Robert Louis Stevenson's #SAVAGE Defense of Saint Damien of Molokai

Robert Louis Stevenson’s #SAVAGE Defense of St. Damien of Molokai

On May 10, the Catholic Church celebrates Saint Damien of Molokai who worked in the leper colony on the island of Molokai in Hawaii. The heroic and virtuous life of Father Damien De Veuster is recognized not only by the Church but also by the State of Hawaii which still recognizes April 15 as a minor state-wide holiday.

Yet, not everyone was a fan of this priest who gave his life to serve the lepers. One individual, the Reverend Doctor Hyde, was so displeased with Father Damien and the praise that was being showered upon him after his death that he wrote a letter to the Bishop of Honolulu, the Reverend H. B. Gage, criticizing Father Damien.

This letter became public and was published in an Australian newspaper where it was read by Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, who was traveling around in the Pacific while trying to get over Tuberculosis. Stevenson wrote a passionate, 6,000-word open letter to the Reverend Doctor Hyde defending Father Damien (read the full letter here). And. It. Is. Savage.

Before we start exploring this letter and its savageness, I feel it prudent to point out that Stevenson wrote this letter in 1890, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was first published in 1886. Therefore, one should not be under the false impression that Stevenson named the vile alter ego of Dr. Jekyll after the Reverend Doctor Hyde.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s dig into this most savage of letters.


Stevenson sets the tone right away

Robert Louis Stevenson, who had met the man he roasted in this letter, starts by declaring how well the Reverend Doctor had treated him when they met during Stevenson’s stay in Hawaii. But he states that the vileness of Hyde’s letter eliminates any need for him to hold his tongue out of gratitude for how he was treated.

“If I have at all learned the trade of using words to convey truth and to arouse emotion, you have at last furnished me with a subject. For it is in the interest of all mankind, and the cause of public decency in every quarter of the world, not only that Damien should be righted, but that you and your letter should be displayed at length, in their true colours, to the public eye. To do this properly, I must begin by quoting you at large: I shall then proceed to criticize your utterance from several points of view, divine and human, in the course of which I shall attempt to draw again, and with more specification, the character of the dead saint whom it has pleased you to vilify: so much being done, I shall say farewell to you for ever.”

OUCH! “Farewell forever.” Dang! #SAVAGE


Hyde has no right to criticize Father Damien from while sitting in a mansion

Stevenson makes note of how the people he met in Hawaii marveled at the grandiosity of Hyde’s mansion. Moreover, he goes on to criticize Hyde for never going to the leper colony. Damien worked in the leper colony and lived with the people there, but the man who lived in a mansion and never went to Molokai criticized his work. Stevenson was not having any of that:

I think (to employ a phrase of yours which I admire) it ‘should be attributed’ to you that you have never visited the scene of Damien’s life and death. If you had, and had recalled it, and looked about your pleasant rooms, even your pen perhaps would have been stayed.

Using his own words against him. LOVE IT!


The Catholic served the lepers and the Presbyterians were ashamed

Both Stevenson and Hyde belonged to the same protestant sect. Stevenson acknowledges that, takes Hyde to task for doing nothing while a Catholic priest was serving in the leper colony, and accuses Hyde of lashing out at Father Damien because of remorse:

You were thinking of the lost chance, the past day; of that which should have been conceived and was not; of the service due and not rendered. Time was, said the voice in your ear, in your pleasant room, as you sat raging and writing; and if the words written were base beyond parallel, the rage, I am happy to repeat – it is the only compliment I shall pay you – the rage was almost virtuous.

But, sir, when we have failed, and another has succeeded; when we have stood by, and another has stepped in; when we sit and grow bulky in our charming mansions, and a plain, uncouth peasant steps into the battle, under the eyes of God, and succours the afflicted, and consoles the dying, and is himself afflicted in his turn, and dies upon the field of honour – the battle cannot be retrieved as your unhappy irritation has suggested. It is a lost battle, and lost forever…

This portion of the letter calls for reflection in our own lives. When someone does a good deed we should have done, how do we respond? Do we recognize the virtue of the other person, or do we seethe with jealousy and lash out?


Hyde will only be remembered for his letter

The Reverend Doctor Hyde was by no means an awful human being and actually did many great things in his ministry in Hawaii. However, Stevenson, in his open letter, predicts that he will only be remembered for the letter criticizing Saint Damien:

The world, in your despite, may perhaps owe you something, if your letter be the means of substituting once for all a credible likeness for a wax abstraction. For, if that world at all remember you, on the day when Damien of Molokai shall be named Saint, it will be in virtue of one work: your letter to the Reverend H. B. Gage.

It seems Stevenson prediction came true.


Stevenson actually did his research

Stevenson goes on to criticize Hyde for not properly doing research on Father Damien before commenting on his character. He actually went and talked with people who knew Father Damien:

These gave me what knowledge I possess; and I learnt it in that scene where it could be most completely and sensitively understood – Kalawao, which you have never visited, about which you have never so much as endeavoured to inform yourself; for, brief as your letter is, you have found the means to stumble into that confession.

‘LESS THAN ONE– HALF of the island,’ you say, ‘is devoted to the lepers.’

Molokai – ‘MOLOKAI AHINA,’ the ‘grey,’ lofty, and most desolate island – along all its northern side plunges a front of precipice into a sea of unusual profundity. This range of cliff is, from east to west, the true end and frontier of the island. Only in one spot there projects into the ocean a certain triangular and rugged down, grassy, stony, windy, and rising in the midst into a hill with a dead crater: the whole bearing to the cliff that overhangs it somewhat the same relation as a bracket to a wall. With this hint you will now be able to pick out the leper station on a map; you will be able to judge how much of Molokai is thus cut off between the surf and precipice, whether less than a half, or less than a quarter, or a fifth, or a tenth – or, say, a twentieth; and the next time you burst into print you will be in a position to share with us the issue of your calculations.

Stevenson points out the lack of knowledge Hyde has about Father Damien and his ministry. He spoke to people who knew Father Damien and his flaws, and he brilliantly points out the ignorance of Hyde by demonstrating his unfamiliarity with the leper colony and the island of Moloka’i.


Stevenson acknowledges Saint Damien’s faults but sees his heroic side

Robert Louis Stevenson was not blind to Saint Damien’s faults. However, he acknowledged also that no one is perfect. He was able to see Saint Damien’s virtues and how Damien admitted it when he was wrong:

There are many (not Catholics merely) who require their heroes and saints to be infallible; to these the story will be painful; not to the true lovers, patrons, and servants of mankind.

And I take it, this is a type of our division; that you are one of those who have an eye for faults and failures; that you take a pleasure to find and publish them; and that, having found them, you make haste to forget the overvailing virtues and the real success which had alone introduced them to your knowledge. It is a dangerous frame of mind. That you may understand how dangerous, and into what a situation it has already brought you, we will (if you please) go hand- in-hand through the different phrases of your letter, and candidly examine each from the point of view of its truth, its appositeness, and its charity.

No one is perfect, and Stevenson was dismayed that Hyde only saw Saint Damien’s faults.


Stevenson destroys all of Hyde’s criticisms of Saint Damien

One by one, Steven walks through Hyde’s criticisms of Damien and refutes them all:

Damien was COARSE.

It is very possible. You make us sorry for the lepers, who had only a coarse old peasant for their friend and father. But you, who were so refined, why were you not there, to cheer them with the lights of culture? Or may I remind you that we have some reason to doubt if John the Baptist were genteel; and in the case of Peter, on whose career you doubtless dwell approvingly in the pulpit, no doubt at all he was a ‘coarse, headstrong’ fisherman! Yet even in our Protestant Bibles Peter is called Saint.

Damien was DIRTY.

He was. Think of the poor lepers annoyed with this dirty comrade! But the clean Dr. Hyde was at his food in a fine house.

Damien was HEADSTRONG.

I believe you are right again; and I thank God for his strong head and heart.

Damien was BIGOTED.

I am not fond of bigots myself, because they are not fond of me. But what is meant by bigotry, that we should regard it as a blemish in a priest? Damien believed his own religion with the simplicity of a peasant or a child; as I would I could suppose that you do. For this, I wonder at him some way off; and had that been his only character, should have avoided him in life. But the point of interest in Damien, which has caused him to be so much talked about and made him at last the subject of your pen and mine, was that, in him, his bigotry, his intense and narrow faith, wrought potently for good, and strengthened him to be one of the world’s heroes and exemplars.


Is this a misreading? Or do you really mean the words for blame? I have heard Christ, in the pulpits of our Church, held up for imitation on the ground that His sacrifice was voluntary. Does Dr. Hyde think otherwise?

In a pithy manner, Stevenson destroys these careless criticisms of Hyde’s. DESTROYED!


The most scandalous of Hyde’s claims is baseless

The most scandalous charge Hyde threw at Father Damien was that he was impure with women, but Stevenson would not hear it:

How do you know that? Is this the nature of the conversation in that house on Beretania Street which the cabman envied, driving past? – racy details of the misconduct of the poor peasant priest, toiling under the cliffs of Molokai?

Many have visited the station before me; they seem not to have heard the rumour. When I was there I heard many shocking tales, for my informants were men speaking with the plainness of the laity; and I heard plenty of complaints of Damien. Why was this never mentioned? And how came it to you in the retirement of your clerical parlour?


Stevenson, who spoke to many people about Father Damien (both people who admired him and those who criticized him), had only heard one other person accuse Father Damien of impurity with women. That individual was probably intoxicated when he said that and was summarily criticized by everyone in the public house who heard that accusation. Stevenson was shocked Hyde would repeat such a baseless and tasteless story. He laments the fact that he could not excuse the statement by attributing it to a drunken misstep when he writes, “[T]he blue ribbon which adorns your portly bosom forbids me to allow you the extenuating plea that you were drunk when it was done.”


Stevenson goes in for a final crushing blow

Stevenson challenges Hyde to imagine if someone had criticized his father the way he had criticized Father Damien. Robert Louis Stevenson predicted Hyde would not have been so quick to complain about his own father in that tone. And with that, Stevenson closes his letter.