150th year of Church in Tahiti

Addison Pratt was awake in his bunk aboard the whaler Timoleon at 2 o'clock in the morning when he heard the sailor on watch cry, "Land ho!"

The 42-year-old missionary went up on deck to see the verdant South Pacific island of Tubuai poke its gentle slopes out of the ocean's darkness into the reflected light of the moon. The island was already known to him as the refuge where mutineers from H.M.S. Bounty had initially settled before sailing on to Pitcairn Island, but he knew little else about Tubuai.The date was April 30, 1844, the beginning of the Church's first foreign-language mission. One hundred-fifty years later, this date is remembered by some 12,000 Tahitians and many other Latter-day Saints spread throughout the world. Today, approximately one third of Tubuai's population of 1,500 is LDS, and it remains one of the strongholds of the Church in the territory.

The 150th anniversary date begins a two-week celebration in French Polynesia that will include a number of special commemorations, including one at Tubuai.

Elder Pratt received from the Prophet's brother Hyrum Smith a patriarchal blessing on 28 March 1843:

"You shall go out and come in and go forth upon the face of the earth . . . and your acts will be written in the chronicles of your brethren . . . your name shall be perpetuated . . . from generation to generation . . . and had in honor until the latest generation."

Shortly after that remarkable blessing was given, Elder Pratt and three others were issued a mission call by the Prophet Joseph Smith to open the first foreign-language mission of the Church. Although their call was to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) - which they were to reach by sailing around the tip of Africa and across the Indian Ocean - they stopped among the 1,800 islands of Tahiti when their ship's provisions fell short.

The call to the Pacific islands undoubtedly came about because of Addison Pratt's earlier experiences. As a young man in his 20s, he had journeyed as a sailor to the Pacific and had spent six months living and working among the Polynesian people of the Sandwich Islands. While there, he learned the rudiments of the Hawaiian language. For another 10 years, he sailed the oceans of the world aboard whalers, merchant ships and coastal vessels. Pratt abandoned his adventurous life shortly after his marriage to Louisa Barnes in 1831. They settled on a farm in Ripley, N.Y., where seven years later they heard and accepted the gospel message. After joining the Church, Addison, Louisa, and their four daughters followed the Saints to Nauvoo where Pratt found employment on the construction of the temple.

It is believed that Pratt had a conversation with the Prophet Joseph Smith while working on the Nauvoo Temple wherein he mentioned his time on Oahu and how the Polynesians reminded him of American Indians. In May 1843, Joseph Smith called Addison Pratt along with Noah Rogers, Benjamin F. Grouard, and Knowlton Hanks to open a mission in the Sandwich Islands. Leaving their families on the banks of the Mississippi River, the four made their way to New Bedford, Mass. - the center of the American whaling industry - where they booked passage on the whaler Timoleon bound for the Society Islands, inasmuch as they could find no ship going to the Sandwich Islands. The ship pulled anchor on Oct. 9, 1843.

On Nov. 3, before the ship had been out a month, Knowlton F. Hanks, the only unmarried member of the foursome and who had long suffered from consumption, passed away and was buried in the mid-Atlantic.

The ship, searching out whaling grounds, continued to make its way across the Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean, along the southern coast of Australia and into the Pacific. The Timoleon's first landfall in Polynesia was intended to be at Tahiti, some 355 miles due north of Tubuai, but the Society Island group was still several days away and provisions were running low. The ship anchored at Tubuai after having been at sea for 203 days.

The Tubuai islanders pleaded to have at least one missionary remain among them. Although not anxious to be separated from his companions, Addison Pratt decided to remain on Tubuai, for he felt an instant affinity to these islanders who understood his limited Hawaiian. He recorded in his journal: "Their faces were precisely like those I had been familiar with in the Sandwich Islands, my heart did leap for joy, for they looked like old acquaintance[s]."

The islanders immediately adopted Pratt, calling him Paraita, their closest approximation to his surname. Thus began the spread of the Latter-day Saint message among the Polynesians. In less than three months' time, Elder Pratt mastered the Tahitian language, and, working against many odds and handicaps, baptized 10 persons into the Church. Six of these were the only white men on the island. On July, 29, 1844, the Tubuai Branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized - the first in the Pacific - with 11 members. By the end of February 1845, 50 - out of an island population of only about 200 - had been baptized.

Pratt's companions in the work, Noah Rogers and Benjamin Grouard, continued on to Tahiti, but because of the conflict raging between the Polynesians and the French army, they realized that there was little possibility of success there at that time. Rogers went west to the Leeward Islands and Grouard sailed northeast to the Tuamotu Archipelago, stopping on the island of Anaa. Rogers' three-month stay in the Leeward Islands was discouraging. Rogers returned to America, reaching Nauvoo on Dec. 29, 1845. There, he had a brief reunion with his wife and nine children. He died during the spring exodus from Nauvoo the following year.

Grouard, on the other hand, witnessed astonishing success. He was the first white missionary ever to live among the people on the island of Anaa, and as such was greatly loved. After less than five months, he had baptized 620, organized five branches and set apart 17 officers. Later, Elder Pratt joined him to aid in administering to the needs of so many new members. On Sept. 24, 1846, the first LDS conference in Polynesia was held on the island of Anaa, with 866 members representing 10 branches of the Church in attendance.

At this conference, Addison Pratt announced his intention of returning to America to find his family and to secure support from Church leaders for a stronger force of missionaries. He departed on March 28, 1847, and was finally reunited with his wife and family in the Salt Lake Valley on Sept. 28, 1848, after having been separated from them for five years and four months.

Elder Pratt's presence in the pioneer settlement stirred great interest in the Polynesian mission, and the Saints unanimously voted in conference to support him by sending a group of missionaries back with him.

He departed once again for Tahiti in 1850 accompanied by James S. Brown, a young veteran of the Mormon Battalion. The two arrived in Papeete on May 24, 1850, and were followed by a second company of men and families, including Pratt's wife and four daughters, who arrived in Tubuai on Oct. 21, 1850. He found that during his three-year absence, Elder Grouard had maintained the mission.

In 1852, problems with the French government resulted in the Mormon missionaries being expelled from the islands of the French Protectorate. The Tahitian Saints, between 1,500 and 2,000 in number, scattered over thousands of miles, suffered extreme persecutions, and were left unsupervised for several decades to come.

It was not until 1892 that Mormon missionaries returned to Tahiti and found that missionaries from another faith had harvested the seeds so carefully planted 31/2 decades earlier.

To convince the Saints that they belonged to "Paraita's" Church, President Lorenzo Snow called James S. Brown, Elder Pratt's 1849 companion, to return to the islands in 1892 as mission president. The now elderly, Brown received a warm reception on Tubuai, as well as from congregations of Saints in the Tuamotus which had resisted the proselyting of other faiths. Pres. Brown determined that approximately 500 Saints had remained faithful throughout the Church's 40-year absence.

From this point onward, the presence of the Church in French Polynesia was constant, although not without setbacks and even tragedy. In 1903 on the flat atoll of Hikueru, two LDS missionaries, Elder Heber J. Sheffield and Elder Joseph H. Allen, survived the powerful forces of a three-day tropical cyclone by tying themselves to the tops of coconut trees. Others were not as fortunate: 379 people lost their lives on Hikueru, along with the entire population of 261 on nearby Hao. Some 100 Church members were among those killed in the storm. Many subsequent cyclones throughout French Polynesia have had devastating results in terms of physical damage, although never as many human casualties have occurred.

In 1963, the worst sea tragedy for Latter-Day Saints in the Pacific took place. The Manuia, a boat ferrying Church members back to their island of Maupiti after attending the dedication of a new chapel on the neighboring island of Huahine, crashed onto the Maupiti reef. There were 15 fatalities and all but two of the Relief Society sisters of the Maupiti branch lost their lives. (See Church News, Nov. 6, 1983, p.7.)

Although the service of fine mission presidents and missionaries provided a stable base for the first half of the 20th century, including during the two World Wars, there was little growth in the number of local members during those years.

Difficulties with the French government, and misunderstandings between the Church and the Tahitian community plagued the Church's efforts to expand, but were finally resolved in the 1960s. Since that time, government and community relations with the Church have remained cordial and cooperative.

The past 50 years in French Polynesia have been markedly different from the early period. Growth has resulted in the organization of four stakes, the first in 1972, and the most recent in the Leeward Islands in December 1993.

The following factors have all greatly contributed to the increased rate of growth and retention: Numerous visits from Church leaders and General Authorities, increased numbers of missionaries (about 80 percent of them from French Polynesia), improved methods of proselyting and language training, improved inter-island communications, the operation of a Church primary school from 1963-1982, increased translation of Church materials into Tahitian and French, the Papeete Tahiti Temple, well-trained local leadership, and a vigorous and wide-reaching construction program.

One of the most significant factors in promoting Church growth and strength was the completion of the Tahiti temple in 1983. Tahitian Saints, who had previously traveled to New Zealand or Hawaii for temple ordinances, now enjoy the blessings of temple attendance in their own land. As the Tahitian Saints commemorate 150 years since the Church arrived in their land, the future has never appeared brighter.

In September 1846, Addison Pratt recorded a discussion he had with an English missionary, an experienced ship's captain, and the American consul:

"They said there had never been a mission started in the Pacific Ocean that had met with the success that this had, and when our means and encouragement from home were considered, it was a wonder."

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed