Opukahaia: Turning Hawaii from Darkness to Light

5 min

For many centuries, an island chain lay in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The chain was a land that was entirely unknown to European civilization. The islands contained lofty mountains, misty waterfalls, steamy jungles, and colorful birds. Isolated and remote, the island chain was a hidden gem in the vast ocean.

This gem was discovered by accident in 1778. English naval captain James Cook happened upon the island chain. Captain Cook named the new island chain the “Sandwich Islands,” after his patron, the Earl of Sandwich, Lord of the British Admiralty. On his first visit to the “big island” of Hawaii, Captain Cook met a young chief named Kamehameha. The young Hawaiian was destined to be the ruler of the united islands.

Some of the superstitious islanders considered the Englishman arriving in his wonderful ship to be an incarnation of the god Lono. Captain Cook returned again to the islands a year later. This time he was welcomed with lavish gifts. One of the gifts was a red cape made entirely of the feathers of one of the Hawaiian native birds! The islanders honored the captain with a feast and treated him as a returning god.

However, an altercation occurred between the sailors and the natives over a stolen boat. The conflict turned deadly, and in the ensuing melee, the captain fired his pistol, killing a native warrior.

Taking revenge, the Hawaiian natives attacked the captain and his guard, and Cook was wounded. The natives, believing Cook to be a god who could not die, were surprised when they heard the captain groan in pain. A shout went up: “He groans—he is not a god!” The wounded captain was surrounded, beaten with clubs, and then stabbed to death with daggers.

These were the inauspicious beginnings of relations between the Hawaiian islands and European civilization. Over the next years, traders continued to ply the islands, bringing guns, knives, tools, and also venereal diseases.

Meanwhile, Kamehameha consolidated his rule and gradually extended his control over other islands in the chain. Kamehameha I emerged from the civil wars as the most powerful ruler in Hawaiian history. These years were dramatic times of transition and violence.

In the midst of this upheaval, a young boy who lived on the Kona Coast of the Big Island was caught in one of the common tribal struggles. His family was forced to leave their village and flee to the mountains. The boy’s name was Opukahaia. While fleeing, the boy was carrying his little baby brother on his back.

One of the enemy warriors pursuing the refugees saw the pair as an easy target. He hurled his spear at the boys. The deadly spear pierced through the baby brother, but twelve-year-old Opukahaia survived. His parents were both slain. Opukahaia was captured and forced into slavery, serving the murderer of his parents.

In a dramatic turn of events, Opukahaia’s uncle rescued the lad and took him under his own protection. His uncle was a pagan priest in the mysterious Hawaiian religion that consisted of the kapu system of taboos, curses, incantations, festivals, and dances. The uncle trained Opukahaia in this idolatrous religion. Opukahaia learned to pray at the shrine of the local Hawaiian idol.

Meanwhile, an unrelenting civil war continued in the island chain. Human sacrifices failed to bring prosperity. The darkness of idolatry kept the people living in constant fear and dread of the unknown. Opukahaia’s aunt suffered death when she was thrown over a great precipice to fall and die on the rocks far below. Having watched this tragedy happen, Opukahaia fled to the coast and managed to catch a ride on a merchant ship traveling from China.

Opukahaia was befriended by the ship’s captain who brought him to New Haven, Connecticut, in 1809. There, Opukahaia encountered Christian civilization for the first time. He saw how Christian men kindly treated their wives. He was amazed at the expressive singing in the churches, and how the Creator God of all was worshipped in spirit and in truth.

One day, the young Hawaiian sat on the steps of Yale University, weeping over his ignorance and the darkness of his own people. He became an enthusiastic convert to Christianity; Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale University who had a desire to see the nations of the world reached with the Gospel, warmly received Opukahaia.

Opukahaia (or Henry Obookiah, as he was known in New England) often pleaded with God for the conversion of his own people back home in the Sandwich islands. He had a strong hunger for truth. After learning English, Obookiah studied to prepare himself to serve as a minister of the Gospel and take the light of truth back to his land of darkness.

Henry Obookiah mastered Hebrew, and he even translated the book of Genesis into Hawaiian. During church services, Obookiah would stand up to pray publicly. A witness noted, “I have repeatedly witnessed great numbers in a meeting melted into weeping . . . while he stood before the throne of God . . . pleading for Christian and heathen nations.”

Sadly, in 1818, Obookiah died at the young age of twenty-six, before he could ever return to Hawaii. But his pleadings and prayers for his homeland were not in vain. Just two years later, the missionary ship Thaddeus sailed from Boston, bound for the Sandwich Islands. Seven missionary couples, among them the Judds, the Binghams, and the Thurstons, were aboard, having given themselves to the Lord as missionaries to Hawaii.

In the providence of God, the timing of the missionaries’ voyage could not have been better. The Hawaiian island chain, known then to the rest of the world as the Sandwich Islands, was in a dramatic state of upheaval.

The year before, in May 1819, King Kamehameha I had died. Local customs that had regulated life on various islands such as Maui, Oahu, and Kauai were losing their power under the unified government of Kamehameha. One of his powerful queens had broken many of the ancient taboos in defiance of the pagan customs of the Hawaiian gods. The new king of Hawaii, Liholio, had inherited the throne. He was inclined to listen to the voice of change, and the missionaries enjoyed great success.

Just four years later, in 1824, one of the most dramatic moments in Hawaii’s history occurred on the Big Island that was Henry Obookiah’s—formerly known as Opukahaia—birthplace.

Kilauea was an active volcano on the Big Island. This volcano was also a longtime source of superstition and fear for the natives. Centuries of tradition asserted that the goddess Pele lived in the volcano, and that her wrath would break out against anyone who broke kapu, the ancient social rules of Hawaii.

Recent volcanic activity had partially filled the crater with a lake of red-hot lava. The eruption seemed to confirm the suspicion that Pele was angry with the missionaries and the Hawaiians who had forsaken the old pagan ways to follow Jesus. A band of Hawaiians had assembled at the mouth of the volcano of Kilauea, where a raging inferno yawned open wide like the gates of hell.

Kapiolani, the high chiefess, confidently advanced to the brink of the fearful crater. A Christian missionary stood beside her. Kapiolani’s people, the natives of the Kona coast, watched in awe and dread as their chiefess reached out her hand and plucked berries from the sacred plant known as Ohelo. In a direct act of defiance to the rules of kapu, she ate the sacred berries with no oblation to Pele, the goddess of the volcano. Instead of quaking before the false god, she paused at the brink of the crater and proclaimed loudly:

“My God is Jehovah. He it was Who kindled these flames. I do not fear Pele. Should I perish by her wrath, then you may fear her power. But if Jehovah saves me while I am breaking Kapu, then you must fear and love Him. The gods of Hawaii are vain.”

Then, the bold chiefess carefully descended into the very heart of the crater! She stepped 500 feet down into the main crevice. The acrid, hot air was choked with sulfurous fumes rising from the molten lava. The lava roiled from its intense heat, approximately 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The people watched in horror. They expected to see their chiefess angrily devoured by an enraged goddess. Instead, they saw their chiefess seize cooled chunks of solid lava from the edge of the crater and hurl them into the molten lake, defying the power of Pele to avenge herself. Then Kapiolani emerged from the crater victorious. The prayers of Henry Obookiah had been answered! Hawaii was turning from darkness to light; the people of these islands were learning to worship the God of Heaven in spirit and in truth.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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