The LDS Church’s rich past in the Pacific Islands may surprise all but the most astute students of Mormon history.
Missionaries first arrived in French Polynesia in 1844 on assignment from the Prophet Joseph Smith himself. There they shared the message of the gospel three years before the Mormon Pioneers began settling the Salt Lake Valley.
The Pacific Area has become a true power in the church in the 169 years since the arrival of those first missionaries. Almost a half-million members live in the region, belonging to more than 100 stakes. Ten temples dot the area map, stretching from Perth, Australia, to Papeete, Tahiti.
The men, women and children living in the islands of the Pacific “have a natural affinity for things of spiritual worth,” said Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “They love the scriptures and they love to sing — they worship through music. They love the temple and are a covenant people.”
Elder Nelson recently returned from an extended visit (Feb. 12-24) to the Pacific Area. His wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, accompanied him in his travels. Also participating in the area visit was his fellow apostle, Elder Neil L. Andersen, and his wife, Sister Kathy Andersen. Elder Tad R. Callister of the Presidency of the Seventy, and his wife, Sister Kathy Callister, also made stops to various nations in the area.
The visiting Brethren conducted a Feb. 21 review of the Pacific Area at its headquarters in Auckland, New Zealand. They also presided, often individually, over several priesthood leadership training conferences, missionary conferences, youth devotionals, cultural celebrations, Relief Society meetings, Young Single Adult devotionals and stake conferences in a variety of countries and territories — including New Zealand, Australia, Tahiti, Fiji, New Caledonia, Tonga and Papua New Guinea.
They were assisted in their various assignments by the Pacific Area Presidency: Elder James J. Hamula, Elder Kevin W. Pearson and Elder O. Vincent Haleck, along with their wives, Sister Joyce Hamula, Sister June Pearson and Sister Peggy Haleck. Several Area Seventies also participated in the tour’s many gatherings.
In all, tens of thousands of members from across the South Pacific received counsel and direction from Elder Nelson, Elder Andersen, Elder Callister and the other General Authorities and their wives during a pivotal “time of hastening” being felt across the globe. The members were taught the importance of sharing the gospel, working closely with the missionaries and preparing their families for the temple.
It is common for members of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles to visit with national leaders during their various assignments around the world. During the recent Pacific Area tour, the government leaders often came to them — an indicator of the warmth and respect felt for the church in the Pacific.
On Feb. 23, Elder Nelson presided over the Papeete Tahiti Stake Conference. Counted among the more than 1,100 in attendance were French Polynesian President Gaston Flosse and Papeete Mayor Michel Buillard.
“With the president and the mayor were four rows of government leaders and their companions — it was an amazing sign of support and gratitude for the church,” said Elder Nelson.
In a private conversation, President Flosse told Elder Nelson that French Polynesia needs more Latter-day Saints.
“The president said, ‘Our young people need the teachings of your church and we are grateful for what you are doing for our country,#8217;”&; he recalled.
Elder Andersen also enjoyed the company of Tongan Prime Minister Siale’ataongo Tu’ivakano during his visit to that island nation. The Tongan leader even spoke at a Church-sponsored youth cultural event where he emphasized the role of culture and religion in shaping the youth of Tonga.
“I am aware that the church has its own organizing programs for Young Men and Young Women that prepares them for future roles as members of the church and as contributing members of society,” he said. “I would like to applaud the church for its visionary foresight in nurturing and cultivating the seeds of faith through youth development.”
Elder Andersen said Tongan government leaders also applauded the generosity of the local Latter-day Saints in the immediate aftermath of a Jan. 11 cyclone that caused significant damage to the country’s northern islands.
“They thanked me profusely for all that the members had done,” he added. “The members sent [relief] materials immediately, of their own will, and it made a real difference.”
At each gathering, the visiting Brethren were welcomed by large congregations of smiling members who were eager to learn. Whenever possible, the church leaders shook hands with all who desired.
Elder Andersen said he would never forget the “angelic voices” of the Fijian members or the maturing faith of the Latter-day Saints in New Caledonia.
A French territory, New Caledonia is “an oasis in the Pacific.” The members there have earned renown for their dedication to the temple. They are “a temple attending people” — even though they do not have such an edifice in their own land.
“The New Caledonian members fast, do bake sales, and work all year long, and then they go to the temple for three or four weeks at a time in New Zealand or Tahiti,” said Elder Andersen.
Both Elder and Sister Andersen were able to deliver their respective messages in French during their stay in New Caledonia.
While presiding over various meetings in Papua New Guinea, Elder Callister witnessed the faith of a nation writing its maiden chapters of church history.
“The church is very young in Papua New Guinea, but there are many members there who are absolutely devoted to the gospel,” he said.
Elder Callister added it’s not unusual for Papua New Guinean members living in distant regions to paddle canoes for more than four days to travel to district conferences.
The members and missionaries who gathered for the Feb. 15-16 conferences in Hamilton, New Zealand, enjoyed an added treat during Elder and Sister Nelson’s visit. Elder Glen L. Rudd, a former Seventy, attended several events. He shared remarks in a missionary devotional and at the Hamilton New Zealand Glenview Stake Conference.
Now 95-years-old, Elder Rudd served a mission while a young man to New Zealand under the direction of Elder Matthew Cowley, an apostle. He would later return to the country as a mission president and to preside over the Hamilton New Zealand Temple. He remains a living symbol of the church’s rich history of service and devotion in New Zealand and across the Pacific.
“I called on Elder Rudd to speak at each of those meetings,” said Elder Nelson. “He was inspiring, relevant and crisp.”
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company