What Did Missionaries Do In Hawaii?

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The history of Hawaii is broad and largely unchronicled, beginning sometime between 1000 AD and 1200 AD when migrants (most likely from the Marquesas Islands) first settled on the islands. For the next 500 years or so, the islands were isolated from the rest of the world.

In 1778, Captain James Cook recorded the first European encounter, and within a century, life on the islands had changed immensely.

But those changes didn’t come with Cook and his men, they came with the wave of missionaries that settled on the islands during the prosperous Kamehameha dynasty. These missionaries paved the way for the culturally diverse and largely Christian region that we now know as the state of Hawaii.

But why did the missionaries land on the Hawaiian islands in the first place, what did they do when they were there, and how many waves of missionaries established schools on the islands?

Let’s find out.

When The Missionaries Came To Hawaii, What Did They Do?

The first missionaries arrived on the Hawaiian Islands in 1820 following a journey of 164 days. They landed on the Big Island and were funded by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM).

At the time, Hawaii was experiencing significant change. The Great King Kamehameha I had recently died, handing over the reins to his son, King Kamehameha II, and ending a reign that was noted for the unification of the Hawaiian Islands and the formation of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Once they arrived, the missionaries began converting the polytheistic and animistic populace to Christianity.

They also introduced many notable changes to the islands, such as developing a written form of the Hawaiian language and encouraging the spread of English. As is often the case with missionaries, they discouraged the native religion and all practices associated with it while also seeking to convert the highest officials.

In fact, their eventual conversion of Queen Kaahumanu was instrumental to the spread of Christianity in Hawaii as she banned all other religious practices and insisted that the locals adopted Christianity.

Why Did the Missionaries Come to Hawaii?

The missionary influence in Hawaii began with a man named Henry Opukaha’ia or “Henry Obookiah”. The Native Hawaiian left his home on the Big Island in 1809, when he was just 16 years old. He boarded a ship for the United States and befriended a Christian sailor on the way.

The sailor taught Opukaha’ia how to read and write using the bible and when the Hawaiian teenager landed in New England, he continued to read, write, and study the bible. He dreamed of returning to his home country as a missionary and while he didn’t fulfill that dream (he died of typhus fever in 1818), his work and teachings inspired others to visit the islands.

On October 23, 1819, seven mission couples set sail for what was then known as the Sandwich Islands (it would be a couple of decades before the region became known as the Hawaiian Islands).

They became the first missionaries in Hawaii, but they wouldn’t be the last.

What Missionaries Went To Hawaii?

The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) sent the first missionaries to Hawaii and were also responsible for many more waves. There were others, though, and while the majority of missionaries preached Christianity, there were other religions.

  • First Company – 1820: The first company of ABCFM missionaries arrived on March 30, 1820, onboard the Thaddeus, which had set sail from Boston many months earlier.
  • London Missionary Society – 1822: The London Missionary Society was a group of British and Tahitian missionaries and teachers that arrived on the islands from Tahiti and stayed for several months.
  • Second Company – 1823: The second ABCFM company arrived three years after the first on a boat known as the Thames.
  • Roman Catholic – 1827: Roman Catholics first arrived in 1827 from France. Subsequent ships were sent.
  • Third Company – 1828: Arrived on March 30, 1828, exactly 8 years after the first ABCFM missionaries.
  • Fourth Company – 1831: Arrived from New Bedford on a ship named New England.
  • Fifth Company – 1832: The fifth company of ABCFM missionaries landed on May 17, 1832.
  • Sixth Company – 1833: Arrived on May 1 on the ship Mentor.
  • Seventh Company – 1835: The Hellespont ship brought the 7th batch of ABCFM missionaries to the islands on June 6, 1835.
  • Eighth Company – 1837: Arrived on the Mary Frasier in April 1837.
  • Ninth Company – 1841: Landed on May 21, 1841.
  • Tenth Company – 1842: The tenth company of ABCFM missionaries docked the Sarah Abagail in September 1842.
  • Eleventh Company – 1844: Landed on July 15, 1844, from Boston.
  • Twelfth Company – 1848: The Samoset brought the 12th company of ABCFM missionaries from Boston on February 26, 1848.
  • Latter-Day Saints – 1850: The first LDS missionaries arrived on December 12, 1850, on a boat that set sail from San Francisco.
  • William Cornelius Shipman and Jane Stobie – 1854: A married couple sent by the ABCFM. They raised William Herbert “Willie” Shipman, who became a very wealthy businessman on the Big Island.
  • Anglican Church – 1862: The very first Anglican bishop, Thomas Nettleship Staley, arrived on the islands in 1862 with several other missionaries.
  • Methodist Episcopal Church – 1892: The first Methodist bishop was Merriman Colbert Harris.

What Did The Missionaries Teach The Hawaiians?

The primary goal of the missionaries was to spread religion, and this was as true of the early protestant missionaries as it was of the Latter-Day Saints and Catholics. However, it’s much easier to teach someone the message of a religious text if they actually know how to read, and so they also taught the locals to read and write.

It wasn’t just about religion, though. They wanted to educate the populace and assimilate them into a wider Christian civilization, which meant teaching them English and arithmetic. To ensure that their message remained, most missionaries built churches and established refuges.

How Long Did Missionaries Stay In Hawaii?

As noted above, many groups of missionaries arrived in Hawaii during the 19th century and some of these remained. They raised families, established churches, and assimilated themselves into an increasingly monotheist Hawaiian society.

Missionary activity slowed down toward the end of the century, but by then, Hawaii had changed completely and their job was more or less complete.

Summary: How Did Christian Missionaries Influence Hawaiian Culture?

Hawaiian culture, like other Polynesian cultures, was primarily based on animism, a belief that inanimate objects and natural phenomena have a soul. They had multiple gods and rituals designed to worship them and appease them.

When the missionaries arrived, they preached the idea that there was only one god and he created man in his image. Everything that the islanders had believed their entire lives was rejected and they were told that this “new” God was vengeful and didn’t look too kindly on non-believers.

The change didn’t occur overnight, but it was an immense cultural shift, nonetheless. It’s also one that gave birth to modern Hawaii, a nation where it’s common to see Christian beliefs exist right alongside ancient cultures and practices. It’s a beautiful blend of cultures, religions, and beliefs, and it reflects everything that these great islands have experienced over the last millennium or so.