FREIBERG, Germany — The years of successive LDS Church service from Henry Burkhardt are impressive enough — more than three years as a full-time missionary, 17 as a counselor in a mission presidency, 14 as mission president and nearly seven more as temple president.
What makes it all the more remarkable is where Burkhardt served — in eastern Germany, practically all in the former Communist-ruled German Democratic Republic.
When it comes to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the GDR, the lanky, 79-year-old Burkhardt could easily say, "Been there, done that" — or at least helped, witnessed or supervised it.
The third-generation Latter-day Saint from Chemnitz, Germany, was 3 years old when Adolf Hitler came to power and 8 when forced to become a member of the German Youth Movement. As it transformed into Hitler's Youth, Burkhardt got his first taste of unsavory political agendas.
A Mormon missionary beginning in 1950, he was called a year later as a district president and asked the following year by President David O. McKay to be a counselor in the mission presidency.
During a 1954 interview, then-Elder Spencer W. Kimball of the Quorum of the Twelve was shocked to learn Burkhardt had been a missionary for 3½ years, telling him he would be released immediately but was to continue as mission presidency counselor.
During his 17 years as a counselor, he pestered the GDR hierarchy with requests to allow LDS Church members to leave the country and attend temples in either Switzerland or England. He and his wife, Inge, had obtained a rare allowance in 1955 to go to the Swiss Temple.
He also resolved a naming issue, when officials complained about the mission's East German title, bestowed back in 1937. They wanted GDR in the name but accepted his offer of Berlin, since the country's headquarters were in the east side of the divided German city.
In 1969, Burkhardt was called as president of the new Dresden Mission, which incorporated all church and missionary matters in East Germany. He worked weekdays in the Dresden office and spent weekends presiding at conferences throughout the region, since each of the mission's seven districts held quarterly conferences back then.
"I came home Friday nights so my kids would know I was their father," he said.
At one point, East Germany had some 8,000 church members, but about half eventually immigrated to West Germany before the stricter controls and the Berlin Wall of the early 1960s. Burkhardt remained — and paid the price of being the local LDS leader in the GDR.
"Many times I was captured and imprisoned," he recalled. "They were always looking for a reason to forbid me and the church. They wanted to say I was an agent of the American government. But my intention was only to preach the gospel."
Burkhardt calls his several general conference trips to Utah in 1969 and 1975 "miracles" since East Germans were very rarely allowed to leave. The first time, he could only travel alone; the second, his wife was allowed to join him, but his children were required to stay.
In an interview during the '75 visit, President Spencer W. Kimball asked Burkhardt to create a good relationship with the East German government.
"I didn't have the courage to tell President Kimball my true feeling about this: 'President Kimball, you have no idea about the communists — you cannot have a good relationship,' " he recalled.
"President Kimball knew these people much better than I did. The reason is he saw these people as children of God. I saw them as politicians. After two years, I was converted. I told myself, 'If the prophet gives you this job, you should finish it.' "
The relationships got better — and Burkhardt got bolder in asking allowance for members to travel to temples beyond the borders. GDR officials often laughed off the requests.
In the mid-1970s, LDS leaders looking to provide temple ordinances to the East German church members began considering an endowment house alternative in the GDR, where members could do temple work for themselves but not for deceased ancestors. Options included enlarging an existing chapel by several rooms or building a new chapel with extra rooms — the whole matter was something Burkhardt had to keep to himself and not mention to anyone else.
But bringing temple blessings to the East German Saints remained at the forefront of his efforts, spurred on by witnessing then-Elder Thomas S. Monson's dedicatory prayer in the hills outside of Dresden.
In 1977, after another round of temple-travel requests, GDR officials surprised Burkhardt by suggesting a Mormon temple be built in their country.
"I said no right away," Burkhardt said. "In every meeting in 80 branches, there was always a spy, listening to what we talked about. My thought was the holiness of the temple could not be kept because there would be these people and (hidden) cameras and microphones. I didn't think the First Presidency would say yes."
For the next several years, Burkhardt helped coordinate discussions with national, district and city officials about potential meetinghouses and locations, hoping a new building could house an endowment-house option. However, leaders on one level would agree on a city location, only to have another level negate it.
Finally, a 1980 government consensus resulted in Freiberg being selected — except the LDS Church already had a fine meetinghouse there. However, a recently finished autobahn made Freiberg accessible and convenient from all the region's major cities — and to all the church members.
Endowment-house possibilities eventually gave way to a blueprint for a smaller-scale but fully operational temple. And the GDR government agreed to the condition that nobody without a temple recommend would set foot inside after its dedication, said Burkhardt, still worried then the temple would somehow be bugged.
"Today, I have to say that the GDR government kept its word 100 percent," said Burkhardt of the promises of no interference or monitoring. "When the temple was renovated (in the early 2000s), we saw there was nothing, no microphones or cameras."
As the Freiberg Temple was being constructed, Burkhardt was released as mission president in 1984 — but soon received a midnight phone call from President Kimball, calling him and his wife to be the first president and matron of the new temple. They made another conference-time visit to Utah, adding in an intense six-week training at the Salt Lake Temple.
As with his mission callings, Burkhardt's tenure as temple president exceeded the normal tenure — he served for nearly seven years. His relationships with the GDR government still were utilized, such as when he joined President Monson and other LDS leaders in 1988 in obtaining permission for East Germany to once again receive foreign missionaries and for local members to go outside the country to serve their own missions.8 comments on this story
Today, with his beloved wife having passed on a half-dozen years ago, Burkhardt continues to be revered as a mentor and faithful example by longtime Latter-day Saints in eastern Germany.
He sees his decades of service in a more simple light.
"I've done nothing more than what the leaders have asked me to do," Burkhardt said. "I was just a tool."