Gerry Avant, Deseret Morning News
Sister and President Gordon B. Hinckley arrive in China. He was the first LDS president to visit there.

President Gordon B. Hinckley's ties to the LDS Church in Asia were so strong that one scholar has called him "the father of the church in the Orient."

His work with church members abroad began decades ago. As an assistant to the Twelve, then later as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, President Hinckley received responsibility for the church in overseas areas.

One of then-Elder Hinckley's first assignments as an assistant to the Twelve was to work with President Henry D. Moyle in dividing the missions of the world into areas under the direction of the members of the Twelve.

This was a prelude to his next assignment: overseeing the work in Asia. Over the next eight years in the '60s, he would travel there 21 times.

In 1967, he was given responsibility for the work in South America; then three years later, responsibility for the work in Europe. He was later reassigned to Asia for an additional three years.

In the April 1995 general conference, the church released a video on his life.

"In 1960, the church was weak and small in Asia," President Hinckley said in the video. "The seed had been planted in Japan, Taiwan and Korea by faithful Latter-day Saints in military service. But it was tiny and unstable.

"We had no buildings of our own. We met as small groups in rented houses. In winter they were cold and uncomfortable. Converts came into the church. But some, lacking faith, soon left.

"However, there remained a residual of strong and wonderful men and women who looked beyond the adversity of the moment. They found their strength in the message, not in the facilities. They have remained faithful to this day, and their numbers have been added to by the tens and tens of thousands."

Spencer J. Palmer, a BYU professor of religion and later Seoul Temple president, said in recalling his days with Elder Hinckley in Korea: "He is the father of the church in the Orient" and says Korean Saints joke that President Hinckley will be resurrected as a Korean.

In the spring of 1961, the church began organized missionary work in the Philippines. There was no building in which to hold the first meeting, so Elder Hinckley received permission from the American Embassy to meet at the American Military Cemetery on the outskirts of Manila.

"There we assembled at 6:30 in the morning, a little handful of Saints. Before us were row on row of crosses, the star of David and stone colonnades remembering the sacrifice of more than 50,000 men who gave their lives in the battles of the Pacific. Present was the one native Filipino member of the church. That was the beginning of something marvelous, the commencement of a miracle.

"The rest is history, discouraging at times and glorious at others," he said. "I was there for the area conference held several years ago. Some 18,000 members of the church were assembled in the great Aranetta Coliseum, the largest indoor meeting place in the Republic. I wept as I thought of the earlier years."

In May 1996, he made his first trip back to Asia as church president, dedicating the Hong Kong Temple during the 15-day visit. On that trip he also became the first church president to visit mainland China.