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Journal of World History 10.1 (1999) 253-256

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The Covenant Makers: Islander Missionaries in the Pacific. Edited by Doug Munro And Andrew Thornley. Suva, Fiji: Pacific Theological College and Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, 1996. Pp. xii + 321.

Names such as James Chalmers, John Williams, John Geddie, and Charles Abel are likely to be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in Pacific church history, but how many could identify Ruatoka or Simeona? (The former, we learn in this volume, was the most celebrated islander missionary to Papua, where a college was named after him; the latter was a pioneer missionary who worked alongside Geddie in Vanuatu. Simeona was a Samoan and Ruatoka a Cook Islander.) The troubling anonymity of those Pacific islander pastors who carried Christianity to new island groups so soon after receiving it themselves raises the inevitable questions regarding racism and ethnocentrism. Were these islander missionaries regarded by their European coreligionists as something less than partners in the task they carried on together? The essays in The Covenant Makers, as well as the photos gathered by Max Quanchi, typically showing white pastors seated and islander pastors standing to the side, leave little doubt that this was the case—not that this news should surprise us. But this book mercifully spares us the recriminations to which our generation of guilt-laden Pacific historians are forever subjecting us, possibly because most of the authors, Pacific islanders themselves, are too gracious to throw the sins of our fathers in our faces. The editors direct us to the obvious explanation that those who leave written histories are bound to be better remembered by future generations than those who do not, and it was Europeans who wielded the power of the pen. A more fruitful question is, What is to be done about it? The answer is the publication of this volume.

"The introduction of Christianity throughout most of the Pacific" —as editors Doug Munro and Andrew Thornley point out in their introduction, citing the Crocombes' groundbreaking work on the Cook [End Page 253] Island missionary Ta'unga—"was not accomplished by European missionaries alone, but by a veritable army of newly converted Polynesian teachers and pastors." The earliest missionary corps was made up of Tahitians, who were sent to other parts of Polynesia by the London Missionary Society. Tongans were soon enlisted to establish Methodist missions in Fiji and Samoa; soon afterward Cook Islanders, Samoans, and Niueans brought their faith to the smaller island groups in Polynesia and eventually to Melanesia. By the end of the nineteenth century local churches everywhere, including New Caledonia and other parts of outer Melanesia, were evangelizing Papua and New Guinea. It is to bring public attention to the work of these islander missionaries, and in so doing to redress the imbalance between the well-publicized foreign church pioneers and their generally ignored islander colleagues, that the editors have gathered fourteen historical essays under this cover.

Yet the editors have a more ambitious intent. Not only do they wish to spotlight the achievements of islander missionaries, the unsung heroes in the struggle to gain acceptance for Christianity in many of the island groups in the Pacific, but they also claim that they would like to help legitimize the islander missionary project as a field of academic inquiry. That is, they wish to rescue it from the hagiographers and mission chroniclers and situate it in the mainstream of historical research. To this wish readers, Western and Pacific islander alike, can only add their fervent amen.

The essays introduce readers to a parade of islander pastors chosen largely from among the Polynesians and Melanesians who made up the early corps of local evangelizers. Some readers, like this reviewer, would have hoped to find a Micronesian or two commemorated in this anthology—perhaps the Pohnpeian pastors who carried their faith to Chuuk, for instance. But rather than quibbling over this point, one should be genuinely grateful for what has been given. Readers are introduced, for example, to the blind Sepeteia, an...