Christian missionary efforts have often been criticized for destroying the unique cultures of indigenous peoples. Old photographs of native people in steamy jungles dressed in black suits and ties for worship do indicate that mistakes were made. However, in many places some cultural practices did need changing, as we can see in this story from the 19th century.
H. L Hastings recently related in the Church Missionary Society’s Gleaner that an English earl, who had become an unbeliever and seemed to take particular delight in deriding Christianity and in throwing obstacles in the way of its progress, had occasion to visit the Fiji islands. While there he saw many scenes that gave evidence of an advancing civilization that had the presence of a strong moral force at work, subjugating the evil passions of that once savage and cannibalistic race, and making it possible for civilized people to visit those islands with absolute safety. This radical change in the whole moral, intellectual, and social texture of that people was, of course, the result of the persistent, indefatigable labors of the Christian missionaries.
One day this English earl happened to meet an old Fijian chief, and at once engaged him in conversation concerning the marvelous changes that had occurred in the land. He was unwilling, however, to admit that Christianity had in any way contributed to these changes, and addressed the chief in the following words: “You are a great chief, and it is really a pity that you have been so foolish as to listen to the missionaries who only want to get rich among you. No one nowadays believes in that old book which is called the Bible, neither do men listen to that story about Jesus Christ. People know better now, and I am sorry for you that you are so foolish.”
When he said that, the old chief’s eyes flashed, and he answered: “Do you see that great stone over there? On that stone we once smashed the heads of our victims. Do you see that native oven over there? In that oven we roasted human bodies for our great feasts. And now you talk like that? If it had not been for these good missionaries, for that old Book, and the great love of Jesus Christ, which has changed us from savages into God’s children, you would never leave this island. You should thank God for the Gospel, because if we had not heard and believed it, you would be killed and roasted in yonder oven, and we would feast on your body.”
This Christian chief of the Fijians had experienced in his own soul the power of God unto salvation. He knew nothing of metaphysics, or of modern philosophy, or of science, and not much at all of theology. But he did know that once he and his people were steeped in degradation and vice and superstition, and every form of sin and wickedness; that cannibalism had prevailed everywhere upon those islands at one time, and that many missionaries had suffered the most excruciating deaths at their hands. All this he knew. He knew also that the power that transformed him and his people and had made them civilized and Christian men and women, came not from the explorers or merchant, or the warships of civilized nations, but from the power of the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These people had realized its truth, and had felt its transforming power, and were now ready to witness to both, and to defend the cause that gave them light and life.
—The Spirit of Missions: A Monthly Magazine of Church Missions at Home and Abroad (1899), volume 64, page 336; Published by the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA.
Pre-Christian Fijians preparing a feast
English missionary Reverend Thomas Barker (1834-1907), the last known victim of cannibalism in the Fiji islands.
Ezekiel 20:4b-5 — (The Lord says), “Confront them with the detestable practices of their ancestors and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: On the day I chose Israel, I swore with uplifted hand to the descendants of Jacob and revealed myself to them in Egypt. With uplifted hand I said to them, “I am the Lord your God.”’
Isaiah 66:18-19 — (The Lord says), “I… am about to come and gather the people of all nations and languages, and they will come and see my glory. I will set a sign among them, and I will send some of those who survive to the nations— to Tarshish, and to the Libyans…, to Tubal and Greece, and to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory. They will proclaim my glory among the nations.”
Isaiah 42:10 — 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.
I Peter 2:9-10 — You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
O God our Savior, who desires that all people should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth; prosper, we pray, our brethren who labor in distant lands. Protect them in all perils by land and sea, support them in loneliness and in the hour of trial; give them grace to bear faithful witness unto thee, and endue them with a burning zeal and love, that they may turn many to righteousness, and finally obtain a crown of glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Scottish Book of Common Prayer, 1912.