On October 23, 1819, the Pioneer Company of American Protestant missionaries from the northeast US, led by Hiram Bingham, set sail on the Thaddeus for the Sandwich Islands (now known as Hawai‘i.)
The Mission Prudential Committee 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)
The Laws and Regulations of the ABCFM stated, “No missionary or assistant missionary shall engage in any business or transaction whatever for the sake of private gain …”
“… nor shall anyone engage in transactions or employments yielding pecuniary profit, without first obtaining the consent of his brethren in the mission; and the profits, in all cases, shall be placed at the disposal of the mission.”
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 American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in the Hawaiian Islands.
Collaboration between native Hawaiians and the American Protestant missionaries resulted in, among other things, the introduction of Christianity; the creation of the Hawaiian written language and widespread literacy; the promulgation of the concept of constitutional government; making Western medicine available; and the evolution of a new and distinctive musical tradition (with harmony and choral singing.)
Introduction of Christianity
Within five years of the initial arrival of the missionaries, a dozen chiefs had sought Christian baptism and church membership, including the king’s regent Kaʻahumanu. The Hawaiian people followed their native leaders, accepting the missionaries as their new priestly class. (Schulz)
Keōpūolani is said to have been the first convert of the missionaries in the Islands, receiving baptism from Rev. William Ellis in Lāhainā on September 16, 1823. Keōpūolani was spoken of “with admiration on account of her amiable temper and mild behavior”. (William Richards) She was ill and died shortly after her baptism.
On December 24, 1825, Kaʻahumanu, six other Chiefs and one makaʻāinana (commoner) were baptized and received Holy Communion at Kawaiahaʻo Church. This was the beginning of expanded admission into the Church.
Kamakau noted of her baptism, “Kaʻahumanu was the first fruit of the Kawaiahaʻo church … for she was the first to accept the word of God, and she was the one who led her chiefly relations as the first disciples of God’s church.”
Creation of the Hawaiian Written Language
When Captain Cook first made contact with the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, Hawaiian was a spoken language but not a written language. Historical accounts were passed down orally, through oli (chants) and mele (songs.)
Then, on July 14, 1826, the missionaries established a 12-letter alphabet for the written Hawaiian language, using five vowels (a, e, i, o, and u) and seven consonants (h, k, l, m, n, p and w) in their “Report of the committee of health on the state of the Hawaiian language.” The alphabet continues in use today.
The missionaries established schools associated with their missions across the Islands. This marked the beginning of Hawaiʻi’s phenomenal rise to literacy. 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.
Interestingly, as the early missionaries learned the Hawaiian language, they then taught their lessons in the mission schools 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.
By 1831, in just eleven years from the first arrival of the missionaries, Hawaiians had built over 1,100-schoolhouses. This covered every district throughout the eight major islands and serviced an estimated 53,000-students. (Laimana)
In 1839, King Kamehameha III called for the formation of the Chiefs’ Children’s School (Royal School.) The main goal of this school was to groom the next generation of the highest ranking Chiefs’ children and secure their positions for Hawaiʻi’s Kingdom. The King asked missionaries Amos Starr Cooke and Juliette Montague Cooke to teach the 16-royal children and run the school.
In this school, the Hawai‘i sovereigns who reigned over the Hawaiian people from 1855 were educated, including: Alexander Liholiho (King Kamehameha IV;) Emma Naʻea Rooke (Queen Emma;) Lot Kapuāiwa (King Kamehameha V;) William Lunalilo (King Lunalilo;) Bernice Pauahi (Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, founder of Kamehameha Schools;) David Kalākaua (King Kalākaua) and Lydia Liliʻu Kamakaʻeha (Queen Liliʻuokalani.)
The King also saw the importance of education for all; “Statute for the Regulation of Schools” was passed by the King and chiefs on October 15, 1840.
Its preamble stated, “The basis on which the Kingdom rests is wisdom and knowledge. Peace and prosperity cannot prevail in the land, unless the people are taught in letters and in that which constitutes prosperity. If the children are not taught, ignorance must be perpetual, and children of the chiefs cannot prosper, nor any other children”.
Kamehameha III asked Richards (who had previously been asked to serve as Queen Keōpūolani’s religious teacher) to become an advisor to the King as instructor in law, political economy and the administration of affairs generally.
Richards gave classes to King Kamehameha III and his Chiefs on the Western ideas of rule of law and economics. His decision to assist the King ultimately resulted in his resignation from the mission, when the ABCFM board refused to allow him to belong to the mission while assisting the King.
“The Hawaiian people believed in William Richards (Rikeke), the foreigner who taught the king to change the government of the Hawaiian people to a constitutional monarchy and end that of a supreme ruler, and his views were adopted.” (Kamakau)
Of his own free will, King Kamehameha III granted the Constitution of 1840, as a benefit to his country and people, that established his Government upon a declared plan. (Rex v. Booth – Hanifin)
That constitution introduced the innovation of representatives chosen by the people (rather than, as previously, solely selected by the Aliʻi.) This gave the common people a share in the government’s actual political power for the first time.
Later (when Richards was sent on a diplomatic mission to the US and Europe to recognize the rights of a sovereign Hawaiʻi,) King Kamehameha III asked missionary Judd to resign from the mission and serve as his advisor and translator.
Judd, a doctor by training, had originally come to the islands to serve as the missionary physician. While in that role, Judd set up part of the basement in the 1821 Mission House as a Western medicine pharmacy and doctor’s office, beginning in 1832.
Dr Judd did not dismiss Native Hawaiian medical practices. He thought Native Hawaiian practice should be improved. Over the years, Dr Judd modified his practice to include Native Hawaiian ingredients in his treatments.
Judd wrote the first medical book in the Hawaiian language and later formed the first medical school in the Islands. Ten students were accepted when it opened in 1870, all native Hawaiians (the school had a Hawaiians-only admissions policy.)
Distinctive Musical Tradition
Another lasting legacy left by the missionaries in the Islands related to music. Some songs were translations of Western songs into Hawaiian; some were original verse and melody.
Oli and mele were already a part of the Hawaiian tradition; it was delivered in an almost monotone way, without instrumentation, or with percussion (drums) or flutes.
“As the Hawaiian songs were unwritten, and adapted to chanting rather than metrical music, a line was measured by the breath; their hopuna, answering to our line, was as many words as could be easily cantilated at one breath.” (Bingham)
The missionaries introduced Western choral tradition, harmony, hymns, gospel music, and Western composition. In the early period, instrumentation included the “Church Bass,” a cello-like instrument and a flute. Later on, church organs, pianos, melodeons, and other instruments were introduced to Hawai`i.
One of the unique verses (sung to an old melody) was Hoʻonani Hole – Hoʻonani I Ka Makua Mau. Bingham wrote/translated it to Hawaiian and people sang it to a melody that dates back to the 1600s – today, it is known as the Hawaiian Doxology.
Another popular Hawaiian song was written by another missionary, Lorenzo Lyons. Lyons composed many poems and hymns; Lyons’ best known and beloved work is the hymn “Hawaiʻi Aloha,” sung to the tune of “I Left It All With Jesus.” The song was inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame in 1998.
“Widely regarded as Hawaiʻi’s second anthem, this hymn is sung in both churches and public gatherings. It is performed at important government and social functions to bring people together in unity, and at the closing of Hawaiʻi Legislative sessions.” (Hawaiian Music Museum)
Today, the Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives (Hawaiian Mission Houses) promotes an understanding of the social history of 19th-century Hawai‘i and the relationship between the Aliʻi and the missionaries, and their critical, collaborative role in the formation of modern Hawai‘i.
Over the years, the growing partnership and collaboration between native Hawaiians and the American Protestant missionaries resulted in the introduction of Christianity, a written Hawaiian language, literacy, constitutional government, Western medicine and an evolving music tradition.