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Coming of the Missionaries

The history of Christianity in Hawaiʻi begins with Henry Opukahaʻia, a native Hawaiian from the Island of Hawaiʻi who in 1809, at the age of 16, boarded the sailing ship Triumph anchored in Kealakekua Bay and sailed to the continent. On board, he developed a friendship with a Christian sailor who, using the Bible, began teaching Opukahaʻia how to read and write. Once landed, he traveled throughout New England and continued to learn and study.

With his new reading skills, came a new view of religion. Opukahaʻia’s life in New England was greatly influenced by many young men with proven sincerity and religious fervor who were active in the Second Great Awakening and the establishment of the missionary movement. These men had a major impact on Opukahaʻia’s enlightenment in Christianity and his vision to return to Hawaii as a Christian missionary. By 1817, a dozen students, six of them Hawaiians, were training at the Foreign Mission School to become missionaries to teach the Christian faith to people around the world.

He improved his English by writing the story of his life in a book called Memoirs of Henry Obookiah (the spelling of his name, based on its sound.) The book about his life was printed and circulated after his death. It inspired 14 missionaries to volunteer to carry his message to the Sandwich Islands. Opukahaʻia died suddenly of typhus fever in 1818.

On October 23, 1819, a group of missionaries from the northeast United States, set sail on the Thaddeus for the Sandwich Islands (now known as Hawai‘i.) There were seven couples sent by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to convert the Hawaiians to Christianity. Two Ordained Preachers Hiram Bingham and his wife Sybil and Asa Thurston and his wife Lucy; two Teachers, Mr. Samuel Whitney and his wife Mercy and Samuel Ruggles and his wife Mary; a Doctor, Thomas Holman and his wife Lucia; a Printer, Elisha Loomis and his wife Maria; a Farmer, Daniel Chamberlain, his wife and five children. Of those who sailed on the Thaddeus, only Samuel Ruggles had met Opukahaʻia face-to-face.

Along with them were four Hawaiian youths who had been students at the Foreign Mission School, Thomas Hopu (Thomas Hopoo,) William Kanui (William Tennooe,) John Honoliʻi (John Honooree) and Prince Humehume (son of King Kaumuali‘i and also known as Prince George Kaumuali‘i (Prince George Tamoree.))

Humehume was born about 1797 to Kaua‘i’s King Kaumuali‘i and a commoner wife. In January 1804 an American trading ship arrived at Kauaʻi. Since the landing of Captain James Cook on January 1778, the port of Waimea had been a known stop for European and American ships in the Pacific. King Kaumualiʻi paid Captain James Rowan to take his son, Humehume, aboard to get an education in America.

He arrived in Providence Rhode Island in July 1805. The money given to the boy’s guardian to pay for his education was either squandered or lost. Humehume eventually enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was wounded during the War of 1812.

Humehume later worked in the Boston Navy Yard and then studied at the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut.

After 164 days at sea, the missionaries first arrived in Hawai‘i at Kailua-Kona, on the Island of Hawaiʻi on April 4, 1820. The Thurstons remained in Kailua-Kona, while their fellow missionaries went to establish stations on other Hawaiian islands. Hiram Bingham, the leader of the group, went to Honolulu to set up a mission headquarters; Whitney and Ruggles accompanied Prince Kaumuali‘i on his return to Kaua‘i.

On May 3, 1820, Humehume returned to Kaua‘i and was reunited with his father after many years apart. Humehume arrived on Kaua‘i aboard the Thaddeus, the same ship that brought the First Company of American missionaries to the Hawaiian Islands.

Sybil Bingham, wife of Hiram, records in her Journal:

The brethren, Whitney and Ruggles, arrived this morning, from Atavi (Kauaʻi) after an absence of eight weeks, wither they went to accompany George Tamoree (Kaumualiʻi) home. They bring a fair report of the lands, with a pressing invitation from the king for some of the Mission family to take up residence with him and his people.

It does appear as if the voice was from that Island, “Come over here and help us”.

Whitney and Ruggles established a mission station at Waimea, Kaua‘i in 1820. Waimea was the capital city, located at the mouth of the Waimea River. Later companies of missionaries established missions in in Kōloa on the South Shore and Wai‘oli on the North Shore. 

Hiram Bingham was on a preaching tour of the island of Kaua‘i in 1824, shortly before King Kaumuali‘i died. Kaumuali‘i had been living on Oahu for three years. Bingham spoke to him just before coming to Kaua‘i. Bingham writes:

“We found Kaumuali‘i seated at his desk, writing a letter of business. We were forcible and pleasantly struck with the dignity and gravity, courteousness, freedom and affection with which he rose and gave us his hand, his hearty aloha, and friendly parting smile, so much like a cultivated Christian brother.”

When the king died, Bingham said a gloom fell over Kaua‘i.

In 1834, the Reverend Peter Gulick was sent out from the first mission station at Waimea on the island of Kauai to establish the second mission station in Kōloa. The congregation was organized in April 1835 with twelve members. They held services in native grass houses. Later in 1837 a new large meeting house with glass windows was constructed. The membership then increased to 125.

The early missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions taught their lessons in Hawaiian, rather than English. This is partly due to the need to become literate in Hawaiian, but also because the mission did not want to create a separate caste of English-speaking Hawaiians. In later years the instruction ultimately was in English.

The Kōloa mission grew as the port of Kōloa grew. Once a sleepy fishing village, Kōloa expanded with whaling and the sandalwood trade. While Waimea remained as the early capital of Kaua‘i, Kōloa became its economic center.

Waimea, Kaua‘i in the 1820s (just west of Kōloa) noting Bingham – Wikimedia Commons

The Rev. Gulick helped to organize the Protestant mission schools in 1841 when children for the first time began to attend daily classes. There were four schools with five teachers and an attendance of 225 children. Before the name Dole became synonymous with pineapple, it was known as the first school in Kōloa (Kōloa School (Site #5j.)) Daniel Dole, the first principal of Punahou School, left and moved to Kaua‘i to start the Dole School, which later became Kōloa School, the first public school on Kaua‘i.

When Captain Cook first visited the Hawaiian Islands, Hawaiian was a spoken language but not a written language.  Historical accounts were passed down orally through chants and songs. The development of the written Hawaiian language in the early part of the nineteenth century was started by the Protestant missionaries who arrived in Hawai‘i, starting in 1820. A committee of some of these missionaries (Hiram Bingham, C. S. Stewart and Levi Chamberlain) worked on the development of the Hawaiian alphabet.

By 1826, missionaries selected a 12-letter alphabet for the written Hawaiian language, using five vowels (a, e, i, o, and u) and seven consonants (h, k, l, m, n, p and w). The Hawaiian language uses two special diacritical marks. The kahakō (‘macron’ consisting of a horizontal line over the vowel) lengthens the pronunciation of the vowel on which it is placed. The ‘okina ( ʻ – glottal stop) signifies a clean break between two vowels. The written Hawaiian language developed by the missionaries was modeled after the spoken language, attempting to represent the spoken Hawaiian sounds with English letters.