Special Providences in the Christianization of Hawai‘i – Part 2
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: —
3. The Timely Summons and Sending of the Missionaries.
(from March 1904 issue of The Friend)
The third, and in view of its exact timeliness fitting the auspicious moment, one of the most notable providences in this series was the peculiar call or summons which led to the dispatch of the band of pioneer missionaries in 1819, so as to arrive at the precise moment when the Hawaiian people were best prepared to receive them.
Like many greater events which have transformed human history, this summons to arise and preach Christ in Hawaii came in a most obscure and humble form. In the year 1809 two poor, dark-skinned, sailor youths were brought to New Haven by a trader, Captain Brintnel (Brintnall). One of these was Thomas Hopu, whom the present writer well remembers as a school-teacher at Kailua from 1830 to 1836. The other, and more notable one, was Henry Obookiah or Opukahaia. He was found weeping on the threshold of one of Yale College buildings because there was no one to instruct him. Rev. E. W. Dwight became his teacher, and soon after the ardent Samuel J. Mills became actively interested in him, and took him to his home in Torringford, and then to Andover, where a deep interest was awakened in the youth, and where Obookiah began to develop an earnest Christian piety. The result was the establishment in Cornwall, Conn., in 1816, by the American Board, of a training school for heathen youth. This opened with twelve pupils, seven of whom were from Hawaii.
Obookiah died early in 1818, after some years of devoted anxiety for the conversion of his Hawaiian brethren. Some of his recorded words were as follows : —
“I hope God will send the gospel to the heathen land, where the words of the Saviour never yet had been. Poor people I worship the wood and stone and shark, and almost everything their god. . . . O, what a wonderful thing it is that the hand of the divine Providence has brought me from the heathenish darkness where the light of divine truth never had been. . . . My poor countrymen who are yet living in the region and shadow of death, … I often feel for them in the night season concerning the loss of their souls. May the Lord Jesus dwell in my heart, and prepare me to go and spend the remaining part of my life with them. But not my will, O Lord, but Thy will be done.”
Obookiah’s death lent a very touching power to his published words, and aroused to action the previously awakened thought of sending a mission to Hawaii. Mr. Hiram Bingham, of Andover Seminary, visiting the Cornwall school, keenly felt the impulse emanating from the departed Obookiah, and his classmate, Asa Thurston, joined him in offering themselves, for that enterprise, to the American Board. In company with five assistant missionaries, and the wives of the seven men, they sailed from Boston in the brig Thaddeus for Hawaii, October 23, 1819. They were to arrive at what proved to be the exact moment when they were most needed, and all was ready for them.
It was solely Obookiah’s intense desire for the salvation of his people, sealed by his early death, that kindled in Hiram Bingham’s heart and in the hearts of his associates the purpose to evangelize Hawaii, and that brought to a focus in that direction the thoughts of the American Board and its supporters. During a few years previous, missions had been sent to the Orient, to India, and to the American Indians. But for Obookiah, Hawaii would scarcely have been considered, at least not urgently. It was the death of this humble youth that lent his words a pathos and insistence which prevailed. Through him a voice was given to be heard and felt from the inarticulate moan of a lovable but dying tribe of childlike people, perishing in a very gross darkness. It became an effectual call of God to enter an open door, which later events have proved to be of high, if not supreme, importance.
In 1819 men had not dreamed of the coming spiritual as well as political importance of Hawaii as the central point of the Pacific in the forefront of Christendom, facing the great pagan empires of the Orient. It was a point to be redeemed and occupied by gospel light and power in view of the coming impact of advancing Christendom upon the ancient paganisms. But what men reckoned not, the Lord of the kingdom foreknew. We may see how he provided for it. Nowhere in human history can the divine hand be more clearly seen than in the call voiced by Obookiah which sent that mission to Hawaii in that year.
4. The door opened by the death of Kamehameha and the Abolition, of Idolatry.
(from April 1904 issue of The Friend)
At the same time that the movement was culminating in New England in consequence of the Obookiah call to send the Gospel to Hawaii, another movement was in progress in the contemplated mission field which wonderfully removed the chief obstacles to the entrance and success of that mission. Never was there a more marked or conspicuous instance of the interposing of the Divine Hand to prosper God’s work.
The greatest obstacle to be feared by the Christian missionaries was in the inveterate attachment of the aged king to his ancient religion. They came to supplant that religion by the law and worship of the one true and Living God. To this purpose they had every reason to expect the most determined hostility of the imperious king. To their wonder and gratitude the first news they heard on arriving was that Kamehameha was dead; the tabus were abolished; the idols were destroyed.
“Kamehameha died,” says Alexander, “May 8, 1819, at the age of 82 years, and in the faith of his ancestors. His faults were those of the age and society in which he lived, and both morally and mentally he stood far above the chiefs of his times.” When dying he humanely refused the proposal of the priests to sacrifice a number of human victims in order to prolong his life. We may humbly hope that such a humane, though heathen, soul found grace and mercy from the tender Father of Mankind.
During the following months the Tabu system crumbled to ruin under the powerful influence of the queen Premier Kaahumanu, seconded by the Queen-Mother Keopuolani. They gradually persuaded the heedless and dissolute young king, Liholiho, to join them in destroying the tabus by publicly feasting with the queens and a large company of both sexes. Seeing no evil follow, the multitudes rejoiced in the breaking of the cruel restrictions. The whole system of idol-worship fell to ruin jointly with the tabus. The high priest, Hewahewa, set the example of setting fire to the idols and their sanctuaries. Under Kaahumanu’s lead, there followed a grand conflagration of idols throughout the Islands, with a jubilee of revelry. The nation stood without religion or gods.
Yet the old gods had one valiant champion, Kekuaokalani, the nephew of Kamehameha, to whom he had committed the care of his trusted war-god, Kukailimoku. This prince, with a considerable following, revolted against the profane and desecrating king and queens, but was destroyed in a fierce battle at Kuamoo, four miles north of Kaawaloa, in Kona. This was about Dec. 20, 1819, while the voyaging missionaries were off the coast of Brazil. It was a time of great convulsion and fears throughout the nation. A prominent aged native of Lahaina, Poholopu, told the present writer in 1881, how his parents prevented him from visiting the beach in August, 1819, from dread of the public commotion and war then in progress on Hawaii. Poholopu was the only available witness to testify to the exact location of De Freycinet’s masonry base for pendulum observations at the date named. It had been deemed necessary to repeat such observations on the same spot. The then youth Poholopu saw the spot but once, owing to the fears of his parents.
So when the Gospel arrived, the great revolution was complete and the door was fully opened for the new light. Leading causes of that momentous revolution were familiarity with foreign visitors, knowledge of their contempt for heathen superstitions, and the report of the abandonment of the same religion by the kindred people of the Society Islands. But these causes were unavailing as long as the old conqueror lived. Kamehameha was profoundly attached to the ancient religion. Worship of the old gods had been the keynote of his policy and his success. And it formed an essential part of his policy of government. He ruled his people largely through their superstitious fears. The priests were his chief allies in the exercise of arbitrary power. For many centuries kingcraft and priestcraft had been helping each other, while priestcraft had been developed and fortified by powerful importations of fresh cults from Tahiti.
Had Kamehameha lived, the Gospel could hardly have found entrance to Hawaii. It would have at once collided with the king’s established policy, and with the obstinacy of old age. Indeed the natural tendency of Christian Light was to restrict and impair arbitrary and despotic power. It is well known how diligently two later kings, Kamehameha V and Kalakaua, sought to resist constitutional restrictions by re-establishing the superstitious fears of the Hawaiians in promoting and systematizing the ancient sorcery, and so bringing the voters into political bondage. The old conqueror was adept in this kingcraft, and could not have surrendered to Christianity..
His death was a providential event, timed to meet the incoming of the new teachers. And their arrival was still farther timely as promptly occupying the vacated field of religion before the antagonistic religion of Rome could take possession. Forerunners of that religion had already reached Hawaii. De Freycinet’s chaplain in August. 1819, baptized two leading royal chiefs, Kalanimoku and Boki, the former of whom soon became a most devout and wise adherent of the Gospel, while the latter became a bitter opponent and adherent of Romanism. In the wonderfully kind and wise Providence of God, everything wrought for the speedy Redemption of Hawaii.