From Political Subservience to Political Power and Influence: Seventh-day Adventists in Papua-New Guinea

Seventh-day Adventists have never had the numbers in their home base – the USA – to have electoral influence. Because of the mind-set created by this situation and their expectation that before the return of Christ, which they expect “soon”, they will face persecution, they have typically been subservient to governments everywhere, arguing that they should cooperate with them. Consequently, for example, they made no protest when the South African government implemented Apartheid, and they then set up a segregated church structure that mirrored that embraced by the government. To the extent that Adventists have been active in courts and in seeking positive relations with governments, their concern has been to protect their own religious liberty, especially the right of members to observe their Sabbath, and of the Church to evangelize and proselytize and maintain the integrity of their educational, medical and publishing institutions.

This paper was presented at a meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in 2001.
Click here for a PDF version of this paper: From Political Subservience to Political Power and Influence – SDAs in PNG

However, as Adventism has grown rapidly in the developing world in recent decades, and their members have become educated above average as a result of their parochial schools and colleges, Adventists have been rising to positions of power. Nowhere has this occurred more dramatically than in Papua-New Guinea. This paper examines the dynamics of this process, and the impact of Adventists gaining power and position on their nation and on their church.


The paper was researched primarily during two visits to Papua-New Guinea (PNG) and Australia. During the first, in 1986, I completed 92 interviews with church leaders (both missionaries and nationals), educators at the Adventist college, three training schools and three high schools, pastors, Adventist politicians and other leading laypersons in five regions of the country. I completed focus groups with students, attended church services, and participated in a conference which brought Adventist politicians together. I also asked church leaders in Australia about developments in the PNG and interviewed several former missionaries there. During a follow-up research trip in 1999, I interviewed a similar array of Adventists in three regions with special attention, during a week when I was based in the office of the Deputy Prime Minister in Parliament House, to Adventist politicians, judges, and civil servants, and participated in a meeting at church headquarters of church administrators and other prominent leaders including the presidents of all the local missions. I also made developments in PNG a special focus of a series of interviews with church leaders and former missionaries in Australia.


Adventists entered the territory of what later became PNG in 1908. Steady geographic expansion – but slow growth – followed until World War II with the exception of a couple of islands off the North-East coast, which provided most of the pastors and teachers.

Much faster growth began after WWII, and especially after national independence in 1975. The official membership increased from 31,000 in 1975 to 58,000 in 1980, 86,000 in 1985, and 182,000 in 1999. (By the end of 2017 it stood at 310,531.) It became concentrated mostly in the Highlands, and more recently, with urbanization, around Port Moresby. However, the official statistics were not considered trustworthy — they reported baptisms carefully, but often not deaths and missing members, and the transfer system was in a mess – yet the census showed many more claiming to be Adventists than listed.

The main outreach methods used were schools and lay pastors and laity in personal contacts following networks in villages, with baptismal classes lasting two years, evangelistic meetings in towns, and in the late 1990s huge crowds attracted to watch satellite evangelism on large screens in sports stadiums – 40,000 each in the two largest cities, 10,000 each in two others.

Reasons for rapid growth:

In the 1980s and 1990s word was out in the New Guinea Highlands that God blesses Adventists. The proof of this was that many get of them were getting rich—as entrepreneurs (bus or truck fleets, housing, coffee growing), in government jobs, etc. Why so?

Traditionally, the people regarded pigs as wealth, but it was hard to keep them because they were expected to throw feasts for kin, where pork was the major dish. However, Adventists opted out of such ceremonial obligations because their church taught them to avoid the consumption of pork and alcohol, and also because of the significant role played such feasts by the spirits of ancestors. The Adventist Church also prohibited selling daughters to marriage—they rejected the bride-price and encouraged members to marry one another. Such rules enabled Adventist members to accumulate capital – i.e., an unintended consequence of the Adventist belief system was to prepare members for the coming of the money economy. Employers sought Adventist employees because they were seen as sober, honest, and reliable. They were seen as good bets for bank loans—many of them built coffee plantations – and then came the coffee boom there when the Brazilian harvest failed one year.

Adventists also emphasized education – theirs was the only separate system, for Adventists would not join a system where the government appointed and paid teachers and paid for books; from 1978 through the 1980s there were only 4 high schools in PNG going to grade 12, and one of these was Adventist. It was outstanding because it was staffed by expatriate missionaries. In 1985 Adventists made up only 2.7% of the population, but at the University of PNG 11.4% of the student body and both the president and vice-president of the student association were Adventists. The number of Adventist students there had jumped from 15 in 1980 to 159 as the university’s image among Adventists shifted from a dangerous place to an opportunity for evangelism. Adventists opened their own college in the mid-1980s, which was granted university status in the early 1990s. Its business course was recognized as the best in the nation. Many Adventist graduates obtained government jobs.

Meanwhile, there were growing numbers of conversions to Adventism in government high schools, at the university and in other tertiary educational institutions, among literate townspeople, who were persuaded that Adventism is doctrinally correct – that is, that the biblical Sabbath was Saturday.

However, 70% of Adventist converts are poor subsistence farmers, and with opportunities for even middle-school education sharply limited, most of them and their children are destined to remain poor. Cargo cults have been important among these people, whose rituals are eschatologically-oriented, seeking to restore a myth-time. There is a resonance between Adventism, with its understanding of the future through biblical prophecy and its urgent expectation of Christ’s return to reward the saints, and these thought patterns. A study in the neighboring Solomon Islands of what kinds of people were drawn to different religious groups found that those embedded in the traditional system were especially drawn to Adventism.

There are many stories told of opportunities to open up Adventist work as a result of the arrival of missionaries or pastors being seen as direct fulfillment of an influential villager’s dream.


However, the evidence raises questions about the quality of Adventist growth:

As in many parts of the Developing World, in the 1980s and 1990s Adventists emphasized the numbers added, rather than nurture or establishing them in the faith, as budgets and the pastoral and teaching staff were stretched thin.

Many members continued to live in fear of the spirits of ancestors, and to make use of mediums and magic, even though the Adventist doctrine of soul sleep pending the resurrection should have made such spirit activity impossible. In 1986 my arrival in PNG coincided with a conference hosted by Division leaders, where the many Adventist politicians had been invited to attend. I interviewed many of the latter while there. Later, when I visited Kabiufa Village, the home of the first Adventist high school, which was already third-generation Adventist, for the Sabbath morning worship service, I met one of the politicians I had interviewed earlier. Later that day he did as a result of what Westerners would view as a heart attack. However, the elders of the village then met in order to discern who was responsible for his death, and they settled on a neighboring village. The president of the Church Mission there told me, distraught, that this would likely result in a clash when members of the rival villagers would be killed.

I found that Adventist theology classes focus their teaching, and pastors their preaching, on Adventist interpretations of biblical prophecies concerning Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome – which are far from PNG – and not on such immediate issues as sorcery and witchcraft. The spirit world is part of the real world in this culture – it is common for Adventists to have a foot in each camp as an insurance policy.

Backsliding among Adventists who break church rules against drinking, smoking, and chewing betel nut, break the Sabbath, and rarely attend church but continue to identify as Adventists is so common that the New Guineans have invented a Pidgin-English term for these people: “skin7-days.” They are especially common among 2nd- and 3rd-generation Adventists and among students who graduate from the protected rural environments of the Adventist high schools and then go on to University of PNG – the outreach to other students there was almost all carried out by students who built up their spiritual muscles in the government high schools.


Church leaders in the US and Australia were taken by surprise when it was reported in 1977, only two years after national independence, that 38 of the national and provincial politicians claimed Adventist affiliation, either as members or alumni of Adventist schools, for such numbers were unprecedented. My research visit in 1986 happened to coincide with a conference for Adventists in government hosted by the head of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department at the General Conference and the President of the South Pacific Division of the church, and I was invited to participate. While those attending included the Minister for Lands and another former minister, most were provincial legislators, for many of the national Parliamentarians had returned to their districts since Parliament was not sitting at that time.

While some of those present were still heavily involved in their Adventist congregations, it became clear that many were aptly described as “skin 7-days” and that this was especially true of the absent MPs. It was explained to me that it was difficult to be elected without engaging in bribery, corruption, offering voters free beer, and campaigning on the Sabbath; several had married additional wives, one of the symbols of being “big men” in the society, even though the practice was forbidden by the Adventist Church. Although their reputations made them embarrassed to attend church services, most of them continued to think of themselves as Adventists.

The prime purpose of the conference was to try to strengthen ties between the church and the politicians. It did not attempt to direct their political activity or even to raise their consciousness concerning how their faith could shape the policies they pursued. When I asked them in interviews how being Adventists had influenced the kind of legislation they had sponsored or supported, most looked at me blankly, although the Minister for Lands mentioned helping the church secure land for a church. Nor did the conference organizers attempt to get the Adventists, who were scattered among the many political parties and had no history of cooperation or even regular contact with one another, to work together.

At the end of 1998 a friend in the General Conference who had just returned from PNG encouraged me to return to PNG because so many Adventists were now in high places: the Governor-General, two judges of the Supreme Court, several who occupied high posts in the civil service, military and police, several Ministers, and the Speaker of Parliament were all Adventists. Moreover, the Speaker, John Pundari, a young banker, who had been chosen for the position because he was widely admired for his honesty and was heavily involved in his church, had been pulling many of the Adventist MPs together for weekly prayer breakfasts and discussions of political issues.

While I was in Australia in July 1999, en route to PNG, newspaper accounts told that Pundari had broadened his weekly meetings to include others concerned with the corruption of the government, had formed them into a new political party, the Advance PNG Party [APP], which had then organized a revolt against the government of Prime Minister Skate, who, as a former “rascal” or street gang member, had positioned himself close to criminal elements, bringing down the government. For several days the press assumed that Pundari would become the new Prime Minister, but he was outmaneuvered, and instead became Deputy Prime Minister; several other party members became Cabinet Ministers.

During interviews in Parliament House I found that Pundari had set out to broaden his group so that it could not be attacked for being an Adventist party: 10 of its 20 members were Adventists. Members reported high commitment to their goal of changing the culture of corruption in government and politics: they mentioned the buying of votes in elections, self-serving horse-trading when governments are being undermined and formed, which had resulted in political instability, and the skimming off of public funds and bribes for politicians and civil servants. They stated that they were also determined to address the financial mess, to espouse policies that would help attain a fairer distribution of services and resources to rural areas, and to support legislation that would strengthen the values espoused by Adventism and which would favor the church. They gave as examples of pro-Adventist initiatives the earlier move to grant the small Pacific Adventist College a university charter, which ultimately passed unanimously, and a secret move to grant a television license that was available to the Church: indeed, Pundari pressed the new head of Telecomm, a backslidden Adventist, to support this move “for the sake of the church” in my presence.

PNG politicians have large discretionary “rural development” funds for use in their districts. Several of the Adventist politicians reported eagerly that they had been able to channel goodly portions of their funds to projects helpful to their Church – funding its schools, building churches, providing it with vehicles, with salaries for active laymen, and even support for evangelistic outreach. The Church administration confirmed this practice, and commented that other churches were helped similarly by their member politicians: the practice of awarding such funds to religious groups is justified as benefiting large groups among the population.

Similarly, Sir Silas Atopare, the Governor-General of PNG, in a testimony given at the General Conference Session in Toronto in July 2000, stated that God had placed him in that position so that he could help the Church. This was confirmed to me whilst I was in PNG. Sir Silas had been embraced by the President of the General Conference during his visit to PNG in 1998 and had been feted in Toronto in spite of the fact that it was widely known in PNG that this “big man” is polygamously married.

Some months after my most recent visit to PNG, the APP was dropped from the government in yet another political twist. However, Pundari did not join the opposition, which is headed by the former PM who he is convinced is corrupt, but his party instead sat on the cross-benches. A short time afterwards there was another reorganization of the governing coalition, and the APP rejoined it, with Pundari becoming Minister for Lands.

I asked if the Adventists in high places have influence on the internal workings of the Church. Both politicians and church leaders denied this, although an Adventist who was formerly Acting PM did attempt to mediate between the teachers at Kabiufa High School and Church leaders when the former threatened to strike. Pundari said that he supports the church but does not interfere in its internal processes: he has considerable respect for church leaders.


Nationalization: This process had been slow to get off the ground compared to the other Protestant churches, with no attempt at manpower planning until the nation was on the verge of independence, and no senior college until 10 years later. It had begun with a small development course for pastors at the junior college in the 1970s, the appointment of national leaders in some of the local missions, and a decision to send able pastors and teachers to Adventist colleges in Fiji and the Philippines to get degrees – however almost all of those then took jobs outside the church, where salaries were much higher. By 1986, 6 of the 10 missions had national presidents, who were usually appointed to positions away from their home districts to avoid one-talk pressures. The union had just appointed a senior national as Secretary, but he was proving a fiasco because, with only 7 years of education, he wrote poor letters. In 1990 he was made president, a better fit when provided with strong backing from expatriate Secretary and Treasurer. By 1999, as the Division in Australia continued to cut expatriate lines and urban violence, and especially rapes and gang rapes of white women, including the wives of Adventist missionaries, made it difficult to fill even those lines, all missions were totally staffed by nationals, most of the union staff, but not the Secretary or the treasury staff, were nationals, the junior college had a national principal, and the staff of the high schools had been totally nationalized. However, the administration of Pacific Adventist University was still expatriate, as was most but not all of the faculty.

It was widely conceded that the nationalization process had proceeded too rapidly. The situation was most severe among treasurers because the business graduates from the university had been snapped up by corporations offering high salaries: mission treasurers were proving unable to manage their finances, and the union treasury had been forced, at high cost, to move to Australia in order to attract the necessary expatriate staff, who were contracted to spend only one-third of their time in PNG untangling mission finances.

Building Maintenance: One result of nationalization of the workforce has been a sharp decline in building maintenance. This is partly because the rent charged nationals, whose salaries are much lower than those of expatriates, must be much lower, and partly because expatriates were usually able to attract funds from contacts in Australia and New Zealand for special projects such as building maintenance. Many buildings are consequently being allowed to deteriorate.

Ministerial personnel, training: Pacific Adventist University was established primarily to train national leaders. Consequently, most of its intake to its theology program has been made up of graduates of the junior college with pastoral experience. However, few of the more senior national pastors have the educational background to gain admission. The hiring of graduates, with much higher salaries, has exacerbated the Church’s financial crisis, requiring the firing of many more uneducated and poorly educated pastors: a total of 193 workers were dropped between 1980 and 1985, a period of very rapid growth, reducing the workforce to 825. Meanwhile, there has been considerable turnover among the better educated pastors – often the most able – because of firings for reasons of immorality. This is often because, in a society where there are several different ways of being married and what constitutes a legal marriage is often blurred, “fiances” of young pastors become pregnant before it is agreed that they are married. The shortage of pastors has made nurture of converts even less likely. In spite of the Church’s concern for raising the educational standard of pastors, the third college for training pastors has recently been reopened with its entrance requirement raised to grade 6, since it has been found that its graduates are more successful in village settings and cost the missions less to boot.

Primary Education: Adventist primary education is in crisis. Almost all its schools were built in village settings, in exchange for the land, financed by the then successful program of collecting door-to-door in Australia and New Zealand for missions. It is now struggling to finance the building of schools in the towns where the population and church membership have burgeoned since independence. The competition for teachers, which, together with the loneliness and poor housing that qualified teachers found in villages, earlier caused a huge loss among its teaching staff to government schools paying higher salaries, forced the Church to raise its salaries. This in turn forced it to increase tuition, which priced its schools above what the villagers were able to pay. Moreover, government tuition subsidies have also been sharply curtailed. Lagging income has meant late payments to teachers and school closures. However, when parents have complained to the authorities because of school closures, the latter have frequently ordered that they remain open, promising financial support that has usually not materialized. This is a reason why MPs, especially SDA MPs, have often used their discretionary funds to help support schools or school projects. The closure of Adventist primary schools is in turn reducing the recruitment pool for the Adventist high schools.

High Schools: All three union high schools now go to grade 12. However, because the staff of all of them has been nationalized, and at a time of enormous competition for teachers, they no longer have their previous quality advantage – indeed almost none of those teaching grades 11 and 12 have the qualifications to do so. The flagship school, Kabiufa, has been in severe crisis because its formerly famous market gardens, which supplied the cities by plane and brought in considerable income, have suddenly returned heavy losses. When the principal led the teachers to threaten to strike over salaries, the Union called their bluff and fired all of them is spite of the tremendous shortage of SDA teachers. These events have greatly reduced the quality of that once-famous school. Indeed, the general shortage of teachers and school administrators has caused so serious a problem that some leaders are advocating closing one of the high schools.

The educational opportunities offered by the SDA high schools have clearly declined in spite of the upgrading of two of them, and the vast majority of the Adventist youth being educated are obtaining that education in government schools. This suggests that the next generation of Adventists wishing to enter politics will not have some of the advantages of the present generation of politicians. On the other hand, if Adventists who graduate from other schools continue to be much more evangelistic than those from Adventist schools, this situation may not prove to be the disaster to the Church that its leaders fear it may be.


The official membership of the Adventist Church in PNG at the end of 1998 stood at 184,428, or 58.1% of the total membership of the South Pacific Division of the Church. In contrast, the membership of the other two island unions, headquartered in the Solomon Islands and Fiji, totaled 72,444, while the membership of the two unions covering Australia and New Zealand totaled 60,688. In spite of the fact that PNG Adventists include many more prominent citizens than those in Australia and New Zealand, a PNG national had never been elected to any position at Division headquarters. A few have been chosen as members of the Division’s executive committee since nationalization. While a few national interviewees expressed anguish when this was brought to their attention, and I was surprised that the Division is not taking the opportunity to train some locals there, there is no doubt that this issue is not yet a focus of attention. Since there is a notable shortage of capable leaders in the PNG Church, it would be difficult to spare any to the SPD. Moreover, the example of what happened to the family of a Solomon Islander who was appointed as assistant youth leader, whose marriage collapsed because of the cultural loneliness felt by his wife, is used as an example of the problems of transplanting Melanesians to Australia at this stage.

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