by Francis X. Hezel, SJ
The Marshall Islands, composed of two chains of coral atolls running generally north-south, are located in the western Pacific just above the equator. Formerly governed by Germany, Japan and the United States, the Marshalls are an independent nation as of 1986 and have a population of about 55,000.
The seafarers who settled the small atolls of the Marshalls are thought to have first arrived there in the century or two before the time of Christ. During this period voyagers had sailed from northern Melanesia in their ocean-going canoes to make their home throughout eastern Micronesia. Even today the languages of the peoples in this area are closely related and the customs similar.
We know very little of the development of the Marshallese people until the onset of European contact in the 16th century. The chiefly system in the Marshalls, surprisingly elaborate for small communities on coral atolls, suggests that at some point Polynesian influence reached the islands. For the rest, Marshallese culture retained its distinctive features: people relied heavily on pandanus as a staple food, traveled extensively from one island to another in their single-outrigger sailing canoes, and honored their traditional religious beliefs.
In the late 16th century, the Marshall Islands had their first contact with the West when a few of the atolls were visited by Spanish ships crossing the Pacific on their search for the treasures of the East. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century, however, that extensive contact with Westerners began. US whaleships occasionally visited the islands during the 1840s and 1850s, but most of these contacts were fleeting and ended with hostility between the islanders and the ship crews. By 1870, foreign traders began to take up residence on the islands as the copra trade flourished and new trade goods were made available to the people. Islanders cut dried coconut that would be pressed for its oil, which was used for a number of purposes in Europe and America.
Meanwhile, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) extended its missionary work from the eastern Caroline Islands to the Marshalls when, in 1857, they put two American missionaries and a Hawaiian aide aboard one of the islands in the group. Thus began the evangelization of the Marshall Islands. Within a few years, the two Americans departed, leaving the mission in the hands of Hawaiian teachers and their new Marshallese converts. The pastors established small schools everywhere to teach the members of their growing communities how to read the bible, which was then being translated into the local Marshallese language. In the reports that the missionaries sent back to Hawaii, they counted not just their converts but also the number of “readers” among their membership.
Shortly after the death of Kaibuke, the paramount chief who had protected the missionaries during their first five years, resentment surfaced and chiefs began to retaliate against those Marshallese who had defected to the new religion. For a time they began terrorizing new converts, in some cases even burning down their houses and threatening their lives. But this proved to be the final flailing of a traditional belief system that was quickly being replaced by Christianity. By the end of the 19th century, the Congregational Church was solidly established in the Marshalls, just as it was in the adjacent island groups in Micronesia.
In 1899 Catholics, too, established a foothold in the Marshalls when the German-speaking Missionaries of the Sacred Heart established a mission on Likiep and shortly afterwards on two other islands. The mission school they established on Jaluit a few years later won the reputation of being the best school in the Pacific at that time.
The Germans, who claimed the Marshall Islands as a protectorate, ruled the islands until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. As soon as war had been declared, Japan swept in and took possession of the islands for the duration of the war. At the end of the war, Japan was entrusted with formal authority to govern the islands on behalf of the newly established League of Nations. During the 30-year period of Japanese rule, the Congregational church continued to increase the size of its membership, which eventually reached 95 percent of the population. Meanwhile, Catholic mission work passed from the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart to the Spanish Jesuits, who soon afterwards withdrew their resident priests and were content to make a single pastoral visit each year.
With the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II, the United States became the administering authority in the Marshalls on behalf of the United Nations Trusteeship Council. The US quickly commandeered two of the northernmost atolls in the Marshalls as test sites for its newly developed nuclear weapons, while Kwajalein became a military base and later a test range for the missiles that were being developed during the cold war era.
During the later part of US administration, several small denominations were established in the Marshalls. The most successful of these was Assemblies of God, which soon claimed a significant share of the Protestant congregation, but Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, and Baptists also opened churches. Meanwhile, the Catholic congregation expanded and its influence grew as a result of its special efforts in primary and secondary education on several of the islands.
When the Marshall Islands became independent in 1986, there were no fewer than seven different churches established in the island group. The conversion to Christianity had been completed nearly a century before, and evidence of the social and religious importance of the church could be found everywhere. Yet, for those who knew where to look, remnants of the traditional religion were also easy to find.
Like peoples in other parts of the Pacific, the Marshallese lived in a world that was teeming with spirits. There were a few spirits who made their home in the heavens, including one deity (Lowa) who created the islands and a group of sister deities who founded the chiefly clans. Generally, however, sky gods were remote from the affairs of humans and almost never consulted by the Marshallese.
Most of the spirits honored by Marshallese resided at a much lower level. They included the spirits of dead relatives who might return at times to possess someone in the family so as to provide valuable information or other assistance. Even today an individual might go into a trance state and take on the voice and mannerisms of a dead relative while speaking to the entire family on behalf of the ancestral spirit. The death of a family member was a critical moment in traditional Marshallese culture, for the spirit had to be placated and sent on its way to the afterlife in a good mood so that it would protect the interests of its family thereafter.
Nature spirits were another category. Usually these spirits were associated with certain plants or bushes or places. A particular reef , for instance, might be regarded as dangerous because of the harmful spirits living there who preyed on women and children. The world of the Marshallese people, like that of other Micronesians, was filled with dangers, many of them caused by superhuman forces. Although most of these nature spirits were fixed to a certain location, some malicious spirits roamed widely. The mejenkwad, for example, were a type of cruel female spirit that could fly from place to place bringing death and destruction to different islands.
Marshallese also recognized a variety of other gods, including the god of the ocean, to whom they prayed when fishing and sailing to another atoll. Islanders would call on their guardian spirits when they prepared to cut down a tree to be used in the construction of a sailing canoe. The rituals that were conducted at the start of the breadfruit and pandanus harvest seasons called on a variety of patron gods through prayer and offerings to give abundant food to the people of the atolls. Other rituals were used to invoke the spirits when people made preserved breadfruit or pandanus flour.
Sickness was believed to be caused by the power of the spirits, and so the most effective remedies for sickness also had to be sought from the spirits. To determine who had caused the sickness and how it could be treated, people had recourse to the spirit world. People often had to use different kinds of divination to find answers to these and other questions in their lives. Sometimes they threw a handful of pebbles on the ground and from their pattern tried to discern the answer to their question. Another type of divination was tying knots randomly in strands of coconut or pandanus leaves and counting the number of knots afterwards to find what they needed to know. Helpless in the face of the mysteries that surrounded them, Marshallese turned to the spirits for the knowledge that they were unable to attain on their own.
As Christianity spread rapidly throughout the islands in the late 19th century, the new faith supplanted the traditional religious beliefs and practices. No longer would Marshallese call on their patron gods to assist them, and the offerings and prayers once offered to these gods soon became a thing of the past. Marshallese read the bible, practiced their new faith, and surrendered the rituals they once practiced so assiduously.
Even so, the spirit world that the Marshallese had once believed in did not disappear entirely. Some spirits continue to roam, Marshallese practice today seems to suggest. People are still said to be possessed by the spirits of the dead today, even if this is not as common as it once was. Many Marshallese still fear venturing onto certain reefs or other places where the nature spirits of old were believed to reside. Some Marshallese still practice divination as their ancestors did, but instead of tying knots in leaf strands, they may open the bible and let their finger fall upon a verse at random in the hope that the words will shed light on what they are expected to do. Even as they formally practice Christianity, Marshallese today retain a residual belief in much of their old spirit world and in the forces that operated within that world. One could say that for many Marshallese the ancient spirits that their ancestors honored still roam today.
Jay Dobbin, Summoning the Powers Beyond: Traditional Religions in Micronesia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011.
James Frazer, The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead. Vol 3: The Belief among the Micronesians. London: Dawson’s, 1924.
Tony Swain and Garry Trompf, The Religions of Oceania. The Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices Series. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
Jack A. Tobin, Stories from the Marshall Islands. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002.