Mokuaikaua Church: Hawaii’s First Christian Church

Moku'aikaua Church in Kona is The Oldest Christian Church in Hawaii

Whenever we travel or go on vacation, there are always a few things we plan in advance or book for a specific time, like swimming with dolphins, visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, or visiting coffee farms. But the rest of the time, we go with the flow.

Now don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean I sit back and wait for something fun to show up. Nope. No way. I search for all sorts of fun things to do in advance, group the things I find by location, and note the times they are open/closed. That way, when we’re deciding what to do, we can all look at the list and pick an area to visit or a group of activities to check out. Sometimes we only have time for do one or two things, and sometimes we get to visit everything on the list.

Mokuaikaua Church wasn’t on my list of things to do in Kona or places to visit in Hawaii, but the Hulihe’e Palace Museum was and it’s right across the street. Once Natalie and I finished touring the museum (Brian and Carter skipped it), we all walked across the street to visit the church — mainly because I briefly saw the words first and church on the sign.

We love visiting historic buildings and historic sites! Visiting Mokuaikaua Church was a short, but really interesting stop. The church building is almost 200 years old and in the rear of the church, is a museum area showcasing historical documents and artifacts on display, a replica of the brig Thaddeus that brought the first Christian missionaries to Hawaii, and an audio recording that plays over speakers.

Mokuaikaua Church History

Mokuaikaua Church is the first Christian church established in the Hawaiian Islands. Located on the Kona coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, the congregation, which dates back to 1820, is still active today and welcomes thousands of visitors each year.

In 1819, sent by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the first American Christian Missionaries set out from New England aboard the Thaddeus bound for the Big Island of Hawaii. While at sea, King Kamehameha I died and his son and successor, Kamehameha II, overthrew the Kapu system of spiritual rules and beliefs, which had been practiced for years by Native Hawaiian leaders. Hawaiian high priest Hewahewa foretold a prophecy that the new God would come to this same rock in a black box.

After 164 days at sea, the missionaries, including two ministers, two teachers, an apprentice printer, a farmer, and their spouses, finally arrived on the shores of Hawaii in 1820. The first Christian missionary that came ashore carried his Bible, protected in a black wooden box, as he stepped on the rock at Kailua pier. Many of the Ali’i royalty of Hawaii interpreted their arrival and the fulfillment of Hewahewa’s prophecy as a divine sign and converted to Christianity.

King Kamehameha II and the Queen Regent Kaʻahumanu gave the missionaries permission to stay in Hawaii. They were given land near the harbor, across from Royal Governor Kuakini’s Huliheʻe Palace, to build the first Christian church in Hawaii, at Kailua at Kona on the Big Island. The first church was destroyed by fire and in 1835 construction began on a new stone and mortar structure. Completed in 1837, Mokuʻaikaua Church sits today much as it did almost 200 years ago.

Historic Architecture

Construction began on the Mokuaikaua Church you see today in 1835. It was completed and dedicated in 1837, and represents the new western architecture of early 19-century Hawaii — a combination of local Hawaiian materials and New England architecture. It is 120 feet long and 48 feet wide, and it’s steeple, at 112 feet tall, is the tallest structure in Kailua.

It is believed that the exterior of the church was built with lava rocks sourced from a 15th century ancient temple of the Hawaiian religion and mortar made from sand and crushed coral.

The interior features native Hawaiian woods. The posts and beams are made of wood from the Hawaiian ‘Ōhi’a Lehua tree and are joined together with ‘Ōhi’a pins. ‘Ōhi’a Lehua trees are usually found between elevations of 1,000 and 9,000 feet. Some sources say the ‘Ōhi’a Lehua wood used in the church’s construction came from Mt. Hualālai. We saw many of these native Hawaiian trees as we explored Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The interior wall paneling, pulpit, and pews are made of wood from the Koa tree. The Koa tree is the largest native tree in the Hawaiian Islands reaching heights of about 115 feet. Commercially, Koa is one of the most expensive woods in the world.

In 1910, to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the arrival of the first American missionaries in Hawaii, the Evangelical Association of the territory of Hawaii gathered at Mokuaikaua Church in Kailua. To commemorate the occasion, a stone arch was built at the entrance to the property and repairs were made to the church.

Mokuaikaua Church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

Mokuaikaua Church Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has named Mokuaikaua Church as the 11th most endangered historic site in the US.

Without immediate attention, Mokuaikaua Church may be at the critical point of being beyond repair. The church has multiple cracks in the stone walls caused by time and an earthquake, dysfunctional and faulty electrical wiring, termite damage, and dry rot damage to beams in the steeple and wooden window frames.

As the first Christian church in Hawaii, Mokuaikaua has withstood the ravages of island life nearly 200 years. Today, however, it needs critical improvements to carry its history forward into a new century.

— Stephanie Meeks

To prevent further damage, planned renovation of the original Mokuaikaua Church building includes:

  • Shoring up the original exterior stone walls
  • Connect the existing roof structure and protect against stone falling inward in a major seismic event
  • Preserving, repairing, protecting, and strengthening the existing roof structure and steeple
  • Repairing three major cracks caused by past earthquakes
  • Replacing dry-rot beams
  • Restoring existing interior beams, walls, and ceilings

Know Before You Go

  • Mokuaikaua Church is located across the street from the Hulihe’e Palace Museum at 75-5713 Ali’i Drive, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii 96740.
  • The church is an active parish with two services each Sunday: a contemporary-style service at 9:00 am, and a traditional-style service at 11:00 am.
  • The 112-foot steeple was for many decades the highest structure in Kailua and served as a navigation landmark both for ships at sea and people on land.
  • The church is open to the public daily from 7:30 am to 5:30 pm. Free tours are conducted from 10:00 am to 12:00 pm and from 1:00 pm to 3:30 pm.
  • A cemetery once existed where the current parking lot is. A handful of headstones still remain in a gated area in front of the church.
  • In the back of Mokuʻaikaua Church is a wooden model of the Brig Thaddeus that brought the first missionaries to Hawaii, as well as historic Hawaiian artifacts, memorabilia, and displays about the history of the church and the life of the missionaries. An audio tour recording shares even more information.

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