Marshallese across the country filled local churches December 4 to honor the 165th anniversary of the arrival of the gospel onboard the Morning Star. Biits, songs, and dramatic performances were the main spectacles that lasted throughout the day up to the middle of the night, featuring different jeptas from all walks of life with a unique flair of choreographed biits.
Each jepta went all out with their replication of the Morning Star decked with dollar bills, Christmas lights, and inside bags of rice and cases of ramen. “This why we have come from near and far to show gratitude for the gospel that arrived in our islands,” said Uliga Protestant Reverend Palukne Johnny from Zoom to the congregation on Majuro.
The aftermath of the late night jepta joy, however, caused many students to miss school Monday. One elective class at MIHS only had four students who were healthy and awake enough to attend.
Journal reporter HILARY HOSIA dived into the history of the Congregational missionaries’ Morning Star vessel.
The Morning Star is by far the most revered vessel in Marshallese history following its introduction of Christianity into the islands in 1857.
Throughout the years including up to now, different renditions of songs and church performances were composed in honor of the Morning Star. The government later declared the first Friday of December a public holiday and named it Gospel Day in the same regard.
Ironically, not much is known about the history and origin of the Morning Star. And the reason is because the church mainly preaches on the arrival of the vessel into Ebon Atoll more than it does of its history.
The Morning Star origin: In 1918, a band of 14 missionaries left Boston, Massachusetts to bring the gospel to Hawaii. In a span of 30 years, this group of Congregational missionaries garnered over 23,000 followers in the Hawaiian Islands thanks to their close relationship with and support from King Kamehameha II, who was also known as Liholiho. Kamehameha II was the son of Kamehameha The Great, the ruler who united the Hawaiian Islands. Having the son of a conqueror by their side was beneficial to the influence of the missionaries in Hawaii. They would use this same successful strategy to lay the foundation of the first Christian presence in the Marshall Islands.
Soon after, the Hawaii-based Congregational church missionaries decided it was time to share the word of God with their Micronesian neighbors 2,000 miles to the west.
In July 1850, the Hawaiian Missionary Society chartered the vessel Caroline and ventured into Micronesia, carrying missionaries Reverends Sturgess and Gulick and their wives, as well as two Hawaiian assistants. The voyage made stops in Gilbert Islands (present day Kiribati), Pohnpei and Kosrae in what are now the Federated States of Micronesia, and U-turned in Philippines.
At this time, the missionary group was advised to avoid the Marshall Islands due to their savagery and notoriety in attacking and destroying foreign vessels.
Reports of their welcome reception and progress in gaining converts to Christianity in Micronesia were sent back to Honolulu and motivated the Hawaiian Missionary Society to send more missionaries to Micronesia. The scarcity of transportation to Micronesia, however, stalled the missionaries and their plans for expanding its missionary force in the islands. This is how the idea of a smaller ship dedicated to Micronesia came into play.
The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions oversaw the Congregational church expansion in Hawaii and into Micronesia. It supported the building of a ship for Micronesia. The board adapted the scheme which built the mission ship John Williams, where money was raised by children, who were given tokens of ownership in return. Construction of the ship was estimated to cost $12,000.
Word got out and children in all the Union States contributed. The buck didn’t stop there: contributions poured in from Turkey, Syria, China and Hawaii to the point where announcement was made to stop sending money. The total raised reached $30,000. The excess money was used for voyage.
Then on the first of December, 1856, the Morning Star glided off the India Wharf in Boston and onto the ocean at 10am in front a 4,000 men, women and children.
The Morning Star took 12 weeks to construct. She weighed around 150 tons. She was captained by Samuel G. Moore with a crew of two mates, a steward and six seamen. The passengers were Reverend Hiram Bingham, Jr. and his wife Clara. Bingham was the son of Reverend Bingham senior, who was one of the first missionaries who went into the Sandwich Islands, as Hawaii was known, 37 years earlier on the initial voyage in 1918. The wife of the then-Postmaster of Hawaii Mrs. Jackson also joined the voyage.
One year later the Morning Star arrived in the Marshall Islands carrying the Binghams and Dr. George Pierson and other missionaries they picked up on a stop in Kosrae. With Ralik Iroojlaplap Kaibuke giving the order to islanders to welcome the Morning Star at Ebon Atoll in 1857, the Congregational missionaries established their first church in the Marshall Islands.
- With thanks to Fr. Francis X. Hezel, SJ, whose fine research and writing on the history of the Protestant and Catholic Churches in Micronesia greatly contributed to this story. For more details on the history, see Fr. Hezel’s articles at micsem.org.