|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.