Wednesday, October 8, 2008

An Unsung Hero


Lately, I've been studying the history of the London Missionary Society and its accomplishments in the Samoan islands. Not only is their history fascinating in its own right, but some of the personalities involved in the initial evangelizing of Samoa are quite remarkable.

I don't mean to do John Williams any injustice by not focusing this post on him and his incomparable work; indeed, were it not for Williams's enthusiasm, the message of Jesus Christ might not have made it to Samoa until many years later than 1830.

But one whose work is often passed over is that of the Reverend George Pratt, from Great Britain. According to The History of the London Missionary Society, 1795 - 1895, "Mr. [and Mrs.] Pratt reached Samoa [on October 26th, 1839], [and he] laboured there for forty-one years," Mrs. Pratt having died sometime while in Samoa. (4) Forty-one years in Samoa! What a sacrifice, and one that cost him his wife's life at that. Surely this man and his life's work is worthy of our admiration and attention.

"...Worthy of the highest regard and honour, the Rev. George Pratt, who [laboured] in the district of Matautu, on the island of Savaii, did a work of lasting worth in shaping the Christian thought and life of his flock." (1)

But perhaps his most enduring accomplishment was the Rev. Pratt's work on the translation of the Holy Bible into the Samoan language. "While many willingly and lovingly contributed their share of toil in the Samoan translation of the Scriptures, to Mr. George Pratt belonged the chief honour, and to his remarkable linguistic skill and diligent scholarship much of its great excellence was due. " (4)

One of the Rev. Pratt's colleagues, Mr. Samuel James Whitmee, eulogized Pratt with the following:

To him, more than to any other person, although several rendered efficient aid, the excellence of the Samoan version of the Scriptures is due. I think I may say he did more than all the rest put together. The translation, and then the revision of the Samoan Bible, was the great work of his life. To this he devoted almost daily attention for many years, with the result that the Samoans have a Bible which, as a classic, is, and will be to them, very much what the Authorized Version has been in England. (4)

Another wrote,

Only those who have had a share in such work can understand its difficulty. A beginning was made with the New Testament. Book by book this was put into the Samoan language and issued to the people, who from the very first were trained to purchase their books with their own money. The New Testament completed, the Psalms followed, and at intervals the rest of the Old Testament. Afterwards the first translations were carefully gone over word by word three or four different times, and numerous corrections made, so as to make the translations as perfect as possible, and in this work...most of all, as stated above, Mr. Pratt took the lead...in securing the result. (1)

In fact, the translation of the Bible into Samoan is considered so good that as of 1894, "all further revision [had] been laid aside, the present translation being regarded as practically as perfect as it can be made," (1) and Spencer Churchward, twentieth century linguist and writer of a remarkably good Samoan grammar, remarked, "There can be no doubt that the Samoan Bible is almost faultless." (5)

Apparently, the Rev. Pratt stood "pre-eminent as a student and master of the Samoan language," (1) and he

spoke it like one of the natives of a generation now passed away, before the language had suffered from modern corruptions. He was so familiar with the classic traditions of the people, and could illustrate and give points to his speech by such telling references and allusions, that it was always a treat to the natives to hear [Palate] speak. He had no uninterested hearers. He accordingly had little patience with missionaries who were contented with an imperfect knowledge of the language of the people to whom they preached, or who were given to careless speech. (4)

Moreover, "'Mr. Pratt was a specialist. He was a born linguist, and he faithfully used and cultivated his special talent in the service of Christ." (4) On June 5, 1876, Mr. Pratt wrote, "For my own amusement in 1875 I wrote out a syntax of the Samoan grammar."

I was led to do this by observing, while reading Nordheimer’s Hebrew Grammar, that the Samoan, in many points resembled the Hebrew. Shortly afterwards the Rev. S. J. Whitmee asked me to contribute the Samoan part of a comparative Malayo-Polynesian Dictionary. I at once, with the aid of pundits, commenced revising the first edition of my Dictionary, which was printed at the Samoan Mission Press in 1862. I read through the Hawaii, Maori, Tahiti, and Fiji Dictionaries, and from these I obtained some words which occur also in the Samoan dialect, but which had been overlooked in the first edition. I also culled words and examples from Samoan genealogical accounts, songs, traditionary tales, proverbs &c. In this way I have been enabled to add over four thousand new words or new meanings. (3)

As mentioned, in addition to his work on the Samoan Bible, the Rev. Pratt compiled a Samoan - English dictionary and wrote a grammar of the language, (3) both considered standard works to this day. He also translated a number of parables and allegories from many lands into Samoan, including a number of Aesop's fables. (2)

And so, this man, remarkably gifted in languages, of whom it was also said that "...his Hebrew Old Testament and his Greek New Testament were among his most cherished companions, whether he was at home or travelling," (4) spent out his days seeking to raise his English- and Samoan-speaking peers' understanding of both the Samoan language and the word of God.

I think I can say that anyone who learns Samoan as a second language is indebted in some way to the Rev. George Pratt. That all Samoan-speaking Christians are indebted to him for the Samoan Bible goes without saying. His work will stand as an eternal memorial to his dedication to a noble work.


1. George Cousins, The Story of the South Seas, London Missionary Society, 1894.

2. George Pratt, O Faataoto ma Tala Faatusa Mai Atunuu Eseese, Religious Tract Society, 1890.

3. George Pratt, A Grammar and Dictionary of the Samoan Language, 3rd ed., Religious Tract Society, 1893.

4. Richard Lovett, The History of the London Missionary Society, 1795 - 1895, H. Frowde, 1899.

5. Spencer Churchward, A Samoan Grammar, 2nd ed., Spectator Publishing Co., 1951.

7 comments:

tpmotd said...

What similarities did he find between Samoan and Hebrew?

Nate said...

Mr. Pratt wrote, "For my own amusement in 1875 I wrote out a syntax of the Samoan grammar. I was led to do this by observing, while reading Nordheimer’s Hebrew Grammar, that the Samoan, in many points resembled the Hebrew."

Not knowing Hebrew myself, I do not truly know how Samoan and Hebrew are similar. I have, however, found a few points of comparison in Pratt's 3rd edition of his dictionary (a reference and link for which can be found at the bottom of the original post).

"The Causative, like Hiphil in Hebrew." (pg. 23)

"The Intensive, like Piel." (pg. 23)

"The Reciprocal, Hithpael." (pg. 24)

"Particles of negation: e leai (like the Hebrew particle), signifies non-existence: as e leai se lelei, there is nothing good." (pg. 35)

If I find more comparisons by Pratt or any other, I'll be sure to append them to this post.

Katie said...

It is simply amazing and inspiring how much good one life can produce. Thanks for writing.

Nate said...

The Rev. T. Powell, F.L.S., of the London Missionary Society spent at least 40 years in Samoa and presented the following to the Victoria Institute or the Philosophical Society of Great Britain in 1886 or 1887.

"[The Samoans] are of Asiatic origin, and, in my own opinion, of Hebrew descent; the language is essentially Semitic. This would have been evident at a glance to any philologist, had the missionaries, who gave the people signs for their sounds, have given Hebrew letters instead of Roman. Only fifty six years ago these people were in heathen darkness. 'They had gods many and lords many, in a remarkable system of zoolatry which prevailed, linking them on alike to the Asiatic continent and to the animal worship of the ancient Egyptians.'" (pg. 146)

"[The Samoan] legends seem to me to commence with the Creation and to end with the captivity in Babylon, and the conviction on my mind is that the people who have thus preserved them are of Israelitish origin—that they have come through Babylon. You may trace in their language very important Chaldaic forms, and find them recurring in preference over and over again to the Hebraic forms. In these things, and in the habits and customs of the people, we discover so vast an amount of likeness to what we find in the Bible, that we seem to have in reality very like a parallel history to that of the Bible, from Genesis to the Babylonian Captivity…My idea is that the people I have spoken of are of Israelitish origin; that they were in Babylon, and have been enabled to preserve their history in the form in which we find it. I regard them as a people who have clothed their history in this mystic way, and so handed it carefully down from generation to generation. I asked the man who gave me this tradition, "When did you get it?" and his reply was, "Oh, we cannot tell that; it has been handed down from one generation to another, and that is how we have retained it." The house is always guarded when they relate these legends among their families…Here is a little book full of Hebrew words in Samoan, and they are put down just as I have come across them. There are so many of these similarities, and when we find that they are so numerous, and that if we used the Hebrew instead of the Roman character we should see at once that the language is triliteral, I think I have said enough to give some probability to my view until the opportunity is given me of submitting further evidence to philologists and scientists. …" (pg. 170)

If you read the full account given by Rev. Powell and the discussion he has with others of the society, many other interesting insights may be found relative to a possible Samoan-Hebrew connection.

Nate said...

According to anthropologist Derek Freeman, the Rev. Thomas Powell collected from "both the western and eastern islands of the Samoan archipelago...with scholarly exactitude, a series of traditional texts of the utmost importance for the understanding of the pagan religion of Samoa."

"These texts reveal a concept of a supreme being, which...is to a remarkable degree for a preliterate people theologically sophisticated and mature. Indeed, so impressed was Powell with the 'monotheism' of the Samoan myth of creation that he was led to conjecture that 'those who had handed it down, from father to son, from time immemorial, as an inviolable trust,' must have been 'closely allied to the original possessors of the Mosaic record.'"

(From Derek Freeman, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The making and unmaking of an anthropological myth, Pelican Books, 1985, pg. 181.)

Nate said...

Derek Freeman, a New Zealand anthropologist, gave some illuminating insight into the Rev. George Pratt's classic Grammar and Dictionary of the Samoan Language.

Wrote Freeman, "George Pratt had resided in Samoa, mainly at Matautu on the island of Savai'i, for forty years from 1839 to 1879, before retiring to Sydney, Australia. The first edition of his grammar and dictionary appeared in 1862. By the time the third edition was published in [1893], his formidable dictionary contained over 12,000 words and had become an exceptionally valuable source of information on all aspects of Samoan life."

In total, Pratt's grammar and dictionary passed through four editions (1862, 1878, 1893, 1911), with the editorial assistance of the Revs. S. J. Whitmee (1878) and J. E. Newell (1911), both of the London Missionary Society and both colleagues of Pratt's in Samoa. The 1911 fourth edition of Pratt's work was published posthumously.

(Derek Freeman, The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research, Westview Press, 1999, pg. 72.)

Nate said...

Dr. George Turner, a Protestant missionary to Samoa with the London Missionary Society, had a habit of making notes of discoveries in the Samoan language and customs, "illustrative of sacred [Biblical] history, and tracing the origin of the [Samoan] people to the ancient lands of the Bible." (Turner, pg. 355)

These notes he called "Illustrations of Scripture", and in 1861 Turner published 189 connections between "Polynesian manners, customs, and modes of thought" and "Biblical narratives." Dr. Turner's stated reason for publishing these illustrations was to throw "a ray of light on the sacred records," or Bible. Of his illustrations Dr. Turner said, "Unless otherwise named, the…notes are gathered from Samoa." Samoa was, to Turner, "the center of a wide circle, throughout which many of the very same, or kindred, illustrations may be found." (Turner, pg. 310)

Elsewhere, 33 Samoan customs "analogous to those of the Israelites" were compiled by the venerable Rev. George Pratt.

Admittedly, analogous customs, manners, modes of thought, or linguistics, are not in themselves enough to prove a direct connection between the Samoans and the ancient Hebrews, but we may rightly enter them as evidence in the ongoing quest to discover the Samoan's origins.