and Its Worship
Some time after all the other Bounty mutineers had died, John Adams found Fletcher Christian's Bible/Prayer Book and began to read it. Before long he became a converted man. Using the Bible as his guide, Adams transformed the little colony into a model community and patterned it after the principles of the Church of England―the only church he knew. For the next hundred years Pitcairners followed this persuasion and were considered a mission colony of the Queen of England.
In 1886 John Tay, a ship's carpenter, landed at Pitcairn and stayed only a month. A Seventh-day Adventist layman, Tay discussed the Scriptures with the islanders. Within four weeks every islander but one understood and accepted the beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church. They slaughtered all their pigs (Lev. 11 and Deut. 14 classify them as unclean) and began to worship on Saturday―the Bible Sabbath. Tay left on the next ship and promised to return with a missionary who would baptize them and help them organize a church.
Four years later, in 1890, John Tay and Pastor E. H. Gates, among others, arrived on the Pitcairn, a two masted schooner. Gates baptized 82 Pitcairners and established the first Seventh-day Adventist Church on the island.
From that day to this the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been the only religious organization on Pitcairn Island. Some islanders have chosen not to become members but the church continues to remain the center of spiritual activities.
The church building on the square was built in 1954 under the direction of Pastor Norman Ferris. It can seat more than 100, but during my stay only about 25 attend on an average Sabbath.
The pastors are always expatriates. They are usually from Australia or New Zealand, though occasionally they come from the United States, as in our case.
An arrangement was made in the 1950s between the Pitcairn Island Administration (PIA)―then in Fiji―and the South Pacific Division of Seventh-day Adventists (SPD):
♦ The SPD would choose the pastor.
♦ The pastor's wife must be a registered nurse with experience in midwifery. She would serve as the island's Medical Officer.
♦ The PIA would select a teacher for the school who would also represent the PIA in local affairs. He is rarely a Seventh-day Adventist.
Even though not all Pitcairners are church members, the pastor is accepted as the spiritual leader for everyone. I usually attended all major functions and often labored alongside the people when they worked on public projects―such as repairing the boats or clearing the roads.
The impact of the church upon the community is real and sometimes dramatic. My wife Martha wanted to help the islanders become more open in their discussion of the Bible lessons during Sabbath School. She taught them how to study their Bible's in a more meaningful way, and to express themselves regarding Scripture. As a result they began to think more creatively. All this seemed to parallel in insurgence of independence on the part of Pitcairners in making civil decisions as well.
The primary services of the church are the Sabbath morning services―consisting of Sabbath School at about 9:30am and the Worship Service at about 11. Prayer meeting is on Tuesday evening at about 7pm.
The adult Sabbath School service opens with singing and prayer. Then a local leader presents a spiritual preamble before the Bible study class begins. The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists prepares a lesson study manual which the members use as an aid to Bible study. The Lesson Quarterly―covering a three-month period―provides a basic outline for the Bible lesson.
The children have a separate Sabbath School in a building attached to the rear of the church. They sing and study Bible lessons, often connected with a Bible story. They also learn a verse of the Bible―a memory verse―and prepare songs they will sing for the adults on "13th Sabbath," the last Sabbath of the quarter.
Thirteenth Sabbath is a special day. This high day is usually attended by everyone on the island, because the children quote their memory verses and sing the songs they've prepared during the preceding weeks. On this day too, the church collects a special offering that is used for the world mission program of the SDA church.
At the Worship Service the Pitcairners follow a traditional order of service: announcements, prayer, singing, offering, sermon, singing, benediction. Ben Christian the lead elder and Jacob Warren the lead deacon had charge of the service, while I offered the pastoral prayer and preached the sermon. Sometimes a volunteer presented a special sacred number either by instrument or voice―often both. Though the church used an organ for congregational singing, special musical numbers were often accompanied by guitar.
The church celebrates communion four times a year―often enough to keep the passion of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection engraved on our memories, but not so often as to make it commonplace. Seventh-day Adventists also follow Jesus' example and command in washing the feet of their fellows (John 13). Men and women separate into individual rooms, divide into pairs, and physically bath each other's feet. At different times I had the honor of washing the feet of Ben Christian, Andrew Young, and Jay Warren, among others.
The Church & the Ships
You'd expect that on an island such as Pitcairn where the church plays an important role in the culture that its services would take precedence over every other activity. But the expected arrival of a ship requires that worship be shifted to another time―or cancelled altogether. It seems that "going out ship" takes priority over everything. This seems natural in a society where all physical contact with the outside world comes through ocean vessels.
Often visitors from passing yachts attended church services. But never as many as when the Russian cruise ship Michael Lermantov called at the island in early 1984. We knew that about 350 passengers and crew would come ashore so I posted signs around the island: "Come sing with the Pitcairners; 11am in the church." Over 100 gathered in the church to sing songs and pray. Only a few Pitcairners came, however, because most of them were involved in the physical work of bringing visitors ashore and in preparing to feed them. I presented a short Bible study on the Second Coming of Christ, but we used most of the time in singing.
All the expenses of running the local church program are paid for by the church members. But the salary of the pastor and mission house where he lived with his family is supplied by the SPD.
All tithes and mission offerings are sent to the Central Pacific Union Mission (CPUM) in Auckland, New Zealand (an administrative branch of the SPD). But getting the tithes and offerings to the CPUM would be a difficult situation if not for another agreement between the church and the government. It works like this: I joined church treasurer Jay Warren after the Sabbath morning services to count the offerings. Then, as "Mission President," I took the money to Ben Christian, the Island Secretary, who gave me a receipt. I mailed the receipt to the CPUM and the treasurer there finished the cycle by submitting the receipt to the PIA for payment.
God blesses His people because of their faithfulness: "Now My eyes will be open and My ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. I have chosen and consecrated this [church] so that My Name may be there forever. My eyes and My heart will always be there." 2 Chronicles 7:15,16 (NIV).