Karen A. Johnson,
Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies & Education at the University of Utah
Prior to the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1890s by foreign businessmen who were “unofficially supported by the United States military,” Catholic Presbyterian, Mormon, and other Protestant missionaries were “especially prominent in their religious zeal to convert and save the souls,” of the indigenous Hawaiians (Au 78; Jackson xix). During the early 1820s, a number of young female Christians took up the torch and embarked on missionary work overseas. Indeed, their desire to do the Lord’s work in remote regions of the world has its roots in the gospel of Matthew: 12 v. 50, which states: “For whosoever shall do the will of my father which is in Heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Zwiep 40). During this time, it was not uncommon for 19th century Black women missionaries and evangelists to travel in the U.S. and its territories to do ministry work. As Marcia Riggs explains, 19th century Black women evangelists and missionaries were “like biblical prophets … who brought faith out of the … sanctuary to the marketplace of human affairs where history was in process” (Riggs xii).
Betsey Stockton, a former enslaved person in the U.S., was one of the earliest Black women missionaries to travel to the Sandwich Islands (later Hawaiian Islands) in the early 1820s. No doubt Stockton felt a special calling to be part of history as God’s prophetic witness in an era when women Black women were still enslaved, considered second-class citizens due to their race and gender status; and generally denied the opportunity to become Protestant ministers (Johnson 7; Collier-Thomas).
Betsey was born in 1798 in Princeton, New Jersey into the slaveholding family of Robert Stockton. Robert later gave Betsey to his daughter, Elizabeth and son-in-law, Reverend Ashbel Green. Green, who was president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton College), taught Betsey reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and theology. He gave her “books and encouraged her to use the family library” (Johnson 7; Takara 14). In 1815, Green gave Betsey her manumission papers and the next year, she was accepted into the First Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey.
Betsey became a devout Christian and was very much immersed in the Presbyterian doctrines. In 1820, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missionaries granted her permission to travel with the second mission to the Sandwich Islands. Two years later, Betsey sailed to Honolulu, Hawaii with the Reverend Charles Stewart and his wife “on the Thames from New Haven, Connecticut” (Takara 14). Three days into her voyage, Betsey wrote the following in her diary on November 23, 1822:
“Saturday morning at daybreak shipped a sea. The water rushed into the cabin. I saw it with very little fear and felt inclined to say, ‘The Lord reigneth [sic], let us all rejoice.” … At 10 o’clock, I went on deck. The scene that presented itself was to me the most sublime I’d ever witnessed” (“Betsey Stockton’s Journal”).
Stockton arrived in Honolulu on April 27, 1823 and a month later, she traveled to Lahaina, Maui. In the 1825 issue of the Hawaiian Missionary Herald, it reports that “a colored woman connected with Mr. Stewart’s family … makes herself highly useful to the mission” in Maui (qtd in Nordyke, 243). From 1823 to 1825, Betsey cared for sick infants, secured clothes for the needy, and established a school on Maui for Native Hawaiian children. It should also be noted that while engaging in missionary work on the islands, Stockton continued to work as a domestic servant for the Stewarts.
While Stockton lived in Hawaii during the early 19th century, she was accorded the respect and trust of the local Hawaiians and fellow missionaries and her “advice and opinions were sought after in many matters” (Takara 15). After residing in Hawaii for over two years, Betsey Stockton relocated to Cooperstown, New York, with the Stewarts. In subsequent years, she taught indigenous Canadian Indian students on Grape Island and “led a movement to form the First Presbyterian Church of Colour in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1848” (“Betsey Stockton’s Journal”; Ravage 158). In addition, between the period of 1848 to 1865, Stockton moved to Philadelphia to teach Black children.
Betsey Stockton made pioneering endeavors as a missionary in Hawaii, but her legacy is not well known. Still, Stockton’s school “set a new direction for education in the Islands … [It] served as a model for the Hilo Boarding School,” and may have influence Samuel C. Armstrong, the founder of Hampton Institute, who also worked as a missionary in Hawaii during this period. After a full and productive life of service for the Lord, Betsey Stockton passed away in October of 1865 in Princeton, New Jersey (Takara 15).
Au, Wayne. “The Price of Paradise.” Rethinking our Classrooms: Teaching for Equity and Justice II. Ed. Bill Bigelow. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools LTD. Vol. 12 Issue 4 (Summer 1998).
“Betsey Stockton’s Journal, November 20, 1822 to July 4, 1823.” African American Religion: AHistorical Interpretation with Representative Documents. Ed. David W. Wills and Albert J. Raboteau. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, (2006). Web. January 5, 2014.
Collier-Thomas, Bettye. Daughters of Thunder: Black Women Preachers and their Sermons, 1850-1970. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998.
Jackson, Miles M. “Introduction.” They Followed the Trade Winds: African Americans in Hawaii.Ed. Miles M. Jackson. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press (2004).
Johnson, Karen A. “Undaunted Courage and Faith: The Lives of Three Black Women in the West and Hawaii in the Early 19th Century.” The Journal of African American History. Vol. 91, No. 1, (Winter 2006): 4-22.
Nordyke, Eleanor C. “Blacks in Hawaii: A Demographic and Historical Perspective.” The Hawaiian Journal of History. Vol. 22 (1998).
Ravage, John W. Black Pioneers: Images of the Black Experience on the North American Frontier.Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press.
Riggs, Marcia. Can I Get A Witness?: Prophetic Religious Voices of African American Women: An Anthology. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books (1997).
Takara, Kathryn W. “The African Diaspora in Nineteenth Century Hawaii.” They Followed the Trade Winds. Ed. Miles M. Jackson. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press (2004).
Zwiep, Mary. “Sending the Children Home: A Dilemma for Early Missionaries.” The Hawaiian Journal of History. Vol. 24 (1990).
From: POLITE ON SOCIETY
Editors Note: This guest post is part of the Blog Carnival of Blogging While Brown for Black History Month 2014. -M.P.