Special Providences in the Christianization of Hawaii – Part 1

Special Providences in the Christianization of Hawaii – Part 1

A series of seven articles under the heading “Special Providences in the Christianization of Hawaii” was written by missionary son Rev. Sereno E. Bishop. The series appeared in the January through August 1904 issues of The Friend newspaper published in Honolulu. Bishop served as editor of The Friend from 1888 through 1902. The Friend was founded by the Rev. Samuel Damon in 1843 as a Christian periodical with a temperance theme published for seaman ashore at the port of Honolulu. Damon was the chaplain of the Seamen’s Bethel in downtown Honolulu.

Henry Obookiah-‘Ōpūkaha‘ia is a key figure in Bishop’s articles. Bishop considered Henry as one of the Special Providences that led to the Gospel coming to Hawai‘i.

Sereno Edwards Bishop (1827-1909) was the son of the Rev. Artemas and Elizabeth Bishop. The Bishops arrived in Hawai‘i in April, 1823 as members of the Second Company of the Sandwich Islands Mission. His parents were stationed at Kailua-Kona on the Big Island and Sereno was born in 1827 at the village of Ka‘awaloa, on the point of land on the north side of the entrance to Kealakekua Bay.

Sereno Bishop’s writing reflects his long-life in Hawai‘i. He witnessed first-hand many of the changes Christianity brought to Hawai‘i, the development of sugar cane plantations, the importation of workers from Asia, Portugal and other foreign nations. And he lived through the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i and the annexation of Hawai‘i leading to the Islands becoming a Territory of the United States.


By Rev. Sereno Edwards Bishop, D.D., of Honolulu
(From the January, 1904 issue of The Friend)

The writer proposes to specify and describe a series of peculiar events, all of which contributed and combined to produce the singular success which attended the introduction of Christianity into the Hawaiian Islands. Many of these circumstances were such as were unlikely to occur. Altogether they were so numerous, and so tended to the accomplishment of one result, that they may well be regarded by Christian believers as constituting a chain of very marked special providences, which were divinely intended to secure firmly this important strategic position as a possession of enlightened Christianity for the furtherance of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus in this Pacific hemisphere. It is believed to be profitable and important that we should distinctly recognize this peculiar course of divine Providence, and we may begin by noting: —

1. The Strange Providential Delay in the Discovery of Hawaii.
(from January 1904 issue of The Friend)

Hawaii was first made known to the world through its discovery by the famous explorer, Captain James Cook, who on his voyage from Bolabola (Borabora) to Alaska visited Kauai in January, 1778, and on his return first saw the Island of Hawaii in December of the same year. From that time forward, the group was frequently visited, and speedily became of commercial importance. Before 1820 a considerable trade had become established with China, Mexico, and the northwest coast of America. There was also a large whaling fleet visiting these ports. In fact, no port of equal commercial importance existed in the central or northeastern Pacific.

In view of so rapid a commercial development after discovery, it must be considered strange that the existence of so central and important a group remained unknown until so late a date as 1778. All the other groups inhabited by the Polynesian race had long been known to the world. For over 250 years the Spanish galleons had been crossing the North Pacific annually both •ways between Mexico and the Philippines, Hawaii lying in a direct line between the two countries. Alexander is doubtless correct in his statement (“History,” p. 100): “These islands did not lie in the track of the Spanish galleons, for on leaving Acapulco they steered southwesterly so as to pass far .to the south of them, and on their return voyage they sailed northward till they reached thirty degrees of latitude, and then ran before the westerly winds till they approached the coast of North America. This was fortunate for the Hawaiians, who thus escaped the sad fate of the natives of the Ladrone or Marianne Islands.”

But this “fortunate escape” must have been an extremely narrow one, for we learn from the same accurate historian that in December, 1527, one of Saavedra’s squadron was doubtless wrecked on the western coast of Hawaii. Also in the year 1555, Juan Gaetano actually discovered Hawaii, Maui, and three smaller islands, which he named respectively, La Mesa, La Desgraciada, and Los Monjes, by which names they appeared on Spanish charts, but located ten degrees too far east.

The Spaniards carefully kept silence about their discovery of Hawaii, but for some unknown reason suffered 220 years to pass without seeking to gain further knowledge of this group. This neglect of the Spaniards was a most singular and almost unaccountable fact, but their failure to explore and occupy Hawaii must be deemed a fact of inestimable advantage to the commercial, and especially to the religious, future of these islands.

One may perhaps conjecture that by 1555 Spain was too much occupied in consolidating her existing conquests on the Pacific not to postpone any additional labors of that kind, and that her political depression following the destruction of the Armada finally incapacitated her from looking in the direction of Hawaii, so that all she could do would be to maintain a long silence upon the existence of so possibly important a strategic point. May it perhaps be true that the destruction of the Spanish Armada was the salvation not only of England and of Protestantism in Europe and America, but also saved Hawaii from being early wrecked by Spanish tyranny and the Spanish Inquisition?

At any rate, Hawaii and its people were saved from a most disastrous fate. One may imagine that fate by reading Kingsley’s “Westward Ho !” with its ghastly pictures of the maltreatment of the Indians around the Caribbean, or Prescott’s “Conquest of Mexico” and “Conquest of Peru.” Hawaii was mercifully spared the invasion of the Spaniard, with his merciless warriors and even more cruel priests. The bitter and relentless popery which cursed Spanish America never entered Hawaii. The tortures and burnings of the Spanish Inquisition failed to be established in these happy isles, although when Cook landed at Kealakekua its racks and fires were in full activity in every Spanish province of the Pacific coast, from Chili to Mexico.

It certainly was a marvelous advantage that Hawaii was preserved untouched and unknown, a virgin land, until the Spanish power had become decrepit, and the Pacific had begun to be occupied by English and American commerce. Beyond the native idolatry, which that commerce soon brought into disrepute among the simple-minded islanders, there was no obstacle barring out the pure religion of Christ. Especially was there no stern popery and its inquisition to prohibit and burn the Holy Bible. Hawaii was preserved apart until the very eve of the day when Protestant lands were to awake to their privilege of sending abroad missionaries of Christ to heathen lands.

In this wonderful preservation of this strategic center of the Pacific for gospel conquest, one is led to discern a special divine Providence, which was followed by a remarkable succession of other events all working to the same result.

2. The Consolidation of Government by Kamehameha.
(from February 1904 issue of The Friend)

Next in order, we must be impressed by the immense advantage for the gospel conquest of Hawaii secured by the complete suppression of the disorders of war, and the thorough establishment of orderly government in Hawaii by the great conqueror, Kamehameha.

Long prior to the discovery in 1778, and for twenty years after, the disturbances and ravages of internecine wars in Hawaii constituted a destructive condition, which, if continued, would have been most untoward for the propagation of the gospel among them. Moral, mental, and social culture require public order and peace, as much as garden and grain crops require fencing and shelter. The inroads of murderous hordes of warriors must be as fatal to all such culture and progress as the trampling of a herd of buffaloes would be to prairie farming, or of swine to a vegetable garden. The wonderfully rapid growth of Christian faith and education, which in twenty years transformed the Hawaiian nation, would have proved impossible under the warlike conditions which prevailed before Kamehameha’s conquest.

An illustration of such impediments is notable in the long delayed progress, forty years later, in Christianizing the Gilbert Islands, where the people were frequently at war and cruel invasions arose between the islands. Little thorough or efficient progress was accomplished until the strong hand of Great Britain enforced order and law. Just so it was the powerful grasp of Kamehameha which reduced the whole Hawaiian people into quiet and orderly subjection.

In view of the propitious order and peace which for twenty years before the arrival of Christianity in Hawaii had, under Kamehameha, succeeded ages of warfare, we seem justly to recognize in him a remarkable instrument of God’s providence raised up to “prepare the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight.” It seems as truly so as when Cyrus was raised up to deliver Israel from Babylon, or Caesar to reduce the world into peace for the coming of the Christ.

Not long after the discovery of Hawaii in 1778, Kalaniopuu died. After much warfare Kamehameha became the most powerful of the chiefs of the great island. But violent and destructive wars ensued from 1782 to 1791, before he became master of the whole of that island on the death of Keoua, the king of Kau. Although that event was accomplished by treachery, it secured the first consolidation of government on the island.

Three more years, however, followed of violent warfare with Kahekili, the king of Maui, after whose death, in 1794, Kamehameha ravaged and subdued Maui and Molokai with the aid of guns and powder handled by the skill of his white lieutenants, John Young and Isaac Davis. Meanwhile the benevolent explorer Vancouver had vainly sought to mediate between the warring chieftains and negotiate lasting peace. Kamehameha was firmly determined on complete conquest of the group.

In 1795 Kamehameha seized a most favorable opportunity and invaded Oahu. The battle of Nuuanu Valley completed the conquest of the group, the king of Kauai tendering submission. This final conquest of Oahu owed much to a favorable juncture, due to the brutish folly of the king Kalanikupule, which disarmed his forces at the critical time. But still more was due to the martial vigor and skill of Kamehameha, who used to the best advantage the guns and powder of the foreigners, and pursued a determined line of policy with a steadfast purpose.
And Kamehameha was not only a victorious warrior; he was also a wise and efficient statesman. He did not merely beat down and destroy the enemies of his supremacy in the group; he also established and consolidated a high degree of quiet and wholesome order.

While despotic, he proved in the main a wise and beneficent ruler. With a strong hand he suppressed violence, murder, and brigandage. He encouraged labor and improvements of roads, water courses, and fish ponds. The people lived in peace, and enjoyed much of the fruit of their labors. Trade flourished. Foreigners were protected and resided in Hawaii in security. It was a marked indication of this king’s superior nature that he accepted the advice, and even reproofs, of such white assistants as Young, Davis, and Parker, and that they were content to spend their lives in his service.

Thus a completely strong and healthy condition of public affairs had been maturing for twenty years before death ended this remarkable reign. When the gospel came, it found the Hawaiian nation living in peaceful order and quiet, without thought of revolt. They were thus prepared to give hospitable reception to the new and beneficent light. A wonderful preparation had been accomplished for the planting of Christianity. In Kamehameha an extraordinary instrument had been provided for this work. He stands as one of a marvelous chain of special provisions for a speedy conquest of Hawaii by the gospel.

(Bishop wrote of seven areas of providence in the Christianization of Hawai‘i, watch for additional posts of his series that appeared in The Friend newspaper.)

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