“The moment I entered into the house of this native and saw him and his two friends, I felt convinced that I had met the men for whom I had been looking. The man who owned the house was a judge and a leading man in that section. His name was Jonatana H Napela.”
“His companions’ names were Uaua and Kaleohano. They were all three afterwards baptized and ordained to be Elders, and all are still members of the Church. They were graduates of the high school in the country, fine speakers and reasoners, and were men of standing and influence in the community.”
“Napela was very anxious to know my belief, and wherein our doctrines differed from those taught by the missionaries in their midst I explained to him, so well as I could, our principles, with which he seemed very well satisfied.” (Cannon; Millennial Star, April 10, 1882)
Let’s look back …
Two decades after the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) in 1830, Mormonism was introduced to the Hawaiian Islands.
In the fall of 1850, Elder Charles C Rich of the LDS Church Council of the Twelve Apostles called on a company of LDS (Mormon) gold miners working on the American River near Sacramento, California.
The miners had been sent from Utah the previous year on a “gold mission,” an unusual decision in light of the fact that church president Brigham Young was strongly opposed to the Saints running off to California in the pursuit of riches.
Yet he was willing to make an exception, for it was agreed that the Mormon missionaries would bring home to Utah whatever treasure they gleaned. (Woods)
Ten men accepted the call to preach Mormonism in what came to be known as the Sandwich Islands Mission. Embarking from San Francisco on November 12, they landed in Honolulu on December 12, 1850.
Elder George Q Cannon was called to serve in the Sandwich Islands, in October 1849 while fulfilling a unique assignment in California: He was mining for gold; it was not his favorite assignment. “I heartily despised the work of digging gold. … There is no honorable occupation that I would rather not follow than hunting and digging gold.” (Livingston; DeseretNews)
One of the early baptisms was Jonathan Hawai‘i Napela, who is considered by many to be the most influential Hawaiian convert to Mormonism. Descending from the ali‘i, Napela was born September 11, 1813, in Honokōwai on the island of Maui, to his father, Hawai‘iwa‘a‘ole, and his mother, Wikiokalani.
In 1831 at the age of 18, Jonathan began his formal education on Maui among the first group of 43 students to attend the Protestant school called Lahainaluna.
From this academic foundation, Jonathan developed a keen mind and went on to practice law. He later served as a district judge in Wailuku during the years 1848–51.
On August 3, 1843, Jonathan married Kitty Kelii-Kuaaina Richardson (half-Hawaiian and half-Caucasian), who was also from ali‘i blood. From them came one known child, Hattie Panana Kaiwaokalani Napela.
Napela was introduced to the Mormon Church by Cannon (who would later serve as a counselor in the LDS Church First Presidency.) (Woods)
Cannon first came into contact with the influential Hawaiian judge on March 8, 1851. He said Napela was “the most intelligent man I have seen on the Islands.” (and further noted the quotes at the beginning of this summary.) During their island years together, Napela and Cannon enjoyed a warm friendship.
Less than two weeks after their first meeting, Cannon noted, “I was invited by Napela to come and stay with (him.) I having told (him) I wanted to find somebody to learn me Hawaiian and I would him English; he told (me) he wanted (to learn) & to stay with him.” Ten months after their first meeting, Cannon recorded that he baptized Napela on January 5, 1852.
Not only did they learn each other’s language, but Napela, while also learning the principles of Mormonism from Cannon, was able to show Cannon and eventually other Utah missionaries a greater dimension of faith. (Woods)
Napela dedicated himself to building Mormonism in the islands and thus had a great influence in furthering the work in his native homeland. Not only did he collaborate with Cannon on the translation of the Book of Mormon (1852–1853,) Napela also deserves credit for having first suggested the idea of a missionary training center. (Woods)
Then in 1873, tragedy struck the Napela household; his wife Kitty contracted leprosy. She faced confinement on the island of Molokai at the settlement of Kalaupapa. Napela joined her as her kōkua (helper.) (This was the same year that Father Damien volunteered and started to serve at Kalaupapa.)
In the October conference at Laie, the members, reluctant to see him leave, sorrowfully sustained Brother Napela as the branch president of the Kalaupapa branch of the Church. His return to a conference in Laie the following year was his last opportunity to be blessed by a gathering of the Saints in a conference. (Spurrier; LDS)
He returned to Kalaupapa and served the settlement there. Notwithstanding their differences in religiosity and ethnicity, one resident in the Kalaupapa settlement noted that Jonathan and Father Damien “were the best of friends.”
In 1877, a Utah missionary who visited the Saints in this remote peninsula during the time of Jonathan’s spiritual supervision wrote, “At this place we found brother Napela, who is taking care of his wife and presiding over the Saints there; he is full of faith, and is still that good-natured, honorable soul.”
Napela contracted leprosy, and like Damien, literally gave his life to service, dying from Hansen’s disease on August 6, 1879. (Welch) Kitty passed away just over two weeks later from complications related to the same illness. (Woods)
The Hawaiian Studies Center at Brigham Young University Hawai‘i is named after Napela. In 2010, the Roman Catholic Church presented the Polynesian Cultural Center with a certificate commemorating Napelaʻs cooperation with Saint Damien. (NPS)