By the time the first company of American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) Protestant missionaries arrived in 1820, Kamehameha I had died and the centuries-old kapu system had been abolished.
Through the actions of King Kamehameha II (Liholiho,) with encouragement by former Queens Kaʻahumanu and Keōpūolani (Liholiho’s mother,) the Hawaiian people had already dismantled their heiau and had rejected their religious beliefs.
The missionaries first lived in the traditional Hawaiian house, the hale pili. These were constructed of native woods lashed together with cordage most often made from olonā. Pili grass was a preferred thatching that added a pleasant odor to a new hale. Lauhala (pandanus leaves) or ti leaf bundles called peʻa, were other covering materials used.
In addition to their homes, the missionaries had grass meeting places, and later, churches. One of the first was on the same site as the present Kawaiahaʻo Church.
On April 28, 1820, the Protestant missionaries held a church service for chiefs, the general population, ship’s officers and sailors in the larger room in Reverend Hiram Bingham’s house. This room was used as a school room during the weekdays and on Sunday the room was Honolulu’s first church auditorium. (Damon)
It was the fore-runner to what we know today as Kawaiahaʻo Church (and the first foreign church on Oʻahu.) There were several other earlier buildings that served as a Honolulu church/meeting house, until the present “Stone Church” (Kawaiahaʻo) was completed in 1842.
On December 31, 1820, Levi Sartwell Loomis, son of Elisha and Maria Loomis (the first white child born in the Sandwich Islands) and Sophia Moseley Bingham, daughter of Hiram and Sybil Bingham (the first white girl born on Oʻahu) were baptized.
In July, 1821, the missionaries had raised enough money and started to plan a church; the site was just makai of the existing Kawaiahaʻo Church. A month later, they began to build a 22 by 54 foot building, large enough to seat 300.
This first church building was built of thatch and lined with mats; however, it had glass windows, doors, a wooden pulpit and 2-rows of seats, separated by an aisle. In August of that year, Captain Templeton presented a bell from his ship to be used at the church.
Within a year, Hiram Bingham began to preach in the Hawaiian language. 4-services a week were conducted (3 in Hawaiian and 1 in English.) Congregations ranged from 100 – 400; by the end of the year, the church was expanded.
The church conducted its first funeral in January 1823 for Levi Parson Bingham, infant (16-days) son on Hiram and Sybil Bingham. Three days later, a Hawaiian chief requested similar services on the death of a royal child. (Damon)
On May 30, 1824, the church burned to the ground. “Sabbath evening, May 30, nine o’clock. About an hour since, we were alarmed by the ringing of the chapel bell, and, on reaching the door, discovered the south end of the building in one entire blaze. … In five minutes the whole was on fire.” (Stewart – Damon)
Within a couple of days after the fire, Kalanimōkū ordered a new church to be built at public expense. A new thatched building (25 by 70 feet) was placed a short distance from the old; it was dedicated July 18, 1824.
1825 saw another sad funeral when the bodies of Liholiho (King Kamehameha II) and his wife Queen Kamāmalu were brought home from England. The church was draped in black.
Interest in the mission’s message outgrew the church and services were held outside with 3,000 in attendance; efforts were underway to build a larger facility to accommodate 4,000.
Kalanimōkū marked out the ground for the new meeting house “on the North side of the road, directly opposite the present house, whither they have commenced bringing coral rock formed on the shore and cut up in pieces of convenient size.” (Chamberlain – Damon) Timber frame and thatching completed the building.
In December, 1825, the third Meeting House building was opened for worship; however, shortly afterward a violent rain storm collapsed the structure.
In 1827 (after Kalanimōkū’s death,) Kaʻahumanu stepped forward and “caused a temporary house to be erected which is 86 feet by 30, with 2 wings each 12 feet wide extending the whole length of the building. … It is not large enough to accommodate all who attend the service on Sabbath mornings, many are obliged to sit without.” (Mission Journal – Damon)
Since that building was considered temporary, the next year, on July 1, 1828, “the natives commenced the erection of the new meeting house which will soon be built.” They were called to bring stones to set around the posts.
The last of the thatched churches served for 12-years. It measured 63 by 196 feet (larger than the present Kawaiahaʻo Church) – 4,500 people could assemble within it.
Then, between 1836 and 1842, Kawaiahaʻo Church was constructed. Revered as the Protestant “mother church” and often called “the Westminster Abbey of Hawai‘i” this structure is an outgrowth of the original Mission Church founded in Boston and is the first foreign church on O‘ahu (1820.)
The “Stone Church,” as it came to be known, is in fact not built of stone, but of giant slabs of coral hewn from ocean reefs. These slabs had to be quarried from under water; each weighed more than 1,000 pounds. Natives dove 10 to 20 feet to hand-chisel these pieces from the reef, then raised them to the surface, loaded some 14,000 of the slabs into canoes and ferried them to shore.
Following five years of construction, The Stone Church was ready for dedication ceremonies on July 21, 1842. The grounds of Kawaiahaʻo overflowed with 4,000 to 5,000 faithful worshippers. King Kamehameha III, who contributed generously to the fund to build the church, attended the service.
Kawaiaha‘o Church was designed and founded by its first pastor, Hiram Bingham. Hiram left the islands on August 3, 1840 and never saw the completed church. Kawaiahaʻo Church is listed on the state and national registers of historic sites.
Kawaiaha‘o Church continues to serve as a center of worship for Hawai‘i’s people, with services conducted every Sunday in Hawaiian and English. Approximately 85% of the services are in English; at least one song and the Lord’s Prayer (as a congregation) are in Hawaiian.
Over the course of 44-years (1820-1863) (the “Missionary Period”,) about 200 men and women in twelve Companies, independent missionaries, Tahitians and Hawaiians served in Hawaiʻi to carry out the mission of the ABCFM the Hawaiian Islands. (Lots of info here from Damon.)
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