Academic journal article Brigham Young University Law Review

New Impulses in the Interaction of Law and Religion: A South Pacific Perspective

Academic journal article Brigham Young University Law Review

New Impulses in the Interaction of Law and Religion: A South Pacific Perspective

Article excerpt


This article will look at the way in which new religions were introduced first from Britain and Europe and then later from the United States of America into all island countries of the South Pacific during the nineteenth century. The next part will examine the extent to which the laws of those countries provide freedom of religion and it will then consider certain legal and sociological limitations upon the actual practice of religion in these same countries. The article will conclude by looking to the future and trying to suggest ways to ease the tension that exists between individual freedom to practice the religion of his or her choice and community concern for preserving peace and harmony in the community.


The islands of the South Pacific first came to the European's attention following the voyages of explorers and traders in the sixteenth century from Portugal (Telez, de Sequeira, and de Meneses) and Spain (Magellan, de Mendana, and de Quiros).1 Dutch explorers (Schouten, Le Maire, and Tasman) followed in the seventeenth century,2 and in the eighteenth century came the British explorers (Byron, Wallis, Cartaret, and Cook)3 and the French explorers (La Perouse, de Bougainville, D'Entrecasteaux, and D'Urville)4 so that by the end of the eighteenth century most of the islands in the South Pacific had become known to Europeans.5

A. Introduction of New Religions

When the British explorers brought back information confirming that the newly discovered island countries had native populations who clearly had never heard of Christianity, great excitement erupted in the churches in England.6 Those churches had recently undergone a great spiritual re-awakening in a movement often referred to as the Great Revival.7 They were, therefore, very anxious to demonstrate that they would accept and follow, even unto death, Christ's parting command that his followers go forth and preach the holy gospel to the unconverted heathen-the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19).8 Several denominational missionary societies were formed in the late eighteenth century, such as the Baptist Missionary Society, the Church (of England) Missionary Society,9 and the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society.10 An important non-denominational missionary society was formed in 1795-the Missionary Society, renamed in 1818 the London Missionary Society ("LMS")-and included members from all denominations, particularly from the Congregationalist and Calvinist forms of fundamental Protestantism.11 Accordingly, the missions set up by the LMS usually followed fundamental Protestant doctrine and practice.

The LMS was the first to begin evangelizing, and in 1796 they dispatched the Duff, replete with missionaries, to the South Seas.12 In 1788, Britain had proclaimed New South Wales, Australia, a colony for the purpose of establishing a penal colony there.13 At that time, an Anglican clergyman had been appointed to the settlement, so the LMS decided to establish its base at Tahiti in the Society Islands, in eastern Polynesia on the other side of the South Pacific.14 Tahiti was probably the island in the South Pacific that was best known in England because of Captain Cook's visits in the 1770s to observe the transit of the planet Venus across the face of the sun,15 because of Cook's return with an islander, Omai-who was lionized in London as the archetype of the noble savage16-and because of the ill-fated voyage in the 1780s of Captain William Bligh in the ship, the Bounty, which culminated in the celebrated mutiny.17 After initial hardships, the LMS was able to establish a base there, and during the 1830s, its missionaries moved westward across the Pacific to Samoa, Tonga, and the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), where the leading LMS missionary, John Williams, was murdered as he stepped ashore in 1839.18 LMS then moved northward to the Gilbert (Kiribati) and Ellice (Tuvalu) Islands.19 Several decades later, in the 1870s, LMS missionaries entered Papua, or southern New Guinea, and successfully established a mission there. …

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