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“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
But of this the missionaries were sure: at the end of their long journey they had found the prophecy marvelously fulfilled: “The isles shall wait for His law.” On Tuesday, April 4, Bingham and Asa Thurston went ashore at Kailua to call on the young king. They had to crawl through a yard-high door to get into his grass hut, where it was so dark that they could not see him. Gradually, however, they were able to make out an amiable-looking fellow with curly hair and bulging brow. He was surrounded by his five wives, all naked to the waist, all enjoying one of their frequent meals. Of these women, the king’s half sister, Kamamalu, was the most beautiful. When Bingham explained why the mission had come, she said to the king: “Let them stay.”
“Then I can have but one wife,” joked the king, “and you would have to go.”
It was days before the king finally gave his permission, and still longer until the members took up their posts on three of the four principal islands. Then there were more delays as they tried to get some decent accommodation for themselves and their goods. When they finally set up their cookstove in the open air in Honolulu, Hawaiians came running in hordes to watch the young mission wives, clothed from neck to ankles despite the warm climate, wilt over a hot fire.
Bingham, a handsome young man with longish face, high forehead, and determined chin, had been placed in charge of the chief station at Honolulu. He had to use all his diplomacy and more than a little of his stubbornness to get Governor Boki to build the houses the king had ordered. Meanwhile three couples—the Binghams, the Ruggleses, and the Loomises—were hospitably received by several Yankee traders. One of these was a Negro from Sdiencctady who had taken up residence there and who. alter furnishing such a feast as the young couples had not eaten for months, asked in return that Bingham baptize his Hawaiian-Negro children.
The mission wives soon opened a school. Many of the pupils were the children of these same Yankees who, happy to follow the Hawaiian custom, had taken native consorts. Old Oliver Holmes of Plymouth, Massachusetts, for instance, had sired a whole houseful of beautiful daughters. His Hannah proved to be the prize pupil. The mission ladies were delighted with her progress in English until they learned that it might have been due in part to the fact that she had lived with another Yankee trader; she had already borne him one child and was on the way to giving him another.
When the missionaries went to pay calls on prospective parishioners, the host usually offered his wife or daughter. This was Hawaiian hospitality. To refuse was the height of poor manners.
“Other white men who have come here say that this is good, but you are not like other white men,” the host would exclaim.
Patiently the missionaries tried to explain. But their explanations only pulled the Hawaiians, to whom it was obvious that anything which gave pleasure must necessarily be good. The clash of viewpoints grew dramatically clear when Hiram Bingham asked some pointed questions about a hula marathon he had attended. He noticed that at the end of the dance the performers tossed their flower wreaths into a small enclosure near the entrance.
“What is this?” he asked.
“ Akua —god.”
“The hula-hula god.”
“Where is he?”
“There in that little yard.”
“You say he is in this little yard, that these leaves are given to him: but I do not sec him.”
“We cannot see your god Jehovah,” said one of the chiefs.
“True, but He can see us, and He made the heavens and the earth. But does the god of the hula-hula know anything?”
Further questioning revealed the fact that the akua could not see, hear, or speak—that he could, in fact, do nothing at all.
“What is he good for? Why do you have such a god?”
The answer, though simple, was one Hiram Bingham could not, with all his learning, understand.
“For play,” they told him.
As the missionaries strengthened their influence upon the rulers, they were able to introduce laws against drinking and uninhibited sexual freedom. But when they did this, they collided head-on with American and British sailors who crowded into Honolulu from whaling or trading ships long at sea.