On July 15, 1891, when Brigham Smoot and Alva J. Butler arrived in Nuku‘alofa, news spread quickly of the arrival of the Latter-day Saint missionaries. The next day, Smoot and Butler met with King George Tupou I. The king, who had recently established the Free Church of Tonga, listened as the Articles of Faith were read in Tongan and then agreed to let the missionaries preach in his kingdom.
Despite the king’s kindness, Smoot and Butler were opposed by ministers of other faiths. The Tongan people, while generally friendly, showed little interest in the missionaries’ message. The missionaries spent their time studying Tongan and entertaining curious visitors, but they had few converts. For six years, missionaries assigned to Tonga preached on many islands but had limited success. In 1897 the mission closed.
In March 1907 Thomas S. Court, president of the Samoan Mission, visited Vava‘u to buy horses and explore the possibility of resuming missionary work in Tonga. In Neiafu, Court met ‘Iki Tupou, the local harbormaster, who invited him to stay in his home and helped procure two plow horses. In exchange, Tupou requested that Court send them teachers for a school. “I will send you two teachers,” Court promised gratefully.
In June 1907 Court sent Heber J. McKay and William O. Facer to Neiafu with instructions to establish a school. Tupou introduced McKay and Facer to his cousin ‘Isileli Namosi, a convert who had been baptized in 1896. The missionaries soon learned that Namosi had been offered the noble title of Fulivai, the highest title on Vava‘u, but the offer had been withdrawn when his membership in the Church was discovered. Despite this, Namosi remained faithful, and he invited the missionaries to live in his home and offered them a room where they could hold school classes. The people of Neiafu responded enthusiastically to the new school, and attendance was soon too large for Namosi’s home. The missionaries rented a larger room in a home that was frequently visited by the king and moved the school.
Requests came from many villages on Vava‘u for the missionaries to open new schools and preach the gospel. In 1909 the people of Ha‘alaufuli invited the missionaries to their village and provided them with a place to hold school and a meetinghouse to hold Church meetings. Soon, 75 converts were baptized, and a branch was organized. Shortly after, Church members raised money to purchase the schoolhouse for the Church by selling dried coconut meat.
Ha‘alaufuli became the center of Church activity on Vava‘u, and members began sharing the gospel with family and friends on other islands. Missionaries soon began receiving requests from other islands and were sent to open schools and preach the gospel.
As the Church spread throughout Tonga, King George Tupou II and a delegation of high chiefs visited Pita Afu, the high chief in Ha‘alaufuli and a Latter-day Saint. On a hill overlooking Vava‘u, the king offered Afu any land he desired if he would renounce his faith. “With all due respect,” Afu replied, “there is not enough land in the whole Kingdom of Tonga to tempt me away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”