The Tongan Church
Introduction of the Gospel
The Siasi Uesiliana Tau’atāina ‘o Tonga (The Methodist Church in Tonga) traces its roots to the establishment of the Wesleyan Methodist mission in Tonga. There had been numerous attempts since 1797 to establish a Christian mission in Tonga, but it wasn’t until 1826, with the arrival of Revs. John Thomas and John Hutchinson, further aided by the arrival of Rev. Nathaniel Turner and others from the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, that the seeds of the Gospel were finally sown throughout her islands, taking root and flourishing ever since.
Growth of the Tongan Church
It was logical that, following the successful founding of the Wesleyan Methodist mission in Tonga, the nascent Church would adopt the Wesleyan name and charism, shaped by Methodist discipline and the emphases on Biblical holiness and sanctification, with the later arrival of the French Jesuits and other missionary groups resulting in the establishment of alternative churches and religions. One of the most instrumental developments within the Lord’s work in Tonga was the conversion of the young chief and future King of a united Tonga, Taufa’ahau Tupou (baptised ‘George’), whose resolve to stamp out the oppressive religion and traditions of yore facilitated the growth of the Wesleyan Church throughout the land, as well as enabling both European and indigenous missionaries in Tonga to contribute to the evangelisation and advancement of neighbouring island nations such as Fiji and pre-partitioned Sāmoa.
The Great Wesleyan Schism
The mission faced its greatest setback in 1885, when the King (after multiple attempts to have the Tongan Church granted autocephaly) initiated a schism, cutting all ties with the Wesleyan Methodist Conference in New South Wales which oversaw the mission in Tonga and throughout the South Pacific. The manoeuvre led to one of the greatest disruptions to the ministry of the Church within the kingdom, with her members splitting into two groups: the majority being the Wesleyan Free Church, led by the King and his loyal clerics, and the minority ‘Fakaongo’ (a pejorative term used against the dissenters, meaning ‘Subservient’) Church, which voted to remain faithful to the NSW Conference.
Reunification of the Church
This problem was partially resolved in 1924, when Queen Sālote Tupou III (a direct descendant and successor of King George Taufa’ahau Tupou) convened a provisional conference for the reunification of the two groups, with most of the Wesleyan Free Church and the entirety of the Fakaongo Church uniting to form the Siasi Uesiliana Tau’atāina ‘o Tonga (which literally translates into the ‘Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga’, the prefix ‘free’ denoting its autonomy from the Methodist Churches abroad). The united Church continued under the oversight of the Australian General Conference until 1977, when the Methodist Church of Australasia joined with the Presbyterian Church and the Congregational Union to form the Uniting Church in Australia, consolidating the independence of the Methodist Churches in Tonga and throughout the South Pacific.
The Contemporary Church in Tonga
Today, the Siasi Uesiliana Tau’atāina ‘o Tonga constitutes about one-third of the Tongan population, both at home and abroad, making it one of the largest churches in the kingdom. It is composed of 9 districts (among which is the Vahefonua ‘Aositelēlia) that are in Full Connexion with one another and are accountable to the Conference in Tonga. The Church has inherited the academic focus of the missionaries, establishing and administering various learning institutions throughout the kingdom, which range from early childhood to tertiary level. There has also been a push to address the pressing issues of the current decade, such as the recent introduction of hard illegal drugs into the Kingdom of Tonga, as well as the increase in crime rates among the youth. The Church’s theme for the 2019-2020 conferential year is: “Laumālie Mā’oni’oni, Fakafo’ou ‘Etau Fānau” (Holy Spirit, Renew Our Young People), with a focus on the place and ministry of the youth within the Body of Christ.
Distinction of Tongan Methodism
One of the characteristics of the Church that distinguishes it from its sister Churches abroad is the pervasiveness of the Wesleyan emphasis. Early instructions from the Wesley brothers to the Methodist societies such as those pertaining to temperance (anti-alcohol consumption), seemliness of conduct and modesty of attire are still effective within the Church; likewise are the practices of class-meetings and love feasts which are the building blocks of Methodist discipleship, fellowship and liturgy. These characteristics are not just unique to the Siasi Uesiliana Tau’ataina ‘o Tonga, but are also present among those denominations descended from the Wesleyan Methodist mission, such as the Free Church (Siasi ‘o Tonga Tau’atāina), the Church of Tonga (Siasi ‘o Tonga) and the Constitutional Free Church (Siasi Konisitūtone Tau’atāina ‘o Tonga), among others. The aforementioned distinctions are, to a small but significant degree, also evident among the Tongan general public, a testament to the early influence of Methodism within the country.