Henry ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia and the Birth of Christian Missions in the Hawaiian Islands

Henry ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia and the Birth of Christian Missions in the Hawaiian Islands


Henry ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia lived only 26 years and is seldom known outside of the Hawaii. And yet, many believe that his love for the gospel changed the course of his islands forever.


A Troubled Childhood

            Born in Ka`ū, Hawaii, around 1792, ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia became orphan at age 10, when his parents were murdered during the war between Chief Nāmakehā and Kamehameha. ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia tried to save his only brother, who was still an infant, by carrying him on his back, but the enemies threw a spear that killed the young child. ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia was taken into the home of the man who was responsible for the killing.

            ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia found one of his uncles, Pahua, who was a kahuna pule (praying priest of the island’s traditional religion), and told him what happened to his family. Visibly moved, the uncle took the boy to his home in Kealakekua Bay. When the other man came to take ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia back, Pahua prevailed, partially because, as a kahuna, he had some authority over the locals.

            Pahua hoped to raise ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia to take his place as kahuna, and taught him long prayers to recite before an idol. But Henry kept dreaming of leaving the Islands. “I began to think about leaving that country, to go to some other part of the globe,” he wrote later. “I did not care where I shall go to. I thought to myself that if I should get away, and go to some other country, probably I may find some comfort, more than to live there, without father and mother.”[1]

            Six years later, ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia saw a trading ship from New Haven, Connecticut, anchored in Kealakekua Bay, and swam to it. On board, he met Captain Caleb Brintall, who treated him kindly, and another Hawaiian, 12-year old Hopu. After offering ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia dinner, the captain asked him if he wanted to go to America by working as a sailor on his ship.

            It was not the first time that Brintall had taken Hawaiian boys on board. On a couple of occasions, some Hawaiian fathers had asked him to take their sons to New Haven to pursue an education.

            Excited by the opportunity, ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia went to tell his uncle. At first, Pahua refused to let him go and locked him in a room. When ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia escaped, Pahua followed him to the ship and asked the captain to send the boy back. Eventually, Pahua agreed to let ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia go, but demanded a payment to reimburse him for the time he had invested in training his nephew to become a kahuna.

            “I took my leave of them and bid them farewell,” ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia said. “My parting with them was disagreeable to them and to me, but I was willing to leave all my relations, friends and acquaintance: expected to see them no more in this world.”[2]


Hungry for Knowledge

            Aboard the ship, appropriately named Triumph, ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia and Hopu met Russell Hubbard, a member of Yale College, who taught them the English alphabet. By the time they arrived in New England, ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia was using the English name Henry, and Hopu the name Thomas.

            In New Haven, Brintall arranged housing for the boys, and encouraged them with the prospective of getting an education. But to ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia, learning seemed like an impossible dream. His visit to Yale only increased this feeling, so much that he sat on some steps and cried. His tears attracted the attention of a student, Edwin Welles Dwight, who took him upon himself to teach him to read and write, and made arrangements for him to live with Timothy Dwight IV, President of Yale, who was one of Edwin’s relatives. There, ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia made his first encounter with daily devotions and prayers.

            He also became friends with another student, Samuel J. Mills, who took interest in his education and took him to visit his family in Torringfort. Everyone was impressed by ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia’s ability to learn by imitation.

            While at Mills’s home, he wrote his first letters in English: the first to his friend Hopu, who was at New Haven, and the second to Edwin Dwight, thanking him for his early lessons, and describing how he could now “spell four syllables” and “say what is the chief end of man.”[3] The latter was a reference to the first question in the Westminster Catechism, which Samuel Mills’s mother taught ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia each day.

            Samuel’s father, also named Samuel, was a pastor, and had frequent visits from other pastors, who were also interested in teaching ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia about Christ. But ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia was not interested at all. “I would not wish to be in the room where they were,” he said.  “Neither did I wish to come near a minister, for the reason that he should talk to me about God, whom I hated to hear. I was told by them about heaven and hell, but I did not pay attention to what they say [sic]; for I thought I was just as happy as the other people, as those who do know about God much more than I do.”[4]

            Noting ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia’s promptness in learning, Mills sent him to Bradford Academy, where the boy became even more hostile to religion, preferring to spend his time having fun with what he called “unserious company.” “I took no opportunity to be at the throne of grace, but rather to be stupid,”[5] he said.

            In the spring of 1811, ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia took a break from his studies “on account of my health”[6] and went to work for a local farmer. Once, while he was by himself cutting wood, he began thinking about his life. This was something he had avoided doing for some time. Suddenly, some words he had heard about God’s wrath against sin came to mind, and he realized he was in serious trouble. He thought he heard a voice saying, “Cut it down, why cumbereth it the ground?”[7]

            “I fell on 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 would cast me off withersoever he would – that it should do with my poor soul as it seemed to him fit.”[8]

            These feelings continued, but he didn’t tell anyone. He didn’t even tell the Mills when he returned to their home. It took him a long time to understand Christ’s love for sinners and trust that it was for him too. In 1815, he finally wrote a friend, “There is no way I can see for sinners but to go to Christ.”[9]

            The same year, after some catechizing, he was admitted as a member of Samuel Mills’s church in Torringfort. The passage Mills chose for his sermon on that day was Isaiah 42:16: “I will bring the blind by a way they did not know; I will lead them in paths they have not known. I will make darkness light before them, and crooked places straight.” This highlighted the notable work of God’s providence in ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia’s life.

            ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia had asked Mills to allow him to say a few words after his membership vows, but Mills forgot. When ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia reminded him after the service, Mills, regretful, asked him what he wanted to say. “I want to ask the people what they are all waiting for,” ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia replied. “They live in Gospel land, hear all about salvation … Why don’t they come to follow Christ?”[10]

            In 1816, when the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) formed the Foreign Mission School, ʻŌpūkahaʻia became one of its first students. While he studied, he kept advocating a mission to the Hawaii in order to bring the gospel to his people. In preparation for that, he developed the first written version of the Hawaiian language, completing a dictionary, grammar, and spelling book, and translated the Book of Genesis into Hawaiian.

            “I hope God will send the gospel to the heathen land, where the words of the Saviour never yet had been,” he wrote – still in an unrefined English – in one of his earliest letters. “Poor people worship the wood and stone and shark, and almost everything their gods. The Bible is not there, and heaven and hell they do not know about it.”[11]

            “I often feel for them in the night season concerning the loss of their souls,” he wrote in his diary. “May the Lord Jesus dwell 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.”

             God soon manifested his will in a way that ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia didn’t expect. In 1818, ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia contracted thyphoid fever and died on February 17, at age 26, from typhoid fever, But the eagerness ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia manifested in his life and his writings, which Edwin Dwight published the very same year provided a powerful motivation to others to take on his work.

            On October 23, 1819, a first group of missionaries - Hiram Bingham, Asa Thurston, Daniel Chamberlain, Thomas Hopu, John Honoli‘I, and William Kanui, with their respective wives - left New England, arriving in the Hawaii on April 20, 1820.

            Today, ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia is remembered in the Hawaii as the man who brought both Christianity and literacy to the Islands. Some celebrations were held in 2018, on the bicentennial of his death, and more have been held this year, two hundred years after the arrival of the first group of missionaries.[12]

[1] Edwin Welles Dwight, Memoirs of Henry Obookiah: A Native of the Sandwich Islands, New York: American Tract Society, 1818, 13

[2] Ibid., 16

[3] Ibid, 30

[4] Ibid, 30-31.

[5] Ibid, 33-34

[6] Ibid, 34

[7] Ibid, 34, quoting Luke 13:7

[8] Ibid, 35

[9] Ibid, 54,55

[10] Ibid, 51

[11] Ibid, 39

[12] For some more information on ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia and this year’s celebrations, including a documentary about the first Christian Church of Hawaii and its legacy, see https://www.hcucc.org/bicentennial


Simonetta Carr