Tongan Culture


Christianity has been an important aspect of Tongan society, politics and culture since its introduction by Western missionaries. This began in the late 1700s and continued into the early 1800s, starting with the London Missionary Society and followed by Free Wesleyan missionaries. During this time, virtually all aspects of life were affected, including the old socio-political structure and groups. Many original traditions that challenged the moral code or practices of Christianity were adapted to accommodate the religion, such as the art of tattooing and indigenous worldviews.

In contemporary times, nearly all Tongans identify with some form of Christianity. There is a great diversity of the branches of Christianity followed in the country, including but not limited to: the Free Wesleyan Church (35%), Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter-day Saints [Mormonism] (18.6%), Roman Catholic Church (14.2%), Free Church of Tonga (11.9%), Church of Tonga (6.8%), Assembly of God (2.3%), Seventh Day Adventist (2.2%), Tokaikolo Christian Church (1.6%) and other Protestant denominations (4.3%).1 Of the remaining population, 2.4% identify with some other religion and 0.05% identify with no religion.2

Christianity in Tonga

Modern Tongans speak of the coming of Christianity to the islands as ‘the coming of light’ against the ‘po’uli’ (night time of warfare). The first successful missionaries that came to Tonga were part of the Free Wesleyan Church. This branch of Christianity still has considerable influence over the country, especially due to the fact that Wesleyanism is the official religion of the state and the monarchy. Churches are a significant part of social and cultural life for most Tongans. Churches can be seen throughout the country, even in the most remote places, and bells calling for people to attend morning church services can be heard daily.

Daily life and the working week are structured around the Christian worship calendar. In accordance to the Sabbath, rules about Sunday observances as a day of rest are quite strict, widely upheld and consistently enforced throughout the country. Most stores close and only essential work is permitted (e.g. emergency facilities). People are also not allowed to participate in outdoor activities such as swimming. It is often expected that everyone will attend church on Sundays, which is typically followed by an ‘umu’ (earth oven) feast.

There is a generational difference in observance of the Christian faith. Older generations generally attend church services more regularly than their younger counterparts. Indeed, many older Tongans attend their local church twice or three times a week to participate in prayer and worship and to socialise with their church community. It is not uncommon for younger Tongans to take ‘time out’ from the church as a response to the difficulties of maintaining anga fakatonga (the Tongan way) alongside the influence of the anga fakapālangi (the Western way). The church often provides an anchor for those ready to return to a form of stability.

Central Intelligence Agency, 2020

2 Central Intelligence Agency, 2020

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