Restoration and Church History
Jonathan Napela
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“Jonathan Napela,” Church History Topics

“Jonathan Napela”

Jonathan Napela

On March 8, 1851, 37-year-old Jonathan Napela (whose full Hawaiian name was Napelakapuonamahanaonaleleonalani) saw a young stranger walk past his home on the island of Maui in the Kingdom of Hawaii. Napela offered the man hospitality and learned that he was George Q. Cannon, one of the first Latter-day Saint missionaries on the islands. Napela introduced Cannon to the local Protestant preacher and noted that the two disagreed sharply over religious matters. That evening Napela, who worked as a judge, pledged to consider carefully the claims of each group and embrace the one he found to be most correct.1 Despite social pressure over the next 10 months to sever ties with the Latter-day Saints, Napela continued to offer the missionaries food and shelter, and he ultimately chose to be baptized on January 5, 1852.

Jonathan Napela in 1869.

George Q. Cannon considered meeting Jonathan Napela to be an answer to his prayers.2 Napela helped tutor Cannon in learning the Hawaiian language and worked with him to translate the Book of Mormon into Hawaiian—the first translation of the book into a non-European language. Napela also proposed the first plan for a program to train Latter-day Saint missionaries in the language of their assigned field: a school where new arrivals would spend two months studying the language before dispersing to fulfill their assignments.3

Like many 19th-century converts, Jonathan Napela wanted to join the main body of Saints and began planning for a move to Utah Territory in the early 1850s. An 1850 Hawaiian law, however, prohibited Hawaiians from emigrating from the kingdom. Instead Napela served as part of a group called to find a gathering site within Hawaii and helped select and secure land on Lanai for the gathering of the Saints.4

The years on Lanai were difficult. Missionaries from Utah were called home in 1858, and the newly gathered Saints struggled with famine and other economic challenges. In 1861 a charismatic Latter-day Saint named Walter Murray Gibson arrived and assumed leadership of the colony. Deviating from his responsibilities, Gibson soon spent money raised by Hawaiian Saints to purchase land in his own name, charged a fee for priesthood ordination, and otherwise corrupted Church organization on the island until his excommunication in 1864.5 Afterward Napela helped Hawaiian Saints come to terms with their upsetting experiences with Gibson and strengthen one another’s faith.6 Napela also helped Saints transfer to a new gathering place at Laie on the island of Oahu.

In 1869 Napela was finally able to travel to Utah, where he became the first Hawaiian Latter-day Saint to receive his own temple ordinances and perform proxy ordinances for deceased ancestors.7 After returning home, Napela was called to oversee a group of missionaries as they visited each of the Hawaiian islands. The mission was cut short in 1871, however, when Napela’s wife, Kitty, contracted leprosy. Napela decided to join her on Molokai, where the government had instituted a quarantine of those suffering the disease.8 In the leprosy settlement, he worked alongside a Catholic priest named Father Damien, with whom he became “the best of friends.”9 Both Napela and Father Damien contracted leprosy during their service; the Roman Catholic Church later canonized Father Damien as a saint.

Napela presided over a branch of Latter-day Saints on Molokai until his death, two weeks before his wife, Kitty, died, in 1879.10 He had seen the Church grow from its humble beginnings to become firmly established on the islands: by the time of his death, roughly 1 in 10 native Hawaiians was a member of the Church.11