New view of Polynesian conversion to Christianity

Missionaries are often seen as the drivers of conversion to Christianity in Polynesia but research by anthropologist Dr Jeff Sissons puts forward a different view.

Jeff ’s three-year Marsden-funded study investigated a series of actions that took place in Eastern Polynesia in the early 19th century, in which images of non-Christian gods, marae and temples were burnt or torn down.

The event, which he has called The Polynesian Iconoclasm, began in Tahiti and neighbouring Mo’orea in 1815 and quickly spread to the Leeward Islands, the Austral Islands, Hawaii and the Southern Cook Islands.

Jeff ’s research shows that in most cases the destruction wasn’t simply a consequence of people adopting Christianity, but would have happened anyway—whether missionaries were in the area or not.

“In some cases, missionaries had been in the islands and left, but in others the events happened before they arrived.”

In Tahiti, he says, the iconoclasm followed a period of civil war and the return of exiled chief Pomare II, who ordered traditional places and symbols of worship to be destroyed and 67 churches to be built throughout the island.

Jeff found evidence that Tahitians visiting other islands brought news of the events and prompted similar practices.

He says the first churches built in place of the destroyed marae and temples were made of wood from breadfruit trees and many were huge. One in Tahiti, for example, was 712 feet long—the size of two football fields—and had 29 doors. Another in the Cook Islands was originally planned to be 600 feet long, however the building eventually constructed was just under half that size.

What prompted the revolutionary changes, in Jeff ’s view, was a desire for both unity and renewal.

“These societies had a tradition of annual renewal involving rituals such as wrapping and unwrapping images in white tapa cloth, which were thought to encourage fertility and prosperity.

“The destruction and rebuilding of churches was a different kind of renewal and an opportunity to rebuild and unify societies that had been affected by years of fighting.

“What it shows is that Polynesian people were adopting Christianity but in their own way. Often it was the priests from traditional religions that encouraged the change. In a sense they were indigenous missionaries.”

Jeff says the initial mass popularity of Christianity was relatively short-lived. “It became oppressive quite quickly, because chiefs and the former priests who had top positions in the new order used the events to introduce new laws and increase their power. By the late 1820s, there were rebellions taking place.”

While the arrival of Christianity features strongly in oral traditions in Eastern Polynesia, Jeff says few details are remembered about what led to the iconoclasm and how it altered societies.

Instead he has relied on records held in the Council for World Mission archives in London and other documentary sources.

“It’s clear from those accounts that the episodes of destruction were not witnessed by missionaries even if they were in the area at the time.”

Jeff ’s findings will be published in a book that will explain, for the first time, why the iconoclasm happened and how events in the different islands were connected.

“Until now, researchers have focused on individual islands but no one has taken a broader view and explored how news of the events was taken from one place to another.”

Overall, says Jeff, the work has produced a deeper understanding of the role Polynesian people played in their conversion to Christianity.

“It wasn’t done to them but something they did to themselves. It was Christian conversion as an indigenous political process.”