Sybil Mosely Bingham and the Challenges of Missionary Life in Hawaii

Sybil Mosely Bingham and the Challenges of Missionary Life in Hawaii

The Binghams stayed in Hawaii for twenty years and founded the Kawaiahaʻo Church. They also helped to develop a written Hawaiian alphabet. Besides the school, Sybil also started a weekly prayer meeting, attended by more than a thousand Hawaiian women.

Sybil’s admission to the mission field reminds me of a scene of a movie. She was asking for directions to her accommodations when a young man offered to take her there. The man, Hiram Bingham, was preparing to leave as a missionary to the Hawaiian Islands. He just had one problem: the mission board was reluctant to send unmarried people, and his fiancée had just broken off their engagement.

Sybil was a school teacher dreaming of joining a mission. It was common then for young Christian women to seek “higher” service to God by marrying a minister, going to a mission field, or both.

And there they were, in the same vehicle, both thinking of far-off fields. “I had taken cold by a night’s ride over the mountains,” Hiram explained, “and I wrapped a handkerchief about my neck, chin, and mouth, that cold evening, and this awakened ready sympathy in the sensitive heart of the young lady.”[1]

Hiram had heard of a young girl described as “a most amiable and thoroughly qualified companion for a missionary.” During the ride, Hiram’s “mind was intently querying whether this could be the very same.”[2]

When they arrived at their destination, they spoke for a while by the fire. “I measured the lines of her face and the expression of her features with more than an artist’s carefulness,”[3] Hiram wrote.

After discussing the matter with other men, Hiram asked a friend to contact Sybil and ask for an audience. The friend explained the matter to Sybil, leaving her with a verse meant to make a rejection rather difficult: “Rebecca said, ‘I will go” (Genesis 24:58).

But Sybil had no intention of rejecting Hiram’s proposal. She had been waiting for such an opportunity. And there was also a spark of romance. “Since that memorable evening when I was introduced to him, I find that he has secured my love,” Sybil wrote her sister. “God did indeed choose for me.”[4]

She and Hiram married less than two weeks later. On October 23, 1819, they sailed with seven other missionary couples on the Thaddeus, bound for Hawaii.

An Unfamiliar World

The 18,000-mile voyage was difficult, with the missionaries cramped in a small space, most suffering from seasickness – which might have been worse for Sybil and three other women who got pregnant during the trip. She also felt “like a pilgrim and a stranger” with “no abiding place,”[5] while everything she had loved on this earth moved further away.

The ship landed at Kailua-Kona, Big Island, on April 4, 1820. Before Sybil could even leave the boat, however, she had a first inkling that missionary life was not going to be what she had imagined. Before her departure, the secretary of the American Board of Foreign Missions (ABFM) had laid out the missionaries’ great commission.

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