October 23: They Met, Married, & Became the First Protestant Missionaries to the Hawaiian Islands in 24 Days

 

During the first quarter of the 19th century, the tidal wave of Protestant Christian revivalism known as the Second Great Awakening transformed Connecticut’s social and cultural landscape. New Protestant denominations finally gained a foothold in the once exclusively Congregational state, church attendance among all sects dramatically increased, and scores of young Connecticut men and women felt inspired to travel to far-off lands to spread the Gospel to the unchurched.

On October 23, 1819, one such group of enthusiastic missionaries set sail for the Hawaiian Islands (then commonly referred to as the Sandwich Islands), led by Hiram and Sybil Bingham, two Connecticut newlyweds who shared a passion for evangelism. 1819 was quite a memorable year for Hiram in particular: Born in Vermont in 1789, he graduated from Andover Theological Seminary in 1819 at the age of thirty and traveled to Litchfield County, Connecticut that same year to hone his preaching skills.

Brig Thaddeus
Scale model of the brig Thaddeus, on which Hiram and Sybil sailed to Hawaii, in the museum of the Mokuaikawa Church. (Photo by Donald B. MacGowan from lovingthebigisland.wordpress.com)

On September 29, he was formally ordained in Goshen by the Congregational Church. There he first met Sybil Moseley, a young teacher from western Massachusetts who, like Hiram, desired to dedicate her life to missionary work. Two weeks later, the couple married in Hartford, and eight days after they exchanged vows, the newlyweds boarded a ship sailing for Hawaii as part of the first group of Protestant missionaries to visit the remote Pacific island nation.

For 21 years, the Binghams worked to forge religious inroads and build relationships with the native Hawaiians, establishing Western-style missionary schools, providing medical assistance, and helping to create a written Hawaiian language. Hiram commissioned the first printing press on the Islands and translated popular American hymns, school texts, and books of the Bible into the native Hawaiian language. Sybil ministered extensively to female Hawaiians, holding prayer meetings that regularly attracted hundreds of native women. She also served as a schoolteacher and midwife.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Sunrise Poised to Light-Up the Steeple of Mokuaikawa Church, the first Christian church in Hawaii, Kaila Kona, Hawaii, begun in 1835; completed in 1837. (Photo by Donald B. MacGowan, lovingthebigisland.wordpress.com)

In 1841, the couple returned to New England because of Sybil’s failing health, never to return to Hawaii. After her death in 1848, Hiram remarried and settled in New Haven, where he preached at an African-American church until his death in 1869, when he was interred in New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery. Hiram Binghams’s namesake grandson, Hiram Bingham III, would become the explorer who “found” the ancient Mayan city of Machu Picchu, as we’ll as Connecticut’s governor and United States Senator.

A new life’s journey for a pioneering young Connecticut couple, dedicated to living out the ideals of the Second Great Awakening, began today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

David Stowe, “Hiram Bingham,” Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions

Hiram Bingham, “A Residence of Twenty-One Years in the Sandwich Islands (1855),” Google Books