Deep questions, a fascination with world history and little-known facts about German members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fueled the inspiration behind author Gerald N. Lund's latest historical fiction series, Fire and Steel.
"I had been interested in what I like to call 'the individual in crisis.' That could be someone facing war, a natural disaster or personal tragedy," Lund said in an interview with the Deseret News. "It's always fascinated me."
With a natural passion for learning about World War II, Lund found plenty of "individual in crisis" material in the history of Germany. He wondered: How does a culture as enlightened and marvelous as Germany's was, with its culture of music, arts, philosophy, science, technology and more, end up with Adolf Hitler as its leader? What would it be like for LDS families in Germany at that time? What were they thinking as Hitler gradually came to power, became a dictator and brought on war?
Using Gilbert Scharffs' "Mormonism in Germany: A history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Germany between 1840 and 1970," and a 1991 master's thesis by Brigham Young University graduate student Jeffrey L. Anderson ("Mormons and Germany, 1914-1933") as his primary sources, Lund said he was astounded by what he found.
"When we think of LDS converts in Europe, we think of Britain and Scandinavia. I was amazed to find how strong the church was in Germany, even before World War I," Lund said. "They had a successful mission for many years. Around 1920, Germany was the highest-baptizing mission in the world. ... There were more Mormons in Germany than anywhere else other than Utah at that time, including California."
Here is a sampling of interesting facts he found about the early Mormons in Germany.
- A branch of the church was established in Munich as early as 1869.
- At the outbreak of World War I, LDS Church leaders in Utah sent a telegram to the German mission president, Hyrum Valentine, instructing him to evacuate all American missionaries, which he did. About 80 native German missionaries continued doing missionary work and averaged 300 baptisms a year during the war years, Lund said.
One missionary, William Kessler, had been born in Germany, but his family immigrated to Utah when he was young. He was later called back to Germany as an American missionary. When war erupted, Kessler joined the German military out of loyalty to his roots. According to Scharffs, he wrote to President Valentine shortly before he was killed in action: "Dear President Valentine. Before I leave as a German soldier, I want to say good-bye to you. ... I want to thank you for your fatherly guidance. I will think of you before I fall asleep. I hope that I might not hurt you in any way and please don't argue with yourself that I did wrong in joining the German Army. Consider my patriotism."
- About 75 LDS German servicemen lost their lives in World War I, Lund said.
- In 1918, LDS Church President Joseph F. Smith told the Latter-day Saints in general conference that it was the German government that took its nation to war. Members should not hate their German brothers and sisters. "The leaders are to blame, not the people," the prophet said. "Those who embrace the gospel are innocent of these things and ought to be respected by Latter-day Saints everywhere."
- During the Second Reich (1871–1918), religious freedom existed in Germany under various degrees of enforcement, depending on the local authorities. As a result, Mormon missionaries saw quite a bit of persecution, Lund said. "It almost became a badge of honor for those early missionaries in the early 1900s to have spent time in jail," he said. "One said, 'If you haven’t been in jail, you are not a missionary.'"
- As World War I ended, heartbreaking stories of the suffering Saints reached President Heber J. Grant. He asked Sen. Reed Smoot to negotiate with the U.S. government to buy unused American supplies and food already in Europe. "They bought tons and tons of these supplies, thousands of pounds of flour, rice, etc., and distributed them among the branches of the church," Lund said.
- There are stories of church members who, even in their extreme poverty, still faithfully paid tithing and fast offerings. "Tithing and fast offerings actually went up during the war," Lund said.
- Days before war was declared in 1939, miraculous events allowed missionaries to escape from Germany.
- In 1945, the church received permission to send Elder Ezra Taft Benson, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, into war-torn Europe to visit the Saints and assess their needs. While attending a sacrament meeting, he found the Saints were using potato peelings for the sacrament because there was no bread.
"It's an incredible story," said Lund, who is also the author of the Work and the Glory series, the Kingdom and the Crown series and other fiction and nonfiction books.
These and other interesting details captivated Lund, who served as a member of the LDS Church's Second Quorum of the Seventy from 2002 to 2008. While serving in the area presidency in England, he visited Germany, including the home of his wife's ancestors. Through this and other experiences in Germany, Lund became fond of the culture, people and their heritage.
"It was an amazing thing to me to see all this was going on in the church, and I’ve not ever heard any of this," Lund said. "That’s when I thought, 'Oh, this is a great story.'"
In "The Storm Descends," Sgt. Hans Otto Eckhardt is trying to figure out what to do with his life after being discharged from the military at the end of World War I. Unfortunately, he and his loved ones find themselves in a desperate time of widespread food shortages, high unemployment rates, political upheaval and personal hardship.
Lund said he will continue the Fire and Steel series, taking the Eckhardt family up through World War II and the events that followed it (1947-1948).
This family eventually links up with the Westland family, first introduced in Lund's historical novel, "Only the Brave," which is a continuation of the story of the San Juan pioneers in "The Undaunted: The Miracle of the Hole-in-the-Rock Pioneers."
In "On Eagle's Wings," a sequel to "Only the Brave" scheduled to be released in the spring, the Westlands and the Eckhardts briefly cross paths. Thereafter, Lund said he plans for future volumes of Fire and Steel to have the lives of these two families closely intertwined.
"When I started down this road, I thought it would be interesting to take an American family from a rural area, a German family from a rural area, look at them independently and eventually have them cross paths during a turbulent time in world history," Lund said.
As for Fire and Steel, Lund hopes readers come away inspired by the determination and faith displayed by those early German Saints.
"There are people who crumple under the pressure of crisis, who give up their faith and their morality. And there are those who go through the fire and it makes them like tempered steel. They have tremendous faith and strength," Lund said, referring to the title of the series, Fire and Steel. "That's one of the things I hope to depict."
Lund, who previously served for 35 years in the Church Education System, also hopes readers will better appreciate the tumultuous events surrounding the German Saints in 1919 and count their blessings.
"I hope people say you know what, my life is tough, but it's nothing like that," Lund said. "I hope they ask, 'How would I have reacted in that kind of circumstance? What can I learn from that?'"
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