Vietnam and the Restored Church


“I seek only to call your attention to that silver thread, small but radiant with hope, shining through the dark tapestry of war—namely, the establishment of a bridgehead, small and frail now; but which somehow, under the mysterious ways of God, will be strengthened, and from which someday shall spring forth a great work affecting for good the lives of large numbers of our Father’s children who live in that part of the world. Of that I have certain faith.” Elder Gordon B. Hinckley

South Vietnam was dedicated for the preaching of the restored gospel in 1966. In the years since that time, despite the turmoil of war and revolution, the bridgehead spoken of by Elder Gordon B. Hinckley of the Council of the Twelve has been established. With a cease-fire in Vietnam and American military personnel withdrawn, the Church is beginning a new era of growth and development in that country.

In Vietnam as in many areas of the world in recent years, Latter-day Saints among United States military personnel have brought the gospel to local people; these people have been subsequently followed by full-time missionaries who have consolidated the work by strengthening the organizations and by baptizing more members into the Church. In Vietnam, missionary work has been conducted actively among the Vietnamese people for many years, though full-time missionaries have not been assigned there yet.

When South Vietnam was dedicated for the preaching of the restored gospel on October 30, 1966, the U.S. military presence was reaching its height, and Latter-day Saint military and civilian personnel were spread throughout the country. The dedicatory service, held in the roof garden room of the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon, was attended by Elder Hinckley, Elder Marion D. Hanks, then a member of the First Council of the Seventy, President Keith E. Garner, president of the Southern Far East Mission, and 205 others, most of whom were servicemen. The dedicatory prayer reflected the importance placed upon these servicemen, who would lay the foundation for future growth.

Because of the war, missionary work was sporadic among the Vietnamese people. Nevertheless, some persons who now constitute a score of local leadership joined the Church during this period. Most of these were persons who had association with LDS servicemen and civilians and who were attracted by their unusual habits and conduct.

Among those attracted to the Church during the early period was Sister Tuong Vi, a direct descendant of the Vietnamese imperial family. Sister Vi has translated the Book of Mormon into Vietnamese and is presently working on a revision of that translation. She has also translated the pamphlet Joseph Smith’s Testimony, which is now published in Vietnamese, and is working on the Vietnamese translation of A Marvelous Work and a Wonder by Elder LeGrand Richards. Sister Vi’s family has suffered greatly as a consequence of the war, but she believes that her efforts in the Church will help to promote peace in Vietnam.

Two young Vietnamese servicemen were also attracted to the Church by the example of their LDS American counterparts. Nguyen Cau Minh, a lieutenant in the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF), was attracted to the gospel through the power of example. After receiving the missionary lessons from two LDS servicemen, he was baptized. He subsequently went to the United States for further military training; there he became familiar with stake and ward organizations and was ordained a seventy. Upon returning to Vietnam he became a member of the district mission presidency and of the translation committee.

Brother Minh brought a good knowledge of Church organization and a valiant spirit of determination back to South Vietnam. He feels that missionary work among the Vietnamese people is a full-time job for him, whether it is in teaching the lessons or setting the proper example among his associates.

Like Brother Minh, Lieutenant Nguyen Van The was attracted by example. Brother The also went to the United States for training and familiarized himself with the scriptures and Church organization. Upon his return, he became a counselor in the Saigon Branch presidency; he recently baptized his wife and blessed his newly born first child in fast and testimony meeting.

Brother The credits his constant prayers to the Lord for the preservation of his life in the many dangerous situations he has encountered. Now that peace is coming to Vietnam, he feels that members must rededicate themselves to the responsibility of sharing the gospel with their brothers and sisters.

These and other Vietnamese who have joined the Church have made great contributions to the development of the Church in Vietnam. There have been, of course, many problems. Most priesthood brethren have been serving in the military and subject to immediate transfer. The war has prevented organized working schedules for both Americans and Vietnamese and has thwarted the development of leadership skills that come from periods of service in Church positions.

Not the least of the problems has been finding a place to meet. In some areas military chapels have been used, but sometimes Vietnamese members have had difficulty in gaining access to U.S. military facilities. The Saigon Branch for a time moved about from building to building, until it finally acquired a suitable location at 253 Thanh Tai, between Saigon and Cholon.

Through sacrifice, diligence, and patience, the problems are gradually being surmounted. U.S. servicemen each contributed the equivalent of one month’s special combat pay ($65) to a building fund; more than $60,000 has been accumulated for the building fund from these contributions.

After the military “Vietnamization” program began and U.S. forces began withdrawing from South Vietnam, it became clear that local Saints would of necessity take over the work of the Church. With the establishment of a cease-fire and the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the Vietnamese Saints are anxious to take up the primary responsibility of maintaining and developing the Church in their land.

In 1966 only a handful of Vietnamese had even heard of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, let alone listened to its message. Today there are more than one hundred members in the country. The branch in Saigon has more than seventy members and boasts a regular attendance of more than fifty members. As many as twenty investigators may also be present on a typical Sunday.

Six part-time district missionaries were working in the Saigon Branch, including five U.S. servicemen and Brother Minh. Because of their work schedules they were able to teach only on Sundays, and this schedule made it impossible even to teach the number of investigators brought to church by members. Ten persons were baptized into the Church during the latter part of 1972 and even more will be baptized in 1973; even so, the district missionaries are unable to keep up with demands on their time.

One of the missionaries, Steven Middlemas, in expressing his hope that full-time missionaries would soon be sent, stated that the field was not only white and ready for harvest but that it was also willing to store itself in the granaries. Once the missionaries are able to contact the large numbers of relatives and friends of the people who now seek the Church on their own, the harvest will truly be great.

South Vietnam is a district of the Hong Kong Mission of the Church. President William Bradshaw hopes for the day when full-time missionaries will be sent to Vietnam but recognizes that until they can get there, the Vietnamese will need to rely on a “bootstrap” effort to keep the work going.

Vietnam is usually described as a land of diversity. There are many nationalities, diverse religions, and different tongues. The Church has been able to take these factors into account and to promote a spirit of unity. On a typical Sunday it is not unusual for Vietnamese, English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and French to be used during the services. Many of the members are of Chinese ethnicity; while Vietnam has experienced racial problems between the Chinese and Vietnamese, this has not been a problem in the Church, where persons from different backgrounds share the common goal of serving the Lord and building up the kingdom. The languages may be different, yet the message is the same—the gospel message is going forth in Vietnam.

One of the main strengths of the Church in South Vietnam is the youth. With many adult members unable to hold steady positions because of the war, young people have had to take some of the most responsible positions in the branch. The second counselor in the Saigon Branch presidency, Dang Thong Nhat, is a university student. Other young people hold responsible positions in MIA, Relief Society, and Sunday School.

One characteristic of the young people in the Church is their high educational level. Several are attending local colleges and universities, and others are studying at the Church College of Hawaii and Brigham Young University. Those who are studying both at home and abroad are anxious to complete their degrees and begin aiding their homeland in the postwar construction. Other young people are employed in local businesses and in Vietnamese and U.S. government agencies.

Typical of the young people is Sophie Cheung Ha. Sophie joined the Church about three years ago and then introduced her widowed mother and sister to the Church. An ethnic Chinese, Sophie is well-educated and speaks Vietnamese, Chinese, English, and French fluently and is learning Spanish and other languages. She works for a civilian agency of the U.S. government and puts most of her earnings into savings for her younger sister, who plans to study at BYU. Sophie serves as the Aaronic Priesthood MIA young women’s president in Saigon and participates in Relief Society and other branch activities. In addition to her mother and sister, she has introduced many of her relatives and friends to the Church, some of whom have received the lessons and been baptized. In a recent testimony meeting Sophie told of how circumstances related to the war had placed many hardships on her family, but she expressed gratitude that her family had been able to receive the gospel and learn the power of prayer.

A common characteristic of all Asians is respect for family relationships. Consequently, members of the Saigon Branch are anxious to have family members learn about the Church.

When full-time missionaries do arrive, they can expect to be teaching families of members. Many families have been separated by the war; others have experienced the wounding or death of loved ones. Members of the Church believe that sharing the gospel with other members of the family will help to bind and heal the wounds of war.

The war itself has been strengthening to many members. Brother T. C. Tseng, a pilot for Air Vietnam, recalls the day that he was preparing to taxi for takeoff with a planeload of passengers, when the Viet Cong launched an attack on the airfield. As rockets exploded around his aircraft, Brother Tseng fell to his knees inside the cockpit and asked the Lord to spare his life and the lives of his passengers. He then stood erect and went through the plane assuring passengers and crew that everything would be all right and that they should not panic. A short time later the attack subsided and Brother Tseng was able to taxi the airplane between the rocket craters and to take off safely; though there was much damage in the area surrounding his airplane, the plane itself was undamaged.

Brother Tseng, Sunday School president in the Saigon Branch, knows that his life has been spared many times in similar incidents. His wife is a student at the Church College of Hawaii; several members of his family have been baptized into the Church, while others are receiving the missionary lessons. Having been recently sealed to his wife in the Hawaii Temple, Brother Tseng encourages other members to remember the importance of the family relationship and to prepare themselves for receiving eternal blessings.

There have been notable, even remarkable, achievements by the Church and its members in South Vietnam, especially during the period 1971–72 when most of the growth occurred. Nevertheless, there are still many problems and obstacles. The war has created a drain on manpower, and male members who hold the priesthood have been transferred about so often that it has been difficult for them to hold Church positions. Many leadership positions have been held by U.S. servicemen and government employees; as these persons have been withdrawn, there has developed a very real need for persons with leadership ability. The South Vietnamese members have already demonstrated that given sufficient time to develop and refine the skills required for administration, teaching, and other facets of Church activity, they can respond to this challenge with the enthusiasm with which they invite their friends and associates to visit the Church meetings and learn about the gospel.

The war has been an instrument of sorrow, misery, and suffering in South Vietnam. Yet it has also been an instrument of change. The war has coincided with a revolution in the political, economic, technical, social, and even spiritual lives of the people and has led to a search among the people for new, more meaningful values. The villages of Vietnam, once remote from outside influence, have been thrust into a modern world. Cities such as Saigon and Danang have experienced a vast flow of people from the rural areas. While this influx has produced massive social problems, it has also hastened the search for new values, new explanations of life. It is into this spiritual vacuum that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has come.

Whatever the future holds for Vietnam, a foundation has been established. The silver thread—the hope—spoken of by Elder Hinckley is day by day becoming a reality for the Vietnamese people.

[photo] Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, in United States Air Force “Gooney Bird,” during visit to Vietnam in 1966

Brother Heaton, an officer in the U.S. Air Force, has served as president of the Vietnam District, Hong Kong Mission. In July he will join the faculty of the U.S. Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Colorado.