In 1820, Protestant, Calvinist and Congregationalist missionaries arrived in Hawai‘i.The missionaries differed from earlier Westerners in Hawai‘i in that they were involved in colonialism, i.e., they were here to stay, and their purpose was to “civilize” Hawaiians especially by spreading the gospel.Calvinists were austere, egalitarian (with respect to their congregation), and ethnocentric. They believed in the “Protestant work ethic,” an individualistic ethic that in some ways opposed Hawaiian views on collectivity and kuleana. The American missionaries had a fervent desire to save souls from a God who was angry and wrathful.

The missionaries were involved in the “Great Awakening.” The Great Awakening was a religious revival that occurred in the United States in the early nineteenth century. This revival was a reaction to industrialism, with its factory jobs displacing both the traditional agricultural lifestyle of the US as well as religion itself, as workers had less time to attend church and an increasing belief in science. The Great Awakening became a compelling “push factor.” A push factor is an event or trend that causes a group of people to emigrate to another country. A “pull factor” is an incentive that draws people to immigrate to a country. An important pull factor was the influence of ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia, called Henry Obookiah. ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia arrived in the East Coast of the US in 1809, converted to Christianity and began lecturing to students of Theology that they should go to Hawai‘i and convert Hawaiians to quell the negative effects of Western contact.



Henry Opukaha’ia (Obookiah)

Henry Opukaha‘ia (Obookiah) was born in 1792, in Ka‘u Hawai‘i. After the Kamehameha I died chaos erupted and Opukaha‘ia’s parents were slain before his eyes during a battle for control over the land. Opukaha‘ia was found and then imprisoned by the man who took his parents’ life. He remained with this man for a couple years until his uncle found him, a high ranked chief. “As soon as he heard the name of my parents, tears burst out and he wept bitterly. He wished me not to go back and live with that man which killed my father and mother, but live with him as long as I life (Dwight, 4).” Opukaha‘ia’s uncle raised him as his own child, but Opukaha‘ia eventually thought about leaving the country to find comfort in his life. Opukaha‘ia was then offered by Captain Brintnall to board a ship heading to New York, which he accepted.

Opukaha‘ia arrived in New York in 1809. He attended various religious meetings, but struggled to understanding the ministers and their messages because he had difficulty comprehending and speaking the English language. Opukaha‘ia went to schooling with Mr. E. W. Dwight, president of Yale University, and eventually learned how to read and write.

Many people were pleased with Opukaha‘ia’s enthusiasm for knowledge about the new world and determination for spiritual discovery:

The cup in which they used was their hands. It was made by clasping them together, and so adjusting the thumbs, and bending the hands, as to from a vessel, which would contain a considerable quantity. The experiment was attempted by his instructor; but he found that before his hands were raised half the distance to his mouth, they were so much inverted that their contents would have been principally lost…an important lesson taught as to ease or difficulty with which things are done by us that are or are not natural to us, or to which we have or have not, from early life, been accustomed (Dwight, 15-16).

Opukaha‘ia came from a place where survival depended on the materials found in nature. He had to adapt and learn the Western ways and in turn, the Westerners discovered a culture that was completely foreign to everything they knew. Opukaha’ia died in 1818 in Cornwall, Connecticut, just before the first missionaries from New England set sail for Hawaiʻi along with four other young Hawaiians residing on the East Coast.


Another factor in the missionariesʻ arrival was a familiarity with Hawai‘i due to history of merchant activity here, which likely aroused a curiousity about Hawai‘i among educated American classes. Finally, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, or ABCFM, was organizing missions to locations around the world. Hawai’I became one of their destinations. The ABCFM held the follwing biblical quote as its purpose:

Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always even unto the end of the world.

According to the book of Matthew, these are the last words said by Jesus Christ before he ascended into heaven. It was by these precepts that the ABCFM functioned. Their religious duty was to go out into the ends of the earth, spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, and save the souls of the damned of whom had never heard of the name. ABCFM was the missionary enterprise of the Congregational Churches.

            The Foreign mission enterprise in its prime was a massive undertaking. Most of the American missionaries belonged to the minority of Americans who had a college education. Some of the missionaries had education beyond college training, meaning that the missionaries were some of the best that America had to offer the world. (Hutchison, 1987, 15-17). These missionaries were also the major interpreters of the remote cultures to the people who lived in the United States. They played a very important role involved in the shaping of the American opinion on the  countries where they were stationed.

 Henry Obookiah sparked the ABCFM interest in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). As a child, Obookiah’s family was killed in a harsh encounter with other Hawaiians. Soon after, Henry Obookiah left Hawaii and traveled to New Heaven, Connecticut. While at New Heaven, he was taught the Christian religion by a teacher at Yale College, and he thrived to preach this new religion to his people. He attracted the attention of the ABCFM by encouraging others to become evangelists to Hawaii. He described the Hawaiians as being, “very bad; they pray to gods of wood.” It was these words that helped the ABCFM reach a decision. In 1820 they prepared the way for seven missionary couples to travel to the islands. When Henry Obookiah heard about the mission, he exclaimed “How much happiness will be found at the great court of the Almighty, when all the children of God are gathered together, from the East and the West, and are set down in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Bartlett, 1972, 1).

The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was proposed in 1810 by New England Congregationalists and officially established in 1812. The Christian evangelists to Hawaii came from Boston and sailed on a ship named “Thaddeus.” Reverend Hiram Bingham led their party with his wife, Sybil Mosely Bingham. These missionaries arrived in Hawaii on April 4, 1820. The King of Hawaii, Kamehameha II, adopted the new faith and converted to Christianity himself. Ten years later, Protestantism was proclaimed to be the official religion of Hawaii The ABCFM sent a total of 153 missionaries to Hawaii from the years of 1820 until 1848. As the years went on, the ABCFM began to decrease the amount of financial aid and supplies sent to the Hawaii missionaries, so the missionaries began to invest in other sources of income and industry such as the sugar cane mills. The Board dissolved the mission in 1853, declaring the country “Christianized” (http://digital.library.okstate.edu).


The Boston-based Board of the ABCFM began the Sandwich Islands Mission for Hawai’i by choosing seven volunteers who would be “prepared to undertake an arduous journey to a strange land faraway to devote their lives to instilling in heathen savages in the holy spirit of Christianity.”

The first of these men was Hiram Bingham, stationed at Honolulu and born October 30, 1789 in Bennington, Vermont. He graduated from Middlebury College and was the ordained minister leading the mission who offered his life and talents for the mission. Daniel Chamberlain, also stationed at Honolulu, was from Brookfield, Massachusetts, a former captain in the War of 1812. He devoted his family and the proceeds from his farm to teaching farming to the Hawaiians so they could turn their land into rich farmlands. He studied at the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall to prepare for the mission by learning the life and language of the Hawaiians from the four Hawaiian men that would go with them.

Thomas Holman, stationed at Kailua-Kona, was born November 26, 1973 in New Haven. He attended Cherry Valley Medical School, and had a medical career at Cooperstown, New York. He joined the mission for the financial advantage and help towards his marriage to Lucia Ruggles (Samuel Ruggles’ sister).  He attended the Foreign Mission School during the summer of 1819. Elisha Loomis, stationed at Honolulu, was born December 11, 1799 in Rushville, New York, and became a printer’s apprentice in Canandaigua, New York. During his apprenticeship he read Memoirs of Henry Obookiah and begged his employer to release him for the remaining 5 months of his apprenticeship to go on the ABCFM’s mission. He was the youngest of all missionaries at age 19.

Samuel Ruggles, stationed at Waimea, Kaua’i, was born March 9, 1795 in Brookfield, Connecticut. Under Board’s supervision, he was a teacher and catechist (instructor of a religious doctrine in the form of questions and memorized answers) at age 24 at the Foreign Mission School, and knew Opukaha’ia personally. Asa Thurston, stationed at Kailua-Kona, was born October 12, 1787 in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, and was a graduate of Yale. Two years older than Bingham, he was the only other ordained minister on the mission appointed by the ABCFM. In his youth, he and his family were struck by typhoid fever, resulting in the death of his mother, brother and sister. He then became the minister of gospel to replace his brother. Samuel Whitney, stationed at Waimea, Kaua’i, was born April 28, 1793 in Branford, Connecticut. At 26 years old, he was “inspired by a call of the Lord and pledged himself to the missionary cause” as a teacher and mechanic.

The four Hawaiian men that helped these seven missionaries on their journey were Thomas Hopu, William Kanui, John Honoli’i, and George Tamoree (the prince of Kaua’i). Thomas Hopu took 12 voyages throughout his lifetime, 4 of which were during the War of 1812 from being captured by the British. After being returned to Nantucket, he settled with a Grangor family at Whitestown, New York for nine months, during which time he joined Opukaha’ia in his study at Goshen, a Christian Mennonite college. They studied together from ate 1816 to April 1817 at Litchfield Farms, and began their training at the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall together until Opukaha’ia’s death in February 1818. William Kanui came to Boston in 1809 at 12 years old. While learning the trade of a barber in New Haven, he received lessons from Yale students that eventually led him to study with Opukaha’ia and Hopu at Goshen College. During his time serving in Hawai’i, it was recorded by Bingham that Kanui had been caught “violating his vows by excess drinking, and was excluded from Christian fellowship, but still performed some service for the chiefs for a time, then became a wanderer for many years.” He took off for a life in California, and after his absence of 20 years, he was accepted back into the church in Hawai’i, where he lived for 24 more years.

John Honoli’i left Hawai’i as a sailor and arrived in Boston in 1815 where he gained an education and release from his ship company to join the Foreign Mission School. He taught the Hawaiian language well and was important in assisting Kailua, Honolulu, and Kaua’i during his mission. Son of Kaumuali’i, the king of Kaua’i, Prince George Tamoree left his native land early to get a proper education in America and ended up in Boston applying to join the ABCFM on their mission back to Hawai’i.


            The Hawaiian language has evolved over the years, transforming from a solely spoken language, into a written form. With its own grammatical rules and guidelines, the Hawaiian language is unique.

            The first missionaries arrived in Hawaii in 1820, 18,000 miles from Boston. Created in the 1400’s, the printing press allowed people to mass print text, which was an alternative from manually scribing one text, thus allowing to save time and increase the availability of text for the mass public. Elisha Loomis brought the first press brought to Hawaii. The press was a manually operated Ramage flatbed that used a hand-set type of print, which could print 100 pages per hour (Chapin, 1996, pg. 15). The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions’ (ABCFM) planned to bring enlightenment to those they believed were “unenlightened,” infusing Christian teaching with American values  (Chapin, 1996, pg. 15).

            According to Hiram Bingham, his mission was “to supply native Hawaiians with useful knowledge in the arts and sciences, history, morals, and religion” (Chapin, 1996, pg. 16). He would use the printing press to achieve his goal. When foreigners first arrived in Hawaii, they recorded the various words in their journals, but when comparing them amongst other journals, there is a consonant confusion. The present word for “person” in Hawaiian is “kanaka” but in some pre-missionary journals, “kanaka” is recorded as “tanata,” using the “t” consonant like many other Polynesian cultures (Schutz, 1994, pg. 76). Verbal pronunciation would become the bases of written language, but missionaries could not differentiate between T or K, L or R, P or B, V or W?

There were three general goals for the new orthography:

  1. A system that would be understood by the scientific community in Europe.
  2. One that would also help the Hawaiians learn English.
  3. One that would give the readers equal access to books printed in Tahitian (Missionary letters p. 6 in Schutz, 1994, pg. 103).

There was a committee composed of Hiram Bingham, Charles Stewart, and Levi Chamberlain, appointed on May 16, 1825. They decided to poll all members of the mission through a circular, which would determine the fate of the written Hawaiian language. The committee received responses for at least a year after. After much deliberation, the letters b, d, t, v were dropped, giving birth to the modern Hawaiian alphabet today (Schutz, 1994, pg. 122-123).

By 1826, printing in Hawaii was entirely in Hawaiian and native Hawaiians quickly learned their written language. Soon, newspapers were printed for local and foreign news, religious, and mercantile purposes. The Calvinists named their first paper Ka Lama in 1834 (Chapin, 1996, pg. 16) and merchants printed The Sandwhich Island Gazette and Journal of Commerce in 1836 (Chapin, 1996, 19). From 1841-1861, three Hawaiian language papers emerged, the semi-monthly Ka Nonanona (the ant) (1841-1845), Ka Elele Hawaii (The Hawaiian messenger) (1845-1855) and Ka Hae Hawaii (The Hawaiian flag) (1856-1861) Chapin, 1996, pg. 20).

In 1834, there were young Hawaiian boys at Lahainaluna School who surveyed their printed page, never knowing that this new technology would be the foothold of their culture in the future, giving Hawaiians a written voice in their own lands.

Liholiho and Boki opposed strong missionary influences because they were skeptical of whose interests were being served, and they preferred Hawaiian cultural ways over those the missionaries prescribed. They were also in opposition to Ka‘ahumanu’s faction.

Mokuʻaikaua Church in Kailua, Kona, the first Christian church in the islands, was completed. March 9, 1828 marked the first recording of Hawaiians being baptized and receiving fellowship into the church. The church was ordered by Governor Kuakini, and lasted from 1826 to 1835 until it burnt down. This happened while the missionaries were away in Honolulu for a three week long meeting. Thus, Mokuaikaua Church was built January 1, 1837 to replace the burned church. Eager men and women carried lava rocks, coral, and koa and ohi’a trees from far away to help build the 27-foot tall rock wall and 50-foot ohi’a beams for the church, a process that only took thirteen months. The total cost of the construction was between $2,000 and $3,000, but this went to the new advancement of benches instead of floor mats. In 1838, it was recorded that 4,000 people were attending church every Sunday morning, so they built a 165-foot long and 72-foot wide lanai outside for the huge crowd. The English men and women that later visited the church were very impressed, and a Dr. Andrews commented that it was “one of the best native places of worship on the island.”

The self-appointed leader of the “Pioneer company” of missionaries, Hiram Bingham expressed the view of some missionaries upon the first contact with Hawaiians: “the appearance of destitution and barbarism among the chattering and almost naked savages … was appauling…can these be human beings! [sic]”

Some contend that the missionaries viewed Hawaiians as savages, as souls to be saved, and as a means to their own salvation.

The mission read as follows:

“Your views are not to be limited to a low or a narrow scale…  You are to aim at nothing short of covering those islands with fruitful fields and pleasant dwellings, and schools and churches; of raising up the whole people to an elevated state of Christian civilization; of bringing, or preparing the means of bringing, thousands and millions of the present and succeeding generations to the mansions of eternal blessedness.”

Thus the mission was much broader than merely religion. The missionaries affected the religious system, social system, economy, and government.  They affected the religious system by filling the “void” left by the fall of the ‘aikapu. The social system was impacted by Christian norms of behavior, such as prohibitions on polygamy and incest as well as the manner of dress.

The missionaries affected the government because they felt that it was necessary for their mission and the Ali’i asked for their assistance.  Due to the missionaries involvement in the government there became a power struggle between Lilholiho and Ka’ahumanu.  The main supporters for the missionaries were Ka’ahumanu, Keopuolani, and Kapio’lani.  These aliʻi women were religious to begin with seeking a new akua since the abolishment of the aikapu.  The missionaries were used as pawns in the power struggle between Ka’ahumanu and Liholiho.

John Papa IʻI (1959, 145) relates that “Elizabeth Kaahumanu” was “baptized on December 4, 1825.”

Ironically, the value of the written language was that it allowed for the preservation of Hawaiian culture, traditions, and history on paper at a critical time.

The most positive legacy of early impacts was the orthography (written form of a language) developed by the missionaries. It also allowed for the renewal of openly religious, spiritual practices.


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