Hawaii: Kawaiahao Church and Mission Houses, Honolulu

Kawaiahao Church, still active in the Hawaiian community and offering Sunday worship in the Hawaiian language, is the first permanent house of worship in the Hawaiian Islands. The mission houses, preserved as a museum, reflect the daily life and work of the early Puritan missionaries and their successors.

Site Offices:

Kawaiahao Church

957 Punchbowl

Honolulu, HI 96813

ph.: (808) 522-1333

Mission Houses Museum

5535 South King Street

Honolulu, HI 96826

ph.: (808) 531-0481

fax: (808) 545-2280

Web site: www.lava.net/-mhm/main.htm

The first ship of Puritan missionaries arrived in Hawaii from Boston in 1820 at an opportune time, when the established Hawaiian religion had lost power among the ruling class after the death of King Kamehameha I. King Kamehameha II accepted Christianity and donated land and labor to construct a church and a home for the Reverend Hiram Bingham and his family. The monarchs and their families were baptized, married, coronated, and laid in state in the church. The acceptance and sponsorship of this Congregationalist church by Hawaiian royalty gave it a reputation as the Westminster Abbey of Hawaii. The adjoining mission buildings housed missionaries and a printing center.

Establishment of Christianity in Hawaii

Reverend Bingham led the Congregationalist missionaries sent out on the brig Thaddeus from the Park Street Church in Boston. King Kamehameha I, who had united the Hawaiian Islands and started a ruling dynasty, had just died, and his favorite wife, Kaahumanu, had led the overthrow of the kapu system of forbidden practices that held together the traditional Hawaiian religion.

In this religious vacuum, Bingham was popular and influential with the alii (ruling class). Kamehameha II gave him land in 1820 and workers to build the first of four thatched churches at the site in 1821. He also allowed Bingham to ship a precut New England-style clapboard home as a rectory. In addition, an adobe schoolhouse, Likeke Hale, was built in 1835 to teach palapala (the Bible) and paper learning in general. Built of mud, limestone, and coral fragments, it is the only surviving adobe structure built in Hawaii in the early 1800’s. It is still used for Sunday school classes and smaller church meetings.

Bingham worked with Elisha Loomis to develop the printing trade in Hawaii. He wrote down the oral Hawaiian language, establishing the seventeen-letter alphabet (which was later changed to eleven letters). The first edition of the New Testament in Hawaiian was completed in 1832, and the entire Bible in 1839. Bingham had five hundred adult students from the upper class of Hawaii; the education of children came later.

Kawaiahao Church

Construction of the existing building began in 1837 and took five years to complete. Bingham designed the church from memories of churches in his native New England. The severe Puritan lines are softened by the use of coral blocks as building material. King Kamehameha III formally deeded the land in 1840 and supervised the construction, ordering more than a thousand of his people to work on it. They quarried fourteen thousand one thousand-pound coral blocks from underwater offshore reefs cut with blunt axes by men diving ten to twenty feet. Logs cut from the forest on the windward side of the island were brought by canoe and hauled over the pali (cliffs). The church was dedicated in 1842, two years after the Binghams and their seven children returned to New England due to the failing health of Mrs. Sybil Bingham.

The interior of the church has simple Puritan lines and can accommodate fifteen hundred people. From the choir loft with its large pipe organ extend two long upper galleries displaying twenty-one portraits of Hawaiian monarchs and their families.

In Puritan fashion, the church has served as a meeting place and political center. King Kamehameha III spoke in 1843 after the restoration of the Hawaiian sovereignty following a brief British takeover of the island, intoning what is now the motto of the state of Hawaii: Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono (the life of the land is preserved in righteousness). It holds Hawaiian-language services on Sundays at 10:30 a.m.

The grounds include two cemeteries. The missionaries and their descendants are buried at the back of the church. Native Hawaiians are buried on the harbor side, an estimated two thousand in the 1800’s, many victims of diseases introduced by early sailors and settlers. King William Lunalilo is buried to the right of the churchyard’s main entrance in a Gothic mausoleum.

The name Ka-wai-a-Hao means “the water used by Hao,” a chief who was carried frequently from her home in Moiliili for ceremonial bathing and purification in a spring located perhaps near the present News Building on King Street. A stone was moved from the spring to the churchyard and set in the present artificial pool supplied by piped water.

The Mission Houses

The three restored and refurnished early nineteenth century buildings comprise the Mission Houses Museum. Frame House, built in 1821, a rectory for Kawaiahao Church, is the oldest wooden house in Hawaii. The precut timber for this two-story white frame house was shipped around Cape Horn from Boston. Chamberlain House, completed in 1831, is a more elegant, large coral house that initially served as the residence for the family of Levi Chamberlain, the mission’s purchasing agent. Coral House, built in 1841, was used as a printing office and storehouse.

For Further Information

  • Damon, Ethel M. The Stone Church at Kawaiahao. Honolulu: Honolulu Star-Bulletin Press, 1945. Offers photographs, drawings, documents, and excerpts from missionaries’ diaries.
  • Gowans, Alan, and Daina Penkiunas. Fruitful Fields: American Missionary Churches in Hawaii. Honolulu: Department of Land and Natural Resources, 1993. Gives historical and architectural contexts of Hawaiian churches.
  • Scott, Edward B. The Saga of the Sandwich Islands. Lake Tahoe, Nev.: Sierra-Tahoe, 1968. Traces the development of Honolulu and Oahu. Many old photographs.