On a warm, subtropical day in early June 1956, four elders of the Southern Far East Mission left Hong Kong harbor in a small boat for a place they “had heard nothing but bad about”—Taiwan.
However, as Elder Weldon J. Kitchen’s report continues, “when we got our first glimpse of Taiwan, we were nothing but impressed. The mountains shot abruptly out of the blue waters with their peaks reaching up as though they wanted to puncture the blue sky overhead. Despite the steepness of the peaks, dry earth was not to be seen, but only the dark green vegetation which mantles the island.” (Mission History, Southern Far East Mission, Church Archives.)
In this small way, missionary work had its beginning on the island of Taiwan, also known as Formosa, meaning “beautiful island.” The four elders were not entirely isolated, since an American servicemen’s group was organized there, but there were no Chinese or Taiwanese members. The elders had spent the previous nine months learning Mandarin, the official spoken language, in preparation for bringing the gospel to more than nine million Chinese the census counted that year. (Area Handbook for Republic of China, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969.)
The trials that have always seemed to accompany the opening of a new country to the gospel were to come to these four missionaries and the four more who joined them the following October. They had little literature in Chinese and it would be ten years before the Book of Mormon was translated. (Investigators were required to read the New Testament.) There was no governmental opposition to the Church, but many other religions immediately distributed literature warning their members not to listen to the Latter-day Saint missionaries. This “made people inquisitive and did more good than bad,” the elders reported.
Land was almost impossible to acquire, and even finding a place to live and hold meetings was difficult. In the beginning most meetings were held in the missionaries’ apartment, and about 35 people usually attended.
Anti-American riots in May 1957 forced the elders to spend several days in the United States military compound. The elders also had to take precautions against sickness; and the language continued to be a barrier.
The situation was definitely a case for the Lord’s promise that “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.” (D&C 122:7.) But by the end of 1957 there had been almost 50 baptisms in Taiwan. In 1958 there were 120 more, and by the end of that year 31 missionaries were laboring in six cities. In 1959 Elder Mark E. Petersen visited Taiwan—the first General Authority ever to do so—and specifically dedicated the land for the preaching of the gospel. (President David O. McKay had much earlier dedicated China in general.) By the end of 1959, after 3 1/2 years of missionary work, there were eight organized branches of the Church in Taiwan and 45 missionaries, 14 of whom were local Saints.
Growth continued throughout the sixties, highlighted by the building of two large chapels—one in Taipei and one in Kaohsiung—and completion of the Book of Mormon translation. Emphasis was placed on developing leadership, and by 1965, local brethren presided in 11 of the 16 branches.
On January 11, 1971, Malan R. Jackson, who had earlier served as a missionary in the Southern Far East Mission, arrived in Taiwan as the first president of the Taiwan Taipei Mission. Today there are three member districts in the mission, an American servicemen’s district, 30 branches, and over 7,000 members. An average of 200 missionaries serve there full time, presided over by Thomas P. Nielson. There are three chapels—at Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung—and another under construction in Taitung. They also have a version of the international Church magazine—The Voice of the Saints. Although it is difficult to get permission to leave the country to do temple work, ancient records are enabling the members to trace their genealogy back thousands of years. An active seminary and institute program, coordinated by Brother Joseph Wan, a local member, is organized in all three Chinese districts, with about 420 students enrolled.
Why have the people of Taiwan accepted the gospel so readily? Brother Chang Cheng Hsiang, then president of the Chiai Branch, wrote his answer to that question in the Taiwan Taipei Mission’s monthly publication:
“It is often said that China has had a 5,000-year history of culture, tradition, and civilization. Many of the Chinese people today still hold to the tradition of worship of heaven. They believe that this great force in the form of a high deity controls all of nature and the universe. In Taiwan they worship this deity on January 9, according to the Lunar calendar, by offering him four kinds of fresh fruits. So, even though their concept of God is incomplete in many ways, the belief in gods is a time-honored tradition in China.
“Chinese civilization is another reason why Chinese accept the Church so readily. In ancient times China was a great civilization: the greatest in the Orient. The empires of many generations welcomed visitors from all over the world. For hundreds of years China welcomed people of all trades, nationalities, and religions to her borders to share the fine points of their civilizations with her inhabitants. Many Chinese were enlightened by this liberal cultural exchange, and as time went by it gradually grew easier for the Chinese to accept foreign civilization and religion. Since the gospel of our church is the finest point of civilization ever introduced to China by foreigners, the truth of God is beloved by the many Chinese who join it.
“Chinese society is based on the family, the nation, and the culture. Most Chinese have a very strong national and emotional consciousness. This is because the Chinese place great value on the emotions. They are a very emotional and sensitive people. Since the teachings of Jesus Christ are also centered around love and other honorable emotions, the Chinese are very warm towards him and his church.
“Another interesting thing to note is that the customs of the Chinese people are much the same as those of ancient Israel. Many Chinese agree with the plan of salvation and existence of God as they hear the gospel from the missionaries for the first time. They also respect their fathers and worship them. They build ancestral halls and make family genealogies. Because of China’s excellent belief in genealogy, I have been able to trace my family history about 4,000 years back!” (The Taiwan Missionary, July 1973.)
A classic example of acceptance of the gospel is the K’e Liao Branch. For 18 years Brother Wang T’ien-te served as preacher to a Christian group in K’e Liao, not associating formally with any church. When Brother Wang’s daughter met the missionaries, she recognized their message as the truth, partly because it had so much in common with what her father taught—tithing, abstinence from alcohol and tobacco, daily prayer, Bible study, baptism by immersion. She brought the message back to him and a short time later, on April 1, 1973, he and his family were baptized. On that day Brother Wang said to his followers, “For 18 years I have baptized you, but I did not have the authority to do so. The gospel has been restored; the Priesthood is here. … You have followed me; you have trusted me as your shepherd these many years. I invite you to follow me to the waters of baptism today.” Fifty of his followers were baptized the same day. Their small chapel was turned over to the Church, and a short time later Brother Wang was ordained and set apart as branch president. (The Taiwan Missionary, October 1973.)
The Chinese culture is very important to the people of Taiwan and has likely been an influence in the rapid development of the Church there. Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, as well as Christianity, are strong religious influences. In the first decade of missionary work, formal adherence to a specific religion had increased in the general population from two percent to more than five percent.
Another important factor in the lives of the people in Taiwan is the political situation there. Since 1949 Taiwan has been the seat of the Nationalist Chinese government, which claims the right to govern all of China. The Chinese communists took control of mainland China at that time, and the Nationalists established themselves on Taiwan. In 1971 the Nationalists were expelled from the United Nations, and Communist China was admitted in its place. President Chiang Kai-shek, who had led the government during the 1949 crisis, continued in leadership until his death in April of this year. As with many countries, the political future of Taiwan is uncertain.
The cultural and political climate are just two of the challenges that face the Church today. There are others, all quite different from those the early missionaries met. Yet the Church members in Taiwan have high goals: stronger leadership, organization of a stake, increased temple work, activation, and continued missionary work to a population that has grown to nearly 16 million.
The attitude of Brother Chang Cheng Hsiang is typical of the Saints in Taiwan as they view the future: “I believe that the missionary work in Taiwan will always flourish and prosper. God shall always take care of the Chinese area of his church. I pray that both the missionaries and the members in Taiwan will continue to develop good faith and much endurance.”