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‘Let us worship but one (true) God’

Saturday 10 June 2023 | Written by Supplied | Published in Opinion, Virtues in Paradise


‘Let us worship but one (true) God’
The Rongomatane Ariki of Atiu, Nicholas Paenui Te-iti Nicholls with Kura Michael (left) and Mina Paratainga. Picture: MARIA TUORO/21071901

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 Atiu on 19 July 1823.

As Reverend John Williams and the Mission Ship made their way to Atiu in mid-July 1823, the Missionary was mindful of what Faaori had done in April the previous year when he called at this island.

On that occasion Faaori had left two “Native Teachers” on Atiu, after an Ariki had given him an assurance that no harm would come to them. So Rev Williams wondered if these two men had succeeded with their missionary endeavours on Atiu to the same extent that Papehia and Vahapata had achieved on Aitutaki.

As the Mission Ship approached Atiu, those on board saw a large canoe come off the shore and start heading in their direction.

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In the centre of this canoe was an elevated stage upon which sat a man who was obviously a principal chief on the island. This person turned out to be tall, slender and very commanding with long, black, straight hair that hung down over his shoulders. This “vaka” had no sails. But it had many paddlers on board.

As soon as the canoe came next to the Mission Ship, this chiefly person quickly climbed up and stepped on board. Tamatoa-Uma-tetiki Ariki of Aitutaki was the first to greet him. He told the visitor who he was and where he came from. Tamatoa told of the various destroyed Marae on Aitutaki and how many of the old wooden idols had either been burnt or were now stored below for transportation to Raiatea.

The new arrival then introduced himself as Rongomatane Ariki after which Tamatoa explained the purpose of their visit. He said they had come to Atiu to bring to the people of this island the true God in the belief this would be accepted and so the old gods of the past would be burnt or discarded and therefore done away with.

Rongomatane Ariki was told that two teachers from Raiatea had first landed on Aitutaki to introduce the Gospel and Christianity to the people of that island. He said there were two teachers on board who are willing to go ashore and teach the people of Atiu all about the Gospel, Jesus Christ and Christianity.

Rev Williams now continues with what Tamatoa said to Rongomatane Ariki in regard to Aitutaki … “He (Tamatoa) added, that a large white house made of ‘toka tumu’, burnt or roasted stone, had been erected and dedicated to the worship of Jehovah, who was the only true God.”

“All our offerings to our false gods,” continued this now Christian chief, his countenance gleaming with animation as he spoke, “cannot procure us pardon: but God has given his son Jesus Christ to die for us, and through Him mercy is bestowed. We have come,” said he, “to advise you to receive the good word. Our old gods are now all abandoned, many of them destroyed; let us worship but one God. But let it be the true God.” (Source: “A Narrative of Missionary Enterprises in the South Sea Islands”, by John Williams. John Snow and Co., London, England, 1837)

However, Rev Williams soon became somewhat disappointed.

He discovered that his two “Native Teachers” left at Atiu by Faaori the previous year had been stripped of their possessions and were living a destitute existence on an isolated part of the island. Not only were the two men extremely hungry, but they were also very down-hearted.

As a result of this, Rev Williams concluded that they had to leave the island. So he decided to take them back to Raiatea for retraining and then placement at some other location.

Rongomatane Ariki remained on board the “Discovery” that night and neither he nor any of the visitors apparently got any sleep. They spent the whole night discussing matters relating to Christianity, the Gospel, Jesus Christ and the Spirit of the Lord.

It appears the most significant aspect of this gathering was not only what Rev Williams had to say, but also what Tamatoa Uma-tetiki Ariki, Tepaeru-Ariki and the others had to say as well.  

They told Rongomatane Ariki all the good things the Gospel had done for the people of Aitutaki and how they were benefiting so much because they were now Christians. They went on to explain some of the many positive things the people of Aitutaki were receiving as a result of changing their “Religious Allegiance” to embrace the Christian faith.

Rongomatane Ariki was told that by embracing the Gospel, his people would also be embracing a whole new way of life. He was told that once his people had accepted Christianity, there would be no more wars, no more fighting and certainly no more killing.

The Ariki of Atiu was told that this was because God was a “Loving God” and that Christians did not fight or cause harm to each other. The Ariki was told that everyone would live in peace and harmony because that was the Christian way as to how people lived their lives.

Rongomatane Ariki was also told that while Jesus Christ was the son of God, and had been a man in the living form, his father, being God, was a spirit. And that “Spirit of God” was everywhere in this world, at all times. His spirit would never fade. His spirit would never die.

It has been well documented that Rongomatane Ariki was a very intelligent man.

His traditional gods had been very good to him over recent years including the guiding of he and his warriors to the conquest over the people of nearby Mitiaro (or Miti’aro) and Mauke (or Ma’uke). 

But it had quickly become obvious to Rongomatane Ariki, that the European God was far more powerful, generous and “rich-with-giving” to its believers than his traditional gods had ever been.

The next day Rev Williams invited Rongomatane Ariki to attend their morning church service on board the Mission Ship as an observer. The Ariki accepted this invitation and so the Missionary went out of his way to deliver a sermon that was designed specifically for the ears of Rongomatane Ariki and his “spiritual consumption”.

In addition to the sermon of Rev Williams and prayers from Rev Robert Bourne, there was also the singing of hymns by all those on board the Mission Ship. The power, passion and emotion displayed by those singing these hymns was of the kind that Rongomatane Ariki had never heard before.

In addition to that, everyone appeared so happy, so joyful and obviously really enjoying this occasion. The Ariki of Atiu clearly saw the emotion and heartfelt commitment by those who sang these hymns that it is impossible not to think that the “Spirit of the Christian Faith” did not reach through to touch the heart of Rongomatane Ariki.

Then there was the “Lord’s Prayer” . . . that too had a significant effect on the Ariki.

As a result of that church service, Rongomatane Ariki made up his mind that he wanted to change his “Religious Allegiance” to that of the Christian faith. He told the Missionary that he wanted to abandon his traditional gods and was willing to embrace Christianity.

Like Tamatoa Uma-tetiki Ariki and the others of Aitutaki, this Ariki had heard stories of the European God and had been told by his elders of James Cook and his visit to Atiu with two ships a few years before this Ariki was born.

So he was very much aware of the wealth that Europeans had at their disposal and he saw on board the Mission Ship how generous the European God was towards his “earthly subjects”.

For Rongomatane Ariki to change his “Religious Allegiance” it was not a difficult decision.

While his “heart” was yet to be totally convinced, his “head” clearly told him that the European God had so much more to offer he and his people of Atiu in terms of material wealth. And so this Ariki decided it would be extremely beneficial for he and his people to embrace the Christian faith.

Rongomatane Ariki then told Rev Williams that his two “Native Teachers” would be welcome to stay and live on Atiu. But this time the Ariki gave his personal assurance that they would not suffer the same fate as those who Faaori had left the previous year.

So on this basis, the Gospel arrived at Atiu on 19 July 1823.

It was during that morning discussion after Church that Rongomatane Ariki asked Rev Williams if he had been to the nearby islands of Mitiaro and Mauke. He asked if the Gospel had been taken ashore to either of those two islands.  

The Missionary had no knowledge of Mitiaro or Mauke because they had not been charted on any of the navigation maps he had in his possession.

The existence of two more islands with a resident population in close proximity to Atiu, was exciting news for Rev Williams. Rongomatane Ariki told the Missionary that both Mitiaro and Mauke were under his control because he was their “Overlord”. He said that if the Missionary wanted to take the Gospel to those two islands, then he was only too pleased to accompany him there for that purpose.

Now this was one offer the Missionary simply could not refuse.

Rev Williams then asked Rongomatane Ariki if there were any other islands, besides Mitiaro and Mauke, in the near vicinity that had a resident population.

Rongomatane Ariki replied: “No, if there was – then I would know about them.”

Later that same day the Mission Ship left Atiu with Rongomatane Ariki on board. Following his sailing directions, a small low-lying island came up from below the horizon the following morning, which the Ariki identified to be Mitiaro. This island being 27 miles east-north-east of Atiu.

In pre-European times, and in particular the period prior to the arrival of the Gospel to the various islands of the Southern Group of the Cook Islands, the warriors of Atiu were feared by many islands within their vicinity.

The principal weapon of war, as far as the warriors from Atiu were concerned, was not the spear or the club as often thought to be the case. But rather their weapon of war was the sling-shot and young men, at a very early age, were taught how to use this weapon with deadly accuracy.

A few years before the arrival of Rev Williams, the warriors of Atiu invaded Mitiaro.

Once it was known on Mitiaro that the warriors of Atiu were approaching and about to invade their island, the locals then prepared themselves best they could for the onslaught that was about to happen. However, that defence proved to be totally ineffective as the warriors from Atiu invaded Mitiaro and soon took possession of this island by way of conquest.

A lot of blood was spilt during this Atiu invasion. And most of that was “Mitiaro blood”.

Only a small number of people were able to survive this onslaught.

As a result of this invasion, the Ariki from Atiu then became the “Overlord” of Mitiaro, and so this island then came completely under his control and jurisdiction.

In the years leading up to 1823, the people of Mitiaro had gone through extremely difficult times and a large number of people had died for one reason or another. The total population is thought to have been less than 100 people at this time.

Not only had there been famine and a critical shortage of food, but on several occasions the warriors from Atiu had invaded Mitiaro with brutal and devastating consequences. Many people had lost their lives.

Throughout these years of conflict and harsh realities, the people of Mitiaro consistently prayed to their traditional gods and sought divine intervention to help them through firstly the famine and then secondly to protect them from the invaders from Atiu.

They had placed their full trust and loyalty in their traditional gods.

But in the end the traditional gods of Mitiaro did not offer them very much help or assistance at all.

Because these traditional gods had failed to support and sustain the people of Mitiaro during the periods of their most passionate pleas, the people of this island had since lost all confidence in those traditional gods. They had lost faith in the religion of the past.

In many respects the people of Mitiaro were virtually … “spiritually empty”.

When Rev Williams and the Mission Ship arrived at Mitiaro on 21 July 1823, no attempt was made for any of those on board to go ashore. Various canoes carrying several people came out to greet the visitors in what was, apparently, the first European vessel to visit the island.

When those in the canoes saw Rongomatane Ariki was on board, their hearts sank in total disbelief.

Did the return of this Ariki from Atiu mean that the people of Mitiaro are going to be invaded once again?

Did his arrival mean more death, suffering and pain for a small population already living lives in great hardship?

Did the return of Rongomatane Ariki mean there would be more “Mitiaro blood” shed through conflict and loss of life?

When will our suffering on Mitiaro finally come to an end?


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.