How did the Church Start in Micronesia and Guam?

The rise of the Church in Micronesia is part of a complicated story involving the Pacific War.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has had a presence in the islands of the Pacific Ocean since the time of Joseph Smith, but it was only during the decades following WWII that it experienced extensive growth in areas like Micronesia, the Philippeans, and eastern Asia. This includes the modern states of Micronesia, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and Palau, along with the U.S. territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands (all of which are referrenced as Micronesia and Guam in this interview). These countries have some of the highest per capita membership in the Church in the world. This interview with R. Devan Jensen discusses the history of the Church in Micronesia and Guam.

Read more about the history of the Church in Guam and Micronesia in Battlefields to Temple Grounds: Latter-Day Saints in Guam and Micronesia.

Table of Contents

How did Battlefields to Temple Grounds come to be?

I served in the Micronesia Guam Mission when the mission was only six years old. I wanted to preserve some of the history and voices of the pioneering members in Guam and Micronesia generally. I assembled a team of experts, kind of like the Avengers, who knew the region well.

My first and most important coauthor and coeditor is Rosalind Meno Ram, associate academic vice president at BYU–Hawaii who is an indigenous CHamoru scholar.

What are some of the area’s major Church history themes?

The rise of the Church in Micronesia is part of a complicated story involving the Pacific War. The US military counterattack deployed waves of military personnel into this vast region, including many Latter-day Saints.

Both men later became Apostles and returned to Micronesia.

We show how gospel seeds sprang up quickly in some regions such as Kiribati and the Marshall Islands and how these seeds grew more slowly in areas such as the Federated States of Micronesia. All three of these areas are in the top ten in terms of Latter-day Saint population per nation. One temple has been built in Guam, and another has been announced in Kiribati.

Sacrament cups made from silver-plated 20 mm gun casings that were used in Micronesia. Courtesy of Church History Museum, Salt Lake City.

What are some of the major cultures present in Micronesia and Guam?

Some major cultures are the CHamoru, American, British, Filipino, Japanese, Carolinian (Yap, Chuuk, and Pohnpei), Marshallese, and I-Kiribati (Gilbertese) cultures.

Map illustrating the Micronesian islands in relation to other Pacific island groups. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

What role has colonialism played in the history of Micronesia and Guam?

Micronesia has survived five centuries of colonialism from the Spanish to the British to the German to the Japanese and American colonizers. Missionaries from many denominations won converts and promoted both churches and schools in this region and influenced the political landscape. In the 1970s the United Nations worked with indigenous leaders to return these nations to self-rule. Many nations in this region formed relatively recently during this period. Guam continues to be an American territory with no vote in Congress.

Moroni High School was created in Kiribati, which became a powerful magnet.

What Church leaders spent time in Micronesia and Guam as WWII servicemen?

Marine L. Tom Perry was stationed for a year on the island of Saipan. The servicemen there gathered under leaky tents to worship and decided to build a chapel out of spare materials. He was the chorister in the dedicatory service. They were transferred after meeting there just once.

Listen to L. Tom Perry talk about another experience with building churches during World War II.

Boyd K. Packer remembered nearly running out of fuel during a hurricane over Guam and Tinian Island.

Both men later became Apostles and returned to Micronesia to strengthen local members and organize stakes there.

What are some obstacles to conversion Guam and Micronesia?

Peer pressure from fellow islanders, including family members and dominant Catholic and Protestant religions, kept many from converting. Early converts had to set aside alcohol, tobacco, betel nut, and kava.

Why has missionary work been so successful in Kiribati?

In 1973, 12 students from Kiribati traveled to Tonga to attend Liahona High School. All twelve converted, and many subsequent students converted too, returning home to Kiribati to become leaders. Moroni High School was created in Kiribati, which became a powerful magnet for students and teachers to join and share gospel culture—to the point that about 18 percent of the population is Latter-day Saint.

Baptism of I-Kiribati students in 1974. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints make up about 18 percent of the population of Kiribati. Courtesy of Riley M. Moffat.

Why was it important to separate culture from gospel teachings and church governance?

“Latter-day Saint proselytizing in Micronesia is deeply enmeshed in the history of colonization that preceded it,” Phillip McArthur wrote. American church culture is deeply embedded with Church teachings and handbooks.

To succeed in their newly adopted church, islanders learned from missionaries and English-language handbooks and scriptures how to run meetings and conduct ordinances. Local leaders learned to adopt American administrative procedures such as wearing Western-style clothing, changing callings, holding ward councils, planning speakers ahead of time, and using standard accounting procedures to record and deposit donations in banks.

Local members became the rule rather than the exception.

In some islands, caste systems prevented members of the branch from touching each other (as in laying on of hands) or even eating together in social settings. So disentangling culture from gospel teachings was complicated, to say the least.

Why was it a priority to transfer leadership from missionaries to local residents?

Mission leaders and missionaries are temporary visitors, yet the local residents are there to stay. Local leaders speak the languages, know their neighbors, and can best appreciate and understand how to harmonize their own cultures with gospel teaching and administrative proceedings.

How did the missionaries prepare new converts to take on leadership roles?

In the early days of the Church, missionaries lived in member homes and helped with every aspect of administrative leadership until the local members could take over. As soon as feasible, senior missionaries continued with those efforts. Seminaries and institutes of religion became part of the cultural pattern as well. Over the first decade in each island, administrative patterns and gospel culture developed to the point that local members became the rule rather than the exception.

What is the Yigo Guam Temple significant?

The temple in Yigo, Guam, is the first temple built and dedicated in Micronesia. It is thus tremendously important for this vast region. It is one of the smallest temples in the Church and has rooms that can be changed from endowment rooms to sealing rooms.

What are some of your favorite stories about the Church in Micronesia and Guam?

The first story is how Elder John H. Groberg felt the need in 1976 to send missionaries throughout Micronesia. That led William Cannon of the Hawaii Honolulu Mission to send missionaries to Pohnpei (where I served most of my mission).

The second is the conversion of Rose Ram, who describes herself as a tiny fish swimming in the tidepools of Guam. A high school teacher encouraged her to attend college in Mesa, Arizona, where she met missionaries and joined the Church. She returned to Guam and later was hired by BYU–Hawaii, where she became a trusted administrative employee who has helped preserve stories from all around the Pacific. She became my dear friend.

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About the interview participant

R. Devan Jensen is the executive editor and social media manager at the Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University. He and Rosalind Meno Ram are editors of Battlefields to Temple Grounds: Latter-day Saints in Micronesia and Guam. He is a former president of Latter-day Saints in Publishing, Media, and the Arts and helped organize the BYU Latter-day Saint Educators Society. He worked previously as an editor for the Ensign magazine, Church Publishing Services Department, and Deseret Book Company.

Further Reading

Guam and Micronesia Resources

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

2 replies on “How did the Church Start in Micronesia and Guam?”

Chad, thank you for your article. I served on Majuro from 1987 to 1989, including on the outer islands of Arno and Mili. My brother sent me the article today and it has made my day! I am currently transcribing portions of my mission journals to capture key people, locations, and events that I witnessed during my time on these three island atolls, including the first missionaries on Arno Atoll, the first baptisms there, the creation of the Mili Branch and it’s early members, the building of the Long Island Chapel and other key events.

Thank you for helping preserve the church’s Micronesian history!

Jon Petty

Hi Jon,
That’s really awesome. I’ll bet those are some amazing memories.
I was in Iowa on my mission, but one area that I spent a few months in had a community of Marshallese expats that we spent a good amount of time with, so the book and interview have a special place in my heart in connection with those experiences.

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