The Christian Heritage In Hawaii

Susan Page
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Wednesday - April 05, 2006
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When I go to church this Sunday, I plan to say a little prayer of thanks for Henry Opukaha’ia. Were it not for Henry, Christianity may not have come to Hawaii at just the right time. As an orphaned teen, he fled to a fledgling country called America to escape a harsh “kapu” system, and became the catalyst for the first missionaries to Hawaii.

Born around 1792 in Ka’u on the island of Hawaii, Henry surely had a guardian angel. After a fierce battle between rival tribes, Henry’s family were all killed and, according to an account by Chris Cook, “Henry tried to run with his infant brother on his back, but the infant was killed by a spear intended for him.”

After a few years under an uncle’s control, Henry swam out to a ship that was ultimately headed for New York. On the long voyage, he and a Hawaiian friend, Thomas Hopu, met a Yale student from Connecticut, who taught them some English. Once in America, the ship’s captain had the boys work in his home in Connecticut, but Henry, after befriending students from Yale, desperately wanted more. After literally crying on the steps of one of Yale’s buildings because “nobody gave him learning,” he was discovered by the brother of Yale’s president, Dr. Timothy Dwight, and his formal education began.

During this time, Henry became a devout Christian, and it was his deep wish to learn to read the Bible so that, according to Cook, “he might bring the Gospel to Hawaii.”

Mind you, at this early time, no Christian missionaries had ventured outside America. But Henry’s weeping on the steps became widely known and, after studying at Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, he began to speak in churches across New England. Support for his dream of Hawaii missionary work grew.

Now adept at Hebrew and English, he translated the book of Genesis into Hawaiian and even wrote Memoirs of Henry Obookiah (Obookiah was the Anglo translation of Opukaha’ia). But sadly, Henry died of typus fever before realizing his vision. Still, his book became a huge best seller read by hundreds of thousands and brought widespread support for the very first mission to Hawaii. The missionaries landed at Kailua-Kona in April of 1820, coincidentally (or divinely timed?) during the short period when Hawaii was in a religious void just after Kamehameha II banished the kapu system following Kamehameha the Great’s death. Henry’s friend Thomas Hopu was among them.

At last week’s Hawaiian Island Ministries (HIM) conference, I ran into Leon Siu of “Leon and Malia” award-winning musical fame. He reminded me of Hawaii Christian Heritage Week April 2-9, which he and others spearhead to coincide with the first missionary landing on Hawaii.

I was ashamed to admit - even to myself - that I really wasn’t up to speed on Hawaii’s Christian heritage. My only source, James Michener’s epic classic Hawaii, dealt harshly with the Christian missionaries, who, at least in fiction, were rigidly incompatible with a wild and free island culture. Hollywood further perpetuated this negative view of early Christian influence on Hawaii in the movie by the same name. Unfortunately, this is sometimes how we learn history in the United States.

Then I did a little research and found out about Henry Opukaha’ia and the great blessing of his life.

The 2006 Yellow Pages lists hundreds of Christian churches (nearly 600 on Oahu alone). A further search revealed that between 1990 and 2000, Hawaii was the only state in the nation whose Christian church attendance increased. In all other states it declined. That may explain why a Christian conference here attracts more than 4,000 attendees, and the fact that mission trips to as far away as Africa are common by Hawaii Christians. Henry left a great legacy.

The Christian heritage in Hawaii is deep and inspiring. I hope you will celebrate it with me this week.

For more information, go to http://www.hawaiianislands.we/chh or call 488-4669.

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