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Vanuatu is an archipelago in the South Pacific made up of 13 large islands and approximately 70 islets. It was thought to be first inhabited by Melanesians about 5000 B.C. The first European visitors were the Portuguese early in the seventeenth century. Captain Cook explored the islands in 1774, giving them the name New Hebrides. Administered jointly by Britain and France from 1887, the archipelago became independent in 1980 taking the name of Vanuatu. The people are known as ni-Vanuatu.
The population numbers less than 200,000 but is extremely diverse. 105 indigenous languages are spoken with the pidgin form known as Bislama being dominant.
Presbyterians make up the largest religious group but Catholicism, indigenous beliefs, and Seventh Day Adventist make up large percentages. The Church of Christ represents about 3.8 % of the population, the highest per capita of people associated with the Movement in any country of the world.
Late in the nineteenth century the New Hebrides and other islands supplied labourers, taken by colonial traders as indentured people, for the sugar and cotton plantations in Australia and Fiji. In Australia these laborers on the sugar plantations were collectively known as the Kanakas. John Thompson saw the need and opportunity to evangelize among these displaced persons and on January 1, 1893 opened a mission near Childers, Queensland under the auspices of the Australian Foreign Missionary Committee. Land was purchased, chapels and schools erected, and the converts were taught evangelism and stewardship for the Lord’s work. In the first ten years of the mission over 160 islanders were baptized. Many of these individuals returned to their homes and built chapels and schools on the same order as those they had seen in Australia and began to teach their countrymen.
Among those who returned to the New Hebrides to evangelize were John Wye on the island of Pentecost in about 1900, Willie Vuti at Nduindui on the island of Aoba (now Ambae) in about 1901, Wille Tabi Mancon at Ranwadi, central Pentecost in 1902 and Thomas Tumtum in Banmatmat, southern Pentecost, at about the same time. The initial starting date for Churches of Christ in Vanuatu is difficult to pinpoint, however, in 2001 the Churches of Christ of Vanuatu celebrated their centenary.
Willie Tabi Mancon, perhaps more than any other, is given much credit for the beginning work in Vanuatu. Praying for a missionary to come, Willie wrote to John Thompson and told him to send a missionary “plenty quick.” Thompson soon visited Vanuatu spending much of his time in Ranwadi, baptizing and preparing teachers among the ni-Vanuatu. John Thompson suffered a severe attach of malaria and was forced to return to Australia. It was more than four years before another missionary would come to give assistance to those already working in Vanuatu. By the time Frank Filmer arrived from Australia he had a great deal of follow-up to do, thanks to the native teachers. Within a few months more than 100 were baptized pushing the number within the church to over 300 with eight meetings for the breaking of bread and 800 attending classes. Later the Filmers, Frank and Rosa, moved to Banmatmat to set up a center for training and evangelism. Today Banmatmat is still a center for education for the Churches of Christ of Vanuatu as the home of Banmatmat Bible College, constructed in 1964. Recently the school has been damaged by earthquakes and has experienced staffing difficulties.
In other locations throughout Vanuatu the work gained strength as the ni-Vanuatu returned from the plantations of Australia. The church on Ambae led by Willie Vutigele, Toa Nawaka and Peter Pentecost were encouraged greatly by Presbyterian missionary Peter Milne who baptized their converts and supported their decision to identify themselves as Church of Christ. In 1907 Mr. and Mrs. Fred Purdy came from the Australian Churches as missionaries. By 1910 Purdy boasted 500 members in the churches and 1000 attending Bible classes in 50 schools. Other missionaries from Australia included Theodore and Henrietta Waters and Alf Chappell who worked in Maewo. Theodore learned the Nduindui language and translated several books of the Bible into that tongue for the natives. A steady stream of Australian and New Zealand missionary families have labored in Vanuatu since the pioneer efforts.
Among the dramatic changes that took place in the lives of the ni-Vanuatu upon the introduction of Christianity by their own people was a shift in some customs and tribal practices. For example, those who returned from Australia taught their fellow countrymen that tribal warfare and cannibalism were against the love of God. Land dives were questioned as compatible with the way of God. Also, the traditional pig-killing ceremony was abolished in some Christian villages. By 1933 the first ni-Vanuatu elders were appointed with the authority to perform baptisms, preside at communion, and conduct weddings. By 1939 there were about 40 churches with a membership of about 1,200, more than half of whom live on Ambae. This year marked a change in eras for the church in Vanuatu because of the outbreak of the Second World War. The islands of the South Pacific saw intense action and bloody fighting. American forces established bases on Vanuatu following victory in the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942. The influx of Americans and their supplies greatly altered the way of life on Vanuatu for the future.
Following the war new missions stations were opened and a new crop of missionaries from Australia established new work, including pastoral centers, medical work and schools. One very positive step for the ni-Vanuatu was they began to conduct the new evangelistic outreaches entirely on their own. They appointed their own missionaries and supported them financially. By 1968 they began to send missionaries to other countries, beginning with August and Maelene Ben and Bill and Janet Bule as workers to Papua New Guinea and in 1969 the local churches sent Amos Waki to New Caledonia. Among the ni-Vanuatu of this period, Abel Bani was considered the “head teacher,” an influential leader. Many new and modern buildings and facilities were built at home. Seeing the need to provide training for the next generation of leadership Japeth Garae and Samuel Bule were sent to be educated at Woolwich Bible College in NSW, Australia. Later this vision for trained leaders was translated into an indigenous Bible college at Banmatmat, which opened in 1965. The following year the Vanuatu National Conference of Churches of Christ was established and previously isolated churches became more aware of each other and began to work together, a general conference having first been held in 1958. By 1973 the Conference of Churches of Christ in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) was constituted. Australia and New Zealand became partner churches and still provide valuable assistance to the ni-Vanuatu. Eventually a Bislama hymnbook and New Testament were published and have helped to make the churches more indigenous rather than dependent upon Australian forms of worship.
Since the mid-1960s the Churches of Christ have been members of the Vanuatu Christian Council and have placed greater importance on ecumenical partnerships. In addition to the Bible College in Banmatmat there are two secondary schools, Ranwadi on Pentecost and Londua on Ambae. Until 1982 the Conference sponsored medical ministries as part of their outreach, such as a hospital in Nduindui, but these were handed over to the government due to the rising cost of providing medical services and government policy. In the 1980s the Conference restructured and appointed directors to oversee areas of Church Development, Mission and Evangelism and Youth and Christian Education. Conference offices are in Luganville on the island of Santo. Communication between churches and in remote areas is the major difficulty for the Conference. Radio plays an important role in the life of the ni-Vanuatu as there are few telephones in the country. Email has greatly increased communication opportunities. Major revivals broke out among the people in 1981 and 1988 and had great effect on the churches. Current population of Churches of Christ is estimated at 80 congregations and almost 7,000 members. Given the low population of Vanuatu and the high membership of Churches of Christ it is reasonable to assume that members of Churches of Christ would attain high government positions. The March 1998 elections saw seven of fifty seats in the Vanuatu parliament go to members of Churches of Christ. In addition two members held minister level positions within the government.
1997 saw the election of Aldean Liu as the seventeenth conference President and first woman to hold the office. In 2001 Conference President Judith Vusi presided over televised centenary celebrations on the island of Espiritu Santo with 1500 in attendance, including the President of the Republic. Today the churches are growing and much good work is being done in church planting in various parts of Vanuatu including Tanna where the John Frum Cargo Cult has its roots.
The a cappella Churches of Christ have a presence in Vanuatu initiated through Bible correspondence courses sent out by Robert Martin from Fiji. John W. Hall moved to the islands about 1979 and began a church through the contacts made from the correspondence courses. Several others have followed their lead. Tobey and Kathy Huff have worked in Port Vila for 38 years.
Clinton J. Holloway
National Profiles Editor
Revised by Gary Holloway, January 13, 2014
For further historical reference:
Jubilee Pictorial History of Churches of Christ in Australasia, edited by A.B. Maston, Melbourne, 1903
Partners, One Hundred Years of Missions Overseas by Churches of Christ in Australia 1891-1991, edited by Keith Bowes, 1990.
How the Gospel Came from Australia to the New Hebrides, article by Ronald Saunders appearing in May 19, 1945 Christian Standard partially reprinted from the Australian Christian.
Samuel Vusi, Principal of Banmatmat Bible College has written his BD dissertation on early history of Churches of Christ in Vanuatu. No other bibliographic information is currently available.
Vanuatu Conference of Churches of Christ
P.O. Box 86
Telephone/Fax: (678) 36633
Banmatmat Bible College
P.O. Box 13
South Pentecost, Vanuatu
Ranwadi High School
P.O. Box 11, Lonore
South Pentecost, Vanuatu
Londua Secondary and Vocational School
P.O. Box 86
West Ambae, Vanuatu
See the Vanuatu Conference on Churches of Christ for information on conventions.