Gerry Avant: How an interview I did 47 years ago still serves as ‘living history’

Screenshot of Lorenzo Erastus Petersen, a missionary in Samoa from 1919 to 1923, from Church History’s Missionary Database. Credit: Screenshot from Church History's Missionary Database
Missionaries in Samoa pose for a photo on May 11, 1921. Credit: Church History Library

Interviewing people over the years put me in touch with what I call “living history.” I began working at the Church News when I was 26 years old. One of my early interview subjects was Lorenzo E. Petersen, who was born in 1898. At that time, I thought he was a part of “ancient history.” Forty-eight years later, I marvel at how time links us to people of the past.

We’re now in the 21st century. I interviewed a man who was born in the 19th century, a man who was a young missionary when Heber J. Grant, who was born in 1856, was president of the Church.

My interview with Lorenzo Petersen was a doorway, so to speak, that led back to a past century and, at the same time, was grounded in the then-present looking toward the future. It also gave me a glimpse into missionary work during past decades. He served a mission to Samoa from 1919 to 1924.

“Getting ready for a mission in those days was a good deal different from what it is today,” he said. “There was no mission home where the missionaries were given instructions previous to going out. We were sort of on our own.”

He expected a lot from his mission, but he had to give a lot in order to receive. “I’d heard so much about the beauty and grace of the people,” he said. “The first Sunday I went to church, the [locals] all came in with little mats, which they spread on the floor to sit on. The missionaries sat on a bench at the end of the chapel. I didn’t understand the language, and I couldn’t tell what was going on and was a little disillusioned about that I had expected to find on the islands.

“But later, as I became acquainted with the islanders and learned to speak their language, I began to feel that they were a very choice people. I learned to love them more than anybody I know outside my own family.”

Petersen said he had many faith-promoting experiences en route to a conference at the end of the island of Tutuila, which is about 20 miles long. Most Latter-day Saints in the village where he was laboring walked to the conference; a family invited him to go with them on their boat. When it came time to leave, they were short-handed for rowing.

“We took off anyway,” he said. “As we neared the passage out through the reef, I couldn’t see where we were going. It looked like there was just a solid mass of breakers, but I supposed that if the natives went out through that all the time, they knew what they were doing. It developed that there had been a storm somewhere in the Pacific, and there were exceptionally high breakers that day.

“We started through them and as we hit the first breaker, it took our boat straight up in the air, almost as high as the eaves on a house. If we had plenty of muscle to pull over the first wave, we could have gone up over it and into the trough and over the next. But we didn’t have enough rowers to get up over the breakers, so each time a wave would hit us, it would take us back, and some of the time, instead of hitting the waves head on, we were hitting them sideways.

“It looked very bad. The members began to pray and said, ‘Now we have a missionary on the boat and we are going to conference, and we are in Thy service.  . . .’ “Somehow, I didn’t feel very much fear. We were in that condition for quite some time . . . but we finally were able to get over the breakers.”

During the time Petersen served as a missionary in Samoa, Elder David O. McKay, then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and later the ninth president of the Church, visited Samoa from May 10 to June 6, 1921. Petersen attended one of the conferences over which Elder McKay presided.

Missionaries in Samoa pose for a photo on May 11, 1921.
Missionaries in Samoa pose for a photo on May 11, 1921. | Credit: Church History Library

“That was the first time one of the General Authorities had ever visited one of the islands, but it was really something for the [local members] to see an Apostle of the Lord. He received great attention and respect, not only among our own people, but among non-members as well,” Petersen said.

He said the one feeling that he had during his mission that he wished he could keep forever occurred during the time of a district conference. “I couldn’t get over to conference, and I was very lonely,” he said. “I went to Ta’u to get my mail, and I stayed there over Sunday. That Sunday afternoon, I was feeling very blue and dejected. I walked out on a little piece of rock that was off the shore. There I offered up a prayer that I might have consolation.

“A feeling came over me that I had never felt before in my life. It filled my whole being with exceeding joy, and I know it was the power of the Holy Ghost that gave me this feeling for my satisfaction and comfort.”

I wrote about Lorenzo Petersen in January 1973. He died that July.

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