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When the Churches Came to Tahiti

When the Churches Came to Tahiti

When the Churches Came to Tahiti


THE end of the 18th century saw winds of evangelism begin to blow across Europe. In Britain, then-future missionary William Carey stirred Protestant hearts with his fervent appeals to evangelize untouched territories, including Tahiti. Carey was roused by Jesus’ command to his followers to make disciples of people in all nations. (Matthew 28:19, 20) In 1802, French writer François-Auguste-René de Chateaubriand’s best seller Le Génie du christianisme (The Genius of Christianity) would similarly rouse Catholic missionary fervor.

Catholic and Protestant missionary associations and societies soon began to spring up. In 1797 the London Missionary Society sent 29 missionaries to Tahiti. In 1841 a band of Catholics belonging to the religious order called the Picpus Fathers arrived, and three years later members of the Mormon Church did likewise. Before long, however, many of the newcomers deviated from their primary spiritual mission and got involved in politics and commerce. Why this deviation?

Allies of the Ariʽi

At first, the teachings of the Protestant missionaries were not well received. According to one author, “their message had more hell-fire and brimstone than compassion and neighbourly love.” Besides, as the preachers soon realized, no one would dare to get baptized as a Christian ahead of the ariʽi, or chiefs, who also held religious authority. Thus, the missionaries decided to focus on the leaders.

One chief in particular, Pomare II, welcomed the missionaries, seeing them as potential economic and military allies. They, in turn, saw Pomare as a means of promoting their interests. Moreover, from the beginning the missionaries had a measure of influence by serving as intermediaries between the Tahitians and the seamen who regularly stopped for supplies.

Hopeful that the missionaries would help him to further his political ambitions and to trade for the weapons he wanted, Pomare took an interest in their message, and as early as 1811, he asked to be baptized. The following year he put his desire in writing. For eight years, though, his request was denied, the missionaries feeling it prudent to see if he would truly live in harmony with Bible standards of morality.

In the meantime, Pomare succeeded in establishing himself as undisputed king of the island of Tahiti and its immediate neighbors, which make up the Society Islands. Once again, he asked to be baptized. Finally, in 1819, the missionaries acquiesced.

The effect was immediate. Within about five years, virtually all the inhabitants of the Society Islands, the western Tuamotu Archipelago, and half of the Austral Islands professed Christianity.

The Pomare Code

The wholesale “conversion” of the islanders called for the substitution of new values, customs, and laws to replace the old ones. To that end, Pomare looked to the missionaries. As it was, the latter had long desired to reform tribal customs and to check the power of the king. Consequently, the missionaries acceded to Pomare’s request and formulated a set of laws that combined, according to one reference, “the general principles of the British constitution, the declarations of scripture, and the practice of Christian nations.” Many revisions later, the king accepted the final product as Tahiti’s first written law code. It came to be called the Pomare Code.

The Pomare Code became a model for neighboring islands and archipelagoes, where similar systems of laws were enacted. The code enforced strict observance of the Sabbath; included penalties for such offenses as adultery, bigamy, theft, and rebellion; and decreed the death penalty for murder and infanticide. All forms of lascivious entertainment were forbidden.

Participation in Politics

The Protestant missionaries were “deeply involved in the high politics of the island,” states the book Where the Waves Fall. “As well as their purely evangelical role, they had become military strategists, economic advisers, political sages, and legal and constitutional draughtsmen.” Likewise, Mormon and Catholic missionaries essentially took charge of the civil and political affairs of the islands where they settled. On the island of Tubuai, in the Austral Islands, a Mormon missionary asserted: “The reins of government are within the church. . . . I am prime minister of the island.” In the Gambier Islands, Catholics acquired similar influence, one cleric assuming the office of governmental minister.

Instead of limiting themselves to the sole domain of spiritual life, the missionaries “opted for a political evangelization,” notes historian Claire Laux. They saw this as a more expedient way to get results. In doing so, the missionaries acted contrary to the directives of their church authorities. Nevertheless, to this day, religion and politics remain entwined in French Polynesia.

The Role of Trade

With some missionaries, “political opportunism was closely linked with the trading spirit,” says Professor Niel Gunson of the University of Canberra in Australia. A number of missionaries became traders​—supplying, chartering, and even building merchant ships. Some operated plantations, growing arrowroot, coffee, cotton, sugarcane, and tobacco.

Missionaries became so well established commercially that for 25 years they controlled trade between Australia and Tahiti, particularly in salt pork and coconut oil. Some of their number, however, were disturbed by these activities and appealed to the London Missionary Society to intercede. Others felt that trade was essential to their religious goals. How so?

Since their arrival, the missionaries had used both their technical skills and their manufactured goods to impress the islanders. Believing that “civilizing” the people would make them happier, the missionaries promoted hard work and material prosperity, even suggesting that the latter was an indication of God’s blessing.

Genuine Conversion?

A London Missionary Society historian later wrote that in the quick mass conversion of these islands, “moral motives, to say nothing of spiritual religion and a change of heart, had little part.” The conversion of Tahiti, notes Gunson, was “merely an expression of the will of Pomare II, based on the religious habits (not the beliefs) of the English missionaries.”

Many Tahitians had become Christians in name only, and within a few years, paganism made a comeback through a religious movement called Mamaia. A morally loose form of worship adopted even by the heiress to the throne, Mamaia mixed features of Christianity with traditional beliefs and ways.

There was much bickering among the Protestant groups​—which included Anglicans, Calvinists, and Methodists—​and hatred between Protestants and Catholics. “Islanders saw no doctrinal differences between denominations, and could not comprehend the vicious rivalries among people who espoused brotherhood,” says the book The Cambridge History of the Pacific Islanders. For example, when two Catholic missionaries landed on Tahiti, they were promptly deported at the behest of a prominent former Protestant missionary. This action triggered a diplomatic incident between Britain and France that led to the brink of conflict. Finally, Britain conceded to France’s claim that Tahiti should come under French “protection.”

A Positive Legacy

On the positive side, a number of early missionaries zealously promoted literacy and helped to eradicate infanticide, cannibalism, and human sacrifice. Although some missionaries may have been unduly austere and stern, they did endeavor to elevate the islanders’ morality.

A particularly noteworthy gift of the missionaries was translation of the Bible into Tahitian. Moreover, by this means, they introduced the people to the divine name, which is still well-known in the islands. *​—Psalm 83:18.


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“You Are No Part of the World”

Spoken by Jesus Christ, those words are a guiding principle for his true followers. (John 15:19) In fact, that principle is so important for them that Jesus prayed to God, saying: “They are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world.” (John 17:16) Accordingly, Jesus did not participate in politics, nor did he use it as a lever to gain disciples. He also repudiated the avid pursuit of material wealth​—another reflection of the world’s spirit. Instead, he advocated a simple life focused on acquiring spiritual riches. (Matthew 6:22-24, 33, 34) His true followers imitate his example.

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The reception of the first missionaries, 1797

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The Granger Collection, New York

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A missionary with Tahitian converts c. 1845

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King Pomare II

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Tahiti and the capital city, Papeete

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Photo courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme

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Left: Photo by Henry Guttmann/​Getty Images; right: Collection du Musée de Tahiti et de ses Îles, Punaauia, Tahiti