The Lord Jesus instructed His servants to announce the Gospel to the end of the earth, starting from Jerusalem. His apostles and His disciples have carried out this mission throughout the ages with relative success, sometimes facing great difficulties: opposition, great distances, almost impassable physical obstacles and savage cultures.
I was recently in a place which illustrates very well the struggle which some missionaries have had against all these factors at the same time, and the remarkable victory of the Gospel.
the Pacific Ocean, equidistant from Australia and New Zealand, and North of this last country lies a group of islands, among many others, now known as Fiji. It is composed of some 322 islands, of which 102 are permanently inhabited, and 522 islets.
The majority of the population today is on the two main islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. The people are amiable and warm-hearted, many buildings of “Protestant” and Evangelical churches being seen, also some of so-called Christian sects, Hindu temples and a few mosques.
But until the beginning of the 19th century the situation was completely different, because there was hardly any contact between the islanders and the outside world. The islands are of volcanic origin and are surrounded by coral reefs, a great obstacle to the approach of boats and ships. Although capable of building primitive boats of good quality, the native population didn’t venture to sail into the high seas.
The Dutch explorer Abel Tasman discovered Fiji in 1643, when he sought the Great South Continent, and the English explorer captain Cook, also passed along the islands, being received with hostility by the natives. In letters sent by members of their expeditions the natives were described as fearsome warriors and ferocious cannibals, builders of the best boats in the Pacific but poor sailors.
In their isolation, the Fijians warred among themselves and ate defeated warriors in the conviction that in this way they acquired their virtues. They were polytheistic and their religion, myths and legends dominated their entire social behaviour. Their “taboo” prescribed what they should eat and drink, how to address their superiors, whom they should marry, where they should be buried. It limited their choice of food and controlled their behaviour at home. They feared disobeying their gods which they thought were able to do anything they liked to them, even kill them.
They had an infinite number of gods which they consulted through their priests to decide on every sort of thing. The priest was an intermediary (medium) between the god and the people, and when “inspired” he entered a trance; he trembled when “possessed” and announced the message of his god in a strange voice.
To consult the spirits and to use them to influence day to day activities was part of the Fijian religion. They also gave much value to dreams, believing that they were a way to receive communication from the spirits, including who they were to murder.
Isolated, submitted to the dominion of demons and surrounded by dangerous reefs, the Fijians were a challenge to the Evangelization effort. According to history, three missionaries left Tahiti to preach the Gospel in Lakemba, one of the Fiji islands. Little more is known about them.
In 1835 two English missionaries also went there, taking their families with them. They had slow progress in Evangelization, for the Fijians didn’t want to abandon their gods and there were constant wars between the tribes. In 1839 the first great chief was converted, making it easier to reach his subjects because of his precedent and influence. Other chiefs followed him, impressed by the power of the new God, which they thought was proved by the arrival of ships, machinery and weapons at their islands, brought over by fishers and whalers who, encouraged by the better reception from the native, began to benefit from the resources of the islands.
In 1867 another English missionary, called Thomas Baker, of the Wesleyan Methodist church like those before him, when taking the Gospel to more Western islands, was murdered and eaten by the natives in Navatusila, on the island of Viti Levu, who later declared: “we ate him all except his boots”. We saw the sole of one of them exhibited in the museum Suva, capital of Fiji, emblem of the supreme sacrifice of that servant of Christ. Six companions were killed with him.
But, gradually, the missionaries and Fijian workers replaced the witch priests of the islands, and the concept of holiness replaced the “taboo” and the “mana” (influence of the spirits). The Gospel of Christ radically transformed the culture of those people.
Fiji is today considered to be a Christian nation. Of the native population about 97% are nominally Christian, the Methodist denomination predominating with more than two thirds. In the village where Thomas Baker had ministered, Navatusila, there is now a church and a monument, and the village is preserved and inhabited by the natives. In November 2003 they held a ceremony in which they offered their apologies to the descendants of Thomas Baker, who were invited for the occasion.
However, between 1879 and 1916 there was a considerable immigration of Indians, under contract to work in the sugar cane plantations, whose descendants today make up nearly half the population of the country. They don’t mix with the native population, and remain firm in their religions, being Hindu for the most part with a smaller portion of Muslims. Keeping themselves culturally segregated from the native population, but having considerable economic and political power, their presence has resulted in conflict in the political order of the nation.
During the short time at our disposal it wasn’t possible to get information as to how the independent “brethren” assemblies came into being there, but we found that they are present, both in the native and Indian communities. A brother of Indian origin is at present dedicating himself to give very necessary assistance in the way of teaching to some assemblies, specially of ethnic Indians, and he was very helpful with information concerning their needs, the enemy having prevailed in some of them because they were weakened by adverse circumstances, and they lack salutary teaching. Let us pray for them!
In conclusion, it is evident that, without the effort of those first missionaries, generations of natives oppressed by a cruel and satanic religion would possibly not have been set free by the Gospel, transforming themselves as they did into a peaceful and hospitable people, besides being saved from eternal perdition. These missionaries evidenced in a clear manner what it is to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13,14), going into the darkness of a people which was totally away from God, under the dominion of the “prince of this world”, bringing to them life in Christ and the light of the Gospel.