The Asking

by | Feb 22, 2022 | Front Page Featured, Seeds eNewsletter

Betsey Stockton, 19th century congregationalist missionary to Hawaii

By Emily Provance

THE HAWAIIAN MISSION HOUSE MUSEUM is right there on South King Street, so if you’re taking the bus to the beach or to the shopping center, you’re going to pass it every time. Still—maybe because the signage is small, or maybe because tourists don’t come to Oahu to visit museums—I manage to be the only person who shows up for the 1pm guided tour.

Hawaii Mission House Grounds

Hawaiian Mission House Museum grounds

Hawaii Mission House Chimney
My docent, Steven, has volunteered at the museum for several decades, and he takes me through the grounds and in and out of all the houses. We see the water pump and storage building made from coral, the trees imported from India, the replica printing press from the days when young indigenous boys were employed as typesetters and journalists for the missionary paper. Steven tells me the story of the missionary couple that had four babies in four years, always keeping the smallest one hung in a basket over the parents’ bed. He explains how exactly they managed to acquire a twenty-four-piece set of matching china, nothing broken, during a time when it took two years to receive one shirt through the official missionary supply lines. And he points out the grass stage where the community still puts on a Shakespearean play every year, as the missionaries did. “Last year, it was Henry IV. Nobody knew what was happening.”
Hawaii Mission House Bed
Hawaii Mission House Pump

Inevitably, we get to talking about race, both historically and in modern day. “I’m part white and part Native American,” Steven tells me three times. “When the school groups come in, you ask a child what’s their heritage, and they’ll say, ‘I’m Japanese and Korean and German and Hawaiian.’ And they know all those cultures, every one of them, sometimes the languages too.”

The missionary stories here are all about complexity. I resonate with the stories, though I am not, by definition, a missionary. I know the experience of being called to travel and giving up one’s home and familiar things. And because I’ve inherited that tradition, I’ve inherited, too, the complications of cultural interactions and colonialism. So I ask a lot of questions.

Almost in passing, as we finish the tour, Steven says, “And of course, there was the Black woman missionary who came over as a teacher—”

I startle. “Wait. What? In the 1800s? How did that happen?”

Steven doesn’t know the whole story, and neither does Madeline, who’s running the gift shop, so they text the executive director, who is delighted for an excuse to leave a staff meeting and come down. It’s he who tells the story.

In the early 1800s, a woman called Betsey Stockton was born in New Jersey. Her mother had been enslaved, and so was Betsey, and she was separated from her family and sent to live elsewhere when still a child.

The white family with which Betsey lived was unusual, providing her with unlimited access to the family library. She learned to read and write and became educated in several other subjects such as mathematics, history, science, and theology.

Betsey, when still a very young woman, approached the head of the household and told him that she felt a calling to go to the Sandwich Islands (today’s Hawaii) as a missionary. She asked to be freed so that she could go, and this request was granted. Betsey remained free for the rest of her life.

Her missionary contract, at her request, specified that she would not be given any more manual labor than any other missionary—in other words, she would not be considered a servant. Because the white congregationalists couldn’t quite see their way to giving her an equal voice and vote, the text eventually said that Betsey traveled “neither as an equal nor as a servant, but as a humble Christian friend.” While Betsey’s journal and letters appear to have been lost to history, there are excerpts of her writings that were published in missionary periodicals during her lifetime, and those have been preserved.

In Hawaii, Betsey served as a teacher for the commoner children. At the time, indigenous Hawaiians divided themselves into two classes, the chiefly and the commoners, and the chiefly children who attended school went to a boarding school that taught subjects such as Latin and oratory and advanced sciences. The school for chiefly children was, frankly, an unhappy and sometimes abusive place. But the schools for commoner children met for just a few hours a day. They taught reading and writing (in Hawaiian and possibly English) plus arithmetic, and the children were not discouraged from their traditional cultural practices. Betsey not only taught the children but trained native Hawaiians to become teachers themselves.

In the end, she only stayed in Hawaii for two years. The white family with whom she’d been living returned to New England at that point for health reasons, and Betsey went with them. Shortly thereafter, she spent some time at a mission in Ontario, where she established several centers for early childhood education, probably among indigenous peoples; the records of this part of her life are spotty.

Eventually, Betsey wound up back in New Jersey/Pennsylvania/New York, and she spent the last few decades of her life in that area. She established a church, but even more significantly, she founded and ran a large number of schools for black children. As far as I can tell, she was something akin to a school superintendent, which I imagine would have meant considerable fundraising in addition to employing and managing quite a few people. She never married but lived a long and full life. She is buried in Cooperstown, New York.

I love Betsey’s story for a number of reasons. Her life is stunning in the context of the society in which she lived, which called her “neither … an equal nor a servant, but … a humble Christian friend,” and even that much was a radical affirmation of her humanity. She traveled halfway across the world as a single black woman in a time when that simply could not happen. In fact, she was the only single woman ever to serve at that mission site. Every other woman came by virtue of being married to a male missionary.

But what resonates most is the moment when Betsey approached the man who kept her enslaved and said: “I am called to serve as a missionary. I am asking for my freedom so that I can go.” It strikes me as an extraordinary act of courage, just the asking.

How many children were educated because Betsey, still so very young, stood up in front of a powerful man and asked?