Was Jon Frum ‘John from America’?

As I have said in a previous post on the Jon Frum cult found on Tanna Island, Vanuatu, there is great disagreement on both the origins of the cult and the identity of Jon Frum.  One particularly tantalising version has it that the name ‘Jon Frum’ came from a misunderstanding when a US serviceman who introduced himself as ‘John from America’ was misunderstood to be named ‘Jon Frum’.  When I was on Tanna in April I stumbled on a diary extract that shed a little light on the matter.

Our host, Tom had a copy of an excerpt from the diary of Ian Reid, a mission doctor who served on Tanna.  Tom had a copy because it mentioned his grandfather, Tom Nalauas, but it also mentioned the arrival of the Jon Frum movement at the Presbyterian Church at Lenakel, Tanna’s biggest centre.

The Pastor, Tom Nalauas was supported by a session of elders, of which I became one.  Nalauas was a marvellous Christian – probably the most Christlike character I ever met.  He was a chief in his own right.  As a boy in the first decade of the century he had been employed by Rev. Frank Paton as a goat-keeper.  Under the influence of Paton, Nalauas was converted to Christianity.  In 1939, Nalauas was pastor of the Lenakel church when the cargo cult, the Jon Frum movement, broke out.  The outbreak as far as the expatriates were concerned, came unexpectedly.  It would be usual for about 1000 people to attend church on a Sunday at Lenakel.  On the day of the Jon Frum outbreak, planters awoke to find that their local staff had left and at the Lenakel church three people turned up for worship – Nalauas, his wife and an elder.  Nalauas walked down to the Church, rang the bell, and then conducted the service as if nothing had changed.  A relatively small number of natives returned to the church but with nowhere near the previous numbers.  About 200 would have attended on Sundays when I was there.

This highlights a couple of interesting points.

Firstly, and most obviously, regardless of which year the movement started  it reached Lenakel in 1939.  Clearly the movement was well underway before US servicemen reached Vanuatu’s shores.  Except for the slim possibility that the movement began in the 30s and acquired its name later, it seems unlikely that ‘John from America’ served with the US forces.  Having said that, the war certainly did have an impact on the development of the cult, just not its beginnings.

Secondly, it’s interesting how dramatic it’s beginnings were, at least in Lenakel.  Between two Sundays the decision had been made and the word spread that everyone was leaving plantations and leaving the church.

Which leads to a third point and that is to note that there were expatriate plantation owners on Tanna at the time – a fact that is not obvious today.  This is a good reminder that the movement in its origins was more than religious in nature; it had a political edge.  Yes, it rejected the church, but it also rejected schools, money, and here we see it also rejected work on plantations.  In fact one theory behind the name is that Jon Frum is a corruption of ‘John Broom’ who would sweep the white people off the island.

While I’ve said that the movement had a political aspect, that does not mean that the political and religious aspects of the movement are separate.  Ultimately the cult members sought a spiritual explanation for their situation.  While they rejected money and possessions, it was in order to receive great cargo from over the sea.  It seems that it was not the idea of abundant possessions that they were rejecting, but simply that these possessions always seemed to be controlled by outsiders.  What they found in the cult was a spiritual explanation and solution.

Why is all this important?  Well it has implications for how we live amongst the people on Tanna and the way that we teach.  We really need to understand the worldview of Jon Frum Cult members and that will take a very long time.  At this stage any clues like this one might be helpful.

5 thoughts on “Was Jon Frum ‘John from America’?

  1. For the record Ian Reid was actually my grandfather (Dad was born in Vanuatu while he was a missionary there). He died a month before Jo and I were married in 2008 and actually had his ashes scattered over Tanna. Sean was given his middle name of Ian after him.
    I’ve been curious about whether you had bumped into his name when I heard that you were heading to Tanna.

    • Wow Dan, I am so excited to hear that. When I heard the name ‘Reid” I hadn’t guessed that the connection. It is nice for us to have another connection to your family.
      And yes it is interesting that we did bump into his name, it seems that your grandfather is still well remembered on Tanna.
      What I read was just a one-page diary excerpt. If you or your family have anything else electronically, we would love to read it.

  2. I advice you to read through this book again “THIRTY YEARS WITH SOUTH SEA CANNIBALS ” you might break the ice very interesting chapters inside this mystery book.

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