By Dr. Ronald Williams, Jr.
Grace is free sovereign favor to the ill-deserving.
– Benjamin B. Warfield
The gift of grace is an “undeserved love, favor, or blessing.” It involves “going beyond a contractual view of life that sees living only in terms of rights and doing things for rewards.”
Sometimes perceived as a weakness of the naive, grace can only be born of prodigious strength. It rejects normal behavior and calls us, by example, to strive for a higher way of living. In the best of times grace is extra-ordinary; in the worst, it feels beyond the reach of mere mortals. Yet, grace was the consistent offering of Her Hawaiian Majesty Queen Liliʻuokalani during Her, and Her nation’s most difficult days.
Following the 17 January 1893 coup that removed the Queen from Her throne, brazen men, hungry for power and fearful of the consequences of their treasonous actions if their plan failed, attacked Queen Liliʻuokalani’s character in the pulpits, newspapers, and meeting halls of both Honolulu and Washington D.C.
On the Sabbath following the overthrow, the Rev. Thomas Gulick preached a sermon titled “The Evils of Monarchy” to his audience at Central Union Church. The Queen noted the event in a diary entry of 5 February, writing, “I never saw a more unchristian like set as these Missionaries and so uncharitable as to abuse me in the manner they do from the pulpit.”
The Rev. Sereno Bishop hid behind the pen name “Kamehameha” to produce over 100 columns for U.S. newspapers that declared Kānaka ʻŌiwi unfit to rule and the Queen an “incubus of the Palace” and particularly debased. Yet, it was perhaps the Rev. Oliver Pomeroy Emerson who was the Queen’s personal nemesis.
In the summer of 1887, after an armed militia supporting the secret all-white “Hawaiian League” imposed a new constitution upon Her brother, the reigning sovereign, King David Kalākaua, Emerson proudly described “the noble stand the sons of the mission took.”
Later, in an attempt to justify minority rule in the islands, he became one of the most vociferous of the many voices seeking to discredit the Queen. In a December 1893 speech from the historic Metropolitan Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., Emerson explained to the gathered statesman, judges, and business leaders “how intimately the political issue in Hawaiʻi was connected with the struggle of heathenism, revived by the Monarchy.” Months later, Emerson offered infantilizing statements about the Queen in congressional testimony supportive of the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands, explaining that She and other Aliʻi Kānaka ʻŌiwi would have been allowed to continue rule “so long as they behaved themselves.”
In 1896, Her Majesty Queen Liliʻuokalani, freed from an imprisonment ordered by the white minority oligarchy that had stolen Her nation and was now looking to hand it over to a foreign power, traveled to Washington to fight for Her subjects. Of all the kuleana carried with Her to this foreign land amidst this trying battle, one that She certainly kept to the fore was that of Ka Makua o Ka Lāhui (Mother of the Nation).
In a personal letter of 31 October 1899 to Henry Cushman Carter – the college-aged son of Her financial agent Joseph Oliver Carter whom She had been mentoring – Queen Liliʻuokalani mentioned that Oliver Emerson was in Washington. She also took the opportunity to share a prior incident that had occurred between the two and add a bit of context: “Mr. Emerson was one of those who were most active in overthrowing my government and was the one who used to take note of all who came to see me and how long they stayed. He used to pace back and forth in front of the Church spying my gate and he had the cheek to come to my house.” She continued, explaining Her response, “Well, I extended my hand to him when he called and remembered the words our Savior said, ʻwhen he offends you seventy times seven, forgive him’ – and so I did shake hands with him.”
Tried again and again by tremendous loss – her husband in 1891; her Crown in 1893; Her freedom in 1895; Her nation in 1898 – her Majesty Queen Liliʻuokalani came face to face with those who had caused her ostensibly unbearable misery, and She rose above.
Make no mistake, this Queen was a fierce and competent defender of both Herself and Her people. She fought mightily and successfully, helping to defeat two treaties of annexation before Her nation was simply stolen. And grace can be separate from forgiveness. Some of Her most explicit thoughts, She kept within.
What we know beyond any doubt is that while men all around Her grappled over ill-gotten gains, using fear and anger to power their quest, Liliʻuokalani called us higher, conferring dignity on the lives that were graced to cross Her path.
He inoa nō Liliʻuokalani! (A Name Indeed, Liliʻuokalani)
Dr. Ronald Williams Jr. holds a doctorate in history from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa with a specialization in Hawaiʻi and Native-language resources. He is a former faculty member of the Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge, UH Mānoa, and was founding director of the school’s Lāhui Hawaiʻi Research Center. He has published in a wide variety of academic and public history venues including the Oxford Encyclopedia of Religion in America, the Hawaiian Journal of History, and Hana Hou! Magazine.