Working for God: Women Missionaries on Maui

Fired by their desire to share their Christian faith, the female missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions for the Sandwich Islands abandoned all they had known to live in a far-off foreign land. To meet the board’s requirements that missionaries be married, some were newly wed to men they had just met.

Once in Hawai‘i, however, their evangelical fervor had to find its way around a nineteenth-century housewife’s many chores and duties, multiplied by the never-ending flow of guests who gathered at their tables.

The first of these Calvinist wahine to arrive on Maui, Harriet Stewart and Clarissa

The Baldwin Home, oldest Western structure on Maui, shown in 1904.

The Baldwin Home, oldest Western structure on Maui, shown in 1904. Photo courtesy Rob Ratkowski.

Richards, were brought to Lahaina by Queen Keopuolani in 1823, with their husbands, Charles Stewart and William Richards. Charlotte Baldwin, who came to Maui in 1835, lived and worked in Lahaina for 33 years with her husband, Dr. Dwight Baldwin.

After a five-month sea journey around Cape Horn, these young  missionary women often found themselves already pregnant with the first of many babies. In the early days, they kept house, gave birth, and reared children in grass houses with dirt floors.

When a violent storm pounded their seaside hut, Harriet Stewart sat for hours clutching her baby, “watching the motion of the rafters in the contentions of the wind―ready to make an escape with him from the ruins of our cabin,” her husband wrote.

A few years later, Clarissa Richards hid in the cellar as five cannon shots landed near their house, fired by sailors angry about the High Chief Hoapili’s demand that Hawaiian women on their ship be returned to shore.

For more than three decades, Charlotte Baldwin played hostess to as many as twenty guests on any given day, from whaling-ship captains and their families to visiting scientists, despite her ongoing asthma attacks. She bore eight children, but lost two little ones before their third birthdays.

The cares and labor that filled the days of these and other Maui missionary women surely distracted them and probably exhausted them. But it did not dim their zeal to teach and evangelize. In between supporting hard-pressed husbands in their own multi-faceted jobs and chiseling some flour from a barrel that had been drenched in saltwater on the journey from New England, the missionary women managed to fit in prayer sessions, hymn singing, Bible study, and sewing classes with female parishioners. They taught the 3Rs to both their congregations and their own offspring.

And then, when their children needed higher education, these mothers waved farewell as their young ones sailed away to Honolulu or even New England.

From The Story of Lahaina, coming soon.
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6 thoughts on “Working for God: Women Missionaries on Maui

  1. Brent Pellegrini

    I lived in Tahiti for a while after I left Maui. We had some close Tahitian friends who were
    7th Day Adventists. Their pig of preacher, a red haired, freckled lout from Australia, who didn’t have the common courtesy to learn their language or French but was very content to corrupt their culture, wouldn’t allow them to dance. Can you imagine forbidding a Tahitian from dancing??!!! They weren’t allowed to wear jewelry or drink. They didn’t seem to mind when we drank beer in front of them them though but you should have heard/seen the stony silence when we gave their 7 year old daughter a shell necklace we picked up in Mexico.

    • Jill

      What was so wrong about a shell necklace?
      I’m sorry to hear this missionary was so insensitive. The Hawaii ones had their faults–very ethnocentric, as would have been common at the time–but they did learn the language and create the written form, thus helping to save the Hawaiian language. I can’t see how you could work with a people without learning their language.

      • brent pellegrini

        The shell necklace was regarded as jewelry
        Enjoy your blog very much Jill. Thanks. Brings me back. Also, I loved Tahiti. We’d sit in front of a store drinking beer and playing guitars and singing. No hassle.

        • Jill

          Sounds nice. I wonder if Tahiti has changed as much as Maui.

  2. Madge Walls

    Not to mention doing all their parental and wifely duties in long sleeves, long voluminous skirts, and high neckslines. We have little to complain of!

    • Jill

      Somewhere I saw a list of what they were to bring–I think maybe in Dr. Baldwin of Lahaina–and they did say to bring light-weight clothes, at least! But imagine Lahaina in a 19th century dress!

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