The Saints and Martyrs of the Pacific


John Williams
The Saints and Martyrs of the Pacific
Image: John Williams, Welsh Missionary, Martyr of Polynesia

Picture courtesy of Discerning

The Pacific was the last major region of the world to receive intensive Christian missionary attention. The Spanish were the first to introduce Christianity to the Pacific in the 17th and 18th centuries, but the major developments were in the 19th - 20th centuries. The Pacific covers a vast area, from Australia to Easter Island, and from Hawaii to New Zealand, and encompasses the island nations of Papua New Guinea, Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.

In Australia, the Christian story is dominated by the development of the mainline churches, but the heroic labours of Caroline Chisholm and Mary McKillop in the 19th century are memorable, and the work of the Bush Brotherhood and the Australia Inland Mission are also significant.

The earliest formal mission work was in Tahiti (1797), followed by New Zealand (1814), Hawaii (1820), Tonga (1822), and continuing, mostly by Protestant missionary societies such as the London Missionary Society and the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, and by Roman Catholic orders such as the Picpus Fathers and the Marists.

In almost every island group of the Pacific, Christianity spread through the people’s contact with those around them in everyday life. Under the guidance of a relatively small number of European missionaries, the evangelistical work has in fact been done by the Pacific Islanders themselves. So while appropriate that we should honour the great European missionaries of all the churches, we must also remember, their early converts. Many of whom suffered severely for their faith, and who became priests, evangelists, and catechists in the remote villages and settlements. They all carried the message over the vast sea distances of the Pacific.

There are hundreds of others who left their own island communities to share the message of the gospel in other places, often in the face of loneliness, sickness and death.

The story of heroic service by both expatriate and indigenous workers and especially their wives, has continued into the 20th century. European leadership has gradually given way to a strong indigenous ministry, particularly since WWII. The church in the Pacific has a proud record of service, both to the Christian cause and to the emerging nations in which it was established, and has gone on to develop its own strong, Christian style in liturgy, architecture, mission and witness.