In 1820, Abner Hale, a New England missionary, 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 proposes to Jerusha Bromley, a young woman in love with an adventurous sea captain, Rafer Hoxworth, and takes her to the exotic island kingdom of HAWAII.
After a stormy and arduous voyage, Abner and Jerusha finally reach the islands where they receive a royal welcome from the Alii Nui (queen of Hawaii), Malama Kanakoa. 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. 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.