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In 1820, following his graduation from the Yale Divinity School, tall, gangling, bumbling Abner Hale volunteers to carry the word of God to the heathen natives of Hawaii. In need of a wife before he can offer himself to the service, he timorously proposes to Jerusha Bromley, a young woman in love with an adventurous sea captain, Rafer Hoxworth, from whom she has not received a letter in over three years. To Abner's astonishment, Jerusha agrees to marry him, and they soon set sail for Hawaii. After a stormy and arduous voyage, during which their tiny two-masted vessel is battered by mountainous waves off Cape Horn, Abner and Jerusha finally reach the islands, where they receive a royal welcome from the Queen, the Alii Nui, Malama. Although Jerusha easily makes friends with the natives and tries to understand their customs, the sanctimonious Abner refuses to make any concessions and rigidly imposes his will upon the pleasure-and-peace-loving Hawaiians. He orders them to destroy their pagan idols, cover their naked bodies, and abolish their ancient practice of incestuous marriage. The Alii Nui instructs her people to obey, although she herself refuses to deny the deep love she feels for her brother, Kelolo. One day a sailing ship arrives in the harbor and Jerusha suddenly finds herself face to face with Hoxworth. Although still attracted to him, she nevertheless rejects his offer of love and chooses instead to remain with Abner. Later, sailors from several ships, including Hoxworth's, set fire to Abner's church as a protest against his forbidding the native girls to mingle with seamen. Led by Abner and Jerusha, the islanders put out the fire and drive off the sailors, and peace is momentarily restored. Gradually, however, more and more white men come to the islands, commercializing and corrupting the simple way of life and leaving behind disease and unhappiness. One day the Alii Nui sends for Abner and, realizing that her death is near, sends Kelolo into exile and receives a Christian baptism; but after she has been buried in sacred ground, Kelolo removes her body and disposes of it in the traditional pagan manner. A severe measles epidemic then sweeps the islands, taking the lives of hundreds of natives, including Keoki, a native clergyman who had studied with Abner at Yale. When Abner asks Keoki's sister-wife to pray with him, she brands him as a man of hate who worships a cruel and unforgiving God. As time passes, Jerusha gives birth to three sons and never ceases in her effort to persuade Abner that he must ask for forgiveness from God for the sorrow he has brought to the islands. In 1834, Hoxworth's ship once more returns to Hawaii and on board is a prefabricated New England house he plans to present to the Hales. When he learns Jerusha has since died, he strikes Abner in a fit of rage and then, filled with regret, goes to seek help for the man he has injured. Seven more years pass, and the now old and lame Abner is informed that he has been relieved of his ministry. He sends his three sons to England for their education, choosing himself to remain in Hawaii, still hopeful of somehow bringing God's word to the islands.