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Pre-Missionary Contact

The establishment of Christianity in Tuvalu owed a lot of its success to the earlier contacts with explorers, traders, whalers, and beachcombers and etc. These contacts played a major role in paving the way for the introduction of Christianity. These contacts occurred well before the official arrival of Christianity.
According to Doug Munro: "The first bearers of the Christian message were not missionaries but coconut oil traders. Even when the traders- both ashore and afloat – has not consciously set out to evangelize, their activities nonetheless served to undermine the foundations of the pagan religion thus preparing a way for an alternative in the shape of fundamentalist Christianity."
For Munro the activities of the traders undermined the existing religious belief systems in Tuvalu. Whether consciously or unconsciously it is clear that the traders prepared the way for the official arrival of Christianity. For example, in Nukulaelae (the island which has been regarded as the place where Christianity had first landed), a trader name Stuart, the master of a trading vessel from Sydney, has been regarded as the one who introduced the people to a knowledge of the one true God and advised them to turn away from idol worship and worship the Christian God. According to Archibald Wright Murray, Stuart proclaimed the Christian God to the natives prior to the arrival of Elekana. He credited Stuart and his works.
Contrary to Murray’s perception, Elekana saw Stuart’s actions from a different view point. He claimed that Stuart destroyed one of the ancestral shrines for his own personal gains. Stuart knew that the shrines were inlaid with pearl shells which he intended to retrieve and sell in Sydney.10 To acquire the pearl shells, Stuart told the natives that their deities were only lifeless idols. He claimed that the true God does not reside in human shrines but in heaven. Elekana recalled:They did so, after they had been paid for the shell. They soon got afraid at what they had done, and went to the captain saying, “What are we to do now? That was our god, by which we live.” The captain said, “That god of yours is no God. God is in heaven, and He sees you turn your thoughts to Him, and He would take care of you.” The captain left and the people remained without any god, or without any mode of worship, till Thomas came, and conducted services with them.
After destroying their shrines the people were in a state of uncertainty. They were fearful because of the absences of their traditional deities. Although some form of Christianity was introduced, yet the traditional belief systems continued to prevail.

Elekana’s contention was also supported by others like W.J Sollas and C. Hedley. They, too, had testified to the ill motives taken by one Jack O’Brien in manipulating the natives for his own gains. They wrote:
The ancient religion received its death-blow...from a white trader, (Jack) O’Brien...who accomplished its overthrow, not for any religious purpose, but because the ancient religion took up much of the time which he thought, should be given to the collection of copra for him.

Even though these incidents seem to be personally motivated, nevertheless, something good came out of it. It contributed towards the preparation of the people of Tuvalu for the reception of the Good News. The traders not only prepared the people for the coming of Christianity but also altered their ways of practicing spirituality. They had emphasized the concept of mana has being found in their worship places.

In ancient times, Tuvaluans associated themselves with the mana of their deities. The author had discovered that the concept of mana is found in most Polynesian islands. The Polynesian people associate mana with these deities, the atua (gods), the aitu (demons), the tupua (idols), and the agaga (spirits). The natives believed that mana was given to them by the deities for beneficial or evil purposes. Indeed this is how the Tuvaluans see themselves in relationship to their gods. Like the Polynesians the Tuvaluan theology behind the reception of a deity is that; the greater the deity the greater the mana—thus, the attraction towards a deity who appears to offer the most. This is perhaps what is inferred in Munro’s comment that the “acceptance of the lotu [religion/church] was early seen as providing access to the mana of the Europeans’ god and the means by Jehovah’s bounty might be obtained.”

By allowing the traders to destroy their shrines and their idols, the Tuvaluans were expecting something bad to happen not only to the traders but also to themselves. The failure of the presupposed evils to materialize, removed fear from the natives with respect to their ancient deities. They finally realized that the God of the Europeans was much more superior and stronger. Being mindful of this, they voluntarily offered themselves to the Christian God for the purpose of gaining wealth and good health which was associated with the mana of their new found God.


The Arrival of Elekana
It was on Saturday, April 22, 1861, a party of nine natives of Manihiki in the northern Cooks (consisting of six men, two women and one child) were traveling to Rakahanga after attending the annual meeting at Manihiki. The voyage was very smooth and they also experienced fine weather, not until they came close to their destination, when the weather suddenly changed. The sudden change in the weather made them want to return to the initial point, but sadly, it was out of sight and so was the island of Rakahanga. Everything was covered with complete darkness. Their only hope was to return to Manihiki.

Elekana and his companions were not prepared for a long trip because they had anticipated a short distance between Manihiki and Rakahanga. According to Richard Lovett, the distance between these two islands is only about thirty miles. Thus they had only prepared for a short journey. However, they were blown off course and drifted far out into the sea. The provisions for their planned voyage which consisted of some coconuts and about two gallons of water which was projected for the short journey, soon ran out.

Two months later, the party landed on the island of Nukulaelae, at Matamotu, a village on the island of Vaiafua. They were discovered on the beach by a man named Faivatala who came by on his way to visit another islet called Motutala; where he had a second wife. The place where Elekana first landed (Matamotu) was later called Olataga, meaning salvation.20    Three persons from the group passed away and six of them survived. The names of the survivors were documented in the Centenary Booklet: Elekana and his son,Tavita, Tuitolu, Paran, Minoko and Larilari and a woman, Teate and her child died when the canoe was cast up to the reef.


When Elekana had recovered, he started to share his knowledge of Christianity amongst the islanders. In a short period of time, he quickly gained popularity amongst the people than Tom Rose (Thomas). He started preaching the gospel and teaching the people how to read and write. Elekana conducted services using his own copies of the scripture such as the Rarotongan Testament, a volume of notes on the Gospel of Matthew, and a hymn book. These materials were saved in a wooden bucket with a tight fitting lid.    Fortunately, Elekana’s task was easily carried out by the assistance of a Cook Island woman on the island at that time, who interpreted for him.

After two months on Nukulaelae, Elekana intended to go to Samoa with the other survivors. When the natives heard that Elekana was going to leave them, they wept and were filled with sorrow. They thought that Elekana was going back to Manihiki and would never come back to them. However, Elekana made an agreement with the natives promising that he will return. This agreement saying: “Let us now make an agreement: we let you go to Samoa, because you promise to return. You will be sure to return, and we will be keeping a look-out for you.”

Unfortunately, the ship did not head directly to Samoa, but rather went to Futuna. Elekana and his companions faced some difficulties. The ship’s captain had purposely diverted the plan in order to pay back for his imprisonment on Manihiki. He had found out that Elekana and his mates were natives of Manihiki. Elekana and his team stayed in Futuna for a month. An epidemic broke out and killed many people and they were blamed for this outbreak. The group was forced to live in isolation and there was no contact with one another or with the people of the island. During this isolation, they were also forced to give up on their worship. Later, the captain agreed to release them to proceed with their journey to Samoa on another passing vessel.

On its way back from Futuna their first stop was the island of Nukulaelae. When Elekana arrived at Nukulaelae, the natives thought that he had returned from Samoa. Elekana had to do a lot of explanation in order to make the Nukulaelae people understand that instead of going to Samoa, the boat took them to Futuna for some unknown reasons. Elekana told them about the problems they encountered at Futuna. From Nukulaelae the boat sailed to Unauti and to Funafuti.   It was during this trip that George Turner of the LMS later reported the presence of a Roman Catholic convert from Tokelau Islands, who had attempted to introduce his form of Christianity to the people of Funafuti. Armed with the bible as the source of his teaching, Elekana had an edge over his Roman Catholic counterpart from Tokelau. After Funafuti, the boat proceeded to Vaitupu and Nui before sailing to Samoa. Elekana found out during his trip that all of the islands that he visited in the Tuvalu were longing for religious books and teachers.


In September 1863, Elekana finally arrived in Samoa. Upon his arrival, he requested the LMS missionaries in Samoa to inaugurate a Christian mission in the Tuvalu group. In his own account, Elekana recorded that: I saw the British missionaries, and told them about all the lands we had visited; how they had no God whatever, and were anxious to obtained teachers and books. I asked them to send me back with books to Nukulaelae; they told me they perhaps would so after they had heard from American missionaries at Hawaii. Not long after this, Mr. Gill of Mangaia, came, and he decided I should remain for a time at the institution at Malua which I did, and found that they were all kind to me.

Elekana informed the resident European LMS missionaries in Samoa, that Tuvalu was an available mission field, untapped and enthusiastic to receive teachers and religious materials. When the LMS missionaries heard about this, they were eager to launch the Christian mission in Tuvalu.

Unfortunately, the Christian mission in Tuvalu did not immediately begin. Several reasons prohibited the immediate beginning of the Tuvalu Christian mission. First of all, the LMS was concerned with a comity agreement with its sister organization, Hawaiian Mission Society (HMS), a branch of the ABCFM which was operating in the North West Pacific and Kiribati. Secondly, there was a lack of a means of transportation available to transport missionaries to Tuvalu because the LMS was without a mission ship. Despite this, enthusiasm to launch the Christian mission in Tuvalu continued to prevail.

Between the years 1864 and 1869, the LMS faced transportation problems. The John Williams I, launched in Britain in 1844 to replace the John Williams Camden, was wrecked on Pukapuka in the Cooks in 1864. It was replaced by the John Williams II, which was in turn wrecked on the island of Niue in 1867.  These difficulties withheld the LMS from immediately launching its missionary work in the Tuvalu group.

During this whole time, Elekana was enrolled at Malua Theological College from 1863 until he left for the Tuvalu group in May, 1865. Elekana’s enrollment at Malua was not a choice of the resident European missionaries in the Samoan Islands. It was a recommendation from William Wyatt Gill of the Cook Island mission, who happened to arrive in Apia shortly after Elekana’s arrival in Samoa. Gill’s intention was for Elekana to complete his studies and return to the Cook Islands to help out in the missionary activities there.


The Christian Mission in Tuvalu
The Christian Mission in Tuvalu can be referred to as an accidental mission. Tuvalu was not in the mission plans of the LMS during that period. Accordingly Kenwyn Pierce refers to Tuvalu as “The blessed Islands,” in view of the fact that, the first contact with Christianity in Tuvalu was not a plan of the London Missionary Society. In other words, Tuvalu was not even considered for missionary work by the LMS. This was probably due to the reasons which have already been cited above.

Nevertheless, the Tuvalu mission became an organized mission under the auspices of the LMS once they were given the opportunity. It was considered to be the providence of God who was involved in history that made it possible for the Gospel to be made known to people of Tuvalu. It was also God’s plan which was set in motion that sent the bearers of the Gospel to the Tuvaluan people. From an unplanned enterprise, the Tuvalu mission emerged as a successful missionary endeavor throughout the years of its existence.

The official LMS missionary enterprise in Tuvalu began in earnest in May, 1865. During this time, the Samoan Mission managed to secure passages for A.W Murray, the teachers and some of their families on the Augustita, a German trading vessel operating in the North Western Pacific, at a cost of £160, in order to launch the Christian mission in Tuvalu. Murray was accompanied by Elekana, and two Samoan theological graduates with their wives, Ioane and wife Saili (from Manu’a) and Matatia and wife. The LMS Samoan mission’s interest in extending the mission to the Northwest Pacific later resulted in the formulation of the ‘Northwest Outstation,’ which included the Tokelau Islands, the Tuvalu Islands and Southern Kiribati. On May 10, 1865, the Augustita arrived on the island of Nukulaelae; Ioane and his wife Saili were left there to carry out the missionary work on that island. The next stop was at Funafuti, where Matatia and his wife were posted to conduct their missionary labors. At Nukufetau, Elekana (a widower) was left there to begin the missionary activities on that island. The Augustita continued its trip to Vaitupu and Nui, and Murray promised the natives of the two islands that he would send pastors for them, at the earliest convenient time.

On November 1865, Murray’s promise was fulfilled when the Presbyterian Missionaries diverted its mission ship the “Dayspring” to land Samoans teachers on those two islands. The Dayspring arrived at Nui and left Kirisome and his wife to work there, while Peni and his wife were placed on the island of Vaitupu.37    These missionaries were believed to be the first missionaries to officially establish the Christian mission in Tuvalu.

According to Tafailematagi Muasau, the arrival of the Augustita in Tuvalu marked both the official date for the arrival of the Samoan Mission and also the official date for the arrival of Christianity in Tuvalu. Muasau believed that the official dates for the arrival of Christianity not only in Tuvalu but also the other pacific islands were usually associated with the arrival of the European Missionaries. Thus, despite the fact that the Tuvaluans heard about Christianity from earlier contacts with Europeans and despite the fact that Elekana landed in 1861and started teaching the people at Nukulaelae about Christianity, yet it was not until May 1865 that A.W Murray of the LMS officially arrived and thus the official beginning of the LMS mission in the Tuvalu group.

Between 1867 and 1869, the LMS has been unable to organize any deputational visit to the Tuvalu group because of the unavailability of a means of transportation.39    In 1869 the LMS acquired the John Williams III and immediately put it into service in the South—Pacific. In 1870, the Samoan resident European missionaries decided that a visitation to Tuvalu and rest of the North West Outstation should be conducted as soon as possible. S.J. Whitmee was appointed to conduct that visitation on the John Williams III.

During this trip, Whitmee was accompanied by five pastors and their families specifically for the Tuvalu islands. Tapu and Sione Paea (a native of Niue) were left to work on the island of Niutao. Sione worked with Tapu on the island of Niutao for one year, hoping that at an opportune time he will be received by the island of Nanumaga which was still hostile to the Christian mission.

Whitmee left Paulo and his family to replace Peni at Vaitupu who left the island due to illness. Tema and his family were left to work at Funafuti.    They replaced Matatia who had already left for Samoa in 1868 when his influence was no longer effective due to his misbehavior. Elekana was removed by Whitmee from Nukufetau because of his involvement in political matters and was replaced by Sapolu and Katalina.43    When Sapolu arrived at Nukufetau, there was enthusiasm for missionary work.    This account was recorded by Fau’olo.




​O le ulua’i fua o le la galuega i Nukufetau, o ni alii talavou se toalua mai lea motu na aooga ia Sapolu. Na molia manao o ia alii ia Sapolu i le fia o mai i Malua e aoaoina atili ai mea tau le lotu, ona ua fia avea i laua ma faifeau. Sa aoaoina lelei laua e Sapolu, ona molia ai lea ia Misi Paueli. Na faaofia e Misi Paueli, ona ta’u lea i ai e ​Sapolu o le mana’o o nei taulealea. Ona fai lea o le ‘vili’ e Misi Paueli, ona maua lea e Iosia o le upu ‘alu.’ Ona molia mai ai lea o Iosia i Malua ma aoaoina ai


The first fruit of the work there were the two young men of the island, who offered themselves to be taught by Sapolu. The men requested Sapolu to be send to study at Malua in order to become pastors. Sapolu trained the two young men well and reffered them to Rev. Thomas Powell and requested him for an opportunity to study at Malua. Rev. Powell cast a lot, and Iosia was selected to go to Malua. Thus Iosia was send to Malua to be trained there.
Iosia and his wife Seleima the daughter of the king of Nanumaga is believed to be the first Tuvaluan to study at Malua in 1871 or 1872. After completing their studies at Malua, they were appointed to work in Papua and later on transferred to work in Kiribati. The report of the events in Whitmee’s visitation to the Tuvalu group in 1870 is said to be repetitious, thus, Goldsmith and Munro opted to cite only the example at Nukulaelae. Here Whitmee reported what he observed, he pointed out that:

"No church had been formed on this island, but I found 40 candidates for membership. From the time of landing, soon after noon on Saturday till late at night, I was fully occupied either with Ioane the teacher (not the same Ioane of Nanumaga), or with the candidates, whom I examined individually. The next day being Sunday, I preached in the morning at 8 o’clock, after which I finished conversing with the candidates, and consulted with the teacher; of the 40 we decided on admitting...The Teacher has evidently labored faithfully, and the success which has attended his labors is seen in the fact that, with three or four exceptions, all the adults on the island are candidates for church membership. All those now admitted have been fully four years candidates, and have maintained a consistent deportment during the whole time...At two o’clock p.m. we held a service for the formation of a church, which was attended by the whole population. I read the first part of the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel, and delivered an address founded thereon. After this I explained the ordinance of baptism, and administered the rite to the  who were now united in Christian fellowship. After this we partook together of the Lord Supper... a peculiar feeling of pleasure mingled with a sense of responsibility overcomes me."
Moreover, while Whitmee was in Funafuti in 1870, he met a man from Nanumea whose name was Tavita. Tavita was converted on Funafuti and was very much interested in returning to Nanumea to relate the gospel message to his people. Tavita and his wife, a Funafutian were placed by Whitmee on Nanumea to await the arrival of a Samoan teacher.

In 1971, Thomas Powell and J. C. Vivian conducted the supervisory tour to the North West Outstation. They were accompanied by three native pastors, Timoteo a Tokelauan and his wife, Tuilouā and his family, and Samuelu and his wife. Powell and Vivian left Timoteo and his wife at Nanumaga to establish missionary activity, while Tuilouā and his family were left in Nui taking up the post of Kirisome. The trip continues to Tamana, Kiribati to pick up Kirisome and his family, and was replaced by Samuelu and his wife. They also visited Onotoa, Arorae, Beru, and Nikunae of Southern Kiribati. On their return, they visited Nanumea with the hope to place Kirisome and his family there. Unfortunately, the attempt was unsuccessful. Kirisome and his family were taken back to Nui to work with Tuiloa.

When Kirisome returned his influence on the people of Nui continued. Knowing that the people were still drawn to Kirisome, Tuilouā looked for an opportunity to secure an island for himself. He requested the visiting missionaries to place him on Nanumea; however the missionaries did not want to place teachers on unreceptive islands, especially someone with a family. Consequently, Tuilouā took matters into his own hands, and left for Nanumea with one of the deacons on a passing trading vessel.
In 1873, Tuilouā landed on Nanumea and became the first official pastor for the island. Tuilouā had a tough time during the early stages of his mission. He described his hard work    as “grains that fell among thorns and that the people were like wild animals roaming together.”  When Tapu the pastor of Niutao heard about the hardships faced by Tuilouā, he decided to go to Nanumea. He went to Nui to pick up Tuilouā’s wife and children and transported them to Nanumea.
Sources used
Lange, Raeburn. Island Ministers: Indigenous Leadership in the Nineteenth Century Pacific Island Christianity. Christchurch: Macmillan Brown center for Pacific Studies, 2005.
Laumua, Kofe. “The Tuvalu Church: A Socio-Historical Survey of its Development Towards an Indigenous Church.” BD thesis, Pacific Theological College, 1976.
Lovett, Richard M.A. The History of the London Missionary Society 1795-1895. Vol 1, London: Oxford University Press 1899.
Munro Doug, “Samoan Pastors in Tuvalu, 1865-1899,” in The Covenant Makers. ed., Doug Munro and Andrew Thronley, Suva: Pacific Theological College and The Institute of Pacific Studies at the University of the South Pacific,1996.
_____. “The Humble Ieremia: a Samoan Pastor in Tuvalu, 1880-1895,”The Pacific Journal of Theology. 23/24 (2000)

_____. “The Lagoon Islands: A History of Tuvalu 1820-1908.” Ph.D, diss., Macquarie University, 1982.
Nokise, Uili Feleterika. “The Role of London Missionary Society Samoan Missionaries in the Evangelization of the South West Pacific: 1839-1930.” PhD diss., Australian National University, 1983.
“Te Lama Elise” (Church Magazine), Nov-Dec 1972, Beru, Kiribati: London Mission Press, 1941.
Thorogood, Bernard. ed., Gales of change: Responding to a shifting Missionary Context, The Story of the London Missionary Society 1945-1977. Switzerland, Geneva: WCC Publication, 1994.
Muasau, Tafailematagi T. “The Samoan Missionary Enterprise in Tuvalu.” BD thesis, Pacific Theological College,1983.
Goldsmith, Michael. and Munro Doug. “Conversion and Church Formation in Tuvalu” The Journal of Pacific History” Volume 27 (June/Dec 1992)

______. The Accidental Missionary: Tales of Elekana. Christchurch: University of Canterbury,
______. “Church and Society in Tuvalu,”
The above article was extracted from:  Maina Talia, "Ekalesia Kelisiano Tuvalu: A Critical Evaluation of its Autonomous Status," BD Thesis, Kanana Fou Theological Seminary, 2007.



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