The first missionary to visit the islands of the South Pacific was Captain James Wilson in 1796 when the London Missionary Society sent him to the Society Islands (Tahiti). At this time the Pacific Islands were not safe or welcoming of missionaries. It was reported, “Nowhere in the world have missionaries passed through experiences so tragic at the hands of cruel idolaters, and nowhere in the world have the triumphs of the gospel been more clear and complete.”1
Many missionaries gave their lives for the gospel. Things looked so grim that at one point the society considered withdrawing all their missionaries from the Pacific. But after earnest prayer, instead of letters of recall, letters of encouragement were sent to those on the front lines in the Pacific. The work of God prevailed and, often through miraculous events, God opened the way for the entry of the gospel. As a result of faithfulness and perseverance, island after island forsook their idols and accepted the gospel.
On October 18, 1886, John Tay, an Adventist layman, arrived at the island of Pitcairn. This was to be our Church’s first missionary work in the islands of the Pacific. After five weeks of meeting and studying the Bible with the people, he departed by yacht, carrying with him a request to the Adventist Church to send a minister to baptise the adult population of the island.
But how was the still then relatively small Church going to do this? Someone got a bright idea to have an offering for mission support. It was agreed by the General Conference to devote the worldwide Sabbath School contributions for the first six months of 1890 to the cost of the ship. Soon the money was raised and a ship built. With a purpose-built ship, The Pitcairn, missionaries travelled back to Pitcairn and the work was established. The mission ship then sailed to Tahiti and the Society Islands, the Cooks, Tonga, Samoa and Fiji. Over the next 70 years missionaries would enter new areas to claim the Pacific for Christ. This gospel of Jesus has had a major impact on the lives of Pacific island people. The way of blood and death was replaced by love for Christ and care for others. Where there was once only fear there is now hope and peace.
In 1930, Captain G McLaren and a crew of Fijians aboard the mission vessel Veilomani arrived at Mussau, one of New Guinea’s outer islands. They had been warned that they would not be welcome. When they dropped anchor, they were confronted by warlike, loud and threatening warriors intent on challenging or chasing them away. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, McLaren called his crew together and they began to sing hymns. The din died down and the warriors listened to the harmony of the music. When they stopped singing the warriors began threatening again and so McLaren and his crew sang again. This continued until sunset, when the warriors left.
But their troubles were not over. The next morning the warriors came back, and this time they brought their chief. He was impressed with the Fijian missionaries. He asked, “What has made the change in your lives? How is it that your teeth are white, your skins are clean and your bodies strong? You tell us what your people did and we will do the same.” He invited them to stay, saying, “Give us a teacher who can teach us to sing.” The door was opened. The people received the message and Mussau became Adventist.
This is just one of many stories of how the gospel entered into the islands of the Pacific. But there was one little spot in the Pacific that was apparently missed by our Church for many years. This place is the nation of Wallis and Futuna.
Here they set up, established a seminary and sent missionaries out to the Pacific. There are big Catholic churches and shrines all over the island. On Sunday these churches are full. Everyone has pigs that are kept as pets around the house and kava is central to many of their traditions.
I had the opportunity to visit Wallis recently. Wallis itself has about 10,000 people. It is well-maintained with internet and phone services, good roads, nice houses and an airport. There are 21 tribes with 21 chiefs. And Wallis has two kings.
Why two kings? Basically because one-half of the island doesn’t like the king from the other half so they created their own. And so now there is a king of the north and a king of the south. Wallis is a French territory so most people speak French and they have strong links to Tonga. But there is no income generation. No exports. Ships come full and go away empty.
The Adventist work in Wallis has been hard going. The Catholic Bishop is one of three unelected government officials. As a result, our Church had been refused entry into this country for more than 40 years. After many attempts the door was eventually opened in October 2008 through a man named Suane, who attended a series of meetings in New Caledonia.
Suane was so touched with our message that he literally begged the Church to bring the Advent message to his island, Wallis. As Suane was the nephew of the King of Wallis he made the impossible happen. With the right government protocols and with Jesus leading the way, we finally entered the territory and started to do mission work. The good news is that today we have 18 baptised members and on a good Sabbath there can be up to 30 in attendance. And we now have a pastor permanently ministering there.
And what of Futuna? At the moment there is no work on Futuna. There is no Seventh-day Adventist on this island of 4000 people. And we have not been given permission to enter the island.
This is still a frontier for mission. And we still have significant challenges.
Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands, and all who live in them . . . Let the people of Sela sing for joy; let them shout from the mountains. Let them give glory to the Lord and proclaim his praise in the islands (Isaiah 42:10-12).
1. Clifford Howell, The Advance Guard of Missions, 249-250.