A week and almost 200 years ago … October 23, 1819 … the Pioneer Company of missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (the ABCFM) set sail for the Sandwich Islands. They arrived in Kailua-Kona on April 4, 1820.
There were seven couples aboard; their leader was Hiram Bingham – Sybil, his wife of 2-weeks, joined him. They are my great-great-great grandparents.
The Prudential Committee of the ABCFM in giving instructions to these pioneers 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 – what is generally referred to as the “Missionary Period”,) about 180-men and women in twelve Companies served in Hawaiʻi to carry out the mission of the ABCFM.
227 years ago (October 30, 1789,) Hiram Bingham, the fifth of the seven sons (from a family of 13-children) was born at Bennington, Vermont – he came from a family of preachers (he descended from Deacon Thomas Bingham who had come to the American colonies in 1650 and settled in Connecticut, his father was Deacon Calvin Bingham and his mother was named Lydia.)
When Captain Cook first visited the Hawaiian Islands forty years prior to the arrival of the missionaries, Hawaiian was a spoken language, not a written language. Historical accounts were passed down orally, through chants and songs.
After western contact, early writers tried to spell words based on the sound of the words they heard. People heard words differently, so it was not uncommon for words to be spelled differently, depending on the writer.
Hiram and others took on the task of developing a Hawaiian alphabet; on July 14, 1826, Hiram Bingham and Levi Chamberlain signed the “Report of the committee of health on the state of the Hawaiian language” – and the Hawaiian alphabet and formulation of the written Hawaiian Language was adopted … it is still in use today.
Hiram and the others were preachers and teachers – in a short time, the missionaries learned the language and these early missionaries taught their lessons in Hawaiian, rather than English.
The chiefs became proponents for education and edicts were enacted by the King and the council of chiefs to stimulate the people to reading and writing. By 1832, the literacy rate of Hawaiians of about 78 percent had surpassed that of Americans on the continent. The literacy rate of the adult Hawaiian population skyrocketed from near zero in 1820 to an estimated of 91 percent by 1834.
As teaching expanded, the focus was educating the head, heart and hand. In addition to the rigorous academic drills (Head,) the schools provided religious and moral guidance (Heart,) and manual and vocational training (Hand.)
Soon after the first anniversary of the arrival of the Pioneer Company, Kaʻahumanu and Kalanimōku visited the mission and gave them supplies; this visit became important because during it Kaʻahumanu made her first request for prayer and showed her first interest in the teachings of the missionaries.
From that point on, Kaʻahumanu came into more constant contact with the mission. At a meeting of the chiefs and school teachers, Kaʻahumanu and Kalanimōku declared their determination to “adhere to the instructions of the missionaries, to attend to learning, observe the Sabbath, Worship God, and obey his law, and have all their people instructed.” Ka‘ahumanu was baptized on December 5, 1825.
Bingham found a friend in Kaʻahumanu, the favorite wife of Kamehameha and Queen regent during Liholiho’s and the early years of Kauikeaouli’s rule. She and other ali‘i worked collaboratively with the missionaries and visited often. Across the street, in the wood frame house at Missions Houses, you can correctly say, ‘Ka‘ahumanu slept here.’
A little side story on Kaʻahumanu … shortly after arriving in the Islands, with a piece of driftwood, Hiram managed to make a rocking chair for Sybil – in describing it she said, “A box or trunk has been our only seat. My husband, I believe, was never a chair-maker before, but happy for me and the Mission family, that he is everything.”
On Sundays, the rocker was taken to the old thatched Kawaiahaʻo church as a seat for Sybil, the pastor’s wife. Sybil’s wish was that when the last summons came, she might be found in that chair … and her wish was granted when she died in her rocking chair on February 27, 1848 in New Haven Connecticut.
The rocker had its admirers, including Kaʻahumanu. As Bingham notes, “On seeing and trying Mrs B’s chair, the first, probably, ever made (in the) islands, Ka‘ahumanu … wished me to make her one in every respect like it, for she said it exactly fit her.”
It wasn’t until 10-years later that he built Kaʻahumanu her rocker, one of the earliest known pieces of koa furniture in Hawaiʻi. Both are at Mission Houses and are occasionally put on display.
Kalanimōku served as chief councilor and prime minister to Kamehameha I, Kamehameha II and Kamehameha III. An 1826 letter written by Kalanimōku to Hiram Bingham (written at a time when missionaries were being criticized) states, “Greetings Mr Bingham. Here is my message to all of you, our missionary teachers.”
“I am telling you that I have not seen your wrong doing. If I had seen you to be wrong, I would tell you all. No, you must all be good.”
“Give us literacy and we will teach it. And, give us the word of God and we will heed it … for we have learned the word of God.”
“Then foreigners come, doing damage to our land. Foreigners of America and Britain. But don’t be angry, for we are to blame for you being faulted. And it is not you foreigners, (it’s) the other foreigners.”
“Here’s my message according to the words of Jehovah, I have given my heart to God and my body and my spirit. I have devoted myself to the church and Jesus Christ.”
“Have a look at this letter of mine, Mr Bingham and company. And if you see it and wish to send my message on to America to (your President,) that is up to you. Greetings to the chief of America. Regards to you all, Kalanimōku.”
Due to Sybil’s illness, after 21-years in the Islands, the Binghams left in 1840; Hiram never saw the completed church that he designed, Kawaiahaʻo. However, in this sanctuary, you will often sing a verse written by Hiram Bingham, what many call the Hawaiian Doxology.
Hoʻonani i ka Makua mau
Let us give praise to the eternal Father
Ke Keiki me ke ka ʻUhane nō
To the Son and to the Holy Ghost
Ke Akua mau, hoʻomaikaʻi pū
To God everlasting, let there ring praise
Ko kēia ao ko kēlā ao
Both in this world as well as the kingdom beyond
With collaboration with the Aliʻi, Hiram and the other missionaries
• Introduced Christianity to the Islands
• Created the written Hawaiian language and brought about widespread literacy
• Helped promulgate a constitutional government
• Made Western medicine available
• Introduced a distinctive musical tradition
Hiram died on November 11, 1869 at New Haven Connecticut at the age of 81.