Marsden success for Dr Fraser Macdonald

The globalisation of Pentecostal Christianity in the 20th century was a development of enormous historical and religious significance. Within this narrative, the explosion of Pentecostalism in Melanesia in the 1970s remains an untold story. During this time, the spiritual worlds of people throughout Melanesia were radically transformed as the result of an intense Pentecostal revival brought from New Zealand that swept through the region like wildfire. Dr Fraser Macdonald has recently been awarded a prestigious Marsden Fast-Start Award for his project Melanesia Burning: The Explosion of Pentecostalism in the Western Pacific, which aims to provide a definitive account of how local conversions to Pentecostalism in Melanesia were interconnected parts of a wider regional religious movement that had its origins in New Zealand.

We spoke with Fraser about his project earlier this week.


What drew you to your topic?

Through doing research into the influence of Christianity among the Oksapmin people, I learned of a Pentecostal-charismatic revival movement that swept through the local area in the 1970s. Further inquiry revealed that this was in fact but one part of a much broader revival movement that had irradiated throughout many parts of Papua New Guinea from a Christian training institute in the nearby Western Highlands Province. Continuing to trace the revival back revealed that it had come to Papua New Guinea from Solomon Islands and that it had been catalysed there by a Maori evangelist who had travelled there from Aotearoa/New Zealand in the early 1970s. Eventually I came to realise that I had stumbled across an important piece of the story of global Christianity that had yet to be told and decided that this was going to be a very interesting project to conceptualise.

Why is it important to study this now?

I argued that studying this historical transnational religious movement now is important because many of the people who initiated, shaped, and participated in the revival are still alive and able to be interviewed about their experiences. Not only this but telling the story of this regional event stands to fill out some of the ethnographic record in the history of global Christianity, particularly as this concerns Pentecostal-charismatic revivals. The story of how these Christian traditions rapdily diffused to many other regions in the world is fairly well known but the story of how they entered into and radically reshaped Melanesian societies in the mid-1970s remains obscure.

What are you reading at the moment?

I've thankfully had quite a lot of time to do reading lately and have been developed a very strong interest in the early history of European voyages, exploration, and missionisation in the Pacific. While much of the anthropological work undertaken in the Pacific looks at the interaction between exogenous and indigenous cultural institutions, people, and values, in these early encounters the ontological gulf between Europeans and the Pacific peoples they came across was often enormous and quite surreal. While my interest is broad, in particular I have been reading parts of Lovett's The History of the London Missionary Society 1795-1895 (1899), and also bits and pieces of Burney's prodigious A Chronological History of the Discoveries in the South Sea or Pacific Ocean (1803).

The Marsden Fund was established by the government in 1994 to fund excellent fundamental research. It is a contestable fund administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand on behalf of the Marsden Fund Council.

Marsden Fund research benefits society as a whole by contributing to the development of researchers with knowledge, skills and ideas. The Fund supports research excellence in science, engineering and maths, social sciences and the humanities. Competition for grants is intense. Marsden is regarded as the hallmark of excellence for research in New Zealand.