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Unto All Nations: Telling the Story of the Global Church

Aloha! I am grateful to speak with you. I am impressed with the global vision of BYU–Hawaii. You come from countries around the world and many of you have served missions outside of your homeland. When I joined the Church History Department a decade ago, my specialty was in the religious history of the United States. In terms of Church history, I had studied mostly what had occurred in the United States during the Church’s early days.

In the past decade, my own vision has been elevated as I have studied Church history around the globe. To tell this story, we sometimes need to see things that we haven’t seen before. Many times in the past, we have told the story of the global Church as something that you might see in this photograph of missionary families in Samoa in the early days of the Church there. We honor the tremendous sacrifices that these families made to share the Gospel. But if we zoom into the photograph, we see something more. In the background, almost hidden from our view, we see Church members whose stories are often not told. Just as we honor the missionaries, we should honor the sacrifices and faith of these early members.

Telling these stories, though, is often challenging. In the Church History Department, we have an enormous quantity of journals, letters, and other documents. For a place like Samoa, most of our early records were created by the American missionaries. It is comparatively easy to tell their stories, to know their perspectives, to feel their devotion, because they wrote about it in letters that went to Church headquarters and were preserved in files, in a language the English-speaking historians in our department understand. It is much harder work to piece together the stories of the early converts, who either did not create written records themselves or whose records are now lost to history—or, if they do exist, are not in an archives. It is harder work, but well worth it.

Earlier this year, we published the second volume in our Saints series, a four-volume history of the Church. If you haven’t read Volumes 1 and 2, I encourage you to do so. They are available in 14 languages, both in print, on the Gospel Library App, and in audiobook versions. I hope that your faith will be strengthened as you read. We end each volume with a temple dedication. Volume 1 ends in 1846 with the dedication of the Nauvoo Temple. Volume 2 ends in 1893 with the Salt Lake Temple. Volume 3 ends in 1955 with the dedication of the temple in Switzerland. And the fourth volume will come to the present and features on its cover temples in Ghana; Hong Kong; and Brazil. Together, we hope that these volumes will meld into a great panorama of the Church’s history.

The Church has published two multi-volume histories in the past. The first was begun by Joseph Smith in 1838 and was recorded in these manuscript record books. It was published as the History of the Church. The second was written by B. H. Roberts and published for the Church’s centennial in 1930.

Saints is different from these past histories in several ways. The project aims to combine accurate history with the best tools of literature to reach Saints around the world, particularly those whom our scriptures refer to as the “rising generation.” That means you! Everything in the books is supported by historical sources. But the books also read like a novel.

Another difference is that we now live in the age of information, the age of the Internet. In the past when difficult information about our history came up, we often chose as a church to set it aside and focus on the core message of the Gospel. After all, knowing the details of controversial events is not required for salvation. Today, however, obscure historical facts—often put in the worst possible light—appear in the social media feeds of members around the world. This means that we must teach about difficult issues within the household of faith. In Saints, we put these issues within their larger context of Church history and doctrine to promote understanding and build faith.

A third difference from past histories is that we now simply have much more information on which to draw. For instance, the Joseph Smith Papers, which now contain 21 volumes, has enlarged our understanding of the Church’s founding era. And the vast resources of the Church History Library provide us new detail about Saints around the world.

Our approach is also multi-layered. We aim to provide both breadth and depth. The breadth comes in the story itself. The depth comes through meticulous footnotes and then additional information on key topics, including videos. You can find these great resources in the Church History section of the Gospel Library App under “Church History Topics” or, if you read the book in the app, you can simply click on these resources in the notes.

A final difference is that the history in the Saints series will be emphatically global. The history will focus not only on Church headquarters, but on Saints around the world. We also incorporate the voices of women better than we have in the past.

The most important decision when writing a history is what to include and what to exclude. We decided early on that this will be a “small plates” history. We looked to the scriptures as a guide. The Book of Mormon recordkeepers kept both large plates and small plates. The large plates record political and military history. The small plates were for the “the things of God” that were “most precious,” including “preaching which was sacred, or revelation which was great, or prophesying.” The small plates were recorded “for Christ’s sake, and for the sake of our people.” (1 Nephi 6:3; Jacob 1:2,4) We want to be a “small plates” Church History Department, telling the sacred history of the Church.

Of course, we can’t tell every sacred story, and you can find even more in our “Global Histories,” which are also on the Gospel Library App in the Church History section. We currently have short histories of the Church in dozens of countries and are working on more. I love the stories of faith from Saints around the world. These stories can function in a similar way to the brass plates for the people of Nephi. Alma told his son Helaman, “they have enlarged the memory of this people, yea, and convinced many of the error of their ways, and brought them to the knowledge of their God unto the salvation of their souls.” (Alma 37:8) The Saints histories have a similar motivation: to enlarge the memory of the Latter-day Saints, to build faith, and to strengthen us by demonstrating how the Lord has helped people in the past to salvation.

One of my most important take-aways from Volume 2 was how important the Pacific was to the growth of the church in the second half of the 1800s. We have often focused more on the story of the Saints in Europe who joined the Church and immigrated to Utah. But just as important is what was happening in the Pacific, in Hawaii and Samoa and Tonga and New Zealand and other places. The Pacific was a major source of Church strength during this era—and during our own era! You might be interested to know that Hawaii is mentioned in over half of the chapters in Volume 2!

In that book, you will read about the relationship between Queen Pitomai, a Latter-day Saint woman and wife of the King of Tubuai, and missionary Louisa Pratt. You will read about the collaboration of George Q. Cannon and Jonathan Napela in translating the Book of Mormon into Hawaiian. You will follow the story of Jonathan as he chose to accompany his wife Kitty to a colony on the island of Molokai for those, like Kitty, who had contracted Hansen’s disease or leprosy. Both Kitty and Jonathan eventually died of the disease. In New Zealand, you will read about the conversions of Hare and Pare Teimana and other Maori. You will read about Samuela Manoa, who was baptized in Hawaii, went to Samoa as a missionary in 1862, lost contact with the Church but kept his faith, and finally reestablished contact with the Church after 25 years in Samoa. You will read about the Saints in Tonga.

You will read about these Hawaiians who moved to Utah and established a settlement at Iosepa. They attended a dedicatory session of the Salt Lake Temple. In the celestial room, they saw a small table that had been sent by the Saints in Laie; it was “inlaid with Hawaiian hardwood” and had “two poles decorated with the feathers of Hawaiian birds.” At this dedicatory session, George Q. Cannon said in Hawaiian: “There are millions of spirits who have died but are unable to go before the presence of God because they do not possess the key.” Later, at a branch meeting in Iosepa, a Brother “Mahoe said, “I rejoice in having been able to attend the temple and witness the happenings found therein.” “We need to take care of our genealogies.”

I hope you will be inspired by the stories of these Pacific pioneers in Volume 2. I now want to give you a peek into two stories that will appear in future volumes.

One lesson that I’ve learned is that God wants the stories of Saints across the globe shared. Members of our team have been led to find the right stories. As she examined our outlines for Volume 3, one of our writers, Angela Hallstrom, noticed a gap. We had no Japanese or Japanese-American character during World War II. The Church had been established in Japan in the early 1900s, but there was no formal Church structure in that nation by the time of the war. We had already done some searching. Historian Jed Woodworth had contacted the Topaz Museum in Delta, Utah, that chronicled Japanese-American internment during World War II, hoping to find accounts from Latter-day Saints who were imprisoned there. A few names and stories were offered, but nothing that seemed suitable.

The team determined that a better option would be to locate a Japanese-American Latter-day Saint living in Hawaii during World War II. We searched existing oral histories but did not find the right story. Jed started praying and felt compelled to read the Church News issue by issue for 1942. He soon came across an article written by Jay Jensen, president of the Japanese Mission in Hawaii in which he recounted conversing with Kay Ikegami, the president of a Japanese Sunday School in Honolulu, on the morning of December 7, 1941, the day of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Searching the internet, Jed found a brief biography of Kay Ikegami in a published collection of conversion accounts of Japanese Saints. Perhaps this was the story we had been looking for!

Jed and Angela learned that Kay Ikegami was deceased but that his son David, who had written the conversion account, was still alive but is over 90 years old and in declining health. Fortunately, David’s daughter Donna Ikegami had done extensive research about Japanese Church members in Hawaii during the 1930s and 1940s.

Donna shared an interesting detail: David, who was 15 years old in 1941, had kept a journal during World War II. Throughout the Saints project, we have tried to highlight young people in the Church, teenagers and college-aged youth, because we know that a major portion of our audience is young adults today. In Saints, we want to see the story through the eyes of the participants; we want to hear their voices. This is difficult because records written by young adults are relatively rare. Older people keep journals much more often than younger people, and the journals of older people tend to be preserved more often.

David’s journal is remarkable. It shows how difficult it is for a young person’s life to be upended by the threat of war, and it highlights the challenges of being Japanese-American during World War II. Through Donna’s writings, Angela also discovered that David’s father, Kay, was confirmed by President Heber J. Grant during a visit to Hawaii in 1935 when he organized the Oahu Stake. Angela had already written a scene showing the creation of this stake—the first outside North America—and the discovery of Kay’s confirmation was one more piece of the puzzle, suggesting to us that we had found the right story.

We begin the story with a scene in 1935 during President Grant’s visit. We use that scene to give background on the Church in Hawaii. It had been 85 years since missionaries had brought the gospel to the islands. The dedication of the temple in Laie had greatly strengthened the Church’s presence, and at the time there were 14,000 Saints in Hawaii. President Grant felt strongly that the time had arrived for these Saints to run their own congregations. Instead of operating as branches overseen by a mission president, the Saints would be organized into wards and a stake with local leaders. President Grant was struck by the multi-ethnic nature of the Church on the island, as he was greeted by Hawaiians, Samoans, Maori, Japanese, and Chinese members—much like BYU–Hawaii today. The new stake included leaders of Caucasian, Polynesian, and Asian ancestry.

In the 1930s, Hawaiians of Japanese heritage represented over one-third of the population of the islands. Many people of Filipino and Chinese descent also lived in Hawaii. Previous missionary efforts had focused on native Hawaiians, but the gospel net was widening.

Interacting with the small group of Japanese Saints took President Grant back to a time when he had been a young mission president in Japan. At the time of his calling in 1901, he was the only apostle who had not served a mission, and he felt unprepared to preach in a culture so different from his own. Although he saw some success, Heber could not master the Japanese language, and he was disappointed by how difficult it was to attract and keep converts. After two years, Heber had returned to the United States. Work in the Japan Mission continued for two more decades, but in all that time fewer than 200 baptisms were performed. The mission was closed in 1924.

President Grant now realized that Hawaii was the most favorable place for the Church to make its next effort to preach the gospel to the Japanese. And perhaps, when the time was right, these Saints could be called on missions to Japan and help the Church take root there.

Now, we’ll jump forward several chapters to our next scene:

The morning of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Kichitaro Ikegami and his family waited for Sunday School to begin at a small chapel in Honolulu. Kichitaro, known as “Kay,” had begun attending Sunday School with other Japanese-Americans soon after he, his wife Matsuye and his family moved to Hawaii in 1933. In the beginning, the congregation was small. But by 1941, the Japanese Mission had been operating in Hawaii for over four years. There were now five Japanese Sunday Schools in Honolulu, and Kay was the Superintendent of one.

Just as the meeting was about to begin, Jay Jensen, president of the Japanese Mission, and his wife, Eva, rushed through the door. “The Japanese are attacking Pearl Harbor!” President Jensen exclaimed.

Kay’s face went ashen. “Oh no,” he said. “It can’t be true.”

Kay had been confirmed a member of the Church by President Grant in 1935. Although he was relatively new to Hawaii, he had lived in the United States since he was eleven years old and his children had been born in America. He was dismayed at the thought of war between the country of his birth and the nation he called home.

President Jensen told Kay and the rest of the group what he had seen that morning. At eight o’clock, he had gathered with another Japanese Sunday School that met near Pearl Harbor. Outside, planes were flying back and forth in formation. Some of them were dropping artillery shells, but President Jensen decided it was the U.S. military conducting maneuvers. As soon as he returned home, his wife rushed outside and told him Pearl Harbor was under attack. He did not believe it could be true until he heard the urgent radio broadcast for himself.

“Keep off the streets!” the radio announcer had warned. But President and Sister Jensen felt they needed to make sure the Saints knew they were in danger. Now, President Jensen told Kay and the other Saints to “Hurry home and take cover.” Not long after they exited the chapel, a bomb landed just one hundred yards away, setting several buildings on fire.

In the days that followed, Hawaii was placed under martial law. Schools were closed and the government censored newspapers and individual citizens’ letters. All Hawaiians were subject to a curfew, but those of Japanese descent were required to be home by 8:00, one hour earlier than other residents.

Kay’s son, 15-year-old David, felt unsettled by the sudden changes. “The days are all dead,” he wrote in his journal on December 11. “I wish there was school once again.” He went to his school hoping to get a library book out of his locker, but soldiers were blocking the road.

As Christmas approached, David worked alongside his mother and father to dig a trench for an air raid shelter in their backyard. The labor was hard and slow. David tried to enjoy some of the holiday season by singing a few carols with a choir of Saints for the Sunday School Christmas program, but the performance did not go as well as he had hoped. “You can’t get into the spirit because of the war,” he lamented in his journal.

Now, for our next scene:

Later that summer in Hawaii, David Ikegami, seen in this photograph, squeezed into his family car, trying to make room for himself alongside the six other young people his father was driving to the Japanese Mission conference at the new O’ahu Stake Tabernacle. Kay Ikegami was happy to give his children’s friends a ride to church—members and non-members both. The Japanese Mission in Hawaii was seeing a great deal of growth, especially among young people.

For David, this Sunday meeting was different from most. Not only would he be ordained to the office of a teacher, but he had been asked to speak. The expected crowd of over two hundred people was much larger than the gatherings he was accustomed to.

David had chosen to use the words of Elder John A. Widtsoe, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, from general conference that April as the basis for his talk. Elder Widtsoe had spoken about the scripture from D&C 38:30, “If ye are prepared ye shall not fear.” Ideas about how to find peace and purpose during frightening times felt like an appropriate subject for the Saints of the Japanese Mission.

Although there had been no further attacks on Hawaii, tension and uncertainty was now part of everyday life. The military had taken over the hotels in Waikiki and beaches were fenced with barbed wire. Citizens were fingerprinted and had to carry a special identification card. School had started again, but David had to carry a gas mask and there were often drills for air raids and gas attacks.

Now, standing at the pulpit, David read the words of Elder Widtsoe: “Fear is the chief weapon of Satan in making mankind unhappy. He who fears loses strength for the combat of life, for the fight against evil.” But those who strive to live righteously and become a Zion people need not fear, the apostle continued. “There is safety wherever the people of the Lord live so worthily as to claim the sacred title of citizens of the Zion of our Lord.”

I love this perspective from Elder Widstoe and David Ikegami during a time of uncertainty, fear, and chaos. Perhaps some of us have felt those emotions this year! The message still resonates: “Fear is the chief weapon of Satan in making mankind unhappy. . . There is safety wherever the people of the Lord live so worthily as to claim the sacred title of citizens of the Zion of our Lord.”

As President Grant had hoped, David and other Japanese-American Saints in Hawaii later served critical roles in reestablishing the Church in Japan. Three generations of the Ikegami family have now served missions in Japan; David served three himself, including two with his wife Elsie.

I would like to now tell a final story of another young Latter-day Saint who showed great faith. This story will be part of Saints, Volume 4. We begin in Hong Kong in 1953.

In Hong Kong, Nora Koot yearned to have missionaries return to her part of the world. The China Mission had been established in Hong Kong in 1949. That same year, 11-year-old Nora, who had lost both of her parents, had fled the Communist revolution in mainland China to live with family members in Hong Kong. Nora soon met the missionaries. She attended church meetings for over a year until she and two of her half-sisters were baptized, becoming the first Chinese members of the Church in Hong Kong. This is a photograph of Nora and her sisters.

Nora had endured many trials in her young life, and the gospel filled her with a new sense of freedom and joy. She loved interacting with the missionaries. Two weeks after Nora’s baptism, fifteen more people joined the Church, including Nora’s aunt. The future of the Church in Hong Kong seemed bright.

But then, a little over a month after Nora’s baptism, the Chinese Mission was closed. Tensions between Hong Kong and Communist-controlled mainland China had escalated with the beginning of the Korean War, and the First Presidency felt the missionaries were no longer safe.

Four years had now passed since the missionaries’ departure; the Saints in Hong Kong had no priesthood holders, no sacrament, no building, and no materials but a Book of Mormon in English. Despite these challenges, Nora’s faith continued to grow, and she never lost hope that the missionaries would return. The year before, Elder Harold B. Lee and his wife Fern had visited Hong Kong during a tour of Asia. The visit was brief, just one day, and Elder and Sister Lee invited Church members and friends, 21 in total, to their hotel room for a sacrament meeting. The next day, Nora, then 15, went to say good-bye to the Lees as they boarded a shuttle bus for the airport. She felt the Spirit tell her, “Tell him to send the Church back.” Unsure what was happening, she said “What” aloud. “Tell him to send the Church back,” the voice said.

Nora stepped up to the bus, her eyes meeting the apostle’s. As Elder Lee stretched out a hand to say good-bye, tears streamed down Nora’s face as she said, “Please send the Church back to China. We Saints without the Church are like people without food. We need to be fed spiritually.” Elder Lee replied, “As long as we have a faithful, devoted band like you who without a shepherd, are remaining true, the Church is in China.”

Nora continued to pray that the missionaries would return. One day in August, she was working at a movie theater when she saw a tall, blonde, blue-eyed man approaching her. She suddenly realized it was Grant Heaton, a missionary who had taught her the gospel.

Grant had just arrived in Hong Kong and told Nora she was one of the first people he had sought out. After the missionaries’ removal from Hong Kong, he had finished his mission working among the Chinese people in Northern California. Soon after his mission ended, he married and he was then drafted into military service during the Korean conflict.

Grant told Nora that the mission was reopening and he had been called as the new Mission President. He was only twenty six years old, and he and his wife Luana were the parents of a six-month-old baby boy. Their stewardship in the new Southern Far East Mission included Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Guam.

Soon, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles arrived for a visit. He praised the members for remaining faithful and then turned to Nora. He knew about her plea to Elder Lee, who had been so impressed by Nora’s faith that he had told Nora’s story during General Conference.

Nora’s prayers had been answered. “The sun [is] rising,” she thought. “Morning has returned to the Saints in Hong Kong!”

We then follow Nora as she becomes the first Chinese woman to serve a mission:

In early 1959, Sister Nora Koot and her companion, Sister Elaine Thurman, were on their way to Tai Po in the New Territories, an area of Hong Kong where missionaries had never proselyted.

Only a few years previously, the idea of the Church growing rapidly in Hong Kong might have seemed impossible. But now Nora’s district leader wanted to know what supplies she and her companion needed. Forty folding chairs and forty hymn books, Nora told him. She and Sister Thurman planned to set up the chairs in their living room apartment, so they could host Sunday School for the new investigators they planned to find.

The startled elder asked Nora if she really needed that many. “Yes, we do!” she answered confidently.

That week, Nora and Sister Thurman invited everyone they met to the service. Sunday came, and the two sisters set up the forty chairs and distributed the hymn books. They even constructed a makeshift pulpit by placing two suitcases side-by-side and draping a white cloth over the top. Then they opened the front door and waited.

One-by-one the visitors arrived. By the time the meeting started, all of the chairs were filled. Nora was grateful, but not entirely surprised. Throughout Hong Kong, missionary work was booming. Nearly a decade after the end of the Chinese civil war, the city still harbored hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking a better life. Some churches offered the refugees food in exchange for becoming members of their congregations. Hong Kong residents called them “Rice Christians.”

President Grant Heaton did not want the missionaries and local Church leaders to promise food in exchange for church attendance. He was so committed to the idea that investigators should have a true desire to learn the gospel before being baptized that he instituted a rigorous plan, requiring 17 pre-baptism lessons and another 20 after baptism.

It wasn’t long before there were enough members to form a branch in Nora’s area. She and her companion ran the meetings each Sunday, with Elders attending to bless the sacrament.

The pace at which the Church was growing made Nora think of Daniel’s dream in the Old Testament about a stone rolling down the mountain, getting bigger as it rolled, until it was so big it filled up the entire earth. Nora felt like she was helping to make that vision a reality. A final note on Nora: Some years later, she received her endowment at the temple in Laie.

Like Nora, Saints throughout the world have been blessed to participate in the rolling forth of the Kingdom of God. I have been inspired by the faith and devotion of women and men throughout the world who have embraced the Gospel of Jesus Christ and built the Kingdom of God under difficult circumstances. And I have learned a central message: God’s people have always been diverse. Women and men, single and married, of all races and ethnicities, coming from many nations, people with PhDs and people with very little education, solid and tentative in the faith, new converts and 8th-generation Latter-day Saints, people who confront disease and mental illness and family problems. All are needed. Nephi taught that God “invited them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness” and that “all are alike unto God.” (2 Nephi 26:33) There is a place for all among God’s people. There is a place for each of us among God’s people. And a work for each of us to do. Each of us forms a part of that grand panorama of Church history and has a part to play in raising the ensign to the nations. I share my witness that God cares about and guides His people and that this is the Church of Jesus Christ. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.