Thursday, December 3, 2009

Rev. John Smith Emerson

Missionary from Chester, New Hampshire to Hawaii

The Liliuokalani Church

Many famous New England missionaries voyaged thousands of miles to introduce Christianity to the Hawaiian Islands. Their story was made famous in James Michener’s book “Hawaii” which was made into a classic movie starring Max von Sydow and Julie Andrews as the minister and his wife. Among these missionaries were Hiram Bingham, Levi Chamberlain and Richard Armstrong. Several members of my extended family passed through Hawaii at this time, some staying and some returning to New England, for mission work, captaining trading ships and serving aboard whalers.

My great grandmother was an Emerson, and this family was well known for large numbers of clergymen. From near Nutfield I found Rev. John Smith Emerson of Chester, New Hampshire, who went to Oahu on a mission, and interacted with some of my other distant relatives over his years in Hawaii. He was born in 1800 and was a graduate of Dartmouth College and Andover Theological Seminary. He married Ursula Sophia Newell in 1831, after serving for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.

The Emersons traveled on the New Bedford whaling ship “Averick” and arrived in Honolulu on 17 May 1832, and their group was known as the Fifth Company of American Missionaries. They served at the Congregational Church at Haleiwa, Waialua, Oahu until 1864. He traveled back to the United States to earn a degree as a medical doctor, and returned to his work with the native Hawaiian people. Over his lifetime he baptized almost 1,200 people. Rev. Emerson is remembered for authoring a Hawaiian English dictionary with Rev. Artemas Bishop.

Ursula Newell
Mrs. Emerson, Ursula, was the typical helpmate of a foreign missionary. I can’t imagine starting married life aboard a ship bound for a faraway Pacific island. Their first church was a grass shack that could hold about 2000 congregants. She attended the sick and served as a teacher. She raised eight children in Hawaii, and the boys were educated in the United States. One son, Nathaniel Bright Emerson, served in the civil war, became a doctor at Harvard Medical School, and returned to Hawaii, with a wife, to work with the leper colonies.

The first missionaries arrived in Hawaii on March 30, 1820, and within two generations 90% of the population was literate. They created a written version of the Hawaiian native language, and published bibles and newspapers for the people. At the Mission Houses Museum in Honolulu, there is the original printing press on display, along with a New England style house that was brought in numbered pieces and re-assembled by the missionary families.

The church the Emerson’s founded is now known as the Queen Liliuokalani Church in Haleiwa, Oahu. It is the third structure on the site built in 1890, after the original grass hut built by the first congregation. Queen Liliuokalani worshiped here when she stayed in Haleiwa, her vacation residence, and the current building was named in her honor. There is a clock on the back wall of the church with the twelve letters of her name on the face in place of the numbers. Reverend and Mrs. Emerson are buried in the churchyard with two of their sons.

The Emerson Genealogy:

Generation 1: Michael Emerson, born 6 April 1627 in Howsham, Cadney, Lincolnshire, England, died on 18 Jul 1709 in Haverhill, Massachusetts; married on 11 April 1657 in Haverhill to Hannah Webster, daughter of John Webster and Mary Shatswell, born 23 December 1635 in Ipswich, Massachusetts and died on 3 February 1706/7.

Generation 2: Jonathan Emerson, born on 9 March 1669/1670 in Haverhill, died on 19 August 1736; married on 15 June 1699 in Haverhill to Hannah Day, born on 16 January 1678/79 in Ipswich.

Generation 3: Samuel Emerson, born on 8 January 1706/7 in Haverhill, died on 26 September 1793 in Chester, New Hampshire; married on 26 November 1754 in Chester to Dolly Sanborn, daughter of Samuel Sanborn and Elizabeth Folsum, born on 3 May 1721 in Kingston, New Hampshire and died on 25 March 1804 in Chester.

Generation 4: John Emerson, born on 13 August 1757 in Chester; married on 25 December 1783 to Elizabeth French, daughter of Nathaniel French and Elizabeth Colcord, born on 10 December 1761 in Chester.

Generation 5: John Smith Emerson, born on 28 February 1800 in Chester, died on 26 March 1867 in Waialua, Oahu, Hawaii; married on 25 October 1831 to Ursula Sophia Newell, daughter of Gad Newell and Sophia Clapp, born on 27 September 1806 in Nelson, New Hampshire and died on 24 November 1888 in Waialua. Eight Children born in Hawaii.



"The pilgrims of Hawaii: their own story of their pilgrimage from New England" by Orramel Hinckley Gulick, Fleming H. Revell company, 1918 The Mission Houses Museum and Library website The website for the Protestant church in Haleiwa, United Church of Christ

The portrait of Ursula Sophia Newell is from


Click on this link to read about my visit to the Lili'uokalani Church in Waialua and the graves of the Emerson family at this link

Copyright 2009, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Fascinating story! And the picture of Ursula is lovely. Thanks

  2. There are three maps that Ursula drew as learning aids in her classes (Oahu, Kauai and Niihau) that are reprinted in the book"The Early Mapping of Hawaii" by Gary L. Fitzpatrick. From the book "Records indicate that many missionaries apparently drew such manuscript maps for classroom use, though this and the one of Kauai and Oahu may be the only only to have survived."