Cargo Cults and Seventh-day Adventism

Dr. Gosterwal is one of our respected workers in Neth­erlands New Guinea, and he has specialized in the study of anthropology.

G. OOSTERWAL, Educational and Temperance Secretary, West New Guinea Mission

Since the end of the past century a great many reli­gious movements have been reported from areas where native tribes came into con­tact with European civiliza­tion.

From 1870 to 1890 the Ghost Dance movements swept through the Indian territories of the United States.' Shamans arose and predicted the soon re­turn of the dead and the coming of the great "Buffalo." The same kind of religious movements are known among the South American Indians. The Guarini and Tu­kuna Indians, for instance, expected the end of this world and the soon coming of a "world without evil," where sickness and death would be no more.' Sundkler's' and Schlosser's' studies on the more than 1,200 prophetic and synchretic movements in Africa show clearly how well known these nativistic cults are in Africa. And from Oceania (Polynesia, Micronesia, and Mela­nesia) a vast bibliography exists on reli­gious movements in which natives expect the soon return of a (mythological) an­cestor, the resurrection of the dead, and the coming of a new world without sick­ness and death.'

In Oceania generally, the name "cargo-cult" has been given to these religious movements; cargo, or better, kago, being a pidgin English term for European wealth. In this article I shall confine myself mainly to these cargo cults in Oceania, for it is in connection with them that repeatedly the name of the Seventh-day Adventist Mis­sion has been mentioned. A number of au­thors connected these cargo movements with the teaching of Seventh-day Advent­ists. Says Kamma, in his well-known study on the Messianic movements in the Biak­Numfoor culture area (Netherlands New Guinea): "The cargo-cults in the eastern part of New Guinea seem to be stimulated to a great extent by the work of the Sev­enth-day Adventists." G. H. Cranswick and J. W. H. Hevill," in their study on cargo cults in Papua, charged Seventh-day Adventists with "evoking" cargo cults in Papua. Also Van Baal mentions the Sev­enth-day Adventist Mission in connection with cargo cults in the Melanesian area, together with some "spiritualistic move­ments." In a number of less well-known books and articles on cargo cults in Mel­anesia, these accusations have been re­peated.'

It seems worth while to reconsider these accusations. Cargo cults often brought much harm to the people concerned and to the established order. Commotion, de­struction of food, the burning of houses and other valuable articles, mass psychosis, the phenomena of trance and obsessions, killing, rebellion, revolution against the (white) government, et cetera, are common features of these movements. The accusa­tion that Seventh-day Adventists have evoked them is a serious one.

Cargo Cults

There is hardly any area in New Guinea and the adjacent islands that remained wholly unaffected by cargo cults. In spite of their different character, these cargo cults have a great number of common fea­tures. These are (1) People expect the soon return of an ancestor (mythological) and the resurrection of the dead; (2) then a new order will be established when there will be no more hunger, sickness, or death; (3) the ancestor and the dead will return with shiploads of "cargo," such as clothing, axes, chopping knives, outboard motors, airplanes, et cetera.

Along the coast people built wharfs where the ships could enter. Those in the interior built airstrips where planes could land. In areas still unaffected by European civilization the "ships" bringing along the ancestor, the dead, and the "cargo" are ex­pected from the graves. "Nights on end people have been singing and dancing on the graves to welcome Djeeuwme (the an­cestor 0.) and the warria (the spirits of the dead O)." People had built large houses on the graves, where the warria were supposed to store their cases and trunks full of clothing, axes, tobacco, and other "cargo." All the pigs were killed, and until Djeeuwme's return, nobody would be allowed to eat any more pork.

The houses in the village were all burned. "We shall live in houses made of brick," the villagers were told. Other goods of their own culture also were de­stroyed. "We shall have abundance of food and clothing (white garments), and any­thing we like when Djeeuwme comes. None of us will fall ill any more. None of us will get hungry. We shall never grow tired there, even if we should dance for nights on end. Nobody will evermore die." When Djeeuwme delayed to come, some went into ecstasies. One night the people heard the voices of Djeeuwme and the warria as the fluting of birds. "'They are coming,' the people shouted, 'they are com­ing. They bring along cargo for us. We do hear already the sound of the sea in the graves.' But nothing happened." " This is a brief extract from a report on a cargo cult in the Mamberamo area. The same words could have been used for a descrip­tion of a cargo cult from anywhere in Oceania. Europeans often are accused of delaying the return of their ancestor. Or natives say Europeans keep the secret of how to get the "cargo" to themselves. Na­tionalistic, antiforeign movements often are the result, and houses are burned and the inhabitants molested. The term "mad­ness" was sometimes applied to these out­bursts. In the United States these move­ments in Africa, Asia, and Oceania are often mistaken for communistic agitation, which they certainly are not. It is just a primitive way to find a better world for themselves, a world without "evil," where people can be happy."

For a more detailed description of these cargo cults I refer to the literature on this subject.' This very brief review, however, will serve the purpose. It shows the appar­ent points of identification between cargo-cult beliefs and Seventh-day Adventist doc­trines:

Cargo-Cult Beliefs

The soon return of an ancestor and the raising of the dead, which follows.

A new world is coming, without hunger, sickness, death, et cetera. It will be a world of abundance, without evil. Death will be no more; no one will fall sick, no one will grow old, and no one will even get tired.

The ancestor will be the only "author­ity." All people shall honor him "with new songs."

People will all get "new white clothes." Prohibited to eat pork.

Seventh-day Adventist Teachings

The soon return of Jesus. At Jesus' com­ing the dead will be raised.

The righteous will inherit the new earth, without sorrow. "They shall hunger no more, . . for the Lamb . . . shall feed them, ... and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes" (Rev. 7:16, 17). Also Rev. 21.

The Lamb will have all "power, and riches . . . and strength, and honour, and glory" (Rev. 5:12). "And they sung a new song" (Rev. 5:9).

"After this I beheld . . . a great multi­tude . . . , clothed in white robes" (Rev. 7:9). Also Rev. 3:4, 5.

Seventh-day Adventists refrain from eat­ing pork.

It is these similarities that give these cargo cults an appearance of synchretism. It is these similarities also that caused sev­eral authors to accuse Seventh-day Advent­ists of being the "source" of these beliefs, which in turn gave rise to the cargo cults. However, as will be shown later, these au­thors erroneously mistook the shadow for the substance.

The Anthropological View

Cargo cults generally have been de­scribed as a "crisis-situation" resulting from the contact between native tribes and the European-Christian civilization. Says Firth, the well-known British social anthro­pologist: "They are essentially reactions to the new forces introduced through contact with the West." The earnest desire for material wealth—for cargo—is understood as a result of the contact with the superior material civilization of the West, whereas the return of the ancestor, the coming of a new world, the resurrection of the dead, et cetera, are looked upon as a result of Christian, in casu Seventh-day Adventist, teaching. Certainly any Seventh-day Adventist may at first sight admit the resem­blance between these "cargo" beliefs and his own. Because other denominations hardly mention the truth of the soon re­turn of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, et cetera, or know of a "prohibition" to eat pork, it is the Seventh-day Adventist Mis­sion more than any other Christian mission­ary society that has been accused of evok­ing or stimulating these cargo cults.

More recently another anthropological view has come to the fore. These cultural anthropologists no longer look upon cargo cults as a "severe social maladjustment" or a "circuit reaction," but as a purely gen­uine native cult. K. E. Read, P. Lawrence, F. C. Kamma, and G. Oosterwal in their studies on cargo cults show that beliefs concerning a coming ancestor, the return of the dead, and the coming of a new earth without evil, sickness, and death, et cetera, was already known before these native peo­ple came in contact with Christian missions and Western civilization. "The cargo-cult is of a genuine native character. In its very essence it is just one of the many 'wealth-cults' known in this area, such as those connected with the sacred houses and the sacred flutes." '9 The ennemaree (burial ceremonies) clearly show this cargo situa­tion, which, moreover, is reflected in myth and song." During the old burial cere­monies people on the Mamberamo already sang about the (soon) return of Djeeuwme and the resurrection of the dead. When Djeeuwme comes, these myths and songs say, the dead will be raised and a new world without evil, sickness, and death will come. And Lawrence writes: "The ritual of the cargo-cult is, therefore, the same in essence as the ritual of the Garia pagan religion." " Read and Kamma prove the same.

It was Mooney' who had already pointed out that the belief in a coming "Messiah" who would restore "paradise" on earth again was a universal belief among the Indians. Later Spier more clearly brought the proof that the Ghost Dance among the Sioux was not the result of their contact with the West, but that it started in their own Indian world view." The same holds true for these beliefs among the South American Indians and the people from Africa and Oceania. Many authors made the great mistake of the too-facile approach that assumes that anything apparently bearing resemblance to Sev­enth-day Adventist teaching must be de­rived from that source. In this connection Cora Du Bois has a true word to say: "With no grounding in the old culture an Ad­ventist and revivalistic doctrine was mean­ingless."

More than once it appeared, moreover, that authors accusing Seventh-day Advent­ists of arousing cargo cults were not wholly unbiased. Kamma, himself a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, once ac­cused a Seventh-day Adventist of having stirred up the well-known "Samson-move­ment" in northern New Guinea, whereas from direct sources it was revealed that Samson was influenced by a spiritualist.

Cultural anthropologists now agree that the "cargo-cults must be viewed in their cultural perspective, against the back­ground of indigenous life." And from re­liable anthropological studies it appears that the beliefs in a coming "saviour," the raising of the dead, the coming of a new world without evil and death, and even the prohibition to eat pork are of a genu­ine native character and not the result of the work of Seventh-day Adventists. This evidently is the opinion of the Netherlands Administration in New Guinea, for re­cently, when a rather large-scale cargo cult arose in the interior of Netherlands New Guinea, the government asked me—a Sev­enth-day Adventist minister and anthro­pologist—to investigate the movement and deliver an advisory report.

The Adventist View

Seventh-day Adventist missionaries must make use of the practical help that cultural anthropology has to offer." It will be of value to undertake anthropological studies on the people to whom we have to com­municate the gospel, and this is provided for in the language-study arrangements of the General Conference Working Policy. In connection with the topic here dis­cussed, the knowledge of anthropological studies is urgent!' Although Seventh-day Adventist missionaries certainly did not arouse cargo cults, the influence of their work on these cults is undeniable. It is true that in a cargo situation, where people al­ready expect the soon return of a "saviour" and the raising of the dead, and where myth and song reflect that longing, any white man, though unaware, can stimulate and promote a cargo cult. Anthropologist Lawrence, for instance, found himself in such a situation. He became "the centre of rumors which, given proper encourage­ment, might well have developed into a large-scale cargo-cult." This "proper en­couragement" no doubt comes from the Seventh-day Adventist teachings of the soon return of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, the abstaining from pork, et cetera. On one hand, therefore, our message finds a receptive audience in these cargo areas, and some of the success of our missionaries in New Guinea must be ascribed to these "points of contact for identification." The danger is that Seventh-day Adventist teachings, if misinterpreted, could indeed revive the old beliefs and promote a cargo cult.

Much could be gained by the missionary from a continuous and energetic study of the language, the history, religions and cus­toms of the people for whom he labors.

Still greater help may be gained from the study of these nativistic religious move­ments around the world. We sometimes wonder which way is the best to carry our message to all the millions on earth. Re­cently Harry W. Lowe drew our attention to a statement by P. E. Hughes, in Chris­tianity Today, July 31, 1961, that "1,500 millions of the world's population of 2,900 millions have never heard the message of the Gospel." And Elder Lowe goes on: "So colossal is the task, humanly viewed, that it can be done only by hitherto unknown spiritual power." God has His own ways to finish His work! When Jesus came the first time, the world was ripe to receive a Saviour. The "fulness of time" not only re­fers to the chronological aspect but also to this spiritual ripeness. The same applies to­day. Time is short. The world is ripe for the coming of a "Saviour." "The harvest truly is plenteous" is the Biblical expres­sion (Matt. 9:37). In this view we might interpret many of the cargo cults and nativistic movements in Oceania, Africa, Asia, and South America. There is a long­ing for a Saviour, for a world without evil and hunger, without sickness and death.

It is not at all strange that a new re­vival of this "desire of ages" was brought about at the close of the past century and the first sixty years of this one. It is a new sign that "the harvest is the end of the world" (Matt. 13:39). The form in which this "spiritual ripeness" reveals itself may be crude and "uncivilized." But it is just an emotional, primitive response to a divine revelation. Let us not be misled by its form. Its contents are the earnest long­ing for a Redeemer and a better world without evil, and for a prophetic vision of their soon coming. In this respect the paral­lel with Jesus' first coming also is note­worthy. Ellen G. White rightly states: "Out­side of the Jewish nation there were men who foretold the appearance of a divine instructor. These men were seeking for truth, and to them the Spirit of Inspiration was imparted. One after another, like stars in the darkened heavens, such teachers had arisen. Their words of prophecy had kindled hope in the hearts of thousands of the Gentile world."

The same holds true today. What a chal­lenge to us! And what a privilege it is to be co-workers with God in this time of the end.


1 J. Mooney. The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890. Washington, 1896.

2 C. Nimuendaju. "Die Sagen von der Erschaffung und Vernichtung .der Welt als Grundlagen der Religion der Apa­pocuva-Guarmi." Zeitschrift fur Ethnologie, 46, pp. 284-403.

3 Bengt G. M. Sundkler. Bantu Prophets in South Africa. London, 1948.

4 K. Schlosser. Propheten in Afrika. Braunschweig, 1948.

5 Leeson. Bibliography of Cargo-cults and Other Nativ­istic Movements in the South Pacific. South Pacific Commis­sion, Sydney, 1952.

6 F. C. Kamma. De Messiaanse Kore'ri-bewegingen in het Biaks-Noemfoorse cultuurgebied. The Hague. 1954, p. 208.

7 G. H. Cranswick and J. W. H. Hevill. A New Deal for Papua. London, 1949, pp. 90

8 van Baal. "Algemeen culturele beschouwingen," in W. C. Klein, Nieuw-Gmnea, vol. 1, pp. 243-246 (1956).

9 F C. Kamma. Papoesch adventisme, Opwekker, 1940. Articles in "Kruis en Korwar," 1955.

10 G. Oosterwal. "A Cargo Cult in the Mamberamo Area." Anthropological Report, No. 3, Hollandia, 1962, pp. 12-22.

11 G. Oosterwal. Papoea's, mensen goals wij. Baarn, 1961, pp. 112-143.

12 F. E. Williams. "The Vailala Madness," Territory of Papua Anthropology Report, No. 4, Port Moresby, 1923.

     J. Guiart. "The John Frum Movement in Tanna." Oceania, Vol. XXII, March, 1952, p. 163.

     Kamma. op. di.

     G. Oosterwal. A Cargo-Cult in the Mamberamo Area, 1962. I. Leeson. Bibliography of Cargo-Cults and Other Nativ­istic Movements in the South Pacific, 1952.

       R. M. Berndt. "A Cargo Movement in the East Central Highlands of New Guinea." Oceania, Vol: XXIII, Nos. 1-3, 1952-53, pp. 40-137.

13 R. Firth. Elements of Social Organigation, 1952.

14 G. Oosterwal. People of the Tor. A cultural-anthropo­logical study on the tribes of the Tor territory. Assen, 1961.

15 G. Oosterwal. "A Cargo-Cult in the Mamberamo Area," Anthropological Report, No. 3, 1962.

16 P. Lawrence. "Cargo Cult and Religious Beliefs Among the Garia," International Archives for Ethnography, Vol. XLVII, No. 1, 1954, pp. 1-20.

    K. E. Read. "A 'Cargo' Situation in the Markham Valley, New Guinea," Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, vol. 14, No. 3, 1958, pp. 273-294.

17 Mooney. Op. cit., pp. 650 ff.

18 L. Spier. "The Prophet Dance," General Series in An­thropology, Menasha, 1935.

19 Berndt. Op cit., p. 40.

20G. Oosterwal. "Anthropology and the Missionary" (a lecture, 1952), p. 5.

21 The present author once made the suggestion (see G. Oosterwal, "Anthropology and the Missionary," pp. 5, 6) that courses in cultural (social) anthropology be offered at our missionary colleges and universities. We regret that prep­aration for the missionary task in this connection is so far behind.

22 Lawrence. Op. cit., p. 3.

23 The Ministry, December, 1961 p. 48.

24 E. G. White. The Desire of Ages, p. 33.

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G. OOSTERWAL, Educational and Temperance Secretary, West New Guinea Mission

October 1962

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