Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

The Origins of the Bahã¡'ã­ Faith in the Pacific Islands: The Case of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands

Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

The Origins of the Bahã¡'ã­ Faith in the Pacific Islands: The Case of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands

Article excerpt

All Pacific Islands societies have rich religious traditions that include a mythical past and strong attachment in more recent times to Christian beliefs. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, Catholic and Protestant missionaries sailed into the region, and even in the twentieth century made extensive use of sailing vessels to ensure the spread of the Gospel throughout the islands scattered across the vast Pacific Ocean. In a great majority of instances these missionary efforts resulted in the creation of Christian communities well before the establishment of colonial governments by the Western powers-notably Britain, Germany, France, the United States of America, and Spain, which annexed the islands during the era of global colonization-mostly in the late 1800s.

By the mid-twentieth century the authority of Christian churches in the realm of religion and of the colonial powers in secular rule was pervasive and apparently secure. The various Pacific Island groups gave an appearance of stability and calm, and a sense that the people had consented to the replacement of much traditional belief and culture by the beliefs and practices of modern Christianity. This view was also conveyed by much scholarship of the time, which relied greatly on the patronage of the missions and the colonial authorities for access to the field and to official records. Indeed, anthropologists were often much involved in the colonial project, contributing their knowledge of indigenous cultures and languages to the processes of pacification and "modernization." Missionaries, too, collaborated with colonial authorities toward these ends.

Juxtaposed with this "official narrative" of Church-State collaboration in the cause of social and political progress is another, which records considerable resistance to the imposed colonial rule, considerable conflict between traditional authorities and the new religious leaders, and much sectarian conflict among the adherents of the new religions.

The emergence of Bahá'í communities in the Pacific Islands provides an additional layer of complexity. For one thing, the first Bahá'í pioneers to the Pacific were not part of (and did not see themselves as part of) the "westernization" and "colonization" of Pacific peoples. They were not schooled in the Christian missionary tradition, and were for the most part unaware of the extreme rivalries between the missions themselves, just as they were unaware of the rivalries between church and state which pervaded the interactions between these two sources of authority within the colonies. Bahá'í pioneers were, in contrast, advocates of a global worldview premised on the subordination of nationalism and of race inequality. The distinction between these two approaches to religious conversion is profound, and the premise of this paper is that in the Gilbert Islands, in the 1950s, their collision produced widespread confusion concerning the true motivation of the pioneers and the first islanders who chose to become Bahá'ís.

This paper thus examines the establishment of a Bahá'í community among the Polynesian and Micronesian peoples of adjoining archipelagoes in the North Pacific Ocean known as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. From 1892 to 1976 the British-controlled Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (GEIC) combined the inhabitants of sixteen islands of the Gilberts group, who are ethnically Micronesian, with those of the eight inhabited islands of the Ellice group, who are Polynesian. Together, the landmass of the widely scattered islands amounts to just 788 square kilometers. In 1978 the Ellice Islanders gained independence as Tuvalu, and the following year the Gilbertese established the independent nation of Kiribati: they now constitute two of the smallest independent nations in the world and, as low-lying atolls in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, are increasingly vulnerable to the rising sea levels due to climate change.

Roy and Elena Fernie brought the Bahá'í Teachings to the colony in 1954 in response to a specific objective of the World Crusade (1953-1963) (Hassall, "Bahá'í History"). …

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