San Francisco News and Tall Tales: 1800s
Missionaries in Hawaii
From 1837 to 1840, nearly 20,000 Hawaiians finally chose to accept Christianity as their new religion. The missionaries translated the Hawaiian language to written form; previously their heritage stories and history were verbally passed from generation to generation. This was the first time they were able to read and write their own language. Schools were established throughout the islands as rapidly as possible. By 1831, only 11 years after the missionaries' arrival, some 52,000 pupils had been enrolled. The missionaries introduced western medicine and undertook the Kingdom's first modern census.
Thursday Morning, April 10, 1851, Daily Alta California, San Francisco
HONOLULU, March 6, 1851
MESSRS EDITORS:--The Missionary body is the most remarkable feature of society in the Sandwich Islands. But with regard to its merits, the foreign residents (for the natives cannot be fairly said to hold an opinion of their own) are divided in opinion. There are two well defined parties in existence, Missionary and Anti-Missionary, both of which seem equally inclined to run into extremes. An impartial statement of the case may be therefore not misplaced, even in a California journal; for owing to the political, in addition to the spiritual agency of this body, American interests are directly concerned in it. But I offer the following observations with some reserve, knowing how difficult it is entirely to free the judgment from the bias of former association, induced by having been long engaged in hot warfare, with printers’ devils for powder monkeys on behalf of missionaries in another country, where they had been oppressed, and most unjustly maligned.
There are two questions to consider in the matter which it is necessary to separate, as they only tend mutually to embarrass each other – a religious and a temporal question – the merits of missionary agency in the conversion of the natives, and its influence in advancing or retarding the political prosperity of the country.
With regard to the introduction of Christianity, too much praise can hardly be bestowed on their efforts. Even those who differ from them in opinion with regard to the expediency of certain measures connected with it must allow that their earnestness and energy of action, should command the thanks of all who have any respect for the cause which the missionaries have undertaken to serve. For it is not a little that they accomplished. Not so much, indeed, as they profess, or even believe themselves to have accomplished; but that the country under their charge has made a great stride in advance, none but the willfully blind can file to see. They have at all events secured the preliminary step, the introduction of the outward forms of religion throughout the country, a most important point to gain. That they have as yet succeeded in making anything more than formalists, or nominal Christians, I do not believe. But neither do I believe that any other set of men could have succeeded better in their place.
The result of my own experience of missionary labor among the heathen, in various parts of the world, is that it takes three generations to make a Christian, in the true sense of the word. Habits of thought are bred in men, as habits of action in the brute creation. But still these labors have approximated to the period of ultimate success, for there is now one generation less to be worked upon.
Of certain errors in judgment by which the morality of their pupils has suffered, I shall take another opportunity to speak, being more anxious for the present to give them heir full meed of honor in their particular vocation, where it is justly due.
But with regard to the temporal advancement of the country, it appears to have been much retarded by the. Civilization (it is the fashion to call it here) would have been equally introduced without their aid. In that the foreign commercial agents have been the main agents from the beginning, and remain so still. But the crowning fault of the missionaries has been political interference.
Unfortunately they have not confined themselves to their legitimate sphere of action; and being fired with a certain Calvinistic zeal which cannot refrain from hurrying into extremes, have been the cause of not a little mischief. By a line of conduct parallel to that of Pitchard, the British Consul, whose intolerance was the prime cause of misfortune to the Tahitians, they brought the country into one very serious difficulty; whilst another cause of dispute (of which the dismantled fort and broken guns still present commemorative evidence) is ultimately traceable to their influence, and is even still involving the government in diplomatic embarrassment. They are, to all intents and purposes, a political priesthood; not, as a body, assuming power openly, but notoriously pulling the strings, like Punch’s showman, behind the scenes, and as unacknowledged agents, therefore irresponsible.
As usual, extremes have met. None will be more surprised than themselves at being accused of anything that savors of Popery; yet the lust of power and the favoring of hierarchy is as strong in the Sandwich Islands as at home. That it is mainly fostered in the Protestant Missionary by an internal conviction that he can turn his influence to good account – that by means of political power he believes himself enabled more effectually to serve the country, must be allowed; but the same concession, in all fairness, must be made to the priest of Rome. Both are actuated by similar feelings, and – so far as missions are concerned – by similar honesty of purpose; for they of the Propaganda at Rome, who wear the red band around the neck in token of willingness to go forth where certain death awaits them, however they may err in doctrine, are surely no self-seekers. And in both there is similar self-deception if they think themselves able to carry out the policy of an enlightened age.
In this the Sandwich Island missionaries are a good half century behind the times. They are not men of the world. It only redounds to their credit that they should not be of it; but, unfortunately, they are so blind to one of their own virtues, as to undertake the management of worldly matters. Unable, from the nature of their arduous task, to see the world – without leisure to make themselves acquainted, even by reading, with sublunary matters, they dwindle into narrow mindedness, and nurse the growth of sectarian prejudices which utterly unfit them from moving onwards with the age. And the consequent dislike in which they are held by so many of the foreign residents, who care little for the conversion of Kanakas, but are sincerely anxious for the advancement of the country, because they themselves are carried onward with it, is strong corroboration of what I have here advanced. "Illiberality" and "want" of "Christian Charity" are the mildest expressions applied to the clerical politicians; and it must be confessed that the former term, at all events, is not unjustly used.