This article originally appeared in Pioneer Magazine, 1970 Vol.57 No.1
1844-1852: missionary Work in French Polynesia
by George Ellsworth, Historian
Between 1844 and 1852, the Church’s first non-English speaking, non-Caucasian mission was established in French Polynesia. The missionaries’ task was manifold. They had to learn a foreign language, become acquainted with Tahitian folkways, and decide which folkways harmonized with the gospel and which did not. From their experience in the Church and their knowledge of the gospel, these missionaries had to select and phrase the gospel message in terms understandable to the islanders.
When the first LDS missionaries landed in 1844, only a generation had passed away since the islanders had abandoned their traditional religion—complete with ancient gods, cosmogony, priesthoods, ceremonies, taboos, sacred persons, and sacred places. While the first Christian missionaries (representatives of the London Missionary Society) had arrived in the society islands in 1797, effective Christianization had not begun until 1819 when the leading chief of Tahiti was baptized after abandoning his family gods. Many conversions followed. Think what was required of these islanders to leave their traditional religion, which emphasized hallowed customs and ceremonies, and convert to a Western religion teaching concepts of sin, repentance, and redemption through the sacrifice of the Son of God.
The LDS Missionaries in the Pacific
On May 23, 1843, Joseph Smith called four men to the Pacific Islands: noah rogers (president), addison pratt, Benjamin F. Grouard, and Knowlton F. Hanks. brigham young set them apart and gave them general instructions.1
Surprisingly, several of these men were prepared for this mission. Pratt and Grouard had been seamen in the American whale fishery industry. Pratt had spent six months on O‘ahu, Hawai‘i, in 1822. Each had served short missions in the States, was well read in the scriptures, and knew the basic tenets of the gospel.
The four missionaries made their way to the East Coast of the United States and from New Bedford, Massachusetts, boarded the timoleon bound for the Society Islands. Elder Hanks died en route and was buried at sea. After seven months, the Timoleon made its first landfall on the island of Tubuai, about three hundred miles south of Tahiti. Elder Pratt accepted the islanders’ invitation to disembark and be their teacher, and he took up residence there in early May 1844. Elders Rogers and Grouard traveled on to Tahiti, beginning their labors at Papeete under adverse conditions.
The society of Papeete was in an upheaval. The ongoing war between the French and the islanders and the bitter resentment of the English missionaries at losing their place in society because of the French occupation and the arrival of the Mormons all presented problems. After months of discouragement and little success, Elder Rogers returned to Nauvoo. Elder Grouard left Tahiti for the Tuamotu Archipelago and commenced laboring on the coral reef island of Anaa. Elders Pratt and Grouard, who did most of the initial proselytizing, were the two who can be credited with establishing the Church in French Polynesia.
There was no LDS Church literature in the Tahitian language, so these missionaries depended on the London Missionary Society’s work for the Bible and hymnals. Elders Pratt and Rogers took with them copies of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, Parley P. Pratt’s Voice of Warning, and orson pratt’s Remarkable Visions.2
The missionaries’ first task was to learn the language. Pratt explained the process well. He assembled with the people, sang with them, and wrote down the words as he understood them. Unfortunately, his prior language experience was not necessarily an advantage:
“They often laugh at me for talking Owyhee [Hawaiian] to them,” he wrote in his journal, “and I fear this in some degree will be a disadvantage to me.”3
With the aid of a handful of Americans living on the island of Tubuai, Pratt made progress and in five months declared himself “tolerably understood.”
A year later, he wrote Brigham Young:
“I can explain almost any passage of scripture after a fashion; but their language is so deficient, and the translation of the Bible is so imperfect, that it is hard to make them understand the plan of salvation.…What knowledge we have obtained of the language is by hard study, and not by the ‘gift of tongues.’”4
Pratt’s struggle with the language led to his first converts. The Americans on the island, who were building a schooner by salvaging parts from a wrecked ship, served as his interpreters on various occasions, including his informal gospel discussions at night. In time six of these seven Americans joined the Church, forming the nucleus of the Tubuai congregation. As soon as there were enough men to be ordained to the priesthood, Pratt organized the Tubuai congregation into a branch, the first one in the Pacific, on July 29, 1844. Eventually, the branch numbered sixty members, about 30 percent of the two hundred people on the island.5
Following the pattern set by English missionaries, the Latter-day Saints held three preaching services each Sunday: one each in the morning, afternoon, and evening. Baptismal services were usually on Sunday, an hour or two before the meeting. Meetings consisted of hymns, prayers, confirmations, ordinations, and sermons. The sacrament was administered on the first Sunday of each month and at the baptism and confirmation of converts. School was conducted weekdays, with lessons in reading, arithmetic, geography, and, sometimes, chapters of the Bible.
The Religious Condition of the Polynesians
The English missionaries saved the Mormons much work. Because of the English missionaries, traditional religion had largely been overthrown. To a considerable degree, the traditional gods had been destroyed, their temples abandoned, and ancient taboos removed. The Tahitian language had been committed to written form, and books—including the Bible—had been translated from English into Tahitian. Churches and schools had been established and governments instituted along lines reminiscent of European political and judicial institutions.
The English missionaries endeavored to enforce the Christian standards of sexual morality. Island families had been encouraged to build and occupy homes of their own in an effort to abolish communal sleeping. Moreover, the English missionaries had prohibited traditional dances—altogether too suggestive for these Christians. The English had also been able to effect laws prohibiting the importation and use of liquor on the islands.
The English missionaries were not entirely successful, however. Although they had utilized local missionaries on Tubuai for two decades, the islanders retained many customs and traditions. For example, Pratt early observed that “they [the islanders] have many superstitions respecting devils and ghosts.”6
During his first year there, he visited ancient worship centers, the maraes, “the sacred place[s] . . . used for worship, where stones were piled up, altars erected, sacrifices offered, prayers made, and sometimes the dead deposited.”7 But it was another year before they told him more about the maraes and human sacrifices.8
While Elder Pratt worked on Tubuai, Elder Grouard focused on the Tuamotu Archipelago, and Anaa in particular, where Grouard had heard he would be “among strangers & semi-savages . . . as it was but a few years since that the Paumotu [Tuamotu] natives were wild, ferocious cannibals; glutting themselves on human flesh.”9
“My feelings, as I approached this strange land, & heard the wild shouts of these half civilized sons of the ocean, I can not easily describe. It seemed to me as though I had got out of the world almost, & was on an other planet among another race of people, or about entering among them. A different race of people they certainly were, from what I had ever seen before. . . .” Once on the island, he was “surrounded by some two or three hundred natives of both sexes & all ages: naked, half-naked & clad; hooting hallooing, laughing & jabbering like a legeon of evil spirits. Thay looked to me wild & savage; & hearing the frightful savage noises thay made, & not being able to understand a word they said, I really did not know but what I had become a victim for sacrifice in very deed.”10
Grouard was met by high chiefs, “large, well built, & of a noble mien, & well dressed in the native style. I was agreeably surprised to see such likely looking persons.” He was further encouraged by the fact that they could speak Tahitian “if thay choose.” The chiefs were satisfied with Grouard’s reasons for coming to their island, and they encouraged him to stay. Of a population of about two thousand on the island of Anaa, only “near one hundred” had been baptized into Christianity by the English missionaries.
Grouard rejoiced at the reception he and his message received from these people on Anaa.
“Notwithstanding their ignorance and superstition: thay would always hearken to counsel, & pay the greatest respect to our teachings & authority, & sought advice from us in all things, temporal and spiritual.” Genuine satisfaction repaid his many personal “privations and hardships”:11
“To hear them calling upon the Lord, who but a few short years before were the most ferocious savage canibals, & to hear them call, too, in the name of Jesus for God to roll forth establish & build up his latter day work, it caused more joy in my bosom than I can tell. . . . I have baptised three generations, namely father son & grandson, who have together set down to these feasts of human flesh, who are now faithfull members of the Church of Christ.”12 . . .
During summer 1846, Elder Grouard, having built a large pahi paumotu (a double canoe), took an extended voyage, visiting and preaching on several of the coral-reef islands of the Tuamotus. His experience among these rarely visited islands led him to conclude that many of the ancient beliefs were still very much alive. On Rangiroa he found many “Marais or idolitrus worshiping places scattered all over the Island.”13 He suspected that many still followed the old ways.
Notwithstanding their concerns about the survival of traditional religion in one form or another, the LDS missionaries found much in the islanders’ culture to praise, encourage, and build upon. They appreciated the people’s generosity, altruism, kindness, and deep, sincere religious faith. The islanders’ willingness to be taught and to obey were also commendable. There is no doubt that Pratt and Grouard loved the people sincerely. Their dedication to the islanders was profound and their devotion enduring.
The Teachings of the LDS Missionaries
The Church was young when the LDS missionaries arrived in French Polynesia. One must keep in mind that the elders left Nauvoo in 1843 and that they had been members of the Church only a few years. When the French governor required an official statement of purpose from the missionaries in 1850, they replied as follows:
“1st. To preach the everlasting Gospel. . . .
“2nd. To teach the people by precept and example the habits of virtue and industry. . . .
“3rd. To observe and keep the laws of every land wherein we dwell . . . and to teach and admonish the people to observe and keep the laws of their land.”14 . . .
LDS missionaries [also] taught people passing through the area. In October 1844, while on Tubuai, the crew of a visiting ship invited Elder Pratt to speak. The listeners “told the brethren the next day, that such preaching was new to them, but they did not see how any boddy that believed in the Bible could get around it for it was all scripture, none could deny.”15
Baptism by immersion was perhaps the most distinctive Latter-day Saint practice to the islanders. The English missionaries had baptized by sprinkling, so the Tahitians had never seen baptism by immersion. At times hundreds of people came to the shore to witness the ordinance. The elders were quick to take advantage of the islanders’ fascination by holding preaching services.16 .
There are many references in Pratt’s daily account of his administering to the sick. Shortly after he landed on Tubuai, attesting to the Latter-day Saints having the same gifts of healing as did the Saints of former days, Elder Pratt wrote:
“Today [November 13, 1844] I administered some consecrated oil to Br. Pilot. He had been sick sevral days with a rheumatic affection in his legs and feet. . . . I asked him if he was willing to dispense with doctoring and put his trust in the Lord. He said he was. I first washed his feet thoroughly in cold water, then anointed and laid hands on them. I called the next morning and the knee and foot that was swollen the worst and the most painful was entirely well.”17
In July 1844 on the island of Anaa, Elder Grouard was summoned to the bedside of a sick sister.
“I laughed when the messenger told me she was posesed of a devil, but he Assured me it was true, & entreated me to make haste. Knowing the natives were very supersticious, & never having seen a person actualy posesed of a devil, I did not believe it, but thought probibly some severe pain had taken the person; cholic or something of the kind: but when I arrived where the person was I received a sensation that told me it was something more than cholic. Such a scream I never had before witnessed, & it rather startled me: but after looking on the person a few minuits my fear left me: I then laid hands on her & in the name of Jesus Christ I rebuked the evil spirit, & he immediately left her, when she arose in her right mind & called for some drink, & in a few minuits was as well as ever.”18 .
In the islands, liquor had been introduced by European and American seamen. Where resident foreigners ran grog shops, every ship that stopped dispensed quantities of liquor to the local inhabitants. Consequently, the elders made observing the Word of Wisdom, with its admonition against drinking and smoking, a serious matter.
Just as the LDS missionaries stressed the importance of the Word of Wisdom, they required moral chastity.
As already noted, the English missionaries had effected the prohibition of native dances. Hence, the LDS missionaries recorded little about the practice. What is said, however, shows that the Mormons agreed with the English on this score. On July 19, 1846, Pratt entered in his journal: “In the evening tried and suspended some members for dancing and smoaking, which are contrary to the rules of the church, and also dancing is not alowed out of the church.”19 .
While dancing was usually prohibited, singing was generally encouraged. Pratt noted that
“the Pacific islanders have a great desire for learning psalm, and hymn tunes. They have verry strong and clear voices, not verry high, nor verry low.”
Pratt spent much time teaching hymns and translating words for them.
A strong work ethic was included among the positive and practical teachings of the LDS missionaries. An officer of the government on Anaa came to Elder Grouard and inquired, “If any person comes into your church must thay leave off work?” “No,” said I, “but to the contrary must become more industrious.” “What,” enquired he, “may one do all manner of work?” “Yes,” said I, “if it is but honest.” “Well then,” said he, “I have an office in government & in case I should be baptized what should I do with that, lay it aside?” “No,” said I, “but you should be more carefull & diligent to act in truth & rightiousness in it.”20
The Success of the Missionaries
The Mormon mission to French Polynesia effectively closed in 1852 after the French passed a law making it extraordinarily difficult for any foreigner to be recognized as a minister; most English Protestant missionaries soon departed as well. Tubuai and the Tuamotus had been the centers of greatest success for the LDS missionaries, the places where most of the islanders were converted to the Church. After the mission closed, there was backsliding, to be sure. Without missionaries to tend the flock constantly, it is a wonder that the converts remained as true as they did.
In the end, the successes far outweighed any failures. Elders Pratt and Grouard would have been pleased to hear their work complimented by others. The American consul at Tahiti and a son of an English missionary together visited Pratt in September 1846 and said that “there had never been a mission started in the Pacific Ocean that had met with the success that this had, & when our means & encouragement from home were considered, it was a wonder.”21
The strength of the Church in French Polynesia today stands as a tribute to these early missionaries and their service. They were pioneers in introducing the Polynesian people to the gospel, and the large number of Polynesian Saints in the Church today attests to the firm foundation they laid.
- Joseph Smith Jr., History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2d ed. rev., 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1971), 5:404–5.
- Orson Pratt’s book contained an account of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and other events in the prophet’s life, coupled with an excellent exposition of the fundamentals of Mormonism closely paralleling the Articles of Faith.
- Addison Pratt, Journals, May 12, 1844, Church History Library, hereafter CHL; Ellsworth, The Journals of Addison Pratt (Salt Lake City: Univ. of Utah Press, 1990), 159.
- Addison Pratt to Brigham Young, Feb. 20, 1845, in Times and Seasons 6 (Nov. 1,1845): 1019–22; “News from Our Mission in the Pacific,” Millennial Star 7 ( Jan. 1, 1846): 15.
- During Grouard’s first eight months in the Tuamotus, he organized eight branches with a combined membership of nearly eight hundred.
- Pratt, Journals, July 24, 1844; Ellsworth, Journals of Addison Pratt, 78.
- John Davies, A Tahitian and English Dictionary (Tahiti: London Missionary Society’s Press, 1851; reprint, AMS, 1978), 133; Pratt, Journals, July 24, Sept. 5, Oct. 12, Nov. 16, 1844; Ellsworth, Journals of Addison Pratt, 178, 189–90, 207, 217.
- Pratt, Journals, Oct. 1, 1845; EllsworthJournals of Addison Pratt, 246; Addison Pratt to George A. Smith, Mar./Apr. 1849, in Frontier Guardian (Kanesville, Iowa), June 13, 1849; reprinted in Addison Pratt to Brother Smith, in “Letter from Elder Addison Pratt, Late of the Sandwich Islands,” Millennial Star 11 (Aug. 15, 1849): 250.
- Benjamin F. Grouard, Journal, Apr. 23, 1845, CHL.
- Grouard, Apr./My 1845.
- Grouard, Jan./Feb. 1846.
- Grouard, Apr./May 1845.
- Grouard, Jan./Feb. 1846.
- Pratt, Journals, Aug. 12, Nov. 11, 1850; Ellsworth, Journals of Addison Pratt, 448, 456–460.
- Pratt, Journals, Oct. 2, 1844; Ellsworth, Journals of Addison Pratt, 201–2.
- Pratt, Journals, Oct. 21, 1844; Ellsworth, Journals of Addison Pratt, 209–11; Grouard, Journal, Aug. 10, 1844, May 22, 25, 1845, June 1845.
- Pratt, Journals, Nov. 13, 1844; Ellsworth, Journals of Addison Pratt, 215–16.
- Grouard, Journal, July 8–10, 1845.
- Pratt, Journals, July 19, 1846; Journals of Addison Pratt, 285.
- Grouard, Journal, May 1845.
- Pratt, Journals, Sept. 14, 1846; Ellsworth, Journals of Addison Pratt, 287–88.