France. The word brings to mind many images: the Eiffel Tower and the Arch of Triumph, the sidewalk cafés and “April in Paris.”
Perhaps you envision the splendor of the court of Louis XIV, or Chartres Cathedral, or the chateaux of the Loire—or is it the carnage of the Bastille, the guillotine, and war?
Perhaps the names Charlemagne, Jeanne d’Arc, and Napoleon come to mind, or maybe the great writers and artists: Molière, Montaigne, Hugo, Rousseau, Voltaire, Pascal, Monet, Debussy, Rodin. The great number and variety of images are reflective of the tremendous historical and cultural heritage of France.
But another part of the history of France—a most important part—is still being written: the history of the Church in France. Great strides are now being made as the spirit of the gospel permeates the land: the number of conversions is increasing; chapels are being built; a stake has been formed; and temple work is thriving. However, such has not always been the case. The growth of the Church in France has been a long time coming. …
The year is 1849.
“When I see the harvest so ripe and the labourers so few, I begin to forget the prayer I have been using for nearly nine years, namely, that my way might be opened to go to Zion, and feel content to stay a little longer.”
Thirteen years later—1862.
“The people seem to be chained with priestcraft and infidelity. … The Lord will have to overturn matters to suit his own purposes in the earth.”
And another fifty-two years—1914.
“All missionaries leave at once.” World War I.
These brief quotations from the mission history seem to capsulize the first one hundred years of missionary work in France. The political turmoil, social struggle, and wartime upheaval so characteristic of France’s past were used by Satan in an attempt to thwart the work of the Lord.
The first missionary to France, a Welsh Saint named William Howells, arrived in July 1849. Brother Howells, soon joined by his daughter (making one of the relatively few father-daughter missionary combinations in Church history), and William C. Dunbar initially had much success, baptizing forty-eight converts in four weeks. In 1850, John Taylor, later the third president of the Church, became the first president of the French Mission. On the evening of June 26, he and three other elders knelt in a secluded spot on the seashore and invoked the Lord’s blessings on the work in France, and, despite some persecutions and setbacks, for a time the work prospered. Four small branches were organized at Le Havre, Calais, Boulogne, and Paris; a magazine, Étoile du Deseret, was published; and by 1852 the Book of Mormon was translated into French, largely through the efforts of Louis Bertrand, the first French convert.
Despite earnest efforts, the work began to decline after 1855 under the pressure of continual political turmoil. Laws under Louis Napoleon hampered publication and limited the size of public gatherings; police were instructed to be especially vigilant in routing Mormon meetings. Louis Bertrand wrote an appeal for tolerance to the emperor, but, as Bertrand reported later, “His majesty read my address, laughed at it and tore it to pieces.” Not many French were receptive to the gospel message, and the few converts there were mostly resident aliens.
In 1863, Bertrand wrote Brigham Young that the French were “every one spiritually dead,” and although he stayed for another year to “prepare the ground” for a time when better conditions would favor missionary work, he left in 1864. With his departure the mission was officially closed for forty-eight years.
The mission was formally reestablished in 1912, but there were few baptisms before national conflict again disrupted the work. With the 1914 outbreak of World War I and a terse telegram ordering all missionaries to leave, branch activity largely collapsed. In 1924, the mission was reorganized for a third time under Elder David O. McKay, but the work progressed slowly. By 1930 there were only forty-seven French Mormons, whereas in the French-speaking areas of Belgium and Switzerland there were 344 and 280 Saints, respectively.
War would again interfere with missionary efforts in 1939 as missionaries were withdrawn from France with the outbreak of World War II. And even with the end of that conflict and the reopening—for the fourth time—of the French Mission in 1946, war still indirectly hampered proselyting efforts: with the Korean War and the need for U.S. soldiers, the number of missionaries available was severely limited.
Despite these slow beginnings and numerous setbacks, however, the Church has recently experienced great growth and development in France. In 1958 the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price were translated into French and printed. There are now four missions included wholly or partially within that country’s borders: the Belgium Brussels Mission, the Switzerland Geneva Mission, the France Paris Mission, and the France Toulouse Mission, newly created last July. The growth of the Church is reflected in the statistics: in 1959 there were only 1,909 members, whereas at the end of 1974 there were 9,853 members living in eleven districts and sixty-five branches. In September 1975 the first stake in France was organized in the Paris area. Nine beautiful chapels have been erected, often at great sacrifice by the local members, since the first was completed in Nantes in 1962; and twelve remodeled buildings also serve as meetinghouses. Patrick Mercier, president of the Paris Branch, said of the building of the Paris chapel: “To economize in the building of the chapel and the restoration of the building, the members were called upon to do a great deal of work themselves. So great was the enthusiasm that oftentimes the help was far greater than the attendance at the sacrament meetings. The members had an actual awareness that they were participating in a sacred work.” And, according to recently released Mission President Willis D. Waite, the work is getting stronger: “We will see more and more people come into the Church in France.”
President Waite indicates that French converts are very faithful. They are possessed of a dogged determination to achieve, which, coupled with a testimony of the gospel, creates top-conditioned fighters for “the good fight.” Brother and Sister Charles Cuenot of the Marseilles Branch are representative of the faith and courage of the French Saints: “We have had to change some of our old habits, but these changes have wrought an inexpressible joy in our lives. We have put the gospel to the test and have never failed to have a positive answer.”
Much of the strength of the French Saints is due to the great sacrifices they must continually make for the gospel. In a land where incomes are often lower than in the United States and the cost of living high, they receive no reduction in income tax for their payment of tithing, yet they pay willingly and cheerfully. The long distances that must be traveled to attend meetings can make Sunday a twelve-hour stretch of church-going. Even within Paris, transportation may take an hour by subway. The distances involved in home teaching assignments are so great that it often takes an entire evening to visit one family, yet the French willingly and capably fulfill such callings.
With only 10,000 converts in a nation of approximately 53 million people, there is still much work to be done; however, many obstacles to the acceptance of the gospel are being rapidly overcome. Many French are intellectually and philosophically oriented and are disenchanted with religion. Some are consequently Caught up in the misleading and false philosophies of men. The story of one brother, Bertin Farel, is illustrative. As a young man after World War II Brother Farel believed that religion must be suppressed: “Only communism can liberate man. Paradise is on this earth.” But through the efforts of an American and a Canadian student, Brother Farel and his family accepted the gospel. As he testifies, “No longer have we need to seek explanations to human problems. Now we know. … Our happiness is firm, for it is based on the testimony of the existence of God. … and I think you can believe an old radical who sought the truth for such a long time.”
Because of their intellectual orientation, the French like to discuss, talk, and debate—a stimulant to Sunday School classes! But when true authority speaks, debate gives way to humble acceptance. The French are excited by ideas, and thus are a potential source of gospel scholars.
The French are generally fiercely nationalistic and tradition loving, characteristics that can sometimes create barriers to gospel acceptance. As Patrick Manach of Bordeaux testifies, “If we seek to find the Lord, he will take us by the hand and show us his way. But heritage and tradition are very hard to ignore.”
The damage done by early slanderous authors who printed anti-Mormon tracts and the fact that the gospel was long perceived as a strange American sect are two obstacles that have been particularly resistant to change. The international image of the Church has helped to correct these false impressions, but the most positive counteracting force has been the increase in native French missionaries working among their brethren and sisters. In 1971 there were only three native Frenchmen serving in the French Mission, but by 1974 there were twenty-nine full-time French missionaries and fifty stake missionaries. In addition, members who have come to the United States to further their education are returning to their homeland to strengthen the work there. One example is Yves Jean, a convert from Nice. After serving a mission in Italy, he went to BYU, where he married a French girl, also from Nice. They have since returned to France where he is serving as president of Nantes District.
The French are not only serving their own country as missionaries, however; many have been called to Canada and other French-speaking parts of the world, such as French Polynesia and New Caledonia.
Other strides forward are being made in the work in France. The great majority of branch presidents are now local members rather than foreign missionaries as in the past. While there were only ninety-six Melchizedek Priesthood holders in the French Mission in 1959, at the end of 1974 there were 345 in the France Paris Mission alone. In addition, the number of second-generation Latter-day Saints is on the rise.
According to President Waite, “The future of the Church is in the youth.” One of the most exciting proselyting programs now being used is missionary presentations given during weekly open-lecture hours at various lycées. During the three years that President Waite served in France, the missionaries spoke to 100,000 students. The reception was tremendous.
A wonderful success story for French Saints is in the area of temple work. In August 1974 two weeks of special sessions for the French-speaking Saints were held at the Swiss Temple. The crowd that flocked to those sessions was unanticipated by even the most optimistic. So many eager Saints attended that the temple couldn’t accommodate them all, even when the workers crowded extra chairs into normally vacant galleries. The statistics are indicative of the marvelous strides that have been made in the last fifteen years. While in 1960 only 462 endowments were performed in the Swiss Temple by French-speaking Saints, in 1974, 7,744 endowments were performed.
The dedication of the French members to temple work is not merely a phenomenon that occurs during the two weeks of special sessions each year. Many of them spend the entirety of their vacations doing temple work.
Many French members bear testimony of the special place of the temple in their lives. One brother, Paul Bennasar, testifies: “I was called, along with several other French brothers and sisters, to go to the London Temple to perform some very special work. It was our privilege to spend a very marvelous week and enjoy spiritual experiences in this eternal work directed by the Spirit of the Lord. This experience greatly reinforced my testimony of this Church. It helped me also understand the work that is done in the temples of the Lord, and it gave me a totally new perspective as to the purpose of life.”
Out of a disappointing and disrupted past, the Church in France is reaping a promising future. Perhaps the commentary made by that first missionary to France, William Howells, on his departure from that country was not a description of his time but a prophecy of our day when he said: “The plowshare of truth had pierced the heart—the seed of truth was sown—a few grains immediately sprang up, the fruit appears strong and healthy, proving that the … seed will soon cause a Mormon market to be established in France.”