Sunday, December 29, 2013

Samoa in Church History

Mataafa Iosefo
Henry L. Bassett, a Mormon missionary to Samoa in the early 1890s, writes of the time when his knowing the Samoan language likely saved his life.
In the night we rode through the village of Malie where Mataafa the rebel chief with his followers were encamped. As we entered Malie in the darkness of night two armed men sprang forward to the trail side and pointed their rifles at us at a distance of only about eight feet. I called out the greeting, 'Talofa alii,' upon which one native warned the other, 'Don't shoot. These men are not government men from Apia but probably faifeau (missionaries) as they speak our language so well.'

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Samoa in Church History

Henry L. Bassett records how he spent Christmas of 1891 in Samoa as a Mormon missionary:
I rode up to the German plantation to see Capt. Hufnagel to deliver a Christmas present from Louie Lee to the captain's wife. Returned and had our Christmas dinner, consisting of roast veal, mashed potatoes, gravy, cake and custard pudding. It was indeed a treat for us. Later we all went into the sea for a swim. We had some diving contests and as to the winner, modesty forbids me to mention him. We had been out quite a way, in fact too far from shore when one remembers the number of sharks infesting these waters. On our way back to shore our boat capsized but as we had reached shallower water we were able to empty it and float it again.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"Christmas Comfort"

My last post I took from a talk I gave at our Christmas program at church this past Sunday. I also shared it with our family and in reply a brother-in-law pointed me to this post of a devotional given by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, an Apostle, reminding us,
You can’t separate Bethlehem from Gethsemane, or the hasty flight into Egypt from the slow journey to the summit of Calvary. It is of one piece. It is a single plan. It considers the fall and rising again of many in Israel, but always in that order. Christmas is joyful not because it is a season or decade or lifetime without pain or privation, but precisely because life does hold those moments for us.
Elder Holland's talk is well worth reading, a much-needed reminder of the perspective we need during this most blessed of seasons.

(A quick search also turned up the original video of Elder Holland's devotional talk, given 1 December 1998, at then Ricks College, now Brigham Young University-Idaho.)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Samoa in Church History

Joseph Harris Merrill (1868-1961)

Lately, I’ve been reading from a couple of journals and memoirs of some of the earliest missionaries to Samoa from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So far, the accounts I’ve read have been from the early 1890s, just a few years after the mission was established.

Two of these missionaries were Elder Joseph Harris Merrill, of Utah, and his new bride Katie Eliza Hale Merrill. Less than two months after they were married for time and all eternity in the Logan Utah Temple, they received the call from the First Presidency to go to Samoa to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and establish the Kingdom of God.

The call came on Christmas day, 1890, and Joseph writes that he "accepted [it] without reservation."

Even before they sailed for Samoa, Katie would have known that she was expecting their first child. How hard it must have been for her to know that she would be far from family, living in a strange land with few modern conveniences (well, modern for the 1890s) when she gave birth.

After some months of preparation and a trip over land to San Francisco, Joseph reports, they "sailed . . . on 7 March 1891," and arrived at Apia on the 23rd. "The mission boat was not in," he writes, "so we walked the three miles to the Mission home at Fagaliʻi," no small feat in the hot Samoan sun.

There to meet them at Fagaliʻi was their mission president, William O. Lee, his wife Sister Lee, and some other missionaries. Those "first few months" at the mission home found Joseph and Katie "studying the language" and making themselves useful.

Katie "helped Sister Lee and sewed coats for the missionaries," while Joseph "built a veranda around the three sides of the Mission Home with a bedroom, a store room and a large galvanized water tank for our culinary use."

"I also made plans for and, with the help of the Elders at times and the natives," he writes, "built a Falesa [or church building] 20' x 40' near the Mission Home to house visiting people and for our meetings."

On the 22nd of May, just two months since their arrival in Samoa, Joseph notes in his journal that his wife, Katie, "is feeling quite bad this evening with a severe headache, having taken a slight cold."

For the next month, Joseph carefully and tenderly records the details of his wife’s condition. At first, he thought that she merely suffered from "the regular American Lagripp," or influenza, which made her head ache, "fit to burst," with "every bone and muscle in her body . . . sore and aching." Later he would receive the official report from a Dr. Funk, stationed in nearby Apia, that she had Typhoid fever.

Joseph and his fellow missionaries exercised mighty faith on behalf of Katie, ministering to her several times by virtue of the priesthood and giving her the best remedies they were aware of to ease her discomfort. Joseph writes that one afternoon after their Sabbath meetings, he "took a walk up to the banyan tree" nearby the mission home, where he "call[ed] on the Lord in fasting and prayer for his holy spirit to heal my companion."

At times it looked like she would recover, but soon after her condition would take a turn for the worse. In spite of this, and his own occasional health challenges, Joseph would write, "In all I am the most blessed now, than in all my life. I know my redeemer lives."

Six days later he comments, "We acknowledge the hand of the Lord in keeping her as strong as she is at the present and believe he will restore her health." But it was not to be. Katie’s health steadily declined while the little missionary band continued to minister to her with little lasting success.

Finally, on June 26th, Katie was "taken with false labor pains," which continued intermittently until the next day. True labor then set in and "at 2 o’clock p.m. [on the 27th] the child was born."

"At first we thought it was dead," writes the new father, "but soon it showed signs of life and began to breathe. It is a boy weighs 3 lbs. The Doctor says that it is not yet 7 months old and does not think that it can live, but we hope for the best."

After five weeks of severe illness, Katie was in grave danger of dying. "Only the goodness and blessings of God will save her life with our most skilled nursing," her husband notes. "We put our trust in God and fast and pray and do all we can."

According to his wife’s desires, Joseph blessed their son and gave him the name of Joseph Aroet Merrill. "He is strong and fat and well formed and a complete child, but he is not old enough to nurse or eat, and we don’t have much hopes of his living."

Then, "at 1 o’clock" in the afternoon the next day, he writes, "I witnessed the death of our baby." "After the baby died I went for a walk to console myself, not wishing to disturb Katie as I thought she may notice my grief and upset her. She asked Sister Lee where I was, said they had come for her and she had to go."
One of the Elders came and said Katie was asking for me and I returned to her side. She said, ‘Dear, don’t feel bad, all is right. they have come for me and I must go’. I thought possibly she could recognize some of them and asked who had come for her, to which she said ‘Can’t you see them? They are all around you.’ She gave me her last kiss, closed her eyes and was gone.
Our faith and prayers, our blessings and all we could do were not enough to ease her suffering and keep her with us . . . We buried her on the brow of a slight elevation about 30 rods from the sea shore at Fagaliʻi. She was a bride, missionary, mother, and corpse, all in eight months time.
"It is all I can bear," he continues,
We left home so happy being called of God to the work of the Ministry, and now I am left alone, forsaken of God, bereft of all my earthly joys. I care not to live, but for others. Thus are my afflictions heaped upon me almost more than I am able to bear. I care not for Samoa. I care not for earthly pleasures. I care not to live.
Unless I can overcome the sorrow and trials that are now heaped upon me I am crushed. All my earthly hopes are gone, I live only for the future.
Then, in the midst of great anguish over his losses, Joseph envisions the future he is living for:
We will meet in heaven after the toils of this life if I am faithful . . . God took her because she was perfect and pure as gold 7 times tried in the furnace. We lived together happy as love could make us . . . But will continue to live together through all eternity just as happy. If I am only pure and faithful until the end of my days.
It seems cruel that we should be parted in this far off strange land. But we can not judge the workings of the Lord for he moves in a mysterious way his purposes to perform. Our days are numbered and we know not how long any of us may be permitted to sojourn here upon this mortal earth. And if we all live so that our future is sure then we have no need to morn, though our loss is great.
"Torn as to leave for home or stay and finish my mission," Joseph writes, "I decided it was here the Lord wanted me to be and I made the decision to stay."

On Christmas day, 1891, one year after he received his mission call to Samoa, and almost six months since his loved ones had passed, Joseph writes in his journal that he had "been tried to death" yet had "received power through the Holy Ghost to bear up."
I have been blessed beyond comprehension . . . I have the hand of the Lord made plain in many instances. I have had visions and dreams and received the ministration of angels. My heart is full of thanks to God on this day, and acknowledge his hand in all things.
Joseph’s experiences, bookended as they were by two Christmases, highlight the importance of the message of Christ that this season celebrates. "Bereft," for a time, "of all [his] earthly joys," Joseph Merrill took comfort in the promises made to the faithful that if they would obey the laws and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ, culminating in the ordinances of the temple, and endure to the end, they would inherit eternal life with their loved ones.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Samoa in Church History

Early Mormon missionaries to Samoa.

Elder William O. Lee also tells of a run-in he and his fellow missionaries had with a missionary of another denomination,
It was during this time that Mr. Clark, the senior member of the London Missionary Society, hearing of our work on [Aunuʻu], came from Apia to investigate the new religion on the islands.
One day we received a call from him, and, naturally, our conversation drifted onto religious matters. Before going, he asked the question, 'Do you expect to establish your Church here?'
To which we replied, 'Most certainly; we have come five-thousand miles for that purpose.'
'Then,' he said, 'I have come ten-thousand miles to stop you.'
He had recently returned from his vacation in England. We met Mr. Clark many times after this, and each time we had more converts, more branches, of The Church; and, lastly, our headquarters was established on the island of Upolu, within three miles of his own.
Image courtesy of the Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

"Proof McDonald's Isn't so Bad After all"

Ever since the 2004 release of Morgan Spurlock's documentary of the "effects" of eating exclusively from McDonald's for one month, the fast food franchise has been the poster child of an evil empire conspiring to destroy our nation's health.

(I used scare quotes above because Spurlock's work doesn't actually document the effects of eating fast food for a month, or even a lifetime, only what happened to Spurlock when Spurlock did what he did. Spurlock has been criticized, most humorously in comedian Tom Naughton's Fat Head, for not making public his food logs.)

But an interesting infographic provides necessary perspective by comparing how much McDonald's food someone would need to eat to match the energy in any one of five of the Cheesecake Factory's notoriously calorific dishes.

Note, however, that I'm not endorsing McDonald's over the Cheesecake Factory. My budget constraints certainly leads me to choose the former over the latter in ever case so far. But I did once go to Cheesecake Factory on someone else's dime and probably ingested 4000 or so Calories and it was delicious (much more so than McDonald's). And it seems that I'm no worse for wear.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

(Samoan) Women vs. (Samoan) Men

Of late I've been enjoying Henry L. Bassett's Adventures in Samoa, memoirs of his mission to the islands.

In it he humorously notes a significant difference between Samoan men and Samoan women:
A young man in the fale next lot to ours disturbed us somewhat by his cries and groans as he was being tattooed, while a woman named Sitoni gave birth to a child and we knew nothing of it until so informed.
I used parentheses in the title because I don't think this difference is all that unique to the Samoans.

(BYUTelevision's Studio C depicts the likely outcome should a man have the chance to feel a woman's pain during childbirth. It's worth the watch. Then, try not to stay up all night watching everything else Studio C has made.)

Samoa in the News

"Open Happiness"

Apparently, sea cucumbers are being overfished (overcucumbered?) in American Samoa, prompting a moratorium on harvesting them.

I'm no fan of the idea of eating sea cucumbers or their byproducts. I say idea because happily in my two years' time in the islands, I escaped without so much as touching my lips with sea cucumber, largely because I was virtually never directly offered them. (Otherwise, I would have been forced to oblige, as I did when offered tuitui, sea urchin.)

Folklore has it that one dish, sea, or sea cucumber entrails stored in a sort of sea water brine, is processed by toothless old Samoan women who suck the guts out of the hapless invertebrates, then spit the guts into a Coke bottle, the preferred container, it seems, for later sale on the roadside or at town markets.

(Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods, shows what the sea experience is like from a Western perspective. His cultural insensitiveness and linguistic ignorance—in Samoa, at least—are perhaps topics of another post.)

But the idea of a moratorium to conserve resources is not a new concept for the Samoan islanders. Early missionaries to Samoa noted the practice of the faʻasā, which, according to Mormon missionary William O. Lee, writing in 1899, "is a forbidding of the use of any particular article in the time of scarcity until it becomes plentiful again." "A valuable lesson in retrenchment," Lee calls the practice, recommending it to his readers back home.

Lee writes elsewhere that
the village council . . . puts a faasa-taboo on cocoanuts, taro, pigs, chickens, etc., that none shall be eaten or sold in time of scarcity, until they are plentiful again, a custom, by the way, which we are pleased to acknowledge is a valuable lesson in economy.
It's good to see that the Samoans are using their traditions to manage their resources in the 21st century.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Samoa in Church History

German Gunboat Adler, destroyed in the Apia cyclone of 1889

The first official Mormon missionaries to Samoa arrived at the islands in 1888. This was a tumultuous time in Samoan history, with three of the world's super-powers vying for control over the archipelago and its resources, and civil strife amongst the native factions backing either Malietoa Laupepa or Mataafa Iosefo for king.

Elder William O. Lee, one of the earliest to serve in Samoa, briefly noted some of his fellow missionaries' narrow escape from a savage cyclone that hit Apia on 15 March 1889, with devastating effects.
Here it was that we witnessed the destructive hurricane of March, 1889. Elders Dean, Wood and Beesley were on a trip to the island of Upolu arriving at Apia in our little boat, the 'Faaliga,' on the day before the hurricane. We were, therefore, eye witnesses of the effects of that terrible typhoon on the lives of the sailors, and on the vessels of the United States and German navies.
Historian R. Lanier Britsch elaborates in his history of the Samoan mission:
It was while the elders were at Apia that a great hurricane struck, placing them in dangerous circumstances. A man named Moorse housed them in the loft of an old barn and slaughterhouse near the harbor. When the storm came, they had to remain in these quarters until it ended. The barn was so full of holes that they could hardly keep a candle lit even before the storm, but perhaps the flimsy construction helped the building to remain standing through the entire storm. Elder Wood later wrote that he stood at the window most of the day and night watching the ships in the harbor meet destruction. There was nothing anyone could do. But when the storm ended, 'the beach was swept clear of its row of buildings, only one small building stood, buried in the sand to the roof, which alone had saved it from total destruction.' Inside were Elders Dean, Beesley, and Wood.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Samoa in Church History

Many Mormon missionaries mingling under a mango tree

In his memoirs, Henry L. Bassett, a Mormon missionary to Samoa in the early 1890s, explains the motivation behind missionary service:
You, dear reader, will no doubt want to know what is the underlying principle that exerts such a powerful influence over a young man that he will leave home and family and friends and go to a new and strange country and endure privation and almost daily dangers on land and sea; must learn to eat food sometimes very distasteful and often indigestible; must learn a language, not merely as the average trader or the beachcomber would speak it, but learn to speak it properly so that he can explain things intelligently to his listeners. It is a fact, too, hardly understood by many and disbelieved by some, that these young men (and I one of the number) go without money and without price to the ends of the earth wherever called, no salary asked nor received, the reward offered being only of the consciousness of having spent the years, as the case may be, in trying to better the conditions of the people met with and teaching them the ways of truth and Right Living as taught by God's representatives on Earth.
The same thing can also be said of the many young women and senior couples who serve missions today.

Image courtesy of the Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.