“Czech Saints: A Brighter Day,” Liahona, Sept. 1997, 10
Before 1990, Latter-day Saints in Czechoslovakia—now the Czech and Slovak Republics—struggled to keep the flame of faith aglow amid the buffeting winds of war and Communism. The story of their vigil is the story of the Czechoslovak Mission—for decades the lone outpost of the Church in Slavic Europe.
The restored gospel first arrived in Czechoslovakia in March 1884 when Elder Thomas Biesinger of Lehi, Utah, arrived in Prague. Public preaching was not allowed, but Elder Biesinger engaged people in casual conversation to test their interest in learning about a new religion. He eventually baptized Antonin Just.
In the 1920s, the growth of the Church in Czechoslovakia was still limited by a sparse missionary force, the language barrier, continuing civil opposition, and rumors and misinformation about the Church.
In 1928, 83-year-old Thomas Biesinger was called to return to Czechoslovakia for a short mission. In Prague he visited police and government officials, requesting permission to preach. Finding no opposition, he reported that the way was open.
When Elder Biesinger was released, no one was sent to replace him. Sister Frantiska Vesela Brodilova wrote to President Heber J. Grant, asking him to send missionaries (see “Czechoslovakia Was Her Mission,” Liahona, September 1995, 26–27). Her request was answered with the arrival of Arthur Gaeth, a tall, energetic young man. His journalistic bent and booming voice enabled him, within 10 days, to arrange for two 10-minute radio talks to be read in Czech, to speak on German radio, to lecture at a German adult-education institution, and to write an article for a German-language newspaper.
In July 1929 Elder John A. Widtsoe, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and president of the European Mission, arrived in Prague with a group of Church leaders and five missionaries. Early in the morning of 24 July, they traveled to a wooded knoll near Karlstejn, a magnificent 600-year-old castle. As the sun broke through rain clouds, President Widtsoe offered a prayer dedicating Czechoslovakia for missionary work. He announced the establishment of the first mission in Slavic Europe and appointed Elder Gaeth as its president.
Within two years, 250 articles, most of them written by the missionaries, appeared in Czech newspapers and journals. In October 1929 the mission published the first Czech-language tracts and obtained permission to distribute them.
Yet President Gaeth lacked one thing in order to function most effectively as mission leader—a wife. President Widtsoe introduced him to Martha Králícková, whose father had been a close associate of Thomas Masaryk, the president of Czechoslovakia. President Gaeth baptized and married Martha in 1931. Her connections in society allowed the newlyweds to become influential in Czech circles. They obtained a villa in a new section of Prague to serve as the mission home.
Church membership grew slowly. Economic hardships of the Great Depression limited the number of missionaries serving throughout the world. But in spite of the Depression and prejudice, the mission made some progress. In February 1933, 3,000 copies of the Book of Mormon in Czech came off the press. One hundred copies were sent to Czech libraries, and more were given as gifts to the country’s leaders. During the decade before the war, 128 Czechs were baptized.
In May 1933 the first Czech branch presidency was organized. Josef Rohácek was called as first counselor in Prague. Other branches in Brno and Mlada Boleslav/ Kosmonosy were established before World War II.
After ten years of missionary service—three in Germany and seven in Czechoslovakia—Arthur Gaeth was released. In 1936 Wallace Toronto became Czech mission president. He served 32 years—longer than any other mission president in Church history. His efforts were boosted by the visit of 81-year-old President Heber J. Grant in July 1937. The prophet’s visit resulted in the publication of 40 articles in the local press, giving the Church better visibility in the nation.
The Church had established roots in Czechoslovakia in an era of peace, but a portent of change had occurred as early as 1933. One missionary recorded: “Tracting was very difficult today. No one cared to listen to my message. Everyone wanted to talk about a man named Hitler who became Chancellor of Germany yesterday. They all seem to be extremely apprehensive of how this may affect Czechoslovakia.”
As the conflict increased, the number of baptisms plummeted. Eventually the First Presidency, fearing for the safety of the missionaries, arranged for their departure to Switzerland. The Czech government banned all public meetings, and the mission closed in September 1938.
The Munich Pact, signed in September 1938, temporarily lessened the danger of war but ceded the Sudetenland to the Germans. In October President Toronto returned to Czechoslovakia with Elder Asael Moulton and put local leaders in charge of branches (Jaroslav Kotulan in Brno and Josef Roubícek in Prague) pending the return of the missionaries. By February 1939 the mission had translated and printed Elder James E. Talmage’s Articles of Faith.
In March 1939 the German army swiftly occupied Czechoslovakia. Regular missionary activity again ceased. In May, as the Prague Branch was meeting to celebrate Mother’s Day, a young German officer entered the room. The congregation froze, expecting the worst. But the officer explained that he was a member of the Church and had come to worship. He bore his testimony—not to enemies of his country, but to friends of his religion.
In July 1939 the Gestapo arrested four missionaries; they lived on bread and water for 40 days until President Toronto was able to negotiate their release. On 24 August, Church headquarters directed the few remaining missionaries to evacuate. President Toronto sent his family first, then stayed behind a few days to arrange the departure of the missionaries and conclude other mission affairs. He set apart 21-year-old Josef Roubícek to preside in his absence. In Denmark Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, assured Sister Toronto that the war would not start until her husband and the missionaries were all safely evacuated. President Toronto found passage on the last train to leave before war engulfed Europe.
During the war years, Josef Roubícek, the acting mission president, knew of 86 members still in the country. He sustained their faith and courage amid privation, destruction, and fear. “Their testimonies of the truthfulness of the gospel have not wavered even in the worst moments of this great conflict,” he wrote.
In March 1946 Elder Ezra Taft Benson, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, visited Czechoslovakia. He was pleased to find that the Czech people were cheerfully at work and that the Church had been as resilient as the country. Ten baptisms had been performed during the war. When Elder Benson inquired at government offices about reopening the mission, he found that the Church had an excellent reputation and would be welcomed back. On 28 June 1946, three missionaries reentered Czechoslovakia, including Wallace Toronto, who had never been released as president. Members had waited seven long years for this reunion.
Church members had survived every hardship endured by other citizens of their country. For example, Elfrieda (Frieda) Glasnerová Vanecková, a Jewish convert baptized in 1932, spent two years in a concentration camp, as did her husband and two sons. On the day she was freed, Frieda had been scheduled for execution. When President Toronto found her recovering in the hospital, she wept with joy to see him. Eleven members of her extended family had perished at Auschwitz. Now she had been reunited with someone of her faith. Her two sons were later baptized.
During a three-year period after World War II, 149 Czechs joined the Church. However, free Czechoslovakia did not survive long. A Communist coup in February 1948 changed everything. Missionaries came under secret police surveillance. The police ordered the publication of the mission magazine, Novy Hlas, to cease. Church sermons were often censored. By attending Church meetings, members risked losing their jobs and having their food rations reduced.
In 1949 the Communist government began to restrict the missionaries. Still, baptisms rose from 28 in 1948 to 70 in 1949. Among the new converts was Jirí Snederfler (see “Jirí and Olga Snederfler: A Closer Look at Two Czech Pioneers,” page 16).
Late in January 1950, two missionaries disappeared. No word of their fate was received until 11 days later. They had been arrested for entering a restricted border zone and were accused of spying. The Communist authorities released the two elders in prison on the condition that all the missionaries would be evacuated. A Czech governmental decree liquidated the mission on 6 April 1950.
For the next 14 years, Czech members kept their faith in silence, unable to worship publicly or to enjoy any regular contact with the Church beyond Czech borders. From his home in Utah, President Toronto continued to provide what assistance he could. When possible, he corresponded and sent financial aid, clothing, medicine, and Church publications. During those years, he applied nine times for a Czech visa—and received nine refusals.
It was not until 1964 that the official presence of the Church once again entered the nation. President John Russon of the Swiss Mission and Lynn Pettit, an early missionary in Czechoslovakia, arrived in Prague. Word of their arrival spread, and a small group met at a member’s home for a celebratory testimony meeting.
Meanwhile, President David O. McKay advised Wallace Toronto to apply again for a visa, saying, “[The members] have been carrying on underground long enough. They need the authority of their mission president.” Within a week the Torontos received visas. They visited members in Brno and Prague.
In July 1965 President Toronto returned to Prague, intent on reestablishing the Church. Although he was well received by many governmental officials, the secret police arrested him and evicted him from the country. Mission growth would be suppressed for another 25 years before reemerging in a new epoch of freedom.
When President Toronto died in 1968, William South, a former missionary, and his wife, Jane Brodil South, were asked to help sustain the faith of Czech members; they visited Czechoslovakia annually. When President South’s health began to fail in 1977, this responsibility was assigned to Calvin McOmber, also a former missionary, and his wife, Frances Brodil McOmber. President McOmber continued in this post until his death in 1980.
In 1972 President Henry Burkhardt of the Germany Dresden Mission appointed Jirí Snederfler to begin reestablishing contact with all members in Czechoslovakia and to begin holding meetings there. President Edwin Morrell of the Austria Vienna Mission reprinted the Czech Book of Mormon in 1984 and took the first copies into the country. Otakar Vojkuvka taught the gospel in quiet ways in Brno and brought many into the Church. Olga Kovárová Campora was baptized in 1982; her member-missionary work resulted in 47 baptisms over the next eight years.
After the Freiberg Germany Temple was dedicated in 1985, the baptismal rate in Czechoslovakia jumped to 20 a year. This first temple in eastern Europe symbolized the emergence of the gospel into a world controlled by Communism.
In 1985 Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve was appointed to oversee missionary work in eastern Europe. He visited Czechoslovakia each year to request legal recognition of the Church. Just as often, he was told that the request was still under study. Local Church leaders also submitted petitions for recognition.
In May 1989 Czechoslovakia was still Communist. But by November, winds of change had begun to transform the Communist world. In January 1990 religious freedom for all faiths was established throughout the country. In February, the document specifically recognizing the Church was received. On 6 February 1990, Elder Nelson ascended the knoll by Karlstejn and offered a new prayer of dedication, reconfirming the prayer Elder Widtsoe had offered six decades earlier.
After a 40-year absence, missionaries reentered Czechoslovakia in May 1990. The Church formally reestablished the Czechoslovakia Prague Mission (now the Czech Republic Prague Mission) on 1 July 1990. Then in June 1991, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang in a historic Prague opera house, and the concert was televised throughout the nation. A church once required to go underground for survival was now electronically acknowledged nationwide. In June 1993, the first issue of the Liahona, the Church’s official magazine in Czech, was published.
Church membership in the Czech Republic Prague Mission has now reached more than 1700. A majority of Czech converts are young, between the ages of 18 and 30. They are well educated and vibrant in their new faith; many have served or are serving full-time missions. And there are the older members—those whose belief has survived decades of isolation and opposition. Together they are an enduring ensign of faith in a better future.
Endnotes are available in English from International Magazines, 50 East North Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150.