“A Continuing Legacy of Faith,” Ensign, Aug. 1995, 37
The Tongan legacy of faith began sixty-five years before the first Latter-day Saint missionaries, Alva Butler and Brigham Smoot, arrived in Tonga on 15 July 1891. Methodist missionaries in the 1820s and 1830s had successfully taught about Jesus Christ and the Bible, organized schools and congregations, and by mid-century had helped transform a polytheistic people plagued by fifty years of brutal civil war into a peaceful, stable, Christian nation.
The principal player in this transformation was the king of Tonga himself, King George Taufa‘ahau Tupou I. Fully converted to Christ, King George emancipated the commoners from bondage to the chiefs, established a constitution, and enunciated what has become the Tongan national motto: Ko e ‘Otua mo Tonga Ko Hoku Tofi‘a (God and Tonga are my Inheritance).
Although the king, then in his nineties, received Elders Smoot and Butler kindly and promised them freedom to preach the restored gospel throughout Tonga, the Latter-day Saint missionaries struggled against many difficulties. In 1897, after six years of hard missionary work and suffering, the Church’s membership was still less than twenty people. The painful decision was made to close the Tongan district of the Samoan Mission, and the missionaries returned to Samoa.
How different the feelings of those departing missionaries would have been had they envisioned the present-day Church in Tonga with nearly forty thousand members, eleven stakes and two districts, one hundred chapels, nine middle schools, two high schools, and a temple.
In 1908 missionaries returned to Tonga, and a Tongan mission was formally organized in 1916 under the leadership of President Willard L. Smith. When the growth of the Church was temporarily challenged by the Passport Act of 1922, forbidding Latter-day Saint missionaries from entering Tonga, the fasting and prayer of the Saints and the perseverance of President Vernon Combs led to the law’s repeal in 1924.
In 1925 classes began at the Latter-day Saint Makeke School, an elementary school that provided a permanent facility for religious and secular training for the rising generation of future Church leaders.
Although the Tongan Saints wept bitterly when the American missionaries had to leave at the outbreak of World War II, the absence of the foreign elders forced the local people to accept more and more leadership responsibility. It also prepared them to implement fully the programs of the Church.
In 1946 the Tongan translation of the Book of Mormon was published, and by year’s end there were thirty-one branches and 2,422 members of the Church in the Kingdom of Tonga. In 1949 Elder Matthew Cowley of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles laid the cornerstone for Liahona High School, an educational landmark in the Tongan Islands.
The 1950s saw a phenomenal growth in the number of physical facilities and convert baptisms in Tonga. This growth was largely due to the local building missionaries called to do construction work by day and to preach the gospel by night. By 1965 more than two hundred young Latter-day Saint Tongans were serving full-time proselyting missions, and in 1968 the first stake in Tonga was organized under the direction of Elders Howard W. Hunter and Thomas S. Monson of the Quorum of the Twelve. By 1975 the full leadership hierarchy in the stakes, mission, and the schools was made up of competent, inspired local leaders.
With the announcement of the Nuku‘alofa Tonga Temple in 1980 came a new fervor among the people to live faithful lives. The New Zealand Temple, dedicated in 1958, had been the destination of many Tongan Saints who sacrificed all their possessions in order to make the journey for their temple blessings. In 1983 the ninth and tenth stakes in Tonga were organized, and on August 9 of that year President Gordon B. Hinckley of the First Presidency dedicated the Nuku‘alofa Temple.
The last ten years of the Church in Tonga have seen steady growth. Although economic conditions in the country have prompted considerable outward migration, the great legacy of faith continues not only in Tonga but wherever Tongan Latter-day Saints settle and serve.