Early Christian Converts were Natural Theists – the Trend Continues

Having written about The Unstoppable March of Christianity including Part 2 of the same subject, and My Origin Story, and relating these to the ongoing debate between Christians and Atheists on the existence of God, I am struck not only by the speed with which early Fijians took up Christianity, but also by the relative ease they were converted, specifically to theism instead of other modes of Christianity. It is evident that their cultural and socio-historic milieu contributed critically to their conversion. Public demonstrations of religious fervor today reaffirm theism.

The speed of conversion to Christianity can be gauged by looking at the Dravuni situation. The first catechist to be posted to Dravuni was Ilai Tuilawa in 1875, a year after the Deed of Cession when Fiji was ceded to Great Britain. That in itself is reflective of the surge in the spread of Christianity. In the province of Kadavu, for example, it is recorded that Christianity spread to the whole of Kadavu after 1853 when missionaries came to Yale and Naikorokoro; and that was even before the end of the Battle of Kaba in 1855, and whose victory is known as a victory for Christianity. What was happening in Kadavu was echoing the events in the major centers in Fiji. Ratu Cakobau was converted in 1854, but that was only four years when he declared war on all Christians. Tui Nayau had been converted five years earlier in 1849.

Ten years after Ilai Tuilawa arrived on Dravuni, great grandfather Simione Ravana began his posting as a catechist to Nabukelevu-i-ra, Nabukelevu, southern end of Kadavu. This was a huge commitment on his part, to take up his calling from God so soon after his conversion and still very much in the embryonic stage of the establishment of Christianity in Fiji.

Christianity continued to grow on Dravuni. In 1888, Rev Eliesa Bula stopped over on Dravuni on his way to Kadavu mainland and carried out mass baptism in the village. Eleven years after that in 1899, Dravuni saw her first ever home-grown talatala, Rev Pauliasi Nene. He was transferred out and held his posting until 1917.

One has to wonder also at the ease with which these early Christians were being converted. I do acknowledge God’s power in transforming people’s personality and beliefs once people commit themselves and the power of His words in the Holy Bible. I feel however that these early Fijians needed a crutch, given that they were fresh from tribal war-fares and related intemperance. I have therefore resorted to studying closely my origin story for answers.

As you can note, my relationship with my Vu and Kalou Vu is one that is alive and dynamic. It is not sealed in traditional niceties and locked away like an exhibit item in a museum. I have expectations for visitations, for example, from my Vu; and on such occasions he will be appearing in the form of a dadakulaci, a sea snake, according to my origin story. Moreover, Bulou, the wife of Tuni, my Kalou Vu, will continue her protective role, irrespective of my whereabouts on the globe.

As you can imagine, these outward expressions of reverence to earthly spirits to intervene in daily lives form the basis of a belief in the spirit God of the Bible, the supernatural God, creator of the universe. More specifically, they form the basis of theism, that apart from a Creator God, God will remain involved in people’s daily lives, He will answer prayers, punishes sins, frets about good and bad deeds and can perform miracles. This is unlike deism where God will not intervene in human affairs after the creation of the universe, i.e. on the basis that He has already set up the laws that govern the universe in the first place.  

Related to my origin story as a crutch to explain the ease of conversion, there is also the people’s culture and tradition and all its values of respect, morality of what is right and wrong, honor and dignity. These are Christian values essentially and when the early missionaries were preaching to the early Fijians about these same values, their sermons were falling onto fertile grounds and conversion sprouted as a result. Charles Montgomery had reached the same conclusion in his book: “The Shark God – Encounters with the Myth & Magic in the South Pacific,” 2006, Fourth Estate. He was paraphrasing a R. H. Codrington who “ventured that kastom had already equipped Melanesians with a sense of right and wrong, a belief in life after death, and a concept of something like a human soul. In other words, there was already some light in Melanesia before missionaries arrived. Kastom had in fact provided the heathens with a good foundation for Christian teaching.” Codrington was the first among Anglicans to write down the Melanesians’ stories and was the most sympathetic to kastom.

There is obviously a transition here from the old belief to the new. There is a time element involved. It can be imagined that there would be phases along the transition where elements of the two beliefs would be intertwined. I have read, for instance, accounts where tribal gods were officiating in situations that could only be interpreted as the biblical Garden of Eden or at the building of the Tower of Babel.

I have argued that Fijian origin story, like mine, and the Fijian’s cultural and traditional milieu did provide the basis of early conversion to Christianity and thus explain the speed and the ease of such conversion. The option of theism, as against deism, as the mode of Christianity was probably pre-determined by the missionaries schooled in Wesleyan Methodism. However, I have advanced the argument that the Fijians’ responses to their origin stories and expectations for interactions, guidance and directives from their earthly spirit-gods formed the basis for theism as against deism.

The very public demonstrations of religious fervor by the golden Olympian Fiji’s Rugby 7s players in Rio and in previous tournaments for God’s role in their wins over a host of opposition are proofs indeed that theism prevails supreme in Fijian Christianity.

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