James Kekela and his team stuck it out on the remote Pacific island chain—and earned recognition from Abraham Lincoln along the way.
In 1853, the Hawaiian Missionary Society sent missionaries to the Marquesas, an island chain about 2,400 miles away. American and English missionaries had already attempted and ultimately failed to reach the area made famous in the West by author Herman Melville’s 1840s novels Typee and Omoo.
The ordination of the first Native Hawaiian pastor, James Kekela, catalyzed the beginning of this mission.
“Several Hawaiians had been licensed to preach, but Kekela was the first to receive ordination, becoming the first pastor of a church,” later wrote Rufus Anderson, the foreign secretary for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM).
Sending Native Hawaiian missionaries to faraway Pacific Islands on independent missions was seen as a vital step in preparing for the end of the oversight and support of the ABCFM. By 1864 the Hawaiian Evangelical Association had replaced ABCFM’s Sandwich Islands Mission.
In 1853, Matunui, the high chief of the Marquesan island Fatu-hiva, accompanied by his son-in-law Pu‘u, a native Hawaiian, arrived in Lahaina, Maui, where Pu‘u was born and raised.
“It soon became apparent that Matunui came to Hawaii for the specific purpose of soliciting missionaries,” wrote Dwight Baldwin, a missionary physician at Lahaina. “In reply to [a] query about his request for missionaries, Matunui replied, ‘… we have nothing but war, fear, trouble, poverty. We have nothing good, we are tired of living so, and wish to be as you are here.’”
The Hawaiian Missionary Society selected four Hawaiian ministers and schoolteachers, who were accompanied by their wives. This included Kekela, “a modest, persevering …