On March 25, 2015, the Bahá’is of the Hawaiian Islands commemorated the 100th anniversary of the meeting of Queen Lili‘uokalani with members of the Bahá’i Faith on that date in 1915. This “Centenary Celebration” was held at the Queen’s historic home on Beretania Street, Washington Place.
Bahá’i communities throughout the islands gathered to remember this historic occasion and to honor the Queen for her spiritual qualities which made her such an outstanding figure in history and a guiding hand in the affairs of Hawaii even to the present time.
The commemoration celebrated spiritual principles, as demonstrated in the life of Queen Lili‘uokalani, which have been taught in all the wisdom traditions of the world as the foundation for personal and social transformation.
It was also an opportunity for many in Bahá’i communities around the islands, who, like others, have moved here from afar and are unacquainted with Hawaii’s history, to learn about the Queen and why Bahá’is here hold her in such high regard.
Why did the Bahá’is wish to meet the Queen in 1915, and what message did they share with her?
The Bahá’is shared the idea that divine revelation is progressive; that is, that there is only one God, that all the world’s great Faiths have come from this same source, are part of the successive chapters of the spiritual education of humanity and that they are one in spirit.
These were teachings of Baháʼu’lláh, the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’i Faith, who in the middle of the 19th century, brought another chapter of divine revelation. He came to fulfill the promises of all religions, and the prophecies of many peoples, that there would come a time when mankind would live according to spiritual principles and become united, and that the “Most Great Peace” would be established. He said, “The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.”
Among the many principles taught by Baháʼu’lláh which would help to usher in this age of peace are that women and men are equal; that science and religion agree and are two great complementary systems through which humanity can understand reality; that universal education is compulsory; and that prejudices of all kinds must be eliminated.
So, in 1915, amid the disillusioning horrors of World War I, it is perhaps easy to see why the Queen would welcome a message of world peace, as well as principles that would help to achieve it. A friend of the Queen who knew the Bahá’is arranged the meeting. She met with a delegation which had come to Hawaii at the behest of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of Baháʼu’lláh, to spread His message. The Queen was quite saddened by the war and she listened intently and asked for Bahá’i books and a picture of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.
There are many convergences in Hawaiian history and tradition with the teachings of the Bahá’i Faith. For example, during the time of Kamehameha I, around 1782, a seer named Kapihe told him of a future event. There are various translations, but in essence, he said:
“The heavens will descend, and the earth will ascend, (meaning the high would come low and the lowly would rise – heaven would come on earth). He went on to say that “the water will be sprinkled forth…the sick of today will recover…the lands will be joined; God will come down here. He will talk with human beings….”
This prophecy echoes what Baháʼu’lláh wrote about the power of His Revelation: “A dewdrop out of this ocean would, if shed upon all that are in the heavens and on the earth, suffice to enrich them with the bounty of God, the Almighty, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise. With the hands of renunciation draw forth from its life-giving waters, and sprinkle therewith all created things, that they may be cleansed from all man-made limitations and may approach the mighty seat of God, this hallowed and resplendent Spot.”
In the 19th century, around the globe there was a huge shift in the social order. Monarchs and emperors with absolute power the world over began to fall and to be replaced by democracies, government by the people. There was also a worldwide messianic expectation of a time when the Kingdom of God would come on earth, a time of peace, prosperity and justice. It was expressed in virtually all religions— Christians expected the return of Christ, Jews, the Lord of Hosts, Buddhists, the return of Buddha Maitreya, Hindus, the 10th Avatar, while Shīʿa Muslims expected the return of their 12th Imam.
The rulers of Hawaii, the ali’i, were statesmen, writers, poets, musicians and, though they were far from the rest of the world, seemed often in tune with these momentous changes and the spirit of the age. Kamehameha I united all the islands and then reigned in peace. He invoked an ancient tradition called, during his time, the law of the splintered paddle which says: “O people, honor thy god; respect alike people both great and humble; may everyone, from the old men and women to the children be free to go forth by the roadside or pathway without fear of harm.”
After his death, Ka’ahumanu, his favorite wife who ruled as Kahina Nui or Premier along with the young Kamehameha II, abolished many of the kapus or prohibitions that prevented the equality of women with men.
Kamehameha III studied the constitutions of many lands and chose those elements he felt would best serve the Hawaiian people. He, as absolute ruler, voluntarily gave up power and established a constitution that gave power to the people. The preamble of his constitution reads: “God hath made of one blood all nations of men, to dwell on the face of the earth in unity and blessedness.”
Kamehameha IV and his wife, Queen Emma, went door to door to collect money to start a hospital to address the many new illnesses that had come to their islands with the arrival of foreigners. We still benefit from the excellent hospital they started known as Queen’s Hospital.
Kamehameha V was the first to encourage the revival of traditional practices and created the Hawaiian Board of Medicine to document the natural remedies of lā‘au lapa’au practitioners. His successor, Lunalilo, established the Lunalilo home to attend to poor, destitute and infirmed people with priority given to the elderly.
After Lunalilo, King Kalākaua was the first monarch in history to circumnavigate the globe and met with the rulers and dignitaries of many nations including the emperors of Japan, Egypt, and many European nations, Queen Victoria in England, the Pope in Rome and the President of the United States. He created the Hale Naua Society to blend traditional wisdom with modern science and electrified ‘Iolani Palace even before the White House in Washington, DC. He further encouraged the revival of Hawaiian traditions and arts which revived the spirit of the people.
The last monarch of Hawaii, Queen Lili’uokalani, established a women’s bank, was a strong proponent of education for girls and set up the Lili’uokalani Trust, which still operates today, to care for orphans and needy children. The Queen exemplified the spirit of aloha, self-sacrifice, loving-kindness and service to others. Remarkably, despite the great injustices done to her and the overthrow of her kingdom she was able to forgive those who had wronged her.
There is an old Hawaiian mo’olelo that says, “Ho’okahi no la’au lapa’au no ka mihi. The first remedy is forgiveness.” Here is one story that illustrates her generosity of spirit and inclusive nature, which also indicates how aligned she was with these teachings of Baháʼu’lláh:
“O people! Consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship.”
“…difference of race and color is like the variegated beauty of flowers in a garden. If you enter a garden, you will see yellow, white, blue, red flowers in profusion and beauty—each radiant within itself and although different from the others, lending its own charm to them. Racial difference in the human kingdom is similar. If all the flowers in a garden were of the same color, the effect would be monotonous and wearying to the eye…the various races of humankind lend a composite harmony and beauty of color to the whole. Let all associate, therefore, in this great human garden even as flowers grow and blend together side by side without discord or disagreement between them.”
The story was told by a man named Keawe whose great-grandmother was one of the last companions and ladies-in-waiting to Queen Kapi’olani, the wife of King Kalākaua. He was closely associated with the royal family. He stated:
According to my grandmother, there was a time when some did not want Buddhist priests to come to Hawai‘i and were protesting and calling Buddhists “idol worshipers”, “hana pagana (pagans)”, and other ugly names. They wanted Queen Lili‘uokalani to endorse their position. So they went to seek an audience with her at her home at Washington Place. According to my grandmother, the Queen smoked her cigar and then remarked to them “God is in the flowers.”
Some of the people looked bewildered. Then the Queen explained that God loved gardens and made so many different types of flowers, of so many colors and of various fragrances—yet they were all flowers and beautiful in their own vibrant splendor. Gardens are beautiful exactly because of that diversity of flowers. Whether one practices Buddhism or Christianity or is of one race or another, they are still flowers in God’s garden, radiant in their different varieties and shades of hue. O Ke Akua i na pua. God is in the flowers.
The first known mention of the Bahá’i Faith in Hawaii is an article in The Hawaiian Gazette in 1869, only 25 years after its inception in 1844 in Persia, the land of its birth.
The first Bahá’i in Hawaii was Agnes Baldwin Alexander, a descendant of two prominent missionary families. She learned of the Bahá’i Faith in Europe and brought it back to the islands in 1901. Other names of early Bahá’is in Hawaii will be recognizable to anyone familiar with Hawaiian history – including Smith Berger (the Royal Hawaiian Bandleader’s daughter) and Charles Reed Bishop (from Kauai, named after his famous relative who married Pauahi and founded the Bishop Trust).
The first Bahá’i of Hawaiian descent was Aunty Mae Keali’i Kahumoku Tilton Fantom, a founding member of the first Hawaiian Women’s Club on Maui. The first Bahá’i of Japanese descent in the world was Kanichi Yamamoto, a resident of Honolulu.
The first Bahá’i devotional gatherings were held around the turn of the century just across Beretania Street from the Queen’s home, Washington Place, at the home of Dr. George Augur, which was located where the statue of St. Damien now stands. Today there are Bahá’i communities across the islands with members as diverse as the population of Hawaii itself, working for the cause of unity and peace with all people of like mind.