The term "Oceania" is now generally used to refer to the 1,500 or so islands in the Pacific Ocean. Oceania is further subdivided into three regions. "Polynesia" designates the group of islands stretching from
Hawaii (known as the "Sandwich Islands" in earlier centuries) in the north to New Zealand in the south, including Tahiti and Pitcairn Island. "Micronesia" refers to the group of small islands between Hawaii and the Philippines, including the Caroline, Gilbert, and Marshall Islands. "Melanesia" refers to the group of islands south of Micronesia and north of Australia, including Fiji, the Solomon Islands, and the New Hebrides. The population of this vast and dispersed region is relatively small; however, it was considered by nineteenth-century Protestant missionaries to be of major importance. Indeed, the predominant form of Christianity initially established in the region in the early nineteenth century was English-speaking Protestantism.
Missionary interest in the region was first awakened by reports of the voyages of Captain Cook during the eighteenth century. In 1795 the London Missionary Society was founded with the primary objective of sending missionaries to "the islands of the South Sea." The first major missionary expedition to the region set off in August 1796 when thirty missionaries of the London Mission Society set sail for Tahiti. Although this mission faced considerable difficulties—not least of which related to the very different sexual mores of England and Tahiti—it can be seen as marking the beginning of a sustained effort to establish Christianity in the region.
The geographical nature of the region made one of the most reliable means of evangelization—the establishment of mission stations—impossible. The populations of the islands were generally too small to justify the building and maintenance of such settlements. The most successful strategy to be adopted was the use of missionary vessels, which allowed European missionaries to direct and oversee the operations of native evangelists, pastors, and teachers in the region.
The most significant Christian missions in the South Pacific were located in Australia and New Zealand, which eventually came to serve as the base for most missionary work in the region. Christianity came to Australia in 1788. The circumstances of its arrival were not entirely happy. The fleet that arrived in New South Wales was transporting convicts to the penal settlements that were being established in the region. At the last moment, William Wilberforce persuaded the British naval authorities to allow a chaplain to sail with the fleet. With the dramatic increase in immigration to the region from Britain in the fol lowing century, the various forms of British Christianity became established in the region. The formation of the "Bush Brotherhoods" in 1897 laid the basis for the evangelization of the interior of the continent.
The first missionaries arrived in New Zealand in 1814. A small group of missionaries, sponsored by the Church Missionary Society and led by Samuel Marsden, made contact with the Maori people and secured a positive response to Christianity. By the 1830s, many Maori had converted to Protestantism, while adapting it to reflect their own distinctive values. However, when serious tensions arose after the arrival of large numbers of colonists in the 1850s, many Maori reasserted more traditional forms of religion in reaction to the excesses of the British émigrés. The consolidation of Christianity in the region was largely due to the efforts of Bishop George Selwyn (1809-78), who was appointed missionary bishop of New Zealand in 1841. During his time in the region, he had a marked impact on the development of Christianity, particularly in relation to education.20
Throughout the South Pacific region, a major issue has been the relation of Christianity to the native peoples of the region, particularly the Australian Kuri (often still inappropriately referred to as "Aborigines") and New Zealand Maori peoples. For some, Christianity is a Western colonial phenomenon to be rejected as destructive of indigenous culture; for others, Christianity has no necessary connection with Western culture or power and can be put at the service of indigenous peoples and cultures. The use of Christian rituals throughout the region to reaffirm traditional social and cultural values has been particularly significant.21
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