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Les dynamiques religieuses dans le pacifique

Gabriele Weichart
Françoise Douaire-Marsaudon

Factors in the Conversion in Samoa, Then and Now

Andrew Robson

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1This paper considers the circumstances and nature of the historical acceptance of Christianity by Samoans. It does so by looking through a number of lenses offered by influential Pacific historians, including “Conversion as a consequence of social trauma”, “Conversion and the compatibility of Christianity with the fa’a Samoa (Samoan tradition)”, “Conversion as a pragmatic response”, “Conversion as a matter of self-interest”, and “Conversion as a matter of conviction”. It also discusses the personal role of the high chief Malietoa Vainu’upo, because the oft-repeated story in which Malietoa and the missionary John Williams are credited with “converting Samoa” is seriously flawed. The paper concludes by discussing parallels between the patterns of acceptance by Samoans of the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS, or “Mormons”) and those of the London Missionary Society (LMS), and finally by noting the emergence of new theologies of the Pacific and Samoa.

Conversion as a consequence of social trauma

2One powerful idea suggests that social trauma brought about by local conflict, diseases, and Western innovations led to catastrophic population loss and the decision to accept Christianity. The Reverend John Williams – the missionary generally credited with bringing Christianity to Samoa in 1830 – observed that “in no island of importance has Christianity been introduced without a war” (1838: 185). Donald Denoon and Marvic Wyndham have written that “evangelization […] coincided with depopulation and other mounting pressures, such that the [Pacific] Islanders could imagine the extinction of their cultural traditions, and even of their societies. Their willingness to embrace radical change is perhaps largely explained by this circumstance” (1999: 556). On the other hand, Bruce Hindmarsh, writing in 2001, comments that, although in many countries, evangelicism has thrived in situations of social and political disruption, in the Pacific, “where traditional patterns of society are not disrupted, even in national conversion to Christianity, we get a different situation in which the kinds of questions that might prompt a personal narrative as an answer do not arise” (Hindmarsh, 2001: 94-95).

3The level of disruption and trauma experienced by Samoan people after 1830 should not be underestimated, but the religious transition was certainly less dramatic than in, say, Tahiti. The war that was ending when Williams arrived in 1830 was not a fight over religion, and the victor, Malietoa Vainu’upo, ignored pleas from Williams and his fellow missionary Charles Barff to stop fighting. Furthermore, the much-repeated idea that Malietoa’s victory removed an anti-Christian tyrant, Tamafaiga, and thus opened the path for conversion, is complicated by the fact that Christianity and Christian-inspired cults pre-dated Williams in Samoa, and there is no evidence that they were suppressed by Tamafaiga.

Conversion made easy by the compatibility of Christianity and the fa’a Samoa

4Samoans were tolerant of other religions, and some historians note that this, combined with certain parallels between traditional and Christian belief and legends, made it easy for Christianity to be accepted in Samoa. Ian Breward, writing in 2001, states that “Samoan culture was a powerful entity and absorbed many features of Christianity, without itself being changed markedly” (2001: 115). Faafiuina Iofi, writing about his native Samoa, suggests that there was much from the old religion and other aspects of the fa’a Samoa (the Samoan Way, or Samoan culture) that was consistent or at least parallel with Christianity, and he points out that the fa’a Samoa, despite some strains, has remained strong into the modern era. Both Christianity and the fa’a Samoa “recognize the interrelatedness of the individual and the community” and, even though the community is more important in Samoa, Iofi sees Christianity helping the fa’a Samoa adjust to growing individualism (1980: 93).

5Cluny Macpherson has maintained that “a natural alliance developed between the chiefs and the missions,” and that, although contact with the West “altered the basis of chiefly authority, it did not displace the chieftaincy” (1997: 23-24). Iofi also emphasizes the importance of matai authority, writing that “the reason why Christianity was readily accepted by the Samoans was because of their respect for and obedience to the authority of their cultural leaders” (1980: 95). More, however, needs to be said about this, because it would be wrong to suggest that the matai, as a group, decided the issue and everyone else followed along. Writing in his 1832 Journal, John Williams makes it clear that there were protracted discussions at the village level to consider the options, and that individuals were free to make up their own minds:

The Samoans must be allowed to be a shrewd sensible people […]. Christianity has not been embraced by the Samoans in general in a hasty inconsiderate manner. The Chiefs of the different settlements held meeting after meeting to consult upon the propriety of changing the religion of their ancestors and the case was argued on both sides with a calmness that seldom characterizes debates in more civilized countries and with an acuteness that does credit to their senses (Williams quoted in Moyle, 1984: 237).

Conversion as a pragmatic response

6Given that Samoans were willing to consider alternatives to traditional beliefs and were interested in Western technology, some historians observe a thoughtful and frank assessment of the relative advantages of rejecting and embracing the Christian message. This might be considered a “pragmatic” response. When Williams and Barff arrived in Samoa in 1830, they appear, in a general sense, to have been expected. Two Christian villages already existed on Savai’I – Malietoa’s home island – following the arrival there of individuals who had converted in Tonga. Samoans and other Pacific peoples were not completely isolated, and there was a long history of contact between Samoa and Tonga. Furthermore, foreign whalers and traders who visited Samoa brought trade items and other objects of interest. Malietoa and others were not starting from scratch in their encounter with the West, and Malietoa could also interpret the arrival of the missionary ship as the realization of an ancient myth (Robson, 2009: 22-26).

7In the same vein as Williams, Samoan scholar Malama Maleisa has written that “the Samoans [did not] embrace Christianity lightly. They did so with deliberation for the most materialistic of reasons and with Samoan assumptions about religion. Foreign knowledge could be admired without the Samoans feeling inferior for the lack of it” (1987: 17). Williams gives examples of chiefs arguing for Christianity on various grounds: one pointed to the ships, clothes, scissors, beads, and other material goods of the papalagi (Europeans) and stated that he thought “the God who gave them all these things must be good and that his religion must be superior to ours. If we receive and worship him he will in time give us all these things as well as them”; another said he tended to favour Christianity but wanted to understand it better first: “I think it is good but I wish to know some thing more of it before I embrace it”. Still another stressed the value of literacy, although the superior memory of the illiterate Samoan was also mentioned. Williams observed that Samoans “do not pay that servile homage to their Chiefs that the natives of some other Islands do”, although he acknowledged that great deference and respect was paid to Malietoa and a few other matai (Moyle, 1984: 237-238). Clearly, this was not a mass conversion dictated by the chiefs, and the Samoans appear to have taken a largely pragmatic approach to the religious questions of the day.

8This pragmatism is also apparent in the story, derived from the LMS missionary Charles Barff, that the lives of the Polynesian teachers in Samoa became easier because “one of their number [had] enough medical knowledge to bleed Malietoa when he was suffering from a fever.” This induced Malietoa to be more attentive to the teachers’ needs and “more receptive to their evangelizing” (Moyle, 1984: 242). The implication that the teachers did not feel particularly well-treated is clear. Malietoa’s “receptiveness” was always buffered by caution: Williams describes how, in 1832, Malietoa made a dramatic public announcement expressing “his determination to renounce his heathenism and become a Christian, but [he] wished his children still to adhere to their heathen spirits saying he would make a fair trial of the goodness of each and whichever proved the best adhere to it” (Moyle, 133; another version appears in Williams, 1838: 435). They had to wait and see whether anything bad happened first. This balancing of the old and the new was characteristic of Malietoa’s leadership until his death in 1841, and his reluctance to abandon many of the old ways caused a schism between him and the missionaries who followed the more-accommodating Williams.

Conversion as a matter of self-interest

9Some historians emphasise the autonomy of the Samoan chiefs and their careful identification with or against Christian missionaries and denominations. Malietoa’s early manipulation of Williams was an indication that, in Samoa, the missionaries were to play an important but less than dominant role. From the beginning, it is clear that Malietoa saw a political opportunity in giving protection to the missionary teachers and controlling their activities. Placement and other decisions were made by or through him. Cluny Macpherson has observed that, unlike elsewhere in Polynesia, chiefs were not priests in Samoa (although others have interpreted this differently), so chiefly power did not impede conversion; in Samoa it helped (Macpherson, 1997: 23). His victory in the war with Tamafaiga left Malietoa paramount in Samoa, as the holder of the four great titles that together conferred the status of Tafa’ifa, and he used John Williams and the missionary teachers to further reinforce his own position. Even he, however, was unable to impose on Samoa a common adherence to a particular denomination. When he held so fast to the teachers who arrived with Williams, other matai turned to Tonga and the Wesleyans, resulting in a fierce dispute among the missionaries over spheres of influence in the Pacific Islands. Malietoa’s strategy illustrates the view that, for the chiefs, “the basic religious message of Christianity was less important than the uses to which the missionaries and the faith could be put” (Shankman, 1984: 212).

10Along similar lines, Andrew Porter has written that: “The continued presence and success of missionaries almost anywhere depended on their value and usefulness, the willingness of local leaders and their people to co-operate with them, and the possibility of Christianity being construed in a manner answering to local circumstances” (2004: 321). These remarks offer a good way of understanding what happened in Samoa, and they allow, realistically, for many possibilities. Porter writes that:

Even the occurrence of explicit conversions to Christianity is now recognized by historians to represent far more than a simple surrender to white power or an accommodation to the enlargement of scale and outlook introduced by colonial [and, in Polynesia, pre-colonial] contacts. Recent writings show that Christian beliefs were evidently attractive because they addressed important aspects of everyday life inadequately dealt with by traditional religions, offering answers, for example, to the experience of evil in the shape of poverty and disease and facing up to the fact of death in new ways. (2004: 320.)

11Andrew Hamilton sees converts as having “an urgent desire to learn more about the new papalagi world that had so dramatically revealed itself” (1998: 176), a remark akin to Porter’s concerning “enlargement of scale”. Other important elements, as already noted, include a desire for literacy. Brian Stanley observes that “Tahitians had perceived that the key that unlocked the power of the encroaching new world was the written word, and their enthusiasm to become people of the book now gave the missionaries the entrance they had been seeking” (2001: 189); a similar phenomenon clearly took hold in Samoa, where, even in the difficult 1840s, the number of children and adults attending schools and learning to read was impressive. While lamenting the “lukewarmness” of the Church members in 1845, the LMS missionary John Stair reported 250-300 children attending Sabbath School, and when the Malua seminary was opened in the same year, 25 out of 28 applicants were accepted, of whom all could read and some could write (Samoan Reporter, #2). Stair was a printer by trade, and when Samoa’s first printing press arrived in 1839 it had a transforming impact.

12One of the most intriguing suggestions concerning Samoan motives for conversion is Gilson’s subtle bringing together of several different elements. He writes that the Samoans were a polytheistic and practical people, “tolerant of the gods of other men, and inclined to judge a deity at least partly in terms of the favors he lavished upon the living”. Given the material goods and technology the Europeans had available to them, “the missionaries’ willingness to have others join in the worship of Jehovah may have been, in Samoan eyes, a gesture of good will and generosity” (1970: 72).

Conversion as a matter of conviction

13Of course, the references made above to the thoughtful pragmatism of the Samoans in the face of religious options should not pass without acknowledgement of what Gunson calls “heart-acceptance.” It’s hard to imagine that the commitment, social isolation, and suffering of so many Samoan converts and missionary teachers, many of whom spent years away from home, did not reflect a strong religious conviction. Craighill Handy, writing in 1927, said of the Samoans: “Though they were living in a simple state of material civilization, the natives of these islands possessed a high order of intellect and imagination which is reflected not alone in the mythology, but throughout the religious and social systems” (Handy, 1927: 13); despite its rather paternalistic phrasing, Handy’s obvious respect for the Samoan people echoes that of Williams much earlier. Samoans discussed at length the religious choices they faced, and it is also clear that, from the 1830s on, there was both denominational rivalry and a certain propensity for switching denominational allegiance or claiming more than one affiliation. By 1858, there were three major religious identities in Samoa, according to Lt. Conway Shipley, an artist and officer aboard HMS Calypso (Capt. Worth). Shipley describes “three religious denominations, i.e. Devil, Mikkonary, and Popè, [who] may generally be known at sight from peculiarities of dress” (1858: 19). The first of these were those who remained unconverted, the second were the Protestant Christians (mostly LMS and Wesleyan), and the third were the Roman Catholics, whose first missionaries had arrived in 1845.

The role of Malietoa Vainu’upo:

14Although the high chief Malietoa took a Christian name, Tavita (David), he was never formally a Church member. Donald Denoon has commented that “Malietoa was slow to forsake his gods” (1997: 196), and when the American explorer Charles Wilkes described his visit to Malietoa in November 1839, at Sagana, he noted the clean and tidy village, where “Malietoa was seen in his domestic circle, with his wives and children around him […]. His wives busied themselves in getting things in order” (Wilkes, 1849: 183). Malietoa remained polygamous until his last moments, to the chagrin of post-Williams missionaries. Unless Williams baptized Malietoa in 1832 (which is possible but not recorded), it seems unlikely that he would have been baptized at all, the LMS missionaries having resolved in 1837 that “no person be allowed to pray in public or admitted as candidates for Baptism who have more than one wife.” According to this same resolution, women were not allowed “to pray or take part in the conducting of our public religious services when men are present” (Samoan District Committee minutes). Malietoa seems to have been unconcerned; it is clear that he personally embraced Christianity, and he continued to protect the missionaries and teachers and advocate for them. He remained on cordial (but increasingly distant) terms with the missionaries. For Malietoa, then, it must have been a balancing act, but it was one that established in his early relationship with Williams. Gilson has described Williams as being “probably more guided by considerations of expediency than was any other London Missionary Society missionary of his time” (Gilson, 1970: 75); for example, Williams resisted the temptation to forbid activities such as night dancing, choosing to leave it up to the Samoans themselves to decide on such matters when they deemed the time was right – which in this case occurred, at least according to the LMS Samoan District Committee minutes, early in the 1837, when Malietoa, Pe’a and other matai agreed to end “night dancing and other matters” (Samoan District Committee minutes, April 4 1837). Williams himself banned only warfare and vulgar songs, and the former clearly made little immediate impression on Malietoa, who humoured Williams with expressions of interest in establishing peace but asserted that he had to finish the current war first. Following his victory, Malietoa allowed a massacre of his enemies and their families, who were burnt in a great fire pit.

Old patterns repeated:

15Parallels may be suggested between the experience of the early London Missionary Society missionaries and the historical and more recent experience of missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS, also known as the Mormons). In his article on the founding of the Mormons’ Samoan mission, the prolific Mormon scholar, Lanier Britsch, echoes others who have noted the appeal of new religious options to oppressed and marginalized people of the world, and he also echoes Williams in linking evangelism to the disruptions of war. Britsch is startlingly frank:

There have been many cases which clearly show the Church growing at times and in places where the odds are seemingly against it. National peace and stability do not necessarily create the best seedbed for the growth of the Church. In fact, turmoil, war, dislocation, suffering, and confusion have established a suitable climate for Church growth. Certainly one cannot conclude that wars are good or that unhappiness should be fostered to assure the expansion of the Church. Rather, one must recognize that the gospel offers answers to those who are displaced, who suffer, or who need answers to life’s questions. (Britsch, 1977: 12-13)

16The LDS Samoan mission began in 1862, with two missionaries arrived from Hawai’i. The mission was not authorized by the Church in Salt Lake City, and it suffered from a lack of communication and “temptations of the flesh”, both of which were familiar to some of the early LMS missionaries in Tahiti. In Samoa, however, the Mormons entered a country that was already largely Christian. Britsch notes that the LMS missionaries “sometimes equated the cultural preferences of the Western world with Christianity and required their converts to conform to these preferences,” but he also acknowledges the schools, the seminary, and the translation work as positive achievements (1977: 20-21). The Mormons assumed, repeating the oversimplifications of their predecessors, that it would be best to approach the matai first, for “the Samoan social system is patriarchal. The village elders make the rules of the community; young people listen and obey” (1977: 23). Britsch acknowledges the Biblical knowledge of the Samoans, but he also notes their pragmatism:

The [LDS] leaders lamented that rents were high, and they were saddened when rumors of war reached their village [Vatia] only a few days after they had moved there. The natives, including some of the members of the Church, then came to them and asked them to live in their homes. The reason for the new generosity soon surfaced: missionaries and their properties were exempt from the ravages of tribal war. (1977: 24)

17In recent decades, the Mormons have won many converts, becoming, by some counts, the largest single denomination in Samoa, although Mormon documents suggest the same difficulty experienced by earlier missions in getting a reliable count when the retention rate is low and double affiliation is high:

The international LDS population has an especially high rate of “double affiliation”. Nations like Tonga and Western Samoa with the world’s highest rates of LDS membership (42% and 28% of population, respectively) have some of the world’s highest rates of double religious affiliation (21% and 24% of the population, respectively), due mainly to the large number of LDS baptizes who return to their former denominations and beliefs without ever having experienced meaningful LDS activity. (LDS, 2005: 9.)

18The statistics may be disputed, but there is no doubt that the Mormons have been very successful in Samoa and elsewhere in Polynesia, and it is interesting to speculate on the reasons for this and to see if there are parallels to the mid-nineteenth century LMS, Wesleyan, and Roman Catholic experiences. It is easy to speculate that the central importance of genealogy to Mormons coincides with a similar interest among Samoans and has helped the LDS mission. Secondly, just as the LMS made an early decision to have the Pacific missions be self-supporting and from early on expected local pastors or faifeau to lead the church at the village level, so the Mormons “ordained local men to the priesthood and placed them in charge of groups and branches” (Britsch, 1980: 56). Such groups are self-supporting and autonomous, selecting their own officers and teachers, and are supported by tithing, which fits in easily with the Samoan tradition of giving and exchanging that continues to fund other denominations as well. A third element is a focus on education, and in this the Mormons have been helped by the substantial financial resources of the home church, which finances a significant portion of construction, maintenance, and other costs. There can be no doubt that, just as the LMS educational efforts in the nineteenth century attracted many Samoans to the Church, so does the educational work of the Mormons today, including financial support for university studies.

19The missionary principles followed by the Mormons have in some ways paralleled those of their early LMS counterparts who, as Jane Samson describes, were committed to the idea of the common humanity of all people (Samson, 2001: passim). Britsch talks about the Mormons following the missionary ideals of William Carey, who advocated a steady focus on the Bible through preaching and translation into native languages; a deep understanding of the local culture; and the rapid development of an indigenous ministry (Britsch, 1980: 54). All of these were ideals and practices familiar to the LMS and others.

New, indigenous, theologies

20Finally, certain ironies might be observed in accounts of Pacific Christianity today. In comments on Breward’s A History of the Church in Australasia, Niel Gunson writes as follows:

Breward has assembled all the evidence to show a victory for Enlightenment values such as toleration, ecumenism and “reasonable Christianity” and the existence (even if not recognized) of a Christian secular state. Aboriginal people and Islanders, however, represent a victory for more traditional Christian values and spirituality. The Other, in many respects, is no longer the Other. (Gunson, 2004: 266.)

21A similar description of more fundamentalist tendencies was made more than twenty years ago by Britsch, talking about Polynesian Mormons: “All things considered, the members in the islands have made a healthy accommodation with the present order of the Church. They may be doing by different historians better in adapting to the central principles than their American brothers and sisters. (1980: 61.)

22Most recently and importantly, Charles Forman notes that “a revolutionary change has taken place in theological colleges in the Pacific Islands, making fresh thinking possible” (2005: 115). This new thinking involves a reinterpretation of Christianity by Pacific theologians from a number of countries, including Samoa; it has several different strands evolving out of the global ecumenical movement, but it has a strong emphasis on reconnecting with Pacific cultures. Such approaches include a heightened identification of traditional values and mythology with the Christian; an increased emphasis on social justice, including women’s rights; and a re-awakening to the sacredness of the land through modern ecological concerns. They also suggest an expansion of the notion of aiga (extended family) to include “the whole family of creation” (Forman, 2005: 118). Given his own embrace of Christianity and continued honouring of Samoan tradition, Malietoa Vainu’upo would probably have approved!


23The literature on “the conversion of Samoa” reveals a wide range of factors that influenced events in that country. The context is often over-simplified, suggesting that Samoans had no knowledge of Christianity before Williams arrived, and that the leading chiefs – especially Malietoa – were instrumental in bringing about large-scale conversion “from the top”. The reality is much more interesting, with conversion occurring on an individual level, often after extended and extensive debate and for a variety of reasons, pragmatic and philosophical. Clearly, neither Malietoa nor Williams (who spent little time in Samoa) dictated what was to happen – far from it. What was true in 1830 remains true today, that the acceptance and development of Christianity in Samoa was – and is – a profoundly Samoan affair.



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Britsch, R. Lanier
1977 “The Founding of the Samoan Mission”, BYU Studies, 18(1): 12-26.
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Denoon, Donald
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1927 Polynesian Religion. Honolulu: The Museum.

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Iofi, Fa’afouina
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Internet source

LDS Member Activity and Convert Retention Statistics
The Cumorah Project: International Resources for LDS Missionary Work:
LDS Database,, (accessed 30/04/2010).


Professeur d’anglais à l’Université du Wisconsin Oshkosh, USA. Il est né en Angleterre et a obtenu son doctorat à l’Université Nationale d’Australie. Il a fait du terrain à Samoa (Samoa occidentales), à Fidji et aux îles Salomon, entre autres. Il est l’auteur de Prelude to Empire : Consuls, Missionary Kingdoms, and the Precolonial South Seas, seen through the Life of William Thomas Pritchard. Vienna and Hamburg : LIT Verlag/Austrian-South Pacific Society, 2004. Il fait actuellement des recherches sur la vie et les écrits de Robert Louis Stevenson à Samoa.

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