The Other “Ties That Bind”: Christianity in East Asia and the Pacific

by on Friday, 25 March 2011 8544 hits Comments
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In this and similar conferences, we are in the process of being reintroduced to one another–like a gathering of a long-lost family. Not just Taiwanese, especially the aboriginal population, and the Island peoples–who are joined by ancient linguistic and cultural ties; but Westerners, Europeans and Americans as well.

We have “ties that bind,” as Pacific Islanders often say. Pacific Islanders, like peoples elsewhere in the world, always explore connections with others in an effort to establish a relationship with them by pinning them to their social map.

In this presentation we will briefly map those ties in the hope that their implications might be further explored in the future. These ties involve a second voyage of discovery, if you will–not the original dispersal of the Austronesian speakers into the Pacific, but the rediscovery of the region by the West and the evangelization of the Pacific. You can think of this as the initial advance of globalization, one that occurred long before what we today think of as the Age of Globalization. After all, it began five centuries before the invention of the computer and four centuries before the coming of the telegraph. This voyage of rediscovery may have been begun for commercial reasons, but its principal end result was the dissemination of a belief system: Christianity.

The Early Voyage: Ethnic and Linguistic Ties

Early theories of the settlement of the Pacific carried strong religious overtones. Europeans once believed that the island populations were descendants of the “Lost Tribes of Israel,” while American Mormons liked to think that Polynesians, at least, may have been the remnants of a decisive battle occurring in America in 400 AD. Thor Heyerdahl’s voyage to southern Polynesia on the “Kon-Tiki” in 1947 seemed to support his theory of the population of the Pacific from America.

In our own day, however, such theories have been discredited. The Taiwan homeland for Pacific Islanders is widely accepted today based on linguistic ties and DNA and mitochondrial analysis, even if the horticultural revolution that it supposedly sparked along the way is still under dispute.

The broad outline of the dispersal theory that seems to have won general support is familiar to most people today. It includes the following features:

- Movement of people in the pre-Han period down the Yangtze River into Taiwan c5000 BC, perhaps in search of maritime products.

- Migration into northern Philippines c4000 BC, with a millennium to disseminate down the length of the island group.

- Spread through eastern Indonesia to the northern coast of New Guinea by 1500 BC.

- Movement eastward across northern Melanesia into Samoa and Fiji area c1000 BC.

- Separate migrations into Palau and Marianas, perhaps 1000 BC, and movement from Melanesia north into nuclear Micronesia as early as 500 BC.

- Dispersal through Polynesia 200-800 AD, culminating in the settlement of New Zealand nearly a millennium ago.

Naturally, the cultural repertoire of these sea people evolved over the course of the dispersal. They lost the use of metals, especially tin, they may have had in Taiwan. The millet and rice that they would have cultivated in Taiwan and throughout the Philippines yielded to yams, taro and other tubers that were cultivated in parts of Southeast Asia as early as 5000 BC. The water buffalo that was domesticated in Asia was lost en route to the Pacific, while dogs and pigs and chickens were retained. Their sailing vessels changed form–with the double-outrigger canoe common in the Philippines, the single-outrigger in Western Oceania, and the double-hulled widely used in Polynesia. Pottery was retained during their early explorations into the Pacific, although this was later lost on most islands. The distinctive houses on stilts may have been found in the Philippines, parts of Indonesia and Melanesia, but not in settlements further west in the Pacific. Finally, weaving on the backstrap loom made it as far as the Carolines, but gave way to the use of tapa bark for clothing throughout Polynesia.

The Coming of Christianity

When did the Orient find a place on the European map? After Marco Polo’s famous overland trip to China, when Europeans learned of the wonders of China. The fascination with Cathay resulted in a short-lived attempt to establish a mission to China, beginning in 1294 when Giovanni di Monte Corvino entered China to preach the gospel. But this ended in 1368, just 74 years later, when the Ming Dynasty abolished Christianity.

The first major attempt at missionization occurred the great period of European discovery in the 1500s and was launched by Portugal and Spain, the maritime powers of that age. These two nations opened a trade route that would become a regular supply line for Asian products into Europe. This European foray into the Pacific also laid the foundation for Dutch and British trade during the 17th and 18th centuries and for the even greater expansion in trade by Britain and the US during the early 19th century.

Under the Patronato system of the 16th century, Spain and Portugal were permitted to engage in discovery and trade in their respective parts of the globe, but it was understood that they also had the responsibility to evangelize any peoples they encountered along the way.

The Portuguese came first, rounding Africa during the late 15th century, and finally reaching India and then the islands beyond: the East Indies (now Indonesia). Beginning with Francis Xavier, the first Jesuit to reach the Indies, the Society of Jesus played an important role in the evangelization of this part of the world. From shortly after their foundation in 1540, the Jesuits professed a willingness to go anywhere in the world to preach the faith, “even to the Indies”–the far end of the earth in the reckoning of that day.

In 1542, Francis Xavier sailed to Goa, worked for a time along the Fisheries Coast in western India, and then moved on to the Moluccas (Ambon and Ternate in what is now Indonesia) to establish missions. He then went on to Japan to pay a visit to the shogun, or “emperor,” as Xavier referred to him. In 1559, just a few years after Xavier’s visit, the first Christian missionary (Vilela) arrived in Japan and was followed by priests from other religious orders during the 1560s. Alessandro Valignano, the Jesuit architect of the Eastern missions, arrived in Japan in 1579 and organized a plan for the mission, along the way negotiating the necessary cultural compromises between the Iberian missionaries and the Japanese people.

The mission in Japan flourished for a short time. Hundreds of thousands converts were made and the first Japanese priests were ordained in 1601, some forty years after work began there. But Christianity was banned by the shogun Hideyoshi in 1587, and thousands of Catholics were killed for the faith in the persecutions that ensued. Christianity went underground but somehow managed to survive during the next two and a half centuries.

Meanwhile, the Portuguese trading interests were giving rise to missionary expansion in other directions. In 1556, the Portuguese Dominican Gaspar da Cruz entered China. A few years later, in 1565, a group of Jesuits founded a mission in Macao, which soon became a staging area for future Jesuit work in mainland China. By 1582, Jesuits were beginning their missionary assault on China, with Matteo Ricci, Adam Schall and others carrying on their celebrated pioneering work in creating a cultural bridge between East and West. (It may be worth noting that some of the most successful Jesuit missionaries during this era were Italians or Germans, possibly because they could not wear their national colors so proudly–they had none to wear, after all, three centuries before the unification of their countries–and felt no strong need to protect the national interests of Spain and Portugal.) In 1685, a little more than a century after the beginning of Jesuit work, the first Chinese bishop was consecrated.

The Spanish, who by the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas, were to missionize the other half of the globe, first ventured across the Pacific in the early 16th century. When Legazpi reached the Philippines in 1564 and claimed the island chain for Spain, he was soon followed by Spanish missionaries. In 1588 the Dominicans arrived to take up work there; and within a few years other religious orders arrived to help. Eventually, several congregations were at work in this field. The Philippines was well on its way to becoming the first Christian land in Asia.

From the Philippines, in 1636, Dominicans launched a mission to Japan even as the persecutions were raging, but the entire missionary party was killed, including the Filipino layman Lorenzo Ruiz, who became his country’s first canonized saint.

A later missionary effort from the Philippines, however, was much more successful. In 1668, a small band of Spanish Jesuits, led by Luis Diego de San Vitores, took up mission work in the Marianas. This was the first missionary foray into the Pacific Islands. After a period of initial resistance, during which twelve Jesuits and dozens of Filipino and Mexican mission helpers were killed, Spanish rule was extended throughout the archipelago and its religion accepted by the inhabitants. From 1700 on, the Marianas were firmly Catholic. With the conversion of the Marianas, a beachhead for Christianity was established in Oceania.

Two unsuccessful attempts were made to extend the faith to island groups to the south. In 1710, two Jesuits were landed on a small island in the Palau group, but they were soon killed. In 1722, another attempt was launched in the Carolines, but this party too was wiped out within a year. For the remainder of the 18th century, there was no expansion outward into other areas of the Pacific.

After a century and a half of missionary efforts during the great age of European exploration, the cross had been planted through much of East Asia, but Christianity had still not penetrated Oceania beyond the Mariana islands.

Image courtesy of Micronesian Seminar, Fedor Lutke Collections

The Advent of the Church in Oceania

The next great era of mission expansion occurred in the 19th century, by which time Spanish and Portuguese fortunes had declined. This time, it was the British, French and Americans who sailed into the area as the China trade resumed, with trading captains stopping at islands to pick up a cargo of items that might appeal to the Chinese: sandalwood, turtle shell and bêche-de-mer, among others. This was soon followed by the whaling expeditions that swept through the Pacific in search of the whale oil that would keep homes and city streets illumined.

Once again the spread of Christianity followed in the wake of Western commercial adventures into the Pacific, but without a patronato system to ensure that evangelization take place. This time, the spread of Christianity was a reaction to the movements that spurred on wealth and development in the world powers of the 19th century. The rationalism of the Enlightenment and the rapid growth of the nation state had spawned a thirst for the spiritual that went under the name of Pietism.

Christianity would sweep across the Pacific during the century, just as the sea peoples had millennia earlier, but this time the direction would be reversed–generally moving from east to west rather than the other way around.

The Protestants came first. In 1801, the London Missionary Society (LMS) sent a group of British tradesmen into the Pacific who began work on Tahiti. Pomare, one of the paramount chiefs in the Society Islands, expanded his power over the entire island group with the assistance of European cannon and powder, and the islands became Christian within 20 years.

American Congregationalists arrived in Hawaii in 1819, and within 20 years had set up the first schools, taught people to read, converted most of the population, and assisted in developing a code of law that embodied Christian principles. There, as in Tahiti, the formula for success was simple and straightforward: win the support of the chiefs and the rest of the population will soon follow; use the church to advance the general education of the population; and weave Christianity into the law and life of the people.

British Wesleyan Methodists launched a missionary effort in the 1820s beginning with Tonga and going on to Fiji. In both places Christian missionaries could claim to be architects of the kingdom, since the law code and ordinary life showed the strong imprint of Christianity. Soon afterwards, Samoa was christianized by Protestant missionaries by way Tahiti and with the help of Tahitian missionaries themselves. The Cook Islands were next, with the great LMS missionary John Williams leading the way. In all these island groups church and culture were closely bound together, as they have remained up to the present.

Catholic work began in 1817 with the petition of Jean Rives, a resident of Hawaii, to introduce Catholic missionaries there. Missionaries of the newly founded Missionaries of the Sacred Hearts (SSCC) arrived in Hawaii a few years later, but were evicted not long afterwards; within a few years, however, they were finally allowed to establish a toehold in the islands. Catholic missionaries went on to French Polynesia, where Catholicism eventually became the established religion after the French government assumed colonial rule in 1840.

In 1836 the Marists entered the field and began work in Wallis and Futuna Islands, the site of the martyrdom of Peter Chanel. In the next few years they spread to other island groups in Central Polynesia, including Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, where they established a lasting presence. By mid-century, however, Polynesia was Protestant with the exception of the Society Islands and the Marquesas, under French protection, as well as Wallis and Futuna.

Just before mid-century, both Catholics and Protestants began their assault on Melanesia. Cook Islands teachers began Protestant work in New Caledonia and Vanuatu, while Marists started work in the Solomon Islands and then moved to New Caledonia. The evangelization of New Guinea was too large for any single group. British Presbyterians and Anglicans began work in 1848, with Catholic missionaries later opening missions there. In time, the territory was carved up and sections assigned to different denominations for pastoral care.

Micronesia was evangelized concurrently with Melanesia. American Board (ABCFM) Protestant missionaries arrived in 1852, establishing missions immediately in Kosrae and Pohnpei and soon expanding to the Marshalls and Chuuk. Catholic missions were opened under the Capuchins some thirty years, only after the Spanish claim to the Carolines was recognized in 1885. Meanwhile, German Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC) began their work in the Marshalls and Kiribati at about the same time.


The long voyage of settlement that early Austronesian speakers made from Taiwan throughout the area was probably a trade voyage of sorts. The earliest pre-Han people may have followed the Yangtze River to the coast and beyond to Taiwan because of an interest in maritime goods. They expanded southward centuries later into the northern Philippines, and then far beyond, because of social pressure or to expand their access to marine resources. Somewhere along the way they developed the outrigger sailing canoes that permitted them to sail further from shore safely. All along the way these descendants of early Austronesian speakers interacted with other indigenous populations. Eventually, their descendants covered the entire Pacific.

Christianity moved in waves, each spurred by a burst of commercial energy by Western powers. The first outburst occurred in the 16th century, when Portuguese and Spaniards vied for a share in the spices and other products of the area. Under the Patronato system, these two countries succeeded in planting the seeds of Christianity in the countries of East Asia.

The second occurred during the 19th century, the era of the China trade and whaling, when other nations took the lead in bringing Christianity to the island peoples. By the end of that century the islands of the Pacific were in effect christianized. Not only had the gospel been introduced to these peoples, but Christianity had been worked into the fabric of island society and inculturated along the way. It was no longer simply a foreign innovation, but had become a constituent part of island life and remains so today.



Last modified on Thursday, 23 August 2012 11:24
Francis X. Hezel


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