“Tasmania’s Island Saints,” Ensign, Apr. 1987, 79–80
Earlier this century an English naturalist described Tasmania as “an island of special charm, a land of variety and bold contrasts, from rolling, forested hills to fantastically rugged mountains.”
No less rugged were the early Latter-day Saint missionaries who had to travel on foot through this island, about the size of Scotland or Maine. It took several days to walk the 120 miles between the two larger cities of Launceston and Hobart, and the missionaries would stay a day or two at any place along the way where people would listen to their message. The first converts were baptized in 1875.
The establishment of the Church in the Huon Valley is representative of the work going on in Tasmania. In 1899, William Robinson, Jr., and Brigham H. Bingham traveled by steamer to the small village of Franklin on the Huon River south of Hobart. There, they found people friendly, and a few seemed ready for baptism. The local ministers, however, soon combined against the missionaries, and opposition arose.
Prompted by reports that in an isolated part of the Huon Valley some ministers had been demanding substantial payments for their services, the two elders traveled a few miles along the river to Franklin, where they were well received.
Reg Watson, whose father joined the Church at Glen Huon in 1901, now serves as a counselor in the Hobart Third Ward bishopric. He recalls that the construction of a small wooden chapel at Glen Huon in 1927 resulted in greatly increased attendance at meetings and a growth in membership.
“Plenty of boot leather was used in walking to meetings in those days,” he noted.
His father—an orchardist, carpenter, and builder—had been inquiring into various churches when the missionaries called early one morning. “When he noticed their appearance, he suspected that they had spent the night in one of the haystacks,” said Brother Watson.
“There was always opposition in the valley,” he recalled. One resident threatened to burn the chapel, a fragile, timber building. But he was soon baptized and became one of the Church’s most faithful members.
Many have labored long and hard in building the kingdom in the Huon, while at the same time establishing the Tasmanian Saints’ reputation for warmth, friendship, and hospitality. One of the longest-serving members is Phil Mitchell, a former bishop, branch president, and three-time district president. Brother Mitchell notes that many people have left the island over the years to find employment elsewhere. This has slowed the growth of the Church in Tasmania, although the trend may be reversing. Bishop Gerry Mullock moved to Glen Huon from Hobart several years ago and feels that the Spirit is calling people back to Tasmania.
While the Mullocks have lived at Glen Huon, the ward has increased by more than a third. Former residents who had moved away are returning and commuting to workplaces in Hobart or finding occupations in local rural industries. Currently, there are about two thousand members in Tasmania, comprising one stake of six wards and four branches.
“The friendly, close-knit community life appeals to more and more people,” Bishop Mullock said.
But the cities, too, are experiencing an expanding LDS population. Hobart, Tasmania’s largest city, currently has three wards and is also the stake center. Built on the edge of the River Derwent, it is a place of wide views of both mountains and water, with 1270-meter Mt. Wellington rising to form a picturesque backdrop.
Many Tasmanian members work in their own small businesses, are farmers, or are employed as teachers, tradespeople, or administrators. John Jury, a Telecom executive who served nine years as a stake president, believes that although Tasmania may be regarded as disadvantaged by its island isolation, that isolation can also work to its advantage.
He mentions the lower incidence of drug and alcohol abuse compared to other places. Still, “our young people are facing those and other widespread challenges,” he said. “Another great challenge to our LDS youth is that they are in a minority.”
Because of this minority and the relatively large area covered by the stake, activities at the stake level acquire great importance. This, in turn, requires dedicated involvement from local Church leaders. But then, as Anker Fuglsang, a schoolteacher who serves as a high councilor, points out, wherever the Saints are small in number they have a greater need to be industrious and self-reliant.
Certainly, the Saints in Glen Huon qualify as self-reliant. Not much has really changed since those first converts were baptized in the Huon River. The water is still cold—“cold enough to take your breath away,” recalled Reg Watson of his own baptism. White farmhouses with red roofs are scattered through the rolling green pastures. Fruit and vegetables flourish in home gardens. The air is clear, fresh, and invigorating.
The members are as friendly and supportive as they have always been. Indeed, for them, and for others who have visited, Tasmania seems to occupy a place close to the heart.
Correspondent: Richard Eastwood, stake public communications director and Young Men president in the Hobart Third Ward.