"One day they will come, with crucifix in one hand and the dagger in the other, to cut your throats or to force you to accept their customs and opinions," wrote the French intellectual Diderot in 1772. "One day under their rule you will be almost as unhappy as they are."

Diderot was sounding the alarm for Tahitians unfamiliar with European colonialism before the English missionary effort in the South Pacific got underway. Could he have witnessed how Christianity actually spread throughout the islands, he might have retracted his dire prediction. While many British missionaries thought it a worthy cause to "civilize" South Pacific islanders, few if any used force. Many channeled their energy into mentoring a few converts, who in turn went out as "teachers" to make converts of their own. Over and over again, the first Christian face a Samoan, Tongan, or Rarotongan saw was not white, but brown.

Mission through mobilization

The person we have to thank most for this was the missionary John Williams (1796-1839). Sent by the London Missionary Society (LMS), Williams arrived in Tahiti in 1817 at a time when the church there was still in its infancy. In a matter of months, he achieved fluency in the language and began discussing with the chief of the island and his fellow missionaries a strategy for evangelizing the surrounding islands. In May 1818, they set up the Tahitian Missionary Society, an organization intended to incorporate converts into this evangelistic vision and encourage them not only to contribute financially but also to participate in the mission's endeavors. Williams immediately began preparing Tahitian missionaries for voyages to other islands.

His first opportunity came with the arrival of refugees escaping an epidemic ...

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