Henry Opukahai’a was an orphan raised by his uncle to be a pagan priest but he became disillusioned with rituals and chants. He fled Hawaii in 1807 with his friend Thomas Hopu on the American whaling ship Triumph bound for New England.
They were befriended by Christian students at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, who instructed and prayed with them to become the first Hawaiian Christians in 1815, during the time of the second Great Awakening. Henry Opukahai’a studied Greek and Hebrew and attempted to translate into his native tongue the Book of Genesis and other parts of the Bible, though none of this survived.
In his “Memoirs,” which sold 500,000 copies after his death in 1818, Henry Opukahai’a wrote: “O what a wonderful thing is that the hand of the Divine Providence has brought me from the heathenish darkness here the light of Divine truth never had been. And here I have found the name of the Lord Jesus in the Holy Scriptures, and have read that His blood was shed for many …”
Henry Opukahai’a continued: “My poor countrymen, without knowledge of the true God, and ignorant of the future world, have no Bible to read, no Sabbath.”
Thomas Hopu met General Andrew Jackson, whom he accompanied to New Orleans. Hopu fought the British during the War of 1812, resulting in him being perhaps one of the first Hawaiians to serve in the United States armed forces. An excellent swimmer, Hopu saved several crewman after a shipwreck. Five times he taken prisoner by the British in the West Indies. Once starving in prison, African slaves gave him food and water, affecting Hopu to forever detest the enslavement of Africans.
Two years after Henry Opukahai’a’s death from typhus, Thomas Hopu went as a missionary with Hiram Bingham and Asa Thurston back to the Hawaiian Sandwich Islands, serving as their translator. Hiram Bingham’s grandson discovered the Inca city of Machu Pichu in 1908 and was elected a U.S. Senator.
Hiram Bingham and Asa Thurston were sent to Hawaii by the American Board of Missions on the ship, Thaddeus, arriving at Kailua on March 31, 1820. The missionaries not only spread Christianity, but confronted drunkenness and vice which had been introduced into the islands by sailors, whalers, and convicts from Botany Bay.
The missionaries created a 12-letter Hawaiian alphabet and reduced the Hawaiian language to writing. They translated the Bible, began a newspaper, set up schools and churches, and convinced the Hawaiian women to wear dresses.
Idolatry and human sacrifice had previously been ended by King Kamehameha II and his Queen mother Ka’ahumanu. Queen Ka’ahumanu and six high chiefs requested to be baptized in 1823. She then banned prostitution and drunkenness, resulting in sailors resenting the missionaries’ influence.
Queen Ka’ahumanu helped spread the Gospel in the islands, beginning a “Great Awakening.” She was presented with the newly completed version of the New Testament in the Hawaiian language just prior to her death. Her last words were: “I am going where the mansions are ready.”
The cousin of Kamehameha I, Chiefess Kapiolani, in 1824. defied the volcano goddess Pele by saying a Christian prayer, climbing down into the lava crater and returning unharmed, then eating the forbidden Ohelo berries. Chiefess Kapiolani then praised “the one true God,” proclaiming: “Jehovah is my God. He kindled these fires. I fear not Pele. All the gods of Hawaii are vain.”
Michael McClymond’s exhaustive work, “Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America” (2006), gives the account of missionary to Hawaii, Titus Coan (“Life in Hawaii: An Autobiographical Sketch of Mission Life and Labors,” 1835-1881, NY: Anson D. F. Randolph, 1882, 49-52): “I set off Nov. 29, 1836, on a tour around the island. … On reaching the western boundaries of Puna, my labors became more abundant. … They rallied in masses, and were eager to hear the Word. Many listened with tears, and after the preaching, when I supposed they would return to their homes and give me rest, they remained and crowded around me so earnestly, that I had no time to eat, and in places where I spent my nights they filled the house to its entire capacity, leaving scores outside who could not enter. All wanted to hear more of the ‘Word of Life.’
“At ten or eleven o’clock I would advise them to go home and to sleep. Some would return, but more remained until midnight. At cock-crowing the house would be again crowded, with as many more outside. At one place before I reached the point where I was to spend a Sabbath, there was a line of four villages not more than half a mile apart. Every village begged for a sermon and for personal conversation. Commencing at daylight I preached in three of them before breakfast, at 10 a.m.
“When the meeting closed at one village, most of the people ran on to the next, and thus my congregation increased rapidly from hour to hour. Many were ‘pricked in their hearts’ and were inquiring what they should do to be saved. Sunday came and I was now in the most populous part of Puna. Multitudes came out to hear the Gospel. The blind were led; the maimed, the aged and decrepit, and many invalids were brought on the backs of their friends. There was great joy and much weeping in the assembly.
“Two days were spent in this place, and ten sermons preached, while almost all the intervals between the public services were spent in personal conversation with the crowds which pressed around me. Many of the people who then wept and prayed proved true converts to Christ; most of them have died in the faith, and a few still live as steadfast witnesses to the power of the Gospel. Among these converts was the High Priest of the volcano. He was more than six feet high and of a lofty bearing. He had been an idolater, a drunkard, an adulterer, a robber, and a murderer. For their kapas, for a pig or a fowl he had killed men on the road, whenever they hesitated to yield to his demands. But he became penitent, and appeared honest and earnest in seeking the Lord.
“His sister was more haughty and stubborn. She was High Priestess of the volcano. She, too, was tall and majestic in her bearing. For a long time she refused to bow to the claims of the Gospel; but at length she yielded, confessed herself a sinner and under the authority of a higher Power, and with her brother became a docile member of the church.”
The courage of High Chiefess Kapiolani inspired many Hawaiians to be missionaries to other islands, such as Samuel Kauwealoha, who sailed in 1853 to the Marquesas Islands. Rev. Samuel Kauwealoha planted churches and schools in the Marquesas Islands, and helped end cannibalism. He was mentioned in the 1882 missionary account “Life in Hawaii” (Chapter 13, “The Marquesas Islands … The Hawaiians Send a Mission to Them”), written by missionary Titus Coan, son-law-law of Hiram Bingham: “The missionary at this station was the Rev. Samuel Kauwealoha, a native of Hilo, and a member of the Hilo church. … We landed on a beautiful beach of white sand, and walked half a mile through a charming grove of tropical trees, along the margin of a crystal brook. … We found Mr. Samuel Kauwealoha living in a stone house … all built by himself. … Here, amidst the shade of lofty trees, he was living with his devoted wife, teaching the children to read and write, and preaching ‘Christ our Life’ to 149 savages; and here, under the shadow of a towering tree, I spent one of the happiest Sabbaths of my life.
“The almost naked and tattooed savages came out and sat quietly in semicircles under the tree, with the bright-eyed little children in front, all seeming to love their teacher, and to welcome the stranger, to whom they listened, Samuel Kauwealoha interpreting. …”
Missionary Titus Coan continued: “We had also a Sunday-school, where the pupils recited the Lord’s prayer and the Ten Commandments, with some other lessons, in tones and inflections of voice which were soft and melodious. … At 11 a.m. Captain Brown and his mate, Captain Golett, a good Christian man, who had commanded many a ship, came on shore with the crew of the Morning Star, and we had service in English.”
Another missionary from Hawaii to the Marquesas Islands was James Kekela. The Marquesas Islands were first visited by American Maritime Fur Trader Joseph Ingraham on the brig Hope in 1791, who named them Washington Islands. In 1813, Commodore David Porter claimed the islands for the United States, but Congress never ratified it, leaving France, in 1842, to begin incorporating them into French Polynesia.
James Kekela wrote that Hawaii was fortunate to have become a possession of the United States rather than a possession of France: “The French government is celebrating the 14th of July in Papeete, as America does on the 4th of July. What Americans do to celebrate is to give speeches, worship God, do things to strengthen the body, and so on. The French are pleasure lovers, acting as in the old days … the dances of Tahiti, Tuamotu, Rurutu, Tubuai, and Atiu. … What is done is like what the (filthy arioi?) did. It is a very painful thing for our eyes to behold, because all kinds of liquor are allowed on the tables on this day-beer, soda, wine, whiskey.”
In 1842, a 23-year-old American sailor named Herman Melville deserted his ship Acushnet in the Marquesas Islands and was captured by Typee cannibals. He escaped three weeks later, writing in an account: “These disclosures will … lead to … ultimate benefit to the cause of Christianity in the Sandwich Islands.”
In 1864, James Kekela rescued an American seaman from death at the hands of angry cannibals in the Marquesas Islands. In gratitude, Abraham Lincoln sent James Kekela an inscribed gold watch.
Robert Louis Stevenson related the story in his book, “In The South Seas” when he visited the Marquesas Islands in 1888-89: “During my stay at Tai-o-hae … a whole fleet of whale-boats came from Ua-pu. … On board of these was Samuel Kauwealoha, one of the pastors, a fine, rugged old gentleman, of that leonine type so common in Hawaii. He paid me a visit … and there entertained me with a tale of one of his colleagues, James Kekela, a missionary in the great cannibal isle of Hiva-oa.
“It appears that shortly after a kidnapping visit from a Peruvian slaver, the boats of an American whaler put into a bay upon that island, were attacked, and made their escape with difficulty, leaving their mate, a Mr. Whalon, in the hands of the natives. The captive, with his arms bound behind his back, was cast into a house; and the chief announced the capture to James Kekela. …”
Robert Louis Stevenson continued, relating the story of Mr. Whalon’s rescue from the cannibals: “In return for his act of gallant charity, James Kekela was presented by the American government with a sum of money, and by President Lincoln personally with a gold watch. From his letter of thanks, written in his own tongue, I give the following extract. I do not envy the man who can read it without emotion.
“‘When I saw one of your countrymen, a citizen of your great nation, ill-treated, and about to be baked and eaten, as a pig is eaten, I ran to save him, full of pity and grief at the evil deed of these benighted people. I gave my boat for the stranger’s life. … It became the ransom of this countryman of yours, that he might not be eaten by the savages who knew not Jehovah. This was Mr. Whalon, and the date, Jan. 14, 1864. (The seed of the Gospel) was planted in Hawaii, and I brought it to plant in this land and in these dark regions, that they might receive the root of all that is good and true, which is love. 1. Love to Jehovah. 2. Love to self. 3. Love to our neighbor.
“If a man have a sufficiency of these three, he is good and holy, like his God, Jehovah, in his triune character (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), one-three, three-one. … If he cherishes all three, then is he holy, indeed, after the manner of the Bible. This is a great thing for your great nation to boast of, before all the nations of the earth. From your great land a most precious seed was brought to the land of darkness. It was planted here, not by means of guns and men-of-war and threatening. It was planted by means of the ignorant, the neglected, the despised. Such was the introduction of the word of the Almighty God into this group of Nuuhiwa.”
Robert Louis Stevenson continued quoting James Kekela: “Great is my debt to Americans, who have taught me all things pertaining to this life and to that which is to come. How shall I repay your great kindness to me? Thus David asked of Jehovah, and thus I ask of you, the president of the United States. This is my only payment – that which I have received of the Lord, love – (aloha).’”