“June 29th. A busy day. – – – -”
In part, the sole entry for that day in Sybil Bingham’s journal (1820) helps to describe what life was like for the families of the early missionaries in Hawaiʻi.
The Prudential Committee of the ABCFM in giving instructions to the pioneers of 1819 said: “Your mission is a mission of mercy, and your work is to be wholly a labor of love. … Your views are not to be limited to a low, narrow scale, but you are to open your hearts wide, and set your marks high. You are to aim at nothing short of covering these islands with fruitful fields, and pleasant dwellings and schools and churches, and of Christian civilization.” (The Friend)
Over the course of a little over 40-years (1820-1863 – the “Missionary Period”,) about 180-men and women in twelve Companies served in Hawaiʻi to carry out the mission of the ABCFM in the Hawaiian Islands.
One of the first things the missionaries did was to learn the Hawaiian language and create an alphabet for a written format of the language. Their emphasis was on teaching and preaching.
The missionaries were scattered across the Islands, each home was usually in a thickly inhabited village, so that the missionary and his wife could be close to their work among the people.
In the early years, they lived in the traditional thatched houses – “our little cottage built chiefly of poles, dried grass and mats, being so peculiarly exposed to fire … consisting only of one room with a little partition and one door.” (Sybil Bingham) The thatched cottages were raised upon a low stone platform. Later, they lived in wood, stone or adobe homes.
The missionaries did not bring much furniture with them (and there were no stores or lumber yards,) so boxes in which their goods had been packed coming to the Islands served as tables and chairs.
However, “To-day I have been presented with what I may call an elegant chair …. My husband, I believe, was never a chair-maker before, but happy for me and the Mission family that he is every thing.” (Sybil Bingham, June 22, 1820)
(When the Binghams left the Islands in 1840, they took the chair with them; Sybil refused to part with it. Her wish was that when the last summons came she might be found in that chair, and her wish was granted when she died in 1848. (Bingham Journal))
The missionary family’s day began at 4 am (… it continued into the night, with no breaks.)
The mission children were up then, too; in the early morning, the parents taught their children. “We had one tin whale-oil lamp between us, with a single wick…. Soon after five we had breakfast.” (Bishop)
By 9 am, after accomplishing all domestic duties and schooling of the children, the wives would begin the instruction of the Hawaiian children – and taught them for six solid hours, occasionally running into the house to see that all was straight.
“Very soon I gathered up 12 or 15 little native girls to come once a day to the house so that as early as possible the business of instruction might be commenced. That was an interesting day to me to lay the foundation of the first school ever assembled”. (Sybil Bingham)
These early missionaries taught their lessons in Hawaiian, rather than English. In part, the mission did not want to create a separate caste and portion of the community as English-speaking Hawaiians. (In later years, the instruction, ultimately, was in English.)
“It has been a busy day – have done fitting work, of gowns, for two or three native women, – attending to the reading of others, – instructing our school children, entertaining Mr. Allen, and his little Peggy who has been with us through the day, writing a little, etc., etc. The days glide smoothly with us inwardly.” (Sybil Bingham)
“During the period from infancy to the age of ten or twelve years, children in the almost isolated family of a missionary could be well provided for and instructed in the rudiments of education without a regular school … But after that period, difficulties in most cases multiplied.” (Hiram Bingham)
“Owing to the then lack of advanced schools in Hawaii, the earlier mission children were all ‘sent home’ around Cape Horn, to ‘be educated.’ This was the darkest day in the life history of the mission child.”
“Peculiarly dependent upon the family life, at the age of eight to twelve years, they were suddenly torn from the only intimates they had ever known, and banished, lonely and homesick, to a mythical country on the other side of the world …”
“… where they could receive letters but once or twice a year; where they must remain isolated from friends and relatives for years and from which they might never return.” (Bishop)
Missionaries were torn between preaching the gospel and teaching their kids. “(M)ission parents were busy translating, preaching and teaching. Usually parents only had a couple of hours each day to spare with their children.” (Schultz)
Very prominent in the old mission life was the annual “General Meeting” where all of the missionaries from across the Islands gathered at Honolulu from four to six weeks.
“Often some forty or more of the missionaries besides their wives were present, as well as many of the older children. … Much business was transacted relating to the multifarious work and business of the Mission. New missionaries were to be located, and older ones transferred.” (Bishop)
The annual gathering of the Cousins, descendants of the early missionaries, continues. Our family is part of the Society and Cousins. Hiram and Sybil Bingham (Hiram was leader of the first 1820 group of missionaries to Hawai‘i) are my great-great-great grandparents.
Today, the Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society, a nonprofit educational institution and genealogical society, exists to promote an understanding of the social history of nineteenth-century Hawai‘i and its critical role in the formation of modern Hawai‘i.
The Society operates the Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives, comprised of three historic buildings and a research archives with reading room. The Society also compiles the genealogical records of the American Protestant missionaries in Hawai‘i and promotes the participation of missionary descendants in the Society’s activities.
Through the Site and Archives, the Society collects and preserves the documents, artifacts and other records of the missionaries in Hawai‘i’s history; makes these collections available for research and educational purposes; and interprets the historic site and collections to reflect the social history of nineteenth century Hawai‘i and America.
Guided tours of the house and other parts of the historic site are offered Tuesday through Saturday, starting on the hour every hour from 11 am with the last tour beginning at 3 pm.
Nominal fees include: General – $10; Kamaʻāina, Senior Citizens (65+) & Military – $8 and Students (age 6 to College w/ID) – $6; Kamaʻāina Saturday (last Saturday of the Month) 50% off admission for residents. (Reservations for groups of 10 or more are required.)