China and the Mormons are buying the South Pacific

Tongatapu, Tonga

Did we mention that the ferry that we’re on replaced the one that sank with 27 people onboard a few months back?  The ship was unsafe and everyone died.

We found this out at about 1 am while chatting with the bridge team.

Our voyage was thankfully uneventful and we arrived the next day on the capital island of Tongatapu.

We spent a week there and first off: Best Chinese fried rice ever!  No idea why, makes little sense, but dude, you’re talking to two people who lived in the Bay Area for years so it’s not like we’ve not had good Chinese.  If you ever get to Tonga, go to the Chinese restaurant next to the hotel in the capital facing the water on the main shore road.

Speaking of friend rice, Tonga is also a perfect example of something we’ve been meaning to bring to your attention for quite some time now:  The Mormon church and the Chinese government are buying the South Pacific one village at a time.

With the Chinese government the tactic is pretty simple: give money away to poorer countries so they can build infrastructure.  Overtly this gives them leverage with those countries’ governments and it also makes them seem the nice guys to the locals.  Most nations do this, including the US who does it a lot and it’s still worth noting that all that money China has?  A piece of it is going into forming strong bonds to third world nations in the South Pacific.

The Mormons though, that was not something we saw coming.  The church of later-day saints has gone completely gangbusters in injecting themselves into Polynesian nations.  Even back in French Polynesia there were complete islands that had become predominantly this young US-based faith.  Their churches are literally everywhere, so much so that before this trip we honestly could not tell a Mormon church from any other non Christian church but now we can easily identify them on sight.  Mostly because we can’t pass a town without seeing one.

They are absolutely prolific, especially in Tonga.  From what we’ve heard the royalty is growing concerned about the rapid spread of the Mormon faith simply because of the insane expansion and the unknown effects the Mormons will have on the country.  So how are they doing it?  In a word?  Money.

Step 1 – Build a church

Step 2 – Build a basketball court at the church.  (Weird huh? But that’s what the locals say and fair enough, we can’t find a single Mormon church out here without a basketball court.  Not that Tongans are really all that into basketball…)

Step 3 – Offer any local who converts to your faith a free education for their children up to and including college at Brigham Young University (either in Salt Lake or the remote campus in Hawaii).

This has given rise to many Tongans becoming “school Mormons.”  They join the church then leave once their kids finish school, but that’s not a complete loss for the church.  Think about it:

1)      Not everyone leaves.  Once someone is part of a church for around 16 years or so they might just stick around.

2)      Even if people do leave, their children just spent 16 formative years of their life being educated by their church.  That’s a lot of influence and though the adults may leave, the kids may not.  Or they may come back.

To be upfront, we know literally nothing about the Chinese or the Mormon agenda when it comes to the South Pacific but we know they are both here and in force.  We also think offering free infrastructure and free education is something these countries desperately need.  We just weren’t expecting to see the churches of what is a predominantly American religion all over the place.  We certainty weren’t expecting to see them in just about every single population center we come across.  As a member of other faiths represented strongly in the area (Catholic and Baptist) it is interesting to see what appears to be a waning of their influence and a waxing of Mormonism due in large part to the amount of money each organization is willing to throw into the area.

Either way, both groups are here and they have begun to firmly weave themselves into the tapestries of the modern Polynesian culture.


For more on how Polynesia has been effected by outside influences click on “The Art and History of Tattoos” or Battle Station: South Pacific

You can also check out how Tahitians approach Catholicism a little differently than Americans by clicking on “Sex and Jesus”


About the authors

Greg and Tiffany are traveling around the world on sailing yachts and keep a video blog of their (mis)adventures.  If sailing to Tahiti on a 44 ft sailboat, getting pooped on by seagulls, opening coconuts with dull machetes, sailing past tornadoes and ukulele Christmas carols are for you, then check them out at!

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4 Responses to China and the Mormons are buying the South Pacific

  1. Sergio says:

    There are no special activities in the south pacific , we as a world church, stay in every nation, i live in south america, am a chilean am lds and we proselite in every nation of the world: from russia to tonga, from italy to togo in africa, if you take a trip to chile my coutry you will see a lds church in every town, what is your problem with us ?

  2. Greg says:


    I beg to differ, there is quite a bit of emphasis in the South Pacific in general and Tonga in specific. As Americans (the birthplace of the LDS), we have never seen more Mormon churches than on these islands.

    Interesting that you would think we have a “problem” with your faith based on our article. We never said what you were doing was bad, just that it was happening and having certain repercussions in the society. We go so far as to say, and I quote our article,

    “We also think offering free infrastructure and free education is something these countries desperately need. ”

    Heck most religions (and countries) do this and if you look at the links at the bottom of the article your faith is not the first organization we have pointed out.

  3. Andrew says:

    Guys, Mormons are Christians. If you don’t believe me, just ask one.
    The official name of the church is ‘The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’. We believe in God our Eternal Father, His Son, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost.
    We try to follow Christ’s example in our lives by loving and serving our neighbors and keeping the commandments. We love to read the Book of Mormon because it tells of Christ’s visit to the people living in the Americas. It is scripture just like the Bible. We love the Bible too!

    Yes, Tonga has the largest number of Mormons per capita of any nation in the world, about 60k of about 105k. More than half. This trend is consistent throughout the Polynesian islands.
    The Church was established in the South Pacific more than 120 years ago. So, it’s nothing recent.
    Most members of of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are very familiar with Polynesian customs and culture as Tongans and Samoans are very common in our congregations all over the world but especially in Utah and California. We love, respect and celebrate their amazing traditions that have been practiced for hundreds of years. We also do our best to preserve them and educate the rest of the world.
    Visit the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii on your next trip if you haven’t already.

    Thanks for the interesting post and your unique perspective. As sailers, I really think you would be fascinated with the Book of Mormon. A lot of epic ship voyages are related therein. Pick one up on your next stop and enjoy.

    • Greg says:


      Again, interesting. I never once in the article said that Mormons are or are not Christians. That wasn’t the point of the article. The point was to look at the complex issue of “encroachment of culture” vs “giving desperately needed money to improvised nations” and the effects of that balance as they play out in the South Pacific.

      I won’t speak as to the divinity of the book of Mormon as I have not personally read it or looked into the issue. I would personally not equate it to the Bible and I could see why a Mormon would – as I understand it, that is one of their religious texts. I’m also not sure why exactly this is being brought up?

      Based on my subjective observations, I wouldn’t say that 50% of the population of every nation out here is Mormon but I would say they are a powerful influence that is only growing. Mainly due to the influx of money and resources that the Mormon church is injecting into these islands. It’s a tactic that works: my own faith (Catholicism) did it a long time ago with undeniable results – both in infrastructure and changed native populations.

      You said, “We also do our best to preserve them and educate the rest of the world.” See that’s the difficult part right there – Tongans weren’t originally Mormon. Nor were they Catholic or any other form of Christianity. Again I refer you to the links at the bottom of the article that go more into other facets of Polynesian culture that have already been irrevocably lost when outside forces came to the islands and exerted influence. By exerting influence on the religion of the people of a nation by way of money, is that not destroying the very thing you are say you are attempting to preserve?

      Yes, this conversation for me is pretty much about Starfleet’s “Prime Directive” (feel free to google) and it’s real world applications. I guess it could also be about the ethics and effectiveness of conversion by the dollar instead of by the sword?

      It raises interesting questions.

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