Pioneering the Gospel in Australia, Part III: The First Half of the Twentieth Century

“Pioneering the Gospel in Australia, Part III: The First Half of the Twentieth Century,” Ensign, Oct. 1986, 39–41

The Church in Australia

Part III: The First Half of the Twentieth Century

When Australian Latter-day Saints Bob Love and Maggie Henry were married in 1929, they had the ceremony performed by the local Presbyterian minister in his church. Then the bridal party traveled to the Enmore LDS branch chapel, where Mission President Clarence H. Tingey held what was called, in the mission’s year-end report, a “confirmation service” to bless their marriage.

The Loves did what circumstances forced many young Latter-day Saints to do. The nearest temple was 6,000 miles away in Hawaii, and the round trip passage for two was the equivalent of several years’ wages. The government of New South Wales would not license Latter-day Saints as marriage celebrants, so the Loves and others like them had to settle for a civil marriage, in another church or at a registry office. It was not until 1952 that the Loves were able to take their five children to the Salt Lake Temple to be sealed.

Their story typifies the experiences of many young LDS couples in Australia before World War II. The Saints’ struggle for recognition from civil authorities was one of the continuing themes of the LDS story in Australia during the early decades of the twentieth century.

One often-given reason for not granting official status to the Church was the lack of Church buildings in Australia. But once the Melbourne chapel was built in 1922, the government of Victoria finally agreed to license LDS marriage celebrants. Other Australian states were not as accommodating. Though the first LDS chapel in Australia was built in Brisbane in 1904, Latter-day Saint marriage celebrants were not recognized by the Queensland government until 1929. The Enmore chapel in Sydney was opened in 1924, but LDS marriage celebrants were not registered in New South Wales until 1931.

The building of chapels did much to promote the image of the Church as a permanent part of Australian life. To have a chapel of its own was the dream of every little branch. Although the Church paid 50 percent of the cost, it was frequently a struggle for branches to raise the remainder.

While the first half of the twentieth century is often seen as a period of slow growth for the Church in Australia, the gains were reasonable considering the shortage of missionaries—at times fewer than twenty to proselyte a country of three million square miles—and the effects of two world wars and the Great Depression. Australian Mission membership figures show a gradual but steady increase from 328 in 1901 to 2,396 in 1951.

By the late 1920s, most of the branches were large enough to maintain all the auxiliary programs of the Church. In most, a “family” feeling grew as members worked together, sometimes serving in several auxiliaries at once.

Beginning in 1930, President Clarence Tingey called local Australian branch presidencies wherever possible, freeing full-time missionaries for proselyting. The administrative experience gained by local brethren would mean survival for many Australian branches ten years later when World War II would force all American missionaries home.

In the 1930s, half a dozen Australian men were ordained elders and called to serve one- or two-year full-time missions, usually within their own country. Oswald (“Ossie”) Watson, from Glen Huon, Tasmania, became the first Australian missionary to serve overseas when he was called to the New Zealand Mission in 1930.

Missionary travel was long and arduous, particularly for those coming from America. The trip to Australia took several weeks, even on modern steam liners. Once in the mission, travel between assigned fields of labor was also difficult. Until World War I, most transfers were accomplished by coastal steamer. Later, it took many days and nights (and several changes of trains because of different track gauges in different states) to reach Perth from Sydney—as far as from New York to San Francisco.

Mission presidents and their wives took several months to make a circuit of the scattered districts and branches. The Perth Branch was extremely fortunate to see the mission president once a year.

Whenever possible, missionaries took country trips to visit isolated Saints who lived far from organized branches; the elders administered the sacrament and gave much-needed counsel and support. For some time, the mission home sent out correspondence Sunday School lessons to these scattered Saints. In another effort to overcome vast distances between groups of Saints, President Tingey in 1929 commenced publication of a small monthly journal modeled after the Millennial Star in Britain. The Austral Star was published regularly until December 1958.

But World War II, beginning in September 1939, slowed Church growth in Australia. Many young men were called to war. Food, clothing, and petrol were rationed, and travel was curtailed. Then, on 14 October 1940, Mission President James Judd received a cable from the First Presidency recalling all missionaries.

A new mission president, Elvon W. Orme, had to struggle for the duration of the war to administer the sprawling mission. A young Melbourne elder, Frederick E. Hurst, was called to help. Many smaller branches had to be closed. Dedicated sisters spent long hours typing copies of Church materials, scarce because shipping space was reserved for military uses, to be mailed to the branches. With growing talk of invasion, President Orme organized the evacuation of LDS children from Sydney. Weeks later, suburbs adjacent to Sydney Harbour were shelled. Some thirty children stayed at Grenfell, 240 miles west, under the care of leaders until the threat of invasion had passed.

It took years for the mission to recover from the effects of war because missionaries and Church literature were in short supply. But by 1950 the missionary force was more than double the prewar figure, and the number of convert baptisms began to rise dramatically—and continued to rise even when the Korean War cut the number of missionaries again.

Australia was twenty years into the century before LDS membership there reached one thousand, and it took another twenty years to reach two thousand. The figures remained static between 1942 and 1950, but the third thousand was achieved in just four years—between 1951 and 1955.

The surge of growth was given added stimulus after President David O. McKay’s 1955 visit to Australia. He saw the need for modern meetinghouses, for air travel, for a mission divided into more manageable proportions. He recognized the readiness of Australian priesthood holders for greater leadership responsibilities. Church response to these needs and abilities, and the accelerated growth that followed, led to the organization of the first Australian stakes in the 1960s.

Today, there are more than 70,000 Church members in Australia.