Melanesian Conversion

Melanesian Conversion. An Historical and Comparative Perspective

Dr. A. N. Ipenburg,

Evangelical Christian Church in Irian Jaya,
Theological College “I. S. Kijne”,
Abepura-Jayapura, Irian Jaya, Indonesia


1. Introduction                                                                                                                      2. Patterns of Conversion
3. The Nature of Conversion: Some Melanesian Examples
4. Conversion and Special Revelation
5. Conversion: Continuity or Discontinuity?
6. Conclusion
7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In this paper I want to reflect on the nature of Melanesian conversion in historical and comparative perspective.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s the Dani of the Baliem Valley were very quickly converted to Christianity. The missionaries could hardly keep path with the process.

While still mainly engaged with establishing the preliminary preconditions for evangelising, like building an airstrip, the Dani pressed them to make them Christians. (Hayward 1980: 128-9). This is quite unique as elsewhere in Irian, for example in the North in Biak, Numfoor, Manokwari and Jayapura-Sentani area. The same is the case in Africa before the establishment of colonial rule at the beginning of the 20th century. Missionaries had to wait for decades or even generations to see meagre results. The conversion of the Dani began with their own decision to burn their fetishes. These were the tools of their previous religion. By burning the fetishes there was no way back. Some would explain this rapid conversion as the work of the Holy Spirit. However, we are only able to establish this when the motivation of the converts is clear. There are pragmatic aspects to conversion.

The main theme of this paper is: Can we speak of a specific Melanesian conversion, what is its nature, how does it relate to conversion elsewhere, for instance in Africa?

The model provided by Horton (1971: 85-108) could contribute to our understanding of conversion. He places conversion in the perspective of outside influences in general in the field of politics, economics. In order to get a grip on these outside influences people need more encompassing religious concepts. As the tribal world is broken open, the world is widened and the traditional religious concepts are experienced as inadequate, as too narrow. There is a need for the concept of a universal God, of a Creator God, of a universal religion to get grip on the new and changed environment. In other words, when the environment changes, when certain elements of the culture change, religion has to change too. If the traditional religion can not change it is replaced by the new religion.

Christianity and Islam are both equally suitable to fulfill these needs. If people hear about Christianity first Christianity is accepted. If Islam comes first people get converted to Islam.  Tribal people have a pragmatic attitude towards religion. Religion has to prove itself. There should be immediate gains. Salvation is in the first place this worldly.  Salvation means: a full life, a marriage, many children, an active sex life, success with farming and hunting and tribal warfare, a long life.  Christianity came to the interior of Irian when the local societies were just being opened for external government administration by the Dutch and later the Indonesians. This meant an intrusion in the day-to-day activities of the people. There was interference with warfare, with customs and rituals considered immoral or objectionable. Western clothing was recommended. The missionaries came slightly ahead of them or at the same time. The policy of the missionaries was to give presents to “break the ice” to establish friendships and to pay for small services, like help with building activities. This in itself would already establish the superiority of the new religion, as the “Christian” iron axes were clearly superior to the “traditional” stone axes.

This may have set a pattern where Christianity became connected with the superiority of the material culture of the people that brought the new religion to Irian and with the receiving of material goods in exchange for outward allegiance to Christian rituals such as church attendance, participation in the sacraments, the giving up of one’s fetishes, a Christian marriage. Western type of clothing and living in a household with one’s husband or wife and one’s own children only.

2. Patterns of Conversion

We can distinguish three different patterns of conversion: the Protestant pattern, the Roman Catholic one and the pattern of the indigenous religious movements (IRMs). These three patterns correlate with different forms of mission strategy. People may respond differently to each of these strategies.

a. Protestant conversion

Protestant missions used, generally speaking, education as their main method of evangelisation. Basically, the idea was that you teach people to read and write, you translate the Bible, and the work of evangelisation is done. The people can read the Bible themselves and by reading come to faith. The Bible, as the written Word of God, will in itself convince the pagan reader to change religion. For the local people education was an immediate gain. There was with the increased economic opportunities in the mines, the mission and in government a need for literate Africans. Education was the main means to social advancement, for an increase in status, for access to money and the goods it could buy, which could not be provided by traditional society with its simple social structure. In traditional society one could only gain a position of leadership when one descended from the chiefs or headmen. A man could only hope that with a large family and many children, his sons in law with their offspring would decide to live with him. With the increased number of members of the family he would have the opportunity to establish a new village, bearing his name, and become its first headman.

Education offered many secular opportunities. Conversion was an individual decision based on one’s participation in the educational system of the Mission. One’s conversion came about as a matter of course as one climbed one’s way upward in the educational pyramid. As one learned the 3 Rs (reading, writing, arithmetic) and the first principles of western knowledge one also learnt the catechism. One was incorporated in the church as one passed the catechism examination. Faith was a thing to be learned. Conversion was an intellectual decision.

The Protestant missionaries stressed the preaching and reading of the Word of God as found in the Bible. The Bible was the written (and printed) Word of God. It was of extreme importance to make available as soon as possible and on an extensive scale the Bible in the language of the local people. The Bible would speak for itself. These missionaries held the opinion that the Bible is inherently clear. It would not need intermediaries who take up a position between the biblical faith of the individual believer and his or her God. Similar ideas of the prime importance of the Bible published in a local language, is found in Irian with missionaries and bible translators of SIL/Wycliff.

b. Roman Catholic conversion

Initially, till the 1930s, the Roman Catholics did not pay much attention to educational and health services. The main interest was to incorporate people into the “Holy Mother Church” through baptism. Baptism had an objective value in salvation. This means that without the Roman Catholic sacrament of baptism people would be damned forever. The Roman Catholics laid more stress on the celebration of the various sacraments than the Protestants. Not the spoken word but the performed ritual was the major religious activity to communicate the Gospel.  The Protestant missionaries could link up with the important oral tradition of story telling of traditional religion. However, their approach in general was more rational, more directed to understanding with the mind, of learning the gospel truths as one learns the three Rs. The Roman Catholics with their complex and “secret”, for priests only, rituals, in the ‘sacred’ Latin language, connected more closely and more directly with the way of thinking of the traditional religion. These magico-religious, rites competed with the rites done by the priests and healers of traditional society.  Catholic missionaries, initially, had the habit of enticing people to attend their church services by giving tobacco, needles and other useful gifts to the participants after the church service. Here again the reward of conversion was immediate and concrete..

The Roman Catholic missionaries tried to use the structure of society to convert the people to their Church. They aimed at converting the leadership, the Chiefs and headmen. Having achieved this the conversion of Chiefs the common people would easily follow. Conversion is conversion of a whole people. It is a collective decision, taken by the leaders for the people.

c. The conversion with indigenous religious movements (IRMs)

Indigenous religious movements originate sometimes as a form of protest against mission Christianity. There may have been a rivalry about leadership in the church. A leader who was left out established his or her own, independent, church. People may feel they have to wait too long to get accepted for membership. Sometimes poligyny. was the issue to break away.  A major issue was the fact that the mission church failed to address important pastoral problems the people have, like the belief in and the fear for witchcraft.

There is sometimes another protest element. The indigenous religious movement may want to be a kind of a “national”, ethnic or tribal church, in particular for a dispossessed or a suppressed group of people. An example is the Wege Bage Movement for the Me people of Paniai, established by Zakheus Pakage.

The independent church or movement is often established by a gifted individual, a person blessed with spiritual gifts and gifts of leadership, a messiah figure or a prophet. Such a

person is difficult to contain in a church, which stresses formal education as a

requirement for office, and does not recognise the office of prophet.


Indigenous religious movements usually have a close relationship to the social structure,

the belief systems and the aspirations of a local tribe or  group of people. Its membership,

usually, consist of the rural poor. Illiteracy is common, even among its leadership.

Conversion to these churches and movements usually comes about in the process of

seeking help for a specific personal problem, like a disease, barrenness, possessedness by

evil spirits or fear for witchcraft.  As one is helped effectively, one joins the movement.

In the Irianese context there are also numerous of similar Indigeneous Religious

Movements, here often described as ‘cargo cults’.


3. The Nature of Conversion: Some Melanesian Examples


It seems there are similarities in the pattern of African and of Melanesian conversion.

The concept ‘cargo-cult’ may not be adequate to describe such movements in Melanesia.

The concept can also be considered derogatory. Cargo cult could be reserved for a

religion where cargo is given religious dimensions. For instance the idea that one can

only become a full person by possessing as much cargo as one can. This form of religion

can be found in western developed countries, where moreover to the devastation  of the

environment there also is an enormous amount of ‘cargo’, of material objects or consumer

goods.  For many movements in Melanesia the term ‘messianic movements’ seems to be

more adequate. This term covers similar movements in Africa.

Moreover, hardly any religion is only otherworldly. Most religions promise the followers

benefits in the here and now. The cargo cult aspect is but one aspect of indigenous

religious movements in Melanesia as well as elsewhere. The Melanesian NRMs have also

aspects like Messianism, Zionism, healing, exorcism, political and social protest, political

and social reconstruction, cultural innovation,  or simply to provide “a place to feel at

home.” (Welbourn, 1966: 201)


4. Conversion and Special Revelation


When we go back to the individual level we see that conversion can come about as an

encounter with the divine, as a consequence for a special revelation given to a particular

individual. There is a pattern in special revelation.


As the first Melanesian example one could mention Pamai, who brought the gospel to the

people in the Sentani area. He was himself an illiterate, but taught the people to destroy

their Kariwari-masks, after these had been shown to women, which was taboo.. He then

taught the people the Lord’s Prayer and the 12 Articles of Faith. Pamai had been sick. He

had died. Had appeared for the Lord, who told him that he could not yet enter Heaven

before he had brought the Gospel to other people (Schneider 1929: 108-109).


A very striking example wich formed the linchpin in the success of early mission at the

North Coast of Irian Jaya. is the story of Jan from the small island Roon, as recorded by F.

Kamma in his history of the GKI (Kamma, 1976: 602-607).

A former slave, named Jan, raised in the house of a missionary, had an accident. Three

days before his days he had the following dream. He walked in a large house and saw an

iron door. He passed through the door and saw a golden door. Passing through that door

he came into a very large room, with everywhere around, above and down, gold. While he

was walking around, quite amazed, he saw from the other side a man dressed in pure

white, followed by numerous small girls all dressed in long, white dresses, their beautiful

hair tied up with ribbons. The man asked what he was doing. Jan said: “I am just looking

around.” “But you do not belong here. Go away,’ the man said. Jan wanted to leave, but

the man called him back. He took a very big book, looked into it, and said: ”Your name is

not yet written here. Go back home, say farewell to your wife and children, and after three

days you must come back here.” Then the man opened a hatch in the floor, where a

golden ladder led to the earth. Jan went down the ladder and awoke. He told everybody

who came to visit him about the dream. Three days later, on 1 January 1908 in the

morning, Jan died. Then the people of the island of Roon got converted in great numbers,

while before only a few had showed interest in the Gospel. On New Year’s Eve 1907  the

people of Roon burned on the beach their korwars (sacred objects made out of the skull

of their ancestors), their fetishes and amulets.


The dram of Jan translated the gospel in terms the people could understand. A dream has

authority as it is considered a message form the other world, the world of the ancestors

and the spirits. The house of gold is symbol for the land of the spirits. It is significant that

that world is above and not down below as in the traditional representation of the land of

the spirits. Jan found there a house and a home. As a former slave he did not have

relatives and a home of his own. The iron door means the status of a slave, while gold is

the symbol of the free person. The people dressed in white. White is the colour of the

deceased. The long hair is the symbol of the Irianese who are not slave but free. The

golden ladder is the traditional representation of the better world. Before everybody had

access to this world, but because of negligence of human being access ahs been lost. In

the dram of Jan the Gospel reunites the two worlds, the broken unity. There is the new

element that forgiveness has to replace revenge. The message from Jan’s dream was told

from mouth to mouth without using the channels of communication of the Gospel created

by the missionaries. In the whole process the missionaries were outsiders, reduced to a

marginal position. But the people came back to the missionaries and the gurus to learn

more about the Gospel and to ask for catechetical instruction and baptism.


5. Conversion: Continuity or Discontinuity?


In the history of the conversion of the people of Roon we see a continuity in the use of

religious symbols, as well as a discontinuity in the acceptance of central elements of the



Conversion could be considered, following Max Warren, either as a ‘change of mind’ in

the form of a specific individual spiritual experience or as a change of allegiance, the

acceptance of a new environment of thoughts. The latter is, in the nature of things,  more

gradual, and less likely to be dramatic  (Warren, Max 1967: 164). Protestant and

Independent conversion seem to fall in the former category, the group conversions of

Roman Catholic missionary policy would  fall in the latter category.


The sudden conversion of the Western Dani in the  early 1960s seems almost

unprecedented. What made them burn their amulets, fetishes and witchcraft tools,

probably their most prized possessions, necessary to survive in a hostile environment?

This would be a clear example of conversion as discontinuity. The burning was by and

large their own initiative. As Hayward (1980: 141-143)  describes it the missionaries were

very hesitant towards this sudden enthusiasm for a new religion about which the people

knew still very little. Some were opposed to the sudden burning arguing that it is better to

have a wrong religion, spirit worship,  than no religion at all. It is possible that elements

in the traditional religion of the Western Dani triggered off this outcome, though neither

Hayward nor Peters (1975) gives clues in this direction.


The Una people in the Eastern Highlands had a similar, sudden, conversion in the period

1973-1980. Some elements involved in this conversion were, that the people associated the

European people coming into the area as associated with the spirit world because of their

pale skin. Secondly, the newcomers who brought the Gospel used supernatural means of

transport ( a helicopter). Thirdly, the tools the outsiders brought with them were

perceived as superior (steel axes, machetes, knives) and finally, some authoritative Una

people had had a dream pale skinned people who would come and do good to the Una

people. These factors played a role while there was at the same time a spiritual crisis. The

first village to be converted was Langda. The people in this village were considered the

underdogs in the war with the village of Loryi in the Northern Ei valley. The frequent

earthquakes in that period may also have had an impact.



6. Conclusion


Conversion does not mean a complete break with the past. There is discontinuity, but

also continuity in one form or the other between the traditional religion and Christianity.

The new religion is interpreted with the concepts of the old religion. The new rituals, like

the Roman Catholic sacraments may in the understanding of the converts just mean more

powerful magical rites aimed at achieving health, well being, material wealth, a position

of power  When the Western Dani of the Baliem valley in the early 1960s or the Uni people

of the Eastern Highlands in the 1970s burned their amulets and fetishes or destroyed

them in another way, it did not mean that they did away with magical thinking. It may

have meant a replacement of magical tools for better ones, their functional equivalents,

like replacing their stone axes for imported iron ones.

It will be clear from our analysis that more factors are involved in conversion than those

that are mentioned by Horton.


There are similarities in the way prophets are called. They hear a voice: “Go and proclaim

the Gospel”. They tell the message of the Gospel in a form and with rituals, which are

close to the people.  The prophets reach people unreachable by the established churches

as they are, generally speaking, living marginal lives in the rural areas without access to

proper schooling or health care facilities.. We could consider seeing the Holy Spirit at

work here calling people to His work: to bring all the peoples the Gospel of eternal


We should, however, see these revelations not as absolute, not as replacing  biblical

revelation. The revelations are a step in a process,  which lead to conversion. Conversion

is a moment in time and at the same time a step in a process of Christianisation, of growth

in the fellowship with the Holy Spirit. Continuing bible study and reflection is a

precondition for this process to continue.


7  Discussion:


  •  In how far can the Church open itself for the gift of prophecy as a form of special

revelation. As described in Rom. 14? This gift is clearly recognised in the early church,

and even put at a higher level than the speaking in tongues. The early church had also

learnt to distinguish between true and false prophets (see 1 John 4: 1-6).


  •  In how far an the Church develop a positive attitude towards existing prophetic or

messianistic movements? At present the Church keeps itself at a distance, often fearing

competition. Some Churches even claim that demonic influences are at work in these

movements. Governments have also, generally speaking, a negative attitude and many of

the prophets mentioned above have faced severe persecution, imprisonment, banning

orders. One (Zakheus Pakage) was locked up in a mental hospital.


  •  How is revelation related to theology? Dulles sees revelation (also the special

revelation described in this paper) as “ the source and centre, the beginning and end, of

the theological enterprise.” (Dulles SJ, Avery  1983: 283). A challenge for the Church here

in Irian and also for academic theology as taught at universities?


  • What is the nature of conversion in the context of Melanesia (Irian Jaya) and in other

cultural contexts (Africa, America, Europe)? How does culture relate to the Gospel? Can

we speak about the Gospel without any culture, above culture, independent of culture?


  • What is the nature of salvation? And how does salvation influnce a (American, Irianese, African, European) culture ?


8. Bibliography


Dulles SJ,  Avery 1983 Models of Revelation, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan


Giay, Benny 1986. Kargoisme di Irian Jaya, Sentani: Region Press


Giay, Benny 1995. Zakheus Pakage and His Communities. Indigenous Religious

Discourse, Socio-Political Resistance, and Ethnohistory of the Me of Irian Jaya

Amsterdam: VU University Press (PhD Thesis Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)


Hayward, Douglas 1980. The Dani of Irian Jaya Before and After Conversion Sentani:

Region Press


Horton, R. 1971. “African Conversion”, in: Africa 41: 85-108


Kamma, Freerk Ch. 1972. Koreri. Messianic Movements in the Biak-Numfor Culture

Area, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff


Kamma, Freerk Ch. 1976. “Dit Wonderlijke Werk”. Het Prtobleem van de Communicatie

Tussen Oost en West Gebaseerd op de Ervaringen in het Zendingswerk op Nieuw-

Guinea (Irian Jaya) 1855-1972. Een Socio-Missiologische Benadering, Oegstgeest: Raad

voor de Zending.


Peters, H. L. 1975. “Some Observations of the Social and Religious Life of a Dani-

Group”, in: Irian. Bulletin of Irian Jaya Development (Jayapura), 4, 2


Schneider, G. J. 1929. “Sentani Ontwaakt!” in:Nederlands Zendingsblad, 13: 108-109.


Slump, F. 1935. De Zending op West-Nieuw-Guinee, Oegstgeest: Zendingsbureau

(From: Mededeelingen. Tijdschrift voor Zendingswetenschap.)


Warren, Max 1967. Social History and Christian Mission, London


Worsly, Peter 1968. (Second Edition) The Trumpet Shall Sound. A Study of ‘Cargo’ Cults

in Melanesia, New York: Schocken Books



© 1998 Dr. A. N. Ipenburg



1  The Old Testament view on salvation is not so different. God promises Abraham ‘descendants countless as the dust of the earth” (Gen. 13: 16) and ass the ‘stars of the sky’  because of his faith (Gen. 15: 5). Jacob, Joseph, David and Solomon were blessed with wives, children, material wealth and a long life when they kept God’s law and had faith in His promises. The people of Israel are promised prosperity, good harvests, rains in due time, peace and a long life if they keep the Lord’s  commandments ( Leviticus 26: 3-13). However, the people will be punished by wars, disasters, famine, diseases if the people break the covenant and do not obey all God’s commandments (Leviticus 26: 14: 41)

2   Fokke Sierksma also points out the “cargo” character of modern societies. The British author Priestley found in the USA in some place the sign: “Turn Right On Next Block For Perfection.” He  thought this was typical for American materialistic culture, with its promises of perfection through health food, body building, special courses, mental training, ownership of specific cars and so on. (Fokke Sierksma 1978 (second ed.). Een Nieuwe Hemel en een Nieuwe Aarde. Messianistische en Eschatologische Bewegingen en Voorstellingen bij Primitieve Volken, Groningen: Konstapel). For Sierksma the emergence of salvation movements mainly originates in the encounter between Europeans and “Primitive” peoples. This Eurocentric view seems outdated now.    Cf. Benny Giay (1995: 255-6) for an approach “beyond ‘cargo cults’”.

3 I am indebted to Drs. Dick Kronemans (SIL) for this analysis of Una conversion.


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