The Church may be headquartered in the United States, but Samoa, an underdeveloped country with a comparatively unsophisticated economic and political system and extremely limited industrial resources, is the first country in the world to be completely covered with stakes of Zion.
When Upolu Samoa South Stake was created June 1, 1974, it was the seventh stake in these islands. Samoa is now a nation of stakes, marking a significant development in local leadership for more than 19,000 members.
Samoa Apia Mission President Patrick L. Peters is now totally freed from member responsibilities to concentrate on missionary work.
Thousands of members have been baptized since the June 1888 day when Joseph Dean, first mission president, arrived in Samoa. Those members have and are leaving a heritage of commitment that finds its roots in the quiet faith of missionaries from Mud Lake, Idaho; Norton, Kansas; Scipio, Utah; Los Angeles, California; and other parts of the world.
Increasing numbers of local Samoans and Samoans from New Zealand, Hawaii, and the United States mainland are now being called as missionaries to Samoa. They make up about 75 percent of the total missionary force, which usually ranges between 100 and 120 elders and sisters. Names like Lee, Browning, and Stone are being replaced with names like Pilimai, Soliai, and Afualo in the hearts of the new generation of converts.
In the past two decades, Samoa’s missionaries have focused their energies on becoming expert teachers, and they have developed unusual skills in approaching people—from high chiefs to children. Their teaching aids include battery-operated filmstrip projectors and tape recorders; many of the filmstrips they use have been locally reproduced with Samoan scenes and faces.
The first health missionary called in the Church, Dr. Blair Bybee, was sent to Samoa in 1971. An effective health program of the Church remains there today. Western Samoa also harbors an extensive Church school program, with one high school (the Church College of Western Samoa) and ten elementary schools scattered over the islands.
Over the past decade the annual baptism rate has been around 1,000, which means about ten converts per missionary per year. This remarkable growth is steady, and, especially in the last two years, has been concentrated on families. In the 1973–74 Church year, more than 150 families were converted or united through baptism.
It is this missionary effort that has culminated in the creation of seven stakes in the last 12 years, six of them within the last five years.
The dedication and concern of the Samoan people for the missionary effort and their great ability to love is epitomized by an experience of Ralph G. Rodgers, Jr., a missionary in 1956 and president of the mission from 1971 to 1974.
“During my first weeks in Samoa as a missionary, I came to love and respect the people because of the love and respect I received from the family where I lived,” he relates. “I watched as the family mother, Vaela‘a, prepared our meals, giving us the best she could possibly fix. Every few days she would gather up our clothes and go to the stream where she would ‘beat’ them clean with rocks. Everything this wonderful Samoan family did for me taught me about the meaning of love.
“After a time in Si‘umu, where we lived, there was a famine on that side of the island. For many weeks all we had to eat was rice or taro and some fish. Vegetables and fruit were impossible to get. I noticed that one day some sores were developing on my legs and after a time they became very infected. We went to Apia to see a doctor, and he explained I needed vitamin C. But I realized that citrus fruit was impossible to get on the back of the island, and so my companion and I made the situation a matter of prayer and fasting.
“When I returned home from seeing the doctor, the family father, Uta‘i Tapena, who was also president of the Si‘umu Branch, asked what the doctor had said. I told him, but assured him that the Lord would take care of me.
“Early the next morning my companion and I were up and ready for breakfast when we noticed that the father of the family had gone. We asked about him and the mother said he had gone on an errand. That night when we returned he still had not come back.
“The next morning at breakfast we noticed that in the middle of our eating mat was a large pineapple, all cut up and ready to eat. I asked where it had come from and the mother said the father, concerned about what the doctor had said, knew I needed some fruit. He only had two shillings, but he spent one taking the bus into town and the other on a large pineapple. That left him with no money to return home, so he had walked all afternoon and most of the night, 20 miles back, so we would have fruit for our breakfast.
“I had the privilege of returning to Samoa about nine years later on a Church assignment. My first concern was to hurry out to Si‘umu to see my ‘father.’ When I got to the village the people said he was in his other home in the hills. I walked a mile or so to see him, and as I came into the hut I saw an old, gray-haired man. At first I didn’t recognize him, but then he called my name. It was my Samoan father, Uta‘i. He had aged greatly in those nine years, and there he sat in that little hut with both legs cut off at the hips because of cancer. How I wished that I could have walked those 20 miles for him and bought him something that would have taken care of his illness as he had done for me when I was a missionary for the Lord in those wonderful islands!
“On June 1, 1974, I rode with Elder Howard W. Hunter along a dusty road of the Upolu South District of the Samoa Mission. I stopped the car long enough to place some flowers on Uta‘i’s grave. On that day Elder Hunter created the Upolu Samoa South Stake. Later that night, after all the meetings, we again rode along that road. As we passed Uta‘i’s grave, I couldn’t help but feel thankful to the Lord that now, because of this stake creation, my Samoan father’s grave rested in Zion.”
The shaping of the Church in Samoa is due not only to the faith and commitment of the missionaries, but also to the obedient spirit of the Saints. Samoan family groups like Rivers, Atoa, Ao, Hunt, Schwenke, Crichton, Burgess, AhChing, and many others have emerged and are contributing generations of strength to the Church.
Chief Soliai is one of these fountainheads of faithfulness for later generations. A powerful chief on Tutuila, American Samoa, he has always been an unwavering member of the Church. At the turn of the century when missionaries were struggling in Samoa, Chief Soliai and his family took the missionaries into their home. Villagers in Nu‘uuli, armed with knives and spears, threatened to kill the missionaries or drive them from the village. Chief Soliai stood between the villagers and the missionaries and said they would have to kill him first. The villagers left the missionaries alone.
Chief Soliai continued to do all he could for the Church, but progress was slow in his village. Services were held in his hut for many years, when he and his family were the only members in the village.
Seventy-five years have passed since this chief began to stand up for the Church, and today there is a ward in that village. Chief Soliai’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren are the leaders of the Church in both the village and in the Pago Pago Samoa Stake. His grandson, William Cravens, is the stake president. The bishop of the ward is a member of his family, and many high councilors and leaders in the area call Chief Soliai “Grandpa.”
Matuaitoga Touli is another of the new leaders. He is a matai (chief) in the village of Vaovai, where he fought the Church for many years. Two missionaries were assigned to his village in 1971. They couldn’t find a place to live, and finally the missionaries asked if they could live with him. Something touched the chief’s heart; he welcomed them into his home.
The missionaries held gospel discussions many nights with Matuaitoga and his family. Trained as a minister, he knew the Bible well and often argued with them about doctrine. Many missionaries lived in his home over a number of months.
Finally, his entire family joined the Church. Matuaitoga said, “I could argue and discuss religion with the missionaries from the Bible, but there was one thing that my wife and I could not fight: the love of the missionaries. Each time a missionary was transferred from our village, my wife and I and our family had tears running down our cheeks as we kissed the missionary goodbye. Then we would get to know the new missionary, and he would be transferred again, and we would have more tears. I could argue religion, but I could not fight the love of the missionaries. Through the love and patience of the missionaries I gained a testimony and I know that the gospel is true.”
Matuaitoga was called to be a district president a little over a year after his baptism and, just 20 months afterwards, was called as the second counselor in the presidency of the Upolu Samoa South Stake.
The name Percy Rivers rings a familiar sound for thousands of Samoan members. A quiet man of faith and obedience, he has bridged the days of the Church’s youthful growth in Samoa to the present days of vigorous strength. He was the first stake president, was a patriarch, and is now a Regional Representative of the Council of the Twelve over the Samoa Region. He also serves as coordinator of Church Translation Services in Samoa.
The stake presidents, too, are men with long records of Church service as branch presidents, bishops, and high councilors. Fa’afo’i Tuitama, president of Savai‘i West Samoa Stake, served from 1958 to 1961 as a labor missionary, has been a temple officiator in the New Zealand Temple, and serves as a building program supervisor. Charles Schwenke, president of the Apia West Samoa Stake, works for Church Translation Services. Many stake presidents were educated in Church schools and are involved in various professions from trader to teacher to radio technician.
Church leaders in Samoa envision continued progress in membership and leadership. Fifteen percent of all Samoans are presently Latter-day Saints, and leaders see this number increasing. But an even greater vision is that Samoan membership will become increasingly helpful to the rest of the Church. Samoan missionaries, dedicated and confident, have been and will continue to be sent to other parts of the world—Southeast Asia, the Pacific, the Orient, and perhaps even to South America.
Faith in the Lord, a willingness to obey and follow, and continuing leadership experience will make Samoans more than faithful recipients of gospel blessings. They will become a conduit through which blessings will flow worldwide.