Pentecostal dove, representing the Holy Spirit.

A form of evangelical Christianity swept through the parts of the Pacific like wildfire, and a Waikato researcher is about to chart its course for the first time.

The Royal Society has awarded Dr Fraser Macdonald a Marsden Fund $300,000 Fast-Start grant for Melanesia Burning: The Explosion of Pentecostalism in the Western Pacific.

During the 1970s, the spiritual worlds of people throughout Melanesia were radically transformed as the result of an intense Pentecostal revival brought from New Zealand.  A Māori evangelist called Muri Thompson was active in the North Island around that time, and was invited to the Solomon Islands.  Dr Macdonald says he started the spread of the movement, which also reached out to Papua New Guinea. He says this profound upheaval made Christianity significant within Melanesia in a way it had never been before.

Dr Fraser Macdonald.

Dr Macdonald’s definition of Pentecostalism is that it is a form of evangelical Christianity, based on the experience of the Holy Spirit, and the practice of spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues. The movement that started in the 1970s has subsided, but it has had a very lasting effect. “Many Pentecostal churches are still practicing the spiritual gifts. So, if you go into any Pentecostal church in Papua New Guinea,  from time to time you will see people speaking in tongues,  shaking as they’re experiencing the Holy Spirit, often healing, or laying on of hands, will take place. All of those central spiritual gifts are still being practiced.”

Over the next three years, the Melanesia Burning project will see Dr Macdonald talking to people in New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea about the evolution of the movement in those countries. A lot of the people involved are still alive, and will be a rich source of information. He will also be doing archival research, going through missionary reports and church records, to find what people were thinking about it at the time it was happening.

Because it is uncharted territory, until now the movement has not had a name. Dr Macdonald says he’s picking up on the very rich, evocative imagery around topic. “I’m calling it The Melanesian Fire.  All of the language around Pentecostalism is about fire and burning. The Holy Spirit is burning in people, there are, tongues of fire. It’s all about warmth and fire and heat, very much associated with joy and excitement.”

There’s a lot of literature on how revival movements have spread through other parts of the world, but Dr Macdonald says how Pentecostalism exploded in Melanesia hasn’t been recorded. He’s writing an untold chapter of the history of global Christianity.  “That’s the value of the research, filling in this missing piece of the puzzle.”

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