A Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites
on the West Coast of Hawai'i Island
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Overview of Hawaiian History
by Diane Lee Rhodes
(with some additions by Linda Wedel Greene)


C. Arrival of New Religion

     1. Missionaries Come to Hawai'i

The year 1819 was a critical turning point in the history of the Hawaiian Islands. As described, the death of Kamehameha and the abolition of the kapu system left the islands without a formal religion. Unaware of these events, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions that same year determined to send missionaries to Hawai'i to convert and "civilize" the people by introducing churches, schools, and the press.

Another new element was added to fuel the social, cultural, and economic turmoil in the islands as whalers began to arrive in increasing numbers looking for supplies, fuel, food, and water. This onslaught greatly increased demands for goods and services, a situation that commercial interests and foreign governments (largely British and American) were quick to capitalize upon. The missionary activity, expansionist ambitions, and commercial interests prevalent in the Hawaiian Islands in the early 1820s set the stage for a battle for control of the Hawaiian kingdom, a battle dominated for the first few decades by the American missionaries. They would influence Hawaiian politics, foreign relations, and economics for the next half century. [69]

     2. Establishment of Mission Stations

By 1800 a number of young Hawaiians who had signed onto trading ships as sailors had found their way to New England. In 1816-17, the American Board of Christian Missions opened a Foreign Mission School at Cornwall, Connecticut, for young foreigners; seven of the original twelve students were Hawaiians. The success of these young scholars encouraged the board to send missionaries to the Sandwich Islands.

The first company of missionaries left Boston in October 1819 aboard the ship Thaddeus. After a turbulent eighteen-thousand-mile-voyage, they arrived at Kawaihae on the shores of Hawai'i at the end of March 1820. Upon their arrival they found that King Kamehameha was dead and the kapu system had been abolished. [70] After lengthy consultation with his advisors, King Kamehameha II granted the missionaries permission to land. The newcomers felt they had a tremendous task ahead of them, for their charge from the American Board had been to

open your hearts wide and set your mark high. You are to aim at nothing short of covering these islands with fruitful fields and pleasant dwellings and schools and churches and of raising up the whole people to an elevated state of Christian civilization. [71]

They quickly set about establishing mission stations. Reverend Asa Thurston; Mrs. Lucy Goodale Thurston; Thomas Holman, M.D.; and Mrs. Lucia Holman, accompanied by Hawaiian converts Thomas Hopu and William Kanui, were sent to Kailua to minister to the people of that district — teaching them literature, the arts, and most importantly, Christianity ("training them for heaven"). [72] Among their first pupils were the new king and his younger brother, two of his wives, and some other youths. [73] The king was particularly interested in having Holman present to provide medical care for the royal family, and for a short time William Loomis ran a "family school" for Kalanimoku and his family at Kawaihae.

Although the king and his chiefs were gracious in receiving the missionaries, there were others — especially among the foreign merchants — who argued against their admission. Some of the foreigners residing on the islands were wary of the newcomers, fearing a loss of easy access to the governing chiefs and diminishing returns from their prosperous businesses that catered "to native vices." [74] They warned the chief that the missionaries would ban polygamy, alcohol, and native religion. They also suggested that the arrival of English missionaries was imminent and argued that the missionaries intended to claim possession of the islands for themselves. [75]

John Young generally supported the missionaries, helping them with translations, housing, and other matters. One of his sons was among the first pupils taught by the American missionaries at Kailua. According to the captain of the Thaddeus, Young suggested to the missionaries that the "Government of Great Britain might not be pleased with the settlement of American missionaries at the Sandwich Islands." [76] Some of the chiefs even asked Young to write to the British to avoid any misunderstanding. Other foreigners living in the islands were not so supportive. Frenchman Jean Rives (who had close ties to King Kamehameha II) argued strongly that the missionaries should not be allowed to stay. (Rives was a Catholic who later requested that priests be sent to the islands.) In the end, the American missionaries were limited to a probationary one-year period, and only because of Ka'ahumanu's support. [77]

Intrigued and repelled by traditional native customs, the missionaries quickly set about to "civilize" the Hawaiians. This involved imposition of a strict culture common to the New England ministers whose religion was "intolerant of religious and moral beliefs that were not in accord with their own." [78] Idols that had been hidden when the kapu was broken were sought out and burned, It was later reported that around 1822,

Kamehameha's poison-god Kalaipahoa was burned at Hilo, and at Kailua, one hundred and two idols, collected from various hiding places, were consumed in one bonfire. Feasting, dancing, and revelry went together with the burning of idols. [79]

Laws were enacted against gambling, drinking spirits, dancing the hula, breaking the Sabbath, polygamy, prostitution, and other acts the missionaries considered immoral.

Wary at first of the new religion, a number of the natives were won over following the conversion of several high-ranking women, including Keopuolani, Kapiolani, and Ka'ahumanu. [80] The support of these women was crucial to the missionaries' success, because they were extremely influential. Keopuolani, who was the first convert in 1823, was the highest-born woman in the land and mother of the next two kings. Ka'ahumanu served as regent of the kingdom with power almost equal to that of the king. After her conversion, Ka'ahumanu worked zealously for the missionary cause. One early traveler suggested that because she had always expected "prompt and unquestioning obedience" from the commoners, she probably believed the moral attitudes of her people could easily be molded by government decree. [81] Also, because traditionally there had been no division between religion and government, Ka'ahumanu's acceptance of the new religion gave it official sanction in the minds of the people. [82]

Before long, churches were erected, and the native people, used to instruction from religious leaders, became active churchgoers. [83] One factor explaining their receptivity to the new religion is that many older Hawaiians had died of warfare and disease during the previous years, precluding instruction of their descendants in the traditional ways. [84] The native Hawaiians may also have accepted Christianity for another reason. A number of years prior to the arrival of the missionaries, a native prophet named Kalaikuahulu had predicted that the Hawaiian people would receive a message from Heaven "entirely different from anything they had known, and that the tabus of the country would be subverted." [85]

The American missionaries actively discouraged activity by members of other religious groups, especially the Catholics. [86] However, when the Reverend William Ellis of the London Missionary Society toured the islands in 1823, he was well received by the Americans. Ellis noted that there were eight areas suitable for mission stations on the island of Hawai'i. On the west coast,

Honannau [Honaunau], the frequent residence of former kings, where a depository of their bones, and many images of their gods, still remain, has a dense population waiting for Christian instruction. . . . Towaihae [Kawaihae] on the north-west, a considerable village, presents nearly equal claims. [87]

The missionaries led a difficult life, isolated from each other by the great stream channels and mountains of Hawai'i. The missionaries' homes, and often their young children, were in New England, thousands of miles away. Several times a year, the missionary would tour his district, preaching and checking on the schools. Because of rough terrain and the lack of roads, each tour might require five or six weeks. However, the missionaries persisted, and over the next two decades they accomplished much of what they set out to do. By that time, New England Puritanism and Christian beliefs had largely replaced the kapu system in ordering the Hawaiians' lives. [88]

During the early 1830s, missionary influence on Hawaiian life began a gradual decline, broken by a short period of revival (1837-40) when newly arrived evangelicals baptized hundreds of Hawaiian supplicants. Some of the missionary children, educated in the United States, later returned to the islands as missionaries or became active in politics and commerce there. As the islands gradually adopted Christianity, many of the missionary stations were closed or turned over to native Hawaiian leaders.

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Last Updated: 15-Nov-2001