Missionary Establishment in Hawaiʻi: 1820 — 1860s
The missionary connection between Hawaiʻi and American Christian ministries began shortly after initial contact with Western vessels in the islands. Sponsored primarily by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), over a dozen different companies were sent to contribute to the Protestant missionary effort. This was during a period when Hawaiʻi was rapidly expanding its reach towards economic and diplomatic affairs abroad, while simultaneously seeing a monumental societal shift with the collapse of the traditional kapu system.*
The Kamehameha line, the ruling class of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi at the time, played a critical role in conducting these affairs by facilitating the growth of American missions and accepting Christianity after the fall of the kapu system. Nevertheless, the aliʻi (ruling class) staunchly fought for the sovereignty of their nation. Even with their open conversion to the Christian faith, leaders like Queen Kaʻahumanu were noted for their firm Hawaiian advocacy in business dealings and diplomacy with the American government. Kaʻahumanu and others were important figures in early negotiations with foreign interests who often sought to take political power from the aliʻi under the guise of offering religious salvation and trade deals.
* The kapu system in pre-contact Hawaiʻi was the spiritual backbone of Native Hawaiian society, governing everything in daily life from eating customs, religious rituals, community relationships, and beyond. This system was in place until 1819, when Kamehameha II (Liholiho) shared a meal with women of his court—an act forbidden for kapu. Encouraged by his mother Keōpūolani and father’s regent Kaʻahumanu, Liholiho effectively dismantled the kapu system and paved the way towards religious reform in the Hawaiian Kingdom.
This lithograph by Gourdaine was based on a painting by Louis Choris, showing Kaʻahumanu and one of her attendants. The favorite wife of Kamehameha I, she had incredible influence on the decision-making for the Kingdom during this pivotal time period.
Reverend Hiram Bingham and the Kawaiahaʻo Church
The first missionaries arrived on the Thaddeus ship at Kealakekua in 1820, and quickly began an ongoing relationship with the Hawaiian monarchy. One of the most influential of these individuals was Reverend Hiram Bingham, who spent two decades as a tenured minister in Honolulu.
Bingham and his wife Sybil were in charge of the mission schools and churches, and as such were at the forefront of assigning a Roman alphabet to ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi (the Hawaiian language). This was done in order to translate the Bible into Hawaiian and to raise local literacy levels, which would bolster the establishment of Western, Christian teachings within local communities.
The old mission houses, used as residential quarters and schoolhouses for primarily Native Hawaiian youth, still stand in today’s downtown Honolulu.
This Bible textbook, He Ninauhoike no na Moolelo o ka Palapapa Hemolele, was written by Reverend Hiram Bingham in 1832. Translated into Hawaiian for educational purposes, the book was used by Christian missionaries and features illustrated classic biblical tales such as Caine and Abel, Noah’s Ark, and the Garden of Eden.
This carte de visite (photographic visiting card) of Reverend Hiram Bingham I was taken sometime between 1850-1869.
Reverend Bingham, backed by the Kaʻahumanu regency and the ABCFM, helped establish the Protestant Church Mission in Honolulu which eventually became the iconic Kawaiahaʻo Church. Constructed of indigenous coral blocks from nearby ocean reefs and timbers from the Pacific Coast of North America, Bingham designed the stone church himself. The Kawaiahaʻo Church still stands in downtown Honolulu today, where it has remained a valued religious and cultural center ever since its construction in 1842.
As the state church, Kawaiahaʻo Church was the scene of many royal events such as inaugurations, funerals, and weddings. It is the oldest church on Oʻahu and the second oldest church in Hawaiʻi.
Most of the original exterior façade of the Kawaiahaʻo Church remains the same after 178 years. In that time, its surroundings have changed drastically.
Despite his contributions, Bingham carried highly racist and derogatory sentiments towards Hawaiʻi’s leaders and communities. These sentiments cast a negative light on Hawaiian society and its values, which inspired an even greater missionary effort from the ABCFM and other religious institutions to “civilize” and convert Native Hawaiians. This need to assert Christian hegemony played out further beyond the islands as the missionaries moved inland to the North American west coast.
Missionary Expansion to the Pacific Northwest: 1834 — 1860s
While the Hawaiian Islands saw a large expansion of Christian teachings, the Honolulu ministry played a considerable role in connecting the missions in Hawaiʻi to those in the Pacific Northwest. Some even considered the missions on the Northwest Coast to be a mere extension of the missionary developments in the islands, and they kept in close contact. The church establishments in the region were also sponsored in part by Kamehameha III (Kauikeaouli) and supported by Hawaiian laborers who came for work opportunities.
The first missionaries to the Pacific Northwest were the Methodists, who set up an early mission in 1834 along the Willamette River near present-day Salem, Oregon. The employee records of some of the Kānaka Maoli stationed there include Moo, Namaurooa, Tooa, Bill Mahoy, and others. The Protestant missionaries were soon to follow, and all of their settlements throughout what is now Washington and Idaho relied to some degree on Hawaiian labor. Most of these western missions were sent to the region to convert local Indigenous tribes, and as a result the Native Hawaiian communities often interacted with tribes within the missions’ vicinity.
This carte de visite (photographic visiting card) shows Reverend William Kaulehelehe and his wife Mary Kaʻai after moving to Fort Victoria in the 1860s.
Hawaiʻi also sent their own as ministers to the Northwest interior. One of these was William Kaulehelehe, who arrived in the Columbia River Valley in 1845. He and his wife, Mary Kaʻai, were sponsored by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) to manage the Hawaiian congregations in the region. Many of the HBC’s Kānaka workers were looped into the missionary advance without being given much choice, leading to growing discontent within the trade ports. These Hawaiian workers also believed that Kaulehelehe had been sent with authority to address and quell the harsh racism that was routinely directed towards Kānaka Maoli in the Pacific Northwest. When this did not happen, and daily life became restricted from various religious stipulations, the Hawaiians turned against the reverend. Despite his social stature and qualifications, Kaulehelehe’s efforts within the Northwest missions had little to no lasting impact on these communities as intended. He and his wife would later relocate to Victoria, British Columbia in the early 1860s.
Thus, the greatest Hawaiian contribution to the missionary effort in the Pacific Northwest came not in the form of conversion, but instead in the support the ministry leaders received along the way from their Kānaka employees.