Throughout most of the 19th century, the Hawaiian Kingdom was not a secular government (aupuni kauhonua). However, a secular (kauhonua) movement did begin during the reign of Kamehameha III, as well as a few Hawaiian politicians (including the future King Kalākaua) who urged for laicism or a leaving affairs to the laity themselves–something that was discouraged by Kamehameha III who frequently appointed missionaries for every important government portfolio. Kamehameha IV can be credited as being one of the primary advocates of laicism, though he is best remembered for bringing the Anglican Church to Hawai’i. King Kalākaua on hand, can be credited for being instrumental in advocating for hard secularism within the Hawaiian government, which is why ‘Iolani Palace never hosted a Christmas Party or any religious holiday during most of his reign. Hard secularism calls for no display of any religion in government offices and that the separation of Church and State be strictly maintained. Laicism and soft secularism normally call for all religions to be respected and that the government should not privilege one religion over the next but may make official references to a deity. Indonesia may be an example of a laicist or soft secularist nation while France is an example of more hard secularist country. Tonga meanwhile is not technically a secularist or laicist country.
During the reign of Kamehameha III, Hawai`i was not a secular society. The Calvinist version of the Christian religion played a heavy part in the development of laws and constitutions. Both Ka’ahumanu and Kamehameha III largely helped to impose Protestant practices on the Hawaiian population and would give sermons on salvation in their official capacity. Those that did not comply with the views of Ka’ahumanu and Kamehameha III were fined, imprisoned, harassed, and in some cases exiled and burned alive. Such was the case of many of the kahuna who were burned alive between the First Hawaiian Civil War (1819). Native Hawaiians regardless of their own religious convictions were forced to attend Church or else be fined. One of the roles of the public school system in Hawai`i during that time was not only to teach reading, writing, and arithmetical but also obedience to the Christian God, to the Kamehameha Dynasty, and to the Western values. This was further re-enforced in the Penal Code which made it illegal to conduct any business on a Sunday. One of the personal names of Kamehameha III, Kauikeaouli (“placed in the dark cloud”), could have been Kauikeauuli (“placed in the dark time”) for the masses of Hawaiians. Despite the Act of Toleration, Hawaiian Roman Catholics and those of the Hawaiian indigenous religion were still be discriminated against. It is of little wonder that when Lord George Paulet seized control of Hawai`i in 1843 (which according to the British and Foreign State Papers, Volume 149, Part 3, page 1025, was actually largely due to the prejudicial actions of Minister Judd who among other reasons interfered in the trial of a Henry Skinner, a British subject and John Dominis, the father-in-law of the future Queen Lili’uokalani), there were many commoners who celebrated and the entire Fort Kamehameha in Honolulu (where Fort Street got its name) immediately gave their loyalty oaths to Lord Paulet. To the credit of Kamehameha III, when Hawaiian independence was restored he met every one of the soldiers of the Fort and forgave them without punishment acknowledging that he and his administration were not at times fair. This episode had a profound impact on the young Princes Alexander Liholiho Kamehameha and Lot Kapuaiwa Kamehameha as well as David Kaläkaua and the other children of the Chiefs’ Childrens’ School.
After the death of Kamehameha III, Kamehameha IV began to undo much of the work of his uncle who he deemed was too much of a “friend of the foreigners”. This entailed removing Judd and the others from his cabinets and in establishing a new church. But in a very little written about episode in Hawaiian history, we have clearly the policies of Kamehameha IV in 1860 and the start of modern Hawaiian secularism. In 1860, the Japanese first embassy was making its way to Washington, D.C. King Kamehameha IV was eager to conclude a Treaty of Friendship with Japan and so tasked his Foreign Minister R. C. Wylie to explain to the Japanese ambassador the nature of his government. Minister Wyllie wrote to Ambassador Lord Shinmi Masaoka on March 18th, a Sunday, the following:
“…His Majesty places them [all foreigners] all on the same friendly footing; and while he permits men of all religions to follow their own conscientious belief, he permits no priests of any religion to interfere in the political administration of His government.”
The following Monday, Prince Lot Kapuaiwa Kamehameha in the Privy Council explained that the policy of his brother in regards to the Japanese was in accordance “with enlightened governments and….with ancient practices”. What the future Kamehameha V was probably referring to was the separation of the ali`i and the kahuna which symbolically had separated the government from religion until the time of Pa`ao (13th century) who made the ali`i paramount and justified it by the stories of Papa and Haumea and other mo`olelo. Kamehameha IV saw no conflict in being religious while trying to keep the Church out of political affairs. In fact, in the same letter from Foreign Minister Wyllie to Lord Shinmi Masaoka, he states that:
“…when the Portuguese priests arrived, [the Emperor of Japan] was as liberal and kind to men of all religions as is the policy of King Kamehameha IV, and that their Imperial Majesties changed that policy and strictly prohibted the Roman Catholic religion, because some priests, the successors of Saint Francis Xavier, intermeddled in the political government of the Empire. If the priests did so, they did wrong, and violated the rules of their own Church….”
King Kamehameha IV therefore was an early advocate of laicism though he still enforced many of the laws he inherited from Kamehameha III because of the resistance of his kuhina nui and some of the higher tanking Christian Hawaiian ali’i themselves. Kamehameha V went further than his brother and began to bring back the hula (though privately), allowed the licensing of certain types of kahuna, as well as permitting the funeral of his sister to be conducted in the old Hawaiian pre-Christian manner. But in general, throughout the first half of the 19th century, laws based on Calvinist Christian values were codified into the emerging Hawaiian adaptation of the English Common Law system though theoretically Hawaiian practices were exempt unless they hampered health, sanitation (i.e. the excuse for banning kahuna la’au lapa’au), public morality (i.e. the banning of the hula) and political stability.
During the reign of Kalākaua, one saw the emergence of an assertive Hawaiian nationalism and a measure of kauhonua unknown until that time. During the King’s coronation in 1883, he placed the Crown over his own head rather than having it placed by the presiding Anglican bishop. This symbolized ideas from the French revolution via Napoléon that it is the laity (non-clerics) that governs and man is the maker of his own destiny. He further went on to use national days as a way to re-introduce Hawaiian legends and began to celebrate Christian holidays private in his own household. While it was the custom of Kamehameha III to have the clergy sit in among the high chiefs in the front pews during the opening of the National Legislature, King Kalākaua only allowed up to two representatives of each religious organization to have reserved seating. As a sign of respect for what the King was trying to accomplish, the Anglican Church bishop normally would not attend the opening but would simply attend the reception afterwords. The King also tried–alas in vain–to remove religious references from the Penal and Civil Code particularly the ones involving the Sabbath. “…Better to keep a proper Sunday than a wrong Sabbath….” as the King wrote to his sister, Princess Likelike in 1881. He failed in amending these laws because of political events such as the 1887 Constitution which was supported by influential preachers and missionary children of what is now the United Churches of Christ had no issue with using the pulpit to preach political issues and to “damn” members who opposed their narrow view of Christianity– as his sister, St. Damien, and Robert Louis Stevenson would all be victims to that same pulpit.