In 1822, a group of Protestant missionaries arrived in Hawaiʻi. But unlike the dozens of American missionaries who would make their way from New England over the course of the 19th century, this party sailed from another Polynesian island, Huahine. Among those aboard were three English missionaries and four Tahitian missionaries.
Though Tahitians had settled in Hawai‘i hundreds of years previously, the two kingdoms had had little contact until recent decades. The missionary party saw the Hawai‘i trip as merely a stopover on a voyage to restart a mission to the Marquesas Islands. Instead, in a series of serendipitous coincidences, the Tahitian missionaries connected with the Hawaiian royalty and used their shared Polynesian culture to share the gospel with them.
After centuries of no contact between Tahiti and Hawaiʻi, British explorer James Cook unknowingly sailed the ancient sea lane between the two kingdoms in late 1777. When he anchored off Kauaʻi in 1778, Cook asked native Hawaiians if they knew Tahiti, and they responded that Kahiki, as they called Tahiti, was their homeland in the South Pacific. (In the Hawaiian language, Kahiki refers to both the islands of Tahiti and all the lands in all directions located beyond the horizon of Hawaiʻi.)
While the ancestors of the pioneer settlers of the Hawaiian Islands are likely indigenous people from the Marquesas Islands who arrived between A.D. 1000 and 1200, a second wave of settlement came from Tahiti between 1200 and 1400.
By 1400, the Tahitians ruled Hawaiʻi politically and transformed how it practiced religion. An influential Tahitian tahu‘a (kahuna, priest) introduced human sacrifice and helped establish an all-powerful royal caste known as the aliʻi. Over time, members of the ali‘i became considered godlike.
Despite their previous close relationship, within a century of this reformation, long-distance sailing between the two kingdoms ceased. After Cook died in Hawaiʻi in 1778, his maps, engravings, and journal accounts put many of the Polynesian islands on the global maps of the Western world. Soon, Western explorers and missionaries were poring over his work, eager to set out on their own trips.
One of those individuals was William Carey, who, while cobbling shoes, read a detailed account of Tahiti in Captain Cook’s journals of the Pacific Ocean and first felt the lure of mission. To guide his prayers on the subject, the man later dubbed “the father of modern missions” hung a hand-drawn map of the routes of Cook’s voyages, envisioning Tahiti as the most promising location for a mission to a “heathen,” non-Christian nation.
By 1795, merchant ships and exploring expeditions were often making the one-month sail (around 2,400 nautical miles) between Tahiti and Hawaiʻi. On the British Isles, enthusiasm for sending missionaries to Tahiti grew due to its warm climate, the detailed accounts of its people written by explorers, and a mistaken belief that Polynesians spoke a very simple language.
Though Carey ultimately sailed solo to India, in 1796 the London Missionary Society (LMS) sent its pioneer foreign mission to Tahiti. Almost immediately, the mission in Tahiti suffered from internal personal conflicts and struggled to evangelize the Tahitian people. Thomas Haweis, a prominent Church of England clergyman, had pulled together a group of carpenters, masons, and other skilled men, hoping that they would evangelize the Tahitians through teaching practical trades. Haweis’ missions theory largely failed, and by 1805 nearly all the original missionaries had left for Australia.
Nevertheless, the introduction of the gospel impacted Tahitian society. In 1814 a revival broke out, and the Pomares, an influential royal family, converted to Christianity. Hundreds more followed after Pomare II, having successfully defeated his fellow Tahitians and taken control of the island, offered his former enemies feasting and celebration rather than the customary massacre. His Christian mercy drew many Tahitians to Christ.
Despite this evangelistic success, mission organizations ultimately changed their strategies and embraced the evangelical missions theory of seminary leader David Bogue. Bogue advocated for seminary training for ordained missionaries and the recruitment of educated young men and their wives as leaders.
William and Mary Mercy Ellis from London fit this bill perfectly. In 1816, the Ellises landed at the LMS mission station at Matavai Bay, Tahiti Island, and soon met a local Christian couple, Auna and Aunawahine.
Auna descended from a priestly family who served the powerful god Oro and had been trained by his own father to one day do the same. But after he had fought alongside the Pomares, his life had taken a major turn. Auna declared himself a Christian and had studied at the LMS Bible college on the islands, ultimately becoming a deacon at the mission church. Within months of meeting, the two couples traveled together to Huahine (another island in what would later become known as French Polynesia), to plant a church, which soon hosted a thriving congregation.
When Auna, Aunawahine, and the Ellises left Huahine to arrive in Hawai‘i in 1822, they quickly encountered another missions party that felt threatened by the new arrivals: American missionaries who had landed in 1820. The American missionaries had established two mission stations but had yet to become fluent in the Hawaiian language and had thus been unable to translate the Bible or preach sermons without using native translators.
Further, they had had no success at converting the aliʻi. The Hawaiian people strictly followed the lead of their rulers, and the aliʻi demanded that the missionaries first be taught palapala (reading and writing). The lack of language comprehension had stalemated the mission.
The new missionaries’ linguistic facility only highlighted this deficiency. William Ellis’s fluency in the Tahitian language allowed him to understand and speak the Hawaiian language.
“We perceived that the Sandwich Islanders [an obsolete term referring to Hawaiians] and Tahitians were members of one great family, and spoke the same language with but slight variations: a fact which we regarded as of great importance in the intercourse we might have with the people,” he later wrote.
It also immediately facilitated a surprising interaction:
As our boats approached, one of the natives hailed us with Aroha, peace, or attachment. We returned the salutation in Tahitian. The chief then asked, “Are you from America?” We answered, “From Britain.” He then said, “By way of Tahiti?” and, when answered in the affirmative, observed, “There are a number of Tahitians on shore.”
As the ship made its way from the Island of Hawaiʻi, the party made another connection after a Tahitian canoed past them in Honolulu Harbor.
“Auna’s wife soon discovered that this Tahitian was her own brother, who had left Tahiti when a boy, and they had not heard of him for nearly 30 years!” LMS mission station inspector William Tyreman wrote in his journal.
For one Hawaiian monarch, this chance reunion held even more significance. Kaʻahumanu, the late Kamehameha’s regent who now ruled the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, recognized mana (a sense of spiritual power) in this reunion. She immediately invited Auna and Aunawahine to dwell in her royal compound.
That evening the Tahitian missionary party flowed directly into the work of the American missionaries. Ellis recalled:
In the evening of this day we were present when Auna read the scripture, and offered family prayers publicly in Kaʻahumanu’s house: we united with no ordinary feelings, for the first time, in the worship of the true God with the people around us. The next day, the 17th of April, being the day on which our American friends held the weekly religious service, I had an opportunity of preaching in the Tahitian language.
That evening, Ellis, who preached his sermon in a Polynesian tongue, accomplished a key first step in breaking the icy relationship between Kaʻahumanu and the American missionaries, in particular their leader, Hiram Bingham.
By mid-May Kaʻahumanu had begun to express a strong interest in Christianity and asked that Auna, Aunawahine, and the Ellis family move in with the royals.
Soon Auna and Aunawahine left Honolulu with Kaʻahumanu for a tour of Maui and Hawaiʻi Island. In the days that followed, Auna walked with the regent as her feelings toward Christianity shifted from skepticism, to conversion, to an enthusiasm that fueled her passion for others finding the same faith she had.
“I read a portion of the Tahitian gospel by Matthew, and then prayed to Jehovah to bless them with his salvation,” wrote Auna in May from Lahaina, as part of his journaling on their trip. “After the meeting, we sat down under the shade of the large tou [kou]-trees. Many gathered round us, and we taught them letters from the Hawaiian spelling-book.”
In the ensuing weeks, Auna began to explain the basics of Christianity through a Polynesian worldview and organized a worship service around a morning surf session. At one point, one leader ordered his community to get rid of their idols—and more than 100 were burned.
“Then I thought of what I had witnessed in Tahiti and Moorea, when our idols were thrown into the flames … and with my heart I praised Jehovah, the true God, that I now saw these people following our example,” Auna wrote.
Kaʻahumanu returned from her tour of Maui and Hawaiʻi Island now eager to promote Christianity. She backed the creation of the Hawaiian Bible and used the Ten Commandments to shape her kingdom’s civil law. Soon after, she began to tour villages in rural Oʻahu and the neighboring islands, teaching the Bible and proclaiming the gospel.
Longing to go home, and with Aunawahine being ill, Auna returned to the Society Islands in 1824, where the couple ministered to their people. Auna died in 1835.
Similarly, due to Mary Ellis’s poor health, in 1824 the Ellises departed for England, where William became a traveling promoter for LMS support and fundraising. He took up photography in the early days of the art and used that skill to enter Madagascar on a new foreign mission, winning favor by photographing portraits of the rulers of the island.
The arrival of the Tahitian missionaries in Hawaiʻi in 1822 permanently bonded the South Pacific English mission with the American North Pacific Hawaiʻi missionaries and arguably rescued the latter’s mission from failure. Because the Tahitian missionaries arrived from Kahiki, the legendary Hawaiian homeland and traditional source of national spiritual revelation, the mana (spirit) of the missions was placed within the Polynesian cosmos. It opened the door to Hawaiʻi becoming among the most successful of 19th-century American Protestant global missions.
“In cooperation with the Hawaiians Thomas Hopu and John Honoli‘i, Auna had been influential in commending Christianity to the native Hawaiian decision makers at a time when they needed persuading in terms they understood,” wrote John Garrett in To Live Among the Stars: Christian Origins in Oceania. “The church in the Sandwich Islands owes its Tahitian visitors a large and not always fully acknowledged debt.”
Christopher “Chris” Cook is a Kauaʻi, Hawaiʻi-based author and researcher into the monarchy-missionary era of Hawai’i’s history. He is a graduate of the University of Hawaiʻi and author of a biography of Opukahaia-Henry Obookiah, the first baptized native Hawaiian Christian. He blogs at www.obookiah.com