Decolonizing faith: A response to Haystack histories exhibit

Philemon Abel

During the presidential induction festivities three weeks ago, I attended the Haystack, Hawai‘i and Institutional History exhibit. I was saddened to learn of the many ways in which missionaries and their children brought about cultural destruction and the end of the sovereignty of the Hawaiian Kingdom, let alone how many Williams alumni played an integral part in its downfall. Something that I did appreciate, and wanted to see more of, however, was the emphasis on the collaboration between Hawaiians and the missionaries and the way that the Hawaiian people were not passively taken over. Having done my own research project on the Hawaiian colonial project during my first year at the College, I wanted to hear more of the voices of Hawaiians, both Christian and non-Christian, and how they felt during this time. In conversations around colonialism and white supremacy that occur on campus, I feel that implications are often made that Christianity = White and that all indigenous people who are Christian are only so because of colonization, and not because of any active choice on their part. By highlighting the faith of Queen Lili’uokalani and other Christian Hawaiians, I hope to push back against the narrative of Christianity being inherently white or colonizing, and highlight its use in the push against Hawai‘i’s colonization. As a Christian, I feel shameful when I learn of others using God’s name in vain while disobeying His most important commandment – to love God and love our neighbors. Colonization and white supremacy do the exact opposite.

I want to begin by recognizing and emphasizing that the missionaries did not only bring Christianity with them, but a white savior complex that viewed native Hawaiians as inferior, without civilization. These missionaries intertwined Christianity with their lives as though it justified their ways of dress,   language and other customs that had no direct relation to the teachings of Christ. They sought to make Hawai‘i into a Christian nation that mimicked European countries and completely erased Hawaiian customs. Hawai‘i’s 1840 Constitution was one of many that established the nation as overtly “Christian,” banning any laws that were “at variance with the word of the Lord Jehovah.” House Committee Chairman John Quincy Adams praised this Constitution and the missionaries’ work in converting “the people of this group of Islands … from the lowest debasement of idolatry to the blessings of the Christian Gospel … rallied to the fold of civilization by a written language and constitution … with all the elements … which can entitle them to be acknowledged … as a separate and independent community.” The U.S. recognized Hawai‘i not simply because it was Christian, but because it conformed to Western ideals of civility, of which Christianity was only a token. When Hawaiian Christians appealed to their shared faith but began to incorporate their old customs, their pleas to remain independent fell on deaf ears.

For example, it was not mentioned in the exhibit that the last Queen of Hawai‘i, Lili’uokalani, was a Christian and accomplished poet, songwriter and author. Her compositions of protest and resistance to American colonialism often appealed to what she believed to be the shared faith between them. Yet, she also embraced her native Hawaiian culture. She too called out the hypocrisy of the missionaries who used their religious ministries simply as a tool for personal gain, writing in her book Hawaii’s Story by Hawai‘i’s Queenthat “[the missionary party’s] leaders were constantly intriguing to make the ministry their tool …  securing their own personal benefit.” Lili’uokalani and other Christian Hawaiians published prayers that merged Hawaiian and Christian traditions, showing that the two cannot only coexist, but can be used as a form of protest. The Queen translated and claimed the Kumulipo – an ancestral chant describing the world’s creation and her own royal genealogy – as her own, thus owning her Hawaiian ancestry and tradition while defining her Christian faith for herself. By writing many hymns and prayers and advocating for justice for her people, the Queen honored her God, her ancestors and her people. Lili’uokalani also appealed to the Christian principles of justice and equity in her June 1898 protest in Washington, D.C., imploring “the people of this great and good nation, from whom my ancestors learned the Christian religion, to sustain their representatives in such acts of justice and equity … and to the Almighty Ruler of the universe, to him who judgeth righteously, I commit my cause.”

Another example was that of Joseph Nāwahī, who published a prayer that merged the Christian concepts of honoring one’s father and mother and God being a Heavenly Father with that of aloha ‘āina– loving the land and respecting it as one’s ultimate ancestor. The result was a prayer that called for Hawaiians to honor God the Father and Earth their mother. It reclaimed the language and traditions that former missionaries and white settlers tried to erase. Many other protest organizations merged their Christian faith and Hawaiian traditions to appeal to Western power. In the end, however, America, the same country which recognized Hawai‘i due to its adoption of Christianity and Western customs in 1840, annexed Hawai‘i after recognizing an illegitimate government on August 12, 1898.

I resonate with Hawai‘i’s story as a Black Christian, since my own faith is also tied to the slave trade and white supremacy. I feel that Christianity needs to be decolonized just as much as anything else tainted by colonialism and white supremacy. I own my faith on my own terms, decolonizing it and accepting it based on the teachings of Jesus, not on the teachings of racists. As a Christian, I want to call out those who took my God’s name in vain, committing atrocious acts in the name of my faith while disregarding the most important commandment – to love God and to love their neighbors.


Philemon Abel ’19 is from Kansas City, Mo. He is a political science major.