The Pacific islanders are well known as seafarers. With their huge canoes, they have criss-crossed the Pacific Ocean, travelling from one island kingdom to another.
As far back as the sixteenth century, Tongans traded with the Lau group of islands to the east of the Fijian group. This trading led to inter-marriage and a dynastic connection between the king of Tonga and the chief Lau family. In the providence of God, this connection would aid the spread of Christianity in Fiji.
Exciting and tragic
The story of Fiji is both exciting and tragic.
Nineteenth-century Fiji was steeped in paganism; with inter-tribal warfare, cannibal feasts, and militant warlords – the most feared of whom was Cakobau. It was into this scenario that the missionaries first came.
It proved to be a spiritually barren area for a long time. Only after many years of devotion, dedication and sacrifice were missionaries able to report real advances.
In 1825 John Davis, a London City Missionary serving in Tahiti, met a Fijian from Lau named Takai and a Tongan named Langi. They had heard the gospel in Tonga through Walter Lowry.
Davis taught these two to read, and they persuaded him to send preachers to Fiji. So the first missionaries to arrive in Fiji (in 1830) were not Europeans but three single Tahitian men – their names were Tahara, Faaruea and Hatai.
Tui Nayau, the high chief of Lau, proved less ready to receive the three than had been expected, and they moved to the small island of Oneata, where they established the first church in Fiji.
The first Wesleyan Methodist Missionaries were David Cargill and William Cross, in 1835. They also came via Tonga, where they had witnessed revival in the previous year.
The future king of Tonga, Taufa’ahau, became involved in this missionary endeavour. In 1838 he provided a large canoe to send six more Tongan preachers to Fiji.
These made little progress, and it was only by the providential restraining hand of God that no harm came to them. Some warlords were openly hostile to the missionaries and their new religion.
But, although there was little progress, the missionaries’ persistent, caring devotion to the cause of Christ eventually began to affect the thinking of the people.
Most of the early converts were Tongans living in Lau. But eventually some Fijians were converted, and they began to witness for Christ, although under strong persecution.
William Cross moved to Somosomo on the island of Taveuni where he encountered strong opposition. During his years as a missionary in Tonga, Cross had witnessed a powerful revival resulting in thousands of conversions.
But in Somosomo he saw no fruit at all up to his death in 1842.
Three new Wesleyan Methodist missionaries arrived from Britain in 1835 – John Hunt, James Calvert and Thomas Jagger.
Hunt was a remarkable man. He was formerly a plough-boy in Lincolnshire. He had not trained as a linguist (unlike Aberdonian David Cargill), yet he quickly learned the Bauan dialect (which later became the standard for written Fijian).
By the time of his early death, aged 36 years in 1848, he had translated the whole New Testament into Fijian and had begun translating the Old Testament.
In 1845 an important breakthrough occurred. A formerly bloodthirsty and treacherous man named Varani became a Christian. He was nephew of the high chief of Viwa and comrade-in-arms of the feared Cakobau. It happened like this.
Hunt was reading aloud one day the account of the crucifixion of Jesus from the newly translated Gospel of Matthew. He noted that Varani was visibly stirred. He then taught Varani to read the Bible for himself. Soon Varani began to follow Hunt’s example of going into the bush to pray alone.
Varani told his friend Cakobau that he was going to be a Christian. Cakobau threatened to kill and eat him. Varani replied, ‘I fear you, but I fear the great God much more’.
Thankfully, Cakobau did not carry out his threat. On Good Friday, 21 March 1845, Varani publicly ‘bowed the knee to Jehovah’. He then joined a baptismal class.
Those early missionaries were not willing to prepare anyone for baptism, even if they were chiefs, unless they showed clear evidence of godly sorrow for sin. While they realised the strategic importance of Fijian chiefs professing Christ, they looked for evidence of a real change of heart.
But Varani’s conversion was thorough. Again and again his life demonstrated that the great change had taken place.
He renounced violence and became a man of integrity and peace, one of the finest Christians of that era. He was clubbed to death in 1853 while trying to settle a quarrel between others.
The second half of 1845 saw a revival in Viwa, Varani’s home area. John Hunt described how both private houses and the church reverberated with sobbing, physical convulsions and simultaneous praying.
He noted that ‘during the first week of revival nearly a hundred persons professed to obtain forgiveness of sin through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Some were exceedingly clear and others not so clear’ in their understanding of the gospel
Cakobau did not know what to make of Varani’s conversion. Although Varani continued to fight on the side of his ally Cakobau, he refused to allow the killing of any captives.
John Hunt once confronted Cakobau, saying that if he did not repent all the victims he had killed and eaten would rise again in the last judgement and he would be cast into hell fire. Cakobau defiantly replied, ‘Ah well! It is a fine thing to have a fire in cold weather’.
Another missionary arrived in Bau, in 1853. Joseph Waterhouse proved to be a resourceful character. He went straight to Cakobau and requested a site to build a home.
Cakobau agreed to let him dwell on the Bauan Summit. In Waterhouse’s mind this was the prime site, even if it had been used as the island’s rubbish dump!
Another visitor to Cakobau in 1853 was Taufa’ahau, now King George Tupou of Tonga. He urged Cakobau to become a Christian. He had seen the effect of revival on his own island kingdom twenty years earlier.
He wrote from Sydney the following year saying, ‘I wish Cakobau that you would lotu [become a Christian]. When I visit you we will talk about it’.
In April 1854, Waterhouse visited Cakobau and they had a long talk. He pleaded with the Chief to renounce heathenism and take up the cross as Varani had done. It was to be the turning point in Cakobau’s life, and the moment that the missionaries had long prayed for.
On the following Sunday, 30 April 1854, Cakobau – with his pagan priest, many of his wives, and all his family – attended the church at Bau.
He gave order that all his pagan temples be destroyed and the sacred grove (Duru Vesi) be cut down. He learned to read, held family prayers in his house, and was baptised on 11 January 1857. He gave up all but one of his 80 wives.
When George Brown, a former missionary to Samoa, passed through Fiji in 1875, on his way to opening up a new mission field in New Britain, he visited the Bible training school at Navuloa.
When he issued a missionary challenge to the students there, all 83 of them rose to their feet indicating their willingness to go.
Six married and three single men were chosen. The British Administrator tried to dissuade them from such a hazardous enterprise. They replied, ‘If we die we die, if we live we live’. Fiji had become a missionary-sending nation.
The arrival of Indians in Fiji under the indenture labour system after 1879 brought another dimension to the religious life of Fiji. Today Indians form about half the population.
The Fiji of the twenty-first century is a multi-faith, multi-cultural nation. Both the State and official Church encourage inter-faith communion, especially since the military coups.
The evangelical denominations are mainly Arminian and Dispensationalist. There is much Charismatic and New Age teaching beamed into Fiji from broadcasting stations in America.
The Reformed Faith is virtually unheard of; the doctrines of grace little known or understood. Today, Fiji presents a fresh challenge for the gospel.
We need your prayers and support. Our most urgent need is for the consistent, biblical Reformed teaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ.