An often-repeated statement is, “The missionaries came to do good, and they did very well.” (Suggesting the missionaries personally profited from their services in the Islands.) It is simply not true.
A review of the facts shows that the missionaries were forbidden to “engage in any business or transaction whatever for the sake of private gain” and they did not, and could not, own property individually. Many sold what they had before taking the long trip to serve in the Islands.
To supply the mission members, a Common Stock system was initiated, a community-based economic system designed to enable the missionaries to accomplish their goals without having to worry about finding sustenance and shelter. It was a socialistic, rather than capitalistic, economic structure.
Mission family members were allowed to keep personal gifts from family and friends as private property, but those gifts were subtracted from what they would otherwise be entitled to receive from the Depository. (Woods)
In essence, except for the gifts of individuals to individuals, virtually no private property was actually held by the individual missionaries.
The missionaries were constantly reminded of Matthew Chapter 6, verse 24: “No one can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (money.)” (Woods)
Hiram and Sybil Bingham were part of the Pioneer Company of missionaries who came to the Islands in 1820. “Life in the Paradise of the Pacific was anything but healthy in the years when Honolulu was a village of grass huts on a dusty plain.” (Bingham)
“Sybil was frail to begin with, if one can judge from her likeness in the portrait of the Binghams painted by Samuel FB Morse (of the Morse code and telegraph) before their departure for the Pacific: where an idealized Hiram gazes confidently from the little oval frame, Sybil’s long thin nose and watery blue eyes make her look as if she had a cold.” (Bingham)
“For twenty years she worked with him and for him and bore his children, but the cost to nature was a wasted body that finally came to seem to Hiram more important than his mission.”
“Hiram anticipated that a few months rest in what they considered the more healthful climate of New England would put her on her feet, and they would return to carry on the great work with which the Mission Board had originally charged them.” (Bingham)
On August 3, 1840, they sailed back to the continent on the Flora. “The cabin of the Flora is very small, having three state-rooms, one of which belonging to the captain is the only one whose dimensions were intended, for comfort.” (Olmstead)
They returned to New England. “Sybil’s health did not improve. … (she went to) Hartford to be nursed by her sister. She had a chronic cough. Whether she or Hiram knew it, she was dying of the prevailing malady, ‘consumption’ (tuberculosis).” (Bingham)
The Binghams did not go back to a family estate and had not accumulated any money (or any context of wealth) while in the Islands. (The missionaries were not paid under a salary system until 1848, well after the Binghams left.)
Back on the continent, the Binghams were effectively homeless.
Right after they arrived back at the continent, their son “nine-year old Hiram was shipped off to relatives and then to a succession of schools willing to take a penniless missionary’s son, and from then on his contact with his parents was mostly by letter.”
Sybil and the girls “had come to North Haven … hoping to board with a farmer who might allow them milk, but no farmer wanted to take in boarders, and the family where she has been staying, ‘with four hungry children, the fifth in arms, around a small kitchen table,’ can only afford to buy half a pint of milk a day and ‘one pound of cheese in the month.’”
They relied on “the hospitality of relatives and friends, placing his children in a succession of schools, and carrying on a voluminous correspondence with his children, with friends and supporters”.
“Sybil, committed to their ‘joint endeavor,’ went along while her waning strength lasted [and moved from] Boston, to Brooklyn, to Philadelphia, to upstate New York, to New Haven, to Norwich, to Boston again, then to Hartford to be nursed by her sister.” (Bingham)
The separation of the family and movement from house to house and school to school lasted for about eight years.
Then, in 1847, “Hiram and Sybil had found a ‘refuge’ in Easthampton (Massachusetts) with ‘kind friends.’”
“This was the time of Mr [Samuel] Williston’s ‘benevolences.’ He may have admired Mr Bingham, but he had more personal feeling for Sybil, with whom he was connected on her mother’s side of the family.”
“He must have realized what it meant for her to have her children forever scattered, living with relatives, off at distant boarding schools as pensioners.”
Hiram Jr, “his parents and his sisters Lizzie and Lydia arrived and for a few months the dream of a family under one roof was realized.”
“With his button factory a success and his fortune growing, [Williston] had recently founded in Easthampton, his home town, the ‘Seminary’ that bore his name, and built himself a handsome mansion next door.”
“He arranged for the admission of the three younger Bingham children, and helped the family find a house nearby to rent. And so, for the last year of her life Sybil had a home, and three of her children with her. … Sybil died in her rocking chair on February 27, 1848 in Easthampton, Massachusetts.”
In 1852, Hiram married Naomi Morse and helped at her Seminary for Young Ladies in New Haven. Hiram Jr was ordained in New Haven and married Minerva Clarissa (Clara) Brewster; together they sailed from Boston, December 2, 1856, bound, via Cape Horn, not for the Sandwich Islands, only 18,000 miles away, but for the Gilbert Islands in Micronesia, 2,500 miles farther. (Bingham)
In 1867, the Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society (HMCS – an organization consisting of the children of the missionaries and adopted supporters) decided to support a girls’ boarding school.
HMCS invited Miss Lydia Bingham (daughter of Reverend Hiram Bingham, leader of the Pioneer Company of missionaries to Hawaiʻi) to return to Honolulu to be a teacher in this family school; she was then principal of the Ohio Female College, at College Hill, Ohio.
In January 1869, her sister, Miss Elizabeth Kaʻahumanu (Lizzie) Bingham, arrived from the continent to be an assistant to her sister. Lizzie was a graduate of Mount Holyoke and, when she was recruited, was a teacher at Rockford Female Seminary. (Beyer) Hiram I died later that year.
Later, Lydia and Lizzie’s niece (daughter of Hiram’s first child Sophia Bingham), Clara Lydia Moseley (later Sutherland), joined them at Kawaiaha‘o.
“When Miss Bingham came to Hilo (on October 13, 1873 she married Titus Coan,) the seminary was committed to the charge of her sister (Lizzie), whose earnest labors for seven years in a task that is heavy and exhausting so reduced her strength, that in June, 1880 she was obliged to resign her post.” (Coan)
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