Jonathon Napela: Quiet Hero of Hawaii
August 1978

“Jonathon Napela: Quiet Hero of Hawaii,” Ensign, Aug. 1978, 49

Jonathon Napela:

Quiet Hero of Hawaii

In March of 1851 Elder George Q. Cannon, a missionary in Hawaii, felt impressed to stop laboring among the foreigners in the islands and to “push out among the natives and commence to preach to them.” (“My First Mission,” in Three Mormon Classics, Preston Nibley, comp., Salt Lake City: Stevens and Wallis, 1944, p. 144.) Having been miraculously given the language as he associated with the people, he felt as if he were setting out to look for friends who were awaiting him.

Four days later, after traveling through the rugged West Maui mountains, Elder Cannon arrived at Wailuku. As he approached the churchyard of the Protestant mission, a group of Hawaiians working nearby called out to him. He talked with them a few minutes, then called on the local Protestant missionary for permission to preach at the meetinghouse. His request was refused, but as he turned to leave, he felt impressed to visit again with the group of Hawaiians in the yard—the family of Jonathon H. Napela. They received him warmly and invited him to stay and preach at their home.

Napela, a promising young man who had been trained at the Protestant missionary school at Lahainaluna, was an alii (chief) of minor rank. A descendant of the illustrious Hawaiian families of Liloa, Umi, and Keawe, he was influential among the Hawaiian people. He was a circuit court judge, magistrate of the Wailuku district of Maui, and a man of substance, owning land in several districts on the island.

Napela and Kitty, his wife, listened with great interest to the gospel message. However, the preaching of the gospel in their home attracted much attention and created a disturbance among the Protestant ministry. Napela was threatened, abused, and told that he faced the loss of his judgeship. To relieve his friend of further persecution, Elder Cannon decided to move from Wailuku. Through a letter to the man who managed his property in Kula, Napela provided a place for Elder Cannon to go.

Within a short time, Napela’s men in Kula had constructed a thatched building for the elders to use as a meetinghouse, and in Kula on the island of Maui in June 1851, some of the first baptisms in the Hawaiian Islands were performed. Two of the three converts were linked directly to Napela: one was his relative and another was the manager of his property in Kula. In the next eight months over three hundred people were brought into the Church, and several branches were organized along the coast of East Maui. (Andrew Jenson, Compilation of the History of the Hawaiian Missions, 20 Aug. 1851, Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.)

In December, Elder Cannon and Elder Francis A. Hammond left Kula to return to Wailuku. Feeling uncertain about returning to Napela’s house but knowing of no other place to stay, they stopped before reaching the village to ask the Lord what to do. Elder Hammond stood watch on the roadway while Elder Cannon went a short distance off to pray. They both felt strongly impressed to go immediately to Napela’s home.

Upon arriving they found Napela in earnest conversation with several prominent and educated Hawaiians who were trying to persuade him to forego his attachment to the doctrines of Mormonism and return to his place in the Protestant congregation. The arrival of the elders was providential: Elder Cannon was the only person in Hawaii who had sufficient command of the Hawaiian language and an understanding of the restored gospel to lead the subsequent conversation. They talked all through the night. That night proved to be a turning point for missionary work on Maui.

Within a few days Napela and his wife were baptized. In less than a month Elder Cannon, with the help of Brother Napela, began translating the Book of Mormon into the native language. In less than three months, more than one hundred and fifty people joined the Church in Wailuku—nearly half of them faithful in the Protestant congregation.

Brother Napela received the Aaronic Priesthood a month later, in January of 1852, and was ordained a priest at the conference held in April of that year in Iao Valley. At that conference the law of tithing and the law of the fast were first taught in Hawaii. Brother Napela accepted these laws and was assigned stewardship of the tithing funds to be collected. In his remarks to the congregation that day, Brother Napela recommended that the first day of each month be set aside for observance of the monthly fast. The recommendation was adopted by the conference.

During the months that followed the April conference, the Hawaiian brethren enjoyed a remarkable outpouring of the Spirit. They participated in healings, enjoyed the gift of tongues, and were called upon to accompany the Utah elders in missionary assignments. Though not ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood until a year later, Brother Napela was able to report in the October conference on two missionary journeys, his stewardship of tithing funds, and progress in the building of two chapels. He exhorted the brethren to “seek wisdom and knowledge from the Lord and learn the right way ourselves and then we shall be prepared to teach others.” (Jenson, 6 Oct. 1852.) During the conference, Elder John S. Woodbury spoke in tongues and Elder Hammond interpreted as follows: “The Lord is well pleased with our labors and the angels are near us. The natives are a remnant of the seed of Joseph and temples will be built in this land.” (Jenson, 7 Oct. 1852.)

By March of the following year, Brother Napela had organized a school to instruct the missionaries newly arrived from Utah in the Hawaiian language. After being ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood in May, he spent the remainder of that year working as Elder Cannon’s assistant in translating and missionary work.

On Wednesday, October 5, 1853, after fifteen months and eight days of intermittent labor, Elder Cannon announced that the translation of the Book of Mormon was finished. (Cannon, “My First Mission” p. 189.) Elder Napela’s part in the project—providing sustenance, copy work, and counsel with the language—is incalculable. According to Elder Cannon, “Few in the nation were as well qualified as Brother Napela, to help me in this respect. … He was an educated, intelligent Hawaiian, who thoroughly understood his own language, and could give me the exact meaning of words.” (Cannon, p. 187.) With Brother Napela’s help, Elder Cannon “was able to correct any obscure expression which might be used, and secure the Hawaiian idiom.” (Cannon, p. 189.) The manuscript was recopied, corrected, and finally printed in April of 1856.

The Utah missionaries in Hawaii were greatly impressed with the Hawaiian elders. Wherever the local missionaries were assigned to labor, the work prospered. In every case after 1851 where a new area was opened, a Hawaiian elder led the way.

The attention of many Hawaiian people was turned to the gospel by outpourings of the gift of healing. A woman who wished to be baptized but who hadn’t been able to walk upright for five years asked the elders for a blessing. George Q. Cannon records that Elder Napela and other native elders “laid their hands upon her and commanded her in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to arise and walk. She immediately stood up and walked, and went and was baptized.” (Cannon, p. 181.)

On one occasion, Elder Napela was called to accompany a party of elders to the island of Hawaii to settle some difficulties which had arisen there. After matters were taken care of, the missionaries, ready to return, were prevented by several weeks of torrential rain—common to that district. One morning the brethren asked Elder Napela to pray that the rain would cease. This he did, and before the elders were off their knees, the skies had begun to clear. They began their journey that day.

On another occasion, several elders were traveling in a whale boat from Lanai to Lahaina when adverse winds and turbulent water made headway impossible. All of the brethren were seasick. Elder George Q. Cannon asked Elder Napela to pray and quiet the sea. Elder Napela did so, and within fifteen minutes the sea was calm and the missionaries continued their journey.

Elder Napela was assigned in July to assist Elder Hammond as a missionary on Maui. The responsibility rested almost entirely on Elder Napela, since Elder Hammond was deeply involved in the project of preparing a gathering place—Lanai—for Hawaiian Saints. The following year Brother Napela was called to be one of the pioneers to settle on the island of Lanai. Soon after he moved, a letter arrived from President Young in Salt Lake City instructing several Hawaiian brethren, including Brother Napela, to commence preparations to gather to Zion. In less than two years, however, and before the local brethren had completed their preparations, President Young called all of the Utah elders home. The responsibility for the Church in Hawaii was left with the local elders.

In 1864, proselyting work was interrupted by some apostate influences, and the loyal Saints were advised by Church authorities to leave Lanai and move to a newly selected gathering place—Laie, on the island of Oahu. Laie was to be an agricultural colony. As the leaders of the mission experimented with potential crops, including cotton, Brother Napela and Brother George Raymond formed a small company to plant sugar cane. Their successful effort pointed the way for the Laie plantation.

In 1869 Brother Napela was given the necessary permission by King Kamehameha V to travel to the United States. He went to Salt Lake City in the company of President George Nebeker and on August 2 received his endowment. He felt that this was his crowning blessing.

Upon returning to Hawaii, he was appointed mission representative to the King and in a short time His Royal Majesty suggested that he seek office in the legislature. His candidacy in 1870 was unsuccessful, and at the October conference of that year, held in Laie, he and thirteen other Hawaiian elders were called again into missionary service. The decision had been made to resume proselyting work on the islands, and Elder Napela was called to preside over the elders and the work.

These Hawaiian elders met with immediate success. In one year they added over one thousand converts to the Latter-day Saint population in Hawaii.

In 1873 Brother Napela experienced a tragedy which was repeated in almost every village and town in the islands: his beloved Kitty contracted leprosy. She faced confinement on the island of Molokai at the settlement of Kalaupapa. The site, a small, beautiful peninsula on the north coast of the island, was unsurpassed in human sorrow, suffering, and degradation. Nonexistent facilities and a board of health that knew next to nothing about the disease condemned the lepers to suffer under almost unimaginable conditions. Many Hawaiians, examples of selfless love and devotion, went undiseased to the settlement to accompany their mates or loved ones who were lepers. Brother Napela also chose to go with his wife to the dreaded place, rather than be separated from her.

In the October conference at Laie, the members, reluctant to see him leave, sorrowfully sustained Brother Napela as the branch president of the Kalaupapa branch of the Church. His return to a conference in Laie the following year was his last opportunity to be blessed by a gathering of the Saints in a conference. He returned to Kalaupapa and discovered one year later that he also had leprosy.

Elders Henry P. Richards and a Brother Kalawaia visited the leper colony in 1878. They found Brother Napela almost unrecognizable, so advanced were the ravages of the disease. But he was still laboring as branch president, serving the temporal and spiritual interests of his people. He had also served the government as director of the settlement for a year and had been virtually the only confidant of young Peter Kaeo, a chief who was a cousin to Hawaii’s dowager Queen Emma and who had been confined to the colony. During his visit, Elder Richards stayed at the house of Father Damien, the famous leper priest, who characterized Brother Napela as my “yoke-mate.” Depressed by their visit, but inspired by Brother Napela’s faith and service, Elder Richards and his companion blessed Brother Napela and his wife, bid them farewell, and left, never to see them again in this life.

Jonathon Napela, the first Hawaiian to be endowed and one of the first fruits of the preaching of the gospel in Hawaii, died on August 6, 1879. His wife, Kitty, followed him a short time later. Only one of their seven children lived to maturity, but the daughters of Harriet Panana Napela and Samuel Parker became progenitors of some of the most prominent families of Hawaii. Brother Napela’s descendants can still be found in the Church in the islands.

As George Q. Cannon set out that day in 1851 to meet “friends who were awaiting” him, he was led to a worthy descendant of Joseph and the work among the Hawaiian people successfully began. In the islands today there are ten stakes of Zion, a campus of the Church’s university, the Polynesian Cultural Center, and a temple—plenteous harvest from the seeds of faith and service sown by Saints like Brother Jonathon H. Napela.

  • Joseph Howard Spurrier, professor of history and humanities, Brigham Young University—Hawaii Campus, serves as high priests’ group instructor in the Laie Third Ward, Laie Hawaii Stake.

Jonathon H. Napela.