NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga — Wanting to protect his land from Western colonization in 1839, Tonga's Christian King George Tupou I offered a simple prayer: "O, God the Father, I give unto you my land and my people and all generations of people who follow after me. I offer them all to be protected by heaven."
Tongan legend tells of the king bending down, picking up soil, and tossing it in the air as a symbolic act of conveying his land to God.
The significance of the moment more than 50 years before Latter-day Saint missionaries would come to this South Pacific paradise in 1891— is celebrated by Tongans in song, dance and poetry, and is spoken about from the pulpit and in hymns.
The only Pacific nation to remain independent of western colonization, Tonga's national motto reflects the nation's spirituality: "God and Tonga Are My Inheritance."
There is no greater symbol of that national spirituality today than the
Nuku'alofa Tonga Temple, rededicated Nov. 4 by Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve. Spencer J. Condie, of the Seventy and president of the New Zealand/Pacific Islands Area, also participated in the rededication.
"We reaped the harvest today of seeds that had been sown by the king of Tonga, who gave the land to the Lord in the first place," Elder Nelson told the Church News after the dedication.
Indeed, the people of Tonga have never forgotten their rich spiritual heritage, said Temple President Eric B. Shumway. "The dedication — the giving of a temple and its people back to God through covenant — is at the heart of the tradition that extends to 1839."
President Shumway, who served as a missionary and mission president in Tonga, said there is gratitude among Tongan Latter-day Saints that they live in a "nation that was given to God."
Dubbed the "Friendly Islands" by foreign visitors, Tonga has the largest percentage of Latter-day Saints living in any nation in the world. An estimated 46 percent — or one in nearly every two — Tongans are members of the Church. The island kingdom houses 117 Latter-day Saint chapels, two Church high schools, six Church middle schools and a temple. There are 16 stakes, and of the 149 missionaries serving here, 135 are native Tongan.
"We are blessed here in Tonga," said Elder Sione M. Fineanganofo, an Area Seventy. "There is a chapel in almost every village in Tonga. We have the temple. We have a mission. What else do we need? We have everything in Tonga. Now we just need to remember to rededicate ourselves."
A large banner hanging across the road in front of the 21,000-square-foot temple shares that message in bold lettering: "Let's rededicate ourselves."
Closed in June 2006, the temple has been remodeled to include a temple-style baptistry and upgraded architectural features. The remodeled temple includes a 5,282-square-foot addition and will serve more than 50,000 Latter-day Saints in the Kingdom of Tonga. It is one of 124 temples worldwide, including five others that span the Pacific islands.
The dedication followed a successful three-week open house, attended by more than 40,000 people and launched when Tonga's king, His Majesty George Tupou V addressed a gathering of 200 dignitaries on the campus of the Church's Liahona school campus.
In his opening speech the king said, "We are gathered here today to celebrate the completion of this magnificent temple which is a tribute to the Glory of God."
The Nuku'alofa temple was originally dedicated in August 1983 by President Gordon B. Hinckley, then second counselor in the First Presidency.
Elder Fineanganofo said the temple will now bless the people, "not only the members, but the Tongan people. Peace will be in Tonga," he said.
President Shumway said fundamentally, Tongans "are a very spiritual people."
"The core of your identity as a Tongan is that you are given to God and this land is given to God, so God and Tonga become your inheritance."
Tonga is located so close to the international date line that it is called "the place where time begins."
A land without fast food restaurants, Tonga is known for its lush green landscapes, plantations and small villages, ocean blow holes and flying foxes, which are large bats. But it is the people who are truly beautiful, said Elder Condie. Tongans have a giving nature; there is always room for visitors at a Tongan table.
And when the Tongans sing, usually in four-part harmony, a person doesn't just hear the music, but feels it. Music is a beautiful Tongan tradition shared among local Latter-day Saints.
They also share a rich Church history, said President Shumway. Early missionaries and converts sacrificed much for the Church, he said.
"The strength of the Church was manifest in eight or nine stalwart people who established the Church in their homes, largely to have the missionaries teach their children."
The Makeke school, meaning "arise and awake," was opened in 1926 and became the foundation for the Church school system here. Then, with the establishment of Liahona High School — a "beautiful, clean, campus" — the Church became a new light to the people, said President Shumway. Many Church members connect their conversion with the Liahona campus, he added.
And, he said, for many years the Church called older men with families to serve as missionaries. "They would have to sell all they had and support themselves, where they went," he said. "That sacrifice became a rich heritage for individual families."
Sister Falaetau Fineanganofo, wife of Elder Fineanganofo, is a third-generation Church member in Tonga.
In 1961, her family, including both sets of grandparents, traveled by boat, bus and plane to be sealed in the Auckland New Zealand Temple. In 1973, her grandfather hoped a temple would be built in Tonga. He asked her father, then a stake president, if he would inquire about a temple while visiting Salt Lake City for general conference.
When he returned with no word of a temple, Sister Fineanganofo's grandfather made a simple promise. There would be a temple in Tonga, he told them. The family would consecrate their land, next to Liahona, for the temple. Her grandfather died a short time later. But, true to his word, a temple was dedicated on the family land 10 years later, in 1983.
Lakalaka and Tevita Ka'ili, Tongans who just completed their third mission here, also share a rich Tongan heritage. Sister Ka'ili's family also made the long journey to New Zealand to be sealed in the temple. She remembers attending a Church conference on the Liahona property, sitting under a shelter made from coconut leaves.
Elder Ka'aili remembers his mother's dedication to the Church. A family without much money, the children in his family knew not to eat any fruit from their yard until tithing was paid. The best fruit was selected, picked and sold as the family's contribution to the Church.
Suliasi Vea Kaufusi is a fourth-generation Church member; his grandmother was one of Tonga's first converts in 1891. After Brother Kaufusi's father died, Brother Kaufusi returned home from BYU-Hawaii where he had just completed school. One of 14 children, Brother Kaufusi knew his father wanted every member of the family to gain an education and serve a mission. With his wife, Peggy, he helped raise and support his younger siblings in education and missions.
"I was just thankful I grew up in the gospel," he said. "I know what it is like to ask God when I need help."
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