The conversion of Tahiti

I rather enjoyed this episode recounted in Stuart Piggin’s and Robert D Linder’s book The Fountain of Public Prosperity: Evangelical Christians in Australian History 1740–1914:

On 17 February 1810 a second group of [London Missionary Society] missionaries arrived in NSW, again dislodged from Tahiti. Samuel Marsden found work for most of them, and encouraged them to persevere with the Tahiti Mission. In 1813 that 'monster in iniquity', Pomare II, King of Tahiti, became a Christian and the whole island went over to Christianity. His conversion was seen as a great vindication of the evangelical cause and a reward for the suffering of the missionaries who hailed Pomare as 'a second Constantine’. […]
Pomare himself partook of the triumphalist spirit of the missionaries, building a chapel over 230 metres in length, capable of holding three times as many worshippers as St Paul's Cathedral. Of the idols previously worshipped on Tahiti, he ordered that they be either burned or sent to Britain to show how foolish they were, and LMS established its own museum to house such trophies of grace’s victories.

There is something delightfully biblical about this account. It reminded me of the conversion of Nineveh under the preaching of Jonah. It also reminded me somewhat of the conversion of Egypt as Augustine described it in The City of God.

When the gospel comes into conflict with old-fashioned wood and stone idols, we tend to see with great clarity that the only missional goal worth aspiring to is that the idols are driven out from the public square. It would be difficult to respect a missionary to Tahiti that only sought for Jesus to be granted a place amongst the pantheon of deaf, dumb and blind gods.

So it is to our great shame that many evangelical Christians in our generation embrace this kind of pluralism not merely as a thing to be tolerated in the meantime, but as a positive good to be protected as a matter of principle. In our missions, we seldom aspire to more than having Jesus permitted a place at the table next to all manner of other idols, so that he might have some influence or make some positive contribution to our society. This is one of our great vices, and it is made worse by our waving it around as one of our virtues.

There was a time not that long ago in which evangelists and missionaries sought the Christianisation of entire societies, and rejoiced when God gave them what they asked for. God may be so kind to us, but it would mean his giving us things that we are not willing to ask him for. In fact, it would mean his giving us things we are asking him not to give us.