“Ever since missionaries arrived (1820,) Kapiʻolani has constantly been situated near them, and for nearly two years has listened to the words of eternal life in her own language.” (Bingham)
In 1822, Naihe and Kapiʻolani were among the first chiefs to welcome instruction and accept Christianity. Kapiʻolani was the daughter of Keawemauhili, who was the high chief of the district of Hilo.
He was the uncle of Kiwalao, the young chief of the island Hawaiʻi, who was killed by Kamehameha’s warriors when Kamehameha became king of that island. She was the wife of Naihe, who was the high chief of the district of Kona. (Westervelt)
“The first day of 1823 was observed by the missionaries as a day of fasting and prayer, in reference to the cause of religion; and on the first Monday of that year, inviting the people to join them, they united with the friends of missions in the monthly concert of prayer for the conversion of the world.”
“Though few and feeble, they felt encouraged to lay hold on the great and exceedingly precious promises, and to expect a blessing to crown the means daily employed according to divine appointment.” (Bingham)
That year, a delegation of missionaries went around the island Hawaiʻi. They visited the volcano. The natives were astonished to see the perfect safety of the missionaries, although the worship and tabus of Pele were absolutely ignored.
Ohelo berries and strawberries growing on the brink of the crater were freely eaten and the lake of fire explored without even a thought of fear of the goddess. (Westervelt)
In the course of their journey the missionaries met a priestess of Pele. The priestess said: “I am Pele, I shall never die. Those who follow me, if part of their bones are taken to Kilauea, will live in the bright fire there.”
A missionary said, “Are you Pele?” She said, “Yes, I am Pele,” then proceeded to state her powers. A chief of low rank who had been a royal messenger under Kamehameha, and who was making the journey with the missionaries, interrupted the woman, saying: “Then it is true, you are Pele, and have destroyed the land, killed the people, and have spoiled the fishing-grounds.”
“If I were the king I would throw you into the sea.” The priestess was quick-witted and said that truly she had done some harm, but the rum of the foreigners was far more destructive. (Westervelt)
All this prepared the way for Kapiʻolani to attempt to break down the worship of the fire-goddess.
When Kapiʻolani said that she was going to prove the falsity of the worship of Pele, there was a storm of heartfelt opposition. The priests and worshippers of Pele honestly believed that divine punishment would fall on her.
When Kapiʻolani left her home in Kona her people, with great wailing, again attempted to persuade her to stay with them. The grief, stimulated by fear of things supernatural, was uncontrollable. The people followed their chiefess some distance with prayers and tears.
For more than 100-miles she journeyed, usually walking, sometimes having a smooth path, but again having to cross miles of the roughest, most rugged and sharp-edged lava. At last the party came to the vicinity of the volcano.
Toward the close of the day they crossed steaming cracks and chasms and drew nearer to the gaseous clouds of smoke which blew toward them from the great crater.
Here a priestess of Pele of the highest rank came to meet the party and turn them away from the dominions of the fire-goddess unless they would offer appropriate sacrifices. She knew Kapiʻolani’s purpose, and determined to frustrate it. (Westervelt)
The priestess who faced Kapiʻolani was very bold. She forbade her to approach any nearer to the volcano on pain of death at the hands of the furious goddess Pele.
“Who are you?” asked Kapiʻolani.
“I am one in whom the God dwells.”
“If God dwells in you, then you are wise and can teach me. Come and sit down.”
The people with Kapiʻolani were hushed into a terrified silence, but she listened quietly until the priestess, carried beyond her depth, read a confused mass of jumbled words, and unintelligible noises, which she called “The dialect of the ancient Pele.”
Then Kapiʻolani took her spelling-book, and a little book of a few printed hymns, and said: “You have pretended to deliver a message from your god, but we have not understood it. Now I will read you a message which you can understand, for I, too, have a letter.”
Then she read clearly the Biblical sentences printed in the spelling-book and some of the hymns. The priestess was silenced.
Kapiʻolani passed the priestess, went on to the crater, met missionary Mr. Goodrich (who had journeyed from Hilo to meet her there.) It was now evening, and a hut was built to shelter her until the next day came, when she could have the opportunity of descending into the crater.
As the morning light brought a wonderful view of the Lua Pele (The-pit-of-Pele) with its great masses of steam and smoke rising from the immense field of volcanic activity below, and as fierce explosions of gases bursting from the underworld in a continual cannonade, deafened the ears of the company, Kapiʻolani prepared to go down to defy Pele. (Westervelt)
Mr. Richards says: “A man whose duty it was to feed Pele, by throwing berries and the like into the volcano, entreated her to go no farther. ‘And what,’ said she, ‘will be the harm?’ The man replied, ‘You will die by Pele.’”
Kapiʻolani answered, ‘I shall not die by your god. That fire was kindled by my God.’ The man was silent and she went onward, descending several hundred feet, and there joined in a prayer to Jehovah. She also ate the berries consecrated to Pele, and threw stones into the volcano.”
“Then with the terrific bellowing and whizzing of the volcanic gases they mingled their voices in a solemn hymn of praise to the true God, and at the instance of the chiefess, Alapai, one of Kapiʻolani’s attendants, led them in prayer.” (Bingham)
“Here was a heroism of a more sublime and immortal character than that which rushes to the battle-field. Here was a philosophy which might put to the blush the pride of Pagan Athens and Rome, whose philosophers would risk nothing in suppressing idolatry, though they admitted its pretensions were unfounded.”
“Here was a movement which in its character, and consequences to a nation, was not wholly unlike to that of the sublime preacher on Mars Hill, whose ‘spirit was stirred in him when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.’” (Bingham)
“This has justly been called one of the greatest acts of moral courage ever performed.” (Alexander) “All the people of the district saw that she was not injured and have pronounced Pele to be powerless.” (Richards)
“There, in full view of the terrific panorama before them, the effects of an agency often appalling, she calmly addressed the company thus: “Jehovah is my God. He kindled these fires. I fear not Pele.”
“If I perish by the anger of Pele, then you may fear the power of Pele; but if I trust in Jehovah, and he shall save me from the wrath of Pele when I break through her tabus, then you must fear and serve the Lord Jehovah.” (Bingham)
The influence of Kapiʻolani on December 22, 1824 against this most influential form of idolatrous worship was felt throughout the whole nation.
“She told the missionaries she had come to strengthen their hearts and help them in their work. They rejoiced in the salutary influence which she exerted in favor of education and reform, an influence felt at once and happily continued when she had returned home.” (Bingham) The image shows Kapiʻolani defying Pele. (Herb Kane.)