Imagine this: your people have lived on an isolated island, practicing your kastom (meaning ‘traditional practices’ in the native Bislama language), which include men drinking an intoxicant called kava at sunsets, dancing, the wearing of penis sheaths, the use of magical spirit stones and polygamy.
Life is good.
Fruit is bountiful; pigs abound. There are fish in the sea, and coconuts fall freely along the beach.
This is life on Tanna, one of roughly eighty islands that make up Vanuatu, which is situated between New Guinea and Fiji.
At the very center of your island is the active volcano Yasur, which means God.
Unfortunately, Yasur is the beginning of your people’s problems.
It would be the glow of Yasur that would draw Captain James Cook to your island.
The same Cook also ‘found’ Australia (the same way that Christopher Columbus ‘found’ the Americas).
This ‘discovery’ would lead earnest Christian missionaries, often Scottish Presbyterians, to Tanna, in the hopes of ‘civilizing’ the locals.
So just how did they go about doing that?
They banned all kastoms.
Gone was polygamy. Gone were the spirit stones.
Gone was the semi-nudity of the penis sheaths, and nudity in general.
The missionaries also banned working or playing on Sundays, adultery, and even cursing.
But that wasn’t the worst of it, no:
Absolutely banned was the nightly tradition of the men drinking kava.
It’s one thing to take away a man’s kastom, but his kava?
A pushback was brewing, though it came from the strangest of places…
Enter John Frum.
There are two proposed etymologies for John Frum.
One explores the fact that in the native Tanna language Bismala, Frum means broom.
The idea here is that John Frum referred to sweeping away the foreigners.
However, the story most often told is that it refers to John’s national origin:
He was John From America.
There’s a bit of poetry in both explanations, but since that latter one is funnier, I’m sticking with it.
John Frum America.
It’s the 1930’s, and there are (as always) a few John Frum origin stories.
In one version, a group of elders had a kava induced spirit vision. In this vision, they saw the volcano God Keraperamun incarnating as John Frum, who promised to rid the island of all white people; they, in turn, leave behind all of their goods and valuables.
A separate account has an islander dressing up in a Western coat, promising the faithful homes, clothing, food and transportation.
Either way, the faith demanded only one thing of its followers:
A return to kastom.
This return to kastom also meant rejecting all European practices.
Western education? Forget it.
Christianity? The white man’s heresy.
Plantation work? Over.
That’s a lot of change to ask for.
Not for the followers of John Frum.
The year was 1941, and John Frum’s followers decided to act.
They spent all their money and left everything behind to move inland, where they could practice kastom without being bothered by the colonial authorities (who were appalled, and attempted to quelch the movement, to no lasting avail).
Then came World War 2, which saw some 300,000 American troops stationed on the Vanuatu islands.
The Americans hired people from across the islands. These included workers from Tanna, who were deployed across ships and bases, where they encountered…
Goods and rations. Things the like of which they had never seen, all in so much abundance.
This encounter with the Americans brought about a syncretism with the John Frum cult, leading to a fascinating new aspect to the religion.
Now, the faith was about also getting John Frum America to come back to Tanna with gifts from his homeland.
How do you go about doing that?
Well, you have to make it easy for him.
You have to build an airstrip…
There many more examples beyond Tanna which involve – depending on your view – cultural contamination, cultural appropriation, or cultural syncretism.
Some groups have built their own life-sized bamboo versions of airports, airplanes, radio towers, and other objects designed to bring back the sky strangers with their many gifts.
From a Western ritual theory perspective, this is called sympathetic magic; to make a likeness of an object, to magically influence the actual object.
For those who follow John Frum, acts like these are simply a matter of faith.
And what of John Frum, nearly a century later?
His religion is doing just fine, thank you very much.
February 15th is John Frum Day.
U.S. style military drills are in place; youth with the words U.S.A. march in unison, and over the solemn proceedings hangs Old Glory, the U.S. flag.
It is believed that he’ll return on February 15th, though no year has been specified.
Does this all sound a little strange?
Or maybe it showcases the strange origins of all the world’s religions.
In the meantime, at least some of the Tanna will keep waiting for the day when John Frum returns.