Article of the month: August

Religion on Pitcairn Island

Article of the month

Seventh-day Adventist church in Adamstown, Pitcairn Island (photo: Pitcairn Island Study Center)

Once Fletcher Christian and his companions from Bounty began their occupation of Pitcairn religion seemed to play only a small and insignificant role in their lives. But, again, unfortunately, little is recorded for us about the first two decades of Pitcairn life after the occupation by the mutineers. It was not until the rather strange and marvelous life change that came to John Adams that religion seems to have become a significant part of Pitcairn life. Once he had decided that religion held the promise of a better life for the little colony on the island, Adams lost no time in implementing what we would call strict religious practice.

Sir Charles Lucas, editor of The Pitcairn Island Register Book, describes the coming of religion to John Adams' life well in his introduction to the book. "Many notable cases of religious conversion have been recorded in the history of Christianity," writes Sir Lucas, "but it would be difficult to find an exact parallel to that of John Adams."

According to the Reverend Thomas Boyles Murray, John Adams observed the rules of the Church of England; always had morning and evening prayers; and taught the children the Collects, the Catechism, and other portions of the Prayer-book. He was particular in hearing the children say the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles' Creed. And, it seems Adams was a popular religious teacher, too. Murray writes that Adam's youthful pupils took such delight in his religious instructions that on one occasion, on his offering to two of the lads--Arthur Quintal and Robert Young – some compensation for their labor in preparing ground for planting yams, they proposed that instead of his giving them some gunpowder as a present, that he should teach them some extra lessons from the Bible – a request with which he joyfully complied, says Murray.

Adams early religious background was part and parcel of his work-house upbringing in England where he would have undoubtedly been exposed to some of the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England. Relying on these childhood memories, it is understandable that at times his recollection or understanding faltered, or that he tended to extremes in biblical exegesis. The church's injunction to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday was transmuted by Adams on Pitcairn into a prescription of weekly Wednesday and weekly Friday fasts – much to the discomfort of his flock. Only after the arrival of John Buffett in 1823 was Adams "set straight" on this point about the fasts, but in spite of this he still continued the Friday fasts.

Adams' particular construction on the prohibited degrees in marriage, might well have saved the community from extinction. The table of kindred and affinity in the Book of Common Prayer that spoke to this matter was thankfully often ignored. Nevertheless, certain Levitical laws, such as those requiring abstention from unclean birds, were observed.

In these more permissive views of his about marriage between "relatives" to achieve what Adams considered good purpose, he may have inadvertently set the stage for practices on Pitcairn, the unfortunate result of which the Island has even in recent years experienced: in particular sex with very young girls which is considered sexual abuse in both United Kingdom and New Zealand. The process with Pitcairn men including mayor Steve Christian became world famous in 2004; six out of seven defendants were found guilty and convicted by the court in New Zealand.

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