Pacific Missions

The study of Pacific Island Christianity: Achievement, resources, needs.

The Pacific islands have been the stepchild of mission studies during most of this century. In the nineteenth century, Pacific missions received much attention because of the remarkable series of mass conversions that took place and because of the writings of a few missionary heroes, primarily John Williams in the first half of the century and John G. Paton and James Chalmers in the second half.

With the twentieth century, when most of the peoples had been nominally Christianized, there was less need for heroism and less interest in the region. (The region is here defined to include the island nations of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia but not, because of space limitations, New Zealand or Indonesia, which contain Polynesian or Melanesian minorities. )

From Neglect to Abundance

From this region in the present century there came some missionary reports and reminiscences and some anthropological studies made by missionaries (cf. references in Boutilier, Hughes, and Tiffany 1978: 45-46; Langmore 1989:111-12; Lutkehaus 1983), but there were few serious studies of the churches and missions themselves. What there were can be quickly named. Christian Keysser’s writings about his method of work were highly important (1929a, 1929b), and there were six Catholic and three Protestant missionaries who wrote sizable histories of their own mission societies’ labors in the islands (Blanc 1926; Destable and Sedes 1944; Doucere 1934; Dupeyrat 1935; Sabatier 1939; Leenhardt 1922; Luxton 1955; Fox 1958). The Fiji missionary John Burton contributed to the famous World Dominion Survey of Protestant missions and collaborated in a short history of Methodist work (Burton 1930,1949; Burton and Dean 1936). The first three studies by nonmissionary scholars appeared, one semifacetious and the other two serious (Wright and Fry 1936; Koskinen 1953; Guiart 1959), and in the early 1960s the German missionary Georg Pilhofer produced what is still the largest history–three volumes- -of a single Pacific mission (Pilhofer 1961-63). But other than these there were no substantial works in the field until the 1970s.  

In the last twenty years, however, the scene has changed markedly. The stepchild has become almost a full member of the family, and good numbers of historians, anthropologists, and missiologists have begun to write about Pacific Christianity. In the field of history the initial credit for the change may well be given to a historian of the Australian National University, Niel Gunson, who not only contributed his own scholarly work but trained a succession of graduate students to make further contributions as Pacific church historians (Gunson 1978; Douglas 1974; Hilliard 1978; Laracy 1976; Thornley 1979; Wetherell 1977, 1981; Cummins 1980). One fundamental contribution of Gunson’ s work was his careful attention to the theological grounding and outlook of the missionaries. Stewart Firth, one of the leading younger historians of the Pacific, has recently said that, with a few exceptions, “historians of Pacific missions have been divided into two broad camps over the last twenty years: the pietistic and the reductionist. The first school of thought proceeds from Christian assumptions, the second reduces everything to other, less noble motivations, psycho- sexual ones for example. Neither offers a satisfactory explanation of what drove the missionaries to their task” (Wagner-Wright 1990:ii). Gunson has provided a counterweight to the reductionist tendency, as has Sandra Wagner-Wright in her recent book on Hawaii. It is my impression that the professional historians of recent years who have written monographs analyzing Pacific missionaries have been less inclined to reductionism than have those writing on African or Asian missionaries (cf. Grimshaw 1989; Langmore 1989; Zwiep 1991). To get a full picture of the treatment of missionaries by historians, we must look beyond the works that concentrate on missions. The general histories of each of the island countries provide much detailed information on missions and churches (e.g., Howe 1977; Rutherford 1977; Newbury 1980; Beaglehole 1957; Gilson 1980; Schutte 1986; MacDonald 1982; Gundert-Hock 1986). This is to be expected because, as Stewart Firth has also said, “ the history of Christianity is central to the history of the Pacific” (Wagner-Wright 1990:iii).  

Anthropologists seem to have discovered the importance of Pacific Christianity at about the same time as the historians. Major credit for this should be given not so much to an individual as to groups, primarily to the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania, an organization formed in 1972 by young Americans who had done their anthropological fieldwork in the Pacific Islands. The meetings of this group have frequently included papers touching on the cultural forms of Pacific Christianity, and two major symposia on Pacific Christianity have been held at these meetings and have subsequently been published (Boutilier, Hughes, and Tiffany 1978; Barker 1990). Similar group studies have been produced by the Societe des Oceanistes (1968) and the Southwestern Anthropological Association (Saunders 1988), though the latter study is concerned with more than the Pacific. The younger generation of anthropologists seems to have grown beyond the acerbic reactions toward missions that characterized earlier scholars like Malinowski or the blindness to church life shown by people like Margaret Mead, whose Coming of Age in Samoa gives little attention to church activities, despite the fact that in Manu’a, where she did her work, the church is a central feature of social existence. In the present generation, anthropologists recognize Pacific Christianity as an important subject for analysis and study in its own right, rather than as a regrettable or ignorable replacement for the traditional religion and mores. Partly as a result of the new anthropological interest, there has been a desire to make accessible the early missionary writings, which provided much information on the life of the islanders. No less than six books published in the nineteenth century by missionary pioneers have been reprinted in recent years (Buzacott 1985; Farmer 1976;Gill 1984; Rowe 1976; Turner 1984;T. Williams 1977), and three that were not published in their day have now received publication (Davies 1961; Geddie 1975; Cargill 1977).  

Pacific anthropologists have shown the same tendency as African anthropologists to write especially about the new religious movements that have arisen out of Christianity, the independent or indigenous churches of Africa, and the adjustment movements or cargo cults of Melanesia. These have been of special anthropological interest because they illuminate the transition from small-scale to large-scale societies, and they have attracted attention out of proportion to their size (cf. seven studies from Melanesia listed in Barker 1990:27). However, for little understood reasons, movements of this type in the Pacific show much less staying power than do their counterparts in Africa. They have displayed meteoric careers, but most have gone into decline, and henceforth anthropological attention is likely to concentrate more on the standard churches, which themselves are also examples of social transition and which sometimes carry cargoistic undertones.  

A few of the recent books by anthropologists on Pacific Christianity deserve mention even in a short report like this one. James Clifford’ s study (1982) of the famous missionary Maurice Leenhardt is one of these, for Clifford has at last done justice to Leenhardt’s dedication to the Kanaks and his insight into their thought world. Raymond Firth’ s book on religion in Tikopia (1970), particularly on the process of conversion to Christianity, is another, as are two studies of the church-centered islands of Kosrae and Isabel (Peoples 1985; White 1992). Mary Taylor Huber has written with insight on the Divine Word Mission in New Guinea(1988). The importance attached by anthropologists to Pacific Christianity is suggested by the fact that a newly published collection on family and gender in the Pacific has eight of its ten contributors writing off mission and church themes (MacIntyre and Jolly 1989).

When historians and anthropologists have been producing so much, it is not surprising to find that missiologists have begun to pay more attention to the Pacific. A quick count turns up the names of at least twenty missiologists who have produced substantial works on the Pacific since 1970. Such interest is in sharp contrast to the indifference that characterized earlier years. As a result of their work, we now have, in addition to the books already mentioned, a three-volume general history of Pacific missions and churches (Garrett 1982, 1991, forthcoming) and an exhaustive history of the first years of the Catholic missions (Wiltgen 1979), which will soon be extended to cover later years. We have histories and cultural analyses of Solomon Islands Christianity (Tippett 1967; Whiteman 1983), Hawaiian Congregationalism (Loomis 1970), Vanuatu Presbyterianism (Miller 1978-90), Tahitian Protestantism (Vernier 1985; Nicole 1988), and Tahitian, Wallisian, Vanuatu, Papuan, and Micronesian Catholicism (Hodee 1983; Poncet 1972; Dubois 1985; Monnier 1987; Delbos 1984; Hezel 1991). We have general histories of the Mormons, the Adventists, and the Methodists in the Pacific (Britsch 1986; Clapham 1985; Ferch 1986; Wood 1975-87; cf. Brown 1989), and an account of the roads taken by the various churches to achieve independence from the missions (Forman 1982). Three valuable surveys by missiologists of Melanesian religious movements have appeared (Flannery 1983-84; Brennan 1970; Trompf 1991). With their usual thoroughness, the Germans have contributed several major historical and cultural studies, mostly on New Guinea and its Lutheranism (Tomasetti 1976; Ahrens and Hollenweger 1977; Burkle 1978; Fautsch 1983; Ahrens 1986; Mrossko 1986; Wagner and Reiner 1986; Wagner, Fugmann, and Jannsen 1989; Muller 1989; Aerts 1991). The one united church in the region has been provided with two histories (Williams 1972; Threlfall 1975), and the Pacific Conference of Churches with one (Forman 1986).  

To all these books must be added dissertations and journal articles too numerous to be mentioned individually. A growing number of journals now welcome articles on Pacific church life. The long-established missiological journals of Europe, North America, and Australia are among these, as are a few of the long-established Pacific studies journals, such as the Journal of the Polynesian Society and the Journal de la Societe des Oceanistes. But in addition to these there are new journals, founded during the past quarter-century or so, that either concentrate on Pacific churches or frequently carry articles about them. Such are the Journal of Pacific History coming from the Australian National University, the New Zealand Journal of History coming from the University of Auckland, Pacific Studies from Brigham Young University- Hawaii, the Contemporary Pacific from the University of Hawaii, Isla from the University of Guam, Catalyst produced by the Melanesian Institute for Pastoral and Socio-economic Service in Goroka, the Melanesian Journal of Theology from Lae, and the Pacific Journal of Theology from Suva. Most recently the field of Pacific mission studies can boast a journal of its own, the South Pacific Journal of Mission Studies, published by the South Pacific Association for Mission Studies, located in Sydney. One ongoing publication that is not really a journal, but rather a series of very useful books, is Point, which, like Catalyst, comes from the Melanesian Institute in Goroka, Papua New Guinea, and which provides extensive information and analysis on the relation of Gospel and culture.  

Growing Role of Resource Centers

The mention of this institute calls to mind the many resource centers that now exist to help the student of Pacific churches. The Melanesian Institute itself is a notable example of a center, maintained in this case by the churches, for the study of church life and community needs. The most rapidly growing resource center is the Center for Pacific Islands Studies of the University of Hawaii, which is fast building up large library and archival holdings. Two others are the Micronesian Area Research Center at the University of Guam and the Melanesian Studies Resource Center at the University of California, San Diego, specializing in Micronesian and Melanesian cultures. Though these centers do not concentrate on churches and missions, they have abundant materials on those subjects because of the role played by churches and missions in the islands.  

Looking south of the equator, counterparts to these centers are found in the Mitchell Library in Sydney, the Institute of Pacific Studies at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, and the Centre for South Pacific Studies at the University of New South Wales, the last- named being the producer of a newsletter that surveys all resource centers and new journals for the Pacific. Of wide usefulness is the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau of the Australian National University, which makes its extensive manuscripts available in microform to selected libraries around the world. National archives are being built up, notably in Fiji, Kiribati, and the Solomons, in which many church documents may be found. Smaller resource centers are the library of the deceased missionary anthropologist and missiologist Alan Tippett, now housed at St. Mark’s Library, Canberra; the Alele Museum in Majuro; and the Micronesian Seminar created and sustained by the Catholic missionary Francis Hezel, recently moved from Chuuk to Pohnpei. Another Catholic missionary, Hermann Janssen, who started the Melanesian Institute in Goroka, is now on the staff of the Missionswissenschaftliches Institut Missio e.V. in Aachen, where a strong emphasis on Oceania is maintained. Honolulu has two important depositories beside the one at the university, namely, the Bishop Museum and the Mission Houses Museum Library. No one can work in Hawaiian church history without examining these treasures.

Beyond all these specialized centers there are the archives of mission societies scattered around the world. The main ones for the Pacific are in Boston, London, Paris, Barmen, Neuendettelsau, Rome, Sydney, and Auckland. Some of these archives, notably the ones in Boston and London, have been put into microform and so are available without requiring travel to those cities. Father Theo Kok of the Marist Missions has carried out a tremendous process of examining and microfilming all the papers found in the Marist mission centers around the Pacific and assembling them now in Rome. Resources in Paris have been strengthened by the work of the Institut Francais de Recherche Scientifique pour le Developpement en Cooperation (formerly the Office de la Recherche Scientifique et Technique d’OutreMer, or ORSTOM), which has produced a number of brief but illuminating studies of Pacific churches, particularly those in francophone territories (Barbadzan 1982; Kohler 1980,1981, 1982, 1985). And for the study of recent developments the archives of the world’s ecumenical bodies have become indispensable because they show how the world’s churches have cooperated in relation to the Pacific, and even more because they store the information about the Pacific that the churches have cooperatively assembled. The World Council, the Pacific Conference of Churches, and the national councils in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand all provide useful resources, those of the Pacific Conference being in pressing need of better preservation.

Some scholar or scholars could give valuable assistance to all researchers by publishing guides to these various archives and resource centers, the kind of thing done for China by Archie Crouch and his colleagues (Crouch 1989). As far as the Pacific is concerned, this has been done only within Britain in the Guide to Historical Sources of Missionary Activities in the Pacific Islands Held in British Institutions produced on microfiche by Fabian Hutchinson. Hutchinson has also produced for UNESCO a feasibility study for a guide to all Australian archives on the Pacific (1981, 1990).

It is evident from all this that the study of Pacific missions and churches must be an intercontinental effort. The resources are found scattered around the world. Australia probably takes first place in resources, due initially to the fact that the Mitchell Library in Sydney was long the greatest single gathering point for materials in this field. But the University of Hawaii may now be challenging Australia’s leadership. Outside of Hawaii, the United States has not been a rich area. The reason for the intercontinental nature of the studies is clearly the intercontinental nature of Pacific missions. They not only came from different continents, but they also worked intercontinentally. At the very beginning, in 1822, William Ellis of the London Mission in Tahiti went to help start the American Board work in Hawaii. Later the American Board gave up its work in Kiribati to the London Mission. The Methodist Missionary Society in Britain turned over all its Pacific work to Australian Methodism in the mid-nineteenth century, and the Australians in turn handed over their work in the Solomon Islands to New Zealand Methodists in the present century. Catholic missions, which came originally from Europe, shifted the base for their operations more and more to Australia and New Zealand, and later even to North America. No one can understand Pacific missions as a whole on the basis of studies made in one continent. 

The South Pacific islands themselves are not great centers as far as written resources are concerned, but they do have materials, often in out-of-the-way places, that need to be recovered and used. Government archives, found in most island countries, have already been mentioned. Each island denomination usually has a church magazine that has been published for decades, and partial files of these can often be found in the central church offices. Probably none of these files is complete, but some steps toward completeness can be taken by piecing together the parts found in different places.

The work of finding and cataloguing those parts is one of the most difficult challenges before mission scholars. The magazines are mainly devotional, but they often have bits of news and opinion. There is need to search out also the diaries and letters that have sometimes been kept by individuals and families of Pacific Island missionaries who have gone to distant places.

Islanders have not been and are not inclined to writing letters. A true Christian, it is said in the islands, is one who answers letters! But the islanders who went abroad as missionaries did at times keep records and write to their home churches. Ron and Marjorie Crocombe have performed an inestimable service in finding and publishing journals and other primary materials from Cook Islander and other islander missionaries (Crocombe 1968; Crocombe et al. 1983; Maretu 1983). Securing primary material from the missionaries’ families often presents problems. A student researcher in Samoa found that families sometimes would not let these resources out of their possession because of concern about property rights or because of negative statements that might be contained in the writings.  

If the islands are poor in written sources, they are rich in oral sources, and these have scarcely been tapped. People who have been church leaders in the generations just passed can still be interviewed, and much can be learned from them. The last generation of missionaries who went from one island country to another is still living in retirement in the homelands, and these men and women should have their memories recorded. Here, as everywhere, oral sources need cross-checking where possible because, as a recent study of Pohnpeian tradition has shown, there can be much variation in oral accounts (Peterson 1991). The only students who have been consistently making use of oral resources in the church are the students in theological colleges, primarily the Pacific Theological College in Suva and, to a lesser extent, the Rarongo Theological College near Rabaul. Some of the theses they have written are of considerable value because of the oral resources incorporated in them, and at least two university libraries, those at Canberra and New Haven, have been ordering copies of theses written at Suva. Recently one of the Suva theses has been published independently, and three more have appeared in a single volume (Wete 1991; Forman 1992).

These theses are among the first breakthroughs by Pacific islanders into the world of published scholarly literature dealing with Christianity. The islands have been slower than Asia or Africa in sending people for advanced studies abroad, and in consequence it cannot be said of them, as Andrew Walls has said of the Asians and Africans, that there are hundreds of them who have finished doctorates in theological institutions (1991:152). Only two church-related dissertations by islanders have been published (Latukefu 1974; Kanongata’a 1986), and three or four more islanders are now completing doctoral studies, so we must still look to the future for much material on church life and history coming from the islands themselves. Hopefully the time will soon be reached when writings about Pacific Christianity will no longer be only by outsiders but will be written by insiders who have a more intimate understanding of the life they depict. Scholars in Europe, Australasia, and America would do well to bend every effort to helping the islanders enter the field. A few outsiders have already been doing this by collecting chapters by islanders for publication in multi-authored books (May 1985; G. Fugmann 1986a, 1986c; Trompf 1987) and by translating or transcribing autobiographies (Linge 1978; W. Fugmann 1980; G. Fugmann 1986b) or working cooperatively with island authors (Meo, Dale, and Dale 1985; James and Yabaki 1989; Siwatibau and R. Williams 1982). The ecumenical movement has been of help by bringing islanders together around current concerns and publishing the papers and speeches they have then given (e.g., Wright 1981; Wright and Fugui 1985; Pacific Conference of Churches 1982,1985,1988; Collins 1983; Chandran 1988; Forman 1986: 197-208) and by subsidizing some of the journals mentioned earlier, which include increasing numbers of articles by islanders.

A Scholarship Field “White for Harvest”

Having considered the achievements and the resources in the field, we may finally look briefly at some of the needs. Taken as a whole, the needs are endless. There is almost no period or territory that does not stand in need of fuller investigation, and the investigation needs to go deeper into the mentality, and beliefs of the Christians of each period or territory. The superficial history that we have known in the past is gradually being enriched by deeper understanding, but that task has only begun. Out of the plethora of needs we may concentrate at present on three.  

The first is common to most of the southern regions of the world. It is the need to develop the history of the churches, as distinct from the history of missions. Because most of the written resources were provided by the expatriate missionaries, the tendency has been to write mostly about the missions, and this is still true, perhaps even more among the general historians than among missiologists. Indigenous church leaders have seldom been the focus of attention (cf. Keysser 1923, 1926; Carter 1990), and even the heroic story of the islander missionaries, who were usually the pioneers and the grass-roots workers in the spread of Christianity, has received only brief attention beyond the Crocombes’ work (Marchand 1911; Forman 1970; Tippett 1977; Rere 1977). Turning historiography around from mission history to church history will be a difficult undertaking because of the nature of the sources. Probably we ill never see the fully developed history of the churches, but as the Pacific islanders begin to be more involved in the study, major improvements can be anticipated. Encouragement can be drawn from the fact that in the theological schools of the region, Pacific church history is a major field of teaching alongside Western church history.  

Islanders are also becoming more interested in exploring the interaction between their Christianity and the ancient beliefs and social structures of their people. Here is another challenge for further study. A number of works by outsiders have addressed it (May 1990; Barker 1990; Renck 1990; Siikala 1982; and the Point series), but the islanders’ contribution is still very limited (cf. the conference reports listed above). The rise of ecological concern is one force that is pushing island people to reexamine ancient beliefs, which in past days apparently supported an environmentally sound society.  

A further direction in which Pacific church studies need to press is toward a better understanding of the relation between Christianity and nationhood. In other parts of the world where European empires once ruled, Christianity has often been seen as linked to imperialism and antagonistic to nationhood. Studies in those other regions have concentrated on the relation between Christianity and imperialism. In the Pacific the problem tends to be the opposite one. Christianity has had closer links to the indigenous population than to the imperial powers, which were frequently in tension with the churches (e.g., in Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, and Kiribati). The recent period in which the indigenous population emerged into national independence has revealed how closely the churches are tied to nationalism and the problems that result from these ties. In Vanuatu it was often the ordained ministers who led the struggle for independence; an Anglican priest led the independent country till 1991, revealing all the compromises in which churchmen have to be involved when they become political leaders. Even now the president of the country is a Presbyterian minister, who certainly has to be wise as a serpent and cannot be harmless as a dove. In New Caledonia the Protestant church was the first national, nonpolitical body to call for independence. A former Catholic seminarian became the principal leader of the independence movement, and it was a former minister of the Protestant church, a graduate of the Pacific Theological College, who assassinated that leader when he made a compromise agreement with France in 1989 because the nationalist cause seemed to have been betrayed. In Fiji, after the Fijian nationalist military coup of 1987, the Fijian nationalist wing of the Methodist Church forcibly seized control of the church offices and bound the Methodists in a close alliance of mutual support with the anti-Indian, pro-Fijian government. Such events show the need for much deeper understanding and analysis of the relation of church and nation.

Another side to church life cannot be forgotten in any single-minded absorption with nationhood. Christianity came to the Pacific islands as a world religion, represented by missionaries who had a world-embracing view. It was accepted by the islanders in large part because it had a perspective that took into account the wider world that had broken in on them and that had not been seriously addressed in their traditional, localized religion. Therefore a global outlook has always been a latent element in the island churches, and this is a third area calling for study. Continuing generations of foreign missionaries kept some of that global outlook alive as long as they remained in the islands. When radio communications appeared in the 1930s and air contacts began in the 1950s, the churches began to expand their horizons. The establishment of ecumenical organizations in the 1960s and the gradual entry of island churches into world-church structures brought the greatest opening up of these territorial, nationalist churches, and we can see very clearly in recent years the struggles that have taken place between the nationalist and the ecumenical points of view. Neither can be ignored in any analysis of church life. The non-nationalist perspective has received help from another quarter, namely, the new Pentecostal, conservative evangelical, and Mormon missions that have recently been spreading through the area and attracting many members from the old, nationally oriented churches. These groups are sometimes interested in nation building, but not in nationhood. Though they are anti-ecumenical, they produce some of the same results as the ecumenical movement in breaking down the alliance between church and nation. They bring religious pluralism and consequent individualism into church and society. They also often bring in foreign money and Western ways. They, like the ecumenical movement, have attracted little attention from students, though a three-year study of them has just been published by the Pacific Conference of Churches (Ernst 1994).  

The field of Pacific church and mission studies is in some ways “white for harvest.” The harvest has begun in the studies of the past two decades, but the resources are available for a much greater in-gathering. In this part of the world, the modern Christian missionary movement has seen its most universal acceptance and integration into new cultures, its fullest participation in the life of whole peoples and of new nations. The rest of the world, and mission students in particular, have much to learn from this unique region.


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