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Seeds of Christianity: ‘Traditional gods of the past, destitute of any real power’

Saturday 1 July 2023 | Written by Supplied | Published in Church Talk, Features


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. This is his ninth article in the series.

Papehia landed with the Gospel at Rarotonga on 25 July 1823.

He was into his second full day on the island when Tinomana Enua-ruru-tini Ariki and his entourage travelled from Puaikura specifically to see him.

After a short period of discussion, the Ariki then invited Papehia to make a visit to Puaikura.

The “Native Teacher” replied that he would travel sometime in the near future.

With that assurance Tinomana Ariki and his entourage left and returned to their mountain retreat at Maungaroa.


Papehia was on Rarotonga almost a month before he was able to make that trip to Puaikura. After first sending word that he was coming, Papehia and his entourage arrived at Maungaroa where they were greeted by Tinomana Ariki and then treated to a small feast.

According to the Reverend John Williams :

“Papehia, after having explained the leading doctrines of the Gospel to this chieftain, very judiciously pointed         out to him the advantages which he would derive from the reception of Christianity; and showed, that by this         means, peace and good-will would so reign throughout the land, that he would no longer be compelled to          live in the mountains, but might take up his abode near the sea, and, with his people, enjoy his possessions as securely as the inhabitants of the various other districts.”    

SOURCE : “A Narrative of Missionary Enterprises in the South Sea Islands”, by John Williams.

John Snow and Co., London, England, 1837

That evening Papehia conducted a church service in which Tinomana Ariki, and many of his tribe, sat and observed this Christian gathering. The sermon that Papehia gave was directed specifically towards the observers of Puaikura for their “religious consumption”.

After the church service came to an end, Tinomana Ariki told Papehia that he was now inclined to destroy both his traditional idols and various Marae, and to then embrace the Christian faith.

However, Tinomana Ariki said that he was afraid to do this because those traditional idols might very well get angry. They may then strangle him during the night.

Papehia told him not to fear because those “traditional gods of the past were destitute of any real power.”

He said that no harm would come to Tinomana Ariki, or his people, because the Gods they had been worshipping were only pieces of wood. So they had no specific value.

The Ariki then asked Papehia to explain what a prayer actually was and to whom it was directed, and why? Papehia explained that situation as he understood it to be.

Next morning Papehia and his entourage left Maungaroa for the return journey back to the northern side of Rarotonga. Tinomana Ariki, and several of his tribe, walked with them for part of their journey. It was during this time that the Ariki told Papehia he was very happy to hear about the Gospel and Christianity.

The Ariki said he now had much to think about. But because this matter was of great importance to he and his tribe, then he was not going to come to any conclusions in great haste.

On that note the two men said “goodbye”. And they then parted ways.

Soon after his initial arrival on Rarotonga, Papehia had asked Makea Pori for a small piece of land upon which he could build a chapel. But the man had not granted that request.

But when Makea Pori heard that Papehia had gone to Puaikura, at the invitation of Tinomana Ariki, he took the view that Papehia might ask that Ariki for a piece of land to build a chapel over there. At which point Papehia would then abandon the northern side of Rarotonga and so go to live with Tinomana Ariki, and his tribe in Puaikura.

So as soon as Papehia had returned from Maungaroa, Makea Pori went to see him with the news he now wanted to give a portion of land upon which he could build a chapel.

With that land now available, Papehia and the small congregation of Christian converts, began almost immediately to build their chapel. This building was not of solid construction, but for Papehia it was important to at least get a chapel built to give a “physical presence” to the Gospel and Christianity on Rarotonga.

In early 1824 the mission ship returned to Rarotonga from Raiatea under the guidance of Reverend Platt from the London Missionary Society. Also on board the vessel was Tiberio (or Rio) who had been sent by Rev John Williams to work with Papehia on Rarotonga.

A short time after Tiberio’s arrival, Papehia decided to visit Takitumu. So he, along with Tiberio and Davida, the son of Makea Pori who travelled as their guide, went specifically to meet with Pa Ariki. This Ariki knew that Papehia and Tiberio were coming. So the visitors were met in a friendly manner and a welcome feast. Papehia and Pa Ariki then had a lengthy discussion about Christianity.

Given that it was late in the afternoon when they concluded their talks, Pa Ariki offered the visitors a bed for the night. Papehia accepted this invitation. But then a “sub-chief” (or Mataiapo) called Koro stepped forward and objected to this. He told Papehia and his colleagues, that if they did not leave Takitumu and return to the northern side of Rarotonga that evening, then something disastrous was going to happen to all of them.

Pa Ariki over-ruled Koro and told Papehia that he and his friends were welcome to stay as his guests. However, Papehia was not convinced that they should. So he and his entourage then left Takitumu and walked through most of the night to reach their homes on the northern side of the island early the next morning.

Later that day Koro turned up with his son and went directly to speak with Papehia. He apologised for what he had said the previous afternoon and said that it was never his intention to harm Papehia or those that had travelled with him. The reason Koro travelled to apologise was because of “superstition”.

 A short time after Papehia and his colleagues had left Takitumu the previous evening, Koro returned home to find his house had collapsed inwards and was now a pile of rubble. Koro also discovered that his wife had become very sick with a mysterious illness for no apparent reason.   

So Koro went to consult his Ta’unga as to why these two calamities had happened. He was told that his house had collapsed and his wife was sick as a direct result of him insulting Papehia and the visitors the previous afternoon.

Upon hearing that interpretation, Koro began to feel “spiritually uncomfortable” and became rather distressed. When the Ta’unga told him that he had better go “right-away” and apologise to Papehia for what he had said, Koro had no hesitation but to travel to the northern side of Rarotonga specifically for that purpose.

However, Papehia refused to accept Koro’s apology. But rather, he turned the situation around to his advantage and exercised a little bit of “religious blackmail”.

Papehia told Koro that he did not believe his apology was genuine. He said that if Koro was “truly” sincere with his apology, then he had to return to Takitumu and bring all his various traditional Gods to him for burning and destruction.

After that, Koro had to change his “religious allegiance” and accept the Christian faith. Papehia told Koro, that if he did not renounce idolatry and embrace the Gospel and the Christian faith, then his apology would not be accepted as genuine. 

Early next morning, Koru was back with his traditional idols. Papehia then burnt some of these artifacts in a public display. Once that had been completed, Koro then stated publicly that he wanted to be a Christian and so declared his change of “religious allegiance”.

This specific event was a significant turning point for Papehia. It started a population drift towards the Gospel and so came to be a major catalyst in regard to the early consolidation of Christianity on Rarotonga. The fact that Koro and his family were not “destroyed”, as a result of “destroying” their idols, sent a clear message to other parts of the community.

His action helped remove a fear that to destroy the traditional idols would bring about human destruction. So Koro’s actions helped break down a major barrier that many people had about changing their “religious allegiance”.

It did not take long for news of what had happened to Koro and the public destruction of his idols to reach Tinomana Enua-ruru-tini Ariki in Puaikura. The Ariki immediately dispatched a messenger to Papehia asking for him to return to the western side of Rarotonga as soon as possible.

A short time later, Papehia and Tiberio arrived at Maungaroa where they were met by Tinomana Ariki. He then advised the two visitors that he now wanted to embrace the Christian faith.

Papehia told the Ariki that he had to destroy his various Marae as a first step. And then secondly, he had to burn all his carved wooden gods.

To this Tinomana Ariki replied : “Come with me and see them destroyed.”

On reaching a particular Marae which contained a number of carved wooden gods, Papehia told Tinomana Ariki to set this temple to flames. So the Ariki told a couple of his men to do this. Which they did. A short time later, other idols were brought for destruction by fire as well.

Papehia and Tiberio then left Maungaroa and headed back to the northern side of Rarotonga. But before leaving, Papehia told Tinomana Ariki that given he had now abandoned his traditional Gods and embraced Christianity, he and his people were now expected to travel to the northern side of Rarotonga on Friday so as they will be there for the various church activities that take place on Friday afternoon, Saturday and Sunday.

Tinomana Ariki said . . . “I will be there.”

Tinomana Ariki of Puaikura was therefore the first Ariki on Rarotonga to abandon idolatry and embrace the Christian faith. Once he had done that, then most of his tribe followed his lead to embrace the Gospel as well.

Tinomana Ariki and a number of his tribe left Puaikura the following Friday and walked to the northern side of Rarotonga. The visitors then attended the various Christian activities on Friday afternoon, Saturday and Sunday. After morning prayers on Monday, Tinomana Ariki and his followers then left and returned to Maungaroa.

The second Ariki to embrace the Gospel on Rarotonga was Pa Ariki. He had heard sometime previous that Tinomana Ariki had burnt many of his Marae, destroyed his idols, and subsequently embraced the Gospel. Pa Ariki also heard that Tinomana Ariki was now travelling each week to the northern side of Rarotonga for the purpose of attending various church activities.

By now, almost a year after Papehia had first landed, Pa Ariki had heard and seen how the concept of Christianity was evolving on Rarotonga. He clearly saw that this European God was a peaceful God. He had also seen that the European God was far more generous to its believers and followers than what the traditional gods of the past had ever been.

In his own way Pa Ariki concluded it was time for him to change his “religious allegiance” and this involved having his various Marae and traditional Gods destroyed. He therefore sent a message for Papehia to return to Takitumu. As a result of this request, Papehia and Tiberio went and met with Pa Ariki.

 In the discussions that followed, Pa Ariki told Papehia that he was now ready to change his “religious allegiance” and embrace the Christian faith. Once Pa Ariki had done that, he took Papehia and Tiberio to see Kainuku Ariki at Avana. They then collectively asked this Ariki to also change his “religious allegiance” and embrace the Christian faith as well.

However, Kainuku Ariki found himself in a very difficult situation. On the one hand he was quite willing to change his “religious allegiance”.

He even instructed that several Marae, and its respective idols, should be destroyed. However, several of his Mataiapo and Ta’unga strongly objected to this and confronted Papehia to say “Your God is a mischievous God . . . go away.”

Both Pa and Kainuku Ariki had a very long history of mutual support and co-operation stretching back many generations. But on this occasion, many influential people in the tribe of Kainuku Ariki refused to allow him to follow Pa Ariki and change his “religious allegiance”.

Faced with such a high level of opposition within his own tribe, Kainuku Ariki had no option but to turn down the opportunity to embrace the Christian faith at this particular time. So Papehia did not press the matter any further with Kainuku Ariki.   

However, when Papehia later told Pa Ariki that, as a Christian, he was now expected to travel to the northern side of Rarotonga on Fridays for weekend church related activities, the Ariki was not overly enthusiastic.

Pa Ariki did not relish the thought of him leaving Takitumu to go and live for three days a week in a district that belonged to another Ariki. But then again, did Pa Ariki have any choice now that he had changed his “religious allegiance”?

If Pa Ariki wanted to embrace the Christian faith, then he was now expected to go and live in the district of Makea Tinirau Ariki…for at least three days – every week.

Pa Ariki now had no choice but to do this, if he was truly genuine in his desire to change his “religious allegiance”.

References   : “Maretu’s Narrative of Cook Islands History”, Translated by Marjorie Crocombe,

University of Papua New Guinea, December 1974.

: 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.

One of the better quality of houses being built on Rarotonga at this time.

Original source of this illustration is not known.

Te-Pou  : A Mataiapo at Avarua.

At the time Papehia and the Gospel landed at Rarotonga on 25 July 1823, Pe-Pou was a Mataiapo in the district of Avarua and its surrounding area. He was one of the early converts to the Christian faith.

Two or maybe three generations after Te-Pou, the five Ariki on Rarotonga concluded that the person carrying the “Vakatini Title” should be elevated to be of equal status to the other five Ariki.

And so Vakatini Ariki came to be recognised as being of equal standing on Rarotonga to Pa, Kainuku, Makea Nui, Karika and Tinomana Ariki. This island now had six Ariki in residence.

Source of Illustration : “From Darkness to Light in Polynesia”, by Rev. William Wyatt Gill, LL.D.

First Published by William Clowes and Sons, London, England, 1894.