The global ministry tours recently undertaken by President Russell M. Nelson — to say nothing of his announcement of temples in such far-flung places as India, Cambodia, Guam and Cabo Verde — plainly illustrate the universal mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But that worldwide scope was already apparent from at least 1837, when (to his astonishment) Elder Heber C. Kimball of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was called to take the gospel to England from Kirtland, Ohio.
Congregations of Latter-day Saints flourished in the British Isles and — as President Nelson recently reminded a Tahitian audience — in French Polynesia before any members of the church had entered the Salt Lake Valley.
The initial Latter-day Saint encounter with the Holy Land came, likewise, before the arrival of the pioneers in the Great Basin. Elder Orson Hyde of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles traveled to Jerusalem under very difficult circumstances and, in October 1841, dedicated the land of Palestine “for the gathering together of Judah’s scattered remnants, according to the predictions of the holy prophets … and for rearing a temple in honor of (God’s) name.”
The first more or less permanent Latter-day Saint presence in the Holy Land, however, began when Jacob Spori landed in August 1886. (A Swiss convert, he would later found what eventually became Ricks College and then Brigham Young University’s Idaho campus.)
Elder Spori had been assigned to the picturesque port city of Haifa — then, like much of the rest of the Middle East, a part of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, based in Istanbul — with the mission of introducing the Restoration to several hundred German immigrants there and of establishing the church among them. Their organization, called the “Tempelgesellschaft” or “Temple Society,” had begun in Germany but had now established a settlement in Palestine in order to help make the land fruitful again via righteous hard work and thus to prepare for the Lord’s Second Coming.
Not long after Elder Spori’s arrival, a member of the Temple Society named Georg Grau accepted baptism, becoming the first Latter-day Saint convert in the Holy Land. (His wife, Magdalena, also joined shortly thereafter.)
Eventually, roughly 20 members of the Temple Society received the gospel. Most emigrated to Utah, but four — including Georg and Magdalena Grau — are buried in the German cemetery in Haifa. Sadly, they were joined there by two missionaries: Elder Adolf Haag (from Stuttgart, Germany, via Payson, Utah), who died of typhus in 1892, and Elder John A. Clark (of Farmington, Utah), who died of smallpox in 1895.
At one point, leaders of the church even considered the possibility of sending colonists from the by-now flourishing “Zion” in the American West to Palestine, where they would have been assigned to put their hard-won pioneering skills to work in that still rather underdeveloped and decayed region.
Late in 1897, the First Presidency called Elder Anthon H. Lund of the Council of the Twelve to accompany Ferdinand F. Hintze, the first president of the Turkish Mission, on a tour of the area to determine whether land for a Latter-day Saint colony could be secured. They did indeed find suitable land in the fertile Jezreel Valley, along the banks of the Kishon River. Unfortunately, the church was in a precarious financial condition by 1898 and simply had no money with which to pursue the project. So the dream had to be deferred. (This was the same financial crisis that led to President Lorenzo Snow's famous 1899 revelation on tithing, received in the tabernacle at St. George.)
But the dream has now, perhaps, been fulfilled in a different way than that originally imagined, not in the form of an agricultural colony but as an educational institution. Since 1968, Brigham Young University students have come to Jerusalem for formal, organized coursework. In 1979, at the invitation of Jerusalem’s longtime mayor Teddy Kollek, who was seeking ways to beautify his city, President Spencer W. Kimball dedicated the 5.5-acre Orson Hyde Memorial Garden on the slope of the Mount of Olives. But it had also become apparent that BYU’s program in Israel needed better and more permanent facilities. Accordingly, also in 1979, President Kimball announced that BYU would construct a student center on the Mount of Olives. Opened for use in May 1988, the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies commands a magnificent view of the Old City and the Temple Mount — and, in turn, is itself prominently visible from much of the Holy City.