Individual witness: Church grows through the strength of each testimony

During this year's April general conference, the Brethren often spoke of real growth — the growth of individuals, families and the Church. This has been emphasized by each of the prophets in this dispensation. It is a message that leads not only to an increase in new converts, but also to a deepening of each member's individual witness of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. As President Monson said in the priesthood session: "There are feet to steady, hands to grasp, minds to encourage, hearts to inspire and souls to save" (Ensign, May 2012).

From the earliest days of the Church, this same message of reaching out to everyone — wherever they might be — has been the message of modern prophets, because the Lord is mindful of every one of His children. The first verse of the Doctrine and Covenants states that the Lord's "eyes are upon all" of His children, even those who live on the remotest "isles of the sea" (Doctrine and Covenants 1:1).

The Church had been organized for only 13 years when Addison Pratt and his companions were called by the Prophet Joseph Smith to sail to the Polynesian Islands and become the first missionaries to preach the gospel in a foreign language. He landed on the island of Tubuai, 400 miles south of Tahiti in 1844, three years before the Saints arrived in Utah. When Addison Pratt arrived in Tubuai, only a few hundred people lived on the island. Such was the beginning of the Church in Polynesia.

Under the direction of the Pacific Area Presidency (Elders James J. Hamula, F. Michael Watson and Kevin W. Pearson) Brother David L. Beck, Young Men general president, and I recently visited Tahiti, New Zealand, and Perth, Australia. The gospel was introduced in New Zealand and in Australia much the same as it was in Tahiti — by humble missionaries called of God in the early days of the Church. At the age of 17, William James Barratt, a British convert, landed in Adelaide, Australia, in 1840. Fourteen years later Augustus Farnham, then president of the Australian Mission, accompanied by William Cooke and Thomas Holder, traveled to New Zealand to begin missionary work on that great island.

During our visit to the Pacific Area, we experienced the warmth and variety of cultures that those early missionaries must have felt. The day after we arrived in Tahiti, we attended a special performance of music and dance prepared by the young men and young women from six stakes in French Polynesia. Hundreds of young people participated in the performance dressed in traditional costumes.

As we watched the youth perform, we were impressed with how much they were enjoying themselves. Their smiles and energy continued to increase, one dance after another. These youth and their leaders were following President Monson's invitation to participate in large events, as he said in the October 2008 general conference: "I am an advocate for such events. They enable our youth to participate in something they truly find unforgettable. The friendships they form and the memories they make will be theirs forever" (Ensign, November 2008).

We learned that the Church is thriving in Tahiti. When I served there as a young missionary more than 40 years ago, there were approximately 10,000 members and no stakes. Now there are approximately 25,000 members living in seven stakes, and the Saints have a temple in Papeete. Addison Pratt, who began baptizing members in 1844 on that tiny island of Tubuai, would be pleased.

Following our visit to Tahiti, we traveled to Hamilton and Auckland, New Zealand. Again, we trained missionaries, held devotionals and conducted training meetings with Young Men leaders, as well as leaders and teachers in the Sunday School and other auxiliaries. The Church is moving forward in New Zealand, as it is in Tahiti. President James J. Hamula explained how in New Zealand, as well as throughout the Pacific Area, they are experiencing real growth. This means that not only are new converts joining the Church in larger numbers, but that those who have slipped into inactivity are coming back. More young men are serving missions, more are receiving the ordinances of the temple and more are remaining faithful. Real growth means that individual members of the Church become so converted — the gospel is planted so deeply in their hearts — that they "never do fall away" (see Alma 23:6).

Following New Zealand, we flew to Perth, Australia. This city is almost 10,000 miles from Salt Lake City. The members there told us that when President Gordon B. Hinckley visited their city, he said, "Perth, Perth, the end of the earth!" Again, we met with missionaries, members and leaders to learn from them and to provide training.

On our last day in Perth, I visited a youth Sunday School class with 12- and 13-year-olds. I eagerly observed as each young person wrote a different scripture in his or her "exercise book" and then one by one interpreted that verse to the class. The teacher did not lecture. Rather, the teacher listened to each young person, determined what each one needed and gave assistance accordingly. Although the teacher knew what she was hoping her students would learn, her words were not pre-planned. She drew upon the Spirit so that she could help learners with their specific needs — much the same as a missionary might help one investigator differently from another.

Tahitian youth perform a traditional dance. In his recent visit, Brother Osguthorpe saw the growth o
Tahitian youth perform a traditional dance. In his recent visit, Brother Osguthorpe saw the growth of the Church in the Pacific Area. | Photo by Russell T. Osguthorpe

Following the class, I met with two members of the class. I asked them to tell me what they did with their exercise books. They explained that they wrote scriptures in these notebooks, and that sometimes they wrote the verses in special ways so that they could memorize the verse. Each Sunday they took their books home, used them as they shared with their families what they had learned in Sunday School, and then brought the books back the next week. These young people were learning doctrine, but they were also learning how to teach it to others — skills they would need later as missionaries, parents and Church teachers and leaders. They were getting the doctrine down deep into their hearts, because they were not sitting and passively listening. They were acting. They knew they needed to learn the doctrine so that they could teach it effectively to other class members and to their families.

Brother Russell T. Osguthorpe, Sunday School general president
Brother Russell T. Osguthorpe, Sunday School general president

This Sunday School class reminded me that real growth begins early in one's life. Gaining a strong testimony — a testimony that will lead to continued faithfulness in the Church — is not something one person can give to another. We all need to learn for ourselves just as the Prophet Joseph did. When we learn for ourselves the truths of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, we experience real growth. And when we have such experiences, we reach out to others so that they can do the same.

Our visit to the Pacific islands reconfirmed that the Church is not only growing in size, it is also growing by the strength of each individual's testimony. It has been so since the time those first missionaries landed on the isles of the Pacific, and it will continue to be so as we realize that our living prophet was speaking to each one of us when he said: "There are feet to steady, hands to grasp, minds to encourage, hearts to inspire and souls to save."

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