True to the Faith: the Life and Times of Jonathan and Kiti Napela

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Ned WilliamsDevotional Given at
Brigham Young University–Hawaii

September 29, 2005
Ned Williams
Professor of English

Brother and Sisters, Aloha. Thank you, Robyn, for your introduction.

Two weeks from tonight, the Jubilee committee under the superb direction of Dr. Craig Ferre will present a play based upon the life of Jonathan and Kiti Napela. The Napelas were early converts to the Church in Hawaii and remained deeply faithful members despite severe obstacles. In the spring of 1978, President Shumway, then serving as department chair invited me to write a play based upon Napela's life. In his home one Sunday afternoon, President Shumway arranged for me to meet with Elder John H. Groberg, of the Quorum of the Seventy. Elder Groberg expressed to me his keen interest in the project and urged me to complete and present this play about this remarkable Hawaiian family. Since most of my comments this morning will center on Jonathan Napela, I thought it might be helpful to display a copy of a rare photograph we have of him, taken, it is believed in the l870's. This photograph is of the same person whose likeness in joined with that of Elder George Q. Cannon in the inspiring sculpture by Vilami Tolutau placed just outside the doors of this building.

Napela's name is the one that distinguishes the Jonathan Napela Center for Hawaiian Language and Cultural Studies on this campus. Today, brother and sisters, it is an honor to add my respect and affection for the moving legacy of Jonathan Napela by sharing with you incidents from his life and impressions I have gathered of him during the last twenty-five years. As our focus today rests upon one family, let me add that many other individuals and families in the early church in Hawaii in addition to the Napelas lived lives of faith and sacrifice for the restored gospel. They too rightly deserve our gratitude and admiration as we celebrate the Napela legacy today. These faithful saints during the early years of the Church in Hawaii embraced the restored gospel at great personal cost and extraordinary sacrifice. Names such as Solomona, Puoanui, Kaleohano, Kou, Koloa, Hoopiiaina, Uaua, Kaleohano, Kaawa, Makuakane, and many others—exemplify the richness and compassion of Napela's faith and legacy.

Let's begin with list of firsts credited to Jonathan Napela: Napela was the first member of the alii rank to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the first person to translate the Book of Mormon into the Hawaiian Language, the first to organize a missionary training center in his own home, first to construct a building in the Hawaiian Islands for the expressed purpose of preaching of the restored gospel, he was also the first Hawaiian to receive his endowments. These accomplishments bore no signs of self-interest rather they grew entirely from his faith and testimony of the restored gospel, which, we are told, began with a dream.

Sometime in the spring of 1851, while living in Wailuku, Maui, Napela recounted to his wife Kiti the details in a dream about a stranger dressed in white who had been sent to them to deliver an important message. Not long afterwards, this dream was fulfilled by the visit to the Napelas by Elder George Q. Cannon. Elder Cannon had experienced little success as a missionary in his first four months in Lahaina. After severe sickness and deep discouragement, Elder Cannon was nursed back to full health by a local Lahaina woman, Nalimanui, shown in this photo on the screen. Having recovered his health, Elder Cannon set out on foot for four days over the West Maui mountains to Wailuku where the majority of the population comprised of local Hawaiians.

Wailuku in the 1850's was a well established community made up primarily of the local Hawaiian population unlike the generally rough and transient international residents in Lahaina. Approaching Wailuku after the fourth day of hiking, Elder Cannon claims to have slipped and fallen into the rain-swollen Iao stream near Napela's home. Frustrated, disgusted, and soaking wet Cannon thought seriously about turning around and heading back on the trail to Lahaina until he heard a group of local women calling to him in Hawaiian: "Hey keiki, E ka haole" and then soon in English, "Oh, here's the man in white". Puzzled by the warmth of this reception, Cannon was greeted as if everyone in the family had heard about Jonathan's dream. That morning Elder Cannon met Napela for the first time along with Napela's wife, Kiti, William Uaua and K. H. Kaleohano, close companions of Napela.

Napela's interest in the gospel and his friendship with Elder Cannon were immediate. Napela listened to Elder Cannon's explanation of the First Vision, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and the uniqueness of the Latter-day Saint faith. Having a circuit court judge and a highly educated and distinguished Wailuku family take such an interest in his message gave Elder Cannon the enthusiasm and greater confidence to succeed as a missionary. Finally, someone was actually listening to the gospel message. However this close companionship between the Utah missionary and the local Hawaiian leader caused intense pressure upon both men from representatives of other religious and political groups in town. After a few weeks as a guest in the Napela home, Elder Cannon decided to reduce this pressure by moving to Kula, then on to Waianu, Wailua, and Honomanu.

After several months of teaching and baptizing new members living in other regions on Maui, Elder Cannon, in December of 1851 responded to an impression, a prompting that directed him to return immediately to Wailuku. Upon his return to Napela's home Elder Cannon found the persecution level had sharpened against his friends, Jonathan and Kiti. The record of his return states that Cannon had arrived to find a serious and bitter religious debate raging. All night it continued until the sun came up the next morning with Napela and his family having retained their faith in the teachings of the Church. A few weeks later, on January 5, 1852, George Q. Cannon baptized the Napelas into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Napelas were two of the 833 members who joined the Church on Maui that year. From the beginning, the Napelas remained at the center of missionary activities, offering their home to missionaries and members to gather and discuss the gospel. Here translation of the Book of Mormon in the Hawaiian language took place along with faithful service to their new religion. By the end of Elder Cannon's mission in 1854 there were 3,000 church members throughout the kingdom of Hawaii with 43 organized branches. During Elder Cannon's final visit to Wailuku, he returned to Napela's home, where, overcome by emotion, he could scarcely keep from weeping when he beheld so many of his friends who had been recipients of the everlasting Gospel.

By 1854, Church leaders decided to organize a gathering place for the saints and sent a few priesthood holders, including Napela, to inspect a portion of land in the Palawai Basin on the island of Lanai-- as shown in this sketch. Feelings about the Lanai experiment among the saints ranged from exuberant to reluctant. Many new members felt close and tender ties to their family lands and to the familiar surroundings of their neighborhoods. Unemployment in the Kingdom at that time was high so it was thought the Lanai settlement could greatly assist new members in finding meaningful work. Also there was the matter of separating the saints from some of the negative influences and temptations which added further pressure upon the growing membership.

Napela and others supported the project by providing special boats used to ferry settlers and livestock back and forth from Maui to Lanai. Plans for the new City of Joseph moved steadily forward, somewhat faster than the funds required for the leases for the land. Paying for the Lanai Experiment marked the beginning of the famous LDS fundraiser in Hawaii.  It took four years to raise $160.00, with some saints able to give only 2-3 cents per year. A convert, Brother Kou, traveled to Oahu to raise money for the purchase of the land on Lanai. He spent 6 weeks traveling around Oahu on horseback and eventually returned Maui with the handsome sum of $2.75 for the fund. Miraculously, enough money was raised: $500 for 3,000 acres and saints were on the move.

Reports from early settlers praised the beauty of the choice setting in the Palawai Valley. However, there were also heart-breaking accounts of difficulties raising crops, keeping livestock fed and alive, and the effects of extreme drought. According to Elder Silas Smith in a letter to Brigham Young in May of 1856, "notwithstanding all those disadvantages the Saints who have gathered here enjoy the spirit of the Lord more so than any of those on the other islands. They are ready to obey our counsels." From the initial phase of the Lanai Experiment to the full establishment of the settlement, Jonathan and Kiti Napela worked shoulder to shoulder with missionaries and recent converts for all to realize their dream of a sacred and prosperous refuge for the local Hawaiian Saints.

Between 1857 and 1861 two events resulted in a serious impact upon the settlement in Lanai: the departure of the Utah missionaries and the arrival of Walter Murray Gibson. News of Johnson's Army approaching Salt Lake City prompted Brigham Young to recall all missionaries laboring in the Islands as well as in other areas outside of Utah. With the elders away, local Hawaiian leaders gradually deferred leadership of the Palawai Valley settlement to Walter Murray Gibson. An articulate man of distinct appearance and energy, Gibson presented and later misrepresented documents signed by Brigham Young to permit him to establish control over the community. Titles to land were recorded with his name, decisions about planting, irrigating, and building plans all went through him.

At first, the local saints valued his efforts and followed his lead. Gradually, Napela and other Hawaiian saints noticed actions they could not embrace. Ultimately, familiar practices were discontinued. For example, many church meetings were cancelled. Making things worse, Gibson invented new church callings and positions which had no alignment with Latter-day Saint traditions. The final straw occurred when Gibson began setting fees for special church ordinations. One resident of Palawai wrote to Brigham Young: "These ordinations greatly surprised us. The certificates of ordinations could only be obtained by the payment of money, and if the money was not paid, the candidate was not ordained. The charge for these certificates was -- for one of the Twelve Apostles $100.00;-for Seventies and Elders $50.00; for Priests and Teachers $25.00;--for a Bishop $5.00 and $2.50 for a Bishops Councilor."

In the spring of 1864, two members of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles—Ezra Taft Benson and Lorenzo Snow—and former missionaries including Joseph Fielding Smith arrived in Lanai, investigated complaints and conditions, and a few days later Brother Gibson was relieved of his leadership role—a decision that clarified the authority of Priesthood over the branches in the Islands. Immediate effects were significant: most of the land remained in the hands of Gibson and church activity and membership had declined, placing new challenges upon the local Hawaiian saints. Church leaders and missionaries began looking for another parcel of land where the displaced saints could settle once again.

True in his faith, Napela was one of the first to arrive in Laie. Remote and desolate, Laie became the new gathering place in the islands after the sad end of the Palawai settlement. Here in Laie, Napela and Kiti settled once again into a new life with the saints. During his first year here, Napela demonstrated how sugar cane could flourish on this side of the island. Soon plantations in Laie and Kahuku expanded and a new means of support took root. Here is a photo of one of the first sugar mills in Laie, and industry on the North Shore that can be traced back to Napela's first crop of sugar cane in his field near Haaula. In the 1870's Laie did not possess the remarkable beauty we now enjoy. The land was barren, vegetation was limited, and water was scarce, yet 6,000 acres was purchased for new gathering place. During this time, Napela received permission from the Kingdom of Hawaii to travel to Salt Lake City where he met with former missionaries and where he received his endowment. Not long after his return the Napelas faced another crisis. In 1872, it was discovered that his wife, Kiti, had contracted leprosy, a scourge of the islands affecting nearly every village in the Kingdom.

Contracting leprosy meant that under law Kiti must be taken to reside in the colony on Molokai to remain until the disease would disappear or until the end of her life. Unwilling to be separated from his wife, Napela volunteered accompany Kiti to Kalaupapa, there to care for his wife and to serve the settlement the assistant to the director of the colony. For a period of time life on Molokai for the Napela's achieved a kind of normalcy. There are records horseback riding, fishing, picnics, and many social activities. Their only child, Panana, was sent to the Big Island to live with relatives. There, Panana married Samuel Parker and together they became the parents of nine sons and daughters, two of whom are pictured here. Meanwhile, Napela served as the local branch president, conducting meetings sometimes out in the open or under a hut made of woven fibers like the ones shown here. In 1877, Napela contracted leprosy.

Very likely the appearance of the Napelas would resemble these former residents of Kalaupapa. The disease first took hold in Kiti while Jonathan showed less evidence of leprosy. However, these conditions changed quickly. When visiting Kalaupapa near the end of Napela's life, Elder Henry Richards stated that the disease had taken Napela beyond recognition. Prior to his death, Napela was permitted to visit Laie once again, attend conference, and bid farewell to his beloved friends and saints living here. His final days, despite pain and disfigurement, were filled with exceptional service to the local saints in the colony. He continued to care for Kiti and willingly assisted members of other denominations with the basic care and comfort necessary to survive under unimaginable difficulties. Napela, preceding his wife Kiti in death, in August of 1879. The graveyard in the crater near Kalaupapa is the final resting place of Jonathan Napela.

As we look forward together next month to our Jubilee Celebrations and as we express our love to the Lord for the blessings of our lives here in Laie, let us also pause often to remember and to thank those true and faithful saints who have preceded us here. May the lessons from the lives of Jonathan and Kiti Napela give us all new reasons to express our love and gratitude to the local Hawaiian saints who continue to this very day to patiently teach us all the dignity of sacrifice, the holiness of human compassion, and the power of true faith in the restored gospel. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.