In 1606, 14 children from Mailu were kidnapped by the Spanish explorers Torres and Prado, taken to the Philippines and baptized into the Catholic faith. However, sustained mission activity did not begin until the 19th century when mission stations were established by the Catholics (1847), the London Missionary Society (1871), Methodists (1875), Lutherans (1886) and Anglicans (1891). The colonial Administrations welcomed missionary activity but did not want competition amongst missions. In British New Guinea in 1890 MacGregor organized a conference at which the London Missionary Society, the Anglicans and the Methodists, agreed to divide the colony into “spheres of influence”. This policy gradually broke down under pressure from the Catholic Church, the Seventh-Day Adventists (from 1908) and, later, other smaller Protestant denominations. An attempt by the German Administration to separate Methodist and Catholic activity in the Gazelle Peninsula between 1890 and 1900 was also unsuccessful.
After World War II the Papua Ekalesia (formerly the London Missionary Society and Kwato Extension Association) joined the Methodists to form the United Church; the Baptists and several minor Protestant missions formed the Evangelical Alliance; and the Salvation Army, the Pentecostals, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Baha’i Faith, and various small fundamentalist sects moved into PNG. Until the 1950s the missions were responsible for almost all educational and health services. Churches, subsidized by the government, still run about half the country’s health centers and schools.
PNG’s Constitution, adopted immediately prior to Independence in 1975, declared PNG to be a Christian country. In the 1990 national census 96.4 percent of the total population of 3,607,954 persons recorded themselves as Christians. However, many Christians also observe rituals associated with traditional beliefs. Of the 3,478,139 Christians, 29.4 percent were Catholics, 23.9 percent Evangelical Lutheran, 13.1 percent United Church, 9.1 percent Evangelical Alliance, 8.3 percent Seventh-Day Adventist, 7.3 percent Pentecostal, 4.1 percent Anglican and 0.2 percent Salvation Army. The remaining 4.5 percent of Christians belonged mainly to (predominantly American) fundamentalist sects.
The 1980 census recorded Gutnius Lutherans as being 2.1 percent of the Christian population. They did not appear as a separate denomination in the 1990 census but were represented as a separate group on the PNGCC. Although the Pentecostals have been working in PNG since the 1960s they appeared in the census for the first time in 1990.
In 1990 the 6,834 adherents of the Baha’i faith represented 0.2 percent of the total population. The 4,653 members of other religions (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism) constituted 0.1 percent of the total population. Twenty-one thousand people did not state a religion and 96,000 said they had no religion.