Early Christian History Between Hawaii and the United States

Early Christian History Between Hawaii and the United States

By Robert Hernandez Kajiwara

Christianity played a pivotal role in the early histories of both the Hawaiian Kingdom and the United States. This short article will briefly examine this early history.

In 1809 five young Hawaiians arrived in New England via an American trade ship. Among them was Henry Obookiah (or Opukahaia), a young man who would go on to play a huge role in Hawaii’s history.1 Opukahaia displayed much academic and linguistic aptitude, eventually studying at Yale University and converting to Christianity.2 Opukahaia spoke and wrote about his home islands, asking that churches in New England send missionaries to Hawaii to share the gospel.3 Opukahaia tragically contracted typhus fever and died at the age of twenty six before he could return home.4 His death, though, sparked a wave of interest among New England Christians, dozens of whom would eventually become the first Christian missionaries to Hawaii. This is well-documented in Opukahaia’s own writings, as well as in the writings of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missionaries (ABCFM) and Lyman Beecher, who was Opukahaia’s pastor.

The first American missionaries arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in 1820. Through 1848 the ABCFM, a Congregational and Presbyterian organization, would send around 150 missionaries to the Hawaiian Islands.5 Several other denominations, such as Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, and Roman Catholics, would later send their own missionaries and establish thriving churches, some of which last to the present day.

Many of these early missionaries displayed a prejudice and xenophobia towards Hawaiian people, their culture, customs, and lifestyle, as can be seen in their writings. History of the Sandwich Islands: with an account of the American mission established there in 1820, compiled by Ephraim Eveleth and published in 1831 in Philadelphia, is a collection of documents (mostly letters) written by these missionaries. They tend to portray Hawaiians as poor, barbaric, uncivilized, and oppressed by their leaders, which the missionaries would use to justify their eventual takeover of Hawaiian land and government. It should be noted that Hawaiians of the day (including Hawaiian Christians) considered Hawaii to be a thriving, prosperous, and advanced society where poverty and homelessness were practically non-existent, and where good health and longevity were the norm.6

Not all of the missionaries were prejudiced, however. Some were respectful towards Hawaiians and assimilated into Hawaiian society. Perhaps the most important positive contribution of the missionaries was their promotion of literacy. Over the next several decades they would write several works of Christian literature in both the Hawaiian and English languages, and conduct wide-scale literacy campaigns that proved very effective. By 1860 the literacy rate in the United States was approximately 74%, while in Hawaii it was at over 90%.7 “The standard of intelligence among the native Hawaiians is higher than that of any other nation in the world, with illiteracy being practically unknown,” wrote Charles Gulick, whose parents were among the first missionaries to Hawaii.8 Gulick was one of the few members of the missionary families to support the Hawaiian Kingdom during the illegal overthrow in 1893, and today there is a street named in his honor in downtown Honolulu.

The original instructions from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to the missionaries to Hawaii had been to work “for no private end, for no earthly object” and “wholly for the good of others, and for the glory of God our Savior.”9 By the 1840s, though, the interests of the missionaries had turned to business and politics, and they began acquiring large amounts of Hawaiian land for themselves. Later in the century the missionary families had developed into a business oligarchy collectively known as the Big Five, exerting a large amount of political-economic control over Hawaii that would last until the mid-twentieth century. In 1893 a group of these American missionaries conspired with the U.S. ambassador to invade the Hawaiian Kingdom and overthrow the monarchy at gun point in what is considered to be the single most harmful event in Hawaiian history.10

The missionaries, most of whom were young adults when they came to Hawaii, used religion to amass political-economic power for themselves and oppress Hawaiians. By taking advantage of Hawaiian interest in Christianity, these missionaries, who had little in the way of accomplishments back in their home towns, found a tremendous amount of personal wealth and influence under the guise of “missionary work” in a foreign land. Many of their descendants enjoy the fruits of their wealth to this day, while Hawaiians, who had sincerely converted to Christianity, continue to be oppressed, marginalized, and even homeless within their own home islands.

Primary Sources:

American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.. A narrative of five youth from the Sandwich Islands, now receiving an education in this country. New-York, 1816. 42pp. Sabin Americana. Gale, Cengage Learning. Liberty University. 19 November 2019.

Beecher, Lyman. A sermon delivered at the funeral of Henry Obookiah : a native of Owhyhee and a member of the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut : … Elizabeth-town [N.J.]; (Elizabeth-town), 1819. 31pp. Sabin Americana. Gale, Cengage Learning. Liberty University. 19 November 2019

Eveleth, Ephraim. History of the Sandwich Islands : with an account of the American mission established there in 1820. Philadelphia, 1831. 200pp. Sabin Americana. Gale, Cengage Learning. Liberty University. 19 November 2019.

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1894, Appendix II, Affairs in Hawaii. Retrieved 19 November 2019 from: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1894app2/d306.

Instructions of the Purdential Committee of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to the Sandwich Islands Mission (Lahainaluna, 1838), 19-20, 27-28.

Kamakau, Samuel (1815-1876). Writings, later published in several collections: Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii; Ka Poe Kahiko: The People of Old; The Works of the people of Old: Na Hana a ka Poe Kahiko; Tales and Traditions of the People of Old: Na Moolelo a ka Poe Kahiko.

Secondary Sources:

Charlot, John. “Two Early Hawaiian-Christian Chants.” Anthropos105, no. 1 (2010): 29-46. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25734737.

Coffman, Tom. Nation Within: The History of the American Occupation of Hawaiʻi. Duke University Press. 2003.

Kajiwara, Robert. Hawaii, Christianity, and the United States: A Complicated History. Honolulu: Kaji Books. 2019. https://www.amazon.com/Hawaii-Christianity-United-States-Complicated-ebook/dp/B07Z2K93F3/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=robert+kajiwara&qid=1574205062&s=digital-text&sr=1-1

Kuykendall, Ralph S. The Hawaiian Kingdom, Volume 1, 1778-1854, Foundation and Transformation. 119-120.

Shulz, Joy. Hawaiian by Birth: Missionary Children, Bicultural Identity, and U.S. Colonialism in the Pacific. University of Nebraska Press. 2017.

Williams, Ronald Jr. “A Nation Refuses to Forget.” November 25, 2017.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9CTLnKoUI8

1 American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.. A narrative of five youth from the Sandwich Islands, now receiving an education in this country. New-York, 1816. 42pp. Sabin Americana. Gale, Cengage Learning. Liberty University. 19 November 2019.

2Ibid.

3 Beecher, Lyman. A sermon delivered at the funeral of Henry Obookiah : a native of Owhyhee and a member of the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut : … Elizabeth-town [N.J.]; (Elizabeth-town), 1819. 31pp. Sabin Americana. Gale, Cengage Learning. Liberty University. 19 November 2019.

4Ibid.

5Schulz, Joy. Hawaiian by Birth: Missionary Children, Bicultural Identity, and U.S. Colonialism in the Pacific. University of Nebraska Press. 2017. 1.

6 Kamakau, Samuel (1815-1876). Writings, later published in several collections: Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii; Ka Poe Kahiko: The People of Old; The Works of the people of Old: Na Hana a ka Poe Kahiko; Tales and Traditions of the People of Old: Na Moolelo a ka Poe Kahiko.

7 Williams, Ronald Jr. “A Nation Refuses to Forget.” November 25, 2017.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9CTLnKoUI8

8Foreign Relations of the United States, 1894, Appendix II, Affairs in Hawaii. Retrieved 19 November 2019 from: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1894app2/d306. 766.

9 Charlot, John. “Two Early Hawaiian-Christian Chants.” Anthropos105, no. 1 (2010): 29-46. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25734737. 34.

Instructions of the Prudential Committee of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to the Sandwich Islands Mission (Lahainaluna, 1838), 19-20, 27-28.

Kuykendall. The Hawaiian Kingdom, Volume 1, 1778-1854, Foundation and Transformation. 101.

10 Coffman, Tom. Nation Within: The History of the American Occupation of Hawaiʻi. Duke University Press. 2003.

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