February 17: Henry Opukahaia and Connecticut’s Foreign Mission School


When 25-year-old Henry Opukahaia first set foot in the town of Cornwall, Connecticut in 1817, he carried on his shoulders the far-reaching hopes and dreams of some of Connecticut’s most powerful religious leaders.  The charismatic young man, one of the first native Hawaiians to convert to Christianity, was one of the first students to enroll at the newly-established Foreign Mission School, an academy designed to give foreign-born converts the skills and theological training they needed to become Christian missionaries in their native communities.

Opukahaia, whose name was often spelled “Obookiah” during his lifetime, was born on the island of Hawaii in 1792.  At the age of ten, his parents were killed in the midst of a tribal dispute, and young Opukahaia left Hawaii in search of a better life elsewhere by joining the crew of a Connecticut-based merchant ship that had set anchor near his village.  On the circuitous journey back to New Haven, Opukahaia was taught rudimentary English by a fellow native Hawaiian crew member.  Once he arrived in New Haven in 1810, he adopted the English name of Henry as a given name, and spent the next several years receiving a formal education while living with, and working for, a number of the city’s ministers.

This 1835 sketch of Cornwall, Connecticut by John Warner Barber shows the buildings once used by the Foreign Mission School, just to the right of the center church.

A quick study and enthusiastic convert to Christianity, Henry Opukahaia repeatedly expressed a desire to return to his native Hawaii in order to help spread the Gospel to his former countrymen.  His pleas, combined with the uptick in religious fervor sweeping through New England as part of the Second Great Awakening revival movement, inspired some of the region’s leading ministers to found the Foreign Mission School in 1816, out of a belief that foreign populations would better respond to the Christian message if it were delivered by one of their own people.   During the ten years the Foreign Mission School was in existence, it taught and trained over 100 foreign-born missionaries, most of whom were either born in Pacific Rim nations like Hawaii, China, and Polynesia or belonged to Native American tribes like the Cherokee.  The first class was admitted in 1817, and consisted of twelve students, including several Hawaiians.  There, Opukahaia began writing his memoirs and labored to create an English-Hawaiian dictionary and Hawaiian spelling and grammar books.

Credited with being one of the inspiring forces behind the Foreign Mission School, the handsome, personable, and hard-working Opukahaia was an ideal “poster boy” for the theological academy.   Unfortunately, near the end of his first year in Cornwall, the promising scholar and would-be missionary contracted typhoid fever, and passed away at the age of 26 on February 17, 1818.  Opukahaia’s memoirs were published posthumously and considered to be essential reading for the many American missionaries who traveled to Hawaii in the 19th century.   Originally buried in Cornwall, Connecticut, his remains were repatriated to Kona, Hawaii in 1993, where he has long been considered one of the spiritual founders of Hawaiian Christianity.

Further Reading

An Experiment in Evangelization: Cornwall’s Foreign Mission School,” connecticuthistory.org

Peter Vermilyea, “Henry Obookiah’s Cornwall Grave,” Hidden in Plain Sight blog

Henry Opukahaia, “Memoirs of Henry Obookiah: A Native of Owyhee, and a Member of the Foreign Mission School,” via Google Books