The history of missionary efforts has directed the current ideologies that
stand in Polynesia today, in which the traditions of Christian teachings have
taken root into many of the native cultures.
Christianity has had a great influence on the people of Polynesia.
Its transformation of the people has varied from group to group, and
island to island. The role of the
missions in Polynesia was to develop a new mentality among various natives with
European ideas. It also gave native
peoples something to identify with in a world of conflicting cultures.
From the Evangelical missionary perspective, it was a way for the natives
to formally become a part of the civilized world.
The term ‘Evangelical’ was used to distinguish Protestant
missionaries from Catholic missionaries.
missionary objective was to salvage what was perceived as a ruined race and raise it from its self-destruction. The native islands
became known to the Christian world in 1521 when Ferdinand Magellan crossed the
South Sea. It was the followers of
Dominican theologian St. Thomas Aquinas who sought to expand missions from the
Indies into the Pacific. The
apostles were mainly Jesuits and Franciscans.
Once the Spanish and the Portuguese developed an idea to enter the
Pacific by the Indies, they entered into the great age of exploration and
exploitation. The missionaries were driven to settle in the newly discovered
Americas because of Spain’s commercial interest.
It was not until 1774 when two Spanish priests traveled east of the
Pacific and settled in Tahiti. This
was the first attempt to Christianize an island in the east.
They abandoned their mission a year later because of lack of
missionaries. There were other
missionaries that also attempted to expand eastward, but were not successful.
For instance, the Dutch found themselves near the Pacific islands, but
were not able to penetrate the South Seas.
It was left to English Christians and voyagers to expand the “word of God” across the South Seas. Their claim was to save the natives from perishing in their “heathen” state. A missionary society was established in 1795 and in 1818 was officially known as the London Missionary Society. The missionaries set sail on the Duff. There were thirty of them sent to complete three missions in 1797 at Tongatapu, at Matavai in Tahiti, and at Tahuata in the Marquesas. The missions that were established at Tongatapu and Tahuata lasted for about two or three years, but the Matavai mission lasted longer and became the foundation for the London Missionary Society to flourish in the South Seas. Other European missionaries followed and established themselves in the Leeward Islands. Christian philosophy began to make its way through Polynesia.
When Christian ideology took root in Tahiti, Protestant Christianity was formally conceived and the changes were spreading in and out of the Tahitian boundaries. The missionaries shaped natives into following their example, which was to preach the “word” to other natives. Soon after, some indigenous Tahitians went to Tongatapu to redeem other natives from their sinful ways. A European missionary group known as the Wesleyans felt the “grace and mercy of God” was due to the Lau islands, a few miles outside of Tahiti.
Controversies arose between missionary societies when it came to mission settlements.
For instance, the Tahitian missionaries were originally set to go to the Lau islands, until the Wesleyans detained them at Tongatapu. This group forced the missionaries to stay and do their missions at Tongatapu. Then the Wesleyans took what was suppose to be the Tahitian’s mission in Lakeba. In addition, in 1836 a bitter dispute arose between Wesleyan and London Missionary Society about which mission should remain in Samoa. The outcome of this dispute was that the Wesleyans would occupy Samoa.
missionary society that came about to make Christian ethics known was the
American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.
This mission organization was established at the Hawaiian Islands, in
1820. Almost thirty years after
Protestant missions in Polynesia, Roman Catholic missionary activity arrived in
Hawaii. Their presence was not
welcomed because they came into conflict with the indigenous government and
American missionaries. Hence, other
religious sects entered the South Seas, in 1844, such as Mormons (Latter Day
Saints) and breakaway Mormon groups (Josephite or Reorganite Church).
epoch in which Christian missions rose became known as the
revival period, a rebirth. By
1860 a new era of Christianity had taken root; and, in fact,
became so well-structured religiously that new missionaries were rarely longer sent. The missionaries transformed the native peoples into
missionaries were genuine in their efforts to teach the natives about what they
felt the truth was. As messengers
they believed that they were fulfilling what biblical scriptures prophesied and
dictated. Isaiah 42:4 inspired the
spread of Christian ethics: “He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he
have set judgment in the earth: and the isles shall wait for his law.”
As the Wesleyan Methodist Magazine of 1834 puts it, “The Gospel when
preached by Missionaries . . . has been made equally
instrumental in raising the degraded Heathen, and bringing them to the saving
knowledge of the true God…and the divine sanction with which the labors of
each have been thus honored has afforded demonstration that…both hold the
great and vital and saving doctrines of the Gospel” (Gunson 29).
Man Became a Messenger of Grace
Reverend Hiram Bingham, before becoming a
missionary was a farmer. He
expected to be a farmer on his father’s Vermont field all his life, but such
was not his fate. His initially did
not want to be a missionary because he would have to go to college, but he found
encouragement through friends. He
was influenced into looking into Missionary work at the age of twenty-two, in
the 1820s. Having
this support, he began to be motivated from within and heard a voice command,
“Go ye into all the world” (Loomis 13).
He attended the American Board Missionary School.
His motto was “The Lord…must direct….Let him do with me whatsoever
seemeth good in his sight” (Loomis 15). He
felt was able to educate the “heathens.”
His tenacious attitude drove him to be nominated a leader of the missions
in Hawaii in 1820. “The American
Board Mission would not send out a press without a printer” (Loomis
12). He got married six days before he sailed on his mission.
to Missionary Candidates
candidate of mission services was obligated to answer a questionnaire formulated
by the missionary society. Here are some questions from the London Missionary Society form dated
1. Are you in communion with any Christian Church; with what church—and how long have you been so?
2. Are your sentiments in favor of infant baptism?
3. State your age, place of birth, and whether your parents are living: if living, has your application their approbation—are they in any degree dependent on you for support?
4. What advantages of education, or subsequent improvement, have you enjoyed; and in what manner have you been employed up to the present time?
5. What has been the general state of your health since your infancy?
6. How long have you had the desire of becoming a missionary to the heathen, and what were the circumstances which first excited such desire? Has that desire been steady or changeable?
7. Have you seriously weighed the privations, hardships, and dangers to which a Missionary must be exposed to? Are you willing to make such a sacrifice?
you must be aware that a wish to engage in Missionary work is in many instances
founded on false principles; have you examined your own motives and ends?
Do they approve themselves to your conscience as in the sight of God?
of Evangelical Groups 1797-1860
This section includes a few of the official missionaries, both lay and ordained, sent to the Pacific Islands before 1860. Biographical details cover place of birth, education, and occupational status at the time of joining, as well as the services they contributed to the missions.
London Missionary Society
Armitage (1780- ?), born in Manchester, England. He
was a congregational cotton manufacturer and artisan missionary on Tahiti
1821-23, Moorea 1823-33, and Rarotonga 1833-35.
Samuel Harper (1770-1819) grew up in Manchester.
Harper was a mechanic missionary on Tongatapu from 1797-1800.
Matthew Hunkin (1815-88) was a member of the mission church and helper
resident on Tuluila and Manu’a (1841-49).
John Youl (1773-1827) was born in London.
He was a Calvinist Methodist itinerant preacher and minister.
He served as a minister in Tahiti from 1801-07.
Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society
Thomas Adams (1821-85) was
a farmer and taught at the Richmond Theological
Institution in 1845. He became an
ordained minister two years later and was sent Tongatapu.
John Hunt (1812-48) was a farm worker before he joined the Wesleyan
society. He worked for the Hoxton
Theological Institution in 1836, and then became an ordained minister 1840 and
went to Fiji. Joseph Taylor Shaw
(1826-94), born in Halifax, Yorkshire, was a schoolteacher for a year in
Tongatapu. Thomas Wellard (1803-89) was born in Bromley, Kent and worked as a
construction worker. His
contribution to the Wesleyan society was his position as assistant missionary in
Tongatapu in 1836. Another
contributor was Thomas Wright, an agriculturist on Tongatapu from 1822-29.
American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and Hawaiian
Luther Hasley Gulick (1824-91) was born in Honolulu and worked as a
surgeon. He was part of the New
York College of Physicians and Surgeons and Union Seminary.
He became ordained as a minister in 1855 practicing his faith in Ponape. Benjamin Wyman Parker (1803-77) was born in Reading,
Massachusetts. He attended Amherst
College in 1829, and was ordained in 1833 and sent to Nukuhiva and then to
Hawaii. James Bicknell (1829-92)
was born in Tahiti. He was a
congregational carpenter at the South Sea Academy.
He became a minister and was sent to Fatuhiva in 1853, Hiavaoa in 1855,
and then to Hawaii.
Converts' Perspective of the Missionaries
Rev. Abraham K. Akaka: “I am glad that these missionaries, so often ridiculed and maligned, came to our islands and to our people. Because of them, we native Hawaiians have fared much better over the one hundred and fifty years than ‘discovered’ natives in Africa, India, the Americas and the other areas of the world. Rather than bringing extinction and extermination, the missionaries were a people who, like grapes of Canaan long ago, brought joy of heart and gladness of soul to my people. Their lives and labors are the foundation for Hawaii’s eventual statehood, and for the nickname we are proud to own: THE ALOHA STATE!" (1820)
O Kane, O Ku-Ka-Pao
And the great Lono, dwelling on the water,
Brought forth are Heaven and Earth
Quickened, increasing, moving,
Raised up into Continents,
The great Ocean of Kane,
The Ocean with dotted seas,
The Ocean with the large fishes,
And the small fishes,
Sharks and Niuhi,
And the large Hihimanu of Kane
The rows of stars of Kane,
The stars in the firmament…
The large stars,
The little stars,
The red stars of Kane. O infinite space,
The great Moon of Kane,
The great Sun of Kane
Set moving about in the great space of Kane,
The great earth of Kane…
According to Loomis, “in the olden days the poets had sung how Kane and
Ku and Lono ‘formed man out of the red earth and breathed into his nose, and
he became a living being; mixed earth with the spittle of the gods and formed
the head of man out of white clay.’ While
Kane and Ku and Lono were creating the man from the earth, the legend went,
Kanaloa, the spirit of darkness, tried to make one of his own.
Then Kanaloa, very angry, said to the other, ‘I will take your man, and
he shall die.’ And so it
happened. The man was called
Kumuuli, the fallen chief” (226). There
were quite some similarities between the Bible creation story and the native
From Taboos to Laws
not only brought the word of God, they brought the law.
The chiefs of the island sought to have the whole islands governed or
ruled under ten laws. The Mosaic Law or the Ten Commandments were to be used as the
laws to be followed by all. The new rule of
government eventually eroded the ancient system of taboo.
Missionaries were significant in the politics of Hawaii by guiding the
ruling class to a new program of centralization.
The political structure of Hawaii was centralized by a ruling order, in
which the king was the head authority of the island.
The leading chiefs were somewhat of a quasi-legislative branch of this
new Hawaiian system. The leading
chiefs made the Ten Commandments a framed rule of law, which all Hawaiians were
to abide by, and natives who were caught practicing the old ways of the land
would be condemned. These laws
contained the essence of a criminal code and reflected the supreme power of the
king, as well as the regulated Christian duties.
As the law codes helped to support the traditional authority maintain
stability in the land, there was little opposition from the chiefs.
The missionaries and the king had close rapport.
This was a tactic used by the missionaries to gain control over the
island. The king governed over all,
which made him the perfect asset to civilize the land.
Missionaries even advised the king on regulation of trade and diplomatic
relations with European and Asian nations.
William Ellis, the Secretary of the London Missionary Society, believed
that “true civilization and Christianity were in separable; the former has
never been found but as a fruit of the latter” (Gunson 269).
For the missionaries, the term civilization as an achieved state was the
outward sign of an interior process. The
dynamics of such a process included law, commerce and technology, which were the
visible aspects of a spiritual renovation of a nation and its people. In other words, “the essence of a civilized community is
not hidden in the hearts of human beings, where God’s redeeming power is
mysteriously at work; instead it is manifest[ed] in architecture, commerce,
science, and government.”
Herbert, T. Walter. Marquesan
Encounters. Harvard University
Press (Massachusetts and England 1980), 52-53.
Loomis, Albertine. Grapes
of Canaan: Hawaii 1820. Hawaiian
Mission Children’s Society (Hawaii 1951).
All references to this book are cited parenthetically.
Gunson, Niel. Messengers
of Grace. Oxford University
Press (Melbourne 1978). All
references to this book are cited parenthetically.
Polynesians and Missionaries on the Web