Untangling conversion: religious change and identity among the forest Tobelo of Indonesia

In the late 1980s, after decades of refusal, the
Forest Tobelo foragers of northeastern Halmahera, Indonesia,
converted to Christianity. The version of Christianity they
accepted was not the one offered (or imposed) by coastal Tobelo-
speaking communities with whom they share kinship and affinal
ties, but was brought to the region by the American-based New
Tribes Mission. This essay examines the factors and motivations
behind this change, and offers an explanation that takes into
account local histories, larger political and economic changes,
such as deforestation and land encroachment, and the rarely
examined topic of missionary methodologies.

Untangling conversion: religious change and identity among the
forest Tobelo of Indonesia

Ethnology; 9/22/2003; Duncan,
Christopher R.

In the late 1980s, after decades of refusal, the
Forest Tobelo foragers of northeastern Halmahera, Indonesia,
converted to Christianity. The version of Christianity they
accepted was not the one offered (or imposed) by coastal Tobelo-
speaking communities with whom they share kinship and affinal
ties, but was brought to the region by the American-based New
Tribes Mission. This essay examines the factors and motivations
behind this change, and offers an explanation that takes into
account local histories, larger political and economic changes,
such as deforestation and land encroachment, and the rarely
examined topic of missionary methodologies. The Forest Tobelo
decision to convert is best understood as an attempt to maintain
their distinct identity from coastal communities with whom they
have a long history of poor relations; the methods used by the
New Tribes Mission made conversion an attractive option at that
time. (Christianity, missionaries, Halmahera, conversion motivations)

In March 1999, a Forest Tobelo man began preaching
the Bible to the largest remaining group of unconverted Forest
Tobelo living in the interior of central Halmahera. As the island
erupted into communal violence later that year, he continued
to teach despite requests from coastal communities that he stop.
By October of that year a large number of the Forest Tobelo
he was working with accepted the Christianity he was professing.
At the same time, other Forest Tobelo missionaries were preaching
to groups living in three other river valleys and were planning
to go elsewhere on the island to proselytize. The seeds of this
indigenous missionary movement were planted in 1982, when the
New Tribes Mission arrived at Tanjung Lili in northeastern Halmahera
and began laying the groundwork for their evangelism. This evangelistic
activity eventually led the majority of the Forest Tobelo from
the Lili, Waisango, and Afu Rivers to convert to Christianity
in the late 1980s. Some of these converts now work as missionaries
throughout central Halmahera.

This article examines how and why a large number
of Forest Tobelo decided to adopt Christianity after decades
of refusal, and why they chose the New Tribes Mission version
as opposed to that offered (or imposed) by the coastal Tobelo,
with whom they share a language, kinship, and affinal ties.
The explanation requires connecting the larger processes of
social change that affected the Forest Tobelo with the moral
and epistemological choices made at the individual level in
decisions to accept or reject Christianity. Some models of conversion
attribute such change to modernization or state incorporation,
while others turn to Weberian notions of disenchantment and
rationalization; i.e., an estrangement with an old way of life
and the incorporation into a new social order led to the adoption
of Christianity (Weber 1956; Horton 1975). However, as critics
have noted, such explanations fail to take into account politics,
economics, or hierarchies of power (Van der Veer 1996:10).

In response, anthropologists and historians have
switched their focus to the political economy of conversion
and the power relationships involved, which are seen as an integral
part of modernity. By adopting Christianity (or another world
religion), people are in effect converting to modernity; e.g.,
joining the market economy, becoming citizens of a nation, etc.
(Van der Veer 1996). At the same time, these theoretical approaches
often view modernity as a force that overwhelms small-scale
societies. They assume that these communities are victimized
and have no agency in making the decision to convert (Meyer
1996:226 n. 35). However, conversion is not a simple choice
between domination or appropriation, but rather a dialectic
between the two (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991; Comaroff and Comaroff
1997:49). When the missionaries arrived in central Halmahera
with their agendas for evangelism, the Forest Tobelo had their
own agendas, which at times conflicted and at others times coincided
with those of the New Tribes Mission. In these circumstances
of shifting interactions influenced by larger political, economic,
and historical processes and imbalances of power, the missionaries
made their case, which some Forest Tobelo accepted and others
rejected. While issues of politics and power are essential to
any examination of the missionary encounter, approaches occupied
with these dimensions often fail to appreciate the moral and
intellectual debates at the individual and collective levels
when these encounters occur. The challenge is to integrate the
larger processes of social change with local and individual
understandings of this transformation, as both processes are
contingent upon each other (White 1991; Kipp 1995).

Of particular importance in the Forest Tobelo
case are the politics of identity. The Forest Tobelo have long
sought to maintain a distinction between themselves and coastal
communities (Duncan 1998). The role of conversion in identity
politics is common in Southeast Asia and often is seen as a
reaction to the dominant religious beliefs of larger, neighboring
communities, whether Buddhism in mainland Southeast Asia (Tapp
1989; Kammerer 1990; Tooker 1992) or Islam in Indonesia (Hefner
1993a; Kipp 1993; Aragon 2000). Thus conversion, particularly
in Southeast Asia, is an issue of identity as well as religion.
Studying people’s resistance to the assimilating pressures of
the dominant world religions of (often lowland) ethnic majorities
can provide insight into rationales for conversion by large
segments of peripheral minorities. This “conversion as dissent”
(Viswanathan 1998) is particularly the case with the Forest
Tobelo, whose decades of poor relations with coastal communities
have solidified their identitiy as a distinct community.


The Forest Tobelo are the forest-dwelling foragers
who live in the interior of the island of Halmahera in the eastern
Indonesian province of North Maluku. They are often referred
to as the Tugutil, a derogatory term. Numbering approximately
3,000, they live spread across various river valleys in the
less settled parts of the island, particularly the sparsely
settled northeastern peninsula. In the early 1980s, many Forest
Tobelo still followed a shifting residence pattern in the interior.
They subsisted largely on hunting, foraging, and processing
sago, with only minimal agriculture. They had small swiddens
in the interior that they occasionally used, consisting mostly
of bananas, cassava, tobacco, fruit trees, and coconut palms.
Their cash income derived from the sale of forest products and
occasional wage labor for villagers clearing forest for new

The Forest Tobelo maintained their veneration
of ancestors and local spirits, and had a conception of a supreme
being (called Ma Jou), but it was in a realm of indigenous cosmology
that they infrequently addressed. They focused on their interactions
with the o tokata (spirits) of their ancestors, collectively
referred to as o gomanga (the shapeless ones). The Forest Tobelo
believed that a human being consisted of four aspects: the body,
the soul, a benevolent spirit, and a malevolent spirit. When
a person died, his body, the physical manifestation of an individual,
stayed in the grave. The soul, which consisted of four parts
(the kneecaps, the image in a person’s eyes, the voice, and
the breath), went to a place behind the moon. The malevolent
spirit (o tokata ma dorou) wandered the former haunts of the
deceased wreaking vengeance on those who offended him during
his lifetime. The benevolent spirit (o tokata ma owa) stayed
with the body in the grave and was the object of entreaties
for aid. To interact with these spirits, they relied on the
services of a ritual specialist (o gomatere).

In the early 1980s, the Forest Tobelo were involved
in a cycle of revenge killings that had lasted for several years.
The population of one river valley had been almost extirpated
due to this violence. So pervasive was the threat of attack
that people avoided using paths in the forest for fear of ambush.
The Forest Tobelo (albeit retroactively) frequently cite the
violence and uncertainty of this period when they discuss the
changes brought about by the missionaries. As two people related:

   If [the missionaries] had not come, I would be dead now. I know 
   We were all 
   killing each other, 
   and there was so much fighting before they came. I know that if they 
   had not 
   come I would have been 
   killed by someone. People were fighting people from different 
   and from 
   the same river. My 
   mother's father killed his own wife and his parents. That is how bad 
   Before the missionaries came we were very evil people. If we saw 
   someone we 
   would shake our 
   machetes at them. We killed people, chopped down their houses.... 
   But then the missionaries came 
   and taught us about God so now we are God's people. 

Forest Tobelo use these descriptions of consistent
and often brutal conflict to explain the attraction of Christianity
with its message of nonviolence and forgiveness. They cite the
missionaries’ ability to end a long-running feud between two
brothers as contributing to their influence (Duncan 1998:135-36).

Due in part to their violent reputation, local
and national government officials had largely ignored the Forest
Tobelo. Furthermore, the government had a minimal presence in
northeastern Halmahera, other than village leaders and occasional
visits by the police. Government development projects bypassed
the region and large-scale logging and transmigration did not
commence until the late 1980s. Coastal villagers (primarily
Tobelo and Buli people) were confined to a narrow strip along
the coast where land suitable for coconut plantations was most
plentiful. Their fear of the Forest Tobelo as violent, bloodthirsty
savages kept most villagers from exploiting long stretches of
coastline or expanding their gardens into the interior, and
they seldom ventured more then a few kilometers inland, fearing
for their own safety (Bubandt 1995:61). The Forest Tobelo cultivated
this savage image as it kept villagers from encroaching on their
land and allowed them to retain their autonomy (Duncan 2001).
Some villagers thought they could remove this danger from the
forest by resettling the Forest Tobelo on the coast, where they
could be kept under a watchful eye, but their efforts met with
little success. A few Forest Tobelo moved into villages for
short periods of time, but almost inevitably returned to the

Some Christian villagers made sporadic attempts
to persuade Forest Tobelo to join the Evangelical Christian
Church of Halmahera (Gereja Masehi Injili Halmahera, hereafter
referred to as GMIH). (3) These attempts were usually made as
part of their efforts to resettle the Forest Tobelo, as villagers
saw the two processes as complementary. In 1968, an Indonesian
couple from the village of Dorosago moved to Tanjung Lili to
spread the gospel, but were killed by those who resented their
intrusion. The Forest Tobelo refused the Christianity offered
by villagers largely because of their poor relations with them.
(4) Although villagers feared their presence in the forest,
they treated the Forest Tobelo with disdain in most interactions;
ridiculing their loincloths, their hairstyles, and their “funny”
dialect of Tobelo. Villagers often cheated them in economic
transactions by withholding promised wages or misleading them
about the value of currency. As a result, a mutual feeling of
contempt developed between the two groups. Tobelo villagers
disparaged the forest dwellers as dangerous primitives who needed
to be civilized but lacked the intellectual capacity to be so,
while the Forest Tobelo looked down on villagers as dishonest,
rude, and unjustifiably arrogant. Thus any messages delivered
by villagers, such as entreaties to convert, were generally

Another obstacle facing village proselytization
efforts was the cultural imperialism inherent in the Christianity
offered by villagers. To convert meant renouncing more than
just one’s spirit beliefs; it also meant (and perhaps more importantly)
becoming a villager (i.e., becoming a sedentary farmer in a
coastal community), which most Forest Tobelo were unwilling
to do. They had long resisted efforts to turn them into coastal
villagers and Christianity represented an integral part of that
identity. Maintaining a distinct identity from coastal Tobelo
village communities was (and remains) important to them. Even
now that they have converted to Christianity and settled on
the coast in their own communities, resembling the very villagers
they disparage, the Forest Tobelo still refuse to be referred
to as “village people.” They strive to retain their distinctiveness;
one now based on a shared history of living in the forest and
a sense of themselves as better Christians than those in the
coastal communities (Duncan 1998). Casting away their previous
beliefs did not propel them into an unfamiliar world of modernity,
as some might theorize. Rather, it tightened bonds within the
community and provided them with a new sense of pride in who
they were and continue to be. (5) Fellowship and participation
in the congregation also gave them resources by which they could
better manage discord among themselves.

In addition to poor relations with villagers,
some taboos in certain Forest Tobelo communities limited their
ability to consider Christianity. Many Forest Tobelo thought
that hearing the sound of church bells or hymns would bring
down the wrath of ancestral spirits, and so would not approach
coastal settlements on Sundays. Others were not allowed to enter
churches. One story about the violation of these taboos concerns
the death of a man named o Ula-ula, whose son and younger brother
attended a party at a nearby timber camp. During this party,
as is customary at many gatherings of Christian Indonesians,
a small prayer service was held at which both men were present.
For them to be present at such an event was a transgression
of these taboos. A few months later, when o Ula-ula did not
return from a hunting trip, his death was thought to have resulted
from his son’s actions.

In addition to these taboos, the Forest Tobelo
were contemptuous of what they considered to be the villagers’
own laxity in their religious practices. Many Forest Tobelo
comment that despite villagers’ claims to follow some higher,
more virtuous faith, they still practiced their pre-Christian
beliefs (leaving offerings for their ancestors at grave sites,
consulting indigenous healers, etc.. Many Forest Tobelo thought
Christianity simply represented a different set of spirits with
the added burden of new taboos and saw no reason for making
the change. Now that many Forest Tobelo have converted, they
find these practices even more hypocritical, if not foolish.
They now look down on village Christians as misguided and doomed
to eternal damnation for their continued mixing of indigenous
beliefs with Christianity.

In 1982, the New Tribes Mission (NTM), an American-based
nondenominational evangelical Protestant organization, arrived
in Tanjung Lili. Founded in 1942, its mission is to reach “remote
tribal groups.” It began working in Indonesia in the early 1970s
with mission stations in Kalimantan. In the early 1980s, NTM
began a comprehensive survey of eastern Indonesia that included
Halmahera. After the survey, NTM decided to locate a mission
near the mouth of the Lili River (in addition to missions in
Seram and Buru in Central Maluku). At the end of 1982, the first
two missionary families arrived to begin their work and were
joined in 1983 by two more families, including an Indonesian
family that could speak Tobelo.

The missionaries followed the NTM strategy of
spending five years on language study before beginning to proselytize.
During this time they also engaged in projects that included
literacy programs, Indonesian language lessons, medical care,
and medical training. These activities were crucial to the missionaries’
ability to convey Christianity to the Forest Tobelo. This is
not to say that the Forest Tobelo converted for material reasons,
but that these projects and continuing interaction with the
missionaries chipped away at the foundations of the Forest Tobelo’s
world view, while at the same time producing a positive response
of trust and commitment to the missionaries (Tapp 1989:70).

The missionaries’ efforts to encourage the planting
of coconut plantations had far-reaching consequences. Prior
to 1982, the Forest Tobelo had difficulty obtaining coconut
seedlings from villagers, who sought to keep them as a cheap
source of labor. The missionaries brought 6,000 coconut seedlings
and gave them to anyone who would clear the land to plant them.
As a result, many of the Forest Tobelo planted coconut groves
that now provide a steady source of income. The missionaries
also operated a small medical service that dispensed drugs and
treated minor illnesses. The medical work had a strong influence
in establishing trust with the Forest Tobelo, particularly when
dozens of lives were saved during a measles epidemic. One can
speculate that if indigenous healing practices had not been
so tested, and presumably been found wanting, they may have
been loth to reject them.

An additional aspect of the missionaries’ pre-evangelical
work was termed “culture learning,” an attempt to understand
a target group’s culture to facilitate language learning and
Bible translation. The NTM has three goals in this study of

   1) to describe the culture from the tribal person's perspective--to 
   be able to 
   grasp the native's point of 
   view, his relation to life, his vision of his world. 
   2) to understand the reasoning that lies behind the tribal group's 
   perspective on life. 
   3) to anticipate the aspects of their culture that will hinder a 
   understanding of God's Word, as 
   well as those that will facilitate understanding. In doing this we 
   will be able 
   to gear our teachings to 
   meet their needs in a meaningful way. (Sheffield 1990:4-5) 

NTM places a particular emphasis on gathering
data about a group’s world view in the belief that this knowledge
can help in conveying the gospel. Missionaries are urged not
to try to change people’s minds during this pre-evangelism ethnographic
study, but they are encouraged to raise doubts among the people.
Preparatory work for evangelism included asking thought-provoking
questions aimed at unsettling the Forest Tobelo’s religious
thought patterns and causing them to question accepted cultural
and religious presuppositions (McIlwain 1988a:8). This interest
in Forest Tobelo culture that the missionaries displayed (even
though it was part of their agenda to drastically alter it)
contrasted with the disdain shown by villagers.

A critical aspect of missionary-Forest Tobelo
interaction was the consistent violation of taboos by the missionaries
without any repercussions. For example, among the Forest Tobelo,
when twins were born, one of them was considered to be a malevolent
spirit (o tokata ma dorou); a ritual specialist would select
the child that represented the spirit and it would be killed.
One of the first missionary families to arrive had twin daughters,
and the Forest Tobelo saw that the world had not come crashing
down around them. Additionally, missionaries are meat deemed
possessed and suffered no consequences. They also gained a reputation
for having powerful “medicine” (o houru), a reference to their
magical powers. A Forest Tobelo man had planned to kill one
of the missionaries soon after their arrival, but when he tried
to lift his machete he was unable to do so. He attributed his
failure to the missionary’s o houru. Whether or not they were
aware of it, the missionaries had been inserted into the very
realm of activities they had come to replace.

The missionaries, intentionally or unintentionally,
presented an image of themselves as powerful, both economically
through their introduction of new technologies, and spiritually
through their ability to defy taboos and evade disaster. In
essence, they exhibited the very qualities that Forest Tobelo
looked for in leaders. Instead of accruing prestige through
hunting prowess, the missionaries accrued it through their access
to the larger consumer economy. Their spiritual potency lay
in their new medicine (both in the Western and the indigenous
sense). They cured illnesses and saved lives. Their other medicine,
their o houru, allowed them to disregard taboos and prevent
their own deaths. All these factors came into play as the missionaries
introduced another

set of ideas, their version of Christianity.

The missionaries were not the only new actors
on the scene. Regional government officials viewed the arrival
and survival of NTM as the pacification of the Forest Tobelo.
Shortly after NTM arrived at Tanjung Lili, a timber company
began logging operations in the region. The presence of the
timber company increased interaction between the Forest Tobelo
and other Indonesians, and their realm of social interaction
expanded to include Javanese camp managers and timber workers
from all over Indonesia, most of whom treated them with contempt.
The timber company showed little respect for the Forest Tobelo
or their property. They cut down Forest Tobelo fruit trees,
ran over shelters, and destroyed gardens, offering paltry compensation,
if any at all. For example, prior to their resettlement, the
Forest Tobelo relied on harvesting and selling canari nuts for
a sizable proportion of their cash income. The timber industry
also prizes canari trees for making plywood. In an attempt to
protect the trees for the Forest Tobelo, the missionaries went
to the timber company and explained the situation. Company officials
initially said they would acknowledge the Forest Tobelo’s property
rights and asked that all of the owned trees be marked with
paint, and the Forest Tobelo marked all of their canari trees
with the paint provided. Despite this action, little by little
the loggers cut down all of the canari trees, whose owners received
only the equivalent of US$4 per tree as compensation.

When police, government representatives, or timber
company officials made occasional visits, the missionaries served
as an intermediary because the Forest Tobelo were monolingual
and had little interest in dealing with these outsiders whom
they did not trust. Elsewhere in Halmahera, Forest Tobelo communities
were losing their land to development projects that took no
account of their presence (Duncan 2002b). Any Forest Tobelo
who resisted the incursion of villagers or the state onto their
lands ran the risk of inviting state violence. When in the late
1980s a group of Forest Tobelo on the northern peninsula ambushed
and killed a village leader whom they accused of cursing them,
the government responded by sending police and armed villagers
to track them down and massacre them. They killed three of them,
but made their point. Thus the Forest Tobelo were increasingly
aware of where they stood in the eyes of the government and
local security forces.


When the NTM missionaries began to teach the Bible,
they started with the story of creation and followed the Bible
chronologically until they reached the ascension of Christ.
The idea behind this approach is that only by starting with
creation and teaching through the Old Testament can new believers
understand the New Testament and the life of Jesus Christ (McIlwain
1987). These lessons, accompanied by a set of pictures that
portray various stories in the Bible, lasted approximately seven
months with three meetings a week. The Forest Tobelo tell many
stories about this initial period of teaching. They consistently
mention the large number of people who attended; proof, they
now say, that many of them were ready for a change. One of the
favorite stories of both the missionaries and the Forest Tobelo
recounts that at one point during the teachings the Lili River
flooded and the missionaries thought it would be too dangerous
for people to cross the river to attend. But people managed
to ford the river, “risking their lives rather than missing
the next lesson” (Sharpe and Snelling 1994:22). One of the missionaries
suggested that certain Forest Tobelo attended in an effort to
gain esoteric knowledge from the missionaries that would provide
them with the missionaries’ powerful magic for defying taboos.
During the first few lessons, a renowned ritual specialist stood
only inches from the missionaries as they were teaching, cupping
his ears to make sure he missed nothing. Others attended out
of pure curiosity or for the new forms of entertainment, which
included video presentations.

Although the missionaries were encouraged by the
initial turnout, there were a few setbacks. During the lessons
a Forest Tobelo man died, an event attributed by several people
to their attendance at the lessons. One influential ritual specialist
felt so strongly about the involvement of the ancestors that
he forbade anyone to attend and threatened to kill anyone who
did. Initially no one showed up after this threat, but gradually
people began to return. The ritual specialist and several families,
however, never returned and still live in the interior. Others
stopped attending after the missionaries explained that they
would have to discard their fetishes, in which many of them
still believed. Many thought the missionaries’ god was just
another spirit, and as they were content with the ones they
had, they saw no need to add yet another to their pantheon and
adopt the associated prohibitions.

A key aspect of these lessons was the missionaries’
focus on explaining the meaning of biblical passages in depth.
The missionaries repeated explications of biblical passages
until they were sure they had conveyed the intended message.
Every lesson started with a review of the previous one and recordings
were available for those who had missed the lesson or who wanted
to listen to them again. These methods contrasted sharply with
the experiences of the few Forest Tobelo who had attended church
services in coastal villages. They thought that coastal preachers,
using North Moluccan Malay (the local dialect of Malay [Taylor
1983]), had been telling pointless stories. Another contrasted
the way village preachers read from the Bible without adding
any explanation with the missionaries’ use of pictures and analogies
that the Forest Tobelo could comprehend. Many said the missionaries’
added exegesis enabled them to begin understanding the meaning
behind these stories.

While the missionaries’ use of the local dialect
of Tobelo in a largely monolingual community was a key to their
success, the presentation style of the NTM missionaries, explaining
Bible passages and related ideas in a respectful way, was of
equal importance and strengthened their ability to convey their
message. Furthermore, their powers of explanation, and Forest
Tobelo faith in the veracity of these explanations, were bolstered
by five years of work that had more often than not proven them
trustworthy. This acceptance of missionary explanations for
everything from eternal salvation to pest control remains strong
to this day. One could say that for the first five years the
missionaries were teaching the Forest Tobelo to have faith in
them, and then used this trust to convince them of the truth
of the religious message they preached.

The question remains, why did the Forest Tobelo
consent to listen to these lessons, something they had staunchly
refused to do before? The nature of the messenger is one factor.
Villagers usually delivered their message with an arrogance
based on their disdain of the Forest Tobelo; they demanded cultural
conversion to village life while offering nothing in return.
(6) The Forest Tobelo saw no reason to believe the stories or
the message of people they felt had cheated and tricked them
for decades. In stark contrast, New Tribes missionaries spent
five years learning the Tobelo language and studying Forest
Tobelo culture without passing judgment. They brought new technologies
(medical, mechanical, etc. that they were willing to share with
the Forest Tobelo without cheating them. They did community
development work and when they began teaching, they explained
their version of Christianity just as they had explained new
medicines, new agriculture techniques, or Indonesian government
policy. Furthermore, the version of Christianity that the missionaries
put forth did not require the Forest Tobelo to relinquish their
autonomy. The missionaries focused on the message of the gospel,
not the cultural underpinnings of it that the villagers had
always stressed. The Forest Tobelo could retain their identity
as Forest Tobelo and remain distinct from villagers.

Not everyone has been affected by the teaching
of the missionaries to the same extent. Some have become fervent
believers, regularly attending church and Bible lessons, completely
opposing any practices from the past. A few have become missionaries
themselves and are teaching the gospel to other Forest Tobelo
groups. At the other end of the spectrum are Forest Tobelo who
decided early on that they could not be bothered by this new
message. In between these two groups are people who have accepted
Christianity to a certain degree. A few still retain some of
their previous beliefs, and there are also those who have foregone
those practices, yet have not adopted Christianity either.


The sociopolitical situation discussed above obviously
affected the Forest Tobelo’s receptivity to the missionaries’
message, which, as Harding (1987) points out, constitutes a
first step in the conversion process. However, attention must
also be given to what enabled individuals to embrace the faith.
What exactly was the nature of these conversions and what did
or does it mean to convert? For the Forest Tobelo, to convert
means renouncing their beliefs in their previous modes of spirit
and ancestor worship and embracing the beliefs and moral code
of Christianity as put forth by the New Tribes Mission. It means
to believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and that his
death on the cross atoned for all of mankind’s sins, and, consequently,
to achieve eternal life in heaven and to avoid eternal damnation
one must acknowledge Jesus Christ and place his faith in him.

The analysis of conversion narratives provides
a productive way of looking at individual understandings of
this change and understanding local conceptions of this change:
“Human beings produce socio-cultural form through an arch of
memories, actions, and intentions. Narrative is the way in which
that arch may be expressed, rehearsed, shared and communicated”
(Peel 1995:582-83). By examining these narratives we can see
how local and global processes influenced individual decisions
to convert. It is through these stories that people verbalize
the choices they made and the actors and events that influenced
those decisions. Every time people share their conversion narratives,
whether in conversation or witnessing in front of a congregation,
they are reinterpreting their past to justify prior choices
and current situations, as well as desired futures (Cucchiari
1988; Hefner 1993b; Kipp 1995). Looking at Forest Tobelo portrayals
of this transition allows for an examination of how they define
who they were, who they are, and how they see their future in
light of their conversion.

In Tanjung Lili, conversion narratives are most
often recounted in attempts to convert others in one-on-one
conversations. Many Forest Tobelo hope that by sharing their
conversion experiences they can influence others. Several prominent
themes are evident in these narratives. The fear of eternal
suffering in hell frequently appears in these stories. These
fears are connected with issues of “truth” (found in the missionary
narratives of Christianity) as opposed to “lies” (which now
characterize descriptions of older stories about ancestors and
spirits). The interweaving of these last two themes, according
to conversion narratives I collected, had a significant influence
on Forest Tobelo decisions to adopt Christianity.

O Habiana

The focus of o Habiana was on what would happen
to him after he died. Before the missionaries arrived he believed
that everyone who died, regardless of their convictions, went
to a place similar to heaven located behind the moon. He had
no conception of Jesus Christ nor of a place like the Christian
hell portrayed in missionary teachings. He was a staunch believer
in the indigenous cosmology and an ardent collector of magical
formulas (o dodiai). His collection of o dodiai was aided by
the skills he acquired while helping the missionaries create
their literacy program. Once he could read and write, he wrote
down all of his o dodiai so he would not forget them. He then
traveled throughout the region gathering more until he had filled
a thick notebook with them. In discussing his conversion he

   When the missionaries started teaching the story of the Bible I did 
   understand about Jesus Christ, 
   I was always thinking one way or another and was confused. This 
   bothered me so 
   much that it made 
   my head hurt. It felt like it was going to split open. I thought: 
   "If I accept 
   Jesus, I cannot steal, I cannot 
   kill, I have to give up my magic. What do I do if I see something I 
   want?" I did 
   not think that I was 
   ready to stop doing these things. When I prayed, I would close my 
   eyes, look 
   down and begin to pray 
   and then stop and think: "Who am I talking to? I cannot see God. 
   There is no one 
   here. It's like I am 
   talking to the wind." ... Finally I realized that there was a 
   heaven, a place 
   of eternal life with God, 
   and a hell, a place of fire and eternal suffering, and that if I did 
   not believe 
   in Jesus I would go to hell, 
   since Jesus Christ is the path to heaven.... I saw one of the 
   pictures that 
   [one of the missionaries] has 
   about the Bible, the one about the rich man in hell. This picture 
   changed my 
   thinking. I looked at this 
   picture of hell and figured I probably could not stand being sent 
   there for 
   eternity. So I went home and 
   tried a few things that convinced me that I would not be able to 
   handle eternal 
   damnation. I stuck my 
   face over a pot of boiling water to see if I could withstand it, 
   but after a few 
   minutes I had to throw 
   some cold water on my face to case the pain, something that I would 
   not be able 
   to do if I had been sent 
   to hell. 

After this experiment o Habiana decided that he
needed to convert in order to avoid eternal damnation, so he
took his notebook and gave it to one of the missionaries, explaining
the contents to him. The missionary told him it was a good idea
to write them down, most likely complimenting his use of his
newfound literacy skills. However, their new permanence in writing
was precisely the problem he now faced, explained o Habiana,
because if he kept on using the o dodiai, it meant following
his previous beliefs. He knew he would surely end up in hell.
The missionary asked what he wanted him to do and o Habiana
requested that he burn the notebook, so they poured kerosene
on it and watched it burn.

O ngo Letu

This fear of death, and more particularly of hell,
appears in the narrative of o ngo Letu. One of the missionaries
told her that the stories they were teaching were the “Word
of God” and completely true. This simple statement moved her
to believe before she even understood what they were teaching.
After telling all this, she added that one of the main reasons
she has faith lies in her fear of death and of hell, where she
would suffer in fire for eternity, “I am scared of that fire,
so I believe in God.”

The concepts of hell and damnation figure into
many conversion narratives, yet these concepts had no equivalent
in premissionary Forest Tobelo cosmology. How the Judeo-Christian
concept of hell, and more importantly a hell of eternal suffering
juxtaposed against a heaven of eternal life, came to be accepted
by the Forest Tobelo provides some insight into the conversion
process. Rafael (1988:167- 209) notes that the ideas of heaven
and hell are linked; that is, the idea of heaven implicitly
rests on a notion of hell, because

   paradise as a phantasmatic projection of a future condition that lay 
   death could take on currency 
   and appeal only insofar as it was signifiable.... Heaven was 
   intelligible and 
   translatable to the extent 
   that it could be hierarchically opposed to something else: hell.... 
   It was in 
   the conjuring up of that 
   threat that fear could be generated. And against these manufactured 
   fears a 
   notion of paradise could be 
   posed as an attractive alternative. Hence paradise gave current 
   a context. 
   But before it could do 
   so, the context of fear--the other possibility of hell--also had to 
   established. (Rafael 1988:179) 

The first mention of hell in the missionaries’
teachings appears in the fourth lesson as the place, described
as a “lake of fire,” that God prepared for Lucifer and his followers.
The missionaries presented hell in the following way:

   When people die they either go directly to be with God or to the 
   place of 
   punishment.... You will 
   live forever with God in Heaven, or you will be forever in the place 
   of tire and 
   punishment for sin.... 
   When a person dies, his spirit does not wander on this earth like 
   taught your forefathers to 
   believe.... As a soon as a person dies, his spirit is immediately in 
   Heaven of in the place of 
   punishment.... There is great suffering in the place of punishment 
   where all who 
   refuse to believe 
   what God says in his Word go. God hates sin. God is not merely 
   threatening about 
   the punishment of 
   sin. All sins must be paid for in full. (McIlwain 1988b:121-23) 

It was during this lesson that the missionaries
first displayed the picture that led o Habiana to convert. As
could be expected, Forest Tobelo notions of hell resemble images
put forth by the missionaries. The basic conception is of a
place of fire and eternal torture into which one is cast after
death. One informant explained it in the following way: “Think
of the thing that you hate most in this world. For you it would
probably be o befe [a type of red biting ant prevalent in the
resettlement compound]. Think about how much you hate it when
they bite you. Now think of an eternity filled with o befe biting
you with no respite. That is what hell is like.”

Forest Tobelo beliefs in the veracity of missionary
explanations as mentioned above figure into their acceptance
of the notion of hell. The Forest Tobelo placed trust in the
missionaries’ powers of explanation and contrasted the honesty
of the missionaries with the dishonesty of villagers and government
officials. This same sense of trust played a role once they
started hearing the missionaries’ explanation of the Bible.
They contrast the “lies” and “deceptions” of stories told to
them by their elders about spirits with the “truth” inherent
in the missionaries’ biblical stories.

O Feredi

As a young boy o Feredi was already well versed
in the Forest Tobelo indigenous belief system. Then the missionaries
came and began to teach the story of the Bible:

   When I first heard the missionaries' stories I thought they were 
   like my grandparents and 
   elders had told me about spirits. But then I realized these stories 
   different and contained good 
   messages such as "Do not steal," and "God cannot lie." Things that I 
   had never 
   heard before in stories. 
   These stories were about the truth, whereas the stories from the 
   past were 
   based on lies. My 
   grandparents had just lied to me. But the Bible had a true trunk and 
   once I 
   began to follow that, I began 
   to believe in God. 
   I did not start believing until [I heard the story about how] Jesus 
   crucified and resurrected. In 
   all of the stories I had ever heard about spirits from my parents 
   grandparents, no one had ever 
   come back from the dead like they said they would. But Jesus Christ 
   had said 
   before He died that He 
   would come back in three days and then He actually did. He did not 
   die and 
   then never return as others 
   do, He came back and that shows that God's word is true and caused 
   thinking to walk towards God. 

Other Forest Tobelo provided similar narratives
that contrasted missionary teachings with older indigenous stories
of spirits. Since conversion, people are reluctant to recount
these tales, such as origin myths, because they now consider
them foolish and naive or Satanic.

Another common feature of conversion narratives
is the role of the missionaries in saving people’s lives with
Western medicine, or their ability to deliver people to hospitals
in emergencies. These near-death experiences, or experiences
of nearly losing a family member, often led people to “acknowledge”

O Sila

One Forest Tobelo man, o Sila, says he found his
faith during an illness that occurred approximately one year
after the missionaries began teaching:

   I acknowledged Jesus when I was very sick. I almost died. I was 
   extremely weak and had these painful 
   bumps all over my back and my legs hurt. I started to think about 
   dying, because I thought I was going 
   to die. I was scared that if I died I would go to hell since I had 
   not accepted God yet. I thought about 
   the story of Jesus Christ suffering on the cross and about how my 
   own sins had caused some of that 
   suffering. I felt that I had a debt to Jesus and I had to believe 
   in Him because He loved me, because 
   He died for us. So I had to love Jesus back. That is when I started 
   to believe in God. 

He recovered due to the medical aid provided by
the missionaries, and has been a firm believer ever since. Other
examples include narratives about a burst appendix and a flight
to Ambon for surgery, and a young boy’s speedboat trip to the
hospital in Tobelo that led his mother to convert.

Yet such narratives alone could be misleading
regarding why the Forest Tobelo converted when they did. These
narratives focus on the message of the missionaries and how
Forest Tobelo accepted or rejected this message. Similarly,
the role of western medicine and technology that saved Tobelo
lives, thus creating a relationship more conducive to conversion,
is an important part of an explanation, but hardly the totality
of it. Just as accounts based on the political economy of conversion
fail to convey the complexity of Forest Tobelo motivations to
convert, so too would an account based purely on individual
narratives, which contain no mention of land encroachment, the
poor state of village-forest relations, new interactions with
the government, or the cyclical violence prevalent when the
missionaries arrived. Clearly these larger changes played a
role in making people more receptive to the possibility of change
offered by the missionaries.


When the Forest Tobelo describe their conversion
they say, “He [God] has untangled/untied us from our sins” (Una
wonahihohe nanga howonino). In a similar sense, we try to untangle
the rationale and reasoning behind Forest Tobelo decisions to
convert to Christianity. Simple (or complex) metanarratives
of societal transformation (based on modernization, globalization,
etc. fail to do this. If the explanation is simply to access
resources, or a matter of state,(7) they could have easily converted
to the Christianity of coastal villagers, and that would have
gained them far more recognition than choosing to convert to
a different form of Christianity and yet maintain their autonomy.
Had they converted to village Christianity they would most likely
have been assimilated into village society and thereby been
able to obtain all their rights and recognition. As personal
conversion narratives do not provide an understanding of the
many variables at play, it is necessary to see how these narratives
are embedded within Forest Tobelo notions of their own history,
community, and identity. By looking at the role of the missionaries,
one begins to see why some Forest Tobelo converted, how they
have been able to sustain their faith, and how they continue
to attract new converts.


1. Fieldwork carried out in northeastern Halmahera
in 1995-1996 was sponsored by LIPI and Universitas Pattimura.
Fieldwork in Manado and Halmahera in 2001-2002 was sponsored
by LIPI and Universitas Sam Ratulangi. The research was funded
at various times by the Yale Center for International Studies,
the Luce Foundation, the Research School for Pacific and Asian
Studies at the Australian National University, and the Anthropologists
Fund for Urgent Anthropological Fieldwork in co-ordination with
the Royal Anthropological Institute and Goldsmiths College,
University of London. A earlier version of this essay was presented
at the Department of Anthropology, RSPAS, ANU. I thank those
who attended and Rebecca Hardin, Jim Hagen, and Pamela McElwee
for their helpful comments.

2. This equation of violence with conversion is
a common theme in missionary encounters in Southeast Asia and
the Pacific (Young 1977; White 1991; M. Rosaldo 1980; R. Rosaldo

3. The first Protestant missionaries, the Dutch
Utrecht Mission Society, arrived in Halmahera in 1865, and focused
largely on non-Muslim settled communities. The first conversions
occurred around the turn of the century. After the Second World
War, GMIH replaced the Dutch mission and continues to be the
dominant Christian church on the island (Haire 1981; Magany
1984). GMIH continued the Dutch policy of largely ignoring the
Forest Tobelo prior to the arrival of the New Tribes Mission.

4. They also refused to convert to Islam because
of the prohibition against eating pork, their main source of
food. Additionally, a successful hunter gained respect and status
within the community, as food sharing and hunting prowess were
one of the major ways of gaining prestige.

5. One might argue that in choosing Christianity,
the Forest Tobelo were in fact identifying themselves with Christian
coastal villagers as opposed to Muslim coastal villagers (Dunean
2002a). Although recent violence in North Maluku has placed
the emphasis on the conflict between Muslims and Christians,
in pre-1999 Halmahera differences in church affiliation were
often the cause of disputes as well, pitting Seventh Day Adventists
against followers of GMIH, for example. Thus, in choosing a
non-GMIH church the Forest Tobelo were making a statement about
their continuing distinction from coastal communities.

6. The Protestantism of the local church does
not teach that eternal salvation is guaranteed to anyone due
to their conversion.

7. At the time the Forest Tobelo converted to
Christianity the Indonesian government required all citizens
to adhere to one of five religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism,
Hinduism, and Buddhism) recognized by the state. Subsequently
the government recognized Confucianism.


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Christopher R. Duncan University of Missouri-Columbia

COPYRIGHT 2003 University of Pittsburgh

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