Setting a pace that few others his age – 87 – would even dream of, President Gordon B. Hinckley embarked on an unprecedented venture for a Church president: visiting eight islands of the Pacific in one week from Oct. 10-17 and speaking to 52,500 members.
Just five days after general conference, President Hinckley began his arduous tour of South Pacific islands, stopping en route in Hawaii to participate Friday afternoon, Oct. 10, and Saturday morning, Oct. 11, in events at Laie commemorating "Pioneers of the Pacific." (Please see Church News, Oct. 18.)President Hinckley's wife, Marjorie, traveled with him, as did Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve and his wife, Elisa, and Elder Vaughn J Featherstone of the Seventy, and his wife, Merlene. Elder Featherstone is president of the Pacific Area. At various meetings, the Brethren and their wives addressed the gatherings.
A little after noon on Oct. 11, President Hinckley and his party were on their way to Apia, capital of Samoa on the island of Upulo. President Hinckley, Elder Wirthlin and Elder Featherstone were up early the next morning for a short flight to the neighboring island of Savai'i, where they addressed about 4,000 members. Also present at the meeting was Samoa's Prime Minister Tofilau Eti Alesana.
That afternoon at 2 o'clock, having returned to Upulo, he spoke to missionaries in the Samoa Apia Mission, and then to some 10,000 people who had come from throughout the island to Apia Park.
Early Monday morning, Oct. 13, the Church leader and his party traveled to Pago Pago, American Samoa, for a meeting with nearly 7,900 people, the largest crowd ever assembled in the recently opened Veteran's Memorial Stadium. American Samoa's Gov. Tau'ese Sunia presented a special commendation to President Hinckley. Before the commendation was presented to President Hinckley, it was read to the congregation by Sen. Tuana'itaua Tuia, a Church member and prominent lawmaker in American Samoa. The document formally paid tribute to the Church leader, welcomed him to the island, commended him for sparing time from his busy schedule to visit and to bless the lives of the people of the territory, and paid tribute to his long, distinguished and dedicated service to God, to the people of the Church and the people of the world generally. In presenting the document to President Hinckley, the governor said, "I am grateful that there are Latter-day Saints in American Samoa, that there are such people like you."
The strains of an emotional Samoan song of farewell, "Tofa, My Felini" (Goodbye, My Friend), barely had time to fade before President Hinckley and those traveling with him had crossed the International Dateline. Although their flight from Pago Pago that afternoon took just 1 hour and 30 minutes, they jumped ahead a day and arrived in Nuku`alofa on what was then Tuesday, Oct. 14, in Tonga.
At the royal palace in Nuku`alofa, President Hinckley met with Tonga's King Taufa'ahau Topou IV. At 3 p.m., President Hinckley spoke to missionaries serving in Tonga, and at 4:30 he addressed some 11,400 people who gathered on the grounds at Liahona, a school owned and operated by the Church in Tonga.
(At 11 p.m., Oct. 14, an earthquake registering 7.7 at its epicenter 52 miles northeast of Tonga's main island, Tongatapu, and 6.4 at Nuku`alofa, where President Hinckley and those traveling with him were staying overnight, shook the island with great force. Although beams in the hotel's ceiling moved back and forth, floors undulated and water sloshed from one end to the other of the hotel pool, no serious damage was visible the next morning. Unfazed by the huge tremor and several aftershocks, President Hinckley resumed his travels the next day.)
Departing early in the morning with Elder Wirthlin and Elder Featherstone, President Hinckley spoke Oct. 15 to about 2,240 people assembled on the grounds of Saineha High School on Tonga's island of Vava
u. After returning briefly to Nukualofa, the Brethren were joined by their wives and then traveled to Suva, Fiji, that afternoon.
Within a short time after arriving in Suva, President Hinckley spoke to nearly 5,000 people who had gathered in National Stadium; less than two hours after that meeting concluded, he met with missionaries of the Fiji Suva Mission.
The last leg of his trip was to Papeete, Tahiti. Recrossing the International Dateline, President Hinckley and his party arrived in Papeete Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 15. They were greeted at the airport by French Polynesia's President Gaston Flosse, who also met with President Hinckley, Elder Wirthlin and Elder Featherstone in his office and attended the fireside that evening in a large auditorium by the sea. Throughout the meeting, waves could be heard breaking on the shore just outside the auditorium, which had a roof but was open around the sides. Some 7,000 people attended. Before the fireside, President Hinckley met with missionaries serving in the Tahiti Papeete Mission.
President Flosse went to the airport to wish President Hinckley a safe return trip home Thursday morning, Oct. 16. After stopping overnight in Honolulu for rest, the prophet and his party returned to Salt Lake City Friday evening, Oct. 17.
Throughout his travels, President Hinckley appeared in "top form." While he might have felt the fatigue that such a strenuous trip naturally brings to any traveler, he appeared rejuvenated whenever he was among the members in the Pacific. On several occasions he commented that he and Sister Hinckley are "getting older," or remarked that he is now "an old man." Nevertheless, he spoke with a strong voice, walked briskly into and out of the venues where the meetings were held and stood tall at the podium as he delivered his inspired messages.
Time and again, he expressed to members of the Church in the South Pacific his love for them. At one point, President Hinckley said, "I'm no different from the rest of you, except in the call which has come to me, which was not sought for, nor even expected, but which came and which we have tried to fulfill to the best of our ability. I resolved when I became president of the Church two-and-a-half years ago that I would get out among the people while I still have strength to do so. . . . It has been my desire to get out and see you, look into your faces, share my testimony with you, and speak to you words of appreciation and respect for all you do as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
The trip to the isles of the sea, he said, was to "share with you our love . . . our blessings . . . our faith."
President Hinckley's messages were based upon the Savior's teachings, promotion of love and tender care in the home – especially for children – admonishment to not abuse children or spouses in either actions or words, and encouragement for members to keep the Lord's commandments and adhere to the principles of the gospel, naming specifically observance of the law of tithing and fasting. He directed members to pray, study the scriptures, and always be worthy of temple recommends. He counseled young men to prepare for and serve missions.
At every gathering of Latter-day Saints, members stood and sang, "We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet" as President Hinckley entered. Without fail, many in the congregations wiped tears from their eyes as they sang. Each meeting, according to many attending, ended far too quickly.
Pisa Damuyawa, a member of the Labasa District council who had traveled with about 100 other members from the island of Viti Levu for the meeting in Suva, Fiji, said what many must have thought about the meetings, which generally lasted an hour and a half: "It seemed like 15 minutes. The time passed so quickly."
After the meeting in Apia, Samoa, Winegar Afitu said, "My ears have heard the prophet's voice. I have heard him talk. I knew he was a prophet of God even before I saw him, but seeing and hearing him in person was like a revelation to me."