Beacon Street Diary blog

School-teacher, doctor, farmer and mechanic

The American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missionaries was active in Hawaii from 1820 until 1863. Missionary Album: Portraits and Biographical Sketches of American Protestant Missionaries to the Hawaiian Islands offers glimpses into the lives of women missionaries who came to Hawaii nearly two hundred years ago.

The biographical details for women in the Missionary Album are often spare, usually just listing the dates of their birth and death, and the names of their children. Some are more in-depth, and a few contain eyebrow-raising details: for example, Mrs. Lucia Holman is believed to be the first American woman to have circumnavigated the globe.

Missionary women often worked with Hawaiian women and children. Several founded schools and seminaries specifically for women, but few had other work. Maria Chamberlain Forbes managed a home for elderly Hawaiians after her husband's death. Another, Louisa Gulick, translated educational texts into Ponape, a vernacular language.

Most missionary women came with their husbands, but single women missionaries were present almost from the beginning of the mission. These women typically had some experience as teachers or in mission work. One exception, Betsey Stockton, had worked for many years as a servant in a Connecticut minister's home. A largely self-taught woman, she shared her knowledge with Hawaiian farmers and their wives. She conducted a school in Hawaii for two years after her extreme piousness led her to serve as a missionary.

Women's experiences on missions were incredibly varied, as we can learn from the Missionary Album. Some stayed for only two or three years, while others settled in Hawaii for several decades. Different women played different roles, but as missionary Ursula Emerson wrote in her journal in 1832, each missionary woman wore several hats. "A missionary here must not only be a pastor and a spiritual guide, but also a school-teacher, doctor, farmer and mechanic, and this is not for a few hundred, but for thousands."


portrait of Miss Betsey Stockton, first single female missionary of the American Board, and teacher at the American Board school at Lahaina, Hawaii (then called the Sandwich Islands) from Missionary Album, Sesquicentennial Edition, 1820-1970 Hawaiian Mission Children's Society. Honolulu, HI: 1969. p.186