This tropical South Pacific isle, 500 miles south of Tahiti, is typical of many islands with its forested, craggy mountains, but has a distinction that makes it unique: here the Church is a century-and-a-half old.
Missionary work in the South Pacific began in Tubuai, whose residents speak Tahitian, on April 30, 1844, the first foreign-language mission of the Church.While other islands to the east and west have little or no LDS presence, some Tubuai youngsters inherit an LDS heritage that stretches back seven generations, rivaling those pioneer pedigrees of the Mountain West. And as pioneer heritage comes with abundant pioneer stories, so also is Tubuai heritage accompanied by accounts of faith and illustrious forebears.
Here, the name of one of the Church's many early missionaries, Addison Pratt - or at least the Tahitian equivalent, "Paraita" - is a household word among Church members. Members also venerate their forebears converted in the 1840s and 1850s who remained faithful despite a 40-year lull from outside leadership.
Today, the Tubuai District includes some 560 members out of a population of about 1,860. Most of the people here are Protestant or LDS, with about 200 members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as well.
Church members in Tubuai are organized into four branches of the Tubuai District, over which a local member, Charles Tahuhuterani, presides. The district also includes one branch on the island of Rurutu.
Three crisp, tan cinderblock meetinghouses stand on the perimeter of the island, which is only a few square miles in area. The meetinghouses stand out sharply against tall fronds and ferns that carpet the island from beach to beach.
Tubuai's climate is cooler than Tahiti's. Among the coconut plantations are patches of potatoes, onions, cabbages and other vegetables that comprise a growing export. Cattle are also raised on the island. Here and there a horse is tethered. In Tahitian, the word for horse literally means "animal that runs on land."
The legacy of the early missionaries provides a strong gospel heritage among the Latter-day Saints. Appreciation for these missionaries is widespread. A monument in honor of the first missionaries stands in front of the district meetinghouse. One of the songs sung here recalls the ship "that sailed from Nauvoo and the winds that blew it to Tubuai." Members of the RLDS church also regard Addison Pratt as their founding missionary and have erected monuments in his honor as well.
One can well imagine the scene on April 30, 1844, when Elder Pratt's boat splashed down from the Whaler Timoleon. With oars glistening, Elder Pratt and his companions, Elders Noah Rogers and Benjamin Grouard, crossed an opening through a reef. Breakers rocked their boat as they neared a narrow beach where waiting islanders gathered.
Islanders welcomed Elder Pratt and his companions ashore with a spirit of hospitality that has lessened little over a century and a half. So excited were the islanders to have missionaries that Elder Pratt agreed to remain on the island while the ship and his companions sailed on. He was taken into the home of an islander named Naboa and his wife, Telii, who later became devoted friends, as well as the first Tahitian converts. Elder Pratt began studying Tahitian and preaching the gospel. He also helped provide for the family.
"To add to their store of food, Elder Pratt, by exercising his shooting and fishing abilities daily supplied the household with wild hens and ducks shot in the hills and marshes, or occasionally an eel hooked in a nearby stream. . . ," wrote S. George Ellsworth in Seasons of Faith and Courage. "Here on
this highly favoured, and most beautifully pleasant island [according to Elder Pratt]' he was treatedbetter than their princes.'"
Elder Pratt wrote in his journal: "Who could have described to me the beauties of this island, the salubrity of its climate, the abundant variety of its tropical fruits, the luxuriance of its soil, the abundance of its wild game, such as goats . . . . The lagoons `smooth as a pond and clear as crystal' abounded with excellent fish."
Yet Elder Pratt endured privations as he was isolated from his fellow missionaries, and his clothes and shoes soon were reduced to tatters. Despite these impediments, he found success. In March 1845, he wrote to Brigham Young:
"The Lord has greatly blessed my feeble efforts to spread the gospel. I have baptized fifty-seven persons on this island, . . . among them are the queen . . . a deputy king and his wife and daughter . . . the head chief and his wife . . . and several of the subordinate chiefs."
Elder Pratt's ministry on the island extended from 1844 to 1845, when he left to assist Elder Grouard in the Tuamotu Islands that comprise the upper portions of French Polynesia. In 1847, he returned to the United States to recruit more missionaries. He came back to Tubuai and French Polynesia in 1850 with additional missionaries, as well as his wife and four daughters. The group however, had to leave the islands in 1852 when French officials passed a law restricting missionary work.
Elder Pratt tried in vain to overcome the legal barriers and return to Tahiti and continue the work. He even boarded a ship in 1856 and sailed to Papeete, only to be denied permission to preach by the French authorities. After four months of unsuccessful petitioning, he sadly returned to Utah.
During a 40-year absence of the American missionaries that followed, many things happened on Tubuai. Old temptations returned and extremely harsh persecutions arose to face the faithful members.
In one account of these persecutions, local member Taro Tanepau told of Pauma, one of the first islanders baptized. Pauma was left to preside after the Americans left. Pauma, said Brother Tanepau, had a horse with white stocking feet and a white stripe on its forehead. He rode this horse around the island visiting members and giving blessings. Persecution became severe, and Pauma was captured and held prisoner in a pit. One night he escaped from the pit and continued visiting the members and preaching. He rubbed mud on the feet and forehead of his horse to disguise it. During this time, according to oral tradition, a woman who was very ill wanted to be baptized before she died. She was carried to the ocean where Pauma baptized her. After her baptism, she was healed and walked to shore.
Some members remained faithful during this difficult period, and held branch meetings in secret. When persecution subsided after the 1860s, the branches met openly again.
Pres. Tahuhuterani, whose great-grandmother donated land for an early meetinghouse on the island, said his ancestors were converted by Tahitian missionaries ordained by Elder Pratt. Pres. Tahuhuterani notes that while the number of members on Tubuai may seem small, many stalwarts from this island now live in Papeete, Tahiti, where they are leaders in the stakes and wards there.
This exodus of members usually begins with youth of high school age who leave for the populated area on Tahiti to attend high school. For example, when school resumes in September, two of the Tahuhuterani children, Tehani, 17, and Matauira, 15, will live in Papeete. After their schooling, many youth from outlying islands of French Polynesia remain where they can find employment. Many LDS young adults serve missions from Papeete, as well as finding their spouses and careers.
Pres. Tahuhuterani is one of those who found employment on Tubuai. He is manager of the Tubuai airstrip for Tahiti Airlines. Most of those who travel to the island come to visit relatives or for business, as the trip is generally too expensive for tourists, and Tubuai does not have a hotel, anyway.
Missionaries on the island work through members but baptisms are few. Despite that, "We have gained great respect from the other churches and also the officials of the government," he said. "They consider the Church to be a very strong, special organization."
The success of families on Tubuai compares favorably to that of other long-established rural branches throughout the Church. The difference is mostly that instead of being a small Mormon town in the American West, this 150-year-old gospel stronghold is on an isle in the South Pacific.