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John Frum

Updated on March 15, 2011

Images of a new religion


“John Frumism” is one of those stories that when heard for the first time appears so perfect that you feel that it must be untrue.  It is naive, beautiful, slightly laughable, fascinating, sweet and yet seems to be a parody of all other belief systems at the same time. As one of the “Cargo Cults” which sprung up in the South Sea islands in the mid twentieth century, it is also relatively easy to trace and study the events which lead to the belief structure coming into being. John Frum and John Frumism is above all a young and raw religion; not tampered with and sullied by time and politics in the way that the “big” religions held by the majority of the world’s population have been. It is because of its untouched nature that John Frumism may tell us more about our own belief systems than we might first imagine.

The story of John Frum began in the late 1930s on the remote islands of the New Hebrides or Vanuatu in the southern Pacific Ocean.  There is some debate as to where the mythical head of the religion hails from, however he was seen as a local man who appeared to the natives dressed in Western clothes and making promises of housing, clothing, transport and abundant food. The original John Frum also predicted the disappearance of the characteristics of Western society which had permeated the New Hebrides in the guise of Christian missionaries.  With the teachings of John Frum, the natives of the islands left their churches, schools and villages; spending all the money that they’d acquired on traditional feasts and cultural gatherings.

The next stage of the story happens during the Second World War when the New Hebrides we used by Americans during the 1940s as an airbase for their bloody Pacific war against the Japanese.  300,000 American troops flooded onto the islands bringing with them all the trappings and “cargo” one would expect for the one of the biggest and most advanced militaries on the planet.  The largely subsistent community of small scale farmers and fisherman native to the islands were rightly astounded by this sudden influx of materials and technology.

Images of John Frumism

Image of the religion
Image of the religion
Map of Vanuatu
Map of Vanuatu
A plane built by natives to encourage the return of Frum
A plane built by natives to encourage the return of Frum

So it was that citizens of the most advanced nation on Earth now shared their daily lives with people living effectively in the stone-age. It is worth taking a step back here and considering just how off the scale the American troops must have appeared to the locals. Huge steel ships, flying metal planes, communication via radio and the ability to conjure food at almost any time must have seemed truly magical to the New Hebrideans who were unfamiliar with almost all the technologies which they were now seeing. It is probably unsurprising then that the local populace quickly decided that the Americans were gods.

Unfortunately – from the point of view of the islanders – the Americans were not destined to remain on the New Hebrides forever and when the war in the Pacific was won, the troops quickly deserted the islands to return to their homes in the USA.   Seemingly baffled by this sudden disappearance of the troops and all the trappings that came with them, the islanders responded by building landing strips in clearings made in the jungle, the route by which the Americans had come in the first place. Despite building bamboo control towers and mimicking the actions of their “gods” in every visible way, still the Americans did not return. The Star Spangled Banner was worshipped along with the white (or sometimes black) man John Frum, the root of the name apparently having come from an American introducing himself as “John Frum (from) America”.

In 1957 a non-violent movement was set up named the “Tanna Army” was set up to organise military parades who march wearing white T-shirts with “USA” written on them. This, along with the worship of the American flag is to encourage the return of John Frum back to what is now Vanuatu, his return is believed to be going to occur on the 15th of February, though the year is not known.

Perhaps John Frumism also tells us a bit about ourselves as well as those that we speak of on Vanuatu as a casual anecdote.  Aren’t the followers of the biggest religion on the planet also waiting for the return of their own spiritual leader, after all?! The religion of John Frumism is used to explain the inexplicable to the primitive islanders, which isn’t why we also invented and still continue to believe much of our own religions?! Encapsulated in the myth of John Frum is also the myths we invented and propagate in the rest of the world, John Frumism only appears naive to us because of its primitive nature and the fact that it hasn’t been hugely modified to fit the modern world.


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    • superwags profile image

      superwags 7 years ago from UK

      I don't know, but I reckon they should get back across to Vanuatu with an ipod and a bag of sweets and see if they can't get themselves declared emperor!

    • profile image

      just_curious 7 years ago

      I liked this. I had a vague knowledge of this story from somewhere. There are definitely correlations between this and Christianity. I wonder if any american has ever laid claim to being the John they worship.

    • revmjm profile image

      Margaret Minnicks 7 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Interesing! Very interesting story about John Frum.