Download this episode (right click and save)

Fun fact: the very popular Polynesian Cultural Center, which boasts six “villages” highlighting “traditional” dress, dance, music, arts and crafts, and other practices of indigenous Pacific Islander culture, is owned and operated by the Church of the Latter-Day Saints. Now, the LDS church was born and bred in the eastern United States, before ultimately setting up basecamp in Utah. Like many places in the US and the world, they sent missionaries to the Pacific Islands, but other than that, they don’t have any particular claim over Polynesian culture. So it might strike one as curious that this is what’s up. Join Averill and Katie as they talk about the particular efficacy of the Mormon spread, it’s growth in the Pacific Islands, and the fine line between educational tourism and exploitative mass culture.


Written by Averill Earls, PhD.

A few episodes back we introduced Joseph Smith and the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, one of the many religious groups that got their start in the Burned Over District of Western New York. Today the LDS Church is the fastest growing in the world; this is because of a strong and effective missionizing tradition that started early in the organization, and continues today. You’ve probably encountered a pair of proselytizers yourself, particularly if you have ever been home during the day when they are in your neighborhood.

The LDS Church is very good at missionizing. Today we’re going to focus on the Mormon Spread to the western United States and the Pacific. These are two distinct but also connected stories, and both evidence the strength of missionizing and the appeal of the Mormon church throughout the world.

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to spend a week in Hawaii with my partner. He arranged for us to go to a ‘traditional luau’ at the Polynesian Cultural Center, an enormous Disneyland-like park with attractions highlighting the ‘traditional cultures’ of peoples from throughout the Pacific islands. It is the largest luau in the world, and they host one every night of the week, complete with “authentic” cuisine, dancing, and of course, an expensive tourist photo in which you stand with beautiful young Polynesians with a lei around your neck. I figured when Dan told me about this thing that it was a state park – like the Theodore Roosevelt site here in Buffalo. Imagine my surprise when I got there, and read the little info sign at the entrance, and learned that this was an LDS-run institution. And then I realized that the entire park was run by young people – almost exclusively of Pacific Islander descent. I started to feel a little uncomfortable. They were in what I guess is the image of ‘traditional” Pacific Islander dress, they were dancing on rafts and making baskets and answering questions. I asked a question. At one of the attractions, I asked the woman working it how she got this job? And she said that she was a student at the LDS university in Laie, BYU Hawaii, and that she worked here as her Work Study to pay her tuition. I want to come back to the PCC and its role in the prosyletizing effort of the LDS in the Pacific, because it’s the core of today’s podcast and the reason I wanted to do this episode, but for now, keep that tucked in that back of your mind.  

At home there was turbulence. <any Christian sects resented the Church of the Latter Day Saints because they gained converts so quickly and in such large numbers. Joseph Smith was ultimately murdered in a jail in June 1844, the Mormon communities in Missouri and Illinois were expulsed, people were whipped and kidnapped, and there were clashes between the federal and state governments and the Mormon communities almost where ever they went. Expanding into isolated and “wild” territories, like the Great Basin of Utah or Pacific islands, was a seemingly suitable solution to clashes with the government.

Of course even after the Mormons had established themselves in Utah they still faced opposition; the federal government started passing legislation making polygamy illegal, a doctrine that really incensed non-Mormons. Between 1862 and 1887, the US gov passed increasingly more harsh anti-polygamy laws, including an Act in 1887 that dissolved the church as a legal entity, escheated its assets, and abolished civil rights. In Oct 1890 the church issued a manifesto banning plural marriage; this placated many of those who’d opposed the Church, and Mormons regained their civil rights, the church was preserved, and in 1896 Utah was admitted into the Union. Thereafter, mission efforts became even more energetic, with young men and later women proselytizing and gaining converts in huge numbers.

Addison Pratt, a whaler, recalled that he was shocked by the violence of the practice, and he deserted his crew and lived as a beach comber for a while on a Pacific Island. Eventually Pratt returned to the US mainland, where he converted to Mormonism with his wife, and asked Joseph Smith if he could lead a mission to the French Polynesian islands. Smith assented, and in 1843 Pratt and a small group of missionaries headed toward the Pacific – they traveled aboard a 346-ton whaleship named the Timoleon, traveling from New Bedford MA, traveling east for the Society Islands in French Polynesia. That means they sailed around the Horn of Africa, through the Indian Ocean, past the Cape Van Diem off Australia, before landing in Tubai after 203 days at sea. They lost a few of their small band before they arrived, but also succeeded in converting two of the other passengers, a Methodist minister and his wife. Pratt remained at Tubai while his companions carried on to their final destination in Tahiti.

On the islands they were surrounded by other missionaries from Catholic and Protestant sects seeking to save the natives, and French soldiers attempting to subdue the natives.

Two months after they arrived, Joseph Smith was murdered back home. The Pacific Island missionaries did not learn about that until they returned to the mainland two years later. 

At first they were not very successful in French Polynesia, because there was a French-British war going on for control of the islands. Between 1844 and 1852, the Tahitian mission was closed because of pressure from the newly established French government. The French were aware of the violent clashes the Mormons were having with the US government, and the Pacific Island Mormon missionaries may have been acting a bit inappropriately in solidarity with the persecuted mainland Mormons – burning American flags and the like – so the French gov expelled them from Tahiti. The Mormons were pushed to the outlying islands—but they were successful in converting most of the Austroislands, with around 2000 converts without even learning the language. 

But in 1892, Mormon missionaries once again arrived in French Polynesia, where they have been since 1892, and now have over 5000 members in the region. They learned the local languages, and have had an incredibly strong presence in the Pacific from the late-19th century onward, still proselytizing and sending young people to the center of the Mormon Pacific Island effort in Laie Hawai’i.

The PCC, which I mentioned at the start of the episode, is in Laie. Missionaries arrived in Hawai’i in the 1850s, purchased a 6000 acre plantation in 1865, and learned the Hawaiian language when it became clear that the white settlers of the islands had no interest in Mormonism. A Church College of Hawaii was opened in September 1955 under the direction of David O McKay, who was a young Church leader with a particular fondness for the Pacific Islands. Meanwhile, in the 1940s Church members in Laie started a hukilau, a fishing festival with a luau feast and Polynesian entertainment, as a fundraising event. It proved immensely popular, with busloads of people attending. By the end of the 50s, Polynesian students purportedly started up the Polynesian Panorama — a production of authentic South Pacific island songs and dances. In 1955 McKay, then President of BYU Hawaii, authorized construction of the PCC.

Over 100 “labor missionaries” again volunteered to help build the Polynesian Cultural Center’s original 39 structures on a 12-acre site that had previously been planted in taro, the native root used to make the Hawaiian staple food poi, a delicious little purple breadlike roll that is featured on the luau buffet, I might fondly add. Skilled artisans and original materials from the South Pacific were imported to ensure the authenticity of the village houses.

The Polynesian Cultural Center opened to the public on Oct. 12, 1963.

By the late 1960s, the amphitheater had been expanded to almost 1,300 seats. Villagers staged the evening show every night (except Sundays) and sometimes twice a night to accommodate peak-season crowds.

A major expansion in 1975 relocated and enlarged the Hawaiian village and added a Marquesan tohua or ceremonial compound. The following year a new amphitheater, which now seats almost 2,800 guests, was opened and several other buildings were added to the grounds, including the 1,000-seat Gateway Restaurant in 1979. 

Many other additions followed in the 1980s: an 1850s-era Christian missionary compound (now called the Hawaiian Mission Settlement); a 70-foot bure kalou, or Fijian “spirit house” whose jutting roof dominates the northern end of the Center; the Migrations Museum; Yoshimura Store, a 1920’s-style shop that serves island treats; and totally re-landscaped villages.

I won’t go on – it’s grown over the decades, and is now kind of exactly what you’d expect from this kind of attraction. And it still employs BYU students.

The PCC is connected to something that I think the Mormon church is really good at: religious imperialism.

This is why:

 LDS has gone to all the remote, tiny islands of the Pacific, convinced families and young individuals to convert, and then those young people leave their islands to go to BYU Hawaii – an opportunity that most likely would’ve been unavailable to them otherwise – where they get an excellent education, and may even relocate to mainland US. In fact, Utah has the largest population of Pacific Islanders in the US, and they are almost exclusively Mormons. If having these students work at the PCC, dressing in ‘traditional’ garb and doing ‘traditional dances’ and posing with white tourists who’ve come to gawk at what they are led to believe is “authentic” Polynesian culture, feels a bit exploitative to you, it gets better – the Church is making a killing off of these work study students. For the “Self-Guided Tour, Admission and Dinner Package, it is $80/adult. That’s the most basic package to also get into the dinner/show luau. Included with your ticket: you can participate in the “Go Native” hands-on activities, take canoe rides, and enjoy an “immersive cultural experience in 6 villages.”  Yes. Kind of icky. And that’s some wording lifted right off the website, I’ll link to it in the show notes. But there is no denying that this system is opening the world to these young people.

But what I think is really interesting about the whole system is how much LDS, which really struggled in the its early years to find a place in the US, exports with such efficiency Americanness to these islands. These kids have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, go to university, so that they can pursue the quintessential American dream. For all the LDS is its own brand of Americanness, it has been carrying out that “civilizing” mission of the White Man’s Burden for 150 years in the Pacific.

I want to be clear: this is undoubtedly an incredible opportunity for many of these young people. But that doesn’t mean it’s not also super imperialist.


Show Notes and Further Reading

Raibmon, Paige S., Authentic Indians: episodes of encounter from the late-nineteenth-century Northwest coast, Duke University Press, Durham, 2005.

Sonne, Conway B. Saints on the seas: a maritime history of Mormon migration, 1830-1890, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 1983.

All of Polynesia, Your WayPolynesian Cultural Center, accessed 10 Aug 2016

HistoryPolynesian Cultural Center,  accessed 10 Aug 2016

Part Time Job Openings,” Polynesian Cultural Center, accessed 10 Aug 2016

Feature Image: Front of Polynesian Cultural Center, Wikimedia Commons


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.