Religious Crusades in Polynesia

Karriel Augustin  


The Efforts to Convert Natives Inhabiting Hawaii


The history of missionary efforts has directed the current ideologies that stand in Polynesia today, in which the traditions of Christian teachings have taken root into many of the native cultures.  Christianity has had a great influence on the people of Polynesia.  Its transformation of the people has varied from group to group, and island to island.  The role of the missions in Polynesia was to develop a new mentality among various natives with European ideas.  It also gave native peoples something to identify with in a world of conflicting cultures.  From the Evangelical missionary perspective, it was a way for the natives to formally become a part of the civilized world.  The term ‘Evangelical’ was used to distinguish Protestant missionaries from Catholic missionaries.

The missionary objective was to salvage what was perceived as a ruined race and raise it from its self-destruction.  The native islands became known to the Christian world in 1521 when Ferdinand Magellan crossed the South Sea.  It was the followers of Dominican theologian St. Thomas Aquinas who sought to expand missions from the Indies into the Pacific.  The apostles were mainly Jesuits and Franciscans.  Once the Spanish and the Portuguese developed an idea to enter the Pacific by the Indies, they entered into the great age of exploration and exploitation. The missionaries were driven to settle in the newly discovered Americas because of Spain’s commercial interest.  It was not until 1774 when two Spanish priests traveled east of the Pacific and settled in Tahiti.  This was the first attempt to Christianize an island in the east.  They abandoned their mission a year later because of lack of missionaries.  There were other missionaries that also attempted to expand eastward, but were not successful.  For instance, the Dutch found themselves near the Pacific islands, but were not able to penetrate the South Seas. 

It was left to English Christians and voyagers to expand the “word of God” across the South Seas.  Their claim was to save the natives from perishing in their “heathen” state.  A missionary society was established in 1795 and in 1818 was officially known as the London Missionary Society.  The missionaries set sail on the Duff.  There were thirty of them sent to complete three missions in 1797 at Tongatapu, at Matavai in Tahiti, and at Tahuata in the Marquesas.  The missions that were established at Tongatapu and Tahuata lasted for about two or three years, but the Matavai mission lasted longer and became the foundation for the London Missionary Society to flourish in the South Seas.  Other European missionaries followed and established themselves in the Leeward Islands.  Christian philosophy began to make its way through Polynesia.

When Christian ideology took root in Tahiti, Protestant Christianity was formally conceived and the changes were spreading in and out of the Tahitian boundaries.  The missionaries shaped natives into following their example, which was to preach the “word” to other natives.     Soon after, some indigenous Tahitians went to Tongatapu to redeem other natives from their sinful ways.  A European missionary group known as the Wesleyans felt the “grace and mercy of God” was due to the Lau islands, a few miles outside of Tahiti.  

Controversies arose between missionary societies when it came to mission settlements.

For instance, the Tahitian missionaries were originally set to go to the Lau islands, until the Wesleyans detained them at Tongatapu.  This group forced the missionaries to stay and do their missions at Tongatapu.  Then the Wesleyans took what was suppose to be the Tahitian’s mission in Lakeba.   In addition, in 1836 a bitter dispute arose between Wesleyan and London Missionary Society about which mission should remain in Samoa.  The outcome of this dispute was that the Wesleyans would occupy Samoa. 

Another missionary society that came about to make Christian ethics known was the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.  This mission organization was established at the Hawaiian Islands, in 1820.  Almost thirty years after Protestant missions in Polynesia, Roman Catholic missionary activity arrived in Hawaii.  Their presence was not welcomed because they came into conflict with the indigenous government and American missionaries.  Hence, other religious sects entered the South Seas, in 1844, such as Mormons (Latter Day Saints) and breakaway Mormon groups (Josephite or Reorganite Church). 

The epoch in which Christian missions rose became known as the revival period, a rebirth.  By 1860 a new era of Christianity had taken root; and, in fact, Polynesia became so well-structured religiously that new missionaries were rarely longer sent.   The missionaries transformed the native peoples into "civilized" peoples. 

Many missionaries were genuine in their efforts to teach the natives about what they felt the truth was.  As messengers they believed that they were fulfilling what biblical scriptures prophesied and dictated.  Isaiah 42:4 inspired the spread of Christian ethics: “He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set judgment in the earth: and the isles shall wait for his law.”  As the Wesleyan Methodist Magazine of 1834 puts it, “The Gospel when preached by Missionaries . . . has been made equally instrumental in raising the degraded Heathen, and bringing them to the saving knowledge of the true God…and the divine sanction with which the labors of each have been thus honored has afforded demonstration that…both hold the great and vital and saving doctrines of the Gospel” (Gunson 29).   

How One Man Became a Messenger of Grace  

Church on Mauke

Reverend Hiram Bingham, before becoming a missionary was a farmer.  He expected to be a farmer on his father’s Vermont field all his life, but such was not his fate.  His initially did not want to be a missionary because he would have to go to college, but he found encouragement through friends.  He was influenced into looking into Missionary work at the age of twenty-two, in the 1820s.     Having this support, he began to be motivated from within and heard a voice command, “Go ye into all the world” (Loomis 13).  He attended the American Board Missionary School.  His motto was “The Lord…must direct….Let him do with me whatsoever seemeth good in his sight” (Loomis 15).  He felt was able to educate the “heathens.”  His tenacious attitude drove him to be nominated a leader of the missions in Hawaii in 1820.  “The American Board Mission would not send out a press without a printer” (Loomis 12).  He got married six days before he sailed on his mission.   

Questions to Missionary Candidates

Every candidate of mission services was obligated to answer a questionnaire formulated by the missionary society.  Here are some questions from the London Missionary Society form dated 1820:

1.        Are you in communion with any Christian Church; with what church—and how long have you been so?

 2.        Are your sentiments in favor of infant baptism?

3.        State your age, place of birth, and whether your parents are living: if living, has your application their approbation—are they in any degree dependent on you for support?

 4.     What advantages of education, or subsequent improvement, have you enjoyed; and in what manner have you been employed up to the present time? 

5.        What has been the general state of your health since your infancy?

 6.     How long have you had the desire of becoming a missionary to the heathen, and what were the circumstances which first excited such desire?  Has that desire been steady or changeable? 

 7.      Have you seriously weighed the privations, hardships, and dangers to which a Missionary must be exposed to?  Are you willing to make such a sacrifice?

8.      As you must be aware that a wish to engage in Missionary work is in many instances founded on false principles; have you examined your own motives and ends?  Do they approve themselves to your conscience as in the sight of God? 


Members of Evangelical Groups 1797-1860

This section includes a few of the official missionaries, both lay and ordained, sent to the Pacific Islands before 1860.  Biographical details cover place of birth, education, and occupational status at the time of joining, as well as the services they contributed to the missions.

I.  London Missionary Society

Elijah Armitage (1780- ?), born in Manchester, England.  He was a congregational cotton manufacturer and artisan missionary on Tahiti 1821-23, Moorea 1823-33, and Rarotonga 1833-35.  Samuel Harper (1770-1819) grew up in Manchester.  Harper was a mechanic missionary on Tongatapu from 1797-1800.  Matthew Hunkin (1815-88) was a member of the mission church and helper resident on Tuluila and Manu’a (1841-49).  John Youl (1773-1827) was born in London.  He was a Calvinist Methodist itinerant preacher and minister.  He served as a minister in Tahiti from 1801-07. 

II.  Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society

Thomas Adams (1821-85) was a farmer and taught at the Richmond Theological Institution in 1845.  He became an ordained minister two years later and was sent Tongatapu.  John Hunt (1812-48) was a farm worker before he joined the Wesleyan society.  He worked for the Hoxton Theological Institution in 1836, and then became an ordained minister 1840 and went to Fiji.  Joseph Taylor Shaw (1826-94), born in Halifax, Yorkshire, was a schoolteacher for a year in Tongatapu.  Thomas Wellard  (1803-89) was born in Bromley, Kent and worked as a construction worker.  His contribution to the Wesleyan society was his position as assistant missionary in Tongatapu in 1836.  Another contributor was Thomas Wright, an agriculturist on Tongatapu from 1822-29.

III.  American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and Hawaiian Missionary Society

Luther Hasley Gulick (1824-91) was born in Honolulu and worked as a surgeon.  He was part of the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons and Union Seminary.  He became ordained as a minister in 1855 practicing his faith in Ponape.  Benjamin Wyman Parker (1803-77) was born in Reading, Massachusetts.  He attended Amherst College in 1829, and was ordained in 1833 and sent to Nukuhiva and then to Hawaii.  James Bicknell (1829-92) was born in Tahiti.  He was a congregational carpenter at the South Sea Academy.  He became a minister and was sent to Fatuhiva in 1853, Hiavaoa in 1855, and then to Hawaii.                     


Hawaiian Converts' Perspective of the Missionaries

Rev. Abraham K. Akaka:  “I am glad that these missionaries, so often ridiculed and maligned, came to our islands and to our people.  Because of them, we native Hawaiians have fared much better over the one hundred and fifty years than ‘discovered’ natives in Africa, India, the Americas and the other areas of the world.  Rather than bringing extinction and extermination, the missionaries were a people who, like grapes of Canaan long ago, brought joy of heart and gladness of soul to my people.  Their lives and labors are the foundation for Hawaii’s eventual statehood, and for the nickname we are proud to own:  THE ALOHA STATE!"  (1820) 

The natives loved the gospel because it held that they were brothers to the chief, king, and nobles as well as the foreigners to Hawaii.  They also loved the Beatitudes:  “Blessed are the poor…for theirs is the kingdom…Blessed are the humble…for they shall be given much land…Blessed are the hungry…for they shall have food.”  The native chiefs also loved the “In the Beginning….” They loved to hear how God separated the light from the darkness; how the waters were gathered together, and the dry land appeared; how herbs and trees, sun and stars, fowl and fishes and beasts came forth; and how at last God took dust of the ground and breathed into it and there was man.  However, The natives realized that in their heathen days they had heard in the chants of their priest another story of creation somewhat the same as the missionary creation story:

       O Kane, O Ku-Ka-Pao
And the great Lono, dwelling on the water,
Brought forth are Heaven and Earth
Quickened, increasing, moving,
Raised up into Continents,
The great Ocean of Kane,
The Ocean with dotted seas,
The Ocean with the large fishes,
And the small fishes,
Sharks and Niuhi,
And the large Hihimanu of Kane
The rows of stars of Kane,
The stars in the firmament…
The large stars,
The little stars,
The red stars of Kane.  O infinite space,
The great Moon of Kane,
The great Sun of Kane
Moving, floating,
Set moving about in the great space of Kane,
The great earth of Kane…


According to Loomis, “in the olden days the poets had sung how Kane and Ku and Lono ‘formed man out of the red earth and breathed into his nose, and he became a living being; mixed earth with the spittle of the gods and formed the head of man out of white clay.’  While Kane and Ku and Lono were creating the man from the earth, the legend went, Kanaloa, the spirit of darkness, tried to make one of his own.  Then Kanaloa, very angry, said to the other, ‘I will take your man, and he shall die.’  And so it happened.  The man was called Kumuuli, the fallen chief” (226).  There were quite some similarities between the Bible creation story and the native story. 

From Taboos to Laws

The missionaries not only brought the word of God, they brought the law.  The chiefs of the island sought to have the whole islands governed or ruled under ten laws.  The Mosaic Law or the Ten Commandments were to be used as the laws to be followed by all.   The new rule of government eventually eroded the ancient system of taboo.   

Missionaries were significant in the politics of Hawaii by guiding the ruling class to a new program of centralization.  The political structure of Hawaii was centralized by a ruling order, in which the king was the head authority of the island.  The leading chiefs were somewhat of a quasi-legislative branch of this new Hawaiian system.  The leading chiefs made the Ten Commandments a framed rule of law, which all Hawaiians were to abide by, and natives who were caught practicing the old ways of the land would be condemned.  These laws contained the essence of a criminal code and reflected the supreme power of the king, as well as the regulated Christian duties.  As the law codes helped to support the traditional authority maintain stability in the land, there was little opposition from the chiefs. 

The missionaries and the king had close rapport.  This was a tactic used by the missionaries to gain control over the island.  The king governed over all, which made him the perfect asset to civilize the land.  Missionaries even advised the king on regulation of trade and diplomatic relations with European and Asian nations.  William Ellis, the Secretary of the London Missionary Society, believed that “true civilization and Christianity were in separable; the former has never been found but as a fruit of the latter” (Gunson 269). 

For the missionaries, the term civilization as an achieved state was the outward sign of an interior process.  The dynamics of such a process included law, commerce and technology, which were the visible aspects of a spiritual renovation of a nation and its people.  In other words, “the essence of a civilized community is not hidden in the hearts of human beings, where God’s redeeming power is mysteriously at work; instead it is manifest[ed] in architecture, commerce, science, and government.”   



Herbert, T. Walter.  Marquesan Encounters.  Harvard University Press (Massachusetts and England 1980), 52-53.

Loomis, Albertine.  Grapes of Canaan: Hawaii 1820.  Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society (Hawaii 1951).  All references to this book are cited parenthetically.

Gunson, Niel.  Messengers of Grace.  Oxford University Press (Melbourne 1978).  All references to this book are cited parenthetically.



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