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‘You’ve been worshipping nothing but pieces of wood’

Saturday 17 June 2023 | Written by Supplied | Published in Art, Church Talk, Features


‘You’ve been worshipping nothing but pieces of wood’
The Divided Church (London Missionary Society Church) on Mauke. In most places, religion is divided on theological grounds, but in Mauke it is divided architecturally. It was decided that a single place of worship would be sufficient to serve the spiritual needs of both the villages; Ngatiarua and Areora. The building materials and labour needed to erect the church was shared between the two villages, but here's where it gets interesting... The interior has two different designs to reflect the villages. And when attending a church service, you'll notice that the locals split the room and tend to sit on the side which represents their village. COOK ISLANDS TOURISM/23061615

Historian and author Howard Henry has been fascinated by the birth of Christianity in the Cook Islands for many years. In a weekly series, Henry chronicles the arrival of Christianity to the Cook Islands and its role in building the nation. In this article he talks about how the Gospel arrived at Mitiaro and Mauke.

When Reverend John Williams and the Mission Ship brought the Gospel to Mitiaro on 21 July 1823, the small number of people living on this island were basically “Spiritually Empty”.

They had suffered great hardship in recent years as a result of hurricane damage, famines as well as a number of invasions by the warriors from Atiu. As a result of the Atiu invasions, many lives had been lost. A lot of “Mitiaro Blood” had been shed.

Throughout these years of hardships, the people of Mitiaro had sought the assistance and protection of their traditional gods. But those gods proved to be totally useless. They provided no support or assistance with regard to the extreme hardships the people of Mitiaro had to endure.

Mitiaro is deeply Christian and the singing in Betela, the CICC church, on a Sunday is an unforgettable experience. COOK ISLANDS TOURISM/23061613

And so when Rev Williams and the Mission Ship reached this island, all confidence and “Spiritual Connection” the people of this island had previously held towards their traditional gods had basically been eroded.

They were, in many respects …“Spiritually Empty”.

When those in the approaching canoes saw that Rongomatane Ariki was on board the Mission Ship, their hearts sank in total disbelief. Was there going to be another “Atiu warrior invasion”? More destruction? More killing and more “Mitiaro Blood” being shed?

However, Rongomatane Ariki quickly made it known to those Mitiaro people in their canoes, that he had not come to invade or fight. He told all those who would listen, that he had come in peace.

Read more:

> Letter: Living under God’s blessing

> ‘Let us worship but one (true) God’

> Death of Ariki’s daughter, an attempt to introduce Christianity to Mangaia

> ‘The Spirit of God is forever present … everywhere – all the time’

> Seeds of Christianity: The Gospel Pioneer to Aitutaki

> ‘They called this island Wytootakee’

> Christianity created a Nation: The arrival of the Gospel

> Spreading the Gospel of history        

Rongomatane Ariki then asked those in the canoes to return to the shore and to ask for an Ariki of Mitiaro to come out to the Mission Ship because there were people on board who wanted to talk to him. The Ariki made it clear there would be no confrontation because he and all the visitors had come with friendly intent.

A short time later, an Ariki of the island boarded the Mission Ship. The sight of Rongomatane Ariki caused him great concern with his first thinking being that “everything was a trick” to get him on board.

But Rev Williams quickly discounted that.

He told the Ariki of Mitiaro the purpose of their visit. And that was to ask the people of this island to abandon the worshipping of their traditional gods and to embrace the “True God” and that of the Christian faith.

The Missionary said they had on board a teacher called Taua who, along with his wife, were willing to go ashore to teach the people of Mitiaro about Christianity and all about the “True God” . . .  Jehovah.

The Ariki of Mitiaro, and those who had boarded the Mission Ship, listened with astonishment to all what Rev Williams had to say. When he had finished, the Ariki of Mitiaro inquired if their traditional gods would not all be enraged and therefore strangle them all for abandoning them.

“No,” replied Rev Williams. “Those gods are all made out of wood. And you have all been worshipping nothing but pieces of wood.”

Rev Williams told the Ariki of Mitiaro they should burn and destroy all their Marae and wooden gods so they, and their evil spirits, would be consumed by fire. He said that Taua and his wife would teach them all about Jehovah and for the people of Mitiaro to treat them with kindness and pay attention to their teachings.

As it happened, the Ariki and people of Mitiaro now on board the Mission Ship then stated that they were willing to abandon their traditional gods and embrace Christianity. The Ariki said that Taua and his wife were more than welcome to come with them to begin their teaching work among all the people who lived on Mitiaro.

The arrival of the Gospel was therefore indeed very timely.

The people of Mitiaro embraced the principles of Christianity, because any god or gods had to be better than those they had prayed to in the past. Those traditional gods had proved to be totally “worthless”.  

So the “New Hope” was that the “God of Christianity” would bring a little bit of “Loving Care”, which was indeed something that was now desperately needed by all those people living on Mitiaro.

It was Rongomatane Ariki who took Rev Williams and the Gospel to Mitiaro. Had it not been for this Ariki, then Christianity would not have arrived at this island as early as it did.

One could therefore conclude that Rev Williams may have been the “transport facilitator”.

But in this case, it was Rongomatane Ariki who was in fact the “Gospel Pioneer”.

In essence, Christianity came to Mitiaro . . . on 21 July 1823 – as simple as that.

The original name for Mauke was Akatokamanava: “A Heart in Peace – A Heart in Love.”

Their foundation ancestor was Uke Ariki. He was an explorer and a Polynesian Navigator who landed around 1150 AD. For many years this island was known as the “Land of Uke”.

Mauke’s Tararo Ngamata Ariki, the descendant of Tararo Ariki who accepted the Gospel on the island, during his investiture at the CICC Ziona Tapu church in 2021. Picture: MARIA TUORO/21090322.

The greatest natural wonder on Mauke is its limestone caves.

As much of the island is Makatea, or an upraised coral reef and of limestone formation, Mauke has many underground caves with the most famous being “The Cave with a Hundred Rooms”. No one really knows how extensive this particular cave actually is because it has never been fully explored.

The last invasion of Mauke by the warriors of Atiu happened about 1819 or 1820.

After the warriors of Atiu landed on Mauke, they sought to kill every man, woman and child they came across. As a result of this invasion, the people of Mauke fled to the various limestone caves. These being the only places people could go to get away from the fighting and conflict with the invaders from Atiu.

The majority of people went down into “The Cave with a Hundred Rooms” as the only way to escape the inevitable slaughter.

Ngavaine Makitai in the makatea of Mauke to collect maire. MELINA ETCHES / 20111216.

The entrance to this cave, just like so many others on the island, was actually quite small and only big enough to admit one person at a time. While it was a rather slow process to enter this sanctuary, it meant the invaders had a very difficult task to get in and fight those who were seeking shelter below. 

The warriors of Atiu tried his best to flush the people of Mauke out of this limestone cave by lighting fires at the cave entrance. However, those inside refused to come out and in the days that followed, the warriors of Atiu maintained a constant guard over the entrance as the people of Mauke remained completely trapped underground.

While they had water to drink, in view of the various streams that existed underground, the people soon ran out of food and so hunger and starvation then set in with devastating consequences.

Throughout this entire period, the people of Mauke prayed and called upon their traditional gods to help them in their situation. They called for divine intervention to drive the warriors from Atiu away and strike a blow against them for what they were doing to the people of their island.

However, there was no relief. The traditional gods of Mauke had gone completely “deaf” to the cries and pleas for help and assistance from the people who were seeking shelter in places such as “The Cave with a Hundred Rooms”.

After the siege had been going for some time, the warriors from Atiu began to run out of food as they had eaten everything they could find on the island. Once they came to the conclusion there was no more food left on Mauke for them, or the starving people still hidden underground, the warriors from Atiu left Mauke and returned to their home island.

Once they had gone, those people who had been hiding underground, which were but a few in number and suffering from severe starvation, came out of hiding only to find that Mauke had been completely stripped of all food. Everything that was eatable had gone and the island had basically been stripped completely bare.

As a result of this, the hardship and suffering of people on Mauke continued above ground as they fought for survival and struggled to exist for several months until the food chain of the island had been restored.

Despite the hostility and aggression from the warriors of Atiu, the “Children of Uke” survived.

In spite of the most severe hardship with respect to hunger and starvation, the basic ethnic entity of Mauke did not die. Its spirit was not broken and the people of this island were not destroyed. No one knows exactly how many survived this ordeal. But it was apparently less than 50 surviving souls.

From Mitiaro, Rongomatane Ariki directed the skipper of the Mission Ship to Mauke which was located about 32 miles away. They therefore arrived at this island on 23 July 1823.

Being the “Overlord” of Mauke, Rongomatane Ariki was in no fear about stepping ashore and so arrangements were made for the ship’s boat to take he and Papehia to subsequently land on Mauke.

As the boat carrying the passengers approached the shore, Tararo Ariki and a significant number of people had gathered in that vicinity to welcome the visitors to the island. As soon as they saw that Rongomatane Ariki was on board the incoming boat, their hearts dropped and fear overtook them all in the belief that the warriors from Atiu had come to invade them once again.

This could only mean more fighting, more killing and more loss of “Mauke Blood”.

However, Rongomatane Ariki was the first person to leap from the boat on to the beach where he quickly proclaimed that he had come in peace. Not to fight or plunder. The Ariki said: “I have come to advise you all to receive the word of Jehovah, the true God and to leave with you a teacher and his wife who will instruct you.”

Papehia then said to those who would listen, that they should destroy all their Marae, burn all the old wooden gods and so destroy all the evil spirits with fire. He went on to say: “They (the old gods) are wood which had been carved and decorated and called gods … The true God is Jehovah and the true sacrifice is his son Jesus Christ.”

Later that day Rongomatane Ariki and Papehia took Tararo Ariki, and several others of Mauke, out to the Mission Ship. There they met and conversed with Rev Williams and others on board. They also attended a late afternoon church service.

Once again Rev Williams gave a sermon that was directed specifically towards the people of Mauke. And once again the singing of hymns left the people of this island with a most profound memory of amazement. They had simply never heard a group of human voices singing with so much vigour, power, passion and emotion.

And everyone involved was all so happy.

When these events came to an end, the visitors from Mauke left the ship and returned ashore. In doing so, they took Haavi and his wife with them to be first Christian Teacher on this island. This date being 23 July 1823.

The conversion to Christianity by the people of Mauke was almost immediate. There was no resistance and there was no hostility with regard to the “New Message” that Haavi had brought for the people of this island.

Their conversion to become Christians was simply a straight forward affair.

The reason for this was because the people of Mauke, like the people of Mitiaro, were basically “Spiritually Empty”. They had been subjected to the same sort of famine and invasions by the warriors from Atiu. These conflicts had caused many deaths and created a great deal of misery over a prolonged period of time which resulted in destitution and hardship for those lucky enough to survive.

Throughout those ordeals, the people of Mauke had continuously called for divine intervention and spiritual help from their traditional gods but all to no avail.

The people of Mauke took the view that things simply could not get any worse. So when Rev Williams and Rongomatane Ariki turned up at their island with the Gospel and a “New God”, they had no hesitation in embracing it by way of changing their “Religious Allegiance”.

Rev Williams later wrote in his Journal that Tararo Ariki of Mauke had agreed to abandon his traditional gods because: “The idols he had worshipped in the past had eyes of wood that could not see; and ears of wood that could not hear.”

Once the Mission Ship had returned to Atiu, Rongomatane Ariki gave Rev Williams his assurance that two new “Native Teachers” and their wives could return with him to the island. True to his word, the two “Native Teachers” and their wives were not harmed and as time went by, the conversion to Christianity for the people of Atiu was basically straightforward and without major incident.

Prior to leaving this island, Rev Williams and Rongomatane Ariki had spoken together several times about Rarotonga. The Missionary stated that he was very keen to take the Gospel and some “Native Teachers” to that island.

But he had also explained that he and the skipper of the Mission Ship had spent several days previous trying to locate the island without any success.

“The reason you could not find Rarotonga,” said Rongomatane Ariki, “was because you were looking at the wrong place.”

“Do you know the right direction to take from Atiu to reach Rarotonga?” asked Rev John Williams.

“Yes,” replied Rongomatane Ariki. “When it comes time for you all to leave, I will point out to you the direction you will need to take.”


John Williams: “A Narrative of Missionary Enterprises in the South Sea Islands”, Published by John Snow and Co., London, England, 1837.

Papehia Manuscript: “An Account of the coming of the word of God to Rarotonga”, Polynesian Society, Wellington, NZ, 1930.

Howard Henry: “Christianity created a Nation”, Sovereign Pacific Publishing Company, Rarotonga, Cook Islands, 2021.