Polygamy and the Early Mormon Hawaiian Mission

By John J. Hammond

John J. Hammond has a Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo. He taught political science and philosophy at Kent State University for thirty-five years, retiring in 2007. For the past fourteen years, he has enjoyed researching Mormon topics.



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The early Mormon missionary effort on the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands is often described as happening in “waves.”

The first wave, ten missionaries from the gold fields of northern California, reached Honolulu in December 1850, but five soon left when they discovered that since there were relatively few “whites” speaking English in the Islands, they would have to learn the native language. The five who remained, led by the very young George Q. Cannon, began learning the language, and by the summer of 1851 had achieved remarkable success on the island of Maui.

They were bolstered by a second wave of elders (this time including the wives of four of them), who arrived in August of that year, including my great great grandparents Francis (Frank) and Mary Jane Dilworth Hammond and their two-year-old son, Francis Jr. (“Frankey”).1

When the nine “third wave” missionaries came ashore at Honolulu in early 1853, at least one of them—Benjamin F. Johnson—was a polygamist with several wives (though all of them had remained in Utah), and, as Frank Hammond put it in his journal, the new elders had “brought a copy of the Revalation to Bro. Joseph [Smith] concerning [plural] marriage.2 It is now published to the world and we are ready to back it up. The lords being our helper, even unto death it self if called to it.”3

Despite Hammond’s melodramatic endorsement, some members of Honolulu’s small Mormon community were not thrilled with the news. The next day, Hammond admitted that “Sister [Mary] Burnham is in great trouble about the new doctrin[e] of marriage,” though “The Brethren all received it well as far as I know.”

Hammond had been instrumental in converting Mary Burnham and her husband, Albion. (Hammond and Albion had become acquainted on Maui when Hammond was recuperating from a whaling accident during the mid-1840s.) Elder Cannon noted the same resistance from Mary Burnham, writing that the news of polygamy “caused our hearts to burn within us and filled us with joy and thanksgiving, that our lots had been cast in this day and generation,” but “Sis[ter]. B[urnham]. appears to be much troubled at this new (to her) doctrine, Bros. [Albion] B[urnham]., [David] Rice, &c. &c., believe it.”4

Although Mormon Church leaders and many members had been secretly practicing polygamy since at least the early 1840s, Apostle Orson Pratt had made that practice public on 29 August 1852. The news circulated the world in non-Mormon newspapers and created something of a sensation in the Sandwich Islands.

In a 16 March 1843 letter to Brigham Young, Hammond reported that the news about polygamy

does not create half the excitement which I had anticipated; the people appear as if some unseen hand had prepared them for it. The [Hawaiian] government officers were not at all surprised at it; but told us we would be narrowly watched, and if we were caught marrying two women to one man, they would be down heavy upon us; we told them that that was not what we were sent out for, but to preach the gospel and to live in subjection to the [secular government] powers that be and to uphold them.

The Protestant missionaries who first arrived in the Sandwich Islands in 1820 found that polygamy was common among the natives.5 They managed to convert Hawaiian leaders and most of the population to Christianity over the years that followed, and persuaded the Hawaiian monarchy to outlaw it. This precedent may have been a reason why the native Mormon converts found the idea of polygamy attractive.

Preparing to present the doctrine to the Island Saints at a Maui conference in Wailuku, Cannon translated Joseph Smith’s revelation (D&C 132) as well as Pratt’s announcement of polygamy on 7 April 1853. A journal entry says that he was “Translating at the revelation this morning and did not go to meeting but stayed to finish it. I gave it to Napela to read and he was very much pleased with it and felt to praise the Lord for it—it was the first intimation that he had of it.”6 Jonathan Napela, a graduate of the Lahaina-Luna Seminary, and a judge, lawyer, and wealthy farmer, was the most important early convert to Mormonism on Maui. It is interesting that he was “very much pleased” with polygamy because at least five times over the next several years, he confessed to the Utah elders that he had committed adultery.7

At the Wailuku conference where Cannon’s translation was presented, Elder John S. Woodbury reported that

Bro Cannon . . . arose and spoke for 2 hours on the subject of the plurality of wives &c. . . . We though it best to explain it to them to prevent the influence of lies &c whitch we knew would be made use of and also newspaper stories, and we felt that the best way to counteract the influence of false doctrine, was to declare the truth and explain it fully to them, that there might be no room for mistake or wickedness. He imprest very forcibaly upon them the necessity of not medling with those things[,] that at present they were not for them.8 He then read the revalation and explained it to them. The people felt well and enjoyed the spirit.9

Elder Ephraim Green wrote in his journal that day that “thare was nearly one thousand present” and the polygamy message “tuck [took] well with them[,] this agreeing with thare former practices before the whites came among them.”10

On 21 April 1853, convert David Rice arrived at Lahaina from Honolulu on his way to do missionary work on the “big island” of Hawai’i. According to Elder Hammond, Rice told them that “The King and people are very anxious to inquire about the new doctrin[e] on [plural] marriage. They beleive it quick as a general thing.”11 Rice’s claim, however, was wishful thinking. “There is no question that the doctrine of polygamy greatly harmed the LDS cause in Hawaii,” writes LDS historian R. Lanier Britsch. “All manner of abuse was heaped upon the elders and Saints there just as in other parts of the world. Many newly converted members fell away because they could not stand the harassment to which they were subjected by their former associates and friends.”12 But in the short run, the elders on Oahu made astounding progress that spring, converting hundreds of natives—paralleling the successes on Maui the preceding two years.

On 1 May 1853, the Protestant Rev. Dwight Baldwin—who was Hammond’s principal enemy at Lahaina—filed a “Station Report” concerning the Mormon missionary work on Maui, writing:

When they first came to Lahaina, they [the Mormon missionaries] denied, that any such thing as polygamy existed at Salt Lake. Lately they justify it. One has said, that Jesus Christ had two wives, at least, perhaps many others; or if not, that he evidently lived with Martha and Mary, as wives, without ever being formally married to them. Another said ‘As God had a Son, he, of course, had a wife, & many other children, doubtless, that he enjoyed the family relation the same as men did.

Baldwin claimed that “All these & many other things were too much for our [Lahaina] excommunicated persons,” who, he said, had been the ones converted by the Hammonds and other Mormon missionaries at Lahaina. “They came to an open rupture with the [Mormon] priests in their meetings, first disputed, then ridiculed & forsook them.”13 Indeed, some of the early native converts at Lahaina did leave the Mormon Church soon after polygamy was announced, and the announcement was likely one cause.

On 12 March 1854, Elder William Farrer on Oahu learned that his native Mormon convert Elder J. W. H. Kauwahi had been arrested at Waimea on the island of Kauai and charged with bigamy/polygamy, although he maintained he had divorced his first wife. Though the authorities probably thought he was engaging in Mormon polygamy, Farrer claimed that Kauwahi’s arrest “was religious intolerance & a desire to break down Bro K, as they were afraid he would be elected[, to parliament] as they dreaded his influence both as a politician & preacher of the gospel.”14

In April 1854, Mormon Elder B. F. Johnson, who had been converted to polygamy by Joseph Smith in the early 1840s, wrote an essay defending it against scathing attacks that were appearing in Honolulu newspapers. When he could not find a newspaper that would publish it, he arranged to have it printed in San Francisco in the form of a twenty-six-page pamphlet, entitled Why the “Latter-day Saints” Marry a plurality of Wives: A Glance at Scripture and Reason. He distributed four hundred copies throughout the Islands, and was thrilled with the attention they received: “For many days,” he wrote, “there was general excitement throughout the city [Honolulu], and had a thunderbolt fallen at the feet of our enemies, it would not have made a greater sensation.”15 (Calling attention to this controversial doctrine and practice, however, probably did more harm than good to the Mormon missionary effort.)

On 8 January 1854, Elders Hammond and Reddin Allred “preached to a small congregation of whites from the [Lahaina] Hospital.”16 The next day Elders Nathan Tanner and Allred returned and “had some talk [to the patients] on the subject of Plurality of wives.” Then, on 21 May, Hammond and David Rice visited the hospital and, among other topics, “Made a few remarks on Poligimy.” Hammond noted that “Some of them told me after the meeting was over that they were much pleased with the doctrine, and would be glad to hear us preach if it was ten times a week.”

On 1 June, during a church service, a native member of the Lahaina branch asked Hammond a question about polygamy; he wrote in his diary that “This is the first time that I have ever preached upon the subject”—probably meaning that it was the first time he had taught the principle to natives in their own language. He claimed they “received it joyful[l]y.”17 But this was not always the case, the missionaries were constantly on the defensive regarding it. Woodbury, for example, had been forced to defend it on the island of Molokai on 22 May.18

On that same day, Hammond “had an interview with [the King’s Attorney,] Mr. J. Austin. He said there [were] two things which kept him from believing ‘Mormonism.’ One was Joseph Smiths being a Prophet, and the [other was the] principle of [‘]Poligimy.’ Said he had rather be damned than to beleive and embrace such a doctrin[e]; I told him [he] would have the privelege of being damned all he wanted.”19 Frank had a sense of humor.

On Sunday, 15 July 1854, Elders Woodbury, Reddin Allred, and Hammond preached at the Lahaina hospital, and Frank reported that he bore his testimony “to the truth of polygamy. Told them if they were ever saved in a celestial glory, the[y] would have to be adopted in to the family of a poligamist &c &c.”20

However, polygamy was a sticky point in the Hammond family. On 22 October, Hammond noted that he “Had a long talk with Mary Jane on the subject of Plurality [polygamy] &c. She has many downcast moments. O Lord enlighten her mind and comfort her heart by day and by night.”21

Frank’s bitter enemy at Lahaina, Rev. Baldwin, casts some light on this situation in his May 1855 “Station Report.”

There is a Mormon priest at Lahaina who is a shoemaker by trade [Frank worked part-time as a cobbler to provide for his family]. . . . The priest does not practice according to his preaching; for he preaches the taking of multiplicity of wives, while he says he has taken but one himself; for he says, his wife prefers, that he sh[oul]d not marry another. He speaks of polygamy as a Christian duty, but once [he] acknowledged, that some good Christian wives of the present generation found it a hard doctrine to submit to. A more perfect generation may come when it will be very easy.22

On 20 March 1856, Frank and Mary Jane Hammond set sail for Utah with their four boys—the one they brought with them from Utah, two born at Lahaina, and an adopted boy—and arrived at the Mormon settlement of San Bernardino in southern California on 2 May. Meanwhile, another “wave” of missionaries arrived in Honolulu in October 1856, and one of them, Elder John Hyde Jr., promptly apostatized. A sixteen-page article he wrote appeared on the 18th of October in the Honolulu newspaper The Polynesian. Among other things, he declared that Mormon leaders had lied for nine years regarding their practice of polygamy, that

polygamy owes its rise to the lusts of Joseph Smith; that it is subversive of man’s happiness; that it is degrading to the women, who feel bitterly their degradation; that it is not productive of peace, but heart-wringings, anguish and despair. . . [and] it is not beneficial to the increase of the population nor improving the physical and mental development of their offspring, and that instead of purifying and elevating man, it is a most depraving curse.23

John Hyde’s apostasy was a shock to the native Mormons in the Islands, but the Protestant ministers in Honolulu were delighted, arranging for him to speak widely. Hyde was joined in apostasy by Elder Kauwahi. The actions of these two men were among many influences that dampened the Church’s work in the Islands. When the Utah War commenced in 1857, Brigham Young actually closed the Mission, all the Utah elders leaving by the spring of 1858.

The Church decided to re-open the Mission in 1864, calling Frank Hammond and his brother-in-law George Nebeker to be its new “co-presidents.” About four months earlier Frank had finally become a polygamist, marrying a nineteen-year-old English immigrant convert named Alice Howard. Nebeker had married two of Mary Jane Hammond’s sisters, Elizabeth and Maria Louisa Dilworth.

Hammond, Nebeker, and the new missionaries assigned to the Mission were to bring their wives and children with them. Nebeker brought Maria Louisa, who was five years younger than his first wife, Elizabeth. Apparently Brigham Young and other Church leaders recommended that Hammond follow suit and take his younger, childless wife, Alice, to Hawaii. (Mary Jane, 33 and the mother of seven children, could stay behind.) However, on 20 March 1865, Frank wrote tersely in his journal: “Had a very interesting talk with my family lasting till near morning. My wife Mary Jane goes with me on my Mission. My wife Alice will make a home in Bro. L[orin]. Farr’s family for the present.”24 (Alice had worked in the Farr home as a maid before marrying Frank.) But, citing illness in the family, Mary Jane dropped out of the trip at the last minute.

Hammond and Nebeker traveled to Honolulu, and Hammond selected and purchased a large plantation at Laie, on the northeast coast of Oahu, where the first temple outside the United States was dedicated in 1919, and where the campus of BYU-Hawaii is now located. But, wifeless, Hammond stayed on the Islands only a few months. George Nebeker, however, remained as mission president for about ten years, though his wife Maria Louisa returned to Utah after about five.

Though many of the Mormon missionaries and some of the Mission’s native converts claimed belief in the divinity of plural marriage, polygamy inflicted a mostly unproductive controversy on the missionary efforts in the area. It also had a souring effect on Frank and Mary Jane’s marriage. However, the practice remained in place for another three decades after Hammond left the Islands.




  1. For more information on Frank Hammond’s two Hawaiian missions, see the author’s Island Adventures: The 1851–1865 Hawaiian Mission of Francis A. Hammond (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2016).
  2. Eventually this became Doctrine & Covenants 132.
  3. F. A Hammond Journals, 9 Volumes, LDS Archives, Salt Lake City, originals and typescripts, the latter prepared by John J. Hammond. (Hereafter referred to as Hammond Journals.)
  4. The Journals of George Q. Cannon, Adrian W. Cannon and Richard E. Turley, Jr., general editors. (Volume 2), Hawaiian Mission, 1850–1854, ed. by Chad M. Orton (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2014), 7–8 March 1853, 252. (Hereafter referred to as Cannon Journal.)
  5. Hawaii historian Gavan Daws notes that when the first Protestant missionaries arrived, there was “lewd dancing” (the hula), widespread “public nakedness,” and “evidence of polygamy everywhere, not to mention even more upsetting sexual arrangements such as royal incest.” Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1968), 66. See also Jolly, Margaret, and Martha Macintyre, eds. Family and Gender in the Pacific: Domestic Contradictions and the Colonial Impact (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
  6. Cannon Journal, 261.
  7. See Hammond, Island Adventures. Sexual promiscuity was very common in the native Hawaiian culture, and other leading native Mormons—e.g., J. W. H. Kauwahi, William Uaua, and M. K. Hawaii—also confessed to having committed adultery. Because of their great importance to the missionary effort, however, they all were quickly forgiven by the Utah elders, although this often was not the case with lower-level native adulterers.
  8. There was a double standard here, since the Mormon brethren in Utah were being strongly urged to take plural wives, although polygamy was not against the law in the U.S. in the 1850s—it eventually would be—whereas it already was in Hawaii.
  9. John Stillman Woodbury Diaries, 13 March 1851 to 1 December 1877. 11 vol. Holograph; and 2 vol. 744 pp. typescript. MSS 168. Box 1, Folder 13, BYU Library; 7 April 1853. (Hereafter referred to as Woodbury Diaries.)
  10. Ephraim Green Diary, 1852–1856, 7 April 1853, originals and typescript in BYU Library, Box 8670.1. (Hereafter referred to as Green Diary.) Marjorie Newton notes that in New Zealand, “Maori polygamy, at first accepted by Mormon elders, was later actively discouraged.” “Nineteenth-Century Pakeha Mormons in New Zealand,” in Proclamation to the People: Nineteenth-century Mormonism and the Pacific Basin Frontier, ed. by Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp and Reid L. Neilson (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2008), 231.
  1. Hammond Journal, 21 April 1853.
  2. R. Lanier Britsch, Moramona: The Mormons in Hawaii, (Laie, Hawaii: The Institute for Polynesian Studies, Brigham Young University-Hawaii, 1989), 32.
  3. Dwight Baldwin, Report of Lahaina Station, May 1st, 1853 – (typed copy), HMCS; copy obtained from the Lahaina Restoration Foundation and Maui Historical Society.
  4. Cannon Journal (28 February 1854), 314.
  5. Benjamin F. Johnson, My Life’s Review (Independence, Missouri: Zion’s Printing and Publishing Company, 1947), 176–79; LDS Archives and BYU Library; see also Dale E. LeBaron, Benjamin F. Johnson: Friend to the Prophet, (Provo, Utah: Grandin Press, 1997), 97–99.
  6. Hospitals in many ports-of-call were established by the United States government to care for sick and injured sailors or whalers.
  7. Hammond Journal, 8 January; 21 May; 1 June 1854.
  8. Woodbury Diaries, 22 May 1854.
  9. Hammond Journal, 22 May 1843
  10. Ibid., 15 July 1854.
  11. Ibid., 22 October 1854.
  12. Report of Lahaina Station, May 1855, Dwight Baldwin, typed copy, HMCS, obtained from Lahaina Restoration Foundation and Maui Historical Society.
  13. The Polynesian, vol. 13, no. 24 (18 October 1856). The article was dated 14 October 1856. Hyde also published a book attacking the LDS Church: Mormonism: Its Leaders and Designs, 2nd ed. (New York: W. P. Fetridge & Co., 1857).
  14. Hammond Journal, 20 March 1865. Emphasis added.