Every once in a while you find an author that you just love. Gale Sears is just such an author for me. Her books The Silence of God and Letters in the Jade Dragon Box are both classics as far as I am concerned, and I’m pleased to say that Belonging to Heaven has been added to that list as well.
Belonging to Heaven is the true story of George Q. Cannon’s mission to the Hawaiian Islands. Elder Cannon and a small group of elders are called to preach the Gospel to the European immigrants in Hawaii, but George feels the Spirit call him to teach the native population. George dedicates himself to learning the language and culture so that he can better preach the Gospel to the Hawaiians. Along the way he meets and teaches Jonathan Napela, whose royal blood and position of influence make for an unstoppable force for the Lord. We follow these two men through Elder Cannon’s four year mission, Jonathan’s conversion and tremendous work as a missionary in Hawaii, and their decades of friendship. The stories in Belonging to Heaven are taken directly from George Q. Cannon’s journal entries and other historical documents of the time. Jonathan himself had a hand in translating the Book of Mormon into Hawaiian (the first non-European translation) and helped shape the model of language immersion that we still practice in the MTC today. His life was full of unbelievable trials, but his faith was unparalleled and he lived a dedicated life of service until the end.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It took no time to reach a point where I couldn’t put it down. Gale Sears has a wonderful talent for helping you feel like you are part of the story. Her historical novels are full of emotion, and she does such a good job of painting the picture for you that you get a true sense of the context of the time period. I was fascinated by the history. The unification of the islands and subsequent colonization by the British helped shape Hawaii in to the flourishing paradise we envision when we think of it. During the mid 1800’s the Hawaiian Islands were full of protestant missionaries that came with the British. The introduction of Christianity to the Hawaiian people proved to be the catalyst that brought a few of their traditions out of the “dark ages” so to speak. Until that point polytheism and the Kapu system reigned supreme (servants were routinely killed for looking at the king in the eyes or wearing the wrong color). In many civilizations, the introduction of monotheism has also provided the beginnings of a written language, modernization, rule of law, and self-governance. Hawaii was no different.
By the time Elder Cannon and his companions arrived, European culture had already had begun to have a permanent impact on the culture; however, unlike the protestant missionaries, Elder Cannon loved the Hawaiian culture. Instead of trying to turn the Hawaiians in to Englishmen, he learned their language, ate their food, and immersed himself in the beauty of Hawaiian tradition (Kapu system excepted). At a time when the British were trying to snuff out traditional songs and dances like the hula for their “pagan” ways (they even went so far as to mandate that Hawaiian women give their children “western” names), George Q. Cannon’s actions were a breath of fresh air. He was able to convince church leaders that niceties like wearing western clothing and not eating with their hands was not necessary for salvation and that instead of trying to turn them in to something they are not, they should encourage them to embrace their heritage unless it was necessary to give something up (like wearing loin cloths and killing your servants).
I don’t know for certain, but I imagine that Hawaii was one of, if not the first places where missionaries were faced with a vastly different culture than their own. Up until that point missionary work was concentrated mostly in the United States, Canada and Western Europe. Opening up the mission in Hawaii must have been a wonderful experience, being able to gain such a powerful testimony that God loves all of His children, regardless of race or creed. The practice of embracing a different culture in christian missionary work was entirely foreign at the time; and because of this, instead of alienating the native people of Hawaii the missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints met with success. Today the church still owns and operates the Polynesian Cultural Center, which does much to celebrate the native culture of Hawaii, Samoa, Maori New Zealand (Aotearoa), Fiji, Tonga, Easter Island, Tahiti and the Marquesas (French Polynesia).
Belonging to Heaven is a beautiful story that will have you loving the Hawaiian people even if, like me, you have never been there.