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The Kawaiahao Church in downtown Honolulu was built from coral rock, chiseled by divers from a reef off the southern coast of Oahu and ferried to the city by canoe. Commissioned during the regency of Ka’ahumanu and designed by Congregationalist missionary Hiram Bingham, the church was completed in 1842, a little more than twenty years after American missionaries first arrived on the island. If the church testifies to the rapid success of the Hawaiian mission, the cemetery behind the church tells a more complicated story. Alongside graves of missionary heroes and heroines are the graves of their children and grandchildren, many of whom abandoned mission work for more lucrative pursuits. The shapers of Hawaii's Christian monarchy lie alongside conspirators who undid that same monarchy. On a recent trip to Honolulu, my wife and I visited the church and cemetery. Our guide, a young Anglican priest who has spent most of his life in Hawaii, pointed to two graves, both bearing the same surname. “Good guy. Bad guy,” he said.

Missionaries first arrived in Hawaii in 1820, at a time when the church’s mission was still described in terms of “conquest.” At Bingham’s ordination, Rev. Heman Humphrey lamented that “Immense regions of the earth, which belong to the church, remain unsubdued,” but assured his listeners that the “ultimate conquest and possession of all these is certain.”

With regard to Hawaii, Humphrey was right. It became a Christian kingdom nearly overnight. Between 1820 and 1850, nearly two hundred missionaries, most from New England, settled islands. Within two years of the first arrivals, they were operating a press and beginning to turn Hawaiian into a written language. They published grammar books, an arithmetic text, a collection of “The Thoughts of the Chiefs,” and translations of the Decalogue, a catechism, the Sermon on the Mount, a hymnal, and a history of Scripture. In an 1833 report to donors, the missionaries claimed they had churned out twenty million pages in little more than a decade. Tracts were useless without a literate population, and the missionaries’ educational efforts were astonishing. They established schools for children, but found adults equally eager to learn. According to James L. Haley, “By 1824 there were some two thousand pupils; by 1826, four hundred native teachers were giving lessons to twenty-five thousand; by 1831, there were eleven hundred schools teaching 30 percent of the population.” After only a decade of work, a majority of adult Hawaiians could read.

The missionaries quickly recognized the strategic importance of converting royals, chiefs, and chieftesses. Keopuolani, one of the wives of the conqueror Kamehameha I, collaborated with Ka’ahumanu, another of the conqueror’s wives, in dismantling the kapu system of worship, food regulations, and castes. Keopuolani learned the faith from a Tahitian convert, and, as her health declined, she wrote to a royal retainer, “The gods of Hawaii are false. My attachment to them is ended; but I do have love to Christ. I have given myself to him.” She ended with an exhortation: “Do no evil. Love Jesus Christ, that you and I may meet in heaven.” She was baptized on her deathbed. Ka’ahumanu initially treated the missionaries with imperious skepticism, but, after missionary wives nursed her during a serious illness, she became a major patroness of the mission.

As chiefs and commoners converted, the laws and mores of Hawaii changed. The missionaries avoided direct political action, but when chiefs asked them for guidance, they were free with their advice. Human sacrifice was prohibited by the mid-1820s. Prior to the missionaries’ arrival, infanticide was widespread. The Presbyterian Charles Stewart estimated that “two-thirds of the infants born perish by the hands of their own parents before obtaining their first or second year of age!” British missionary William Ellis was startled to learn “the reason most frequently assigned, even by the parents themselves, for the murder of their children, is the trouble of bringing them up.” Ka’ahumanu prohibited infanticide in 1824, and the proscription was reinforced by an 1835 statute. Under the influence of missionaries, chiefs passed Sabbath laws and instituted legal codes based on the “second table” of the Ten Commandments. Notably, the laws applied to everyone. Ordinary Hawaiians were shocked when a chief convicted of poisoning his wife was publicly hanged in Honolulu on October 20, 1840.

As we entered the open-air atrium of the Hawaii State Capitol, our guide read the Hawaiian-language motto on the state seal, which dates back to the reign of Kamehameha III: “UA-MAU-KE-EA-O-KA-AINA-I-KA-PONO,” “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” It’s a clear reference to Proverbs 13:43, a permanent reminder of the achievement of the missionaries.

Even before the missionaries arrived, Hawaii was a target for a different form of private imperialism. During the first half of the nineteenth century, zeal for the godly commonwealth cooled, replaced by efforts to force Hawaii into America’s global commercial network. The shift from saving souls to making money wasn’t lost on contemporaries. One writer complained at the time that “the penny contributions of children, the proceeds of ladies’ aid societies and the missionary donations of earnest men and women were made to serve the ends of Big Business in Hawaii.”

Traditional Hawaii had no concept of property ownership or rights. In its quasi-feudal system, the king owned all the land and permitted warrior-vassals to use it in exchange for services. Commoners owned nothing. During the 1840s, entrepreneurial haoles (“without breath”), or whites who couldn’t speak Hawaiian, persuaded Kamehameha III to divide the land among the king, the government, chiefs, and the common people. Though its stated purpose was to distribute land to the kanakas (commoners), the ultimate result of the Great Mahele (“division”) was the eviction of thousands of Hawaiians and a massive, permanent transfer of wealth to foreign residents and companies. As Georgia Rep. James L. Blount later remarked, “The majority received nothing. The foreigners soon traded the chiefs out of a large portion of their shares, and later purchased from the Government government lands and obtained long leases on crown lands.”

For decades, haoles also pressed for closer ties with the U.S. Sugar planters wanted to export to the U.S. market, but American tariffs made Hawaiian sugar uncompetitive. After several false starts, the planters persuaded the U.S. to enter a reciprocity agreement: Hawaiian sugar would be sold tariff-free, and, in exchange, Hawaii gave the U.S. exclusive control of several Hawaiian commercial and military bases. Sugar exports ballooned. Between 1876 and 1890, Hawaii’s sugar exports to the States increased tenfold.

It was a fateful political decision. As the historian William Adam Russ observed, “economic annexation” was the first step toward political annexation. When native Hawaiians protested the reciprocity agreement, the U.S. provided marines as a personal bodyguard to King Kalakaua. When the treaty was renewed eight years later, Kalakaua ceded control of Pearl Harbor to the Americans. Led by Lorrin Thurston, a grandson of missionaries, the planters forced a new constitution, known as the “Bayonet Constitution” (1887), that drastically reduced the king’s authority and concentrated power in the upper house, controlled by what was still, anachronistically, called the “Missionary Party.” A few years later, in 1894, Thurston led a coup that overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy and established the Republic of Hawaii, paving the way to annexation and eventual statehood.

As I reflect on our visit in the weeks after our return, I realize how vividly Hawaii’s history with the U.S. illuminates the peculiar shape of American (or, perhaps, Anglo-American) imperialism. Direct territorial conquest isn’t the American way. Most of the work of conquest hasn’t been carried out by government agents at all. Our imperialism is more subtle. First come the explorers and adventurers. Then the missionaries. Then the businessmen. Then, to protect business interests, the military. And the military and businessmen always stay and always win.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

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