If there was a single day when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came of age in Australia, it was 20 September 1984.
The early spring weather in the sprawling city of Sydney was perfect for the dedication of Australia’s first temple. It was a time to take stock, to assess the great leap since the gospel was first preached on Australian soil 144 years earlier.
From the most tentative of toeholds in the 1840s, the Church in Australia had become a widely respected organization of more than 60,000 members in sixteen stakes and five missions. Moreover, Sydney was now the headquarters for the Church’s Pacific Area presidency and all area functions for the Pacific, serving a quarter of a million members.
If the opening of the temple suggested a new level of maturity for the Church in Australia, the following year’s genealogical and temple activity proved it. In 1985, Australian members performed 41,341 endowments for the dead in their own temple and submitted 53,889 names for clearance, making it one of the few temples in the Church which is fully self-sufficient in names for processing.
Most Australians still must travel extraordinary distances to the temple. Members in Perth, on the west coast, or Darwin, in the Far North, face a trip to the temple equal to the distance from Los Angeles to New York, or from London to North Africa. Still, on the average, each Australian temple recommend holder performed seven endowments last year. In Sydney, as expected, the average was much higher—a little over one endowment per month.
Two sessions each Saturday are committed to visits from out-of-state members. Buses arrive regularly from Melbourne, 620 miles to the southwest, and from Brisbane, somewhat farther away to the northeast.
“The buses travel overnight and arrive here early Saturday morning, allowing people only a short time to freshen up,” says Sydney Temple President Milton J. Hess. “The visitors then do two sessions and get back on the bus early in the afternoon for the long ride back.”
On three occasions, groups of youth from Adelaide, one thousand miles away, have come for baptismal work, having raised money for the trip by delivering telephone books.
“Words can’t express the meaning the temple has in the lives of so many of the Saints in Australia,” says President Hess. “Last year, in addition to the work for the dead, one thousand Australians took out their own endowments. This is the really exciting thing. In addition, people are doing the work for their fathers, their mothers, their grandparents. These are close relationships, and great spiritual experiences come from that kind of activity.”
Ian Mackie, former regional representative for Sydney and chairman of the Temple Committee for the dedication, is now area manager for genealogy. He estimates that twenty-five thousand names for temple work are in reserve, and that this number will increase substantially for at least another couple of years. Much of the reason, he suggests, is the network of thirty-six branch genealogical libraries which have taken facilities for research close to most members. Some twenty-five thousand rolls of genealogical microfilm are in circulation.
Another reason may be the sensitivity many Australians have for their own immigrant and pioneer heritage in a nation which will celebrate its bicentennial in 1988. “Australians have a keenly developed sense of their own origins,” Brother Mackie says.
Genealogical and temple work are only one measure of the maturity of the Church in Australia today. The development of the Church Educational System over the past twelve years is another useful yardstick.
Again, many of the challenges in establishing seminary and institute programs relate to the vast distances involved in crossing this island continent. Lionel Walters, regional coordinator for CES in Adelaide, must travel nearly four hours by plane to visit the top end of his territory in Darwin. It would take the best part of a week to drive each way, through some of the most forbidding territory in the world.
Brother Walters’ supervisor, CES area director Chris Gollan, believes the challenge of distance is being met by both teachers and students.
He recalls that for eight years when he was coordinating the CES program in Adelaide some years ago, the Stirling Branch had the highest percentage of enrollment and the best completion rate for any unit in the Adelaide region. “The teacher traveled from Adelaide, thirty-four miles away, each day. Both the teacher and the branch president were thoroughly committed to seminary. If a student didn’t show up at class, the teacher would drive over to his or her home.
“This is a perfect example of right attitude affecting students. The teacher would walk into that class any day of the week and there would never be a discipline problem. Despite the challenge of distance, they made it work.”
And it continues to work all over Australia. During the development stage for seminary classes, 70 percent of students were taking home-study courses. Now 80 percent of the 1,600 Australian seminary students are attending early-morning classes daily. Between 70 and 80 percent of the active LDS youth in Australia are presently enrolled.
Seminary activity has certainly played a role in preparing the rising number of Australian missionaries. Many serve in their own land, but it is also common for Australian missionaries to serve in New Zealand, the Philippines, England, and the United States. In recent years, a number of Australian missionaries have served in Utah a twist which has not escaped the attention of the Australian press.
Media attention to the Church is relatively high, averaging between 120 and 200 news or broadcast items a month, 95 percent of them positive. Last year saw record media coverage, with an average of a full page of newspaper space for every working day of the year. There was extensive radio and TV coverage of events as diverse as the visits of Miss America and astronaut Don Lind, the succession in the First Presidency, and the completion of new chapels.
Under the direction of the Church’s Missionary Department, radio and television Homefront spots, which are not included in these statistics, are produced by Bonneville Media Communications in Australia, in conjunction with Australian writers and production houses. Similar in theme to the U.S. spots, but with a distinctly Australian flavor, they have proved popular with broadcasters. Earlier this year, several thousand letters from nonmembers poured into the Church offices in response to one Homefront campaign on parent-child communication. Many of the letters were touching from teenagers who said the Church was their “last hope” for better parental relationships, or from parents who warmly praised the Church for tackling a major social problem.
Garry P. Mitchell, regional representative for the Sydney and Brisbane regions, has had a close association with public communications in Australia for many years. “There has been a vast improvement in the Church’s image,” he says. “The hostility and antagonism which we often faced from the media as little as five years ago isn’t there any more. Generally, we are accepted for what we are.”
Statistically, the Church now stands at a little more than 70,000 members in Australia, up from less than 3,000 in the 1950s. Computer technology at the Pacific Area headquarters in Sydney helps priesthood leaders keep track. A computer-based membership record system, known as CMIS (for Church Member Information System), has been specifically developed in Australia as a pilot for other international areas.
The system does not do away with the duties of clerks in recording accurate information, but it does produce the ordination certificates, updated quarterly membership lists for every ward and branch, action lists for priesthood leaders on such things as youth birthday interviews and new convert follow-up, and a host of other support services.
Progress in all of these areas means continued challenges for the Church in Australia.
Elder John Sonnenberg, Pacific Area President, says:
“Every area of the Church has its challenges, and we are no exception. But there is an excitement about the work here that is very encouraging. Each member of the presidency has found it as we visit the stakes. There is strong support and cooperation among the rank and file membership as well as the leaders, which makes us optimistic for the future.”