“May the Elders and Sisters whom thou shalt call to this land as missionaries have keen insight into the mental and spiritual state of the Chinese mind. Give them special power and ability to approach this people in such a manner as will make the proper appeal to them.” — Elder David O. McKay in his Jan. 9, 1921, dedicatory prayer for the preaching of the gospel in the Chinese realm.
TAIPEI, Taiwan — Thirty-five years after Elder David O. McKay invoked his apostolic prayer, four Mormon missionaries boarded the British ship SS Szechuan in Hong Kong, embarking upon a two-day voyage to Taiwan.
They arrived in the capital of Taipei on June 4, 1956, marking the beginning of formal missionary work on the Asian island that Portuguese sailors had once aptly named Ilha Formosa — “Beautiful Island.”
The maiden efforts of that tiny group of American missionaries — Elder Duane Degn, Elder Keith Madsen, Elder Weldon Kitchen and Elder Melvin Fish — almost ended just months after their arrival.
On Dec. 31, 1956, Elder Madsen was thrown from his bicycle as he and his companions were pedaling to meet with a group of Taiwanese men to play basketball. The handsome young missionary from Walnut Creek, California, died two days later.
Elder Madsen’s death devastated his fellow missionaries and their leader, Southern Far East Mission President H. Grant Heaton. The tragedy, coupled with the missionaries initial lack of success in Taiwan, led President Heaton to consider moving the young elders back to Hong Kong.
His missionaries pleaded for a little more time. Their message would be heard.
One of the young men who had planned to play basketball with the missionaries on the day of Elder Madsen’s accident, Chiu Hung Hsiung, began studying the gospel. He would soon become one of the first two Taiwanese converts taught and baptized by the missionaries.
More baptisms soon followed, the Church in Taiwan began to grow and the work continued, to this day, without interruption. As Elder Kitchen would later record: “President Heaton was very impressed with the caliber of people who were being baptized [and] decided that our mission would continue in Taiwan.”
A brief yet rich history
Some six decades have passed since that four-man team of American missionaries stepped foot in Taiwan and, without even the benefit of a complete Chinese translation of the Book of Mormon, began finding, teaching and baptizing.
Many say this small Pacific island, officially known as the Republic of China is, a land of miracles. Membership has grown to about 60,000 and the beloved Taipei Taiwan Temple has been in operation for more than 33 years.
A pair of converts — Felipe and Petra Chou — recently wrote a book chronicling the Church’s brief yet rich history on the island entitled Voice of the Saints in Taiwan.
A Taiwan native, Felipe told the Church News the time was right for a history as the Church approached its 60th anniversary — a milestone of great importance in Chinese culture.
Over a two-year period, the Chous researched thousands of pages of records and interviewed many of the former missionaries, local Church leaders and rank-and-file members.
“It was very overwhelming, but rewarding at the same time,” admitted Petra, a native of Hong Kong whose expertise with written Chinese proved invaluable to the research. “There is so much that we have learned.”
Yes, the work was arduous — but Felipe said the couple never worked alone. “We felt the Lord was helping us, guiding us to people and records. We felt the Lord wanted this project to come about.”
Latter-day Saints in Taiwan: a two-part story
As their chronicle began to unfold, the Chous discovered the Mormon history in Taiwan was a two-part story: First, the accounts of the tireless work of the missionaries; and second, the steady, sustained faith and devotion of the Taiwanese Saints.
Ironically, global conflict facilitated the teaching of the peaceful message of the restored gospel in Taiwan. World War II placed LDS servicemen in locales across Asia, including Taiwan. Mormons in uniform there established small congregations, made friends with their hosts “and helped open doors to the point that they could request full-time missionaries,” said Felipe.
The first wave of missionaries in Taiwan relied almost entirely upon faith, hard work and the support of the tiny congregation of members. They struggled to learn the Mandarin language and adjust to a new culture. Sacrifice defined their efforts.
“Maybe some felt they weren’t successful in terms of baptisms, but their efforts were critical,” said Felipe.
Eventually, Taiwanese missionaries were also called to labor among their fellow islanders. They too sacrificed much, rarely enjoying the support of relatives who did not understand their so-called “American religion.”
As converts to the Church, both Felipe and Petra were sensitive to the essential role that missionaries play in the gospel’s growth. Perhaps many of the missionaries struggled with the language or their limited teaching resources. “But they had a love for the Chinese people and great faith.”
An essential translation. An essential leader.
The first missionaries that arrived in Taiwan in 1956 possessed both the faith and the work ethic needed to find and teach. They did not carry a single copy of the Book of Mormon written in the Chinese language.
A Mandarin translation of “the keystone of our religion” didn’t exist.
Church leaders knew well the importance of translating the faith’s most sacred book of scripture into one of the world’s most widely spoken languages.
Under the shepherding direction of Elder Gordon B. Hinckley of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the work of translating the Book of Mormon in its entirety began in the early 1960s.
It was an arduous, often tension-filled process. A small group of translators prayerfully labored to ensure their work was both linguistically and doctrinally correct, said Felipe.
Finally, in the final month of 1965, the translation was complete and copies of the Book of Mormon in Chinese began rolling off the presses.
The book’s impact was felt immediately in Taiwan. “The translation really expedited the work,” said Felipe, adding that the Lord’s voice was heard as never before on the island.
“When people can read the word of God in the language they understand, the word can work in their hearts.”
It’s apropos that Elder Hinckley directed the Chinese translation. The storied Church leader is synonymous with the story of the Church in Taiwan and across the Far East.
“President Hinckley is known as ‘Mr. Asia’,” said Petra.
The legacy of the man who would become the Church’s 15th president is felt across Taiwan.
Besides his pivotal role in the Chinese translation of the Book of Mormon, Elder Hinckley also broke ground on, and later, in 1966, dedicated the Church’s first chapel in Taiwan. Ten years later, he created the island’s first stake, the Taipei Taiwan Stake.
He would also oversee the purchase of the land where a temple and adjacent Church offices would be built. On Nov. 17, 1984, President Hinckley, then a member of the First Presidency, dedicated the Taipei Taiwan Temple.
“President Hinckley had the vision for what the Saints needed in Taiwan,” said Felipe.
A temple for Taiwan
During his dedicatory prayer of the Taipei Taiwan Temple, President Hinckley referenced a similar prayer invoked decades earlier by Elder McKay in Mainland China:
“This is a long awaited day. Our thoughts turn back more than 60 years when, as thou knowest, thine apostle, David O. McKay, standing on Chinese soil, offered a dedicatory prayer on the great Chinese realm and on thy work among the generations of the Chinese people.”
The work of the gospel in Taiwan was forever changed with the opening of the Taipei temple.
“Now the Taiwanese members had [local] access to all the ordinances they needed to return to their Heavenly Father,” said Felipe. “It was a huge milestone for the Church in Taiwan.”
The temple also allowed for a new spiritual maturity — resulting in a wave of priesthood and Relief Society leaders that continues to this day.
Culturally, the temple was a natural fit in Taiwan, where people revere their ancestors and maintain detailed family histories.
The next 60 years
A new wave of Saints will write the Church’s future chapters in Taiwan as they continue to support missionary work, serve others and worship in the temple.
“The ‘voice of the Saints’ over the last 60 years will be perpetuated by the rising generation,” the Chous wrote in the epilogue of their book. “Indeed, the future [as once promised by President Thomas S. Monson] is as bright as [our] faith.”