Jonathan (Ionatana) Hawaii Napela (fig. 1) bridged cultures. As one of the first Hawaiian converts to Mormonism, he helped George Q. Cannon translate the Book of Mormon into the Hawaiian language in 1852–53,1 he instigated the first language training center for foreign missionaries in 1853, and he helped establish the first gathering place for the Hawaiian Saints in 1854. In 1869 Napela visited Salt Lake City. In an April 11, 1871, letter to Brigham Young, Napela recounted his visit as he reported it to the Hawaiian king, Kamehameha V. Written in Hawaiian, the letter is evidence of Napela’s ability to bridge his native and adopted cultures and pave the way for the restored gospel to take root in the Hawaiian Islands. In 1873, his wife, Kitty, contracted leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) and she and Jonathan went to the leper settlement on the island of Molokai. For the remaining years of his life, Jonathan presided over Latter-day Saints living in the leper colony.2 Jonathan died of leprosy August 6, 1879, and Kitty died less than two weeks later.3
Jonathan Napela is considered by many to be the most famous Hawaiian convert to Mormonism. Descending from royal lineage (known to Hawaiians as the ali’i), he was born September 11, 1813, in Honokowai, on the island of Maui.4 Here on Maui (Lahaina), at the age of eighteen (1831), Jonathan began his formal education at a Protestant school called Lahainaluna, where he was one of forty-three students, including the later well-known Hawaiian scholar David Malo.5 From this academic foundation, Jonathan developed a keen mind and went on to practice law. On August 3, 1843, he married Kitty Kelii-Kuaaina Richardson, who was also from ali’i blood.6 They had one known child, named Hattie Panana Kaiwaokalani Napela.7 Jonathan also served as a district judge in Wailuku during the years 1848–51.8
Jonathan was introduced to the Church by missionary George Q. Cannon, and on January 5, 1852, he was baptized.9 Cannon wrote that there were negative consequences for Jonathan’s conversion: “I had an interview with Mr. Napela this morning. . . . He told me that his office of Judge was pau or stopped. I asked him if he thought that his entertaining me had any effect in their breaking him; he said he thought it was mainly attributed to that.”10
Napela and Cannon developed a wonderful symbiotic relationship as Cannon taught Napela the restored gospel and they worked together on the Book of Mormon translation. Cannon wrote that Napela “could give me the exact meaning of words. The meaning attached to many words depended upon the context. . . . Probably but few in the nation were as well qualified as Brother Napela, to help me in this respect.”11 In addition, Napela showed Cannon a greater dimension of faith. Cannon recalled one particular experience in his journal. After Cannon and others had prayed for good weather for a spring conference, they then decided to have their meeting the following day indoors, thinking the weather would be unpleasant. However, when they were about to enter a shop for the meeting, Cannon writes, “Napela and a few more of the native brethren came up as we were going and he asked if we were going in the house to meet after asking the Lord to bless us with fine weather; he said it did not manifest faith; he appeared much surprised—and we felt to be rebuked for our lack of faith and we started for a grove.”12
To Jonathan should go the credit for first suggesting a language training center for missionaries. As evidenced in Cannon’s journal in the spring of 1853, Napela recommended that upon arriving in the Hawaiian Islands, Utah elders should first learn the native language at Napela’s home. Redick Allred explained that Napela “wanted to keep us [the Utah elders] in school 2 months & then we might go, for he thought we would begin to talk [in Hawaiian] in that time to get our places of appointment.”13 Not only were Napela’s language training plans put into immediate practice in his home,14 but LDS Missionary Training Centers currently use this same time sequence for missionaries assigned to most foreign-speaking missions. In addition, the Jonathan Napela Center for Hawaiian Language and Cultural Studies is an integral part of the BYU-Hawaii campus.
At the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii] Mission Conference on October 19, 1853, several missionaries, including Cannon and Napela (the only Hawaiian), were appointed to find a gathering place for the Hawaiian Saints.15 The next day, this committee traveled to the island of Lanai to explore possible locations. On the return voyage from Lanai to Lahaina, Cannon notes that “Bro. Napela prayed aloud to the Lord, by my request to bless us with a breeze and it was only a few minutes before we had to unship our oars and we were gliding along delightfully before a pleasant breeze.”16 In the following year the Palawai Basin on Lanai was officially established as the first Hawaiian gathering place.17 For nearly a decade, the Palawai Basin would be Napela’s primary place of residence.
In 1857 the Utah missionaries were called to return to the mainland due to the Utah War. Soon after, Walter Murray Gibson came to the Hawaiian Islands, and during the years that Gibson presided over the Church in Lanai, Napela served as a member of his first presidency (1862–64).18 In 1864, Gibson was excommunicated for apostasy, while Napela joined with other Hawaiian Saints in establishing a Mormon plantation at the newly designated gathering place in Laie on the island of Oahu.19 Here Jonathan supervised the temporal work of his LDS Hawaiian brothers.20
The following letter is the last of four known letters written by Napela to President Brigham Young, all written in Hawaiian.21 The first one, written in the spring of 1852 shortly after his entrance into the Church, noted, among other things, “This is the church of God, and that it is the gospel which is preached by the white men from the Rocky Mountains.” Jonathan further noted, “My desire is great to see you, ye Fathers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”22
President Young had written to the Sandwich Islands missionaries in early 1855, “If some of the native brethren would accompany you that come here the ensuing season, I should be pleased to see them, and if they find by trying our winter that they can endure this climate, I shall be glad to have them gather to this place as fast as the way shall open for them to do so.”23 A few months later, the Sandwich Islands Mission voted to send Napela and three other Hawaiians to Utah.24 However, the Hawaiian monarchy had previously established a law prohibiting immigration,25 which delayed Napela’s meeting President Young for another fourteen years.
On June 22, 1869, Napela and George Nebeker26 left Honolulu for San Francisco on the D C Murray27 and continued by train to Salt Lake City.28 Their arrival was reported in the Deseret News:
Elder George Nebeker . . . was accompanied by Elder J. H. Napela, a native of the Sandwich Islands, who became a member of the Church about eighteen years ago, and is the first of that race who has visited this country. He has been welcomed warmly by all who have met him, and his meeting with some of the Elders who have labored there has been affecting. They have never forgotten the many acts of kindness which they received from him while on the Islands. They left the Islands on the 22nd of June, and had a slow passage, three weeks having been spent on the water.29
Nebeker brought with him “six tons and a half of sugar and eighty barrels of molasses, the product of the plantation of Laie.”30
In Utah Napela fulfilled his long-anticipated dream of meeting Brigham Young. Napela was seated with the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve for viewing the July 24 holiday celebration, and the next day, Sunday, he and Nebeker addressed a congregation. Jonathan spoke “in his native tongue, his remarks being interpreted by Elder Geo. Q. Cannon.”31 Napela received his own endowment on August 2, 186932 (the first known Hawaiian to do so), and was baptized as a proxy for the deceased King Kamehameha I. Napela had a photograph taken by Charles Savage (see fig. 1).
When Nebeker and Napela returned to Hawaii in November 1869,33 Nebeker reported that they
found the brethren and sisters glad to see us and to hear what good news we had to tell them about the Saints at home. . . . Bro. Napela has visited the king several times and has been kindly received. The king makes a great many inquiries about the people of Utah and his trip there. The present that President Young sent was kindly received and one promised in return.34 The king advises Bro. Napela to offer himself as a candidate for the next Legislature.35
Nebeker’s letter evidences that Kamehameha V was very interested in Utah and that the king encouraged Napela to run for political office.36
Napela’s memorable 1869 visit to Utah is brought to light in this unique four-page letter dated April 11, 1871 (fig. 2). In this account, written with ink in his own hand, Napela provides Young with a recounting of the visit as he explained it to the Hawaiian king, Kamehameha V, about eighteen months after he returned from Utah. The letter was translated into English by Jason Achiu.
Letter from Jonathan Napela to Brigham Young, April 11, 1871
To our father, B. Young, a leader for this earth:
I am J. H. Napela, with deepest regards and everlasting joy.
It has been awhile, a year and a half, since I’ve spoken to you about what I saw there, so I am now reporting again to you, our father.
At 6 p.m. or thereabouts on November 20, 1869 I reached the home of my King, Kamehameha V, where I stayed until sunrise. I had come from the ship DC Murray and that is the date when G. Nebeker and I arrived back in Hawaii.37
I’ve given an account of my travel from Hawaii, not what happened from shore to shore, but on what happened along the rail route to Salt Lake, and about you: from what you do, your traveling to everywhere in Utah, your clothes on the July 24 holiday,38 and your mediation between some merchants and creditors which was quickly settled in a few minutes.
I informed my King about your counselors, G. A. S. [George A. Smith] & D. H. W. [Daniel H. Wells], and the quorum of twelve, and so forth including all the levels of leaders, and about the one special garment and explained the significance of that garment.39 It is something so a person will not have base desires, but does not punish the conscience of a people.
I also spoke of your wisdom as far exceeding any government on earth, and of your great wealth, and of all the people in Utah.40
I reported there is no hotel for the citizens of Utah, but did see one for visitors. That all the people of Utah will dine in their own homes, they do not eat in hotels.41 The people have sufficient food. I told of the people being kind, just like Hawaii’s people.
I commented on how unusual it was to get supplies so quickly, as there is no great ocean near Utah, or river from the east, or great highway, yet there are supplies.
I said there is no small locale where B. Young’s words do not fall. B. Young makes two circuits to every part of Utah annually.42
I reported that Utah is a peaceful place. Among the people there is no stealing, adultery, fighting, talking at night or drunkenness. However the soldiers do get drunk and must labor on the road in uniform with their pistols at their side.43 A very odd thing is that their superior is made to labor on the road also. When I asked G. Q. C. [George Q. Cannon] he replied it is so the sinners will not grumble.
I reported there is no church minister fee, no doctor’s fee, no lawyer’s fee, no messenger [courier] fee, no preaching the gospel fee.44
It is not uncommon for a person traveling on the roadway, upon seeing a gate open will close it and continue on. The children there will do the same.
I informed my King that B. Young’s responsibility to Kamehameha I was concluded, as I was baptized on his [Kamehameha I’s] behalf; but that he [the King] is responsible for the remainder of his ancestors buried in the earth and that their salvation rests upon him and that he must think about them. Young was saved. There was much astonishment before me and appreciation and the validation of everything.
I reported that the people are educated.45
Our father: I am presently on a mission to all the Hawaiian Islands to preach the gospel. President G. N. [George Nebeker] and the counselors have selected longtime church members in Hawaii to constitute ten mission leaders and I am one of the ten.46
I reported on the source of your great wealth like this, that any wealth or chattel B. Young receives is not from the Mormon people, but created from his leadership.47 He was appointed governor of Utah and with his annual salary he purchased businesses such as a sawmill, flourmill and so forth.
From these businesses he receives annual payments. I saw a theater established by him which pays him $12,500. annually. That theater has revenues of not less than $6000. every week.48
I’ve told this account not just to the King, but to the Protestant congregations and all other conventions.
If you please, my wife is angry with me for giving your photograph to the King and she has none.49 Could I please obtain another photograph of you for my wife, Kitty, when G. Nebeker goes there in June.50 11 April 1871 God save you. Amen.