William Richards, the seventh child and third son of James and Lydia (Shaw) Richards, was born at Plainfield, Massachusetts, August 22, 1793.
His grandparents were Joseph and Sarah (Whitmarsh) Richards, and Captain Ebenezer and Ann (Molson) Shaw. The Richards family is descended from William Richards, who came to Plymouth before 1633, and ultimately settled in Weymouth, Massachusetts.
William’s father was a farmer, but was also a teacher and held many public offices. His mother is described as a most excellent woman. The parents gave to their children the best of pious instruction.
William was a younger brother of James Richards, Jr. In the summer of 1806, in a grove of trees, in what was then known as Sloan’s Meadow at Williams College, James Richards, Samuel John Mills, Francis L Robbins, Harvey Loomis and Byram Green debated the theology of missionary service.
Their meeting was interrupted by a thunderstorm and they took shelter under a haystack until the sky cleared. That event has since been referred to as the “Haystack Prayer Meeting” and is viewed by many as the pivotal event for the development of Protestant missions in the subsequent decades and century and catalyst to formation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission (ABCFM.)
At the age of fifteen, William became hopefully pious, and three years later he united with the church in his native place, under the care of the Rev. Moses Hallock.
His desire to become a missionary was, probably, awakened by his older brother, who, about the time of his graduation, disclosed his plan for life to the younger brother.
As his brother had done, William entered Williams as a Freshman in 1815. He had as classmates two sons of his pastor, Gerard and William Allen Hallock.
“His intellectual powers were of a high order. When at college, he excelled in mathematics, natural and intellectual philosophy, and logic, while, in the languages and belles lettres, he scarcely rose above the common average.” (Gerard Hallock; Hewitt, Williams College)
In college he was a member of the Mills Theological Society, and also of the Philotechnian Literary Society, of which he was, for a time, president. He was a superior student, graduating with Phi Beta Kappa rank. At Commencement, he had a Philosophical Oration, the subject of his address being “The Nature and Effects of Dew.”
After graduating in 1819, Richards pursued his theological studies at Andover. In February, 1822, the ABCFM having planned to reinforce the mission at the Sandwich Islands, Richards offered himself for that service and was accepted.
He was ordained in New Haven, Connecticut, on September 12 of the same year, with two other missionaries, the Rev. Dr. Miller of the Princeton Theological Seminary preaching the sermon.
On October 30, 1822, Mr. Richards married Clarissa, daughter of Levi Lyman, of Northampton, Massachusetts. On November 19 he, with his wife, joined the Second Company of American Protestant missionaries to Hawai‘i.
After five months at sea they reached Honolulu on Sunday, April 27, 1823. The missionaries were most cordially welcomed, not only by their future associates, but by several chiefs of the island.
Richards describes his first Hawai‘i home, “We are living in houses built by the heathen and presented to us. They are built in native style, and consist of posts driven into the ground …”
“… on which small poles are tied horizontally, and then long grass is fastened to the poles by strings which pass round each bundle. We have no floors, and no windows except holes cut through the thatching, which are closed by shutters without glass.”
In May 1823, Keōpūolani (wife of Kamehameha I and mother of King Kamehameha II & III) and her husband Hoapili expressed a desire to have an instructor connected with them and asked that a Tahitian, Taua, do so.
The mission approved, and Taua resided until the death of Keōpūolani. He proved a faithful teacher, and by the blessing of God, we believe, he did much to establish her in the Christian faith. (Memoir)
Keōpūolani also requested that missionaries accompany her. As Lahaina had been previously selected for a missionary station, the missionaries were happy to commence their labors there under such auspices. Richards and Charles Samuel Stewart therefore accompanied her. (Memoir)
On their passage, she told them she would be their mother; and indeed she acted the part of a mother ever afterwards. Immediately on their arrival, she requested them to commence teaching, and said, also, “It is very proper that my sons (meaning the missionaries) be present with me at morning and evening prayers.”
Soon after landing in Lahaina, Richards wrote: “The field for usefulness here is great; and I have never, for a moment since I arrived, had a single fear that my usefulness on these Islands will be limited by anything but my own imperfections. …”
“It is enough for me, that in looking back I can see clearly that the finger of Providence pointed me to these Islands; and that in looking forward, I see some prospect of success and of lasting usefulness.” (Richards, August 30, 1823; Missionary Herald)
By 1825, there was strong interest in the message of the missionaries. Richards wrote, “As I was walking this evening, I heard the voice of prayer in six different houses, in the course of a few rods. I think there are now not less than fifty houses in Lahaina where the morning and evening sacrifice is regularly offered to the true God.”
“The number is constantly increasing and there is now scarcely an hour in the day that I am not interrupted in my regular employment by calls of persons anxious to know what they must do to be saved.” (Richards; Anderson) In 1831, Richards and Lorrin Andrews helped to build the high school at Lahainaluna on the slopes above Lahaina.
In 1837, after fourteen years of labor, he made a visit to the US, accompanied by his wife and the six oldest children. The health of himself and his wife made such a change desirable, and he wished to provide for the education of his children there.
On his return to his post in the spring of 1838, the king and chiefs, who felt the need of reform in their government, asked Mr. Richards to become their teacher, chaplain and interpreter.
With the consent of the ABCFM, he accepted this position and resigned his appointment as missionary and then spent his time urging the improvement of the political system.
He prepared a book No Ke Kalaiaina, based on Wyland, Elements of Political Economy. This book and Richards interation with the king and chiefs helped shape the initial Hawaiʻi Constitution (1840). (Lots of information here is from Hewitt, Williams College.)\