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10 Insane Facts about the John Frum Cult You Didn’t Know
Colonialism’s impact on the world has been widely published and documented, being thrust into the limelight again a few times a year as world events unfold. It was the way of the world for hundreds of years: kill or be killed. Conquer the living world and reach your arms as far around resources and territory as you can manage so that your future and the future of your children are ensured, even if it comes at the cost of blood.
But there are other things colonialism impacted that we do not often think about, such as the reaction of little satellite cults in remote areas where so-called civilization only visited and never imposed themselves upon the natives. One such cult is the John Frum cargo cult, and their existence is fascinating.
Here are ten facts about the John Frum cargo cult that you probably didn’t know.
Related: Top 10 Cults With Massive Followings
10 A Cargo Cult
What is a “cargo cult,” you wonder? In short, cargo cults are religious sects or movements that hold the belief that some deity or supernatural element will soon bless them with cargo or valuable resources. The John Frum cult, not being the only one of its kind in history, is the longest-surviving example of such a cult.
So, what are the goods they are waiting for? We can only guess; however, it is clear that the people worship Western materialism. Well, sort of. There are some theories to suggest that the material aspect of the religion simply represents a reconceptualization of material acts to a spiritual occurrence that can reaffirm the belief itself.
Probably the more true version is that the people are happy. The religion brings a modicum of structure and coherence to village life, as the vague promise of material wealth sustains the present belief.
9 John Frum Is a God
Although John Frum sounds like a man you might pass at your neighborhood Walmart, that is not what the name represents. A mystical figure associated with the movement, John is often depicted as a U.S. serviceman during World War II and is promised to bring prosperity to the people of Tanna (Vanuatu).
Technically, Walmart John is exactly who the people of the island envision: the average Western man showered in earthly possessions. But that is not its only Western connotation. John Frum is said to be derived from the words “John From America,” which, over time, with the language barrier, became John Frum.
Some say he was a man scouting the area during the war; others say he is a figment created in the minds of conniving men seeking to use the myth of his existence to maintain a hold over the people of the village.
8 Not the Only Cargo Cult
When you consider these strange and somewhat outlandish cults, one cannot help to wonder how such a movement can take hold of the minds of people and then develop into a full-blown religious sect or cult. Still, you might be surprised to hear that the John Frum cult is not the only one of its kind.
The Vailala Madness, a similar cult from Papua New Guinea, were under the impression, to the point of madness, that the ancients, the holy ones, were withholding European goods from the indigenous peoples of the island.
An example of such a movement that turned violent, followers of the Vailala Madness began to forsake their roots, attacking traditional ritual objects, destroying their gardens, and abandoning their trade. In a sort of religious regime change, they enforced Sunday observance and cleanliness and rejected personal adornment. The Vailala Madness died out in 1931 but is still idealized by some.
7 The Last Cargo Cult of Melanesia
If we ignore some influencers urging us to embrace materialism as our new religion, the John Frum cult is the first cargo cult, and it still exists to this day.
Many of these types of cults sprung up in Melanesia, such as the Vailala Madness cult, the Tom Navy cult, the Tuka Cult, as well as the Prince Philip Movement. But each one of these cults, although similar in origins and practice, lacks one thing the John Frum cult has: longevity.
Some sources suggest their numbers have dipped below 500. However, it is not clear how many are still interested in upholding their traditions. What is clear, however, is that the cult’s numbers are diminishing as globalization takes its toll.
6 They Have Their Own Customs and Government
Currently, only the village of Lamakara houses those faithful to Frum, as the rest of the island has, over many years of missionary work and outreaches, converted to Christianity and has fallen under a more established political regime.
In the 1970s, the John Frum followers opposed the creation of an independent united nation of Vanuatu, objecting to a centralized government in the fear that Western modernity and Christianity would be detrimental to their local customs. The movement created its own political party, Nagriamel, led at the time by Son Keaspai, which celebrated its 50th anniversary on February 15, 2007.
Over the years, the party has been led by others, including Thitam Goiset, a woman of Vietnamese origin, despite the movement’s leadership positions having been previously held by high-ranking male chiefs.
5 They Have a Prophet
Chief Fred Isaak is the only direct link to John Frum, the god of cargo himself. But the situation is a bit more circumspect than a democratically elected prophet or chief who is allowed to talk to John.
Isaak left the village in the 1990s to spend time away from home, fishing on a Taiwanese fishing boat and gaining some world knowledge. When Isaak returned, however, he came with wondrous tidings. Off the coast of Africa, Isaak says he experienced what can only be described as an out-of-body experience, receiving visions from god.
The messages told him that the followers weren’t on the path to redemption and that he was to change their ways. He returned with the news, and it caused a rift in the community, splitting the believers. He became chief again over a part of the congregation and regularly convened with Frum from his vulcanic perch.
4 They Have a Volcano
Oh, did I not mention they have a volcano? It is somewhat cliche if you think about it—the remote cult that worships its own version of a Western deity has a volcano.
Located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they have quite a lot of volcanic activity, with nine active volcanoes in Vanuatu, seven of which are underwater. The most easily accessible of the two landlocked volcanoes is Mount Yasur, located on Tanna Island.
Mount Yasur is active and has been erupting continuously since the eighteenth century, forming the center of the cargo cult, leading many to refer to Tanna Island as Sulphur Bay. Needless to say, the members of the cult are lucky in the sense that the volcano does not require sacrifice for appeasement.
3 John Frum Day
Like most religions, there is a special day, a holy celebration that is held annually to convene with your religious peers and bring honor or pay homage to your gods.
John Frum Day is held annually on February 15, a day on which followers descend on the village of Lamakara to honor their American messiah. The men adorn themselves in military garb and fashion rifles from bamboo, saluting the American flag raised above their heads while the women in the village dress in colorful skirts and dance in Frum’s Honor.
Very few outsiders have had the privilege of attending one of these festivals. However, for the right price, anything is possible, and the locals won’t bite.
2 Wooden Airport
After the war, when the Americans left the Pacific Islands, followers of Frum built landing strips, complete with wooden airplanes and all, in the hopes that their labor would entice Americans to land their airplanes and bring them cargo.
From those first years to this day, during their annual John Frum celebrations, locals construct an airfield, complete with wooden planes, to mimic a real functional airfield. Mimic it from a distance, at least.
But that is not all. The cult is famous for setting up mock offices and dining rooms and the attempted construction of what is (somewhat ironically, perhaps) considered Western goods, like radios made of straw and coconuts.
1 Anthropological Interest
Thanks to its well-documented existence, longevity, and its openness to the outside world (within reason), the cult has become somewhat of an anthropological goldmine, with scientists, scholars, psychologists, and academics studying their habits, development, and decline.
It feels like a matter of time before the cult ceases to exist entirely (except perhaps to keep some of the rich traditions of the island alive). Still, it has already shown its ability to develop, and it has gone through each of the stages one would expect from a sect or cult that has developed a following and has almost been accepted as part of the fabric of the island.
They will remain a fascinating bunch until John Frum actually shows up with his cargo, putting all the many doubters in their place.