Church History
“Unto the Islands of the Sea”

“‘Unto the Islands of the Sea,’” Global Histories: French Polynesia (2018)

“‘Unto the Islands of the Sea,’” Global Histories: French Polynesia

“Unto the Islands of the Sea”

Tamaiti, convert from Tubuai

Tamaiti, an early convert baptized as a young man by Addison Pratt. Photograph taken in 1921.

On March 28, 1843, Addison Pratt received a patriarchal blessing from Hyrum Smith. The blessing said he would “go out and come in and go forth upon the face of the earth,” presumably to preach. In his youth, Pratt had sailed the world on whaling expeditions and learned some Hawaiian after jumping ship in Oahu. “I guess you have got to go awhaling,” Hyrum remarked after the blessing. Six weeks later, Pratt, Benjamin Grouard (another former seaman), Noah Rogers, and Knowlton F. Hanks were called as the first missionaries to French Polynesia.

The missionaries set sail that fall. During the seven-month voyage from the North Atlantic to Tahiti, Knowlton Hanks died. In April 1844, the missionaries’ ship stopped at the island of Tubuai, and islanders brought them supplies. “My heart did leap for joy,” Pratt wrote, “for they looked like old acquaintance.” He was deeply impressed with the reverence of the family he stayed with as they prayed that night. Tubuaians were also glad to meet the missionaries. King Tamatoa personally requested that an elder stay. “I took the subject into prayerful consideration,” Pratt wrote. Though he had planned to continue his voyage to Tahiti, he became “convinced that should I leave this island, I should be running away from duty.” Elders Grouard and Rogers continued to Tahiti without him.

A couple named Nabota and Telii welcomed Pratt into their home as he studied Tahitian and began preaching, with former sailors helping as interpreters. Within a year, Pratt established a local branch of the Church that included almost a third of Tubuai’s small population, including Pratt’s hosts and former translators. Pratt grew anxious, however, for word from home.

Letters from his wife, Louisa, finally arrived on December 4, 1845, confirming rumors that Joseph Smith had been killed. The same boat also brought letters from Benjamin Grouard. Grouard, left alone when Noah Rogers had become discouraged and sailed home, told Pratt 600 people had been baptized on Anaa in the Tuamotus Islands, and he begged Pratt to help administer the Church there.

Pratt set sail for Anaa, accompanied by Nabota and Telii. Telii helped establish the Church there: she taught members hymns and helped Pratt minister to the sick. Serving alongside Pratt, she also gave healing blessings to women, which was a common practice for sisters at that time. Grouard asked Pratt to stay on Anaa while he sailed to other islands in the archipelago to preach. “You have a better facility to preside,” Grouard argued, “and I like to pioneer better than you do.” Grouard established branches on six other islands. Around the same time, Haametua and his wife, Hamoe, some of the first converts on Tubuai, laid the foundation for Church growth in Tahiti by teaching relatives there.

By the end of 1846, almost a thousand people had been baptized. Grouard, who had married a woman named Tearo on the island Anaa, stayed to preside while Pratt sailed to the United States, hoping to find Church leaders and seek assistance. Members gave Pratt gifts for the journey and urged him to bring his family with him when he returned.

The Saints’ hopes were realized in 1850, when Pratt returned with 22 other missionaries, including his wife and daughters. Louisa Pratt and her sister, Caroline Barnes Crosby, established schools in the mission and began a women’s organization similar to the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. Increasing tensions with French colonial authorities, however, compelled the missionaries to depart in 1852, leaving local leaders responsible to maintain the Church and watch over 1,500–2,000 Church members spread over 20 islands.