“The Gospel Moves to Micronesia,” Ensign, Feb. 1978, 76–77
The names sound like a roster of strategic islands in World War II: Guam, Saipan, Yap, Truk, Majuro, Ponape, Kwajalein. The Marianas. The Carolines. The Marshall Islands. But today they are the site of a blossoming missionary effort, as the Hawaii Honolulu Mission reaches out to the many small islands of Micronesia.
“The Trust Territory of the Pacific and Guam are fast becoming our most fruitful missionary areas at this time,” says President William W. Cannon of the Hawaii Honolulu Mission, headquartered 3,300 miles east of Guam. Three million square miles of ocean are included in the mission, and only here and there do populated islands interrupt the waves. But since missionaries were first assigned to Saipan in March 1975, the total Latter-day Saint membership in the Trust Territory of the Pacific has passed the 200 mark—and 120 of these baptisms have taken place since March 1977.
Unlike the tiny islands in the Trust Territory, Guam has had the gospel for years. In fact, 600 Church members form two wards on the island of Guam, administered as part of the Kaneohe Hawaii Stake, headquartered on the island of Oahu.
Following the end of World War II in 1945, a group of Latter-day Saint servicemen and their families began holding meetings, eventually evolving into the Guam Branch of the Japanese Mission. Elder Joseph Fielding Smith of the Council of the Twelve dedicated Guam for missionary work on 25 August 1955, and the first full-time missionaries arrived in January 1957. The first chapel on the island was dedicated by Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Quorum of the Twelve in 1959.
Although most of the Church membership on 209-square mile Guam consists of itinerant U.S. military personnel or civilian employees from Hawaii or the mainland of the U.S., President A. Robert Schutte of the Kaneohe Stake reports that the Chamorros, the native residents of Guam, are becoming more interested in the Church. The Chamorros make up more than half of Guam’s population of 120,000. One of the more recent Chamorro converts to the Church was the recently elected student body president of the local high school—and he is now helping the full-time missionaries teach the student body vice-president and secretary, besides members of his own family.
Why is the missionary work surging in Guam and the Trust Territory of the Pacific? Mission president Cannon—a grandson of Elder George Q. Cannon, who was one of the first missionaries in Hawaii in 1850—points to the strong influence of members who are working throughout the islands. “Former BYU-Hawaii Campus students are among the Saints employed on the various islands. They are not ashamed of the gospel, and most of them are eager and excited to share the restored teachings of Christ with their families and friends and help establish branches of the Church. They have helped pave the way.”
Missionary work is a challenge in the islands of Micronesia. Spread over an expanse of ocean larger than the continental United States, travel between the tiny islands is often possible only by boat. And even though English is generally spoken, there are nine different language groups in the territory!
Another problem is the sparse distribution of the population. Missionaries in major cities elsewhere in the world have a pool of millions of people to teach the gospel to, and the new members can quickly be formed into a branch, as has recently happened with the new mission in Portugal. But the entire population of the Trust Territory of the Pacific is 122,000—less than half the population of Salt Lake City—and they are scattered among dozens of islands. In fact, on the “island” of Kwajalein the population is scattered among more than 90 tiny islets surrounding a lagoon!
But the missionaries are there because, as President Cannon says, “This is the right time for the gospel to be preached to the people of Micronesia.” In fact, one time since the missionaries were sent to Saipan, President Cannon decided to withdraw them because of the initial lack of success. “But things worked against my making the change, which let me know that the missionaries should stay.”
Elder John H. Groberg of the First Quorum of the Seventy, General Authority Area Supervisor for the Pacific, has encouraged President Cannon to extend the gospel to the people in these long-untouched islands. And less than a year after the missionaries first arrived on Saipan, the first baptisms in Micronesia (outside Guam) took place when in January 1976 the Brad Nago family joined the Church. Brother Nago, in a story similar to that of many other converts in the area, first heard of the gospel from two members who were working on the construction of a new airport in Saipan. Saipan, where 37,000 American and Japanese soldiers lost their lives in famous World War II battles, is now the site of a growing branch of the Church.
Shortly after the Church gained a foothold on Saipan, the gospel spread to Ponape, now the fastest-growing area in the islands. Success in Ponape was due in great part to two former students of BYU-Hawaii Campus, who learned about the gospel and were baptized in Laie, Hawaii—and then took the gospel to their family and friends at home.
One day while the missionaries were riding their bikes on the streets of Kolonia, Ponape, they were approached by a Pingilap (native of Ponape) who claimed he owed the Church money for a Book of Mormon he had purchased while attending BYU-Hawaii Campus. A schoolteacher, he explained that he had taken two of the missionary lessons while in Laie, and he wanted to continue the lessons. And so Naped Elias became the first person to be baptized on Ponape. Today he is branch president.
Growth has been rapid on other islands. Today, only a year after the missionaries first arrived on Majuro, there are twenty members in the branch. The Conrad family became the first natives of Truk to join the Church in October 1977—and other islands have been opened to the gospel even more recently.
The coming of the Church, here as everywhere, can mean improvement in the temporal affairs of the Saints, as well as the spiritual. Brother and Sister Abraham Lincoln of Waianae, Oahu, Hawaii, have been teaching Micronesians the art of making nets as well as helping them make better use of such indigenous products as clams and taro. And two Micronesian youths who joined the Church immediately—and happily—cut their hair to conform to missionary standards, so they could help the missionaries teach the gospel to others.
Thirty-five years ago, people around the world heard the names of these islands as bloody battles were fought to control them. Today, Latter-day Saints see an entirely different kind of effort going on as the gospel changes people’s lives throughout the tiny islands scattered across the western Pacific Ocean.