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“The Isles Shall Wait For His Law”

May 2024
16min read

So the Bible said, but American missionaries found Hawaii a paradise where pleasure reigned, and the sense of sin was difficult to teach

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.

International rivalry over the control of Hawaii had already begun. When Captain George Vancouver visited the Islands in 1794, his lieutenant, Peter Puget (in whose honor Vancouver had named Puget Sound), had raised the British flag and taken possession of Hawaii in the name of his mad king, George III. If Britain had held on, the Hawaiian Islands would now be as British as Bermuda. But the home government never recognized the claim.

Russia was also interested in the Islands as a source of supply for its Alaskan fur posts. Dr. Georg Schelfer had even begun to build a Russian fort at Honolulu in 1816—without the permission of King Kamehameha. Driven oil the Islands alter brazenly erecting another Russian fort on Kauai, Scheffei finally returned to Russia where he vainly tried to persuade the Czar to seize them.

Meanwhile another Russian ship was visiting Hawaii. Its commander, Captain Vasili Mikhailovich Golovnin, wrote in the account of his world tour: Were it possible to introduce the Christian faith and the art of writing among the Sandwich Islanders, they would in one century reach a state of civilization unparalleled in history. But it is not easy to introduce an outside religion to a strong and free race!

To introduce a new religion to Hawaii seemed indeed a hopeless task. Life in Hawaii was hedged about with taboo. A man could not eat at the same table with his wife, or even under the same roof. Women were forbidden to eat many of the choicest foods in the limited Hawaiian diet, including pork, bananas, and coconuts. Even to touch the clothing of a chief, or to let one’s shadow fall on him, meant death. When periods of ritual silence were imposed by the priests who controlled this system, a man might have his eyes scooped out and his limbs broken before being put to death for an offense so small as letting a dog bark. Human sacrifices to the gods were frequent.

Yet the taboo system did regulate many aspects of life, such as fishing and planting, so as to preserve precious resources. And it fostered a yearly festival five months long when everyone took a holiday from all but the most necessary tasks and indulged in the many sports which the islanders were so fertile in inventing—surfboarding, canoe-racing, sham battles. And of course the hula, which gracefully fused poetry, dance, music, religion, and history.

The group from New England had known how slender was their chance of being welcomed ashore to such a culture. Yet they had risked everything to come. Now, as they waited for the boat to come back, doubt and fear crowded the emptiness of that long delay. Finally, after three hours, the boat came bouncing over the waves. Hunnewell heaved himself aboard the Thaddeus , and as the mission group gathered about, he told the whole amazing story in a few short breaths: “Kamehaineha is dead—his son Liholiho is king. The kapus [taboos] arc abolished—the images are burned, the temples destroyed. There has been war. Now there is peace.” He had hardly told his story when a fleet of outrigger canoes, crowded with people, put out from shore loaded with gifts of fruit.

Lucy Thurston, her bright eyes wide with interest, looked out a cabin window to see a canoeful of near-naked men and women gazing in at her. Never before had they seen a white woman. They gave her a banana, and in return she handed them a ship’s biscuit.


“Wahine maikai!” they shouted at her. “Good girl!” Delighted to understand the first Avoids spoken to her—thanks to shipboard lessons the group had been taking—she passed out more biscuits. But in her excitement the only Hawaiian she could think of was to repeat “ Wahine .”

When the brig reached Kawaihae Bay, a crowd of chiefs and their numerous wives came aboard. Both men and women duels were huge, weighing from 250 to 400 pounds—each. One of the old queens, taking a fancy to pretty, aristocratic-looking Lucia Holman, motioned her to a capacious lap and commenced to feel her all over. “Eat and grow big,” she counseled.

The next day being Sunday, Hiram Bingham, a farm boy from Bennington, Vermont, who had wooed a girl just in time to marry her and thus qualify himself as a member of the mission, preached on the text: “The isles shall wait for His law.” Prime Minister Kalanimoku came aboard with his wives, stayed through service, and slept. Whether he slept during the sermon, thus becoming the first Hawaiian to adopt an old Christian custom, the record docs not say.

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.

If they could not control the sailors, men from their own homeland, how could they hope to make Christians of the Hawaiians? So reasoned Bingham and his colleagues. As they went about setting up schools and churches, as they invented a written language and for the first time put the spoken tongue into print, as they translated the whole Bible into Hawaiian and printed it, translated hymns into the Hawaiian idiom and taught the people to sing Western-style music, as they diligently clothed a people who had gone happily naked and led them to establish strange laws, as they taught them something about trade so that they would not be mercilessly cheated, encouraged them to grow varied crops where they had been content with few before—as they did all these things, they aroused hatred in all those Westerners who had depended upon the ignorance, indolence, or easygoingness of the Hawaiians to get what they wanted out of them.

The conflict, always simmering, came frequently to a boil. In 1826, Jack Percival, a bold, daredevil sort of fellow in command of the U.S. naval schooner Dolphin , found on his arrival in Honolulu that the chiefs had established laws to prevent drunkenness and debauchery. This did not prevent him from supplying himself with a girl, but it did prevent women from going aboard ships in the harbor in crowds as they had in the past, lounging in comfortable half-nakedness amongst admiring sailors. Often when a ship left the harbor, it would be crowded with girls who rode well out to sea, then dove into the water and swam about like mermaids before striking out for the shore.

Bingham had finally persuaded the chiefs to put an end to all this. When Percival learned that women had been tabooed for sailors, he called it an insult to the United States, demanded an audience with the chiefs, and threatened to shoot Bingham. When he asked the chiefs who had taught them that women must be tabooed, the big old queen Kaahumanu replied with dignity: “It is God.”

Percival gave a scornful laugh. “It was by Bingham,” he said. Again he demanded women, as in former times.

“In former times, before the word of God arrived here, we were dark-minded, lewd, and murderous. At the present time we are seeking a better way,” Kaahumanu told him.

On Sunday afternoon, February 26, sailors from Percival’s ship poured ashore, forced their way into the prime minister’s house, smashing windows on their way, and caught Hiram Bingham as he was attempting to enter his own bolted door. When a sailor aimed a heavy blow at his head, however, Lydia, the queen’s sister, jumped to Bingham’s side to ward off the blow. Then other Hawaiians entered the fray with something of their old-time love of a fight, and the sailors were driven off. But two days later the governor of the island, without the permission of the other chiefs, canceled the taboo.

A crowd of women went out to the Dolphin , which remained in port for a month. Two of the girls’ schools run by the mission were entirely depopulated.

Sadly the mission had to conclude that improving the “native females” in manners and dress and then teaching them English only made them more attractive to sailors.

So the mission lost this round in its battle against Hawaiian easygoingness and the determination of the sailors. But it had gained the confidence of the chiefs, who now saw that while others were looking out for their own interests, the missionaries truly had the welfare of the people at heart and would even risk their own lives in the cause.

As time went on, the king (a new one, for Liholiho —Kamehameha II—had gone to England, where he died of measles) and his advisers came to rely more and more on the mission, and especially on Hiram Bingham, to establish schools and churches throughout the Islands, for advice in dealing with foreign governments, and for counsel in dealing with the foreigners who had settled in Hawaii and thought themselves above Hawaiian law.

The mission influence infuriated men like Richard Charlton, the British consul. Charlton, a beefy-faced former sea captain with an irascible temper, often behaved as if the Islands were his private property. When the chiefs, toward the end of 1827, passed laws against murder, theft, rum-selling, prostitution, and gambling, he exploded. Outlaw rum, prostitution, and gambling—cornerstones of prosperity? Charlton, wrapping himself in the banner of freedom, asserted that no laws could be passed until the British king had approved them. So the chiefs backed down. They outlawed only murder, theft, and adultery.

Charlton continued to harass the chiefs. He let his cow destroy the tender young taro shoots in neighboring fields. When native cows had wandered into his fields, he had killed them without warning. Now a Hawaiian, who had seen the consul’s cow ravage his fields once too often, shot and killed her. Charlton dragged the man at rope’s end behind his horse into town, nearly killing him. He made outrageous demands upon the chiefs, who told him that even if the man had done wrong, it was for the government to punish, not for Charlton to take the law into his own hands.

“Have compassion on a nation of little children, very small and young, who are yet in mental darkness,” they begged him, “and help us to do right, and follow with us that which will be for the best good of our country.” But Charlton was not built that way. His personal pique would later bear bitter fruit.

Meanwhile there was trouble with the French. In 1839 a French frigate of war sailed into Honolulu’s harbor. Captain Cyrille LaPlace threatened to flatten the town unless Catholic worship was declared free, French brandy was admitted at a duty no higher than five per cent, and $20,000 to guarantee these demands was immediately turned over to him. He offered safe asylum to all but those villains the missionaries.

The chiefs had outlawed liquor in the hope of putting an end to the debilitating drunkenness of their people. But they had no army, no weapons. They had to give in. Thereafter one Hawaiian word— palani —meant both “brandy” and “Frenchman.”

After Charlton had let his anger against the mission smolder for years, he departed in 1842 for London, hoping to persuade his government to annex the Islands. No sooner had he left than the man he had appointed consul in his absence, Alexander Simpson, sent a highly colored account of events to Admiral Richard Thomas of the British squadron in the Pacific. The Admiral sent Lord George Paulet to see what it was all about.

Paulet, taking a supercilious attitude toward the chiefs and listening to no one but Simpson, made such outrageous demands that the king finally said: “Let them take the Islands.”

Paulet ran up the British flag, demanded $80,000 in damages though he had sustained none, destroyed every Hawaiian flag in the Islands, and ran the government to suit himself.

Again the chiefs relied on the Yankee missionaries to pull them through. They had already sent a mission member, William Richards, to present their case in Washington and London. Dr. Gerrit Judd, also of the mission, had become their chief counselor after Bingham had been forced to return home because of ill health—his own and his wife’s. But Judd at last could stand no more of Paulet’s behavior and resigned his office, after first carrying the public archives into the royal tomb, where he hoped they would be safe from the British.


On July 26, 1843, Admiral Thomas sailed into port, alarmed by reports of Paulet’s behavior. Where Paulet had been haughty, Thomas was the soul of courtesy. And he immediately promised to restore the Islands to independence if the rights of British subjects were guaranteed. On July 31 all Honolulu crowded the parade ground, now known as Thomas Square, in the Admiral’s honor. Four hundred British marines in their white, tight-fitting trousers and scarlet coats marched briskly onto the field. As the broad Hawaiian banner with its crown and olive branch was unfurled in the soft sea breeze, all the ships in port roared a salute that was echoed by the guns high on top of Punchbowl, the extinct crater behind the town.

“The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness,” said the king that afternoon at a service of thanksgiving in the big stone church that Bingham had designed and built in downtown Honolulu. The king’s words became the motto of Hawaii.

Dr. Judd now went to work to put the government in order once more. Under the leadership of mission advisers the chiefs next established a constitutional monarchy. In 1845, with solemn ceremony, the first legislature convened in the big coral stone church, and the king read his speech from a throne covered with one of the splendid old royal cloaks of yellow and crimson feathers.

For twenty-five years now the missionaries, reinforced by many additions to that first small band, had labored to save the Hawaiians from extinction, to educate both their minds and spirits, to draw them to the religion of Jesus, and to make the strictest kind of moral conduct, as they conceived it, the law of the land. Yet, despite all they could do, the Hawaiians died off at a fearful rate, unable to survive foreign diseases, clothing, and liquor.

In sum, therefore, the efforts of the missionaries in the Islands had been both a huge success and a dismal failure, depending on how one viewed the result. They had made Hawaii a literate nation. They had established a government fit to cope with the great powers. They had built schools and churches. They had, in 1838, led one of the most remarkable religious conversions in Christian history, when Hawaiians by the hundreds and thousands poured into the churches, confessed their sins, and resolved to lead new lives.

It all began on Hawaii, “the big island,” when the Reverend Titus Coan was preaching repentance at an outdoor meeting. Suddenly a man burst into fervent prayer. The sword of the spirit, he said, was thrusting him through and through. Tears streamed down his face as he said, “Lord have mercy on me; I am dead in sin.”

Others began to weep aloud, to tremble and to pray. For twenty minutes the preacher could not make himself heard. Then he tried to calm them.

Like the diseases the white man had brought, religion now swept the Islands. The Hawaiians took religion to their breasts when it offered an emotional substitute for the hula, the chants, and the games that the missionaries had forced them to abandon.

“The presence of the spirit was indicated by the fixed eye, the gushing tear, the quivering lip, the deep sigh, and the heavy groan,” noted Coan, as attentive to symptoms as a good doctor. The response surprised, then startled, and finally scared some of the mission. But not Titus Coan. He was delighted.

“The word fell with power,” he wrote, “and sometimes as the feeling deepened, the vast audience was moved and swayed like a forest in a mighty wind.” Whole families came pouring into Hilo, building little cabins that stretched up from the shore like the tents of an army, so that they could hear Coan preach. His church grew crowded to suffocation, with thousands still outside. On one occasion Coan baptized 1,705 converts at one time with the help of a basin and a whisk broom.

Meanwhile people in the United States were beginning to think that the Islands ought to be admitted to the Union as a state. In 1852 this was proposed in Congress. Dr. Judd even received a private proposal from New York offering $5,000,000 for the Islandsl In 1854 the king authorized negotiations for annexation. When Admiral Theodorus Bailey, U.S.N., sailed into Honolulu in August, he wrote back to his brother: “I hope before I leave to be in part instrumental in adding another Star to the Constellation of the Union —but this is in confidence.”

More than a hundred years passed before Hawaii finally gained that star, though annexation as a territory was achieved in 1898. Without that band of earnest Yankee missionaries who supported the chiefs through every crisis, Hawaii almost certainly would be French or British or Russian today. The mission had so thoroughly established Yankee habits and ways of thought that they entered into the minds of their Hawaiian pupils and made Americanization inevitable. Despite everything that has happened since, the New England influence is still there—in the efficient plantations, many of them founded by mission children, in the system of education, in churches and homes that spring up out of the tropical background looking inalienably New England. Stronger than all the scheming of diplomats and would-be conquerors was the impact of these plain people who had gone forth with the purpose of “raising up the whole people to an elevated state of Christian civilization … and to inculcate the duties of justice, moderation, forbearance, truth and universal kindness.”

It was a good prescription for our first experiment in helping an “underdeveloped” land.

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