General Essay on Western Oceanian Religions

Western Oceania is composed of three ethnographic areas: Micronesia in the north, Melanesia to the south and Australia in the far south. The general scholarly consensus is that these areas were populated as a result of migration from Asia rather than from the Americas. The historical origins of the earliest settlement of the region are uncertain; there were certainly human settlements in Melanesia and Australia as early as 40,000 years ago. Micronesia was probably settled about 3,500 years ago by peoples from Indonesia, the Philippines and eastern Melanesia.

Micronesia consists of more than 600 islands and islets. Pre-European religion was polytheistic. A myriad of deities personified different aspects of nature or functioned as guardians of cultural activities. Micronesian religion is characterized by a vertical worldview; that is to say, a belief in sky gods responsible for creating the world and associated with the forces of nature.

Melanesian religion by contrast is informed by a horizontal rather than vertical cosmology. There are relatively few sky gods; instead, deities tend to dwell in inaccessible regions beyond the horizon. Various rites and sacrifices were performed to placate the deities and to ensure the protection and prosperity of the group. Also significant for the religious practices of the Melanesians were the spirits of the dead and 'ghost people'. These were believed to dwell among the living; the dead had to be treated with caution and respect since they had the power to cause trouble for the community if offended.

Australian Aboriginal religion is different still. At the heart of Australian Aboriginal religion is the concept of the Dreaming. The Dreaming is a sacred time before living memory when ancestors (in the form of humans or animals) wandered the earth, gave it shape and created all the living things out of their own essence. Once this act of creation had taken place the ancestors merged into the sites they had created. The life spirit of human beings derives from the ancestors, and, therefore, each human being is a form of incarnation of the original ancestors. At death, the spirit returns to be with the ancestors.

Although there is evidence of sky deities they do not play an important role in Aboriginal religion. Most important is the performance of rituals that maintain the order of the world. Throughout Australia rituals were performed whose purpose was to maintain cosmic cohesion through ensuring the release of the life-giving power of a particular place. This belief in the importance of place as the source of life tied the individual to a particular location because of its association with a particular ancestral being.

The life and culture of the people of the people were drastically transformed by the arrival of European colonialists and missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries. Towards the end of the 17th century there were Spanish Jesuit missionaries at work in Micronesia. It was not, however, until the 19th century that Protestantism had established a permanent foothold. The most important early source of mission activity was the interdenominational London Missionary Society, through which Anglican, Congregationalist, Methodist and Presbyterian missions were established throughout Oceania. These were followed in the second half of the 19th century by Methodists, Lutherans and the Dutch Reformed Church, and later by American Mormon and Seventh Day Adventist missionaries.

In1788 the first fleet of settlers arrived in Australia. With European colonization came disease, conquest and the decimation of much of the Aboriginal population of south-eastern Australia. Hostility towards Europeans expressed itself in a number of ways. One was the establishment of millennial revolts which anticipated the imminent departure of Europeans and the return to the original indigenous traditions.

Following the pacification of the Aborigines and their integration into the European economic order, Aboriginal religious expression came to be characterized by the aspiration for economic parity with white Europeans. This phenomenon is known as cargoism and takes the form of the belief that the acquisition of goods would contribute to the liberation of oppressed indigenous people through the provision of material wealth. Finally, various distinctive forms of Aboriginal Christianity developed in the 20th century. Sometimes these took the form of a dual cosmology, in which traditional aboriginal beliefs stood alongside Christian beliefs; sometimes, Christianity has been syncretized with Aboriginal belief; more recently distinct aboriginal churches have been established, the source of which has been the Aboriginal Evangelical Fellowship.

The religious history of Melanesia and Micronesia have followed a similar trend. European colonization brought with it disease, conflict and depopulation. As in Australia, a number of short-lived millennial movements arose inspired by the belief that the old order would soon be reestablished. An early example of this is the Tuka Movement which came into being towards the end of the 19th century in Fiji. Led by a Fijian priest called Ndugomoi, the movement proclaimed the imminent return of the ancestors and the departure of white settlers.

A particularly important example of indigenous adjustment to the presence of Europeans was cargoism. The various cargo movements combined anti-European agitation with the belief that the acquisition of material goods and the intervention of ancestors or Jesus would liberate them from their condition of oppression. The best known early cargo movement is the so-called Vailala madness which took root in Papua New Guinea in 1917 and which blended Christian beliefs with the expectation of the arrival of a cargo ship laden with goods and manned by the ancestors. Other similar movements are the Mambu movement of New Guinea, which sought to divert cargo from Europeans to wealthy people, and the Jon Frum movement of the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) which, as the name suggests, is based in the belief in a messianic figure called Jon Frum who will return to earth and enrich his followers with abundant wealth.

Growing out of the cargo cults are a number of independent churches. These tend to combine the leadership of a charismatic figure, who is sometimes ascribed divine or quasi-divine status, and cargoist and millennial expectations. Two such examples are the Yali Movement and the Peli Association. The former is named after its founder Yali Singa, who is viewed by his followers as equivalent to Jesus. The latter, also deriving its name from its founder, Matias Yaliwan, acquired a large following in Papua New Guinea through the promise to its followers of the miraculous provision of cargo. Both movements exist at the present time and testify to a lively and distinct form of religious expression in the region.

Other world religions are present in very small numbers as a result of emigration from Europe, Asia and South-East Asia.


Haynes, Douglas. Micronesian Religion and Lore. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1995.

Maddock, Kenneth. The Australian Aborigines: a Portrait of their Society. Harmondsworth, 1974.

Steinbauer, Friedrich. Melanesian Cargo Cults: New Salvation Movements in the South Pacific.

Swain, Tony. Aboriginal Religions in Australia. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1991.

Swain, Tony. A Place for Strangers: Towards a History of Australian Aboriginal Being. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Swain, Tony and Trompf Garry. The Religions of Oceania. Routledge, 1995.

Thompson, Roger C. Religion in Australia: A History. Oxford University Press, 1994.

Thorpe, John. The Cargo Cult. Big Sky, 1971

Trompf, Garry. Melanesian Religion. Cambridge, 1991.

White, J. Peter and O'Connell James. Prehistory of Australia, New Guinea and Sahul. Harmondsworth, 1982.

Whitehouse, Harvey. Inside the Cult: Religious Innovation and Transmission in Papua New Guinea (Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology). Clarendon Press, 1995