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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- U.S. Department of State: International Religious Freedom Report 2007 - Tonga
- A Polynesian Village: The Process of Change; Penisimani Tupouniua
- Tonga Religious Life in the Twentieth Century; Elizabeth Colson
- Encyclopedia Britannica Online: Taboo
- Sandra Mu/Getty Images News/Getty Images