Celebrating a turning point in Cook Islands history

Photo: Cook Islands News

Cook Islanders are very religious...but who says religion can't be fun?! Gospel days are public holidays for celebrating the arrival of Christianity. Events are organised by the Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC) and the churches themselves compete against each other to put on the best show. Islanders dress up, stage elaborate dramas or "nuku", sing, dance, play music and generally have a great time. 

2023 was particularly special with a two day celebration on Rarotonga of the bi-centenary of the arrival of Christianity on the capital island and special  events on Mitiaro, Mauke and Atiu where they celebrated 200 years since the arrival of Christianity on their own islands. 2024 is particularly special for Mangaia when their own unique bicentennial celebrations take place in June.

Photos: Cook Islands News


London born clergyman, the Rev. John Williams was responsible for bringing Christianity to the Islands. He was working as an ironmonger's apprentice when he volunteered and was accepted for service with the London Missionary Society in 1816 aged just 20. He was ordained in September of that year, married in October and sailed for the South Seas in November.

It was five years later - after working in Tahiti - that Williams, his wife and some native Tahitian evangelists arrived off Aitutaki. According to another LMS missionary, Bernard Thorogood in his 1960 book 'Not Quite Paradise', says Island chiefs came across in canoes, "men ready to do battle if necessary, clad chiefly in tattoo marks and waving their spears".

That was 23 October, 1821, but It was 1823 before the Islanders finally rejected their idols and Williams returned to Aitutaki for the opening of the first Christian church. Williams also helped translate the Bible into Rarotongan which Thorogood says was "one of the greatest achievements in those early days"

Painting: "The Rev John Williams on board ship with native implements, in the South Sea Islands" by Henry Anelay, 1838. From the pictures collection of the National Library of Australia (nla.pic-an6621835). Reproduced with permission

A rare first-hand account

Palmerston has a population of just 25 people, but Gospel Day there is celebrated by every single one of them. Things start long before dawn, there's feasting, lots of prayers and finally holy day gives way to holiday. Read the only published account of the unique celebrations written by one of the island's young residents.


Click here to watch a short film created by Wendy Evans about gospel day on the capital island


As the first of the Cook Islands to be converted to Christianity, Aitutaki celebrated in 2022This is a video of the memorable celebrations