Answering the first of many calls to serve peoples of the Far East in missionary service, Hilton A. Robertson and his wife Hazel first set foot on Japanese soil in June of 1921. Their love for the Oriental people would grow and deepen over a lifetime of sharing the gospel in Japan, China, Hawaii, and the United States. Five times a mission president, Brother Robertson, now 90, would likely be delighted to serve again if age and health permitted.
Young Brother Hilton was reared on a twenty-acre sugarbeet farm in Springville, Utah. His father, Alexander, came as a seventeen-year-old convert from Scotland with his five brothers and widowed mother to Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 1850, selling all their belongings at auction in order to make a fresh start among the Saints in America.
“My father only gave me one sermon,” he reflected as I sat across from him. “He said to me, ‘Get your name on the tithing records of the Church and keep it there.’ My mother taught me faith and morality. I remember how faithful she was in serving the people as midwife at no charge. She gave her time to friends and strangers alike. This is what I saw … the sermons that I received from mother and father.”
Elder Robertson was seated in his home surrounded by mementos of the Orient. A portrait of his wife-missionary companion, Hazel, who died in 1976 hung on the wall above his chair.
“She was mine, I knew from the beginning.” He motioned toward the portrait. “Hazel and I wouldn’t have married so soon [both were in their early twenties] but her parents were moving to Idaho, and it was get her then, or. … We were married in 1912 in the Salt Lake Temple. Afterward we made our home in Springville until we went to Japan.
“I had a patriarchal blessing in 1920. The patriarch said, ‘You will travel much for the gospel’s sake. You will travel by land and by sea.’ We figured then that I would get a call to go on a mission.
“Of course, we didn’t have any idea that my wife would be going, but we had looked forward to and made preparations for my mission. When the call came to us both, we had to sell our home. I had saved the money to buy the house when we were married, and paid cash. With two of us going it wouldn’t take long to use up that $2,000. So I said, ‘We’ll go, and afterward the Lord will have to provide.’”
The Japanese Mission had been opened up in 1901 by Elder Heber J. Grant and three missionaries. The language was the greatest barrier, and it usually took several years to become effective as a missionary; thus a mission term in Japan usually lasted five years.
“The hardest thing I ever had to do was to tell my father goodbye, knowing I would probably not see him again,” President Robertson recalled. His father was ninety years old when they left.
Hazel and Hilton Robertson were the first of several couples from Utah to be called to serve under President Lloyd O. Ivie in Japan at that time. They entered the harbor of Tokyo on the great ship Empress of Russia on 6 June 1921.
“When we reached Japan, it was like moving into a new world. We could see the rickshas lined up on shore like baby buggies. There were oxcarts loaded heavily with merchandise to ship out; bicycles of all types, and men pulling heavy loads. In contrast were the electric lines overhead, airplanes above, and the great ships in the harbor.
“The missionaries met us and guided us to the mission home, a very modest place. It was a two-story building, and meetings were held on the lower floor. Japanese customs were carried out in the mission home, except there were beds.”
At that time there were conferences (branches) at Kofu, Tokyo, Osaka, Sendai, Sapporo, and one soon to be opened at Onomichi. Sunday School and sacrament meeting were held on Sunday morning, with “Saints’ meeting,” or “preaching meeting,” held in the evening. Street meetings were held frequently. Elder Robertson noted in his diary one week after arrival: “At a street meeting I distributed three hundred tracts introducing the work, and sold eighteen Bibles.”
After a month in Tokyo, they were sent to Sapporo where they were told the streets of the city had been planned after the Salt Lake City system. There the climate was much like that of Utah, with vegetables and fruits like those found at home. Sunday School was well attended, with close to fifty people present most of the time.
On Elder Robertson’s first tracting experience in Sapporo he delivered forty-four tracts, using this speech in Japanese:
“I missionary, member of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in this district. Small book, free, I give to you. Please read it. I have been a trouble to you. Excuse me, good-bye.” He held the written speech in his hat the first few times for referral. Should anyone question him he would simply take leave, being unable to answer.
After two months in Sapporo, the Robertsons were called to Osaka where they spent a year and a half and enjoyed an exceptional spirit of harmony and love among the people. There they taught classes on the life of Christ and Joseph Smith and on the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. Elder Robertson also taught English at Higashi Shoyo Gakko (East Side High School). It was an excellent opportunity for daily gospel discussions with thirty other teachers, students, and sometimes parents.
On 1 September 1923 Elder Robertson and Elder Elwood Christensen had stopped at noon for an ice cream treat in the city of Osaka, when they felt the first jolt of the catastrophic earthquake that leveled Tokyo, Yokohama, and thirteen surrounding villages, leaving two million people huddled homeless on the outskirts of the smoldering ruins. In Osaka there was little damage, but because of crippled communications there was no word from the Tokyo district. After a few days of waiting, Elder Robertson took a train to Tokyo. He was required to take enough food for a week or he would not have been allowed to make the trip. After a long journey with many transfers he found the western suburb mission home of Yodobashi with everything intact and all Saints and missionaries unharmed.
Less than two months later Elder Robertson received a letter appointing him to succeed Lloyd O. Ivie as president of the Japan Mission. After serving only a little more than two years in another country with a still-rudimentary knowledge of a strange language, to take over as mission president was a most humbling challenge. In his daily journal Elder Robertson wrote:
“I feel keenly such responsibility and only through the help of my Father in Heaven could I be of any service in this great calling. I know that the Lord will make me equal to this calling if I devote myself to it in all sincerity and in humility, do my part. This I intend to do.”
The next year, 1924, was a time of political unrest. Missionaries felt Japan’s growing hostility toward Americans, caused by new U.S. legislation prohibiting Japanese immigration. Church authorities soon closed the mission upon President Robertson’s recommendation. But he and Hazel loved the Japanese people and were confident that the groundwork laid in the mission’s first twenty-three years would not be wasted.
The couple returned to Utah and became busily involved in community and church activities. They were blessed with children—two daughters, Norma and Carolyn. Brother Robertson served as a bishop, as a member of a stake presidency, and as a county commissioner for two terms.
Then, in November 1936, a call came for the Robertsons to reopen the Japanese Mission with headquarters in Honolulu. This time there were not only a home and furnishings to sell, but an insurance business—and two small girls to take out of school. Brother Robertson recorded in his diary upon receiving the call:
“I have felt that there were others far more qualified than I to take charge of the work, but there is only one thing to do, and that is to accept.
“Our parents [his mother and Hazel’s mother and father] are old and even though we are privileged to see them again, we will be separated from them during years we would love to be with them and help in a measure to repay them for the many sacrifices they have made to make our lives more complete and happy. Our parting with them will be our hardest task.”
With the cooperation of President Francis Bailey, president of the Hawaiian Mission, separate headquarters were set up, and in a few months the two missions were functioning independently. A handful of Church members were found among the 150,000 Japanese in Hawaii, and at the first meeting of the Japanese Mission held under the direction of President Robertson, twenty Japanese members were in attendance.
In April 1939, after much preparation with letters from U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Utah state senators, and others, President Robertson was sent to Japan to assure the Saints that the General Authorities were interested in their welfare and that the time would come when missionaries would again labor in their land.
In the month spent there, he visited many members in their homes. (Organized meetings were not allowed by the Imperial government.) There were ordinances to be performed, including many baptisms requested for children and relatives.
The president spent many hours looking for appropriate white clothing to be used in performing the first baptism, and finally used his newly laundered white pajamas. One sister was able to take the sacrament for the first time in twenty-one years.
Just before President Robertson’s return to Hawaii, a worthy priest was ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood, making a pair of elders who could carry on the ordinances of the priesthood.
“It was hard to hide the tears at parting, but as I visited with the different Saints,” he recalled, “I could see that the cleanliness of their thought and living had had a decided effect upon their entire physical makeup. There was a look of contentment and satisfaction written upon each face.”
It was this trip to Japan in 1939 that made it possible for the Church to enter Japan after World War II. President Robertson said that had the Church not sent missionaries to keep in touch with members at that time, the U.S. Occupational Forces would not have permitted missionary work to resume in 1948 under the direction of President Edward L. Clissold.
The Robertsons returned to Provo, Utah, after three and one-half years in Hawaii, leaving a well-established mission home, fifty missionaries, and two fully-organized branches of Japanese members. Life in Utah began again with a new business in real estate and insurance and an opportunity to serve a second time as a bishop.
Then in February 1949 they received a call to come to Salt Lake City. “I met Brother David O. McKay in his office at the appointed hour. We talked about the Orient and more especially about the Chinese,” related President Robertson, “and whom I thought would be the most likely person in the Church to send to China. I gave him four names. He said ‘Brother Robertson, the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve have considered the feasibility of opening the Chinese Mission after much sincere and thoughtful prayer, and they were unanimous in feeling that you should be sent to open that mission. They feel that you know more about the Oriental people than any other man in the Church.’”
In July they arrived in Hong Kong with Brother and Sister Henry Aki of Honolulu. Brother Aki was a faithful Chinese member of the Church chosen to serve as first counselor. On July 14 Elder Matthew Cowley officially opened the mission, on top of a mountain they called the Peak. In attendance were Elder and Sister Cowley, President and Sister Robertson and daughter Carolyn, and Elder and Sister Henry Aki. The challenge of learning a difficult language, establishing a mission home, and preparing the way for missionaries was again upon them. By the next February they greeted their first missionaries, Elder William Paalani from Honolulu and Herald Grant Heaton from Salt Lake City.
A poignant note written by one of the first Chinese investigators reflected the sincerity of those first few students of English and gospel principles: “I glad learn English from you, and more glad listen the truth of Christian in your speech.”
The work in Hong Kong progressed slowly and with even more difficulty as communist activity increased, and with the outbreak of the Korean War. In May 1951 the Robertsons left Hong Kong on a fourth assignment to open a Chinese Mission headquarters in Chinatown, San Francisco.
Brother and Sister Robertson felt that China had been their greatest challenge. He told President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., and President McKay, who were both horsemen, this story to illustrate: “A woman went to the stables and asked for a horse but warned the stable boy she had never ridden a horse. The boy answered: ‘Oh, don’t let that worry you; I have a horse that’s never been ridden, and you two can work it out together.’” The Robertsons had had no friends, no openings, no literature of any kind, and didn’t speak the language. But they had worked it out “together.”
After two years the Chinatown mission was transferred to the San Francisco Stake Mission, and in January 1953 the Robertsons headed home to Utah to await a forthcoming assignment. When it came six months later, the call sent them once more to their beloved Japan.
On 10 September 1953 President David O. McKay set them apart to preside over the Japanese and Chinese Missions including the Philippine Islands, Korea, Guam, and Okinawa, with headquarters in Tokyo. At that time, President McKay told him: “You have rendered service in the past that will reverberate in the hearts of men and women with whom you have come in contact, for years and probably ages to come. Your service, and that of your dear wife, will continue to go from soul to soul resulting in the conversion, comfort, and peace of many souls. You have demonstrated to the Lord your willingness to lose yourselves in the service of the Master, and you are entitled to the blessings implied in the Savior’s remarks: ‘He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.’”
The next three years were truly a time of fulfillment. World War II had left its mark upon the Japanese people and the world. There was a general turning toward religion, a seeking for truth. U.S. servicemen and their families in the Far East area were doing a great missionary service on their own, supporting eighteen full-time Japanese missionaries in Japan and the islands of the area. President Robertson was given travel priority rating of Brigadier General for ease in traveling to servicemen’s conferences and to maintain contact with the far areas of the mission. The Church began to grow, for the field was ready for the harvest.
Sister Emma Rae McKay asked President Robertson immediately after one of their many calls to serve, “What do you think about all these calls you get to go?”
“Oh, we don’t think,” came the response. “The call comes, we just say ‘Okay!’ and we go.” The answer was typical of the Robertsons.