Why Did the Chamorro Bible Disappear?

Bethany S. Martin, Editor, Guam-Micronesia Mission of Seventh-day Adventists

ISLES: A Tropical Isles Report from the Guam-Micronesia Mission of Seventh-day Adventists, Spring 2003, Special Issue
(Complete Magazine in PDF Format)

290 Chalan Palasyo, Agaña Heights, Guam, 96910, USA
Telephone: +1 671-477-9745, Fax: +1 671-477-5674, WWW: http://gmmsda.org
Willy S. Nobuo, President (2000-2003)
Bethany S. Martin, Editor (2002-2003): BethanySMartin@hotmail.com

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The disappearance of the Chamorro Bible is truly a mystery. Why such a gift to the Chamorro culture would have been lost, is a question no one knows the answer to. However, clues into the disappearance of the Chamorro Bible can be found in the suppression of the language itself.

As referred to in a previous article, the Chamorro language was restricted and forbidden in replacement of the Castilian (Spanish) language, under the Spanish rule in the 1700s, and again by the Americans after the U.S. gained control of the island in 1898.

Upon gaining control of Guam and implementing an American government under military rule, the Americans also brought to the island Western ideals and methods of administration and education. By 1922, a public school system was introduced and underway that was patterned after the California educational system. American teachers and local English-speaking teachers were used in the classrooms and all children were required to attend school.

While this was a well-intended educational system that was being introduced to the island for the intellectual improvement of the people, the indoctrination of Western ideals trampled underfoot the very heart of the culture of the Chamorro people: the Chamorro language. “When the U.S. occupied our island, it took more than our land; it took away our culture, our way of life, and supplanted these with its own imported values.”[1]

In a book by Dr. Laura Thompson, “Guam And Its People,” she relays a deep excavation of the history of the island and its people and the impact that Westernization had on the culture. Thompson spent several years studying the history and culture of Guam and the Chamorro people as well as spending 1938-1939 on the island conducting field research. She was also employed as a Consultant on Native Affairs to the naval governor of Guam, and “following her critical disclosure of naval practices on Guam, she was barred by the Navy from returning to the island.”[2] In regards to the research of the public school system introduced by the Americans, she writes: “All instruction was in English, and Chamorro was prohibited in schools and on playgrounds. Chamorro dictionaries were collected and burned.”[3]

In addition, Thompson kept a diary during her time on Guam, 1938-1939, in which she writes, “By gov’t order about 900 dictionaries were burned. Now out of print—only one or two in Guam.”[4] This same diary reference specifically names the 1918 Von Preissig dictionaries as the ones which were burned.

Ironically, the von Preissig dictionaries that the naval government ordered to be burned were the same dictionaries that they themselves commissioned to be written. “A dictionary and grammar of the language has been compiled by Lieut. Edward R. Von Preissig (S.C.), United States Navy, and printed at the Government Printing Office, Washington, 1918.”[5]

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The naval government was very proud of the Chamorro-English Dictionary as endorsed in the prefatory correspondence of the dictionary: “It is believed that this dictionary would be of great value to the department of education of the island,” M.G. Cook, Department of Education. “This is a highly creditable piece of work, which has been accomplished at the cost of much labor. Nothing exists on the same scale. It is bound to be of great value to all the inhabitants of Guam,” Roy C. Smith, Government House.[6]

Why these precious dictionaries were burned is beyond surface comprehension, but definitely deserves further inquiry. It should also be noted that members of the Taitano family who helped in the translation of the Chamorro Bible also aided in the compilation of the Chamorro dictionary; both Juan Taitano and Francisco Taitano are acknowledged by von Preissig in the introduction of the dictionary.

Resiliency of the Language

The fact that the Chamorro language was forbidden and dictionaries burned speaks volumes to the extent that the U.S. government went to in order to establish Guam as a mirrored extension of the mainland. “Military government almost destroyed the indigenous people and was consistently inadequate in providing for the needs of the society that Spain sought to create in its own image on Guam.”[7] These sentiments demonstrate the continual desires of governments to convert the local people into images of their respective cultures instead of allowing the Chamorros their own history and culture in which to flourish. The price of this pompous ideology is one of the major contributing factors in the near death of the Chamorro language.

However, the language has a great survival capacity. There is a remarkably high level of resiliency of this native tongue that has withstood hundreds of years of suppression. Thompson says, “attention should be given the problem of enriching the school and adult education curricula through the teaching of the Chamorro language, especially the written language, and the development of Chamorro literature…such help is needed to keep the language from perishing.”[8]

Dr. George Bedell, Professor of Linguistics and Director of the Research Center for Japanese Language Education at the International Christian University in Tokyo Japan, says that it is not terribly surprising that the Chamorro language has survived throughout the years of government suppression. While Bedell is not an expert on the linguistics of the Chamorro language, but an interested observer, his professional background and interest in the island of Guam lends credible thoughts concerning the state of the Chamorro language. “When you see yourself as lower class and are being exploited by people outside your culture, you cling to your roots.” He speaks in reference to the American government hoping to silence the Chamorro culture and language in exchange for Western philosophies and the English language, as well as the invasion of the Japanese during World War II and the pain they inflicted upon the local islanders. “The people, ages 60 and above, feel it is incredibly important to retain their language. I’m afraid that once they are gone, there will be no more Chamorro.”

So how does one ensure the survival of a dying language? “You learn the language when you are a child,” says Bedell, sitting casually in khaki pants and an untucked button-up shirt. “The foundation for the fluency of a language is best gained as a young child.” He leans back in his chair and rubs his white beard and peppered mustache. “The problem with the Chamorro language is that the pool of native speakers is not being replenished.” He peers down over his thick-rimmed glasses and speaks in earnest, “When you have to start teaching the native language at school it is already too late. That’s my personal opinion.”

But is it too late? Bedell counters his statement with his own interest in the Chamorro language and its linguistics. “The Chamorro language is in a fragile state. We must study and preserve what we can while there is still time.”

That time has been extended. With the resurrection of the Chamorro Bible, the people have been returned a great historical and cultural work to use to their advantage.

Importance of the Chamorro Bible

David Herrera, Engineering WHE Test Director for Raytheon Technical Services and a local Chamorro Seventh-day Adventist who was deeply involved in the transfer of the Chamorro Bible into electronic format and responsible for the red lettered contribution, says, “This is a serious matter for us

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Chamorros. You discover that it has been taken away from us and prohibited and that’s awful.”

Herrera remembers attending school during the days that the Chamorro language was prohibited to be spoken in the schools or on the playgrounds under penalty of being fined. “It was years later that we discovered that Chamorro was a sovereign gift from Almighty God who gave us different tongues,” Herrera shares with passion.

Not until 1972 did the Twelfth Guam Legislature pass Public Law 12-132 declaring Guam as having two official languages: Chamorro and English. Up to that time, Chamorro technically remained illegal in all government offices, and signs remained posted in all government buildings stating that code. Public Law 12-31 was also passed which gave authority to the Board of Education to “develop a bilingual/bicultural educational program emphasizing the language and culture of the Chamorro people.”[9]

“This Chamorro Bible is important for two main reasons,” says Herrera. “There is not much classic Chamorro literature and that’s one thing that makes this Bible unique. It’s a great tool to be used for studying and learning the language.” He goes on to express that the Chamorro Bible will be “an important addition to the educational curriculum and a valuable tool for all language and literature teachers. It should be required material for all teachers.”

Second, Herrera emphasizes that the Chamorro Bible is a great source for reaching people with the Gospel of Christ. “This is great for all of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Most people on the islands of Saipan, Tinian and Luta (Rota), and the manamku (elders) on Guam, only speak Chamorro. They must not be deprived of a Bible in their own language when one exists.”

Chamorro Bibles in the 1960s

While the excitement of discovering a Bible in their own language is expressed by every Chamorro who has come in contact with the Chamorro Bible, it is still not clear why the Chamorro Bible disappeared to begin with. Is it possible that while Chamorro was prohibited to be spoken in the schools and dictionaries were collected and burned that reading the Chamorro Bible was discouraged as well? Or could it be as simple as copies having been lost due to natural disasters and wars that occurred over the years? Remember that Guam is in “typhoon alley” and receives numerous typhoons and earthquakes which destroy buildings and homes resulting in the loss of books, furniture, and priceless belongings. Did the few copies of the Bible that remained on Guam eventually become obsolete in wake of these disasters over the years?

Eliseo Jimeno, a retired Seventh-day Adventist Pastor, came to Guam from the Philippines in the early 1950s. He clearly remembers the Chamorro Bible in circulation and even in a local Christian bookstore. “The Bibles were available for purchase at Faith Christian Bookstore,” says Jimeno, “until they were discontinued for unknown reasons.” In the 1960s, Jimeno, along with other church members, would visit families in their homes and provide them with Chamorro Bibles if they did not already have one. “The Bibles were just paperback material, not even hard covers, and for some reason did not contain the book of Psalms,” he recalls.

“That is something that remains a mystery,” says Dr. Lawrence J. Cunningham, Research Associate for the Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center. “I just can’t figure that out, why an entire book would be omitted.” To date, no one has been able to offer any solid answers as to why the book of Psalms was omitted from the reprinting of the Chamorro Bibles in 1952.

The quality of the paperback Bibles gives plausible reason to the theory of Bibles being lost during natural disasters such as typhoons. Wet paper tends to simply disintegrate and become unsalvageable when exposed to torrents of rain and flooding. And the horrendous destruction from World War II that laid to waste an entire island secures reason that many of the original Chamorro Bibles were lost during the war.

The years during the war when the Japanese controlled the island were years of brutality and sadness. The Japanese stormed the island and ran people out of their homes, off their land, and in to concentration camps. They established Japanese bases in seized homes and looted foods and personal materials for their use or their destruction.

As one Chamorro elder who lived during the war and was forced in to a concentration camp says, “Guam was the only U.S. soil that was taken by the enemy during the war and it was the only place where U.S. citizens were held hostage.” She was one of those citizens.

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Under those extreme conditions, it is not unlikely that original Chamorro Bibles from the early Protestant church were destroyed, never to be found again. But after the war, Protestant churches resumed their role of distributing the Holy Scriptures.

“The General Baptist church was also engaged in distributing the Chamorro Bibles during the 1960s,” explains Jimeno. “There was even talk of them expanding the translation to include all books of the Bible in addition to the six books that already existed in the Chamorro language.” But over time, the dream died out, or perhaps was lost itself. “It just didn’t seem to click at that time. The thought of expanding the translation could have died because of a change of pastors. Plus, a real ‘think tank,’ so to speak, of dedicated Chamorros was needed who truly knew the language in order to do the translation work. Those resources were not available.” Jimeno goes on to explain that the newer generation was not raised learning how to speak the Chamorro language, therefore, draining the well of native speakers. “One of the problems as to why the newer generation does not speak Chamorro, I believe, is because it is not a frequently written language.”

The scarcity of a written language makes the instruction of the language extremely difficult. Such is the case with the Chamorro language. Without an ample array of Chamorro literature constantly being circulated, especially a Book as useful and pertinent as the Bible, the language began to disappear from the tongues of the newer generations.

“If Chamorro is not revived,” says Jimeno, “it will soon be a forgotten language. I don’t know why the Chamorro Bible was discontinued. It looks like it has been neglected until now.”

Community reacts to the Bible

The future of the Chamorro language proves to be getting brighter with the resurrection of the Chamorro Bible. Every individual who has learned of its existence is thrilled with having God’s Word in his or her own tongue, and that alone declares that the language and the people have not been forgotten.

“I didn’t want to let go,” remembers Herrera about his first encounter with the Chamorro Bible. “I said, ‘Really—back then—a Chamorro Bible?’”

And David Flores Sr., who also helped in the proofreading of the Chamorro Bible, and is the grandson of José Aguon Flores who was the first Chamorro Protestant pastor on Guam who also worked with Francis Price and led the Congregationalist Mission in the village of Inarajan, said, “I saw this and wanted to have one in my hand. I must have this in my possession.”

The Chamorro Bible is neglected no longer. It is currently available for public access via its website, www.ChamorroBible.org, and is one of the newest additions to the Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center at the University of Guam (MARC).

On September 25, 2002, two copies of the Chamorro Bible were presented to MARC upon their request and have generated a number of interests. “This was a great addition to our materials because it represents the history of the culture of Guam,” says Mrs. Omaira Brunal-Perry, Associate Professor of Spanish Legal Historiography and Head Librarian of MARC.

MARC specializes in Guam-Micronesian materials and is an incredible hub for research of the history, languages, and cultures of Guam and the many islands in Micronesia. “Having the Chamorro Bible in our library is a tremendous addition to the Chamorro language studies and a great contribution to the Chamorro culture,” says Perry. “Since its introduction, several students and members of the community have seen it on the shelf or requested to view it. It is definitely being used.”

Regardless of the many reasons as to why the Chamorro Bible disappeared in the first place, a resur-

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gence of interest shows the immortality of God’s Holy Word and its importance to the Chamorro people. It is clearly evident that God has placed His protective hand over the Bible and it has survived war, natural disasters, and human efforts to silence the written Word.

It is no coincidence that the Chamorro Bible is now becoming available once again for such a time as this. Jesus never leaves His people without personal access to His Word and the letters He has written and preserved especially for them. He requires each individual to heed the Word He has provided to them and to share it with others so that no one is left in darkness. Such is the purpose of the resurrection of the Chamorro Bible. And a heavenly dawn is breaking for the Chamorro people.


[1] Phillips, Michael F., “Kinalamten Pulitikat: Sinenten I Chamorro/Issues in Guam’s Political Development: The Chamorro Perspective,” Guam, 1996, pg. 11.

[2] Hattori, Anne P., “Kinalamten Pulitikat: Sinenten I Chamorro/Issues in Guam’s Political Development: The Chamorro Perspective,” Guam, 1996, pg. 63.

[3] Thompson, Laura, “Guam And Its People,” Greenwood Press, Connecticut, 1947, pg. 218.

[4] Thompson, Laura, “The Laura Thompson Papers, Diary—Field Work in Guam 1938-39”, MARC [Micronesian Area Research Center] and by courtesy of Dr. Laura Thompson.

[5] Cox, L.M., “The Island Of Guam,” Naval Government of Guam, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1926, pg. 5.

[6] von Preissig, Edward R., Dictionary and Grammar of the Chamorro Language of the Island of Guam. Washington, United States of America: Government Printing Office, 1918. Dictionary can be found on www.ChamorroBible.org.

[7] Rogers, Robert F., “Destiny’s Landfall,” University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 1995, pg. 106.

[8] Thompson, Laura, “Guam And Its People,” Greenwood Press, Connecticut, 1947, pg.233.

[9] Lujan, Pilar C., “Kinalamten Pulitikat: Sinenten I Chamorro/Issues in Guam’s Political Development: The Chamorro Perspective,” Guam, 1996, pg. 22.

Table of Contents
President's Message
Letter from the Editor
The Resurrection of the Chamorro Bible
Who is Francis Price?
Taitano Family Translators
Why Did the Chamorro Bible Disappear?
Jesus Loves Me!
The Scriptures a Safeguard
The Transmission of the Bible to English
Chamorro Bible Project: Project Update

The Chamorro Bible In Print

Photograph accompanying Manguaguan na Palabran Si Yuus - God's Precious WordsManguaguan na Palabran Si Yuus – God's Precious Words
With the Photograph of the Day

The Great Earthquake and Catastrophic Tsunami of 2004
The Spectacular Clouds of the Transonic Flight Regime

ChamorroBible.org  ·  Francis Marion Price (1850-1937)  ·  The 1908 Chamorro Bible in Audio  ·  Chamorro Language Resources  ·  Acknowledgements  ·  ISLES, Spring 2003, Special Issue: The Resurrection of the (1908) Chamorro Bible  ·  Chamorro Bible Project  ·  Announcements  ·  Download