The current issue of BYU Studies publishes for the first time a very interesting letter from one of the first Hawaiian converts, Jonathan (Ionatana) Napela, to the Prophet Brigham Young. In 1869, seventeen years after his baptism, Napela realized a long-anticipated plan to visit Utah and meet the leader of the church into which he had invested so much time and talent. During his stay, Napela met the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve and observed the Salt Lake City July 24th celebration with them; he also received his own endowment (the first known Hawaiian to do so) and was baptized as proxy for King Kamehameha I. In the April 11, 1871 letter, Napela recounts to President Young his report to King Kamehameha Vof the events of his visit.
The entire document, originally written in Hawaiian, is a fascinating exercise in hybridizing, translating, and interpreting disparate cultures. One sentence in particular, however, got me wondering. Napela wrote:
I informed my King about your counselors, G.A.S. [George A. Smith] & D.H.W. [Daniel H. Wells], and the quorum of twelve, and so forth including all the levels of leaders, and about the one special garment and explained the significance of that garment. It is something so a person will not have base desires, but does not punish the conscience of a people. (emphasis mine)
What does Napela mean in this last sentence? In particular, what does he mean when he says that the garment “does not punish the conscience of a people”? Napela was educated at a Protestant school in Lahaina, and perhaps there he learned (a distorted version, most probably) of the various Catholic penitential practices of mortifying the body, practices that Protestants reject. Could he here be distinguishing Mormon practice from Catholic? What does “conscience” have to do with it? Does his remark tell us anything about the ways early Mormons understood the garment? Is his understanding substantially different from our own?