February 17: A Great Hope for Hawaii Dies in Cornwall


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 also one of the first students of Cornwall’s 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 Americans often spelled “Obookiah”, was born on the island of Hawaii in 1792. When he was 10, his parents were killed in a tribal dispute, and young Opukahaia left Hawaii in search of a better life by joining the crew of a Connecticut-based merchant ship that had anchored near his village. On the circuitous voyage back to New Haven, Opukahaia was taught rudimentary English by a fellow Hawaiian crew member. Once in New Haven, in 1810, he adopted the English name of Henry 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 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 Hawaii in order to help spread the Gospel to his countrymen. His pleas, combined with the uptick in religious fervor sweeping New England during the Second Great Awakening, 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 10 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 12 students, including several Hawaiians. There, Opukahaia began writing his memoirs while laboring to create an English-Hawaiian dictionary and Hawaiian spelling and grammar books.

One of the inspiring forces behind the establishment of the Foreign Mission School, the handsome, personable, and hard-working Opukahaia proved 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. His death was deeply mourned by both the town and school.

Henry Opukahaia’s memoirs were published posthumously and were considered to be essential reading for the many American missionaries who traveled to Hawaii in the 19th century. In 1993, his remains were repatriated to Kona, Hawaii from Cornwall, 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