Lucy Thurston - Missionary Wife

by Betty Fullard-Leo

Moku‘aikaua Church in Kailua-Kona. photo credit: Kirk Aeder

At Moku‘aikaua Church in Kailua-Kona, beside a display of the 19th-century brig, Thaddeus, are pages reproduced from the diary of the Big Island’s first missionary wife, 24-year-old Lucy Goodale Thurston. Sometimes the writing is poignant, revealing a New England girl’s homesickness, often everyday life is recorded in sharp-eyed detail, but through it all the patience and fortitude of the writer emerges. How did this refined young woman embark on such an adventure in an era when most women were expected to remain stay-at-home wives and mothers?

In 1819, the memoirs of a young Hawaiian Christian convert named Henry Opukaha‘ia caused a stir among devout Congregationalists in New England. The exotic Sandwich Islands, (Hawai‘i) were badly in need of missionaries to save the heathens from idol worship, drunkenness and the wayward ways of whaling crews who found the Island maidens generally receptive to their charms. In New England, seven men volunteered for the humanitarian mission, but the church required missionaries to be married. Twenty-four-year-old Lucy Goodale’s father arranged a meeting on September 23, 1819, between his daughter, a well-educated and pious young woman, and Asa Thurston, a 32-year-old scythe maker who had graduated from Andover Theological Seminary. The two were married in less than a month on October 12 and set sail for Hawai‘i on October 23, 1819.

The voyage took 157 days. Happily, before it was over, Lucy had confided in her journal, When I gave my hand to Mr. Thurston and came out from my father’s house to go far away to a land of unknown, I felt assured of the care and friendship of one precious friend, but my expectations have been more than realized. To be connected with such a husband and engaged in such an object, in the present state of the world, is of all situations in life, what I choose.

Lucy’s journal indicated she knew of the kapu system in Hawai‘i. During the sea voyage she wrote with trepidation of the restrictions Hawaiian women lived under not being allowed to eat with men, nor to eat bananas, and the fact that she might face instant death if she did not turn her head away when passing an idol’s temple.

It must have been with some relief that she learned on arrival on March 30, 1820, that the kapu system had been abolished. The ship was greeted at Kawaihae Harbor by men who wore girdles and women who wore a slight piece of cloth wrapped round them from the hips downward, who swam or paddled out in their canoes. During the trip, the band of missionaries had been instructed in the Hawaiian language by two Hawaiian converts, Hopu and Honoli‘i, so when a woman gave Lucy a banana, she said, Wahine, (woman). The reply came: Wahine maikai, (woman good-looking). Undoubtedly, she was one of few white women who had ever been seen in Hawai‘i at that time.

The Thurston’s first home was not much better than the crowded cabin aboard the Thaddeus. Lucy wrote, It was a thatched hut, with one room, having two windows made simply by cutting away the thatch, leaving the bare poles. At that time, she viewed living on the hot, dry Kona Coast, void of greenery, as a prospect of raw hell.

The missionaries all led busy lives, and the wives worked from dawn to well after dark. Their first and perhaps most monumental task was recording the Hawaiian language so that the scripture could be translated and Hawaiians could be taught to read Hawaiian and English. Missionaries and their wives were involved in transcribing books, establishing a printing press, building churches and houses. In addition, the women cared for their families and the sick, tended gardens, and held sewing circles never interrupting the frequent church services.

The Thurstons stayed in Kailua-Kona for seven months, then lived in the missionary compound in Honolulu where Lucy bore two daughters, Persis and Lucy, before returning to the Big Island in 1823. During this time, the Thurstons had been accepted by the ali‘i and were visited by the king and queen, Liholiho and Kamamalu, often. Initially, Liholiho attempted to learn English, but he gave up his efforts, noted Lucy, for the pleasures of the cup. He encouraged his seven-year-old brother and other favored subjects to learn, however.

While the Thurstons were in Honolulu, Liholiho visited the missionary houses, inspected the well, the cookhouse and all the living quarters, rolling with glee on a feather bed.

On their return to Kailua-Kona, they were joined by Artemis and Elisabeth Bishop, which assuaged much of Lucy’s loneliness. In time, her son Asa, was born. Within a few years at a Friday Female Meeting, the two ladies taught 1,500 native women the scriptures and civilized deportment. By the end of 1830, 2,600 women attended the weekly classes.

Some segments of the population whalers, sailors, and entrepreneurs were not always happy with the restrictions the missionaries sought to enforce. In the mid-1830s Lucy wrote of sailing away to Honolulu to attend a General Meeting, when she looked back and saw flames ascending to the heavens. We had little doubt but one of our dwelling houses was laid in ashes; but in two or three weeks after, we learned that it was our church the work of an incendiary not yet discovered. It was said by a white man then on the spot, that there had never been such a mourning among the people since the death of Kamehameha. It however, only hastened the work of starting a permanent stone building, which is now nearly completed. The belfry, spire and vane give quite an American look to our village. Moku‘aikaua Church, completed in January, 1837 amid joyous rejoicing, was built of black stone from an abandoned heiau mortared with white coral.

The years brought sorrow, as well. Lucy was devastated when she learned of the unexpected deaths of Liholiho and Kamamalu from measles during their trip to London in 1824. Then Elizabeth Bishop died of an unknown and extremely painful disease.

The Thurstons’ fourth child was born on a schooner bound for the annual mission meeting on O‘ahu in 1831. Lucy was seasick and had an arduous recovery, though not as difficult as after the birth of her fifth child, a son, Thomas, when she was temporarily paralyzed from a difficult labor. In 1840, Lucy took a three-year hiatus to get the children settled in schools in New England, while Asa stayed behind with his parishioners. In New England, daughter Lucy was confined to bed with an inflammation of the lungs. When she died her mother was grief stricken. She wrote, I retired and was alone with God. A simple thought passed my mind. ‘I will try to bear whatever he has laid upon me.

When she returned, her husband’s flock had grown from 600 to 1,800 church members. She wrote, Those who had lived in our family knelt around me, and wept aloud, bathing my hands with their tears. For several weeks, there was a continued series of calls, the kind-hearted natives coming by schools and by districts to welcome my return.

During a stint of illness, Lucy mistakenly took strychnine instead of quinine, which brought her near death. When she had recovered enough, she returned to the U.S. for treatment, coming back to Hawai‘i in 1851. The following year, a Honolulu doctor diagnosed her with breast cancer. Because of her earlier bout with paralysis, her Honolulu doctor performed a mastectomy without the use of chloroform, as he thought the pain killer might endanger her survival. Though she was nearly sixty years old and often suffered from ill health, she was destined to live another 21 years. Her son Asa died years before she did of an aneurysm at the age of 32. Her husband, after laboring for 40 years with the foreign mission service, retired, and the Thurstons moved to Honolulu to live with daughter Mary. Asa suffered a series of strokes which caused him to lose his memory, but not his love of prayer. He died March 11, 1868.

Lucy Thurston’s last years were spent in Honolulu, but before she died of a heart disorder in 1876, just before her 81st birthday, she wrote eloquently to a granddaughter who was about to become a bride: (In marriage), it is very beautiful to have two lives mingle and flow into one, producing a union of hearts. May you, in being introduced to a new name, to new friends and to a new field of action, become the light of your husband’s house, the center of home, that sacred spot of love and harmony, of comfort, quiet and ease, that wealth alone cannot give, nor poverty take away. Lucy Thurston’s light shown far beyond family boundaries and continues to inspire visitors to Moku‘aikaua Church in Kailua-Kona, which was her home and her husband’s parish for so many years.

Selected writings and portions of Lucy Thurston’s journals quoted in this article were published in a book called The Life and Times of Lucy G. Thurston, S.C. Andrews, Bookseller and publisher, 1882, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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