Grove of Kukui Trees, Kauai, 1840 by Thomas T. Agate, depicts Rev. William Alexander, a member of the Fifth Company of ABCFM missionaries, preaching near the beach on Kauai. Courtesy of Mānoa Heritage Center.
The original complete edition of the Bible in Hawaiian was nearly 2,300 pages. The hefty, leather-bound tome became known as “Ka Buke Poepoe” (the fat book). This 1938 version belongs to the Punahou School Archives.
Na Himeni Hawaii, Hawaiian hymnal, 1823, Hawaiian Mission Houses Museum and Archives.
Hawaiians quickly took to reading and writing but were slower to accept Christianity. Ali‘i such as Keōpūolani and Ka‘ahumanu, however, fervently embraced this faith, which enabled the missionaries’ increased influence. Efforts to build churches (funded by the ali‘i), to print hymnals in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i and to translate the Bible drew the populace to the work of the mission.
In 1823, Keōpūolani became the first ali‘i to convert to Christianity after the arrival of the missionaries. Ka‘ahumanu decided also to convert, convinced that the Binghams’ prayers had restored her health in 1821 and that Jehovah had helped her army crush a rebellion on Kaua‘i in 1824.
Ka‘ahumanu may have been drawn to Christianity’s promise of eternal life, or ke ola hou. As Hawaiians continued to perish from foreign diseases, ke ola hou offered the queen an especially tempting promise.1
After Ka‘ahumanu’s conversion in 1825, she, accompanied by the Binghams, circled the islands to encourage Hawaiians to embrace Jehovah.
By 1840, the Protestant church recorded 20,000 conversions, and Hawai‘i officially became a Christian nation.2
“As in traditional times, when the Kahuna Nui [priestly adviser]… also advised on political matters, Bingham’s opinion about the way Hawaiian society should be governed became significant indeed.” — Lilikalā Kame‘eleihiwa, Native Lands and Foreign Desires, p. 139
“If the Protestant understanding of Christianity was to be embraced by Hawaiians, then a Bible in the language of the people was indispensable.” — Jeffery Lyon, “No ka Baibala Hemolele: The Making of the Hawaiian Bible,” p.118
Hiram Bingham led the monumental task of translating the Bible into Hawaiian. After individual efforts at translation, in 1826 Bingham and William Richards gathered a team of at least four other missionaries and five Hawaiian ali‘i and chiefly advisors.
With the seminary-educated missionaries knowledge of the biblical text in Hebrew, Aramaic and ancient Greek, and the Hawaiians’ scholarship in the language and oral literature of Hawai‘i, together they painstakingly worked and reworked each verse of the Bible, aiming for the language to be “clear, stately, and reflect the language as spoken by the ali‘i.”3
At the beginning, only one or two verses were completed in a day. In 1832, the New Testament was printed. By 1839, the complete edition of the Bible in Hawaiian was released.
“The Baibala entered the life of Kānaka as no other book … It became language teacher, textbook, prophet of coming events, source of inspiration and knowledge and protector from evil.” — Jeffery Lyon, “No ka Baibala Hemolele: The Making of the Hawaiian Bible,” p.140
The first churches were thatched hale, but growing congregations evidenced the need for larger, more permanent structures. The first stone church, Mokuaikaua, was completed in Kailua-Kona in 1837.
1n 1838, construction in Honolulu began to replace the thatched Kawaiaha‘o Church with stone. Designed by Hiram Bingham, Kawaiaha‘o was constructed from 14,000 hand-hewn coral slabs, each weighing more than 1,000 pounds. Kawaiaha‘o Church was dedicated on July 21, 1842.
“The reefs [were] literally covered with natives cutting stones for the new meeting house.” — American merchant Stephen Reynolds from his journal
Hymnals and Hymns
Hymns were an enticement for the Hawaiians to attend church services, and the early, prolific printing of Hawaiian language hymnals followed the example learned from Rev. Ellis and the Tahitians.
Missionaries contributed to an enduring body of Hawaiian hymns. These include “Ho‘onani I Ka Makua Mau,” by the Rev. Hiram Bingham (first verse), and the beloved anthem, “Hawai‘i Aloha,” by the Rev. Lorenzo Lyons.
Christianity brought to Hawai‘i a belief system that aided education, literacy and social cohesion. It also established a set of moral and secular values that fundamentally clashed with those of Hawaiian culture. Bans on hula dancing or playing games, the need for sustained labor and piety were difficult for Hawaiians to understand, much less live up to. But the main gap in understanding between Westerners and Hawaiians lay in how they each viewed the land. This difference would become a lightning rod for conflict in the coming decades.
1 Dr. Kame‘eleihiwa, Lilikalā K., Native Land and Foreign Desires, Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, 1992, p. 142.
2 Kuykendall, Ralph S., The Hawaiian Kingdom, Vol. 1, 1778-1854, The University Press of Hawai‘i, Honolulu, 1978, first printed in 1938, p. 115.
3 Lyon, Jeffrey, “No ka Baibala Hemolele: The Making of the Hawaiian Bible,” Palapala Volume I (2017), The University Press of Hawai‘i, Honolulu, 2017, p.118.