The Pacific Ocean, which occupies one-third of the earth’s surface, is the largest physical feature on the globe. Its population, however, is relatively small: only 31.3 million, including Australia’s 18.4 million, in 1998. Geographers broadly classify the peoples of the Pacific as Polynesian, Melanesian, and Micronesian. Although the Pacific islands have a romantic legacy of balmy beaches and easy living, the reality for most islanders has been more difficult, including drought, hurricanes, earthquakes, isolation, and poverty. The high volcanic and continental islands (New Zealand, Samoa, and Papua New Guinea) have provided considerable food variety and consistent supply, but the low islands or atolls (Ha’apai in Tonga and the Tuamotus of French Polynesia) have provided only simple food and are vulnerable to hurricanes and drought.
Latter-day Saint presence in the Pacific began among the Polynesians of French Polynesia in 1844, among the Melanesians of Fiji and New Caledonia a century later, and in Micronesia/Guam during the 1970s. The most significant recent growth areas include Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu. By the late 1990s the Church was established in Australia, French Polynesia, Hawaii, New Zealand, Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, and Niue in Polynesia; in Fiji, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu in Melanesia; in Guam, the Marshall islands of Arno and Mili, Kwajalein/Ebeye, and Majuro; the Micronesian islands of Chuuk [Truk], Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Yap; and the Northern Mariana islands of Saipan, Rota, and Tinian. Palau and Kiribati are also part of Micronesia. Most of the Pacific islanders had been Christianized before Latter-day Saint missionaries arrived.
Pacific Latter-day Saint population was 418,831 in 2000. The largest memberships were in Australia (99,000); New Zealand (89,952); Samoa (71,277); Hawaii (55,361); and Tonga (44,819 40% of the nation’s population, the highest percentage of Latter-day Saints in the world).
For the first hundred years of LDS Pacific history, the focus was on Polynesia and Australia. The Church has had an enduring interest in Polynesians. They have been considered descendants of Israel since George Q. Cannon’s revelation to that effect during his missionary days in Hawaii (1850-54), and the presidents of the Church have identified the Polynesians as the posterity of father Lehi in the Book of Mormon. This conviction, and the attendant belief that these peoples deserve special attention, has been backed by considerable Church resources: gathering places in Lanai and Laie, Hawaii, and Mapusaga and Sauniatu, Samoa; schools (French Polynesia and Hawaii had the Church’s first mission schools New Zealand, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, and Kiribati the latter two being in Melanesia and Micronesia, respectively); translations of scriptures first by missionaries and later by translation services; temples Hawaii, New Zealand, Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, and Sydney, and under construction Adelaide, Brisbane, and Melbourne, Australia; Suva, Fiji; and Kailua-Kona, Hawaii; and the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii, which the Church opened in 1963 to preserve the cultures of the Pacific and to provide employment for students at Church College of Hawaii (now BYU-Hawaii). Nowhere else has the Church created flagship communities with housing, schools, and temples as it has done in Laie, Hawaii; Pesega, Samoa; Liahona, Tonga; and Temple View, New Zealand.
The Pacific provides several firsts in Church history: the first foreign language mission (French Polynesia); the first mission schools; the first temple dedicated outside continental North America (Hawaii 1919); the first stake outside North America (Oahu Stake in Hawaii, 1935); the labor missionary program in the 1950s and 1960s; the first countries to handle their own missionary work (Samoa and Tonga); and the first country to be entirely covered by stakes (Samoa).
At the end of the twentieth century, the Church was mature in most Pacific nations. French Polynesian Saints celebrated the Church’s sesquicentennial in their islands in 1994. Hawaii reached its sesquicentennial anniversary in 2000, and Australia and New Zealand in 2001 and 2004. (The first missionary to Australia, 17-year-old William Barratt, arrived in 1841, but little was accomplished until missionaries were sent from Utah in 1851.) Samoa and Tonga celebrated their Church centennials in 1988 and 1991.
In 1999 the Church in the Pacific was administered by three Area Presidencies: Australia New Zealand Area with headquarters in Sydney, Australia; Pacific Islands Area with headquarters in Auckland, New Zealand; and Hawaii as part of the North America West Area with headquarters in Salt Lake City.
Britsch, R. Lanier. Unto the Islands of the Sea: A History of the Latter-day Saints in the Pacific. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1986.
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), 883-85. Used with the permission of the Deseret Book Company. Copies prohibited by law.