Tongan Religious and Cultural Beliefs and Taboos

Catholic churches are common on the island of Tonga.
... Sandra Mu/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Today more than 90 percent of the Tongan population practices some form of Christianity as a result of missionary settlements from the Free Wesleyan Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Mormon Church over the last two centuries. Christian churches are abundant on Tonga, an island in the South Pacific, but traces of indigenous religious and cultural beliefs still remain, evident in taboos and beliefs rooted in spirituality and animism.

1 Christianity

Christian Tongans believe in heaven and hell, a belief carried over from their pre-Christian religion and reinforced by missionaries throughout the 19th century. Tongans also believe in one God and Christ's sacrifice on the cross, and they observe Sunday as a holy day in the Christian tradition. Belief in God and allegiance to the church is even encouraged in the Tongan constitution, along with support for freedom of religion.

2 Indigenous Beliefs

Before the advent of Christianity, the Tongan afterlife was a world of unseen spirits and animals called "pulotu," and it encompassed both heaven and hell. A host of evil spirits and ghosts called "tevolo" haunted the beliefs of the Tonga, but eventually tevolo came to represent the Christian devil. Clan chiefs were the only members of Tongan society with spirits that went on to the afterlife upon death -- a belief that changed quickly as Christianity spread the idea of universal salvation.

3 Cultural Beliefs & Tabu

In pre-Christian times each Tongan clan had a spirit animal, and a clan member brought bad luck upon himself by killing and eating his clan animal. This was called "tabu" among Tongans. It was once so ingrained in the culture that missionaries used the phrase in reference to social transgression and it became the etymological root for the English "taboo." Some Tongans still observe taboos on their clan animals.

4 Other Beliefs

As of 2013, some Tongans believe that worshiping the traditional gods would be disrespectful to the Christian God. Still, some beliefs combine Christian and Tongan teachings -- for example, sex is considered taboo outside of marriage, but it is also taboo for Tongan men to have sex with their wives on the night before a hunt. Tongans maintain a fear of traditional evil tevolo, and Tongan seers, mediums and "earth priests" still exist in society to perform rituals, heal the public and allay fears of evil spirits.

Taylor Echolls is an award-winning writer whose expertise includes health, environmental and LGBT journalism. He has written for the "Valley Citizen" newspaper, where his work won first- and second-place awards in sports and outdoor features from the Idaho Press Club. Echolls holds a B.A. from Mount Holyoke College.