In early November 2007, 12 years ago, I traveled to Tonga to cover the rededication of the Nuku’alofa Tonga Temple.
In this land without fast food restaurants, I was immediately taken by Tonga’s lush green landscapes, plantations, small villages and ocean blow holes. More important, I fell in love with the Tongans’ giving nature; there was always room for visitors at a Tongan table.
The local members hung bananas outside my room because most of the local businesses were closed that weekend. It seemed everyone there was preparing for and celebrating the rededication of the temple. The commitment of local members to the gospel was a deep and integral part of who they were. This belief was woven into their very heritage.
Wanting to protect his land from Western colonization in 1839, Tonga’s Christian King George Tupou I had prayed: “O, God the Father, I give unto you my land and my people and all generations of people who follow after me. I offer them all to be protected by heaven.”
Tongan legend tells of the king bending down, picking up soil, and tossing it in the air as a symbolic act of conveying his land and people to God.
The significance of that moment is celebrated by Tongans in song, dance and poetry and is spoken about from the pulpit and in hymns.
There is no greater symbol of that national spirituality today than the Nuku’alofa Tonga Temple. Then-Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles rededicated the temple on Nov. 4, 2007. “We reaped the harvest today of seeds that had been sown by the king of Tonga, who gave the land to the Lord in the first place,” Elder Nelson said after the dedication.
“Everything we do … is all about the Lord.”
The legacy of Tonga is, in many ways, a legacy shared by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Just as King Tupou gave his land and people to God, members emerge from the waters of baptism having committed their time, their talents and their service to the Lord.
“Everything we do, it is all about the Lord,” said Sister Wendy Nelson, wife of President Nelson, after traveling 14,779 miles to meet with 344,452 people during the nine-day, five-nation Latin American ministry in August. “It is always about where does the Lord need us to go. What does the Lord need us to do.
“When we travel, I think of a statement by President (Spencer W.) Kimball who said, ‘I should come and see this country sometime when I come back. It is not about sightseeing. It is about Saint-seeing.”
Sister Mary Cook, participating in the same interview, added, “I think of that hymn, ‘I will go where you want me to go dear Lord,’ and we do. … We stand as a witness at all times and all things and in all places. There is nothing sweeter. And you feel safe that you are doing what the Lord wants you to do.”
Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said the Lord blesses — and unifies — His children who follow Him. “We are united by our love of and faith in Jesus Christ and as brothers and sisters of a loving Heavenly Father.”
It is a principle that applies not only in Tonga but in the lives of every member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As each of us represent the Savior and His Church in our daily discipleship, we are symbolically reaching down, picking up soil, throwing it in the air and conveying our life to God.
Today, Tonga is the only Pacific nation to remain independent of western colonization. The country’s national motto reflects its nation’s spirituality: “God and Tonga Are My Inheritance.”
It was 50 years after King George Tupou I’s declaration that Latter-day Saint missionaries arrived in Tonga in 1891.
Tonga is now home to one mission, one operating temple, 21 stakes an 65,500 Church members and still values religious liberty. President Nelson announced in the April 2019 general conference that a second temple will be built in Tonga in Neiafu.
In the land of deep spirituality — where 60 percent of the population claim Church membership — more than 10,000 Latter-day Saints welcomed President Nelson to their country on May 23.
“We love you,” he told the Tongans. “We miss you when we are away from you. You are precious to us and to the Lord. He has special feelings for His covenant people.”
Sarah Jane Weaver is the editor of the Church News.