More than one-third of the earth’s people inhabit Asia, the largest and most populous landmass in the world. Almost every geographical feature is found here: large deserts, the world’s highest mountains, lush temperate farmlands, tropical rice fields, cool grasslands, and so on. Many nations of peoples with highly varied complexions and features inhabit these lands. All of the great world religions were born in Asia.
Latter-day Saint interest in Asia began in India, Burma, Siam, Thailand, and Hong Kong in the 1850s. Failing to establish a foothold at that time, almost 50 years passed before the Church established the Japanese Mission in 1901, with Elder Heber J. Grant as its first president. With its closing in 1924, Asia was again without a Latter-day Saint mission.
At the turn of the millennium, Latter-day Saint growth in Asia was essentially only 50 years old. Following World War II, Church expansion came fairly rapidly in Asia. The Japanese Mission was reopened in 1948. Missionaries were sent to Hong Kong in 1949 (discontinued 1953), and with the rise of the Korean War in 1950, thousands of Latter-day Saint service personnel were organized into groups in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and elsewhere in Asia. The role of devoted Latter-day Saint servicemen and their families has been important in the establishment and sustenance of the Church in most of the countries of East and Southeast Asia. In 1955 Elder Joseph Fielding Smith divided the Far East Mission with headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, into the Northern Far East Mission (Japan and South Korea), with headquarters in Japan, and the Southern Far East Mission (all of the remaining nations around China to Pakistan), with headquarters in Hong Kong. Missionaries were sent from Japan to South Korea in 1956. Missionary work began in the Philippines in 1961. Latter-day Saint servicemen and women and other Church members entered Thailand that same year and Vietnam in 1962. The Church has had a presence in India since 1964; Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia since the late 1960s; Sri Lanka since the late 1970s; and Cambodia, Mongolia, Nepal, and Pakistan since the 1990s.
Asia’s Latter-day Saint population was 631,000 in 1997. The largest memberships were in the Philippines (389,000); Japan (108,000); South Korea (69,000); Taiwan (22,000); and Hong Kong (19,000).
Unlike the peoples of the Pacific, who are almost entirely Christian, only the Philippines in Asia is predominantly Christian (93%). Although the population of Asia outnumbers that of the Pacific by around two billion, doing missionary work in Asian nations has been much more challenging than in Christian nations. Some of the reasons for greater difficulty in bringing converts into the Church are: The nations of Asia are ancient civilizations with grand artistic, literary, philosophical, religious, political, and governmental traditions. While the nations of Western Europe were barbaric, the nations of Asia had generally highly developed civilizations. The religions of South, Southeast, and East Asia are generally quite relativistic, preferring pluralism to ideas of religious certainty. Religious relativity and tolerance have been used to twist Latter-day Saints’ belief in the veracity of their message into a negative. The dominant idea is that the truth claims of all religions must be considered equal and of similar worth. Most Asians believe it is impossible to have the full truth and consider those who have such certainty to be either unwise or intolerant. Asian ideas of toleration do not allow for religious certainty. Most Asian religions and philosophies (e.g., Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Shinto) are more ancient than Christianity and the restored gospel, thus conferring an element of seniority and superiority upon them in the eyes of their believers.
In some parts of Asia, particularly India and the People’s Republic of China, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism have been associated with “gunboat diplomacy,” colonialism, and imperialism. Though Latter-day Saints were not involved in such affairs, they have been somewhat tainted by these problems. In the post-World War II era, some Asian nations have maintained fears that Christian missionaries will once again use political, military, or religious power to dominate their nations and societies. Trust in the altruistic purposes of missionaries is low. These fears have made doing Latter-day Saint missionary work more difficult than in Christian parts of the world.
In addition, four other challenges face the Church in Asia: materialism; lack of religiosity; cultural differences; and languages and cross-cultural communications. Many Asians have made wealth their religion; work and the accumulation of wealth are a principal focus for many. Organized religion and communal worship are not as important in Japan and some other parts of Asia as they are in the United States. Cultural and language differences continue to make communication difficult between representatives of different cultures. For speakers of English, learning the languages of Asia has presented a much more difficult challenge than learning European languages.
In spite of these problems, many thousands of Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Thais, and others have joyfully accepted the restored gospel. Temples have been dedicated in Tokyo, Japan (1980); Taipei, Taiwan (1984); Manila, Philippines (1984); Seoul, Korea (1985); Hong Kong, China (1996), and Fukuoka, Japan (2000). At the beginning of the year 2000, there were 37 missions, 130 stakes, 131 districts, 774 wards, and 1,060 branches of the Church in Asia with Church membership reaching 710,772.
Britsch, R. Lanier. From the East: The History of the Latter-day Saints in Asia, 1851-1996. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1998.
1999-2000 Church Almanac. Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1998.
R. LANIER BRITSCH
From Arnold K. Garr, Donald Q. Cannon, and Richard O. Cowan, eds., Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000), 56-59. Used with the permission of the Deseret Book Company. Copies prohibited by law.