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The Light of Melanesia
A Record of Fifty Years' Mission Work in the South Seas

By H. H. Montgomery, D.D.

New York: E.S. Gorham, 1904.

Chapter V. The Religion of the Melanesians

THE following is taken from Dr. Codrington's work, The Melanesians; their Anthropology and Folk-lore. 16s. (Clarendon Press.) It is a book which will be often quoted. The statement about Melanesian beliefs is so admirably put (if I may be permitted to say it) that I have copied it verbatim. Those who wish to obtain an intelligent knowledge of the natives in these regions would wish to realize, first and foremost, what are the ideas we wish to modify or displace in order to give them the Gospel of Christ.

"The religion of the Melanesians is the expression of their conception of the supernatural, and embraces a very wide range of beliefs and practices, the limits of which it would be very difficult to define. It is equally difficult to ascertain with precision what these beliefs are. The ideas of the natives are not clear upon many points, they are not accustomed to present them in any systematic form among themselves. An observer, who should set himself the task of making systematic inquiries, must find himself baffled at the outset by the multiplicity of the languages with which he has to deal. Suppose him to have as a medium of communication a language which he and those from whom he seeks information can use freely for the ordinary purposes of life, he finds that to fail when he seeks to know what is the real meaning of those expressions which his informant must needs use in his own tongue, because he knows no equivalent for them in the common language which is employed, or, if he gives what he supposes to be an equivalent, it will often happen that he and the inquirer do not understand that word in the same sense. A missionary has his own difficulty in the fact that very much of his communication is with the young, who do not themselves know and understand very much of what their elders believe and practise. Converts are disposed to blacken generally and indiscriminately their own former state, and with greater zeal the present practices of others. There are some things they are really ashamed to speak of, and there are others which they think they ought to consider wrong, because they are associated in their memory with what they know to be really bad. Many a native Christian will roundly condemn native songs and dances, who, when questions begin to clear his mind, acknowledges that some dances are quite innocent, explains that none that he knows have any religious significance whatever, says that many songs also have nothing whatever bad in them, and writes out one or two as examples. Natives who are still heathen will speak with reserve of what still retains with them a sacred character, and a considerate missionary will respect such reserve. If he should not respect it, the native may very likely fail in his respect for him, and amuse himself at his expense. Few missionaries have time to make systematic inquiries; if they do they are likely to make them too soon, and for the whole of their after career make whatever they observe fit into their early scheme of the native religion. Often missionaries, it is to be feared, so manage it that neither they nor the first generation of their converts really know what the old religion of the native people was. There is always with missionaries the difficulty of language; a man may speak a native language for years and have reason to believe he speaks it well, but it will argue ill for his real acquaintance with it if he does not find out that he makes mistakes. Resident traders, if observant, are free from some of a missionary's difficulties; but they have their own. The 'pidgin English,' which is sure to come in, carries its own deceits: 'plenty devil' serves to convey much information: a chiefs grave is 'devil's stones,' the dancing ground of a village is a 'devil ground,' the drums are idols, a dancing club is a 'devil stick.'" Dr. Codrington adds in a note: "It may be asserted with confidence that a belief in a devil, that is, of an evil spirit, has no place whatever in the native Melanesian mind. The word has certainly not been introduced in the Solomon or Banks Islands by missionaries, who in those groups have never used the word 'devil.' Yet, most unfortunately, it has come to pass that the religious beliefs of European traders have been conveyed to the natives in the word 'devil,' which they use without knowing what it means. It is much to be wished that educated Europeans would not use the word so loosely as they do."--"The most intelligent travellers and naval officers pass their short period of observation in this atmosphere of confusion. Besides, every one, missionary and visitor, carries with him some preconceived ideas. He expects to see idols, and he sees them. Images are labelled idols in museums, whose makers carve them for amusement. A Solomon Islander fashions the head of his lime-box stick into a grotesque figure, and it becomes the subject of a woodcut as 'a Solomon Island god.'

"It is extremely difficult for any one to begin inquiries without some prepossessions, which, even if he can communicate with the natives in their own language, affect his conception of the meaning of the answers he receives. The questions he puts guide the native to the answer he thinks he ought to give. The native, with very vague beliefs and notions floating in cloudy solution in his mind, finds in the questions of the European a thread on which these will precipitate themselves, and without any intention to deceive, avails himself of the opportunity to clear his own mind while he satisfies the questioner. . . . The Melanesian mind is entirely possessed by the belief in a supernatural power or influence, called, almost universally, 'Mana.' This is what works to effect everything which is beyond the ordinary power of men outside the common processes of nature; it is present in the atmosphere of life, attaches itself to persons and to things, and is manifested by results which can only be ascribed to its operation. When one has got it he can use it and direct it, but its force may break forth at some new point; the presence of it is ascertained by proof. A man comes by chance upon a stone which takes his fancy; its shape is singular, it is like something, it is certainly not a common stone, there must be 'Mana' in it. So he argues with himself, and he puts it to the proof; he lays it at the root of a tree to the fruit of which it has a certain resemblance, or he buries it in the ground when he plants his garden; an abundant crop on the tree or in the garden shows that he is right, the stone is 'Mana,' has that power in it. Having that power it is a vehicle to convey 'Mana' to other stones. ... In the same way certain forms of words, generally in the form of a song, have power for certain purposes; a charm of words is called a 'Mana.' But this power, though itself impersonal, is always connected with some person who directs it. . . . If a stone is found to have a supernatural power, it is because a spirit has associated itself with it; a dead man's bone has with it' Mana"... a man may have so close a connection with a spirit or ghost, that he has 'Mana' in himself also. . . . Thus all conspicuous success is a proof that a man has 'Mana,' as he becomes a chief by virtue of it. Hence a man's power is his 'Mana.' The Melanesians believe in the existence of beings personal, intelligent, full of 'Mana,' with a certain bodily form which is visible, but not fleshly like the bodies of men. . . . These may be called spirits; but it is most important to distinguish between spirits who are beings of an order higher than mankind, and the disembodied spirits of men. . . . From the neglect of this distinction, great confusion arises. Any personal object of worship among natives in all parts of the world is taken by the European observer to be a spirit, or a god, or a devil; but among many Melanesians, at any rate, it is very common to invoke departed relatives and friends, and to use religious rites addressed to them. A man, therefore, who is approaching with some rite his dead father, whose spirit he believes to be existing and pleased with his pious action, is thought to be worshipping a false god or a deceiving spirit, and very probably is told that the being he worships does not exist. The perplexed native hears with one ear that there is no such thing as that departed spirit of a man which he venerates as a ghost that his instructor takes to be a god, and with the other that the soul never dies, and that his own spiritual interests are paramount and eternal.

"They themselves make a clear distinction between the existing, conscious, powerful, disembodied spirits of the dead, and other spiritual beings that never have been spirits at all. . . . There does not appear to be anywhere in Melanesia a belief in a spirit which animates any natural object, a tree, waterfall, storm, or rock, so as to be to it what the soul is believed to be to the body of a man; . . . the native idea is that ghosts haunt the sea and the forest, having power to raise storms. ... It may be said that Melanesian religion divides the people into two groups,--one, where, with an accompanying belief in spirits never seen, worship is directed to the ghosts of the dead, as in the Solomon Islands; the other, where both ghosts and spirits have an important place, but the spirits have more worship than the ghosts, as in the case of the New Hebrides and in the Banks Islands."

It would appear to me from all I have read that the Melanesian mind has never risen to the conception of one Supreme Being--the notion does not seem to have seized upon their imagination. Dr. Codrington adds the following important note: "The Melanesian Mission, under the guidance of Bishop Patteson, has used in all islands the English word God. He considered the enormous difficulty, if not impossibility, of finding an adequate native impression in any one language, and, further, the very narrow limits within which such a word, if it could be found, must be used, since the languages are at least as many as the islands. It is difficult to convey by description the ideas which ought to attach to the new word, but at least nothing erroneous is connoted by it."

How wise was the action thus taken, the members of the Mission have constantly realized. There is no doubt that missionaries in China and in New Zealand are regretting bitterly that a contrary decision was arrived at there. All words such as "sheep," "lamb," which naturally have no counterpart in Melanesia, have been preserved in their English form.

I will, add here that no one can fail to be impressed by the wise and liberal sentiments of the author of The Melanesians. It will give increased confidence to the supporters of the Mission as well as attract other thoughtful men to give their assistance, when they realize the humility, and yet the keen insight of one who has done so much for the Mission as "Dr. Codrington."

In the Banks Islands a system of self-help has now been begun. If some missions have been criticized for exacting too much from new converts, we must blame the Melanesian Mission--if it is right to blame at all--for being too tender and careful. It has been almost entirely giving without receiving. But in aid of the self-denial movement for Missions in Australasia in 1894, Melanesians gave food and "curios" which realized more than one hundred and fifty pounds. In 1895 in the Banks Islands a system of monthly collections has been commenced, which promises well. In Santa Maria on one Sunday morning goods to the value of one pound twelve shillings were given. At Motalava on another Sunday one thousand seven hundred and ninety-five cocoanuts were presented, and were worth almost as much. These are specimens of the new spirit of self-help.

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