Strange and Curious Sects: John Frum

Strange and Curious Sects: John Frum February 13, 2008

Today I’m inaugurating a new series on Daylight Atheism, Strange and Curious Sects. The follies and fallacies of larger, mainstream religions are well known; this series will examine some of the smaller and lesser-known splinter groups, cults, and sects, both past and present, that are part of the vast diversity of religions imagined by human beings. By examining these frequently unique and bizarre belief systems, I find, we stand to gain a clearer perspective on various aspects of the larger and more influential faiths.

This installment will focus on the strange sect of John Frum. This religion, indigenous to the remote South Pacific island of Tanna, is one of the “cargo cults”. Cargo cult religions sprang up across the Pacific during World War II, when thousands of American troops set up bases and airstrips on remote islands that previously had little or no external contact. The indigenous people of these islands, who lived in simple subsistence cultures, were amazed by the strange visitors and the technologies and gifts they brought: steel tools, canned food and chocolate bars, cigarettes, radios, motorcycles, airplanes, firearms, and many more novelties unlike anything in their experience. But when the war ended and the troops left, they took their cargo with them. The islanders, in many societies, responded by forming religions that mimic the American installations – down to carving “airstrips” out of the jungle, complete with bamboo control towers and mock planes made of straw – hoping to summon the strange visitors and their wonderful cargo back by sympathetic magic. It sounds almost too strange to be true, but the cargo cults have been widely studied and reported on. With time, many of them have faded; but on Tanna, the cult of John Frum survives to this day.

In the morning heat on a tropical island halfway across the world from the United States, several dark-skinned men — clad in what look to be U.S. Army uniforms — appear on a mound overlooking a bamboo-hut village. One reverently carries Old Glory, precisely folded to reveal only the stars. On the command of a bearded “drill sergeant,” the flag is raised on a pole hacked from a tall tree trunk. As the huge banner billows in the wind, hundreds of watching villagers clap and cheer.

…Some 40 barefoot “G.I.’s” suddenly emerge from behind the huts to more cheering, marching in perfect step and ranks of two past Chief Isaac. They tote bamboo “rifles” on their shoulders, the scarlet tips sharpened to represent bloody bayonets, and sport the letters “USA,” painted in red on their bare chests and backs.

…”John promised he’ll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him,” a village elder tells me as he salutes the Stars and Stripes. “Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things.”

John Frum’s cult is a recognizable microcosm of larger religions, right down to the miracles:

…Jessel tells me that he is the brother-in-law of one of the cult’s most important leaders, Prophet Fred — who, he adds proudly, “raised his wife from the dead two weeks ago.”

as well as the revelatory visions and belief in answered prayer:

“Have you ever seen him?”

“Yes, John comes very often from Yasur [the local volcano] to advise me, or I go there to speak with John.”

“What does he look like?”

“An American!”

and even the dissension and factioning into sects:

When I mention Prophet Fred, anger flares in Chief Isaac’s eyes. “He’s a devil,” he snarls. “I won’t talk about him.”

…two years ago, Prophet Fred’s rivalry with Chief Isaac exploded. More than 400 young men from the competing camps clashed with axes, bows and arrows and slingshots, burning down a thatched church and several houses. Twenty-five men were seriously injured.

When the reporter raises the obvious point that, several decades after the war, John Frum and his cargo have not made their promised return, the chief has an unanswerable reply:

“John promised you much cargo more than 60 years ago, and none has come,” I point out. “So why do you keep faith with him? Why do you still believe in him?”

Chief Isaac shoots me an amused look. “You Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return to earth,” he says, “and you haven’t given up hope.”

So who is this mysterious American, John Frum? Why did he, out of all the soldiers, inspire the natives’ reverence? Was he a commander of some renown who particularly impressed them? The answer, it turns out, may be more complicated.

In the early 20th century, Scotch Presbyterian missionaries came to Tanna and took over by force, establishing their own government and banning traditional cultural practices such as dancing and the drinking of the intoxicant kava. They also forbade work or play on Sundays and began the forcible conversion of the natives to Christianity. For several decades the islanders struggled under the burden of colonial rule.

Then, in the 1930s, John Frum first appeared. According to the islanders’ traditions, he told them he had come to liberate them from their oppressive foreign rulers. Fired to devotion by their strange messiah, the people of Tanna joined the new religion en masse, revolting against the colonialists and throwing their missionary-provided clothing and goods into the sea. The following year, 1941, saw the arrival of American troops in the Pacific theater. Their presence provided a measure of stability, as well as the aforementioned cargo, and it seems to be then that John Frum began to be specifically identified as an American.

It’s uncertain whether John Frum was a real person, or even whether he was based on a real person. No American soldier by that name is known, and while the islanders call him an American and a white man, they also speak of him as a “spirit” or use other mystical terms. One intriguing theory is that “frum” is the pronunciation of “broom” in the local pidgin, making “John Broom” the one who would “sweep” the hated colonial rulers off the island. An alternative theory holds that his name is a mispronunciation of “John from (America)”. But whether he was person or myth, the islanders still fervently believe in him. Every year they celebrate February 15 as John Frum Day, which they believe will be the date of his promised return.

Each Friday afternoon, hundreds of believers stream across the ash plain below Yasur, coming to Lamaraka from villages all over Tanna. After the sun goes down and the men have drunk kava, the congregation gathers in and around an open hut on the ceremonial ground. As light from kerosene lamps flickers across their faces, they strum guitars and homemade ukuleles, singing hymns of John Frum’s prophecies and the struggles of the cult’s martyrs. Many carry the same plea: “We’re waiting in our village for you, John. When are you coming with all the cargo you promised us?”

In many respects, John Frum’s cult bears a striking similarity to mythicist theories about what the origin of Christianity would have looked like: a supernatural messiah, invented to serve the needs of an oppressed group of humans, who gradually acquired the characteristics of a recently living human being. The messiah is given a symbolic name (Jesus, or Yeshua, is Aramaic for “Yahweh saves”), works miracles among the people, then disappears after promising to return in the near future to establish an earthly kingdom.

And, in contradiction to those Christian apologists who claim that historians of the time would have investigated and refuted the cult’s claims if they were not true: in 1943, the U.S. government sent the USS Echo and its commander, Maj. Samuel Patten, back to the island to tell the people that John Frum had no connection to them. This apparently had no effect on the growth of the cult. The obvious ridiculousness of the cargo-cult belief gives us confidence that this particular faith is not true, but aside from the intrusion of a far more technologically advanced culture which altered things somewhat, the cult of John Frum is an insight into how some major modern religions might have gotten a similar start.

Other posts in this series:

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