptures, dreams and visions tend to be dismissed by the historic mainline churches as unscientific and the apocalyptic sections of the Bible are not very fashionable within the Protestant mainline denominations. But especially Pentecostal-charismatic Christians connect well with concepts from traditional religions that have been lying under the surface when Christianity took roots in Oceania.

Impact of Christianity on Family Finances and Daily Life in the Pacific

Manfred Ernst wrote: A comparative analysis of the interviews with converts reveals that reasons for leaving or joining a religious group are often linked to very practical questions such as community and family life or marriage. Conversion to a new religious group is often the last step in the process of separation from a person or group. The new religious community becomes the new family with many new brothers and sisters among whom the convert finds happiness and comfort. In the Pacific Islands extensive feasting at baptisms, marriages and funerals is characteristic and part of traditional culture. [Source: Manfred Ernst, La transformación del Cristianismo en Oceanía: un panorama regional Christianismes en Océanie : un panorama régional, p. 29-45, 2012]

For many people the traditional obligations involved are increasingly seen as a burden, because for someone with a permanent job it is almost impossible to attend all the annual functions that naturally occur in the extended family. This kind of traditional cultural obligation is also costly, as it requires contributions of food or cash. On the basis of extensive field research in Fiji, Jacqueline Ryle has described in detail how members of the Methodist Church in Fiji, which is by far the largest Christian denomination in the country, are torn between their pride and desire to follow tradition and the financial burden of maintaining costly and time-consuming ceremonies amidst rapid social changes and an increasingly consumer oriented society.

The new religious groups are by far less demanding in terms of financial contributions as they usually do not follow time consuming and “costly” traditional practices in elaborated ceremonies. On the other hand joining one or the other of the new religious groups often leads to a better quality of life as symbols of tradition such as the consumption of kava in Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and Vanuatu, and the chewing of betel nuts in Melanesia, which is often accompanied by cigarette smoking and the drinking of liquor, are rejected by Pentecostals and charismatic Christians as well as by members of the SDA, Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons. In addition, some of these groups have also introduced strong moral codes on how to behave and dress, with the consequence that their members withdraw partially or fully from traditional activities. Converts of new religious groups are taught that they will be part of the “elect” or “chosen” people if they follow these rules. On the practical side, withdrawing from cultural obligations helps to save money and time, and ceasing to smoke or drink kava often leads to positive changes of behaviour (Ernst, 2006: 731). In addition to a healthier lifestyle converts often gain a new sense of dignity, and all these benefits are interpreted as signs of doctrinal truth.

In the Protestant Churches of Polynesia the spirit of giving is extraordinary high. In general it can be said that in all the Pacific Islands church ministers enjoy a high status in their respective societies whereas the working conditions and remuneration differ substantially in Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. In Melanesia, for example, ministers enjoy a high social status but are poorly paid and often forced to look for alternative sources of income, whereas especially in Samoa and American Samoa ministers are accustomed to a high standard of living as they usually live in big houses, drive around in expensive four wheel drives and in some cases gain a monthly income of up to 5,000 US Dollars and even more. On the other side, with few exceptions, the outfit and appearance of church offices and schools in the mainline churches is often poor. In these areas the newer churches present themselves as more modern, better equipped and better organized.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Manfred Ernst, La transformación del Cristianismo en Oceanía: un panorama regional Christianismes en Océanie : un panorama régional, p. 29-45, 2012; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia, Encyclopedia.com, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated July 2023


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