Professor speaks on LDS Church’s global historical landscape at Pioneers in Every Land series

Credit: Rachel Sterzer
Credit: Rachel Sterzer
Credit: Rachel Sterzer
Credit: Rachel Sterzer

During her lecture at the Assembly Hall on Temple Square Thursday, July 9, Melissa Inouye showed a photo of her family, including her children, nieces and nephews. As the daughter of a Chinese mother and Japanese father and married to a Canadian, Sister Inouye pointed out that although the children are all directly related, some of them look Chinese, others Filipino, others Caucasian, Japanese or various mixtures. “The diversity [in this photo] is a reflection of what the Church is becoming as well,” she explained.

The conventional narrative of the history of the Church radiates mainly from Salt Lake City, with North American missionaries traveling outside the United States to establish branches, wards and stakes. In her remarks as part of the Church History Department’s Pioneers in Every Land series, Sister Inouye — a member of the Church and professor at the University of Auckland — used her Chinese and Japanese family roots to provide a framework for other “fruitful angles” in which to approach Mormon history.

She began by explaining that the narrative of institutional expansion in Mormon history is internally directed, a history “told to Mormons by Mormons.”

“In this sense this kind of history can seem like a bunch of people inside a train, exclaiming at the beauty of the places they pass, and commenting on how full the train is getting, but never actually leaving the train.”

Unfortunately, the tale of the train ride is most interesting to those who are passengers and provides a limited view, Sister Inouye said. In the case of Asian Mormonism, the Chinese and Japanese would have only boarded a few stops ago. The Church has only had a continuous presence in Japan since 1947, in Hong Kong since 1955 and in Taiwan since 1956. As a result, their history may seem relatively insignificant.

“The depth, the continuity and the richness of global Mormon history comes not from the institutions but from the people,” she said.

Instead of a self-contained train taking on new passengers at each stop, the history of global Mormonism is like a river. “When people convert and accept baptism into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, … it is not a sudden, one-way process, but an incremental and mutual one,” Sister Inouye said. Just as a river’s character is changed as a rivulet deposits new sediment into its waters, the rivulet adopts a new course.

The train, or institutional, history of Mormonism in Hong Kong, for example, may seem start-and-stop. In 1853, Mormon elders arrived in the British colony of Hong Kong. Besides being discouraged from the heat, high rents and difficult language, they were deterred from entering mainland China by the Taiping Rebellion, which lasted from 1850 to 1864 and cost an estimated 20 million lives. They returned home after just six weeks. There has been a continuous LDS presence in Hong Kong since a mission was re-established in 1955. After 60 years, there are roughly 3,500 actively participating Latter-day Saints in Hong Kong — comprising .0004% (four ten-thousandths) of the total population.

Who but Mormons would be interested in studying four-ten-thousandths of the population of Hong Kong? Sister Inouye asked. Yet, moving outside of the “train narrative,” Mormonism in Hong Kong fits in a significant way.

When Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan began to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints starting in the mid-1950s, in doing so they also joined a long tradition of Chinese Christian movements that shared significant religious affinities. These shared affinities contributed to the conversion of Sister Inouye’s Chinese family to the Church, she explained.

Sister Inouye’s great-grandfather, Ju Gin Gor, emigrated and established himself as a farmer with his wife, Gor Neui Jen, in Utah. In 1938, their 2-year-old boy, Wayne, died. From her LDS neighbors, Gor Neui Jen learned of the Church’s temple ritual of sealing that would bind her son to her and the rest of her family. From her Chinese upbringing, Gor Neui Jen was familiar with the notion of temples being a sacred space for efficacious ritual and with the idea of the living having responsibility toward the souls of the dead. In 1944, Gor Neui Jen was baptized in addition to all of her children.

“My great-grandmother brought Mormonism into her Chinese family. She also brought Chinese religious understandings into Mormonism — a stream that now flows within Mormonism’s global waters.”

Sister Inouye then discussed some of her Chinese and Japanese American families’ experiences with racism in the United States, including her Japanese grandfather, Charles Inouye, who was born and raised in the United States, attended Stanford University where he was on the boxing team, but was forced in the 1940s to an internment camp in Wyoming.

In addition to her families’ experiences with racism, Sister Inouye illustrated how Mormons suffered similar discrimination in popular 19th century discourse.

“The word ‘Mormon’ was a label used by outsiders to classify a group of people as ‘other,’ marking Latter-day Saints as not only members of a church with distinctive beliefs, but as a group of people that was fundamentally different from and inferior to normal citizens,” she said.

Sister Inouye said awareness of racial and ethnic dimensions of Mormon history is critical.

“All are alike unto God. We’re a global Church with many different kinds of people inside the Church. It’s important to remember that and to take it seriously. It needs to be reflected in our own understanding of what it means to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

And just as the streams of Sister Inouye’s Chinese and Japanese culture has entered the waters of Mormonism, so too has Mormonism influenced and shaped her family’s culture.

In conclusion, Sister Inouye explained that someone is not a pioneer simply for doing something first, but because they did something difficult.

“I am a descendant of Mormon pioneers,” Sister Inouye said. “They didn’t pull handcarts or wear bonnets. … They were excluded, driven from their homes, imprisoned and reviled. They did make incredible sacrifices in order to nourish their deepest beliefs.

“And I will be a Mormon pioneer by finding new ways to embrace our global brotherhood and sisterhood, to be a peacemaker and to be a representative of the Savior in our world which has moved into global territory. This is a triumph but also the beginning of a monumental challenge.”

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