Hawaii’s Great Awakening
TITUS COAN: GOD’S SERVANT
Just prior to the missionary meeting of 1836, a new member of the mission team had arrived in 1835 in Hilo, on the island of Hawaii, to become the pastor of the church. His name was Titus Coan. The church in 1836 had 23 members, although Coan reported in his missionary report the Sunday attendance was 300 adults and 100 to 150 children. This church was about to see a massive change, for God had brought to the islands the second ingredient for the Great Awakening, the man of faith.
Titus Coan was born in Connecticut in 1801, the child of a devotedly religious family. His mother was the aunt of Asahel Nettleton, the well-known evangelist of the Second Great Awakening in New England. Although exposed to the gospel most of his life he did not surrender himself to Christ until 1829, during a revival in his home town after a prolonged illness. His surrender was wholehearted and he began to pursue opportunities to involve himself in ministry. In the summer of 1830 he met with Charles Finney and a number of his associates while working with a minister friend in New York. After two years of study at Auburn Theological Seminary, a brief stint as a missionary in Patagonia, he married and soon after took his bride to become missionaries to the Sandwich Islands.
It is important to weigh Coan’s contributions to the revival in light of all that happened. All the islands experienced a revival. However, it was the island of Hawaii’s revival that accounted for 3/4 of all the new members added to the church. Secondly, it was Titus Coan’s belief and those like him that helped to spur on the revival. Let me explain this point. S.E. Bishop in his article published in the March 1902 issue of The Friend gives an interesting insight. He states, “…I think it true that the severer forms of Calvinism presented by the earlier missionaries were less adapted to facilitate the work of the Divine Spirit, than were the gentler and sweeter forms in which the Gospel was presented by those more lately arrived who had been in the wonderful revival under Finney’s preaching.” He goes on to tell his own personal experience as a child in hearing the gospel presented by these new missionaries. He went on to conclude that the “entrance of these devoted men into the Hawaiian work gave a new impulse to the evangelization of the people. There was a more direct and efficient presentation of Christ, less encumbered by the old and stiff Westminister forms of doctrine. This new preaching undoubtedly contributed much to the great spiritual awakening among the Hawaiians.’ In another article in December 1902, Bishop names the missionaries who experienced the Charles G. Finney revivals in New York. They were, “Dibble, Coan, Lyons, and Lowell Smith, whose souls had felt the peculiar kindling of the Spirit and who brought with them His peculiar flame.’
These new missionaries had experienced revival in the United States and believed God for revival in their respective fields. They caught a vision, a new vision of what God could do, without which the revival could not have happened. This vision of revival was all encompassing in that they did the very things they had seen God use to bring revival in the United States. Dr. Rufus Anderson recorded that: “the means employed were those commonly used during times of revival in the United States, such as preaching, the prayers of the church, protracted meetings, and conversing with individuals or small companies.” He went on to note that during “the protracted meetings much care was given to the plain preaching of revealed truths, with prayer in the intervals.” He even jotted down some of the topics preached which were so effective: “The gospel a savor of life or death; the danger of delaying repentance; the servant who knew his Lord’s will and did it not; sinners not willing that Christ should reign over them; halting between two opinions; the balm of Gilead; the sinner hardening his neck; God not willing that any should perish.” Anderson states that the topics most insisted on was the sin and danger of refusing an offered Savior.”
The rationale for the reproducing of what God had done in the revival movement in the United States is provided by Titus Coan who found that “like doctrines, prayers and efforts seemed to produce like fruits.”
Not only did Coan take the success of the Finney revivals and reproduce it in Hawaii, he characterized what attitude a missionary was to have if they were to be used by God powerfully to bring forth a great harvest. He exemplified the incarnation principle, love in action. Historian Gaven Daws comments that “Love was the driving force in his life: he loved his wife, he loved Christ, and he loved his work.” In a letter Coan wrote to colleagues concerning the passion of his early Christian love he stated: “When I came to these islands, and before I could use the Hawaiian language, I often felt as if I should burst with strong desire to speak the word to the natives around me. And when my mouth was opened to speak of the love of God in Christ, I felt that the very chords of my heart were wrapped around my hearers, and that some inward power was helping me to draw them in, as the fisherman feels when drawing in his net filled with fishes.’
S.E. Bishop spent his childhood in Hawaii and Titus Coan was his spiritual father. He comments on Coan’s “personal magnetism of love” that drew him, “sweetly and irresistibly, to the love of God in Christ.” He goes on to mention how in later life he personally met Finney and was influenced by his intellectual and spiritual power, but he never met anyone that matched the “winning power of love” like that of his spiritual father, Titus Coan.”
The incarnation is expressed so beautifully in John 1:14, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” This is what Titus Coan attempted to emulate. His love for the people was expressed first by the mastery of the Hawaiian language and secondly by his desire to preach the gospel to everyone living in his district, which was around 15 to 16,000 all living within the distance of 100 miles. In order to preach to everyone, in the fall of 1836 he decided to make a tour on foot of his entire district.
In his autobiography he tells about this tour and how he “preached three, four, five times a day, and had much personal conversations with the natives on things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” He goes on to share how in the Puna area there was a greater response among the people, all eager to hear the “word of life”. He states, “Many listened with tears, and after the preaching, when I supposed they would return to their homes and give me rest, they remained and crowded around me so earnestly, that I had no time to eat. And in places where I spent my nights they filled the house to its entire capacity, leaving scores outside who could not enter.” This went on till midnight and would resume at the crack of dawn. In the most popular area of Puna, in two days, Coan preached ten sermons while spending the time in between the services in personal conversation. A number of people were converted, one being the High Priest of the Volcano, a violent man who was a drunkard, adulteress, robber and murderer. He broke and began to seek the Lord. This first tour was 30 days long during which he not only preached, but examined 20 schools with a total of 1,200 pupils.
It seems, from what I can gather, that Titus Coan went on tour often times each year attempting to personally touch for Jesus every person in his parish. In fact, he had a unique and thorough follow-up system in order to keep track of his converts and new members. Coan states, “I had a faithful notebook in my pocket, and in all my personal conversations with the people, by night and by day, at home and in my oft repeated tours, I had noted down, unobserved, the names of individuals apparently sincere and true converts. Over these persons I kept watch, though unconsciously to themselves; and thus their life and conversation were made the subjects of vigilant observation. After the lapse of these, six, nine or twelve months, as the case might be, selections were made from the list of names for examination. Some were found to have gone back to their old sins; others were stupid, or gave but doubtful evidence of conversions, while many had stood fast and run well. Most of those who seemed hopefully converted spent several months at the central station before their union with the church. Here they were watched over and instructed from week to week and from day to day, with anxious and unceasing care. They were sifted and re-sifted with scrutiny, and with every effort to take the precious from the vile. The church and the world, friends and enemies, were called upon and solemnly charged to testify, without concealment or palliation, if they knew ought against any of the candidates.’
Coan goes on to tell how on his numerous tours he would take his book with him and call the roll of church members in every village. “When anyone did not answer the roll call, I made inquiry why. If dead, I marked the date; if sick, visited him or her, if time would allow; if absent on duty, accepted the fact; if supposed to be doubting or backsliding, sent for or visited him; if gone to another part of the island, or to another island, I inquired if the absence would be short or perpetual, and noted facts of whatever kind.’ This personal care even extended to his parishioners who became sailors. When they returned he would check as to whether they lived for the Lord or not. Even while in Honolulu once a year he would put up a public notice and 50 to 100 people who were his parishioners that had moved to Honolulu would show up for a meeting.
Both Titus Coan and Lorenzo Lyons who was also a missionary on the island of Hawaii, his district being Waimea on the other side of the island from where Coan was, were used mightily by God in the growth of the church. For example, in six months from January to May of 1838, Coan admitted 639 new members, and Lyons 2,600. Their two stations combined were responsible for 3,239 of the 4,930 additions of formal members to the church in 1837-1838.
In the following year, Coan admitted 5,244 and Lyons 2,300. This tremendous addition to the church brought criticism from some of the more conservative missionaries and from some of those back home in New England. Their concern was whether people were really converted and could it be people were brought into membership too fast. Some even criticized the way Coan and Lyons preached and what happened in their meetings. But, Coan was convinced what was happening was a work of the Spirit. He felt strongly that to leave people outside the protection of the church in the name of caution was to abandon them to “wander in darkness, uncertain as to their own character, exposed to every temptation of earth and hell, unknown and unrecognized as the sheep and lambs of the Lord Jesus, and in danger from the all-devouring lion.’
Coan had a tremendous concern for the lost to be found. His love for lost souls drove him because he feared that he would die before the task of seeing his people saved was accomplished. This made him a “people person” having great results. His critics were silenced when after a number of years, it was found that his losses were not any different proportionally than his critics who were over cautious in admitting new members. The reason for this was his hard work in reaching, sharing, and caring for people.
A final aspect of Titus Coan that represents the kind of person God used mightily to bring forth the Great Awakening was the fact that he saw things in light of a spiritual battle. To Coan the work was a tremendous spiritual battle. He referred to the “weapons of our warfare” and a militant view of God. Repentance was brought about by “Jehovah’s Hammer” or the “battle-ax of the Lord,” or the “Arrows of the Almighty”. In fact, he saw the struggle for souls as a fight that he wanted to fight till he died.
The man of faith seems to be an integral part of a great revival. Titus Coan was that man or at least exemplified that kind of person. What is fascinating to note is that even twenty years after the Great Awakening, Titus Coan was asked to tour Oahu. The tour produced a revival and more people were added to the church in Oahu than at any time since 1839, the height of the Great Awakening. It was reported by Coan as the “gentle revival”. However, the fact that this could happen in Titus Coan’s later life speaks much to the fact that he was genuinely a man of faith, a key in the Great Awakening.
Coan’s wish was “to die in the field with armor on, with weapons bright.” God gave him that wish for in the midst of a revival, he suffered a stroke and died praising God. He had served the Lord for forty-seven years in Hilo and by 1870 had received 13,000 members to his church, the largest number by any pastor in his generation.
GOD’S MERCIFUL JUDGMENT
“On the 7th of November, 1837, at the hour of evening prayer, we were startled by a heavy thud, and a sudden jar of the earth! The sound was like the fall of some vast body upon the beach, and in a few seconds a noise of mingled voices rising for a mile along the shore thrilled us like the wail of doom. Instantly this was followed by a like wail from all the native houses around us. I immediately ran down to the sea, where a scene of wild ruin was spread out before me. The sea, moved by an unseen hand, had all of a sudden risen in a gigantic wave, and this wave, rushing in with the speed of a race-horse, had fallen upon the shore, sweeping everything not more than fifteen or twenty feet above high water mark into indiscriminate ruin.” So Titus Coan describes the great tidal wave that hit Hilo. Houses, furniture and everything else along with two hundred people were floating or struggling in the great waves. It was so unexpected that no one had time to prepare for it. All one could do now was hope their loved ones were not in the waves. Cries for help were heard while frantic children, wives and husbands ran looking and calling for lost family members.
Titus Coan goes on to comment that “had this catastrophe occurred at midnight when all were asleep, hundreds of lives would undoubtedly have been lost. Through the great mercy of God, only thirteen were drowned.” To Titus Coan this tidal wave was as if God was speaking to the people to “Be ye also ready.” They began to listen. Titus Coan mentions how they buried the dead, “fed, comforted, and clothed the living, and God brought light out of darkness, joy out of grief, and life out of death.” He states, “Our meetings were more and more crowded, and hopeful converts were multiplied.’ This was not only the case for Hilo, but in other places in the islands that were affected by the tidal wave. People realized their need for God when coming so suddenly close to death. The revival increased in intensity because God’s third part of the Great Awakening, his merciful judgment, had taken place.
THE MARKS OF THE REVIVAL
In answering the question of how did The Great Awakening happen, we have seen how the stage was set, how God raised up a man of faith and others like him, and how his merciful judgment was poured out.
This brings us to the fourth aspect of the Great Awakening, what I call the marks of revival. Whether these marks brought about the revival, are simply the results of the revival, or how a revival is known to be happening, is not clear. It can be said however, that these elements are common to other recorded revivals and were clearly a part of Hawaii’s Great Awakening.
The writers who recorded what happened during the Awakening were struck by the tremendous emphasis of the people on prayer. The missionaries in their annual meeting of 1836 had prayed and had sent requests to the United States for prayer on behalf of the Sandwich Islands. The Hawaiian people themselves it was noted had a unique ability to give themselves wholeheartedly to prayer. Missionaries on each island reported a tremendous interest in prayer. On Molokai, Mr. Hitchcock noted that “a number were in the habit of rising an hour before light and resorting to the school house to pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit.’ This was before an awakening took place on Molokai. Rufus Anderson in his book, History of the Sandwich Island Mission… states, ‘Missionaries declare that they had never witnessed more earnest, humble, persevering wrestling in prayer, than was exhibited by some of the native Christians at this time; and that they had reason to bless God for being so greatly edified, comforted, and assisted by their earnest supplications.’ This was not only true for the adults, but the children as well. Mr. Baldwin reported how in Lahaina, for a lengthy period of time that “one could scarcely go in any direction, in the sugar-cane or banana groves, without finding these little ones praying and weeping before God.’ An interesting preface to the revival was what took place on board a ship that was loaded with reinforcements from Boston for the Sandwich Island Mission. The missionary team prayed both morning and evening and preached on Sunday with a revival taking place on board ship. The captain, one of his officers, and several on board ship made an open commitment to Christ and were taken in as church members along with the Hawaiian people on their arrival in the Sandwich Islands.
A unique aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work in causing the people to pray was the kind of praying the people participated in. The prayer was united and verbal, each one expressing himself individually but all out loud together. Each one would intercede over what the Holy Spirit had impressed on their hearts to pray. They would pray earnestly and with much emotion oblivious to the fact they had joined a whole chorus of people praying out loud together. This kind of praying was unique in the 1830’s at least among the early New England missionaries who had first come to the Sandwich islands therefore some of them opposed it. However, for those who had experienced revival fires in New England before joining the missionary team in the islands, it was a mark of God’s working. It seemed as though the Hawaiians were fulfilling James 5:16, “The effective, fervent prayer of the righteous man avails much.” (NKJV).
This brings us to the second mark of this revival: repentance over sin was expressed openly. The people desired to be righteous. At times such emotion was evoked that the missionaries did not know how to handle it. Titus Coan reports such an incident. He was holding an outdoor meeting in Puna while preaching on “Repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus.” One man burst out in the middle of the meeting with much emotion and tears saying, “Lord, have mercy on me; I am dead in sin.” Titus Coan goes on to record how his “weeping was so loud, and his trembling so great, that the whole congregation was moved as by a common sympathy. Many wept aloud, and many commenced praying together. The scene was such as I had never before witnessed. I stood dumb in the midst of this weeping, watching, praying multitudes, not being able to make myself heard for about twenty minutes.’ This soon became a pattern in the meetings. The burden to be rid of sin, through confession of sin and restitution was real. Loud crying, shrieks, falling down, and wailing was not unusual in the meetings. Titus Coan reports, “I arrived yesterday at 8:00 A.M. Found a large company of children collected…in the meeting houses besides several hundreds of adults. I was a little weary, but I felt the Spirit break upon my heart; so I went right in among the children and fell upon my knees and looked up to Heaven. The Holy Spirit fell instantly, so soon as I opened my mouth. The place was shaken. The congregation was all in tears, and there was such a crying out as I had not heard before. The overt expression of repentance manifested in the meeting continued for over two years. Some missionaries criticized Coan and Lyons for allowing such displays. But, to Coan the physical manifestations of repenters were a “token of the Holy Spirit”.
It is fascinating to note that holiness, right living, and open repentance was much a part of the Great Awakening that even after this move of God, people still saw this kind of life style to be the normal Christian life. Rev. H.T. Cheever who visited the islands not long after the Great Awakening described a communion service.
“In the afternoon was the sacrament. Kaipuholo, our host, had previously come to ask Mr. Bond (the missionary in charge) if his wife might come to the communion. He said that the evening before, after the preparatory lecture, she had quarreled with her neighbors about her goats getting into their enclosure. As we entered the church the man with whom she had quarreled was confessing his sin before the whole congregation and professing his repentance. His wife followed, and with great dignity and self-possession, confessed the same.”
“But Kaipuholo’s wife remained silent. At the communion when it was asked if any had been omitted in the distribution, she arose to confess her sin, and when the elements were passed to her, she partook with considerable hesitation. The whole incident evinced a conscientiousness and sense of propriety the more pleasing as it was entirely self-moved.”
Hearers felt God’s power so strongly that their muscles quivered. They waited in “tremendous throes” like a “dying giant or broken down with an “earthquake shock”. Sometimes the fallen lay “groaning on the ground for fifteen minutes or half an hour after the fight was done!’
The Word of Life
A third mark of the revival was the tremendous hunger for God’s word. The town of Hilo swelled to ten times its original size growing from 1,000 people to 10,000. This was due to people moving in from outlining areas so they could attend church and hear God’s word. Titus Coan first saw this hunger manifested in his 1836 tour. He describes how people would hear him speak in one town and walk over with him to the next town so they could hear another message. Titus Coan mentions how during his tours throughout his parish he saw the following take place. He writes: “There were places along the routes where there were no houses near the trail, but where a few families were living half a mile or more inland. In such places, the few dwellers would come down to the path leading their blind, and carrying their sick and aged upon their backs, and lay them down under a tree if there was one near, or upon the naked rocks, that they might hear of a Savior. It was often affecting to see those withered and trembling hands reached out to grasp the hand of the teacher, and to hear the palsied, the blind, and the lame begging him to stop awhile and tell them the story of Jesus.’ Protracted meetings, that is meetings everyday became a common thing in each of the stations. People could not get enough of God’s word.
Dr. Wetmore tells of the style of life of the Christians due to their hunger for God’s word. He writes: “It was intensely interesting in those earlier days to see Christians keep with them at home and abroad their “ai-o-ka-la” (daily food), and their hymn book, and to hear them day by day repeat over and over again, (whole families of them), the passage of Scripture specially designated that they might thoroughly commit it to memory as a portion of their Sabbath school exercises, and their strive to learn its meaning and the lesson it taught.” Rev. Coan, because of the hunger for God’s word, would send out church members from Hilo two by two to preach, throughout his parish.
One final item that should be mentioned that helped to encourage this hunger for God’s word was the printing and distributing of the Hawaiian language New Testament. In fact, Queen Kaahumanu was given the first copy of the Hawaiian New Testament on her death bed in 1832. This availability of God’s word in the language of the people and the fact a large number of people had learned to read helped to foster a hunger to understand what the scriptures meant and how it applied to one’s life.
The generosity of the people was a fascinating mark of the revival. Titus Coan remembered how although extremely poor his people did not want to come to church empty handed. He writes, “Among their humble gifts, you will see one bring a bunch of hemp, another a pile of wood for fuel, a mat, a tappa, a male, a little salt, a fish, a fowl, a taro, a potato, a cabbage, a little arrowroot, a few ears of corn, a few eggs. The old and feeble and children who have nothing else to give, gather grass wherewith to cover and enrich the soil. Each give according to his ability and shuns to approach empty-handed.”
The giving was not just in things, but in time and talent. This was especially seen in the building of the churches. The building of the church whether it was a timber thatched with grass or structures made of stone or coral, the task was undertaken willingly and joyously. The amount of work done for the building of a single structure was incredible. If it was a wood structure, the men who had axes went to the mountains and cut down trees then transported the logs by hand to the building site. This would need hundreds of people to complete the task, both men and women. Others wove mats for the floor or thatched the roof from grass and reeds they had been collecting. The task was even greater when it came to stone constructed churches.
However, their giving was more than simply their time or resources, they gave of themselves to the work of the gospel. During the awakening it was not unusual to see people bringing others to the meetings with them. Some of them were blind or lame, elderly or the infirm. Their concern for others to hear the word, motivated them to reach out and bring people to worship with them.
The Work of the Holy Spirit
Throughout this revival there was one reoccurring theme, that the Great Awakening was a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. Everyone who wrote about the revival saw that it was the Holy Spirit that caused the people to pray, to share their faith, to hunger for God’s word, to repent of sin, and to give. The missionaries saw their powerful preaching of the gospel as a unique work of the Holy Spirit. S.E. Bishop recalls as a youngster, the impression made upon him on one Sunday morning at the beginning of the revival. His father was preaching, but not like he had done before. It, was Prophetically powerful. He writes about his father’s preaching: “He was usually colloquial in his preaching, without special impressiveness of manner. On this occasion, he seemed to be another man, flaming with the power of the Spirit. I had at that time learned only a few words of Hawaiian being sedulously kept from doing so. But, I remember the impassioned emphasis with which the preacher said ‘U’oki! U’oki!’ (Stop! Stop!). He was manifestly another man, with a divine power inspiring him. I think that this was a common experience of the missionaries.”
The Spirit’s work was not only seen in the preaching, but even through unusual demonstrations of power. One interesting example is what happened during one of Titus Coan’s meetings. He writes: “A young man came once into our meeting to make sport slyly. Trying to make the young men around him laugh during prayer, he fell as senseless as a log upon the ground and was carried out of the house. It was sometime before his consciousness would be restored. He became sober, confessed his sins, and in due time united with the church.’
There was an awesome reverence for what the Holy Spirit was doing. Titus Coan mentions how his wife “who’s soul was melted with love and longing for the weeping natives, felt that to doubt it was the work of the Spirit, was to grieve the Holy Spirit and to provoke him to depart from us.’
For all involved in this Great Awakening, it was clear that God had demonstrated in their midst the reality of Zechariah 4:6: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord of Hosts.”
THE AWAKENING WANES
The revival made a major impact on the nation and the Pacific. As to the nation, Hawaii became known as a Christian nation. In the law code of 1846, the Christian faith was established in this statement, “The religion of the Lord Jesus Christ shall continue to be the established national religion of the Hawaiian Islands.’ After a brief takeover of the government by the British, the kingdom was restored on July 31, 1843. Kamehameha III’s speech was simple, but reflected the faith of the people. “The life of the land, is preserved in righteousness.” The revival’s effect in the Pacific was seen in that the native church became so strong it sent out its own missionaries. The Hawaiian Society of Foreign Missions was formed in 1850, with the desire to share the gospel with other nations. On July 15, 1852, the first Hawaiian missionaries set sail for the Caroline Islands with a letter of greeting from King Kamehameha III to all the chiefs of the islands of the Pacific urging them to receive the missionaries kindly, and encouraged them to renounce their idols and worship the true and living God.
Although the revival had a powerful effect it waned. This was due to a number of items. First the nature of revival is that it is like a wave that breaks against the shore and draws back. There are seasons in God’s working. Just as in the natural realm, there are seasons in the spiritual realm. There is a time for planting and a time of harvest. In spite of this, men of faith see the harvest when others do not. They precipitate the harvest through their vision, and through their perseverance continue to bring people to God even though others have ceased. Titus Coan is a good example of this for although the Great Awakening had passed, he continued through his efforts to see people added to the church, even seeing the gospel thrust into the Pacific through the purchase of ships to take missionaries to other island nations.
Secondly, the revival waned not simply because of the nature of how God moved, but due to a number of other factors. Hawaii became inundated with other religious expressions. After a stormy beginning, the Catholics, under the protection of the French government, established its mission on a permanent basis in 1839. The Mormons arrived in the 1850’s and the Episcopalians in the 1860’s. Coupled with this change came the tremendous changes in population. The decline of the Hawaii population that had begun in the thirties escalated in the 50’s through unbridled epidemics like smallpox and measles. With the rise of the sugar industry came the need for workers and large numbers of Chinese, then Japanese came into the islands bringing their own religious beliefs and customs. By the end of the century other groups had begun arriving in large numbers with each one bringing with them their own traditional-religious beliefs. One historical commentator interestingly saw the gold rush in California as another factor. His point was that the life-style of the population changed when money became the common medium of exchange.'” With it came a shifting of people’s minds from the concerns of their soul to that of secular matters. Political changes was another factor which caused much confusion and in some cases resentment that hardened some to the gospel. Also, men like Titus Coan were a dying breed. He continued in his evangelistic fervor till he died, but others who followed him did not seem to have the same kind of commitment to the lost. By 1870 the American mission had closed its doors leaving the work to be carried on by the national church. The church in Hawaii had come of age, but there was a need for men of vision and without them the church settled into the task of simply maintaining the work. Help from missionaries’ children who still lived in the islands was disappointing, as far as the Preaching of the gospel was concerned, since most chose to go into business and politics.
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