How Andover Theological Seminary Influenced Christian Missions In Hawai‘i

According to The Phillipian’s State of the Academy (SOTA) in 2020, approximately 13 students at Andover identify as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander (1.3 percent of the student body). However, the relationship between Andover students and the Hawaiian Islands dates back to the earliest years of the campus.

Founded on June 19, 1807, the Andover Theological Seminary was an entirely different institution from Andover, albeit located on the Andover campus and run by the same trustees, according to Images of Old Hawai‘i, a website run by former Deputy Managing Director of Hawai‘i County Peter Young. As the nation’s first seminary school as well as the first graduate institution in America, it offered students three years of study on topics such as the Bible, church history, doctrinal theology, and practical arts of the ministry, according to “The Andover Townsman.”  

Native Hawaiian Henry Ōpūkaha‘ia, known as Henry Obookiah to his English-speaking friends, arrived on campus to study at the Andover Theological Seminary in 1812. Ōpūkaha‘ia, one of the first Native Hawai’ians to become a Christian, is the earliest known Pacific Islander to study on the Andover campus. 

According to “Memoirs of Henry Obookiah,” a posthumous collection of Ōpūkaha‘ia’s journal entries and memoirs compiled by Edwin W. Dwight, Ōpūkaha‘ia lived with the family of Mr. A, the Steward of the Theological Seminary. Mrs. A described Ōpūkaha‘ia as someone who “was always pleasant. I never saw him angry. He used to come into my chamber and kneel down by me and pray… he appeared to be thinking of nothing else but religion. He afterward told me that there was a time when he wanted to get religion into his head more than into his heart.” 

Ōpūkaha‘ia dreamed of spreading Christianity to Hawai‘i. Writing down his aspirations in early letters, Ōpūkaha‘ia hoped to “send the gospel to the heathen land, where the words of the Saviour never yet had been,” according to Reformation 21. The word “heathen” has been historically used to dehumanize Indigenous peoples, according to State Univeristy of New York Brockport scholar Jessica Weed.

While waiting for his wish to be approved, Ōpūkaha‘ia made steps toward developing Hawaiian culture. He formed the first written version of the native Hawaiian language, writing a dictionary for the language, and translated the Book of Genesis into Hawaiian, according to Reformation 21. 

Ōpūkaha‘ia died in 1818, but his sudden death led later Andover Theological Seminary students, such as Hiram Bingham, to gain further interest in missionary work in Hawai‘i, according to an article entitled “Andover’s role in the Hawaii Mission,” on the Andover website. Bingham, class of 1819 for the Andover Theological Seminary, wrote to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (A.B.C.F.M.) that “the unexpected and afflictive death of Obookiah, roused my attention to the subject [of traveling to Hawai‘i]…I became more deeply interested than before in that cause for which he desired to live…” 

The missionary work of future seminary alumni, such as Bingham, who arrived on the Hawai’ian Islands as a member of the Pioneer Company of American Protestant missionaries, often sparked and drove the rise of white American and European power in the years following their arrival, according to Images of Hawai‘i. Initially, the missionaries collaborated with native Hawaiians over a variety of new infrastructure, including the creation of a written Hawaiian language, the establishment of schools that increased literacy, and the introduction of Western medicine and ideologies. 

As time passed, however, the economic and social impacts of the missionaries on the island, along with those of white plantation owners and businessmen, led to changes in various aspects of traditional Hawaiian culture, according to the National Archives. These included the prevention of teaching the Hawaiian language and of performing the native Hula dance. Interestingly, however, in an excerpt from the instructions sent to the missionaries heading to the Hawaiian Islands, A.B.C.F.M. called for the missionaries to remove themselves from interfering with local interests, according to Images of Old Hawai‘i.

“You are to abstain from all interference with the local and political interests of the people. The kingdom of Christ is not of this world, and it especially behooves a missionary to stand aloof from the private and transient interests of chiefs and rulers,” wrote the A.B.C.F.M.

After a power struggle between Native Hawaiians and white American businessmen, oftentimes descendants of the Christian missionaries, Hawai‘i was annexed by the United States in 1898. The majority of Native Hawaiians opposed the overthrow of their government by the Americans, according to the National Archives. 

In the fall of 2019, Paige Roberts, Director of Archives and Special Collections, and Corrie Martin, Instructor in English, organized a week-long series of campus events that aimed to shed light on the Native Hawaiian history and narratives that are usually untold, according to the article on the Andover website. According to Martin, who was born and raised in Hawai‘i, the presence of Christian missionaries in Hawai‘i led to the annexation of the islands.

“[This part of Andover’s history] entangles the school directly in the cultural domination and overthrow of the independent nation of Hawaii by New England—based Christian missionaries and their descendants. We wanted to give our students, and the campus community at large, the opportunity to learn about the many facets of this history, and to wrestle with the difficult questions that come with it,” said Martin for the article on the Andover website.

The repercussions of Ōpūkaha‘ia’s legacy still manifest themself in Hawai‘i today, according to Sarah Pan ’24, a student who lives in Hawai‘i but does not identify as Native Hawaiian.

“He was very set on learning about Christianity and was always talking about how he wanted to go back home to let his people know about Christianity. It sparked a movement among the missionaries and thought that they had a new place to go. The middle school I attended is actually founded by the missionaries who didn’t want to send their children back to the United States to get an education. A big part of our Hawaiian cities was actually about missionaries and their role,” said Pan.