Jehovah’s Name in the Pacific
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN FIJI
THE crowd was totally amazed. Newcomers to their Pacific island closed their eyes before eating the feast that had been prepared for them. “What are you doing?” the islanders asked.
“Thanking God for His gifts,” was the reply.
“Where does your God live?” the islanders wanted to know.
“In heaven,” they were told.
“What is His name?”
“Does your God eat food?” the islanders asked.
“God is a Spirit,” the newcomers replied. “He is not like us; He lives for ever. It was He that made the earth, the sky, the sea, and all things. He made us.”
The islanders were astounded at these simple truths and asked why these strangers were visiting their island. The reply was simple: “We come to make known to you the true God Jehovah, and His Son Jesus our Saviour.”—From Darkness to Light in Polynesia.
Who were these strangers? Present-day Witnesses of Jehovah? No. They were two Tahitian teachers, evangelizers, who arrived at the island of Mangaia (in the southern Cook Islands) on June 15, 1824. Why did they use the name Jehovah? Was this simply an isolated event? The answer to these questions explains why Jehovah’s name is still very important in many Pacific-island cultures.
God’s Name Used Extensively
Many missionaries who came to the Pacific from England and America in the 19th century used the name Jehovah in everyday speech and in their writings. In fact, one historian even mistakenly asserted that these early missionaries “were followers of Jehovah rather than disciples of Christ.”
Personal letters of these missionaries often started with a phrase such as: “May you be saved by God even Our Lord Jehovah and by Jesus Christ the king of peace.” Not surprisingly, therefore, Albert J. Schütz, a well-known linguist, says that in Fiji a primer produced in 1825 contained only one word borrowed from English. It was the name Jehova.
This use of Jehovah’s name by the early missionaries had a profound effect on Pacific islanders. Some of these taught ones were, in turn, sent out as missionaries, or teachers, to take their message to other islands. Commenting on the above-mentioned arrival of the two Tahitian missionaries on the island of Mangaia, the book The Covenant Makers—Islander Missionaries in the Pacific makes this comment: “For the Tahitian teachers, Jehovah was the only true God. He created the whole world and man was part of God’s creation. . . . [They] claimed that Jehovah was the only true God and His Son Jesus Christ was the Saviour of mankind.”
As they took the Bible’s message to various islands, some early missionaries encountered incredible dangers, since the inhabitants at times were violent. In describing the difficulties involved, the book Mission, Church, and Sect in Oceania states: “Strong faith in Jehovah often overcame fear and despair.”
A notable example of such faith in Jehovah was shown in 1823 when the Bible’s message was introduced to the island of Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands. Missionary sailor John Williams arrived there and sent two couples ashore to teach the Rarotongans. However, after a disagreement with an extremely drunk king, these missionaries were badly beaten. All their property was stolen, and they barely managed to escape with their lives.
Back on their ship, the missionaries described the Rarotongans as the fiercest savages they had ever met. Fearing the worst, Williams decided to abandon the island, at least for a while. At that, a young teacher by the name of Papeiha volunteered to attempt to evangelize the island alone. “Whether the savages spare me or kill me,” he said, “I will land among them.”
In words that have often been quoted in accounts of early missionary activity, Papeiha said: “Ko Jehova toku tiaki! Tei roto au i tona rima! (Jehovah is my shepherd! I am in His hand!)” Then, clad only in light clothing and with a book containing passages of the Bible in Tahitian, he jumped overboard and swam ashore. He more than survived. Upon arriving at the island, he found that many there responded to the things he was teaching.
One Rarotongan who later became a missionary himself was More Ta’unga. In 1842 he became the first missionary to establish a base on the island of New Caledonia. Regarding a local man whom he had taken aside and taught to read and write, he wrote in his diary: “He learnt these things slowly. Not long afterwards he said to me, ‘I want to pray.’ But I advised him not to be in a hurry. Later he asked again, ‘Won’t you let me pray?’ Then he asked me why I would not agree to his praying, so I said, ‘You must relinquish your idols first, then you may pray to Jehovah. He alone can hear you.’ So he brought me his basket of gods, saying, ‘Burn them. Now Jehovah will be my God.’ He became skilled in prayer.”
Pacific Islanders Accept Jehovah
With missionaries freely using God’s name, it is not surprising that those to whom they preached started to accept Jehovah as their God. The book Missionary Adventures in the South Pacific describes a large meeting held on one northern Pacific island after the arrival of the missionary ship Morning Star. The book said that islanders “voted by a show of hands, most of them raising both hands and keeping them up a long time for emphasis, that they would forsake idolatry and worship Jehovah. Moreover, they would provide for all the needs of the teachers. A piece of land was set aside and dedicated to Jehovah for a church and parsonage.”
Describing the conversion of Malietoa, a high chief in Samoa, the book Wiliamu—Mariner-Missionary—The Story of John Williams says: “Malietoa made a long speech to his people, publicly promising to become a worshipper of Jehovah, and to erect a church for His worship. He ordered the people who were remaining at home to begin to learn about Jehovah and Jesus Christ.”
All this activity had a lasting impact on the lives of many Pacific-island communities. Even today in countries such as Fiji and Samoa, it is not uncommon to hear Jehovah’s name mentioned on the radio or to see it in local newspapers.
But the impact does not stop there. In her book Treasure Islands, first published in 1977, Pearl Binder describes the importance of Jehovah’s name to the Banabans. These people originally lived in Kiribati but were later resettled on the island of Rabi, in Fiji. Binder writes: “The missionaries who came to Banaba had given the Banabans more than they knew. . . . Their belief in Jehovah has been the central core of their lives, has held them together as nothing else could have done, through seventy years of increasingly agonising tribulations, and still today keeps them alive in spirit. Without the white man’s Jehovah (whom the white man himself increasingly disregards) the Banabans would have been lost.”
God’s Name in Bible Translations
One of the main aims of the early missionaries was to produce understandable translations of the Bible in Pacific-island languages. Because of their diligent efforts, the Bible became available in many of the languages spoken throughout the Pacific region. It seemed natural to these translators to transliterate Jehovah’s name, just as they transliterated all other names in the Bible.
It is of interest to the serious Bible student that these early translators used Jehovah’s name not only in their translations of the Hebrew Scriptures but also in the Christian Greek Scriptures, the so-called New Testament. A survey of seven Pacific-island languages reveals that Jehovah’s name is used in 72 different verses in the Christian Greek Scriptures. These were not exclusively translations made in the 19th century. Included also is a modern translation in the Rotuman language that was released in 1999. This Bible uses Jehovah’s name in 48 verses in the Christian Greek Scriptures.
At the end of the 19th century, William Wyatt Gill, a long-time missionary in the Pacific, wrote concerning one of the early translations: “Having used the Rarotongan Bible for forty-two years, I may be pardoned for saying that I regard it as an admirable rendering of the original. . . . As in all other Pacific and New Guinea versions, the sacred name ‘Jehovah’ is transliterated, never translated, thus adding immeasurably to the force of the contrast between the ever-living God and the objects worshipped by the heathen.”
Why They Used God’s Name
Why did these missionaries, Bible translators, and teachers use God’s personal name, Jehovah, so extensively? Particularly because they found it necessary to distinguish between Jehovah, the only true God, and the multitude of false gods worshiped by Pacific islanders. (John 17:3; 1 Corinthians 8:5, 6) Each of these gods had a name, and it was only natural for their worshipers to ask, “Who is your God? What is his name?” Using the local term for “god” would have confused those asking or perhaps resulted in their simply thinking of the Almighty as yet another god to add to their pantheon of gods. So it should be no wonder that these early missionaries used Jehovah’s name extensively.
Does this mean that all those who use the name Jehovah really understand who he is? No. Hiram Bingham, a missionary translator and son of the famous Hawaiian missionary of the same name, witnessed the inhabitants of Abaiang (in Kiribati) shouting “there is only one God—Jehovah” while they destroyed their idol. But Missionary Adventures in the South Pacific says of this incident:
“Bingham knew, however, that the fall of that idol did not mean that the people were really embracing Christianity—at least not yet. They had not grasped much of the true significance of the gospel message, but a beginning was being made.” Obviously, more is required than just knowing the name Jehovah. True Christians need to get to know Jehovah as a person and obey him in every respect.—Romans 10:13-17.
Even faithful Moses, a man who knew Jehovah’s name and used it, needed to know more. He prayed: “Now, if, please, I have found favor in your eyes, make me know, please, your ways, that I may know you, in order that I may find favor in your eyes.” (Exodus 33:13) Yes, Moses wanted to know more than just Jehovah’s name. He wanted to know Jehovah’s qualities and how to please him. Because of this request, Moses was granted a marvelous privilege, that of seeing a manifestation involving the meaning of Jehovah’s name.—Exodus 33:19; 34:5-7.
Likewise today, thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the Pacific region are using the Bibles originally translated by early missionaries to help honesthearted ones come to understand not only the meaning of Jehovah’s name but also what he requires of those who would worship him “with spirit and truth.” (John 4:23, 24) Yes, Jehovah’s name is being glorified in “the islands of the sea.” Many thousands are therefore putting their hope in his majestic name.—Isaiah 24:15; 42:12; 51:5; Proverbs 18:10.
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Pacific islanders who learned God’s name from early missionaries of Christendom made it known to others
Palm tree and photo at left: From the book Gems From the Coral Islands
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Courtesy Institute of Pacific Studies, from Mission Life in the Islands of the Pacific, by Aaron Buzacott
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Jehovah’s Witnesses make God’s name known around the world