Thursday, April 11, 2024

The Best Christian Movie yet to be Filmed

 The best Christian Movie that has yet to be made. Here is a paper I wrote for one of my classes at Wheaton College over a decade ago about one of the most central figures in the history of modern missions that very few people know about.

Triumph: The Life of Henry Opukahaia by Ian Smith

The generous heart of Opukahaia, touched by divine grace, glowed with gratitude to God and his people for the Christian privileges which he was allowed to enjoy, and melted in compassion for his heathen brethren, at his dark home, though their violence had made him an orphan. His ardent, growing desire to use his improved powers in conveying the gospel to his perishing countrymen, gave high promise of his usefulness among them, if in the providence of God, he should return to his native shore. -Hiram Bingham. (Richards, 86)

         In the summer of 1806, five young men from Williams College in Williamstown Massachusetts took shelter from a thunderstorm in the shadow of a haystack--they had met to debate the theology of missions and instead found themselves praying fervently for the nations. It was around this same time on the other side of the globe that another young man watched as his aunt was thrown to her death from a high precipice. This young man was Henry Opukahaia (Obookiah) a native of Hawaii, and he had more than once been providentially spared from the tribal warfare which had claimed all of those that he loved and cared for.  His friend and biographer Edwin W. Dwight would later write of this incident, “now feeling himself more than ever alone, as soon as the enemy had retired he ran toward the fatal spot, resolved to throw himself over and die... But he was discovered by one of the chiefs... who ordered two men to pursue him and bring him back. He was overtaken just before he reached the precipice, carried back to the quarters of the enemy and mercifully saved for purposes which will appear in the subsequent history.” (Dwight, 5)  What do the prayers of these five young men and the life of Opukahaia have to do with each other? Quite a lot. Within a few short years Henry would be living with the president of Yale College, Timothy Dwight. It was in the room of a Yale student named Edwin Dwight that the leader among those five young men, Samuel J. Mills Jr. would meet Opukahaia at the cusp of another seminal moment in the history of missions--the founding of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The lives of these youths would henceforth be intertwined, and together they would influence the development of missions in the United States and ultimately to the ends of the earth. The story of Samuel J. Mills and the haystack prayer meeting has been recounted with great delight in modern missions circles--unfortunately the life of Henry Opukahaia has become little more than a footnote in most history texts. With the changing nature of missions in the twenty-first century, it is imperative for us to rediscover the workings of God in the history of American missions, particularly the role that non-Westerners played in the development of American missions in the 19th century. We ask the question, what does one life amount to in the economy of God? What was the significance of this young boy’s life in the greater scheme of the Lord’s extension of His church among the nations?

         In 1778 British explorer James Cook first visited the Hawaiian Islands and opened them to the West. The stories of James Cook’s travels stirred the heart of a man named William Carey--William would ultimately depart from England bound for India in 1793 and usher in the modern mission era. As a result of Carey’s writings and personal example, many in England followed, and soon there were English missionaries traveling in all directions under the Gospel banner. The United States, independent for only one generation, was slow to follow the English example. But God would again used the nation of Hawaii to energize the people of America and mobilize many for the Kingdom of God.

         Paul called himself an Apostle abnormally born--the story of Opukahaia’s life begins in 1792 in an abnormal fashion as his name means 'cut from the stomach' indicating that he was most likely born through cesarean. Opukahaia’s story is one of many twists and turns and providential interventions. In his memoir his earliest recollections regard the death of his parents in inter-tribal warfare. Fleeing from a battle, Opukahaia’s father took refuge in his village--but the enemy pursued him. When the enemy approached, Opukahaia’s father took his him, his mother and his two-month old brother and fled into the forest. The small family hid for some days in a cave, but when they came out to drink from a spring, they were again let upon by their enemies--Opukahaia, his mother and brother were captured, but his father was able to escape. They immediately started to torture his mother, and her cries brought his father back out from among the trees. “Unable to bear the piercing cries of his family, again he appeared, and fell into their hands, and with his wife, was cut into pieces.”(Dwight, 2) Opukahaia took the opportunity given to him and with his baby brother on his back ran from the scene of their death. Before he was able to get far the baby on his back was run through with a spear. Within the span of a few minutes his entire immediate family was taken from him before his eyes.

         Opukahaia was then carried captive back to the village of the attacking tribe where he was taken into the house of the man who killed his father. There he lived for some time, maybe as long as two years, until his uncle, a well known priest on the island redeemed him and took him into his own home. Here he abode for some time learning the trade of his uncle as a religious leader. “In pursuance of this purpose, he taught him long prayers, and trained him to the task of repeating them daily in the temple of the idol. This ceremony he sometimes commenced before sunrise in the morning, and at other times was employed in it during the whole or the greater part of the night. [These prayers] regarded the weather, the general prosperity of the island, its defense from enemies, and especially the life and happiness of the king.”(Dwight, 3) This early education in his native religion probably played a significant role in his later desire to understand Christianity and his yearning for education. Otherwise, this part of his life was characterized by a great loneliness at the lose of his family, as he recounted later, “No; poor boy am I. And while I was at play with other children, after we had made an end of playing, they returned to their parents, but I was returned into tears; for I have no home, neither father, nor mother. I thought of nothing more, but want of father or mother, and to cry day and night.”(Spring, 46)

         The next moment of importance to our narrative is the death of Opukahaia’s aunt as already discussed--because of her death he was so disconsolate that he attempted suicide. After his failed suicide attempt he was once being redeemed from his enemies by his uncle, and afterwards he resolved that if at all possible he would leave his country where he had been witness to so much death and suffering. It was at this time, when he was about fifteen years of age that he saw an American sealing ship in Kealakekua Bay stopping over on its way to China from the sealing grounds in the North Pacific. Impulsively he swam out to the ship and was able to secure a spot on board--this ship was the Triumph from New York, commanded by Captain Caleb Britnall. After some fighting among his relatives, his uncle consented him and Opukahaia left, hoping to find a better life outside of Hawaii. “My parting was disagreeable to them and to me, but I was willing to leave all my relations, friends and acquaintances; expected to see them no more in this world.”(Dwight, 8) From these statements it is possible to interpret that because of the tragedies he had experienced he had no desire to see his native land again--in a way this was like his attempted suicide, it was an escape from all of the pain which he had experienced as a boy in that land. Another young Hawaiian named Thomas Hopu (Hopoo) signed on as a cabin boy and the two set out together on a journey that would take them to Macao before landing them in New England.

         It was on board the Triumph that Opukahaia had his first extensive interactions with a devoted Christian--a young man named Russel Hubbard, a graduate of Yale College who was serving on the ship. Russel took an interest in Opukahaia and started teaching him some elementary English. In his own words Opukahaia remembered this budding friendship, “He was a friend of Christ. Christ was with him when I saw him, but I knew it not... Mr. Hubbard was very kind to me on our passage, and taught me the letters in English spelling-book.”  (Dwight, 8)

         The Triumph landed at New York in August of 1809--having set out on their journey in January of 1807. Both Thomas Hopu and Henry Opukahaia moved into the home of Captain Britnall in New-Haven Connecticut. It seems that Captain Britnall had fully intended on taking these youths back to Hawaii as soon as he set out again--but they would not have it. Opukahaia started to make more friends among the youths of New-Haven and many of them shared their faith with him, “In this place I became acquainted with many students belonging to the college. By these pious students I was told more about God than what I had hear before; but I was so ignorant that I could not see into it whether it was so. Many times I wish to hear more about God, but find nobody to interpret it to me. I attended many meetings on the Sabbath, but find difficulty to understand the minister.”(Dwight, 13)  Opukahaia had a desire for knowledge, and a desire to understand the Christian faith--but language was a significant barrier. It was his friend Thomas who first took the significant step of requesting schooling. Opukahaia recalled, “I could understand or speak but very little of the English language. Friend Thomas went to school to one of the students in the college before I thought of going to school.” (Dwight, 13) It was at this time that Captain Britnall started to prepare to set sail again--under the assumption that both Thomas and Henry would be joining him and returning to Hawaii. Little is said about this, but from a letter written by Samuel J. Mills, it appears that Captain Britnall was boarding the young men under the assumption that they would continue to work on his ship on the return voyage to Hawaii.

         Both Hopu and Opukahaia desired to stay in New England, and it is at this point that two people who would be very important to the life of Henry enter the narrative. Edwin Dwight, a young seminarian studying at Yale College was the first to take an interest in Opukahaia. One day as the young Edwin Dwight walked about the campus he spied Henry Opukahaia sitting on the steps of the college and weeping. Intrigued, Edwin approached the young Hawaiian man and asked him why he was weeping. In broken English Opukahaia shared with Edwin his frustration at being on the college campus, but being unable to learn as others his age were doing. He perceived that the college students with their books had access to treasures of knowledge to which he was barred by way of his illiteracy--particularly that of the Bible. He cried, because he had no means of learning to read and write. The drama of Opukahaia weeping on the steps of Yale would become one of the most frequently told and beloved stories among Christians in the United States in the nineteenth century--so much so that Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) knew the story by heart from his Sunday School classes as a child. This scene would influence the the trajectory of American missions dramatically--instead of being strictly evangelistic, early American missions would strongly emphasize education, in large part due to the influence of Henry Opukahaia.

         Edwin was so moved by Opukahaia’s desire to learn, that he resolved to take personal responsibility for the education the young Hawaiian. Captain Britnall approved of the educational plan and seemed pleased to have this young charge taken off of his hands--later Opukahaia would leave the Britnall home and take up residence in President Timothy Dwight’s household. Edwin Dwight spent many long hours teaching the young Opukahaia--both of English and of the Holy Bible. It was in Edwin Dwight’s room on campus that Opukahaia first shared his desire that the Gospel be preached in the islands of Hawaii. It was only 1810, and Opukahaia was a long way off from making a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ, but his trajectory had already been changed. He liked what he had heard of Jehovah God and wished that he could bring an end to the idol worship which so characterized the Hawaiian religion of his time. Edwin recalled one such conversation, “He was at once very sensibly impressed with the ludicrous nature of idol worship. Smiling at its absurdity, he said “Hawaii gods! they wood, burn. Me go home, put ‘em in a fire, burn ‘em up. They no see, no hear, no any thing”--then added, “We make them--Our God, (looking up,) he make us.” (Dwight, 17) He saw in Christianity much that he wanted to share with his own people. For the first time it seems, since the death of his family, he started to glance back towards the islands from which he had come forth.

         It was here in Edwin Dwight’s room that Opukahaia was to be found by Samuel J. Mills Jr. while reciting the spelling-book. Samuel had graduated from Williams College and moved to New-Haven to pursue graduate studies at Yale in 1809, at least that was his cover story. Unofficially Mills had come to stir up missionary zeal among the Yale students and if possible to start a chapter of the student missions group which had been established at Williams College. One of Mills’ biographers said of this trip, “His apparent purpose, as we have said before, was that of a graduate student in theology; his real reason was to... arouse missionary interest, if possible, among the other students. His mission seems to have been fruitless, so far as most of the students were concerned, but it was fruitful in his own life... Here he met Obookiah.” (Richards, 49) The Yale students on the whole seemed to be unreceptive to Mills’ passion for missions, but it was here that God had divinely ordered his steps. For all of his prayer for foreign mission, God had brought foreign mission to him by way of this young Hawaiian boy. Samuel was quick to see the hand of God in this divine encounter. He recalled in a letter written to his compatriot Gordon Hall while in New-Haven, principally about Obookiah:

         “I have been in this place about two months. When I came, I found my worthy friend E. Dwight here: I roomed with him about two weeks... Mr. Dwight, I then found, was instructing a native Owhyean boy... As I was in the room with Mr. Dwight, I heard the youth recite occasionally, and soon became considerably attached to him. His manners are simple; he does not appear to be vicious in any respect, and he has a great thirst for knowledge. In his simple manner of expressing himself, he says, The people in Owhyee very bad—-they pray to gods made of wood. Poor Indians don't know nothing.--He says, Me want to learn to read this Bible, and go back then, and tell them to pray to God up in heaven.” (Spring, pp.47-48)

He continued in the letter to state his design on Opukahaia to educate him and enable him to return to his own people as a native missionary, a concept hitherto unknown in the world of missions. Samuel J. Mills certainly was a revolutionary and pioneering, but the fingerprints of God are all over this encounter. 

         The economic strain put on the Timothy Dwight household by Opukahaia was becoming difficult, Edwin had arranged for him to stay there and work part-time, but the situation was not ideal for Opukahaia’s education.  It was at this time that he came to Edwin and Samuel to share that he had been asked to find a new residence. Samuel quickly responded, “I told him he might go home with me, and live at my father's... He then came with me to my room. I heard him read his lesson, and attempted to instruct him in some of the first principles of Christianity, of which he was almost entirely ignorant.” (Spring, 48) Edwin had done his best to provide for Opukahaia, but God brought into his life a much more capable benefactor. For Gordon Hall, Samuel Mills recounts his conversation with Edwin Dwight about Opukahaia’s living arrangements:

         “This morning I repaired to Mr. Dwight's room. He felt interested in behalf of Obookiah, and thought he had best endeavour to find a place for him, where he could work a part of the time, and pay for his board, and recite as he had done. I told him I did not think he had best stay in town, as he would be exposed to bad company, and most likely be treated as a slave, rather than as a friend and brother. I told him further, that as my father was one of the Missionary Trustees, he would no doubt obtain for him a support, if it was thought best to educate him, which is my intention to attempt so far as that he may be able to instruct his countrymen, and by God's blessing, convert them to Christianity. To this he could hardly object.” (Spring, 49)

         It is likely that this act of benevolence towards Henry Opukahaia was the very first concrete action taken on behalf of the cause of  missions since the founding of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions at the bequest of Samuel J. Mills and his companions only months earlier. This comment also gives an inclination as to what sort of relationship Mills would develop with Opukahaia and later towards the institution of slavery. Mills rounded out this section of his letter to his friend with a stirring call to action, Mill’s biographer comments on this letter, “Mills builded better than he knew when he took that little Hawaiian stranger to his heart and his father's home. Wonderfully had the mustard seed of his friendship and fellowship grown and spread out. But if Mills had thus directly and indirectly done much for Obookiah and his native land, Obookiah had done much for him. How much he influenced his benefactor is plainly seen in this letter of Mills to Gordon Hall.” (Richards, 96-97)

"What does this mean? Brother Hall, do you understand it? Shall [Opukahaia] be sent back unsupported, to attempt to reclaim his countrymen? Shall we not rather consider these southern islands a proper place for the establishment of a mission? ... I trust we shall be able to establish more than one mission in a short time, at least in a few years; and that God will enable us to extend our views and labours further than we have before contemplated. We ought not to look merely to the heathen on our own continent... The field is almost boundless; in every part of which, there ought to be Missionaries... The men of Macedonia cry, Come over and help us. This voice is heard from the north, and from the south, and from the east, and from the west. O that we might glow with desire to preach the Gospel to the heathen, that is altogether irresistible! The spirit of burning hath gone forth. The camp is in motion. The Levites, we trust, are about to bear the vessels, and the great command GO FORWARD.” (Spring, 50-51)

         Opukahaia henceforth moved to Torringford and lived in the Mills home--Samuel’s father and mother all but adopted the young orphan and raised him as their own child. Mills became a brother to Opukahaia--a relationship like that of Jonathan and David. Obookiah recalls the move in his own words, “During this time he wished me to go home with him; he says he has a good father, mother, brother and sister. This requesting was very pleasing to me, so that I consented... I lived with this family in the year 1810. These people were the most judicious and kindest people. I was treated by them in the most affectionate manner. It seemed to me as my own home. It was. And I have made my home there frequently.” (Dwight, 18) Opukahaia spoke positively of his life in Torringford among the Mills family, saying, “Mrs. Mills... was a very amiable woman, and I was treated by her as her own child. She used me kindly and learned me to say the Catechism.” (Dwight, 20)  In the Mills home his English improved by bounds, he was soon able to read freely from the New Testament.

         When Samuel J. Mills returned to school at Andover, he brought Opukahaia with him. Here Opukahaia was instructed by some of the students. In the memoirs are recorded the contents of his first public prayer, which is worth repeating for its simplicity and its depth:

“Great and eternal God--make heaven--make earth--make every thing--have mercy on me--make me understand the Bible--make me good--great God have mercy on Thomas--make him good--make Thomas and me go back Hawaii--tell folks in Hawaii no more pray to stone gods--make some good man go with me to Hawaii, tell folks in Hawaii about heaven--about hell--God make all people good every where--great God have mercy on college--make all good--make Mr. Samuel good--have mercy on Mr. Samuel’s father, mother, sister, brother.” (Dwight, 22-23)

This prayer is significant because of the desire that Opukahaia expresses that a missionary be sent to Hawaii to share the Gospel with his people--unprompted it appears. This desire will continue to be shaped and developed in Henry’s life. After this Samuel J. Mills enrolled Opukahaia in the same Bradford Academy where he had received his education as a young man with the hopes that Opukahaia should make a more dramatic improvement in his studies--and while this period was academically successful, it proved to be spiritually dry. In Obookiah’s own words, “While I was here in the school my serious [religious] feelings, which I had before, I lost all; and became very ignorant of religion by being among some unserious company, talking many foolish subjects... I became prayerless and thoughtless... never attempted to be alone as I had done before.” (Dwight, 23-24) After finishing up the term, he returned to Andover, and then during vacation hired himself out to a local farm as a hired laborer. It was during this time that he had a Spiritual breakthrough.

“Mr F. one day sent me into the woods not far from the house to work. I took an axe and went and worked there till towards noon. But here O, I come to myself again! many thoughts come into my mind that I was in a dangerous situation. I thought if I should then die I must certainly be cast off for ever. While I was working it appeared as it was a voice saying ‘Cut it down, why cumbereth it the ground’. I worked no longer--but dropped my axe, and walked a few steps from the place (for people in the house would soon send a lad after me, for it was noon.) I fell upon my knees and looked up to the Almighty Jehovah for help. I was not but an undone and hell-deserving sinner. I felt that it would be just that God should cast me off whithersoever he would--that he should do with my poor soul as it seemed to him fit. I spent some time here until I heard a boy calling for me--and I went. The people in the house asked of my sadness--to which I give but little answer. In the night my sleep was taken away from me. I kept awake almost the whole night...The next morning I rose up before the rest, and went to the place where I was alone by myself. Here I went both morning, night and noon. At this place I find some comfort. And when I go there I enjoy myself better all the day.” (Dwight, 24-25)

 It is important to note that Henry Opukahaia lived in New England during the Second Great Awakening--and his conversion experience is very similar to those of other men and women of his generation--I cannot help but thinking of William Wilberforce in his garden as a parallel with Opukahaia. Henry’s conversion experience was more of a process than a single event, and this event was just one in a chain of many--in modern terms one could talk about it in terms of a Centered-Set as opposed to a Bounded-Set. Henry Opukahaia had clearly changed the direction of his allegiance, although it took longer for him to meet the criteria of Christianity held by many of that generation--it is evident from reading his memoirs that he was earnestly seeking after Jesus from early in the time of his sojourning in America.

         A significant event that followed this strong change in Henry was his encounter with a newly arrived boy from Hawaii. The young lad had yet to learn any English, and Henry spent nearly two full days talking with the boy about God and what he had learned from the bible. But it was a period of sickness during a stay in the town of Hollis in which Henry felt himself quickened by the Holy Spirit. He spent some more time studying--and even began to translate the Bible into his native tongue from the Hebrew. He took special care to reduce the Hawaiian language to a written form, creating a spelling book and grammar.

         He returned to Torringford  and after some additional schooling made a public profession of faith in Jesus at the church of Christ in Torringford on the ninth of April, 1815 under the examination of Mr. Mills Sr. At his Baptism, Opukahaia asked for the opportunity to share a word with the congregation, when asked by Mr. Mills what he wanted to say, he said, “I want to ask the people what they are waiting for?--they live in Gospel land--hear all about salvation--God ready, Christ ready--all ready--Why they don’t come to follow Christ?” (Dwight, 38) It was at this point that Henry Opukahaia was taken under the special care of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions with the expressed purpose of training him to be a missionary to his own people. Opukahaia expressed his longing to return and share his new faith,

         “I often feel for them in the night season concerning the loss of their souls, and wish many times to be among them before I am fit to come to them--for I long to see them. O that the Lord would pluck them from the everlasting burning! and that the Lord may be their God, and may they be his people--and be made ‘partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.’ O what a happy time I have now, while my poor friends and relations at home are perishing with hunger, and thirsty, wanting of Divine mercy and water out of the well of salvation. May the Lord Jesus well in my heart and prepare me to go and spend the remaining part of my life with them. But not my will, O Lord, but thy will be done.” (Dwight, 39)

         During this time Samuel J. Mills was periodically about on missionary journeys, but he always showed a deep concern for Henry’s spiritual condition upon his returns home. It was around this time that Mr. Mills would undertake one of his most ambitious plans--as a member of the American Colonization Society he sought to establish a colony in Africa where freed slaves might make a home, this was the foundation for what would become Liberia. He spent the better part of the next three years overseas as part of this venture.

         Henry Opukahaia’s spiritual maturity and growth as a scholar seemed boundless. He quickly made himself a valuable asset of the American Board. In 1816 he accompanied Rev. Mr. Perkins an agent of the ABCFM on a fund raising tour on behalf of a new project: The Foreign Mission School. The transformation of Henry Opukahaia had such a profound impact on the members of the ABCFM that they hoped that they could reproduce the transformation in many other pupils from non-Western backgrounds at a new institution located in Cornwall, Connecticut. Samuel J. Mills had broken new ground by seeing the missionary potential in Henry Obookiah, and the Foreign Mission School at Cornwall would take the concept of training native missionaries to the next logical step. A number of other Hawaiian and Pacific Island youth had been taken under the care of the ABCFM, as well as youth from China, Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka and several Native American nations--it was hoped that at this school they could imbibe in them the same missionary zeal which had so captured the heart of Opukahaia. In order to fund the school, Opukahaia traveled around New England promoting the project. By all measures it seems that his tour was successful, “Contributions were highly liberal, and often drawn from sources not before accustomed to yield any aid to purposes of charity.” (Dwight, 70) Rev. Perkins recalled Henry as a person who put a high value on time--saying that he often retreated form unfruitful conversations to take time to read his New Testament. He also commended Opukahaia on his humility, recounting how when complimented on his preaching he would respond with a contrite spirit instead of becoming puffed up.

         Reverend Perkins made several insightful comments in his addition to the memoirs--firstly he noted, “Obookiah’s visit to this part of the country was essential service to the cause of Foreign Missions. It has silenced the weak but common objection against attempting to enlighten the heathen, that they are too ignorant to be taught. This sentiment has prevented much exertion. It had a wicked origin.” (Dwight, 73) The mere presence of Henry Opukahaia, educated, eloquent, amiable and following Jesus was a broadside against these narrow-minded claims! He continues, “We have first enslaved our fellow-beings, then degraded them by every menial service, deprived them of the means of mental improvement, and almost of human intercourse; and because, under this circumstances, people of color are devoid of knowledge, we have hastened to the irrational conclusion that all the heathen are a race of idiots. Adopting this conclusion, multitudes are utterly opposed to making any attempt to turn them from darkness to light.” (Dwight, 73-74) This is one of the first comments in the memoirs that appears to be overtly in favor of the abolition of slavery in the United States--it was suggested by at least one of Samuel J. Mills’ biographers that Henry Opukahaia was actually a catalytic figure in the development of the abolition movement, for the reasons stated by Rev. Perkins. The fact that this memoir was published so widely, and read so fervently among New England Christians spread these ideas far and wide. Perkins states,

“Influenced by this opinion, groundless as it is, no reasonings, or arguments, or motives which can be offered, are of any avail. But the appearance of Obookiah has done much in this region to wipe off this disgrace thrown upon the heathen, and to remove the objection so often made. The proof he gave of talents as well as of piety, carried conviction to many that the heathen had souls as well as we, and were capable of being enlightened and christianized. Acknowledgements to this effect have frequently been made to me. Another effect produced by his visit to this region is, that it has roused the slumbering energies of those who have hitherto done nothing in the Missionary cause. Many have become interested for the benighted heathen, and satisfied that the conversion of them to Christianity is practicable. And though they have never before lifted a finger or contributed a mite, have now been prevailed on to do something... A feeling in the cause of Missions has been excited which will not soon subside.”(Dwight, 74)

The effect of Henry Opukahaia’s travels in promotion of the Foreign Mission School, and the subsequent circulation of his memoirs did much to stir up missionary zeal among American Christians--and to answer the objection that those from non-Western backgrounds were incapable of becoming Christians. Opukahaia did not just stir up interest for his own nation, but for all peoples of every nation. He was proof that the Gospel was indeed the Gospel for all the nations! The effect of his travels opened pocket books and forced men and women onto their knees in prayer for the cause of Christ.

         By this time, Henry Opukahaia had stirred much enthusiasm, and many hopes were placed upon him for the salvation of his people. The best means were provided him for study and preparation. Alongside Henry, six other Hawaiians joined him in the first term at the Foreign Mission School--but among them he was the shining star. Opukahaia had made many dear friends, and kept extensive correspondences. He grew in grace daily, and many felt that his departure to Hawaii would be short at hand--then the Lord called him home. On February 19, 1818, during the first year of classes at the Foreign Mission School, Henry Opukahaia passed from death to life in the presence of his Hawaiian and American friends--it had only taken about a week for Typhus to ravage his body, but when his Spirit departed it left him with an angelic visage. He showed no fear in death, only sadness that he would not be able to use the talents given to him to share his faith with the people of Hawaii. In parting he said in his own native language, “Aloha o e.”--My love be with you. When asked how he felt, he replied, “Very well--I am not sick--I have no pain--I feel well.”(Dwight, 96) and then he departed. Henry had placed himself in the will of God, he did not despair, he knew that this was part of God’s plan.


Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. John 12:24


            It has frequently been said that Opukahaia achieved more in death than in life. “By his talents and attainment, as well as his beautiful Christian spirit, Obookiah demonstrated that the people of the Sandwich Islands were worth saving. He became a missionary, not to Hawaii, but to Litchfield County, to Andover, to Amherst, and aroused interest and confidence in the work and worth of foreign missions wherever he went. Though he did not have to become an apostle to his native land, the interest which he had awakened in a mission to the islands of the sea did not perish with him.” (Richards, 94) His memoirs helped to fund the first missionary expedition to Hawaii--the American Board sent nineteen men and women to Hawaii by way of the she the Thaddeus in 1820, just two years after Opukahaia’s death, and only one year after the publishing of the Memoirs of Henry Obookiah. Hundreds of missionaries followed. By God’s providence, Hawaii proved to be exceedingly receptive to the Gospel message, and within two generations one could scarcely find anyone who was not a Christian. Henry’s influence was a great impetus for the development of many missionary enterprises arising from the United States. Opukahaia’s thirst for knowledge spawned more than just one school--but hundreds. Ultimately the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall folded after only ten years, but the story of Henry sitting on the steps of Yale weeping became a watchword by which missionary educational enterprises were begun around the globe. His example also helped to shape and give motion to the abolition movement in the United States. Thomas Richards said in his biography of Samuel Mills,

“It seems a far cry from Mills to Booker T. Washington, and yet it takes only three lives to connect them directly. We have already seen how, through his protege, Obookiah, Mills set in motion the forces which resulted in the mission to the Sandwich Islands. One of the missionaries which the American Board sent to those islands was the father of Samuel C. Armstrong, afterwards student at Williams, leader of colored soldiers and teacher of colored students. It was this founder of Hampton Institute that Booker T. Washington called "the rarest, strongest, and most beautiful character that it has ever been my privilege to meet." It was General Armstrong, teacher, friend, and guide, that made Tuskegee and its founder possible. Home and foreign missions thus act and interact on each other. Mills' sympathy and interest were deeply aroused by the condition of the slaves. He was anxious to find some way in which to help "the poor Africans." Little did he dream that through Obookiah and the Sandwich Islands greater good should come to the slave than in that far-away quest to Africa which was the final effort of his life.”

Along this same vein, Lyman Beecher, a prominent Congregational minister gave the sermon at Opukahaia’s funeral. Lyman Beecher’s daughter Harriet Beecher Stowe would have been about ten years old at the time of Opukahaia’s death, and very well could have been in  attendance at the funeral--it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that she would have been familiar with the story of Henry Opukahaia’s life. To the extent that Opukahaia influenced her views on slavery is unclear, but this certainly would have been one of the earliest points of reference towards an abolitionist viewpoint in her life. She published Uncle Tom’s Cabin thirty-four years later in 1852.


            Less than a week after the death of Opukahaia, and more than a thousand leagues away, Samuel J. Mills Jr.  set out across the Atlantic towards the United States having finished his business in Africa, completely ignorant of his dear brother’s passing. His biography records a comment made to his friend and companion Professor Burgess aboard the ship on which he took passage, “I have now transcribed the brief journal of my visit to the coast of Africa and turned my face toward home. If it please God that I may arrive safely, as I may reasonably hope, I think that I shall take Obookiah and go to the Sandwich Islands, and there I shall end my life." Mr. Mills would not survive his passage home, and died a few months after Opukahaia while still at sea. Professor Burgess made inquiries regarding the time of Opukahaia’s death, and later said regarding the passing of Samuel J. Mills, “What was his surprise on entering heaven to find Obookiah there ready to congratulate him on his safe arrival.” (Richards) The lives of these two men were bound together by God’s sovereign will--they played their part in starting the American mission movement--it would be inappropriate to speak of the one without the other.

            Jeffrey Lyons in an article written on the rhetoric of the Memoirs of Henry Obookiah described the book as a tragedy of hope saying, “The final chapter of the Memoirs is an oxymoron. It is, in short, a

tragedy of hope.”(Lyons, 46) He goes on to explain that the death of Opukahaia would seem to be a tragedy from a secular standpoint, but in the minds of the Christian readers in nineteenth century New England it would be a reflection upon God’s sovereignty, “Dwight writes these last words after describing the death of Obookiah: "The spirit had departed—but a smile, such as none present had ever beheld—an expression of the final triumph of his soul, remained upon his countenance." In Dwight's view, Obookiah's death was not a tragedy, but an acceptance of God's providential will, ultimately culminating in triumph. Hope thus springs from the tragedy.” (Lyons 47) I submit that Henry’s life is central to understanding what God was doing in New England in the early nineteenth century--just as Stephen’s martyrdom was central to understanding the early church in Jerusalem. In both of these cases, God showed that he was willing to use take his best and brightest at the peak of their potential in order to spur others on. Henry was a pioneer in the cause of missions, both Western and non-Western Christians this young man from Hawaii a great deal of admiration for the passion that he imparted to the church. Before setting sail to Hawaii, Hiram Bingham was given a letter from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to read to his fellow missionaries as they departed from Boston aboard the Thaddeus in 1820,

“What would have been the feelings of Obookiah, had he lived to see this day! He does live, and he does behold this day; and amid the ten thousand times ten thousand before the throne of God and the Lamb, he is raising a new and immortal note of praise, for the light which is dawning upon Owhyhee and the kindred islands. You will never forget Obookiah. You will never forget his fervent love, his affectionate counsels, his many prayers and tears for you, and for his and your nation. you saw him die; saw how the Christian could triumph over death and the grave; saw the radiant glory in which he left the world for heaven. You will remember it always; and you will tell it to your kindred and countrymen who are dying without hope.” (Miller)

Opukahaia entered the world abnormally, but departed to be with Christ triumphantly.












Dwight, Edwin. Memoirs of Henry Obookiah. Woman’s Board of Missions for the Pacific Islands, Honolulu HI, 1968.


Richards, Thomas. Samuel J. Mills, Missionary Pathfinder, Pioneer and Promoter. The Pilgrim Press, Boston, 1906.


Spring, Gardiner. Memoirs of the Rev. Samuel J. Mills, Late Missionary to the South Western Section of the United States. The New-York Evangelical Missionary Society, 1920.


Lyons, Jeffrey. Memoirs of Henry Obookiah: A Rhetorical History. The Hawaiian Journal of History, vol. 38 (2004)


Miller, Char. Selected Writings of Hiram Bingham, Missionary to the Hawaiian Islands - To Raise the Lord’s Banner. E. Mellen Press, Lewiston NY, 1988.


Interesting side note: Samuel J. Mills Jr.’s daughter Julia would eventually marry a man named Samuel Damon, himself preparing to go to India with the ABCFM--they ultimately ended up serving as missionaries in Hawaii where they a buried.

No comments: