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

Saturday 27 May 2023 | Written by Supplied | Published in Church Talk, Features


‘The Spirit of God is forever present … everywhere – all the time’
A youthful Papehia portrayed around the time he and Vahapata landed on Aitutaki. Papehia played a very significant role when it came to the introduction of Christianity to Aitutaki. But his greatest influence was the part he played to get Christianity firmly established on Rarotonga.

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 fourth article in the series.

Reverend John Williams, and the Mission Ship from the London Missionary Society of Raiatea, reached Aitutaki on 26 October 1821. The Missionary then held discussions with Tamatoa Uma-tetiki Ariki who was the resident Ariki for the District of Arutanga.

Tamatoa told Rev Williams that he was very happy for the two “Native Teachers” to land. The Missionary then asked Tamatoa to give his “personal pledge” that no harm would come to the two “Native Teachers” once they stepped ashore on Aitutaki.

Tamatoa Uma-tetiki Ariki gave John Williams his word that the two men would be protected and safe. And so on that basis, Tamatoa Uma-tetiki Ariki then took Papehia and Vahapata ashore to become the first “Native Teachers” to the island of Aitutaki.

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This happened on 26 October 1821.

As soon as Papehia and Vahapata stepped ashore, Tamatoa Uma-tetiki Ariki took the two of them to his Marae at Vai Kuriri. There the Ariki introduced the two visitors to his traditional gods and formally presented the two “Native Teachers” from Raiatea to the idols that he worshipped.

While this act of being presented to “idols of heathenism” was subjected to ridicule by the missionaries during this time, Papehia and Vahapata understood that the Ariki was actually treating them, according to his custom and tradition, as honoured guests. He was treating the two men with great dignity and respect.

In the days that followed, both Papehia and Vahapata confined their activities to within the Arutanga District and so within the area of jurisdiction which belonged to Tamatoa Ariki. They met and spoke to as many people as they could about the Lord, Jesus Christ and the basic fundamentals of the Christian faith. 

Throughout these early days on Aitutaki, there was no open hostility towards the two men from Raiatea because Tamatoa Uma-tetiki Ariki had given firm instructions to his tribe that these men were his guests. They had been formally presented to their traditional gods and so they were not to be harmed or treated with disrespect. That was his instruction. That was the “law”.

Soon after landing on Aitutaki, Papehia met Tepaeru-Ariki and Mata Kavaau.

The two women were still living under the protection of Tamatoa Uma-tetiki Ariki. Papehia also met Tairi and Teiro from Takitumu as well. They all told the two “Native Teachers” about Rarotonga and the different circumstances which had brought them to Aitutaki.

While Papehia knew that Rarotonga existed, as told to him by his elders on Raiatea, he was also aware that the location of this island was unknown to Rev Williams and the London Missionary Society.

They had all heard about Rarotonga.

But no one actually knew where it was.

Tepaeru-Ariki told Papehia who she was and how the “Cumberland” had brought Europeans to Rarotonga in search of sandalwood. She told how the vessel remained there for some considerable time before she and Mata Kavaau had been abducted and subsequently deposited on Aitutaki.

She said that it was her desire to return to her home island and to be re-united with her family. She and the others from Rarotonga said they knew which direction to sail in order to reach the island and so they knew of its apparent location.

Papehia said he would write to Rev Williams telling him all of this, and that he would send his letter to Raiatea on the next Mission Ship that called at Aitutaki. He told Tepaeru-Ariki that he was convinced Rev Williams would return at some stage and so she and the others could then go with him back to Rarotonga.

As it was, Tepaeru-Ariki had since taken a husband on Aitutaki and given him several children. Both she and her husband were therefore part of the first people on the island to be converted to Christianity and as a result, they became close companions to both Papehia and Vahapata.

From the day they first arrived on Aitutaki, Papehia and Vahapata wanted to travel to other parts of the island to start spreading the “Word of God”. However, it was not until Tamatoa Uma-tetiki Ariki gave his consent that it was safe for them to do so, did they venture on a walking tour while being accompanied by several protectors from Arutanga.

They went to each village in turn around the island and spoke to anyone who would listen. Wherever they went, they drew a crowd, as people gathered, not so much to hear any particular message, but rather, to see for themselves the new arrivals who had recently landed on their shores.

Their attendance was more out of curiosity than anything else.

When speaking to any person or persons who would listen, Papehia would say that God (Jehovah) was of the Spirit kind. God was not a manifestation of a human being. It was God who made “everything” that existed on earth. And God was a spirit who would never fade. That spirit would never die.

Papehia would say that “The Spirit of God is forever present . . . everywhere – all the time”.

Papehia would talk about the life and times of Jesus Christ and the angels in heaven. He would talk about the everlasting and the “power” of prayer. He would talk about the Ten Commandments, the Apostles and some of the various stories that are included in various parts of both the Old and New Testaments.

Papehia would talk about God as a “Loving God” and how all those who believed in him were “loving people” whose spirit would go to heaven when they die to rest in the place of the “Everlasting”.

Papehia would say that for all those people who chose to embrace Christianity, there is no war, there is no fighting and there is no killing.

Everyone will live in peace with each other and help each other where they can during their day to day lives.

As Papehia and Vahapata continued to move throughout the community of Aitutaki, they often spoke of God being the “Heavenly Father”. They would give an account as to how he had created the world and how everything in existence came to be as a result of “God’s Work”.

The two men would talk about Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. They would talk about the birth of Jesus Christ as the son of God, and how he was sacrificed on the cross for the sins of mankind. The two “Native Teachers” would talk about his resurrection and the legacy Jesus Christ left to all those who were “True Believers”.

To many people of Aitutaki these were all very interesting stories.

But few were convinced enough to change their “religious allegiance” from that of the “Spirituality of Avaiki” to that of the Gospel and the Christian faith.

Even Tamatoa Uma-tetiki Ariki and many of his tribe were apprehensive. But never-the-less, both Papehia and Vahapata told them some very interesting stories of the kind they had never heard before.

So the two men were indeed worth listening to … but mainly for entertainment value only.

Soon after Papehia and Vahapata landed on Aitutaki, they made it known to all those who would listen, that if people abolished idolatry and changed their “religious allegiance” to embrace Christianity, then sooner or later another Mission Ship would arrive at Aitutaki.

This vessel would bring a wide variety of gifts and presents like the people had never known or seen before.

The “Native Teachers” said that these “presents” would then be distributed to all those people who had converted and embraced the Christian faith.

However, many people of Aitutaki were not convinced. The idea of a ship bringing them “presents” from a “European God” for those who had embraced Christianity was simply beyond their comprehension. So they did not believe it.

In April 1822, a Mission Ship under the control of Faaori arrived at Atiu. On board were two “Native Teachers” whom Faaori had been told to place on the island if possible. This island was known to the missionaries and shown on their Navigation Charts as located by Captain James Cook on 2 April 1777 during his Third Voyage to the Pacific.

In due course Faaori made contact with one of the Ariki of Atiu. In the discussions that followed, this Ariki allowed the two “Native Teachers” to land and told Faaori that no harm would come to them. With that assurance, the two “Native Teachers” then went ashore to Atiu and so took the Gospel to that island in April 1822.

From Atiu, Faaori and the Mission Ship headed for Aitutaki.

The vessel had only been gone from Atiu a short time when the two “Native Teachers” were confronted by a group of men who stole their few possessions and banished them to a deserted part of the island. They were given firm instructions to stay there and not to return to any of the villages.

The “Native Teachers” were not harmed and their lives were not threatened, but only if they lived where they had been told to stay. The two men were stripped of their pride and dignity, and left destitute to fend for themselves on a barren and isolated part of Atiu.

And so that is the story of the first attempt to place the Gospel on Atiu.

Trouble was … the people of that island did not appreciate it at the time.

Faaori arrived at Aitutaki in April 1822 about six months after Papehia and Vahapata had landed.

He gave Papehia and Vahapata some mail, books and of course he brought the “presents”. Both men had gone out to meet Faaori on board the Mission Ship and later took him ashore. In due course Tamatoa Uma-tetiki Ariki took Faaori to his “Marae” at Vai Kuriri where he became the third visitor from the London Missionary Society to be introduced to the traditional gods of Aitutaki.

A short time later the “presents” were then brought ashore.

These included axes, pigs, cats, goats and various implements that the people of the island had never seen before. These items were then distributed by Papehia and Vahapata to those who had openly denounced idolatry and declared a change of “religious allegiance” to that of the Christian faith.

This act of giving out “presents” had a profound impact with many people of Aitutaki.

This being that the European God was far more generous to its “earthly subjects” than the traditional gods had ever been. This God was prosperous, more wealthy and the arrival of the “presents”, brought by Faaori, clearly confirmed this to be the case.

In the discussions that followed, Tamatoa Uma-tetiki Ariki and several others requested Faaori to ask Rev John Williams to make another visit to their island. They told him that if the Missionary returned, then it was their view that “everyone” on Aitutaki would burn their idols, destroy their various “Marae” and so receive the “Word of the Christian God”.

Faaori said that he was sure Rev John Williams would return. But he was not sure when. In the meantime, Faaori told the Ariki that he and those of his tribe, should follow Papehia and Vahapata and learn all they can about God, Jesus Christ and all the “good blessings” for those who have converted to the Christian faith.

Faaori said that if the people of Aitutaki did this, then they would all prosper in a way none of them had ever thought possible.

Prior to his departure, Faaori met Tepaeru-Ariki and she told him “her story”.

She said that she and the others from Rarotonga had embraced the Gospel and wanted to return to their home island and to take the Christian faith there with them. Tepaeru-Ariki told Faaori that they wanted to take some teachers with them to instruct the people of Rarotonga about the “Lord” so that they would abandon idolatry as well.

Faaori told Tepaeru-Ariki that he would advise Rev John Williams of this situation. He then left Aitutaki and returned to Raiatea taking with him a letter for the Missionary from Papehia confirming the story of Tepaeru-Ariki and her fellow islanders from Rarotonga.

Papehia wrote that Tepaeru-Ariki knew which direction to take from Aitutaki to reach Rarotonga.

She knew at what place this island could be located.

When Rev John Williams received this news, he decided most keenly to schedule a voyage of the Mission Ship to take him to Aitutaki … and then on to Rarotonga – as soon as that could be arranged.


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.