Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Bishop in Honolulu: English Missionaries in Hawaii

Book: Hawaii by James Michener
Hawaii is a vast tome of a novel. In typical James Michener style, it traces the lives of people over many generations. Readers need the multiple family trees printed at the beginning, just in order to vaguely keep up with the different characters. It’s made even more complicated by the fact that the main American families, the Whipples, Hales, Bromleys, Hoxworths, Janderses etc, all intermarry and use the same Christian names. There is, for example, a character called Whipple Hoxworth, and another, Bromley Hale. Add to these the long-spanning Hawaiian royal family, Chinese dynasty and Japanese family and you have a truly polyphonic epic family history (that’s if books can be polyphonic!) It’s a challenging read, if only for its length – my copy was over 1000 pages long. The first chapter describing the geological development of the islands can also be a bit of a chore, although I think that worked as a literary device, mirroring the struggle that every group had to go through in order to get to Hawaii. But if you get past that, you find an engaging chronicle of many different cultures coming to a new land and trying to make a life for themselves alongside the rest.

Cultural understanding is an important theme. The first Americans who come to Hawaii in Michener’s novel are missionaries. Michener shows them as a combination of rigid, conservative puritans who come to Hawaii in order to convert the native Hawaiians to Christianity. This is done with the purest of motives, but out of these early missionaries, it is those who are prepared to understand and adapt to Hawaiian culture that are more sympathetic. It is these same characters who mostly end up going into business and ceasing their missionary activities. Ironically, it’s these businesses which end up damaging the Hawaiians’ lifestyle the most. What Michener’s version of events does not show, however, is another group of missionaries who played, for a short time, just as important a part in Hawaii. These were the Church of England missionaries who came to Hawaii in 1862 to begin a new church – the Hawaiian Reformed Catholic Church.

This was headed by the newly-minted Bishop Thomas Nettleship Staley, incidentally possibly a distant relation of mine but that’s by the by. It was a bit of an odd appointment. Why was the English Church sending a bishop to Hawaii, a nation with no prior connection to England? Hawaii wasn’t a colony or even former colony of Britain. Moreover, Bishop Thomas had no expertise in Hawaii – before being made bishop, he had taught at a school in Wandsworth. To the American missionaries, like the ones in Michener’s Hawaii, there could only be one possible reason – that the British Empire was trying to add the Hawaiian Islands to its realm. Even worse, it was trying to make it Catholic! Now, although the church was called the Reformed Catholic Church it wasn’t actually Catholic in the sense of the Pope and Rome. However, several Anglicans, including some of Bishop Thomas’ friends, were trying to highlight the similarities with the Roman Catholics, which was an understandable worry for the Protestant American missionaries. It’s not surprising that the Americans were suspicious. They had been missionaries in Hawaii for about 40 years before the English turned up, yet here they were, the English, trying to take over, insinuating that their Christianity was better than the American way. Looking from the other direction as well, there was certainly no love lost between the Americans and Bishop Thomas – here he complains about the challenges he faces in doing his job:

‘Our principle has been on no account to ignore what has been already done to teach our own system fearlessly and without reference to others, adopting a positive rather than negative line... Still, do what we can, it is impossible, with people so narrow as the puritan sect, and susceptible as the Americans, to avoid being the cause of jealousy.’

To be fair, the Americans were slightly justified in their concerns of English empire building, only the concern was slightly misplaced. In fact, the Hawaiian royal family, King Kamehameha and Queen Emma, had invited the Church of England to Hawaii. Presumably this was because of its monarchy-friendly set up. The monarch of England is the Head of the Church of England - perhaps the Hawaiian King and Queen wanted to replicate this in Hawaii and have a Christian church they could control, not one where they were preached to by outsiders. Bishop Thomas, despite his former lack of experience, eventually built up a good relationship with the Hawaiian people. Although he was a man of his time and held fairly standard socio-imperialist views (in other words, he was of the opinion that Christianity was naturally better than the native religions of the Hawaiian Islands, and that the native people were less “developed” than westerners) Staley acted for the good of the Hawaiian people. His feelings of moral advantage over them seems distasteful today, but he appears to have had a genuine desire to improve the lives (and souls) of the people he ministered to. Staley’s mission built schools for Hawaiian children which extended their education, in a Church of England fashion of course. The foundation of boarding schools for Hawaiians was one of the greatest successes of the mission, and certainly one for which Staley became well known afterwards. He took interest in the language spoken by the people as well. One of the first actions of the mission was to translate the Bible and Prayer Book into the Hawaiian vernacular. Above all, Staley wanted Christian worship to be accessible to the local people – ‘religion was never designed to make their innocent pleasures the less.’ – and that Christianity should not be ‘all psalm-singing and gloom.’ He also was keen for the Hawaiian monarchy to stay independent of England. Contrast this with Abner Hale’s dogmatic behaviour towards the alii nui Malama in Michener’s Hawaii.

However, there was always going to be some form of imperial mindset in place within the Hawaiian Reformed Catholic Church, though not what you might think. The government don’t seem to have had any ambitions to colonise Hawaii, but the Church may have. I mentioned that Bishop Thomas felt that Christianity was fundamentally and morally right compared to the pagan religion of the islands. Staley was not an imperialist in the usual sense, but he certainly desired to expand God’s Empire throughout the Islands, and perhaps beyond. This spiritual dominion ought to be, in his eyes, Anglican – all other denominations and faiths are by nature inferior. Perhaps the British government were misjudged in their imperial ambitions, but the English Church and Staley may not have been. 

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