Jerusalem and Malaita: the visions and prophecies of George Umai of west Kwara'ae, Malaita, Solomon Islands.
Malaitan interest in Jewish ancestors is part of a broader Malaitan worldview in which the ancestors are real and present to their living descendants, communicating with them through dreams, signs, and visions (cf. Keesing 1982). Malaitan ideas trace ancestors back to a first ancestor. Burt and Kwa'ioloa (2001:11-14) present the genealogy of Kwara'ae elder Samuel Alasa'a, including his account of the first ancestor, Bilitigao, and the eight clans he brought to Malaita 25 generations ago. Alasa'a understands Bilitigao to have come from Asia, not Israel, but he traces Bilitigao's ancestry to Noah's sons after the Flood. He says that these first Malaitans were also guided in their travels by the archangel Gabriel and brought with them 'ten commandments', the ground of Kwara'ae ethical practices.
In this paper, I shall discuss the Kwara'ae Anglican lay visionary, George Umai (c. 1938-1998), and, briefly, the movement he initiated and encouraged in the 20 years before his death. Umai and his movement may be characterised as an exercise in rediscovering and living again Kwara'ae holiness (abua) and wholeness (ali'afu'anga) through the integration of ritualistic Anglo-Catholic worship, Kwara'ae cultural practices, study of Scripture (especially the Old Testament), and apocalyptic visions (see David Gegeo 1998: 299). However, here I shall concentrate on the Jewish aspects of Umai's Christian-Malaitan religious visions and his theological reflection upon them, put forward in his definitive work, The Publican Messenger, and his many letters to the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem between 1990 and 1995. For Umai, Old Testament genealogy, the Ark of the Covenant and the theocratic Davidic Kingdom are more powerful realities for organising Kwara'ae society than conventional Christian understandings of Jesus Christ and his salvific mission of divine incarnation, death on a cross, and resurrection.
The idea that Malaitans are descended from Hebrews has existed for the better part of a century. While working in an SSEM area of north Malaita in the 1930s, anthropologist Ian Hogbin's principal informant, Aningali, declared to him, 'All peoples are sprung from these two [Adam and Eve]: they are our ancestors as well as yours, and now we all have to work hard on account of their disobedience' (Hogbin 1939:186). This literal interpretation of Genesis was not just an Evangelical phenomenon. David Gegeo, anthropologist and an Anglican from West Kwara'ae, remembers being told as a child that Malaitans were descended from Israel and that this was a common belief among Anglicans (personal communication, 11 February 2011). As Anglican bishop of Malaita (1996-2008), I was often told similar stories. For example, a catechist who, as we were walking through the Kwara'ae bush, pointed out a wooded tabu site as the place his Jewish ancestors ceased to sacrifice sheep and began to sacrifice pigs, out of necessity and climate.
Before I begin this analysis, I must identify my own personal connection with Umai. Shortly after I became Anglican bishop of Malaita in 1996, I heard of a group of Kwara'ae Anglicans who were digging for Jerusalem Temple gold on Guadalcanal above Visale, east of the capital Honiara. I also discovered my predecessor's correspondence with Umai which included a copy of Umai's self-published magazine, The Publican Messenger. I soon realised that Umai and his movement were but one of many Malaitan Christian ethno-theologies, Anglican and otherwise, as I looked back on the Anglican visionary Jonathan Hala and experienced the Remnant Church and various movements within the SSEC. Upon retirement as bishop in 2008,1 began to document many of these groups, in an attempt to understand their motivations, theologies, and relationships with culture, society, government and churches, both in Malaita and beyond. This paper is part of that enterprise.
GEORGE UMAI AND HIS VISIONS
George Umai was bom in Bio, West Kwara'ae, Malaita, in about 1938 to Anglican parents and attended the Anglican primary school at nearby Gwaigeo. As a teenager, he briefly tested his vocation as a Melanesian Brother at Tabalia on west Guadalcanal, the Brotherhood headquarters. At both school and the Brotherhood, he would have been immersed in the Anglo-Catholic ethos and ritual of the Anglican diocese of Melanesia which had already incorporated some Malaitan elements, such as a high altar surrounded with incense and inaccessible to the laity, the separation of men and women at worship and the exclusion of women who were menstruating or who had recently given birth. This enculturation reflected the Anglican Diocese of Melanesia's historical openness to local cultures and ultimately encouraged Umai to integrate more Malaitan cultural elements into his theology and visions, especially as he found similar practices in the Old Testament.
After a few years as a boat builder at Tulagi, upon the direction of two visions, Umai returned home to Malaita to his father and grandfather to recover Kwara'ae beliefs and clarify their relationship to Christianity (Umai 1992c). Not long after returning to his new village of Gwaitaba'a near Bio, Umai decided to spend all his time in Bible study, prayer, fasting, rediscovering Kwara'ae culture, and awaiting visions. According to Umai's wife, he frequently spent the night in prayer in the Gwaitaba'a church, awaiting visions (interview with Elizabeth Maeburi, 6 October 2011). A local teacher, Robert Aioro, wrote down the visions for Umai and read them to the community. Umai gathered a group of followers from Gwaitaba'a and Bio villagers, many of whom were his extended family (interview with Robert Aioro, 24 May 2012).
Major visions included that of the Ark of the Covenant on 1 March 1989, the Scroll of Creation one month later, the Star of Creation on 16 October 1991, and the Hidden Treasure later in 1991. The first three of these were described in great detail in the first and only edition of his Publican Messenger magazine (Umai 1992a) as well as an advertisement (Umai 1992b) and letter (Umai 1992c) in the Solomons Toktok newspaper. Umai also announced a Jerusalem origin for Kwara'ae people and provided the genealogy in the Publican Messenger. In 1990, Umai began writing to the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, Samir Kafity, because so many of the visions and the genealogy related to Jerusalem. (1) Facing opposition from Anglican leadership in the Church of Melanesia, Umai hoped that Kafity would become his patron. Throughout the visions, Umai also researched and taught old Kwara'ae language, customs (including land tenure) and values, sharing them with west Kwara'ae villagers to encourage cultural renewal. This aspect of Umai's teaching was not controversial and drew many followers who were attracted to his vision of the well-integrated Kwara'ae life, in opposition to competitive provincial and national politics which (Umai argued) produced only selfishness and poverty.
The 1991 vision of the Hidden Treasure resulted in Umai and 50 men and boys from Bio and Gwaitaba'a moving to Mount Gallego, West Guadalcanal, to dig for hidden Japanese gold from 1993 to 1996. They did so while following an Anglican monastic pattern of self-discipline and prayer every three hours. All this while, Umai remained an Anglican but the increasing apocalyptic character of his visions and the dig for gold brought him into conflict with both the Anglican bishop of Malaita and the archbishop of Melanesia: the former forbade him from spreading his teachings in the diocese and the latter dubbed his movement a 'cargo cult'. (2) However, no gold was found on Mount Gallego and Umai sent his workers home, staying on at the site to await its emergence from the stone at the bottom of the enormous hole until sickness drove him back to Honiara. After reconciliation with the Anglican bishop of Malaita, Raymond Aumae, Umai died in late 1998 in Honiara. He was buried near the site of his visions at Gwaitaba'a. Adherence to Umai's visions largely died with him and Bio and Gwaitaba'a villagers resumed their lives as active members of the Anglican diocese of Malaita.
While it is clear that Umai's visions and writings constitute a Malaitan Christian ethnotheology, Umai's very heavy reliance on Old Testament elements such as creation accounts, genealogies, sacred objects, and political structures cannot be denied. In this paper I seek to explain why Umai drew so heavily on the Old Testament in his visions and theological reflection through a close examination of the relevant texts in Umai's writings. In particular I shall concentrate upon: his Jerusalem genealogy for Kwara'ae (indeed, all Pacific) people; the Ark of the Covenant; and Old Testament and Malaitan 'theocracy'. While Umai saw himself as both a conservative Anglo-Catholic Anglican and an advocate of Kwara'ae culture, it was often the Old Testament that he went to for inspiration, meaning, and sustenance.
Umai's line of descent from Israel
George Umai's public account of Malaitan descent from Israel is contained in the first and only issue of his magazine, Publican Messenger, published in 1992. After recounting various apocalyptic visions and pronouncing a prophetic rebuke on the people of Solomon Islands, Umai concludes with a genealogy tracing Solomon Islands descent back to Jerusalem. According to Umai, the source of this genealogy is a combination of information from his father on his deathbed on 10 February 1985, the vision of Twelve Medals and personal study (attachment to letter to Kafity, n.d.):
I will tell you the name of the one who came from Jerusalem. The name of the Man was Stephen Rodger. He was a high priest of the temple of Jerusalem. He was just a black skin person and from Hebrew [lands],
Stephen's duty in the temple of Jerusalem was to look after one of the curtain gates [behind which was the holy of holies containing the Ark of the Covenant] of the temple he [sic] has got five (5) sons and their names were as follows: Herman Rodger, Sam Rodger, Bill Rodger, John Rodger, and Judah. I will tell you the Hebrew names of this family from the Judah client in my second Magazine (Umai 1992a:24).
Umai later reveals that Stephen Rodger's Hebrew name was Zedekiah. It is not clear why Umai used primarily European rather than Hebrew or Malaitan names for his first ancestors. Stephen was the name of the first Christian martyr and would have been familiar through Anglican worship. 'Rodger', however, is not a biblical name, nor is it a common Malaitan name. Although the Rodger family has European names, they clearly have 'black skins', emphasising that both Jews and Malaitans are of the same black race: Jews are not whites but blacks (in contrast to Cox, this issue). The patrilineal structure of the Rodger family, in which the Ark is passed from father to son and no women's names are given, reflects the generally patrilineal character of both Old Testament and Malaitan societies.
According to this account, Stephen departed Jerusalem on 14 February (Umai seldom gives years, promising them later) and travelled to South Africa via South America, then on to Madurai, India. There he had a vision of God instructing him to return to Jerusalem to collect the Ark of the Covenant from the Jerusalem temple, which he promptly did, returning with it to 'Mobas' (in Umai's mind, Mombasa on the east coast of Africa) about a year later and passing it over to his eldest son, Judah. On the same day, Judah left his father and three of his brothers at Mobas, and, carrying the Ark and following a pillar of cloud, travelled with his brother John Rodger to the Pacific: first to an unidentified Fanoaabu (Kwara'ae, 'holy place'), then to Vanua Levu in Fiji (where John Rodger and family were dropped), Mota in present-day Northern Vanuatu, Buka in Bougainville, Guadalcanal (en route from Buka to Ruavatu, Judah's wife died and was buried some place in the Western Solomons), and finally 'Molta', presentday Malaita. Judah arrived in Malaita with four sons and one daughter. Umai names the descendants of the Rodger family and the various islands in the Solomons and the Pacific they populated. Upon the Ark's arrival in Kwara'ae, Malaita, it was buried not just by Judah Rodger but by God: 'Let me tell you that I know the date (day, month and year) God buried this Covenant Box in Malaita' (Umai 1992a:26). Umai further maintains that Judah Rodger was not buried in Malaita but on an island in Isabel Province, later identified by him as San Jorge Island.
Having identified Solomon Islanders' biblical origins, Umai strongly rejects any autochthonous origin for them. Having heard that some Solomon Islanders believed that 'God created them on their own Islands and that they were brought up from where they are now, without originating from somewhere else' (Umai 1992a:26), Umai declares:
Let me tell you, that this finding was not true. If you said that you were brought up in that way, then would you tell me the date God created your Geneology [sic]?
Some history studies in Solomon Islands stated that we didn't originate from Israel, but now let me tell you that most properties in this country Solomon Islands they are named in [the] Hebrew language. And from what I found in my studies in the history of Solomon Islands, we are the Southern part of Israel [i.e., Judah] (Umai 1992a:26).
For Umai, one effect of this common Jewish ancestry is that all Solomon Islanders (indeed, all Pacific islanders) are ultimately a single family and people.
This religious nationalism and regionalism (later developed by Umai as 'theocracy') is in contrast to the fragmented view of the nation being put forward by the then Solomon Islands Prime Minister Solomon Mamaloni. In a book reflecting on the 10th anniversary of Solomon Islands' independence, Mamaloni writes:
All these small 'islands nations' were independent entities long before the northern explorers found them. Their cultures differed from each other. However, the inter migration between islands close to each other had resulted in some similarities in customs and other characteristics. The merging of these 'islands nations' into one 'Sovereign Authority' (constitutional terms) was by human design, and said to be by necessity (Mamaloni 1992:10).
Mamaloni concludes pessimistically that Solomon Islanders have no capacity to become a genuinely unified nation: the country 'has never been a nation and never will be a nation and will never become one' (Mamaloni 1992:10). Umai, on the other hand, argues that all Solomon Islanders share a common Jewish ancestry and that their languages (he gives no examples) are all derived from Hebrew. This common Jewish ancestry also allows Umai to prophetically address all Solomon Islanders, not just Malaitans.
Umai reveals that Stephen Rodger killed James, the brother of Jesus and first bishop of the early Jerusalem church. In early 1990, Umai writes the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem:
The name of my great ancestor was Stephen Rodger, and in Hebrew they called him Zedekiah. He was a High Priest in the temple of Jerusalem and his duties were to look after one of the curtain gates in the temple of Jerusalem and also to burn offerings and sacrifices in the temple. During that time. James was the Bishop in the temple of Jerusalem. He was the Brother of Our Lord by the former [marriage] of Joseph (Umai to Kafity n.d.).
In an attachment to the letter, Umai continues, T know that Stephen Rodger killed Bishop James in the Temple of Jerusalem in 62 A.D. and he departed from the Temple on Thursday dated 14th of February the same A.D [year]'. James, 'the brother of the Lord', also called 'the Just', is a well-attested historical figure, the leader of the early Christian church in Jerusalem, often described as its first 'bishop'. James died about the time indicated by Umai, CE 62-69, probably at the hands of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing council, angry at his conversion to Christianity. Umai does not make it clear why Stephen Rodger killed James, whether it was an accident or a murder.
Umai's purpose in writing to the bishop of Jerusalem is to seek reconciliation. Umai is very penitent for his ancestor's killing of James (made all the more serious by James being the brother of Jesus) and asks the current bishop of Jerusalem's forgiveness:
My Lord Bishop, I would like to ask you for your forgiveness. So would you please forgive me and my people for what our ancestor did to you, which caused him to escape from the Holy Temple of Jerusalem and came to us, which 1 know in my history. So for this reason, I know that my ancestor has sinned against God, you and your people, so don't call me your Brother, but call me your servant (Umai to Kafity n.d.).
Umai clearly regards Kafity as not just the spiritual heir of the first bishop of Jerusalem through holding a common office but as Bishop James' genuine ancestor: 'my ancestor has sinned against God, you and your people' [my italics]. Sorting out problems among ancestors in the past who have an impact on the present is very common in Malaitan religion and here Umai is doing the same. He identifies himself and all Solomon Islanders as the heirs of those who put the first bishop of Jerusalem to death, probably for his new Christian beliefs. Confession produces forgiveness and reconciliation for the nation.
In a late 1991 letter to Kafity, Umai lists 31 generations between Zedekiah (Stephen Rodger) and Abraham. Stephen Rodger/Zedekiah's grandfather is said to be Jehoiakim [Joachim], father of Mary the mother of Jesus, making Jesus Stephen Rodger's uncle. The genealogy also creates a parallel kinship relationship to Joseph, Mary's husband, through a common ancestor nine generations before Jesus. Umai's detailed interest in genealogy here represents a deep Malaitan concern for legitimacy and family history, where at least a dozen generations may be remembered and recalled by a community. Here Umai is trying to establish that Malaitans (and all Solomon Islanders) are direct descendants of the patriarchs of the Old Testament and are as closely related to Jesus as possible, through his grandmother. The interest in Jesus here is not in his teachings as recorded in the New Testament but in being closely related to him and his ancestors in a blood relationship. Shared blood produces the highest level of unity in Malaitan societies. Injuring another such that blood is shed requires the blood relatives of the injured to be compensated, even if the injury was inflicted in self-defence of a wrongful attack. 'Blood' and 'holiness' are cognates in Malaitan languages. Indeed in Solomon Islands Pijin, blud is used to refer to one's blood relations. Thus for Umai, the biblical teaching that all Christians are 'of one blood' takes on double strength through a literal Malaitan blood relationship with Jesus and his ancestors.
As such, Umai's understanding of Malaitan origins is somewhat different from that of the Remnant Church or the Deep Sea Canoe/Spice Road Movement/All Pacific Prayer Assembly in chronology, the route taken, and the genealogy. These groups follow the classical British Israelite 'Lost Tribes of Israel' approach in which the dispersal took place as early as CE700 and the 'lost tribes' travelled through Ireland, Scotland, England, and onwards (Kidd 2006:203-218; Parfitt 2002:46-58), thus linking Malaita with the genealogy of the British Royal Family, a point not lost on the current Governor General of Solomon Islands (a follower of APPA) who traces his line of authority through the Queen to the biblical King David (Kabui 2010). This difference is important to note as Umai, unlike the Remnant Church and Deep Sea Canoe Movement and its developments, has little interest in establishing his or Malaitans' (or Solomon Islanders') Jewish identity. Rather, his interest is more in credibility (strong genealogy gives credibility) as a prophetic Christian with a blood relationship not just to the Jewish patriarchs but also to Jesus. If identity is involved, it is as a Kwara'ae Christian who can trace his bloodline and that of his people to Jesus and his ancestors. The apology to the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem clears that route and makes wholeness as a Christian possible.3
The power of the Ark of the Covenant
In the book of Exodus, the Ark of the Covenant or, more literally, the Ark of Testimony [to the Law], is an elaborate sacred box constructed by Moses to contain the stone tablets of the Law received on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 25:10-22). It was enshrined in the holy of holies of the Jerusalem Temple constructed by King Solomon in BCE 957. The Ark and the Law it enclosed were regarded with the greatest of holiness, both as the embodiment of the presence of God among Israel and as a holy archive of God's written Law (Castelot 1968:712). However, with the Babylonian sack of Jerusalem in BCE 586, Solomon's Temple was destroyed and the Ark disappeared. At this point the Tost Ark' tradition begins. The ('second') Jerusalem Temple, constructed in BCE 538-515 after the return from Babylonian exile, did not include the Ark of the Covenant, only an empty holy of holies, although still embodying the presence of God and remaining the centre of ritual activity. Thus, there was no Ark of the Covenant at the time of Stephen and Judah Rodger's reputed travel with it from Jerusalem to Malaita.
Belief in the existence of the lost Ark of the Covenant in Oceania is relatively widespread. It is an artefact ('the sacred fire pot') of Gogodala (PNG) Jewish identity (Dundon, this issue; Parfitt 2009:289-292). A 2007 Post-Courier report tells of 'Missionary' Andrew Mandeni's 'New Faith' and its belief that the Ark is hidden in the interior of Bougainville:
The sect teaches that during the time of the destruction of the City of Jerusalem in Old Testament times the prophet Jeremiah removed the Covenant Box from the temple and with the assistance of a few faithful followers took the box on a ship and sailed off towards the East where the box was hidden in a cave in an unknown land. New Faith followers believe that the Covenant Box is hidden up in the Aita area and the mysterious stranger in the Aita folktale is none other than the prophet Jeremiah (Post-Courier 2007).
Likewise, a drawing from Michael Maeliau's All Pacific Prayer Assembly showing the Covenant Box being taken back to Israel in a canoe suggests that they, too, believe that the Ark of the Covenant is hidden in the Pacific (personal communication, Jaap Timmer, 2012; cf. Newland and Jones for Fiji, this issue).
Umai's major vision of the Ark of the Covenant took place in early 1989 under a tree at Gwaitaba'a village. Although earlier more provisional versions were produced, it is described in greatest detail in Publican Messenger in a section entitled 'The Declaration of the Ark of the Covenant'. Umai begins:
Now I must declare to the Whole World that the Holy Ark of the Covenant and the Tablets of Stones of the Ten Commandments are with me and many people on the Island of Molta [Malaita] in the country of Solomon Islands.
The Ark of the covenant [sic| Box appeared to me at my home on Wednesday 1st March 1989 at midnight (Umai 1992a: 16).
Around the Ark were 10 priests in white shining vestments and green ecclesiastical stoles (vestments draped over their shoulders) and four angelic children. One of them beckoned Umai forward and the door of the Ark opened and 'suddenly, light from heaven shown' upon the Covenant Box, the 10 priests and Umai. Umai declares: 'I stood silently looking at the Ark of the Covenant Box and felt a wonderful feeling to be in the presence of God' (Umai 1992a: 16).
There follows a detailed description of the contents of the Covenant Box. Most items have some connection with the Eucharist as it was celebrated in Umai's Anglo-Catholic context: a golden table on which are a candle stand with seven candles; a golden chalice (the cup used at the Eucharist) 'overflowed with pure blood' ; five loaves of bread, two small fish, and a sword; a paten (the plate used for the bread at the Eucharist); a ciborium (used to store consecrated bread) filled with communion wafers; a wooden bowl; two jars, one of water, one of wine; a scroll; a thurible (the incense pot on chains used for censing) and a bell. Beside the Ark are carpenter's implements and under the altar (table) are seven baskets. An angel holds the 'Rod of Moses'. These holy articles (some of which also have biblical references) represent the full force of Anglo-Catholic holiness and associate the divine presence in the Eucharist with the divine presence in the Ark of the Covenant. This vision was the fruit of years of intense Bible study and frequent participation in highly ritualistic Anglo-Catholic worship in which the 'Real Presence' of Christ is believed to be present in the consecrated bread and wine, hence the sacredness of the vessels connected with the sacrament.
Within the Covenant Box is a small child: T then saw the little child sleeping in the Covenant Box with his head facing the Southern side of the Covenant Box while his legs lay to the Northern Side' (Umai 1992a: 16). The child's golden crown topped with stars, numerous bejeweled medals, and golden belt are described in much detail, as well as 'Seven (7) Flames of Fire under the wings of the bird burning with a yellow flame' and five stones surrounding the child (Umai 1992a: 16-17). It becomes clear that the child is the Christ child and that the vision relates Jewish revelation though the Law (the Ark contains the Ten Commandments) with Christian revelation through God's presence in the world as Jesus Christ. The overall iconography of the vision integrates Jewish and Christian elements. The child holds a rod in his right hand (Umai 1992a: 17), perhaps a reference to a description of Christ in the Book of Revelation: '[the woman clothed with the sun] gave birth to a son [Christ], a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron' (Revelation 12:5). The combination of the Ark of the Covenant (radiating the power of God, Yahweh, the Father), the Christ Child (the Son), and the 'bird burning with a yellow flame' (Umai 1992a: 16) (in Christian iconography the Holy Spirit is represented by both a flame and a dove) also suggests a revelation of the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity of one God who is also Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Umai recounts that the child, holding the rod, then spoke to him:
The child then spoke to me after I have seen all the above things. The child said, T am the Lord your God. I give this kingdom to you from the beginning to the end. This kingdom is the kingdom of the Priesthood. I give you all the main principles which are as follows' (Umai 1992a: 17).
It should be noted that these words are a virtual ordination of Umai to the priesthood, passing on to him a spiritual authority equal to if not greater than the Anglican priests with whom he had shared his previous visions for authentication (Umai 1992c). Following this vision, Umai became much more confident in putting forward his views.
The Ark is also revelatory. Umai explains what he saw through the eight principles that follow, endorsing and outlining Umai's priestly ministry. These are as complex as the vision, encompassing genealogy, revelation, social relationships, divine and human power, the church, 'theocracy', the Trinity and the structure of the Kingdom of God, the latter including keys, squares, flags, the 12 tribes of Israel, thrones, the Ten Commandments, crowns, seals, and coats of arms. Umai's followers eventually tried to illustrate some of these principles, although no attempt was made to make a drawing of the vision proper but only of the Ark of the Covenant. Eventually, images of the Ark of the Covenant (without the child) became iconic for Umai and his movement. For example, the back cover of Publican Messenger includes a line drawing of the Covenant Box and Umai's letterhead was a black and gold version of the same. From these principles, Umai then gives a 'Warning' to the people of Solomon Islands for their falling away from God, threatening disaster if they did not repent.
The vision of the Christ Child reigning from the Ark of the Covenant has multiple purposes. Umai calls upon aspects of Judaism, Christianity, Malaita religion (the stones, for example), and colonial and post-colonial symbols (medals, flags, crowns, seals, coats of arms, etc.) for authority as an apocalyptic prophet. Umai's experience of the Ark, like that of the biblical Jews, was of the immediate presence of God: God's presence is with Umai, while at the same time buried beneath Kwara'ae, Malaita, giving the island holiness and destiny. What is not so clear is whether Umai believed that the actual Ark emerged from the earth where it had been buried many centuries earlier to reveal itself to him or whether Umai simply saw a very powerful vision of the Ark. Whatever the case, Umai regarded himself as ordained to interpret the Ark and its meaning to the people of Malaita and Solomon Islands. Indeed, it would appear that Umai came to have a personal relationship with the Ark of the Covenant as it sustained him in his ministry. Insofar as there are relatively few references to the teachings, inspiration, or power of Christ in Umai's teachings but many to the Ark, it would appear that it frequently came to displace Christ in his life as a Christian.
Malaitan ethno-theologies differ in their view of the Ark of the Covenant. As noted above, it remains important for the All Pacific People's Prayer Assembly. However, the Remnant Church has little interest in the Ark. Following the British Israelite tradition, they believe their ancestors brought a beautiful 'stone of destiny' inscribed in Hebrew from Jerusalem which they eventually lodged in a shrine at Fuanbu in the Kwara'ae bush where they offered sacrifice (Totolau n.d.).A Umai's fellow Anglican visionary and relative through marriage, Jonathan Hala, reported a vision of a Cross surrounded by angels and a rainbow descending from heaven in the Fateleka bush on Christmas 1973 and built a church on the site at Abuala which became the destination of hundreds of pilgrims. Aside from the rainbow, possibly indicative of God's covenant with Noah, and angels, Ilala's vision had no Old Testament iconography (Sira 1986). Umai's friend and financial backer, Leonard Maenu'u, a civil servant and prominent Kwara'ae Anglican layman, wrote a short theological treatise, He Is Who He Is, in 1996. He argued that the Ten Commandments (that is, what were contained in the Ark) became incarnate in Jesus Christ and therefore their continued physical and earthly existence was no longer necessary (Maenu'u 1996:38-39).
Further, Umai gave the Ark the extraordinary power of ushering in the Kingdom of God on the Last Day. In an early letter to Bishop Kafity, Umai explained that the Ark is buried 45 feet under Malaita and rapidly moving upward, bringing disaster at its surfacing unless the world repents:
I WANT TO LET YOU KNOW IN THE DAY OF THE LORD'S DAY, WHICH MEANS THE COVENANT DAY THAT I HAVE SEEN IN THE TIMETABLE OF CREATION THAT THE COVENANT BOX IS MOVING VERY FAST AND IS LOOKING VERY DANGEROUS AND RISING WITH ANGER.
SO, MY LORD BISHOP, I MUST LET YOU KNOW THAT ONLY FORTY-FIVE (45) FEET IS LEFT BEFORE THE LORD'S COVENANT REACHES THE SURFACE IN OUR COUNTRY IN THE SAME ISLAND (Umai to Kafity, 13 December 1990).
The Ark is 'looking very dangerous and rising with anger' because of the immorality of the people of Solomon Islands. These failings are described in a section of The Publican Messenger entitled 'The Fall of the Church and People of Solomon Islands' (Umai 1992a:2324). Umai condemns the country's failure to keep Sunday holy; the government's allowing of new churches and sects into the country causing separation in families; personal immorality; and the sale (rather than sharing) of food. His vision is of a Solomon Islands governed by Kwara'ae and Christian values of holiness, respect, and sharing.
At its current speed, Umai predicts 'THE COVENANT BOX WILL RISE UP ON MONDAY MORNING AT 5 O'CLOCK ON THE FIRST DAY OF THE FIRST MONTH OF THE YEAR 2,015' (Umai to Kafity, 13 December 1990). (5) If the people prepare for the Day,
WE WILL HAVE ONE WORLD CHURCH, THE WHOLE CHURCH OF CHRIST, THE KINGDOM OF GOD, AND THE PEACE OF THE WHOLE WORLD. THE GOVERNMENT WILL BECOME A THEOCRACY GOVERNMENT, ONE WORLD GOVERNMENT (Umai to Kafity, 13 December 1990).
The Ark of the Covenant, located in Kwara'ae, Malaita, has become the key to the advent of the Last Day, the inauguration of the Kingdom of God that will engulf the whole world. The Book of Revelation, with its visions of the Last Day and New Jerusalem, has been developed and re-written in a new Malaitan ethno-theological version.
As Umai and his followers dug for Japanese gold on Guadalcanal in 1993-1996, Umai's letters and reports to the bishop of Jerusalem continued, a second issue of Publican Messenger was prepared (but never published) and the apocalyptic pronouncements increased. Umai continued to reflect on his 'hidden treasure' in the light of the Bible, his visions, and Solomon Islands' history. After Guadalcanal Province objected to the operation (Umai's group were arrested twice but continued to return to the site), the national government commissioned a report assessing whether the dig would disturb any important historical site. The report pointed out that the Spanish explorer, Alvaro de Mendana de Neira, who named the Solomon Islands thinking he had discovered King Solomon's gold mines, wrote of seeing taro terraces on the side of Mount Gallego (which he also named) as he passed by in 1568.6 This information triggered in Umai a new synthesis involving the Ark of the Covenant.
In a private letter and report sent to Bishop Kafity late 1995, Umai revealed 'the secret' of the ever-rising Ark of the Covenant, linking it with the 'hidden treasure' he was searching for on Mount Gallego. The site he and his followers were digging was not the hiding place of Japanese gold but the mine 'where King Solomon took Gold from Solomon Islands to build the temple of Jerusalem' (Umai to Kafity, 23 November 1995). From the beginning, gold from the Solomon Islands contributed to the building of King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. Thus, Umai continued, Tf I rescue the hidden treasure from this place, on that same date the covenant box will rise and the earth quake will happen, which will shake the whole universe' (Umai to Kafity, 23 November 1995). Indeed, the Ark of the Covenant will return home: 'If all of us repent from [our] sins we will be happy to see the covenant box returned to Israel' (Umai to Kafity, 23 November 1995). As Umai still hoped to find the gold, he predicted the date of these simultaneous events, that is, the discovery of the 'hidden treasure' and the surfacing of the Ark of the Covenant, to occur the next year. Umai advised the bishop:
Do not worry about making peace. God himself will make peace for the world after this terrible earthquake. The evil will die and the righteous will live to see the covenant box [sIc] (Umai to Kafity, 23 November 1995).
It is striking that those who survive the ordeal of the Last Day live to see the Ark of the Covenant, not the risen and glorified Jesus Christ, as in Christian biblical apocalypses such as those in the Pauline epistles and Revelation. This view is consistent with Umai's commitment to the Ark of the Covenant as the key to salvation, both in his personal relationship with it and in its role in society as prophetic warning.
Umai provided more details in an attached report. It predicted first an earthquake, then the divine destruction of all weapons of war, a famine, the day of Pentecost, and the emergence of the 'Covenant Box' from the ground:
I declare that the covenant box will rise within the period of the earth quake [sic]. It will rise in the Solomon Islands. The boat which carried the covenant box from the Holy Land to the Solomon Islands will also rise and float on the sea surface during the time of earth quake. This boat was sunk in the Solomon Islands sea by God himself. The Ark of Noah will also rise on [M]ount Ararat ... during the time of the earth quake (Umai Report to Kafity, attached to letter of 23 November 1995).
While not explicit, there is certainly the strong implication that the boat which carried the Ark of the Covenant to Solomon Islands will be divinely refloated to carry the Ark back to Jerusalem. Indeed, a catechist from Umai's village of Bio on Malaita remembers Umai speculating that when the temple in Jerusalem was restored, it was likely that someone from Malaita would come forward with the key to open the temple's great gate (interview with Albert Aioro, 4 March 2012). Malaitans would follow the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem. In this return to Jerusalem, earthly and heavenly Jerusalems are finally one. The author of Revelation (21:10) sees 'the holy city of Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God'.
In addition to Mt. Gallego on Guadalcanal and Kwara'ae on Malaita, a third Solomon Islands site is also involved with this apocalyptic event: San Jorge Island in Isabel, the traditional place of the departed spirits of the people of Isabel. In the Publican Messenger, Umai notes that Judah Rodger, the founder of Malaita, 'was not buried in Malaita, but buried on one Island within the Isabel province territory' (Umai 1992a:27). He now intimates that that island was San Jorge, for the Temple offerings bought from Jerusalem are buried there. In 1992, following a government proposal to mine nickel on the island, Umai became concerned about the gold that Judah brought from the temple in Jerusalem and wrote Kafity that he feared that 'the offerings of the people of Jerusalem' would be disturbed. He sought the bishop's advice, declaring, 'I DO NOT WANT THE ISLAND TO BE DESTROYED UNTIL THE RIGHT TIME HAS COME TO HARVEST THE GOLD' (Umai to Kafity, 21 July 1992). The words 'right time' and 'harvest' are eschatologically suggestive. It seems that Umai thought the emergence of that gold (probably also to be returned to Jerusalem) would also come with the simultaneous emergence of the Ark of the Covenant on Malaita and the discovery of the 'hidden treasure' on Guadalcanal. Thus, three major islands of Solomons Islands--Malaita, Guadalcanal, and Isabel--are tied together in a single apocalyptic event, which then reaches out and enfolds the rest of the world.
Umai's intense interest in the underground and the power emanating from it (the Genesis Star of Creation, noted above, is also located underground) resonates with similar intense interest in the underground in other parts of Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. The 'underground army' of Arosi, Makira, Solomon Islands as a place of advanced technology and autochthonous power and origins (Scott 2011, 2013) and the babala (rules)-producing underground world of the Gogodala-speakers of PNG (Dundon, this issue) both privilege the underground over the aboveground. For the Arosi and Gogodala, the underground is inhabited by autochthonous residents who direct what happens above (including, for the Gogodala-speakers, interacting with new arrivals claiming Jewish ancestry). (7) But Umai's three sacred underground sites on three different islands (Malaita, Guadalcanal, and Santa Isabel) are uninhabited; instead, they derive their significance from external relationships with the Jerusalem Temple and the apocalyptic tradition which Umai believes they entail. In this respect, Umai's views are more like those of his Malaita co-religionists, the Remnant Church, the All People's Prayer Assembly, and the Seventh-Day Adventists, where salvation also comes from without (for example, following Jewish Sabbath and dietary laws), not from within. What Umai does share with Makira's 'underground army' is a sense of exceptionalism: Malaita is special because of its unique role in the Last Days, though other islands are brought in; Makira's underground army gives it a technical and moral advantage over the rest of Solomon Islands, including Malaitans. (8) Both are also small heavens on earth.
With regard to Umai's deep interest in the Ark of the Covenant, I would mention one more factor. I would argue that part of Umai's interest in the Ark was an interest in its great power (Kwara'ae mamana, cognate of the Polynesian mana). (9) For Umai, the Ark of the Covenant exemplified mamana, even to the point of bringing on the end of the world. Biblical accounts of the Ark stress its raw power, striking dead those who abuse or even touch it. Joshua used it to bring about the fall of Jericho (Joshua 6) and it caused havoc among the Philistines when they captured it (1 Samuel 5). It was the very powerful presence of God among Israel. Even in the second Jerusalem Temple, from which it was absent, the place where it once rested retained the power. Umai was not terribly attracted to the apparent powerlessness of Christian ethics exemplified by the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) and turning the other cheek. In this respect, he resembles Melanesian Anglicans deeply disappointed that seven Melanesian Brothers did not have sufficient mana to prevent their murders by Guadalcanal militants in 2002 (Jones 2008) or new Malaita Muslims disappointed by Christianity's espousal of human and divine weakness and attracted to Islam's espousal of divine and human power (McDougall 2009).
Umai believed that a revived Kwara'ae culture of mutual respect and sharing (regarded also as aabua) was what was needed to prepare Malaitans and Solomon Islanders for the Kingdom of God. But part of that Kingdom was mamana and sharing in mamana. The Ark of the Covenant provided a dramatic power that Jesus of the New Testament alone could not provide, indeed, giving Umai prophetic power and authority (humbly exercised, he argued) over other islands of the Solomons and, indeed, all of Oceania, through islands visited or settled in Judah's founding voyage from Jerusalem to Malaita. The Malaita-specific location of the buried Ark of the Covenant gave Malaita power and privilege that other islands of the Solomons and the Pacific did not have. Autochthonous views of land as powerful mother and source of life are doubly strengthened by the tremendous power of the Ark when it is buried deep in Malaitan soil by God himself. Malaitans become God's chosen and powerful people.
The goal: A theocratic Solomon Islands and world
As noted above, in 1990 Umai wrote to the bishop of Jerusalem declaring that with the surfacing of the Ark of the Covenant and the apocalyptic Last Day, there will be a single united church, the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, world peace, and 'THE GOVERNMENT WILL BECOME A THEOCRACY GOVERNMENT, ONE WORLD GOVERNMENT' (Umai to Kafity, 13 December 1990). Theocracy or divine rule, patterned after Old Testament theocracy, is a strong theme throughout Umai's writings.
The 'eight principles' discussed above that followed from Umai's 1989 vision of the Ark of the Covenant include important references to theocracy. Principle 7 notes that the years leading up to year 2000 are a time of 'preparation for the whole world' before the dawn of 'theocracy', identified as the 'Kingdom of God' (Umai 1992a:18). Principle 8 includes a triangular structure of boxes representing 'the Kingdom of Priesthood, the Southern Kingdom' (Umai 1992a: 18). Of the 10 squares on the fifth and bottom row of the triangle of boxes, Umai writes:
For the fifth Ten Squares I set the Court [Coat] of Arms with the Constitution in the Bible from Genesis to Deuteronomy which is the Five Books of Law of the Holy Culture of God to Judge in this Kingdom for the righteousness of the people ruling the government of theocracy ruled by the Holy Spirit (Umai 1992a: 18).
Critical of the Solomon Islands government and people's lack of interest in Sunday observance, the church, and community values (expressed by Umai as people selling rather than sharing their food), Umai longed for a Christian theocracy of justice, unity, and equality that owed much to the Old Testament theocracies of the reigns of Kings Saul, David, and Solomon. Such a theocracy could produce national unity that contrasted to the fragmented and hostile island groups described (and virtually endorsed) by the scarcely religious Prime Minister Solomon Mamaloni, cited above. However, having eschewed participation in politics, Umai could not actively enter Solomon Islands electoral politics but only prophesy.
By definition, of course, the post-Apocalyptic Christian vision of the Kingdom of God is a theocracy. In the book of Revelation (11:15), the seventh angel blows his trumpet and loud voices in heaven proclaim: 'The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever'. In terms of Christian doctrine, there was nothing heterodox in Umai's theocratic vision of the post-Apocalyptic Kingdom of God. Indeed, in Revelation (11:19), as noted above, even the Temple and the Ark of the Covenant have a role to play. Only Malaita's special role was peculiar.
While Umai's teachings on genealogy, the route from Israel, and the Ark of the Covenant are often different from other Malaitan groups that draw heavily upon the Old Testament, in the area of theocracy there is much more agreement. During my stay (1996-2008) in Auki, the capital of Malaita Province, the Remnant Church frequently proclaimed 'theocracy' for Malaita in handouts and even on billboards. The founder's son, Wesley Sisimia, a radio broadcaster in Honiara, often highlighted theocracy in his histories of the Remnant Church (Sisimia 1998) and his posthumously published plan for national constitutional reform, subtitled 'Constitutional Reform: Theocracy, One best Option' (Sisimia n.d). His son, Charles, reiterates that theocracy rather than descent from Israel is the direction the church is now going (interview, 26 March 2011).
For 2007 Solomon Islands Independence Day, 7 July, the Solomon Islands government decided to hold national celebrations in Auki, Malaita, rather than Honiara. The All Pacific Peoples Assembly members, noticing that the date written in numbers was 777, in contrast to the demonic 'number of the beast', 666, in Revelation 15:2, converged on Auki from all over the province with the expectation that the Governor General, representing the Queen, would crown a divinely chosen 'king' for Malaita. (10) Warned of the coronation and not wishing to take part, the Governor General came a day early for the government celebrations and left immediately afterwards. With no Governor General to perform the ceremony on '777', no coronation took place, greatly disappointing the APPA. The APPA continues to express a strong commitment to theocracy and it is widely assumed that if Pastor Michael Maeliau is elected to Parliament, he will pursue a theocratic agenda. In late 2014 he was elected to the Malaita Provincial Assembly and unsuccessfully contested the post of Premier. The North Malaitan-born Governor General of Solomon Islands regards himself as a theocratic figure and Malaita Province's handing over of its rural development to the State of Israel (by 2014 apparently lapsed) can be given a theocratic interpretation. Even Solomon Islands' national political and church leaders' constant reiteration in the media that Solomon Islands is a 'Christian nation' in the face of increasing corruption and crime suggests a desire for some form of at least mild theocracy. Thus in this area, Umai was an early critic of post-Independence Solomon Islands as it slid into corruption, greed, secularism, and ethnic tension, arguing that only a theocratic rule could provide a solution to these problems.
In this paper, I have described the prophecies and teachings of George Umai, a lay Anglican of West Kwara'ae, Malaita, especially as they relate to Israel-Kwara'ae genealogy, the personal and apocalyptical power of the Ark of the Covenant, the Jerusalem destiny of Malaitans (indeed, of all Solomon Islanders and the whole world), and theocracy. Kwara'ae Christian concern with genealogy required a blood relationship with both Jesus and the Old Testament patriarchs from Abraham onwards. Umai's vision of the Ark of the Covenant with the Christ child provided an integration of Jewish, Christian, and Malaitan religious motifs that gave powerful authority to Umai's apocalyptic vision of the Kingdom of God and theocracy.
Indeed, the Ark of the Covenant became a living artefact that moved from underground to the surface of Malaita to inaugurate the Kingdom of God. As an experience of God's presence, it guided Umai through conflicts and troubles, and frequently shifted in meaning. Its powerful mamana was stronger than the Pauline weakness of the Cross of Christ. The Jewish-Christian theocracy brought about a full and all-inclusive society, both earthly and heavenly, in the face of the increasing disrespect, division, greed, and secularism of the post-independence Solomon Islands government and people. Umai's extensive and diverse use of the Old Testament suggests that its great variety and ostensible similarity to Kwara'ae culture made it a more attractive source of visions and theological reflection than the New Testament with its more Hellenistic and urban ethos, though he did not ignore the latter book (for example, the Book of Revelation or Gospel accounts of a 'hidden treasure') when it met his needs.
As I indicated in my sketch of Umai and his movement above, the movement collapsed with Umai's death in 1998. When I visited the centre of the movement, Gwaitaba'a and Bio villages, West Kwara'ae, in 2011, Umai was remembered fondly among his former followers for his deep spirituality and strong leadership qualities, especially during the Mt. Gallego dig, even though it was unsuccessful; for his knowledge of Kwara'ae culture, including land tenure, personal relationships, and language; for his personal mamana, including prophecies of earthquakes, tsunamis, and social disorder such as ethnic tension; and for his espousal of respectful and holy Anglo-Catholic worship in contrast to the loud guitars and charismatic worship of their SSEC and even Anglican neighbours. The actual content of the visions and teachings, including their strong Old Testament component, seems to have been largely forgotten. Indeed, Umai's former followers have shown little interest in Malaita Province's relations with the state of Israel. Outside interests, at least in Bio, are concentrated on relations with the American builder, a former critic of Umai, who designed their large church building. He is a deacon and teacher at a Christian secondary school in the USA and regularly brings students to the village for exposure visits (interview with Doug Hicks, 1 July 2011).
What was striking was that the villagers' interest in abua (holiness) and ali'afu'anga (total completeness) remained but with virtually no reference to the specifically Old Testament aspects of Umai's teachings such as the Stephen Rodger genealogy, the Ark of the Covenant, or theocracy. This striking absence suggests that the strong interest of many Malaitans and the Malaita Provincial government in the state of Israel may last only as long as specific needs, whether physical or spiritual, are met and after that interest will vanish. Not long after the provincial agreement with Israel was signed, Malaitans begin to mock Israel's presence in the province in both the printed and social media. The 2014 provincial election did not bring Prophet Michael Maeliau and his vision of Old Testament theocratic rule for Malaita into power. Memory of Umai and his teachings continues to recede. Today, while Bio village remains Anglican, Umai's home village of Gwaitaba'a has split into three churches: the original Anglican Church, Assemblies of God, and Kingdom Harvest. Umai's offspring now shout in tongues and play guitars with loud amplifiers; many have forgotten the vision. The religious life of Malaita continues its ever-variegated path even on the most local level.
Terry M. Brown
University of Trinity College, Toronto
I wish to acknowledge the willingness of many who knew George Umai, whether as followers or critics, to share information with me, especially members of his family in Gwaitaba'a, Bio, and Honiara. I particularly thank Wilson Maelaua of Honiara, Umai's personal secretary in his later years, for the gift of his Umai papers, from which the letters quoted in this article come. This article touches upon but one aspect of Umai's visions and teachings and much more is to be gleaned from these and other Umai papers. I also wish to acknowledge helpful conversations on Umai with David Welchman Gegeo and Michael Scott.
(1.) Most of these letters are included in a collection of Umai's papers given to me by Wilson Maelaua, Umai's personal secretary in the 1990s. Umai usually copied this correspondence to world religious leaders such as the pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of Melanesia, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Honiara. He also copied the correspondence to Anglican bishops in Argentina and Kenya because of their location along Stephen Rodger's route from Jerusalem.
(2.) In response to this criticism, Umai and his followers wrote a 'Publican Messenger' constitution and in 1992 began to make plans to register it under the Solomon Islands Charitable Act, indicating a move towards becoming a separate denomination (see note 1 above).
(3.) It should also be noted that European missionaries have no place in this narration; for Umai, the Ark containing God's law arrived centuries before European missionaries.
(4.) Likewise, Herbert W. Armstrong and the Worldwide Church of God (Timmer, this issue) had no interest in the Ark of the Covenant.
(5.) Umai's calendars and dating systems are idiosyncratic.
(6.) This report, 'Komuporo Land Digging: Initial Historical Site Survey', dated 2 February 1996, is included in the Umai files given to me by Wilson Maelaua.
(7.) On the other hand, the strongly autochthonous Arosi have little interest in claiming a Jewish Tost tribe' identity. Some years ago, Michael Scott indicated to me that he only ever found one speculation along these lines, someone who surmised that the Arosi might be derived from the Tribe of Reuben.
(8.) Belief in the Makira 'underground army' was at its height during the ethnic tension crisis when elements of the Malaita Eagle Force attacked Makira.
(9.) I am aware that I have taken a fairly 'substantivized' view of mana here, a view sharply criticised by Keesing (1984) and Burt (1994:54-55) who see such a view as the misrepresentation of early Anglican missionaries (especially the late 19lh century missionary-ethnologist Robert Codrington who first defined the term) who needed to find local terms to translate Christian theological concepts. Keesing and Burt argue that mana is fundamentally powerful action, thus, a verb rather than a noun. However, Umai grew up in precisely such an Anglican context in which mana was seen and experienced as a real power possessed by a person (for example, a missionary or priest). Numerous interviewees identified Umai as having personal mamana, enabling him to discern evil spirits (on both Malaita and Guadalcanal), interpret signs in nature, foretell the future, and heal. Recent anthropologists and theologians of Oceanic Christianity have begun to critique the Keesing-Burt view of mana along these lines, e.g., Jones (2008) and papers delivered at the New Mana Workshop at Australian National University, 2013.
(10.) In Christian symbolism, seven represents perfection, so the juxtaposition of 111 with 666 was taken as an eschatological sign for theocracy to be introduced to Malaita. The proposed king was a Papua New Guinean member of the All People's Prayer Assembly, although there was a Central Kwara'ae man claiming the position also. There was also much popular ridicule of the various candidates for the throne of Malaita. As the Anglican bishop, I also got drawn into the narrative. Anglican villagers told me later that it was rumoured that on a trip to England earlier that year, I had met the Queen to arrange for the coronation.
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|Title Annotation:||Special Issue: Descent from Israel: Jewish Identities in the Pacific, Past and Present|
|Author:||Brown, Terry M.|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2015|
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