The Mormon Pacific Historical Society studies the Tongan Mission centennial


Emeritus General Authority Seventy Elder John H. Groberg shared lessons and insights from his more than 60 years of service to Tonga, the Pacific islands and other international areas as the keynote speaker on Oct. 21, at the Mormon Pacific Historical Society’s (MPHS) annual conference.

Elder Groberg — who served as a young missionary in Tonga from 1954–1957, Tongan Mission president from 1966–1968 and later as a General Authority in the islands — spoke during the opening session of the historical society conference, which focused on the formal centennial of the Tongan Mission (1916-2016).

Missionaries from Samoa originally attempted to open a mission in Tonga 25 years earlier, between 1891-1897, but left. Other missionaries sent from Samoa returned again in 1907 and persisted until the Church formally opened the Tongan Mission nine years later.

As Elder Groberg and other MPHS conference presenters pointed out, from those humble beginnings approximately 65,000 Latter-day Saints currently live in Tonga, making that small island kingdom with a population of about 103,000 the first-and-only country in the world where a majority of its people are Latter-day Saints.

In addition to his many years of service, Elder Groberg is often recognized as the focal point in the 2002 feature film “The Other Side of Heaven.” The film primarily depicts his growth as a young missionary known by the Tongan name Kolipoki, as well as the challenges he and his Tongan companion, the late Feki Pouha, overcame on the remote island of Niuatoputapu. His 1996 autobiography, In the Eye of the Storm, which he said President Thomas S. Monson encouraged him to write, became the basis for the film.

Elder Groberg was originally scheduled to deliver his keynote address during the opening Friday night session of the MPHS conference in the Polynesian Cultural Center’s recently renovated and rededicated Tongan Village, but due to threatening weather, the event was moved into the Center’s enclosed Hawaiian Journey Theater. The audience, many of them Tongans dressed in traditional clothing, nearly filled the 600-seat theater. Former Tongan Mission presidents Melvin B. Butler (1983–1985) and Isileli Kongaika (1989–1992) also attended.

“The great blessing of Tonga, in one respect, besides the number of people who are members of the Church, is the great opportunity it has allowed hundreds of others like me to learn something that we probably wouldn’t have learned as well,” Elder Groberg said, “and that is how to love, serve and sacrifice and, yes, how to stay alive physically and spiritually.”

From the Tongan Mission’s informal beginnings to now, Elder Groberg pointed out, there is a direct correlation between the growth of the Church there and sacrifice. “Where there is great sacrifice, there come great blessings. One of the major challenges we have in our generation today is that people are forgetting more and more that basic principle. It’s sacrifice that brings forth the blessings of heaven, not entitlement. It’s hard work and it’s patience over long periods of time. It’s having, holding, believing and nourishing the truth for long periods of time.”

Further, he said, “As we study the history of Tonga and the Restoration, we should always look to those who sacrifice greatly, and be so thankful for all that they have done. At the same time, we should ask ourselves this question: What are our descendants going to see when they look back at me? As you study your ancestors, be grateful for what they have done; but also turn around and ask yourself: Am I willing to pay that kind of a price? ...

“One of the great blessings of the Church in Tonga is not only the improvement in the lives of individuals and families, but in the opportunity many have had to serve and help,” he said.

“One of the great things you can do is to be willing to put your whole heart into building the Kingdom of God, whether you deem it a sacrifice or not. Put your whole heart into it, and the Lord will bless you. ...

“We’re all brothers and sisters,” Elder Groberg concluded. “We all have legacies, but for you who have that [Tongan] heritage, I want you to know that you have a responsibility to not let it die or even wane. I pray that all of us will increase the light that comes in our lives, and remember that we are part of the kingdom of God on earth.”

The MPHS conference continued the next morning, Saturday, Oct. 22, in the new Brigham Young University–Hawaii Heber J. Grant Building. In the opening general session, Richard, George and Derwin Merill presented the seventh missionary journal of their grandfather, Olonzo D. Merrill, to BYU-Hawaii President John S. Tanner. President Tanner noted Elder Merrill was among the missionaries sent from Samoa to Tonga in 1893 and served there for the next three and a half years.

On behalf of their family, George Merrill explained during his mission their grandfather meticulously “filled seven journals, with entries of what happened each day. He included all kinds of information.” He added the family discovered the journals after their father died and initially presented six of them to BYU-Hawaii in 2007.

Break-out sessions followed, including presentations on the apostolic visits of Elders David O. McKay and George Albert Smith to Tonga in 1921 and 1938, respectively (President McKay also returned in 1955), as well as a look at the 1922 Tongan law that excluded Latter-day Saint missionaries from obtaining visas. Conference attendees learned it took international diplomacy at the highest levels to get the law repealed two years later.

Other topics covered more information on the Merrill journals, the Tongan building missionary program, the impact of Liahona High School, the tenures of several mission presidents, the diaspora of the Tongan Saints, retrospectives on several key Tongan member families and the future of the mission, among other topics.

The Mormon Pacific Historical Society, which was founded at BYU–Hawaii in 1978, concluded its 2016 conference that evening with a free screening of "The Other Side of Heaven" for attendees and community members in the Polynesian Cultural Center’s Hawaiian Journey Theater.

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