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Christianity & the ‘perfect pragmatism’ of the people of PNG

The first on Tami Island PNG
The first church on Tami Island PNG


ADELAIDE - The spread of western civilisation across the globe was, inevitably, accompanied by efforts to spread the Christian religion in its various forms.

So the Spanish were enthusiastic proponents of Catholicism in South America, whilst the Dutch promoted an austere version of the Protestant faith in what is now Indonesia.

The British promoted Anglicanism which was and is effectively a state religion given that the Queen is its Governor.

Papua New Guinea, being colonised rather late in the era of rapid European imperial expansion, became contested ground for the various types of Christianity.

Also, the colonial administration was basically a neutral player in the sense that it did not promote or support one faith as opposed to another.

Kiaps were, as far as I can recall, either very circumspect about their religious beliefs or, more likely, did not hold any strong religious opinions.

A studied neutrality was important because sometimes a kiap was placed in the invidious position of adjudicating between competing missionaries over things like access to certain areas or populations.

Interestingly, the Christian missionaries were hugely more successful in Africa and the Pacific than in India and Asia.

The main reasons for this appear to be the prior existence of very well established religions like Buddhism, Daoism and the Hindu faith and the fact that the established authorities either discouraged or actively resisted the imposition of Christianity.

Thus, perhaps one percent of the current population of Japan identify as Christians, with a somewhat largely number (perhaps 5%) of the Chinese thought to adhere to one of the Christian faiths.

It is fairly clear that religions are quite culture specific, tending to reflect the historic moral, ethical and governance structures in those places where they have first arisen.

Thus early Christianity arose in Judea where there had long existed one monotheist faith. Its emergence from relative obscurity into a world religion clearly dates from when it was endorsed as the state religion of the Roman Empire.

In a somewhat similar way, Islam owes its rise mostly to its status as a state religion as well. Importantly, its founder was both a religious and secular ruler and he and his successors spread their faith by fire and sword, much like the Christians.

All this is a long winded way of saying the spread of Christianity to PNG was really just another manifestation of European imperial power.

I like to think that Papua New Guineans, when confronted with an apparently all powerful belief system utterly foreign to their own, made a perfectly pragmatic decision to embrace at least its form, if not its substance, in the hope that they could thereby participate in the benefits which appeared to flow to its adherents.

That said, I have little doubt that there are many sincere PNG Christians who, hopefully, derive some solace from their beliefs.

Personally, I think that the ancient PNG belief systems, which seem to be solidly rooted in their historic experience, continue to make more sense for those living a traditional life than a faith imported from the Middle East.


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Lindsay F Bond

Ahh, not so much of 'organisation'. Outreach of civility, creed and caboodle came as creep.

The 1914 Henry Newton book "In Far New Guinea" the first chapter is of a 1901 sea voyage Cooktown-to-Samarai of vessel (somewhat mishandled), men intending mining, and one man intending discrete mission.

See: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.tz1qvn;view=1up;seq=1

For adventurers, their ripples (and rifling) evidenced an incoming tide. While they themselves were differential, as droplets fluidly arriving , the effect was a flow of the whole.

For PNG folk, astonishment at such parade subsumed into pragmatic of harvesting what cropped up.

Peter Kranz

There seems to have been something like an Entente Cordiale in PNG between the Catholics, Lutherans and Anglicans dividing the country into areas of influence. This may have been an unofficial resolution of a demarcation dispute brokered by the kiaps.

It was designated "spheres of influence", an entente from which the newbies (eg, SDA, Evangelicals) were excluded - KJ

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