On 20 November 1851, John Murdock, one of the first Latter-day Saint missionaries to Australia, left the town of Parramatta, near Sydney, after his first visit there and turned into the bush to pray. He had intended to revisit Parramatta on his way back to Sydney, but, as he wrote in his journal, “the Spirit witnessed to me in power not to do so but to bear witness against the rebellious in that place.”
Now, 133 years later, the dedication day is approaching for the Sydney Australia Temple, built within the boundaries of the Sydney Australia Parramatta Stake. It is an indication of the great changes that have taken place.
The first members of the Church arrived in Australia in 1840 and 1841. They had limited success in sharing the gospel, but at least ten people had joined the Church by 1844.
Elders John Murdock and Charles Wandell, the first full-time Latter-day Saint missionaries, arrived on 31 October 1851, and Elder Murdock preached his first sermon on 2 November 1851 in Hyde Park, the site of the Old Sydney Race Course. By the end of the year, they had baptized twelve people, and on 4 January 1852, the Sydney branch was established with Elder Wandell as branch president.
Missionary work in those early days was hindered by a lack of funds, books, and materials. However, the work went forth.
New converts, following the counsel of Church leaders, left Australia, both in groups and as individuals, to join the Saints in Utah. Elder William Hyde, another missionary, said of these Saints that “we have many ordinances to attend to which pertain to our salvation, and also the salvation of our dead, which we cannot attend to in our scattered condition.” (Zion’s Watchman, I, 4 March 1854, p. 73.) Even then, the Australian Saints were seeking the blessings of the temple.
Because of this gathering to Utah and the difficulty of missionary work, the number of Saints in Australia at the turn of the century was small. But about this time Church leaders began to encourage members to remain at home and build up the Church in their own lands.
Growth was slow. Australian government officials, who were trying to increase the country’s small population and had seen many Saints leave, limited the number of missionaries until 1918.
The Brisbane chapel, the first LDS chapel built in Australia, was dedicated in 1906. It was followed by seven other chapels and a recreation hall, but the Church population remained small through the First and Second World Wars.
Then, in 1955, President David O. McKay visited Australia, ushering in a great period of growth in the Church. By 1958, the Church had substantially increased its missionary force and had built or was building nineteen new chapels with sites for another fifteen. On 27 March 1960 the Sydney stake was organized. It was the 293d stake of the Church, the second outside the continental United States, following the organization of the Manchester England Stake by just hours. Within six months, stakes were created in Brisbane and Melbourne. Today there are sixty-five thousand members of the Church in Australia and New Guinea, with sixteen stakes and five missions.
Ian Mackie, chairman of the temple committee and Regional Representative for Melbourne and Tasmania, in considering the history of the Church in Australia, says the increased spiritual growth of the Saints as a result of the dedication will be just as significant as numerical growth after the prophet’s 1955 visit.
This increased spirituality is already becoming evident. P. Bruce Mitchell, Regional Representative for the Sydney and Brisbane regions, reports that the members in Australia are experiencing their “greatest upsurge in genealogical work, with more members currently holding temple recommends than at any time in Australian history.”
The work done at the new Genealogical Service Center is one evidence of this excitement. “We are one of the top areas for name submissions for temple work,” says Napoleon Trujillo, genealogical service director. Within the first ten months that the center was open, it received 27,000 names and about 2,500 submissions for the Ancestral File. In addition, Brother Trujillo says, Australia has pioneered the concept of calling missionary couples to do microfilming and genealogical work.
Members who have spent years researching their ancestors are excited about the opportunity the temple presents. Ethel Parton, seventy-year-old member of the Sydney Australia Mortdale Stake, has been working for many years, gathering the names of her ancestors and sending them to the temple. “How wonderful it will be,” she says, “to do the work myself.”
Along with the increased interest in genealogical work, the temple is bringing blessings to the lives of individual members.
Anne Orro of the Sydney Australia Hebersham Stake recalls her early days in the Church. “I joined in 1954,” she says. “I used to travel for one hour on two trains to attend Church. It was a wonderful thing to have more chapels built, but to have a temple nearby is a miracle.”
Nita Ehman, a member of the Sydney Australia Greenwich Stake, shares those feelings. “My family joined the Church in 1918, and my mother was a great genealogist. We thought we would have to go the Salt Lake City if we wanted to attend the temple, but then the Hawaii Temple was opened. War came and my mother died, and later the New Zealand Temple was built. We were the first family from our ward to attend that temple. How wonderful it is now to have a temple nearby so we can attend regularly. It is too wonderful to put into words.”