The Church in the South Pacific
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“The Church in the South Pacific,” Ensign, Feb. 1976, 19

The Church in the South Pacific

The relatively large numbers of Church members in the Pacific area today almost blot out the memory of the years of suffering and sacrifice that prepared this vast part of the world for stakes, schools, and temples.

Many people today think of the South Seas as a place of balmy beaches, sunny days, soft music, and bronzed islanders with little to do. This vision has been created by the tourist and film industries and by writers and painters who fit the “native” image better than the natives themselves. Reality in the Pacific is very different from the filmwriters’ fancied scripts. Whether in the Tahiti of today or the Fiji of the 1890s, life has always been difficult for the local people. Society there, as elsewhere, has prescribed what can and cannot be done, and of course nature has placed limits beyond which men everywhere cannot easily go. Many islanders are limited even today, for example, to a diet based primarily on fish, coconuts, sweet potatoes, taro, and fruits. A few canned goods, particularly canned meats, fill out the menu. Life in the Pacific is hard for most of its inhabitants.

Another reality is that communications within this island sphere are not easy, even in the 1970s. It is more difficult for the General Authorities of the Church to arrange their travel here than in Europe or Asia. Even today thousands of inhabited islands can be reached only by boat; air transportation goes only to the major centers. This fact has made missionary work a struggle. Stories of elders sailing for days on end to fulfill assigned clerical tasks or to complete a district conference circuit were common in the past and are not unusual today. Thousands of Saints who attend area conference meetings in Papeete, Tahiti; Apia, Samoa; and Nuku’alofa, Tonga, will have arrived there after long and very uncomfortable rides in small craft or sea-weary, diesel-driven boats. Such trips have occasionally ended in disaster.

Although these situations have had to be dealt with, they have not stopped the work of spreading the gospel. When Joseph Smith experienced the visitation from the Father and the Son in the spring of 1820, the islands of the sea were almost simultaneously being prepared for the introduction of the gospel. Protestant missionaries introduced Christianity in French Polynesia (the Society Islands, Tuamotu Islands, the Tubuai group, and the Marquesas Islands) in 1797. Christian missionaries arrived in Hawaii in 1820. Viable Protestant missionary work took root in Tonga in the late 1820s. In 1830 Samoa greeted its first successful Christian missionary. Thus these areas and others were exposed to the Bible and the teachings of Jesus Christ before Latter-day Saint missionaries were available to explain the restoration and teach the fulness of the gospel.

Whaling was a big industry in the Pacific during the nineteenth century, involving hundreds of vessels and thousands of men. Two of these whaling men, Addison Pratt and Benjamin F. Grouard, later joined the Church. In 1822 Pratt had a disagreement with his skipper, and when his vessel put in at the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) he jumped ship. He remained on Oahu for only six months, but the memory of the islands stayed with him for years. In the winter of 1843 Brother Pratt mentioned his island experience to Joseph Smith. A call soon came for Addison Pratt and three of his associates, Benjamin F. Grouard, Knowlton F. Hanks, and Noah Rogers, to fill a mission to the Pacific. They left Nauvoo on June 1, 1843, and traveled to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where they sailed on the Timoleon on October 9. Their voyage was long and hard. Elder Hanks, who was ill when he received his call, died at sea.

On April 30, 1844, the island of Tubuai was sighted, four hundred miles south of Tahiti. Joseph Smith and the Twelve had appointed these elders to work in the Sandwich Islands, but because of the length of the voyage and the eagerness of the local inhabitants of Tubuai to have a minister of the gospel live with them, it was decided that the mission should be established in the area now called French Polynesia.

Elder Pratt remained on Tubuai. Elders Grouard and Rogers went on to Tahiti, but after working with very little success there, they parted. Elder Rogers sailed from island to island in the area, but had so little success that he sailed for home during the summer of 1845.

Elder Grouard, however, met with almost immediate success when he sailed east from Tahiti to Anaa in the Tuamotu group. He started his mission on this island on May 4, 1845, and baptized his first convert three weeks later. By the following September he had organized five branches with 620 members.

Meanwhile, on Tubuai, Elder Pratt had organized the first foreign-language-speaking branch of the Church on July 29, 1844. It was also the first branch of the Church in the Pacific. By February 1845 there were sixty members on Tubuai.

But because Elder Grouard could not handle all the administrative problems of the Tuamotu Saints, he asked Elder Pratt to join him. They worked Anaa together from February 1846 until midsummer, when Elder Grouard decided to extend the work to still other islands. Elder Grouard returned to Anaa in September for the first conference of the Polynesian Saints. Representatives of ten branches gathered, totaling 866 members.

In March 1847 Brother Pratt sailed for home to learn what had happened to the Saints and to his family. Almost three years later he and James S. Brown traveled back to French Polynesia. They were followed by Elder Pratt’s family and by a number of other families. Unfortunately the political situation in French Polynesia made it impossible to continue the work and the mission was closed in 1852.

Possibly the greatest reason for the success that had been seen was the manner in which Elder Pratt and Elder Grouard lived with the people. They made no demands upon them by way of taxes or specious donations. When Sister Louisa B. Pratt and her sister, Caroline Crosby, came to the islands, they taught women how families were to be organized and how to be good homemakers. The missionaries had also organized small schools and had translated hymns into Tahitian.

The next serious attempt by the Church to establish the restored gospel in the Pacific was in the Sandwich Islands. In December 1850, ten missionaries arrived there from the gold fields of California. The work in Hawaii progressed extremely well for the first four years. Then the newness of the message lost some of its appeal, and a gradual falling away took place. Unfortunately, problems that eventually came to be known as the Utah War were brewing at home, and missionaries were recalled in 1858.

Three years later a missionary again arrived in Hawaii, and in 1864 the Church in Hawaii entered a prolonged period of steady growth.

The most important single development in Hawaii was the construction of the temple at Laie. From the time of its announcement in 1915 until it was dedicated November 27, 1919, the Saints of the Pacific area worked diligently toward its completion.

For many years Hawaii was the most successful missionary field in the Pacific. Work in Australia and New Zealand did not move with the same vigor. Throughout the 1840s, Australia proved to be a difficult field to harvest. Even though missionaries did manage to convert a few people and to establish some branches, there was much opposition to their work.

This opposition was a result both of falsehoods that were circulated and of problems largely related to the Australian Gold Rush of 1851. Gold fever claimed almost everyone. Few people were willing to think of things more eternal than gold.

A third factor worked against continued success in Australia. As one missionary said it, “I am teaching the first principles of the gospel, namely, faith, repentance, baptism, the laying on of hands, obedience to authority, and gathering to Zion.” Gathering to Zion strengthened the new members who left Australia, but it greatly weakened the Church there. During the first eight years of the mission more than 450 Saints emigrated to Zion.

Although considerable success was evident in Australia during the middle years of the 1850s, the work was abruptly halted in 1858. These missionaries, too, were called home because of the Utah War. After the war, the work of the mission slowly resumed. No missionaries were sent to Australia from 1856 to 1867, and then only one proselyted the nation. It was not until 1875 that a concerted effort was made to speed the work. Fourteen missionaries were sent to the Australasian Mission that year; most of these labored in New Zealand. By 1885 there were four branches, two Sunday Schools, twenty-one missionaries, and 178 members in Australia.

Latter-day Saint missionary work was begun in New Zealand in 1854. From that time until 1898, when the mission was divided, Australia and New Zealand were one mission, called the Australasian Mission. Progress was slow in New Zealand until the 1870s, but by that time affairs were moving well enough for the Australasian Mission president, Elijah F. Pearce, to move the mission headquarters from Australia to Christchurch, New Zealand. For the next decade an average of nine missionaries worked in both countries, but mostly in New Zealand.

The 1880s mark the turning point in the history of the New Zealand mission. Certain Maori chiefs and spiritual leaders had foretold the coming of missionaries, and their prophetic visions were borne out strikingly by the coming of the Latter-day Saint elders. When the Maori people saw the prophecies fulfilled, they came into the Church in great numbers. By 1887 there were over 2,000 Maoris in the Church. The next year saw that number increased by another 750. After that the numbers of Maoris grew slowly but steadily. After the initial conversion period of the 1880s, most of the missionaries’ time was spent in ministering to the needs of the branches and individual members. The Church was primarily known as a Maori Church until after 1950.

At about the same time as the Maori successes, missionaries were sent to Samoa. Two Hawaiian elders had been sent to Samoa in 1862, but their efforts came to nothing. The second group of missionaries was also sent from Hawaii. In June 1888, Joseph H. Dean and his wife arrived in Tutuila, in what is now called American Samoa. They were soon joined by other missionaries, and the work was planted there. One of the two 1862 elders, Manoa, was still there and helped to establish the new messengers of the gospel.

Samoa provided missionaries to start the work in Tonga, and it also gave French Polynesia a second start. Brigham Smoot and Alva Butler were sent from Samoa to the island of Tongatapu, the capital of Tonga, in June 1891. Many months passed before they baptized their first convert. And even though they and other missionaries who joined them worked diligently, established elementary schools, and traveled widely to spread the new religion, they were so unsuccessful in converting Tongan people to the Church that the missionaries were withdrawn in 1897. Ten years later, however, elders were back. They began their work in the northern group of islands, called Vava’u. Steady progress made it advisable to separate Tonga from Samoa in 1916.

Successes in Samoa moved President William O. Lee to obtain permission from the First Presidency to send elders to French Polynesia. This permission was given, and on January 22, 1892, Elders Joseph W. Damron and William A. Seegmiller sailed from Apia for Papeete, Tahiti. Forty years had passed since the early missionaries had been forced to leave their converts. When Elders Damron and Seegmiller landed at Papeete, they found that the Church was still alive, but difficult problems existed. Missionaries of the Reorganized Church had arrived in 1885 and had persuaded many Tahitian Latter-day Saints to join with them. Elders Damron and Seegmiller put forth many months of devoted labor before they made progress in winning these members back to the fold.

Upon hearing of the problem, the First Presidency sent sixty-five-year-old James S. Brown, one of the early missionaries, to Tahiti to help establish the legitimacy of the Mormon missionaries. He arrived on June 1, 1892. After Brother Brown’s arrival, many months passed before the Latter-day Saints in the various island groups of French Polynesia were convinced that they were once again under the ministry of the true church. Particularly in the Tuamotu Islands, where B. F. Grouard had been so successful forty-seven years before, the Saints were slow to recognize that they now had authorized shepherds. When this realization came, their old, blind leader, Maihea, said, “We welcome you, we welcome these young men too. Our hearts are now glad. You may tell us the true way to go, and we will obey you; for we have been a long time without a guide; we have been like sheep without a true shepherd.” In January 1893, 425 Tahitians counted themselves Latter-day Saints. It is a great testimony to the strength of the early converts that they and their descendants could hold to the faith for four decades without direction and help from the center of the Church.

There were many obstacles to early missionary work in the Pacific, but the period since 1946 has seen almost spectacular growth. President David O. McKay placed new emphasis upon missionary work, and the young men and women of the Church responded by filling missions in considerably greater numbers. Missionary expansion has been seen in Fiji, the Cook Islands, New Caledonia, the New Hebrides, the Solomon Islands, and the Gilbert Islands, among others. Active missionary work was commenced in Fiji during the mid-1950s. Since that time the work there has progressed remarkably well among the half-Fijian and half-Indian population of that nation. (The Fiji Mission differs from others of Oceania in that its people are generally not Polynesian, but Melanesian, Indian, and Micronesian.)

Suva, Fiji, is the focal point of activity in this mission. Here the first of several chapels was constructed during the late 1950s. Also an elementary school has been operated by the Church for a number of years, and on a beautiful hillside overlooking Suva the new LDS Fiji Technical College is being built and is scheduled to be dedicated in February 1976. The Saints of Fiji expect this school to be the cradle of missionary expansion throughout Melanesia.

It is expected that Fiji will not only be the foundation of missionary work in Melanesia, but will also be the launching place for missionary work in India. This mission is now teaching the gospel in ten languages and actively translating Church materials into six languages. Among those languages is Hindi, an important Indian language. It will be a great advantage to missionaries who are called to India some day to have the scriptures and other Church materials available in the language of the people they are teaching. The Indian Saints of Fiji may one day provide some of the missionaries to take the gospel to India.

The stakes and missions of the Pacific have prepared the young local people to proselyte their own countries, and, unknown to most members of the Church, they are now doing most of the missionary work in Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji. The mission presidents of Samoa and Tonga are local brethren, converts to the Church, and past stake presidents. In French Polynesia the mission president, although born in France, has been a resident of Tahiti for a number of years. The president of the New Zealand Auckland Mission is a part-Maori from that country. Other mission presidents and Regional Representatives in the Pacific and Australia are also local Saints.

Possibly the most important contributing factor in developing strong Church leaders in this area is the educational system of the Church. The first educational efforts by Latter-day Saints in the Pacific took place under the direction of Louisa B. Pratt, as she taught her own daughters and some native children. In 1886 our missionaries opened schools for Maori children in New Zealand. At the turn of the century there were ten such schools. The first Church schools in Tonga were opened in 1895. They, like the schools in New Zealand, were very small and very simple. Education was restricted to the three R’s. Similar schools were founded in Samoa soon after the mission opened. By 1922 there were twenty schools and 665 pupils, with eleven paalangi (white) and twenty-seven Samoan teachers.

The Saints of Samoa developed two special village plantations as gathering places during the early years of this century—Sauniatu on Upolu Island and Mapusaga on Tutuila. Schools were prominent in these villages. Of particular importance to the Saints of Sauniatu was its school’s brass band. Not only did the band entertain Elder David O. McKay and his companion, Elder Hugh J. Cannon, when they visited there in 1921, but the American consul in Samoa also called upon this band to play on important occasions. Similar bands were organized elsewhere in Samoa, in New Zealand, and in Tahiti.

Elementary schools are still contributing much to the growth of the Church today in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and French Polynesia. The Church has also developed several model high schools in the islands. The first two Church high schools were founded and operated outside of the organized Church school system. The Maori Agricultural College (MAC), near Hastings, New Zealand, was founded in 1913 and served the needs of the New Zealanders until 1931, when a severe earthquake irreparably damaged the school. The curriculum was similar to that of American high schools but emphasized agriculture, manual arts, and other practical skills. The enrollment never exceeded ninety per year, but the alumni of this school, the “old boys,” have provided the finest leadership of the Church in New Zealand. The influence of the MAC has been felt throughout the South Seas because many Samoans, Tongans, and Tahitians attended there along with the Maori youth.

The “old boys” of the MAC were strong voices of encouragement for the Church College of New Zealand, founded in 1958.

Other high schools were founded by missionaries and Church leaders in Tonga and Samoa. In August 1924 President M. Vernon Coombs of the Tongan Mission leased 9 1/2 acres of land for use as a residential school and plantation. The land was called Makeke, which means “arise and awake.” Here a high school was built where the students planted and harvested most of their own food while pursuing normal educational goals. The Makeke school was officially opened in February 1926 with Samuela V. Fakatou, a graduate of the MAC, as teacher. It was operated for more than two decades.

In February 1952, a new Tongan high school called Liahona was opened. A large system of elementary schools has also been developed. Late in 1975 a new middle school was opened on Vava’u Island, north Tonga.

In Samoa three Church schools have been particularly important. They are Mapusaga, which was sold to the U.S. government in 1974; Viola, on the Island of Savaii; and Pesega, in Apia, Upolu.

The effects of the Church schools in the Pacific will be felt for generations to come. At the end of 1972, over 5,100 students were enrolled in Church elementary and secondary schools in the Pacific.

The Liahona High School construction project brought a new but temporary Church program into operation. This was the “Building Missionary” program. Because he was having difficulty in finding skilled workmen, the Tongan Mission president decided to call a group of young Tongan men on special labor missions.

Liahona High School was just the beginning of this program that blessed many branches with new and beautiful chapels while it provided vocational training for hundreds of young men. Although this program is no longer followed by the Church, many families live well because the heads of their homes learned skills through this program.

Not only were chapels constructed all over the Pacific through the building missionary program, but a temple was also constructed in New Zealand. When temples are built in a land, it signifies that the Church has developed beyond the individual convert and family branch stage, beyond the branch and district stage, and is ready for complete local responsibility, as in the stakes of Zion. When President McKay announced the planned construction of the New Zealand Temple in 1955, there was not a stake in that land. The mission president, Ariel S. Ballif, and the local district leaders determined that they would make every effort to be ready for the creation of a stake as soon as possible. Councils were organized, training sessions were carried out, missionaries were removed from all branch and district positions where possible, and greater effort was given to spiritual preparation for the responsibilities of a stake. The New Zealand Temple was dedicated on April 20, 1958; one month later the Auckland Stake was organized. It was the first stake to be organized outside of North America and Hawaii.

Similar progress was also being made in other parts of the Pacific. In March 1960 the first stake in Australia was created; in 1962 Samoa obtained its first stake; Tonga obtained its first stake in September 1968; and in March 1972, the Tahiti Stake was organized. There are now twenty-eight stakes in the South Pacific. Western and American Samoa are the first national-racial areas in the world to be totally included in stakes.

One of the main factors in the development of stakes was the decision of mission presidents in all of these areas during the 1950s to remove missionaries from branch and district positions so they could proselyte full-time. As a result, the local members came forward and did the work, and the missionaries were free to seek new converts.

The First Presidency of the Church and the General Authorities are greatly loved and revered by the peoples of the islands of the sea. The visits of members of the Twelve, such as Elder David O. McKay in 1921 and Elder George Albert Smith in 1938, are still remembered as special and sacred occasions in the histories of these missions. Elder Matthew Cowley dearly loved and was likewise loved by the Polynesian peoples. Since 1950, visits by General Authorities have been as cherished as before, but they have been too numerous to mention here.

The Lord loves the people of this part of the world and has blessed them with the almost continuous ministrations of his chosen servants, with many physical facilities such as chapels and schools, and with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The recipients of the blessings of Abraham are day by day taking their places in the Kingdom of God.

  • R. Lanier Britsch, associate professor of history and Asian studies at Brigham Young University, serves as second counselor in the Orem Utah Sharon Stake presidency.

Photographs by John Telford and Lorin Wiggins.

Sopoaga Falls, Samoa.

Top: Families are the strength of Samoa and the Church. Bottom: Education has been an important part of Church development in the South Pacific. This Church school is in the mountain village of Vaiola.

Top: Aaronic Priesthood bearers in Papeete, Tahiti. Bottom left: Scenic beauty abounds on these islands, this view in Samoa being typical. Top right: School children at a Church school in Suva, Fiji. Bottom right: Native missionaries are taking over in the South Pacific. Even teaming them with other missionaries increases success.

Typical Polynesian basket.

This kava bowl was used in a welcoming ceremony for President David O. McKay in Samoa and then presented to him.

Water carriers such as this were made and used in Fiji and are apparently the only ceramic items made in Polynesia.

Tonga; Tahiti; Fiji; Samoa