The tiny kingdom of Belgium was artificially created in 1830 as a buffer state between the surrounding countries of France, Germany, and the Netherlands. The northern part, Flanders, is Dutch-speaking and in 1999 composed 58% of the population of ten million. The southern part, Wallonia, is French-speaking and includes 32% of the population; Brussels, the bilingual capital, accounted for 10%. This situation explains some of the shifts in Latter-day Saint missionary activity over the years.
The first reported missionary to Belgium was Gustave Chaprix, who arrived in Brussels on 5 June 1861, sent by French Mission President Louis Bertrand. No record of his work has been found, however. In 1868 the Swiss Mission sent Octave Ursenbach, who spent two months in Flanders (Antwerp) and Wallonia (Liege) and concluded that nothing could be done. Twenty years later, in 1888, Mischa Markow obtained some baptismal success in Antwerp among German-speaking people. More missionaries from the Swiss-German Mission were sent, resulting in some 80 converts. In 1891 responsibility for Belgium was given to the Netherlands Mission. Some of its missionaries, fluent in French, then crossed the lingual border to the thriving industrial region of Liege in French-speaking Wallonia. In 1892 President Timothy Mets organized branches in Antwerp, Brussels, and Liege.
WALLONIA AND BRUSSELS
By 1905 there were a hundred members in the Brussels and Liege conferences. In 1912 a total of 179 members, 26 children under 8, and 14 traveling missionaries were recorded. This relative strength of French-speaking members contributed to the 1912 reopening of the French Mission, which had been closed since 1864. The Liege Conference became the flagship of that mission, but the outbreak of World War I resulted in the conference reverting temporarily to the Netherlands Mission.
Anti-Mormon sentiment seems to have been rare, although the Netherlands Mission history reports an incident on 30 November 1896 in Liege, when a group manifested anger in front of the home of a newly converted family named Creuiwel. A legend developed that a mob of 500 people stormed the home and tried to kill the missionaries. No trace of such an incident can be found in the local newspapers or police reports, however, so the incident must have been minor. It seems missionary work and meetings were never otherwise thwarted.
After World War I the French Mission, which included Belgium, was reopened in 1923 with headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The industrial area of Liege kept its early tradition as a Latter-day Saint center. By 1930 two chapels had been built, and membership stood at 344. In 1937 Heber J. Grant visited Liege and dedicated a new chapel in nearby Herstal. The Latter-day Saints also gained much visibility through a basketball team of missionaries.
During World War II, when missionaries were withdrawn, local leaders were able to keep all branches organized and functioning. Proselyting also continued, which resulted in 50 new converts. The positive trend continued after the war, again with a very successful basketball team of missionaries. In 1963 the Franco-Belgian Mission was created with headquarters in Brussels. The Brussels Belgium Stake was organized in 1977. It covered most of French-speaking Belgium, with the exception of Liege, which in 1998 was still a mission district.
FLANDERS AND BRUSSELS
The first recorded Latter-day Saint baptism in Belgium occurred in Antwerp in 1888. Until the First World War, missionary efforts continued sporadically in Flanders but with little success. After the war and until 1947, missionary activity was French-speaking with no efforts towards the millions living in the north. But on 30 November 1947, President Cornelius Zappey of the Netherlands Mission sent four Dutch-speaking missionaries to Antwerp. The years that followed saw a slow but steady growth, resulting in small branches in Antwerp, Brussels, Ghent, and Mechelen as part of the Antwerp district. In the early 1970s a number of new cities were opened and two districts organized.
Pleading from members resulted in the opening of the Antwerp Belgium Mission in 1975, but it was not maintained for financial reasons, and Flanders reverted to the Netherlands Mission in 1982. The mission was reopened in 1990 and closed again in 1994 for the same reason. The Antwerp Belgium Stake was organized in 1994, covering all of Flanders and some units in the south of the Netherlands.
BELGIUM IN PERSPECTIVE
Generally speaking, the free and democratic structure of Belgium, including absolute freedom of religion, has never impeded Latter-day Saint missionary work. Strong familial ties to ideological traditions, mainly Catholic, made conversions more difficult, however. According to a 1983 inquiry among members, missionary success was more likely to occur among people with socialist backgrounds or among those estranged from the Catholic Church (Decoo, 61-77).
In 1996 the Belgian Parliament instituted an Investigation Commission on Sects, as a consequence of media publicized killings and alleged misconduct among some cults. The state police conducted an investigation to list all the “sects” in Belgium. The Latter-day Saints were included and succinctly investigated, but they were not harassed. The report of the Investigation Commission, published in 1997, hardly paid any attention to the Mormons but still listed the Church as a sect.
At the beginning of the year 2000, Belgium had two stakes, 29 wards and branches, and 5,771 members of the Church.
[Year-end 2005: Est. population, 10,364,000; Members, 6,267; Stakes, 2; Wards, 11; Branches, 11; Missions 1; Districts, 1; Percent LDS, .06, or one in 1,696; Europe West Area; Source 2007 Church Almanac.]
Burvenich, An. “Het ontstaan van de Kerk van Jezus Christus van de Heiligen der Laatste Dagen in Belgie, 1861-1914.” Master’s thesis, State University of Ghent, 1999.
Chard, Gary Ray. “A History of the French Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1850-1960.” Master’s thesis, Utah State University, 1965.
Decoo, Wilfried. “Mormonism in a European Catholic Region: A Contribution to the Social Psychology of LDS Converts.” BYU Studies 24 (Winter 1984): 61-77.
Liege Conference History.
Markow, Mischa (1854-1934). Reminiscences [n.d.]. LDS Church Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.
Netherlands Mission History Record.
AN BURVENICH AND WILFRIED DECOO
From Arnold K. Garr, Donald Q. Cannon, and Richard O. Cowan, eds., Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000), 82-84. Used with the permission of the Deseret Book Company. Copies prohibited by law.