Latter-day Saints in Micronesia and Guam

At the last general conference, I was impressed by something briefly mentioned by Quentin L. Cook. He talked about a seventh-generation member from Tahiti, with her ancestors joining the Church in 1845 (2 years before the Latter-day Saints in the U.S. migrated to Utah/Deseret or Brigham Young organized the First Presidency).[1] It was a brief (but important) reminder that the history of the Church is larger than the United States and the United Kingdom, even in the earliest days of the Church. While Micronesia and Guam do not have as long of a history with the Church as Tahiti or Hawai’i, they still are home to notable populations of Latter-day Saints and a rich history. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, R. Devan Jensen discussed the history of the Church in Micronesia and Guam (in connection with the book Battlefields to Temple Grounds: Latter-day Saints in Guam and Micronesia).

To start, Jensen described some of the background to missionary work coming to Micronesia:

The rise of the Church in Micronesia is part of a complicated story involving the Pacific War. The US military counterattack deployed waves of military personnel into this vast region, including many Latter-day Saints.

This led to the beginning of connections for the Church in the region. As time went by:

Gospel seeds sprang up quickly in some regions such as Kiribati and the Marshall Islands and … these seeds grew more slowly in areas such as the Federated States of Micronesia. All three of these areas are in the top ten in terms of Latter-day Saint population per nation. One temple has been built in Guam, and another has been announced in Kiribati.

Missionary work has been very successful in the Micronesian areas of the Pacific Ocean.

Not that everything went smoothly. As mentioned, it took longer for the Church to establish a lasting presence on some islands. Part of the repeating issues that made conversion and retention difficult were:

Peer pressure from fellow islanders, including family members and dominant Catholic and Protestant religions, kept many from converting. Early converts had to set aside alcohol, tobacco, betel nut, and kava.

The issue of native traditions encountering U.S.-derived culture and practice in the Church also proved challenging.

“Latter-day Saint proselytizing in Micronesia is deeply enmeshed in the history of colonization that preceded it,” Phillip McArthur wrote. American church culture is deeply embedded with Church teachings and handbooks.

To succeed in their newly adopted church, islanders learned from missionaries and English-language handbooks and scriptures how to run meetings and conduct ordinances. Local leaders learned to adopt American administrative procedures such as wearing Western-style clothing, changing callings, holding ward councils, planning speakers ahead of time, and using standard accounting procedures to record and deposit donations in banks.

In some islands, caste systems prevented members of the branch from touching each other (as in laying on of hands) or even eating together in social settings. So disentangling culture from gospel teachings was complicated, to say the least.

Still, there were some major successes for the Church. For example:

In 1973, 12 students from Kiribati traveled to Tonga to attend Liahona High School. All twelve converted, and many subsequent students converted too, returning home to Kiribati to become leaders. Moroni High School was created in Kiribati, which became a powerful magnet for students and teachers to join and share gospel culture—to the point that about 18 percent of the population is Latter-day Saint.

That means that Kiribati is in the top 5 countries for per capita populations of Latter-day Saints in the world (currently only surpassed by Tonga, American Samoa, and Samoa).

For more on the history of the Church in Micronesia and Guam, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.

 


Footnote:

[1] Quentin L. Cook, “Safely Gathered Home,” General Conference, April 2023, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2023/04/15cook?lang=eng.

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