Cover image: Queen Liliuokalani.
To read more from Daniel, visit his blog: Sic Et Non.
Understandably, for most tourists visiting Hawaii, its beaches, palm trees, gentle tropical breezes, romantic music, and beautiful sunsets that draw them. “The loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean,” Mark Twain called Hawaii.
“No alien land in all the world,” he wrote, “has any deep strong charm for me but that one, no other land could so longingly and so beseechingly haunt me, sleeping and waking, through half a lifetime, as that one has done. Other things leave me, but it abides; other things change, but it remains the same. For me the balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of its surfbeat is in my ear; I can see its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud wrack; I can feel the spirit of its wildland solitudes, I can hear the splash of its brooks; in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago.”
Latter-day Saints should be aware, though, that sacred history has occurred in the Islands. Some accounts even suggest, for example, that the site in Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii, where a modern Latter-day Saint temple was dedicated in 2000, had already been consecrated for that purpose in ancient times. I’ve written about some of that history elsewhere, most particularly regarding the island of Maui. (See below.) In this column, though, I’ll focus largely on Latter-day Saint connections to Oahu. It’s on that island’s windward side where the historic town of Laie sits beside the sea with with its beautiful temple, its Polynesian Cultural Center, and the Hawaiian campus of Brigham Young University.
Latter-day Saints first arrived in Hawaii on 12 December 1850—just three and a half years after the initial settlement of the Saints in the Salt Lake Valley—when nine missionaries, including the future apostle George Q. Cannon, landed at Honolulu. From there, they and the Gospel spread to the other Hawaiian Islands.
Hawaii in the mid-nineteenth century was very far from today’s highly developed tourist destination. It was a foreign country, with a foreign language and a very foreign, pre-industrial culture. Still, the missionaries had considerable success. (Today, for example, Latter-day Saints represent the state’s second largest Christian denomination.) Their early accounts are as gripping and inspiring as any others in Restoration history—and, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Latter-day Saint history and the dramatic, sometimes tragic, history of Hawaii itself have intersected in noteworthy ways.
A central figure in that history is Liliuokalani, the last queen of the independent nation of Hawaii, who is probably most famous outside of the islands for having written the popular song “Aloha Oe.” But her story is a rather sad one. She was overthrown by an ambitious group of white foreigners on 17 January 1893. Thereafter, she was kept under house arrest in Iolani Palace until 1896. The only royal palace on American soil, it still stands prominently in Honolulu at 664 South King Street, near the State Capitol building. (Some readers will recognize Iolani Palace from one or both iterations of the television series “Hawaii Five-0,” in which it represented the headquarters of the fictional crime-fighting task force from which the TV shows take their names.)
After her release from house arrest, Liliuokalani lived until her death in 1917 at 320 South Beretania Street, directly across from the State Capitol, in a building called Washington Place that long served thereafter as the official residence of the Governor of Hawaii and that still hosts official functions. (The landmark Honolulu Tabernacle, dedicated in August 1941 by President David O. McKay, stands at 1650 South Beretania Street, just a few blocks away.)
It was there at Washington Place that George Q. Cannon, still a famous and beloved figure from his days as a Hawaiian missionary but by now serving as first counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, visited her on 17 December 1900. (His fellow counselor, Joseph F. Smith, had served as a teenaged missionary to the Islands a few years after President Cannon’s time.) To the delight of local Church members, President Cannon had returned to Hawaii for the Golden Jubilee celebration of the founding of the Hawaiian Mission:
“The ex-queen Liliuokalani sent me word that she would like to see me at one o’clock today as she expects to sail for Hilo. Sister Fernandez took me to the ex-queen’s residence in her carriage, She welcomed me very cordially and expressed the pleasure it gave her at seeing me. She also dwelt on the good my visit had done and would do, how the people’s feelings had been aroused and their love awakened and strengthened by my visit. Many more remarks of this character were made by her and when I arose to bid her goodbye, she said she would like me to give her a blessing, then she led the way to another room. Before I was aware of what she was doing she was on her knees before my feet to receive the blessing. I felt very free in blessing her and the Spirit rested upon us both.”
Liliuokalan’s brother and predecessor, King David Kalakaua (whose fascinating book on “The Legends and Myths of Hawaii” is still widely sold in island bookstores), had sometimes attended Latter-day Saint worship services and even contributed financially to the Church. His wife, Queen Kapiolani, had modeled her own benevolent association on the Relief Society. So it’s unsurprising that Liliuokalani, too, was a friend of the Latter-day Saints. In fact, she was baptized a member of the Church in 1906, although her understanding of that membership is a bit unclear: She was drawn, apparently, to the respect that Latter-day Saints had long shown for Hawaiian language and culture. (George Q. Cannon was a model in that regard.) And she resented the role played by the sons of Protestant missionaries not only in her overthrow but in the 1887 revolution that had substantially weakened her brother’s rule. She affiliated herself with multiple churches and evidently never felt herself exclusively a Latter-day Saint. Still, her annotated copy of the Book of Mormon is displayed at Iolani Palace.
In the early 1850s, as convert numbers began to swell, a gathering place had been established for the Hawaiian Saints on the island of Lanai, which sits directly opposite the Maui whaling town of Lahaina and the nearby resort development of Kaanapali. Local Church members had dreamed of gathering to the Great Basin West, but such a goal was largely beyond their financial means. Unfortunately, though, the Lanai settlement failed for a number of reasons—among them the oppressions of a self-serving adventurer and nominal convert named Walter Murray Gibson. (In 1864, while he was in Hawaii to investigate Gibson’s actions, apostle and future Church president Lorenzo Snow almost drowned a few hundred yards offshore at Lahaina. After he was restored to life, though, Gibson was excommunicated.)
So another gathering place was sought and, after investigation (and after two missionaries had received confirming visions involving Brigham Young), the Church purchased Laie, on the northeastern shore of Oahu. But it was a difficult place, barren, arid, and poor. So much so that, during his third mission to Hawaii, between 1885 and 1887, Joseph F. Smith felt called to exhort the Saints: “Do not leave this land,” he said, “for it is the land chosen by God as a gathering place for the Saints in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Hawaiian Islands as well as the islands of the sea. . . . And upon this place the glory of the Lord will rest, to bless the Saints who believe in Him and His commandments. And there are some in this house who will live to see all these things fulfilled, which I have spoken from the Lord.”
On Sunday, 23 December 1900, a few days after his visit with former Queen Liliuokalani, George Q. Cannon spoke to the Saints at Laie about the divine blessings that still awaited them. Samuel E. Woolley, president of the Hawaiian Mission at the time, recorded that “He said if they would be faithful enough that the time would come when some would be given the power to seal husband and wife for time and eternity so that their children would be born under the New and Everlasting Covenant.” A week later, President Cannon spoke in Honolulu on the same subject, and members took his remarks as a prophecy that a temple would someday be constructed in Hawaii. And so it was. On 1 June 1915, during a visit to Laie with Elder Reed Smoot of the Quorum of the Twelve and Presiding Bishop Charles Nibley, President Joseph F. Smith privately selected and dedicated the site where the Laie Hawaii Temple now stands.
But Laie’s prophetic destiny was not yet completely fulfilled: In 1955, while participating in the groundbreaking ceremonies for what is now known as Brigham Young University-Hawaii, President David O. McKay prophesied that “not thousands, not tens of thousands, but millions of people . . . will come seeking to know what this town and its significance are.” And, as unlikely of fulfillment as that prediction—concerning virtually the most remote possible location from Honolulu on the island of Oahu—might have seemed, the establishment there of the Church-owned Polynesian Cultural Center has literally fulfilled it.
Many visitors to Oahu, of course, take a solemn break from beaches, whale watching, and dinner cruises to visit the naval base at Pearl Harbor. And, here too, even on Hawaii’s darkest day, Latter-day Saint involvement is apparent: When Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Mervyn S. Bennion, a son-in-law to J. Reuben Clark of the First Presidency, commanded the battleship USS West Virginia. Seriously injured, he refused to abandon his post. (In the relevant portion of the 2001 film “Pearl Harbor,” Captain Bennion is portrayed by Peter Firth and his would-be rescuer, Doris “Dorie” Miller, is played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.). Brother Bennion’s citation for the Congressional Medal of Honor reads as follows:
“The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pride in presenting the Medal of Honor (Posthumously) to Captain Mervyn Sharp Bennion, United States Navy, for conspicuous devotion to duty, extraordinary courage, and complete disregard of his own life, above and beyond the call of duty, during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor, by Japanese forces on 7 December 1941. As Commanding Officer of the USS West Virginia (BB-48), after being mortally wounded, Captain Bennion evidenced apparent concern only in fighting and saving his ship, and strongly protested against being carried from the bridge.”
I’ve used two excellent sources for this column:
R. Lanier Britsch, “Moramona: The Mormons in Hawai‘i,” 2d ed., updated, revised, and enlarged (Laie, HI: The Jonathan Napela Center for Hawaiian and Pacific Islands Studies, Brigham Young University-Hawai’i, 2018)
Mary Jane Woodger, Riley M. Moffat, and Fred E. Woods, “Sacred and Historical Places: Hawai‘i: A Guide to LDS Historic Sites in Hawai‘i” (Laie: Brigham Young University—Hawai‘i and the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation, 2016)
I’ve published three other short articles on Latter-day Saint history in Hawaii:
“Remembering the history of the LDS Church on the Hawaiian Islands”. https://www.deseret.com/2016/2/18/20582711/remembering-the-history-of-the-lds-church-on-the-hawaiian-islands#george-q-cannon-began-translating-the-book-of-mormon-into-hawaiian-when-he-was-25-years-old
“When George Q. Cannon Saw the Savior” https://latterdaysaintmag.com/when-george-q-cannon-saw-the-savior/“The Sacred History of the Church in Hawaii” https://latterdaysaintmag.com/the-sacred-history-of-the-church-in-hawaii/
Some might also find this column of interest:
“Diving into the afterlife in Hawaii”. https://www.deseret.com/2014/2/22/20535821/diving-into-the-afterlife-in-hawaii