- Historic Sites
“The Isles Shall Wait For His Law”
So the Bible said, but American missionaries found Hawaii a paradise where pleasure reigned, and the sense of sin was difficult to teach
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
Almost lost in the general rejoicing over the admission of Hawaii as our fiftieth state was a unique fact: unlike any other United States possession, this string of beautiful islands was first turned toward America neither by money nor by force of arms, but by an entirely unselfish impulse.
The story goes back to the morning of March 30, 1820, when the brig Thaddeus, 159 days out of Boston around the Horn, made the landfall of the Islands. Aboard were nineteen Americans, Newland missionaries and their wives, come to enlighten the pagan inhabitants. The question was: did they Avant enlightenment, or would they resist it to the point of violence? The missionaries had no way of knowing.
Men of the Western world had first seen Hawaii in 1778, when Captain James Cook of the British Navy, stumbling upon it by chance, was welcomed as a god—generously showered with gifts, anointed in one of the great stone temples with chewed coconut, and fed with pre-chewed food by reverent attendants. But on a return voyage to the Sandwich Islands, as he called them, he quarreled with the natives over a stolen boat. After he had shot down a Hawaiian, one of the chiefs grabbed him. Cook struggled, slipped, and fell. A groan escaped him.
“He groans—he is not a god!” cried the islanders, and killed him.
Cook’s body, along with those of four of his marines, was carried away and, after Hawaiian custom, the flesh was removed from the bones. Hawaiian tradition says that his heart was placed in a tree where it was found and eaten by someone who mistook it for that of an animal.
The islanders were not cannibals, though mariners feared they might be. Yet not even this fear had prevented other sailors from coming to a paradise where a nail would buy heaps of food, and any cheap trinket the favors of a Hawaiian maiden. American ships had been calling in growing numbers since the end of the Revolution, and the islands had proved a happy place for Yankee ships plying the Pacific with furs bound for China. Ever since 1811 the ships of John Jacob Astor had been stopping there, and more recently a brisk trade in sandalwood had sprung up. Some sailors liked the Islands so well that they jumped ship, found a willing Hawaiian girl, and entered upon a life of indolent beachcombing. Many a New England sea captain had taken a native wife and raised crops of hapahaole (half-white) children whose half sisters and brothers back home never suspected their existence. But it was still hazardous for the passengers now arriving in the Thaddeus to land here, for they were not traders but missionaries, and they had conic not to savor the joys of Hawaii but to challenge its local gods.
By morning the Thaddeus was coasting along the northeast tip of the island of Hawaii, so close that the passengers could see the rugged shore line, where waterfalls plunged over sheer rock walls into the ocean far below. Beyond the cliffs the land tilted upward, showing bright green fields. Beyond them came a belt of forest, and beyond that the bare volcanic mountains, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.
The nineteen land-hungry passengers leaned on the rail. Their five months’ voyage was over. But what lay ahead of them? Would Hawaii and its people welcome the two ministers, Hiram Bingham and Asa Thurston? The physician, Dr. Thomas Holman? The assistant missionaries, Elisha Loomis, Sam Ruggles, and Samuel Whitney? Would the wives of all these men be welcome, as well as the agriculture instructor, Daniel Chamberlain, with his wife and five young ones?
When Lucy Thurston a few days before had asked Captain Blanchard whether he thought their lives might be taken by the natives, he had answered: “Aside from intoxication which sometimes leads them on to make bold assaults, I think not—in any other way than by the use of poisons.”
With this cheering reassurance in mind, Lucy Thurston—like most of the company still in her twenties—looked across the strip of water to the place which she expected to make her home for life, whether that life be long or short. She could sec the little thatch houses, looking more like haystacks than habitations. Here and there a column of smoke rose into the blight, cloud-studded sky. Someone brought out a telescope, and with its aid men and women could be picked out—“immortal beings,” in the words of the missionaries’ manual, “purchased with redeeming blood.”
The question uppermost in every mind was whether these particular immortal beings would permit this little handful of young men and women from New England to teach, preach, and heal. For the missionaries knew that they were coming to a land where human sacrifice, sorcery, complete sexual freedom, and sudden death without trial to any who offended a chief were the rule of the land. Could Christianity ever be planted here?
At four in the afternoon the brig turned southward. Captain Blanchard now sent a boat ashore, manned by sailors in shiny black tarpaulin hats and black kerchiefs knotted at the neck above red-checked shirts. With them went James Hunnewell, ship’s mate. Anxiously the mission group awaited their return.