Spiritualism and Christianity in Papua New Guinea

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This paper will talk about Spiritualism and Christianity in Papua New Guinean and will elaborate more on the two aspect in Papua New Guinean Context. There are several challenges faced by missionaries when they tried to introduce Christianity because some Papua New Guineans resisted the changes the missionaries represent which will be further explained, while others accepted opportunities for new forms of wealth, power, age and gender relations. Christianity also brings along it’s influence on the way Papua New Guineans live and interact. Moreover, it will look at several factors that motivated the Papua New Guineans to accept Christianity and the positive and negative impact it had on their lives

Looking at a Papua New Guinean perspective, Christianity is not our indigenous religion but it was introduced from nineteenth century to twentieth century by the missionaries. The first mission to settle in Papua New Guinea was the London Missionary Society, which in 1871 set up mission teachers from the Loyalty Islands on islands adjacent to and on the Papuan mainland. It was through them that Christianity made its way into Papua New Guinea. Religion in Papua New Guinea is predominantly Christian which means that when Christianity settled in Papua New Guinea its influences were so strong that it reduces the Papua New Guinean’s traditional Religion of traditional animism and ancestor worship.

In Papua New Guinea there is liberty for all religion with 96 percent of the population of Papua New Guinea a classified as Christian However, despite apparent domination of Christianity in Papua New Guinea, primal religion still greatly influences the worldview of Papua New Guineans many still combined their Christian faith with traditional indigenous beliefs. Some of these religious beliefs are; rituals of magic, spells, sorceries and are still widely practiced as indicated by Haon 2008 (as cited in Hanson, 2012) “Christians are to regularly seek help of traditional healers, when medical treatment and prayer fails to exhibit anticipated results”.

In addition to what Abel Haon has stated I remembered when I was thirteen (13) years old when my dad had mouth cancer and my parents just spend over a thousand kina on medical assistance from hospitals and private specialist we even had Pastors and church family and others who prayed for my dad but nothing seemed to help, so they took another step, they found a tradition healer and he usually made traditional medicines and rituals for my dad. Turner (as cited in Hanson,2012) stated that “primal religion is the most basic or fundamental religious system and has preceded and contributed to the other great religious systems”.

R.N Bulmer 1972 (as cited in Hanson, 2012) reflect on the historical impact of Christianity on the Kyaka people of the Enga Province, states that every Kyaka person (Christian or otherwise) “believe in the existence of the ghosts and other beings in the traditional cosmology” He argues that God, Jesus Christ and Satan have simply been added to the existing cosmological beliefs in the Kyaka people. Operation World (as cited by, Hanson, 2012) sums up the status of Christianity in Papua New Guinea, “the ready acceptance of the gospel has resulted in a superficial Christianity of the majority without a radical transformation of basic values and beliefs”, and the “fear of witchcraft and evil spirits are widespread”.

This should not be surprising as Papua New Guineans practiced primal religion for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the first missionaries in the mid-19th century, however, out of all the other South Pacific Islands Christianity came to Papua New Guinea a bit late. Zocca 2007 (as cited in Hanson,2012) in his article as part of his discussion stressed that “the growth of Christianity in Papua New Guinea has faced several challenges which he mention as phases”.

The first phase was the period of contact, from 1850 to 1900 which the missionaries used some intended approaches to help grow or spread the Christianity which involved indigenous Christian co-workers from other South Pacific Island bringing goods to exchange i.e., axes and knives and to obtain large amount to land so that schools, health clinics, etc. can be built. Furthermore, because of these first approaches, Christianity was well established as noted by Forman (as cited in Hanson,2012) “Thus, while Christianity was well-planted in the Pacific by 1900, it showed very different stages of growth in different areas”.

The second phase occur in 1900-1942 and it was called the stage of Penetration. It was called the penetration stage because of the conflicts between the Christian Principles and the indigenous values. Zocca 2007 writes (as cited in Hanson, 2012) “when a denomination opposed the use of traditional stimulants, kava, or betel nut they encounter stiff resistance, because such customs were tightly linked to other aspects of the culture, such as the demonstration of friendliness and contact with spirits”. One of the prickly topic was the topic of marriage and during this period of time the big man in a village or society is permitted to have multiple wives because it shows wealth and Influence, so when the Christianity says no in having more than one wife the big man refused.

Phase of Absorption was the third phase which occurred from 1945 to 1975. It was during that period that Papua New Guinea took another approach in teachings of Christianity by conveying them in line with traditional beliefs. Papua New Guineans “often adopted Christian truths and practices as additions to, or as ‘functional substitutes’, for their native beliefs and rites”. For example, angels and demons joined the good and bad spirit beings of traditional religion, and the power of the Holy Spirit was allied with the power of “mana”.

The fourth phase is the Phase of Autonomy which took place in year 1975 until now. This is the stage where the churches moved from dependent to independent form which means that they are self-sufficient and are responsible for their own” organization, finances, and personnel”. When missionaries saw that the churches can rely on their own they started to slowly depart from Papua New Guinea.

Looking back on the growth of Christianity in Papua New Guinea, there are some important factors that contributed to the Papua New Guineans acceptance of Christianity. Zocca 2007 (as cited in Hanson, 2012) stated that, “he believes there are several factors that motivated the people to embrace Christianity.

The first factor was the belief that Christianity could bring material benefits”. This is where Cargo cults falls in when the aimed of acquiring the wealth and power of outsiders through mixtures of Christian and local rituals have been practiced. This belief grew out of seeing the missionaries with so many material possessions, and the people’s desire for such possessions. Today, indigenized forms of Christianity seek to control the human condition in a period of insistent and significant change.

Second factor was the victorious nature of Christianity, as exhibited in power encounters. In power encounters, God proved Himself to be more powerful than spirits. In this area missionaries tried to prove that God is victorious against other indigenous spirits but the Papua New Guineans were resistant.

Third, Papua New Guineans would equate education with Christianity – since missionaries ran many schools, which means when they are being repelled by the native they found another way to show them about God so they used education as a tool to thought Christianity in schools which they set up.

Fourth, was the personality of the missionary, as we know actions speak louder than words so the more favorable a missionary’s personality are the more people became Christians. Fifth, was the non-existence of a priestly class in primal religion; there was no one to oppose the growing acceptance of Christianity.

Sixth, was a matter of prestige, linking the new Christian with the world of the Westerners. Seventh, was the message of peace and reconciliation that Christianity brought to the tribal-fighting cultures of Papua New Guinea.

Spiritualism is a religion that has this belief that spirits of the dead exist and have both the ability and the feeling to communicate with the living and the life after death or the spirit world is seen by spiritualists. There are two beliefs which spiritualist believe in and they are: They believe that contact with spirit (which in Papua New Guinea and other Melanesian countries, they are known in tok pisin as ‘tavel’ or ‘devel’ this comes from the English word ‘devil’) is possible and that humans are not close to them in terms of knowledge because they are more radical than humans.

These two beliefs lead to their third belief that spirts can provide useful knowledge about moral, ethical issues and also the knowledge about the nature of God. Before the missionaries came we already have our Traditional religious system which we believed and practiced. Some of our religious belief are; animism, it is a belief that objects, places and creatures all have their own different spiritual essence and that rivers, plants, rocks, weather system, etc. all are alive and active. The other religious belief includes witchcrafts, sorceries, and beliefs of dead spirits. Magic whether to do good or to inflict harm, entangled in ritual, and operates beyond human experience whereas Religion operates within and beyond human knowledge.

I came from a Christian background where my mother who’s from East Sepik was a Seventh-Day Adventist Christian and my father is Catholic Christian who is original from Buka but was adopted and raised by a family from Rabaul. My dad usually took part in some of the rituals conduct by his parents and relatives. While growing up I usually sensed that my mother was not that interested or really believe in those witch craft and spirit activities but my dad on the other hand believed strongly in those religious believes. I remember seeing my dad planting ginger around the house and a special plant that has a strong smell that comes out from it whenever we touched it. Then I used to saw him tying the leaves of this plant at the porch of our house and also in our family car and whenever I asked him, he normally said that it’s for protection, so I came to realize that some of these traditional magic’s or rituals practiced in the past and today is for the good of the family, community, etc. It can be used for protection or other PNG’s worldview, however some used it today as a form of revenge.

Consciousness of the spirit in Melanesia is based on myth and reality, but springs from human experience. Spirits are a singularly powerful force in the affairs of Melanesia, no less than the presence of God in the affairs of men and women of religion everywhere. As Papua New Guineans we can’t do away with that mentality of the existence of spiritualism even though we call ourselves Christians because they are real and they do exist whether we like it or not.

When my dad’s cancer got worse, his friends especially looked for another alternative and that is to search for witches or in PNG we call it ‘glassman’ or ‘glassmeri’. My mother strongly opposed to that idea because of her Christian principles but after having a great argument with them she then agreed and a witch was brought to our house but we still practiced Christianity and uphold my dad in prayer. The witch performed some kind of activities I’ve never seen before, and he started to have visions and then he called out names of my dad’s co-workers saying that they are responsible and that they cause this illness because of Jealousy. I was really scared at that time because those men he just mention were our neighbors, and then he started to perform some special rituals on my dad. Nevertheless, it did not help because unfortunately my dad died and it was believed that this particular witch took my dad’s spirit away, but I don’t whether it’s true or not.

This world is full of opposites, which means to say that when theirs evil there’s good, when there light there’s darkness and when there’s God there’s Satan. Looking at these two dimension, for me personally I tried to stop believing in spirits and uphold Christianity and go to church but it’s hard because it’s part of my culture and it’s like it’s in built in me and I have to face the fact that yes, there is God existing and there is also another spirit world existing which is the belief of the Indigenous people.

Therefore, to conclude this conflict between spiritualism and Christianity is still ongoing issue in most of the churches today. People are still attending church and are still associated with the Spiritualism and it’s all because of our cultures that makes us to believe in this. Some of the churches today are trying to do away with the indigenous belief of the spirits because there are some of our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, etc. today in our churches who are sorcerers and practice witchcraft in the form of revenge but are still active and taking up positions in the church which we belief that these practices are evil because it destroys our relationship with God and our Christian beliefs. However, it did not happen that way they expected because it’s hard to separate the two from a church member, that’s why, we can now see the struggles the missionaries have gone through and the entanglement of the Christianity and the Spiritualism aspect.


Cite this paper

Spiritualism and Christianity in Papua New Guinea. (2021, Jul 21). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/spiritualism-and-christianity-in-papua-new-guinea/



How did Christianity start in Papua New Guinea?
Christianity in Papua New Guinea started with the arrival of the London Missionary Society in 1873. The Society sent out its first missionaries to the Solomon Islands in 1843.
How many churches are there in Papua New Guinea?
There are about 3500 churches in Papua New Guinea.
Why do most PNG state that their religion is Christianity?
There are many reasons why most PNG state that their religion is Christianity. One reason is that Christianity is the dominant religion in PNG. Another reason is that many PNG people have converted to Christianity.
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