Art has always been a powerful way to tell stories. And for Latter-day Saints, telling stories of faith has always been a role of art.
Nowhere are the stories of faith more memorable than in the islands of the Pacific, specifically in Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji.
Clark Kelley Price is an artist and a former missionary to Fiji. He lives in Star Valley, Wyoming, with his wife and five children. The five paintings reproduced in this issue tell stories of the beginnings and continuation of missionary work in Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji. Today in these island chains there are over 140 wards, 22 stakes, 2 temples, and approximately 100,000 members of the Church.
In December 1862, Kimo Belio and Samuela Manoa, two native Hawaiian elders, left their homeland to go to Samoa as missionaries. Elder Belio became ill and later died. The work did not continue until 1888, when, as this painting portrays, Elder Joseph H. Dean and his wife, Florence, sailed to Aunuu, arriving June 21 of that year. Manoa’s mission began again with the Deans’ arrival.
Elder Dean is shown carrying their four-month-old son, Jasher Henry, while Sister Dean wades ashore assisted by the native sister who had married Elder Manoa. Two young Samoans carry their trunk ashore as rays of sunlight pour out of the cloudscape above the sea, suggesting a favorable climate for the arrival, both physically and spiritually.
Three years after the restored gospel had been brought to Samoa, missionaries were sent from Samoa to Tonga to preach. Their first stop, on 16 July 1891, was to visit King George I (Siaosi Tupou I), to ask his permission to teach the gospel among his people. Here, Elders Brigham Smoot and Alva John Butler (the one shaking hands) bring an interpreter to see the king. They give him a copy of the Articles of Faith which the interpreter translated into Tongan. After hearing them, the king expresses pleasure with the Christian doctrines they contain. He welcomes the elders and wishes them success, saying his people are free to join whatever church they wish. Again, the artist’s use of light suggests the favorable circumstance as it pours in through the window onto the faces of the two elders and their interpreter. Though a king, George is simply clad. Around his waist is the tupenu. This customary wrap is overlaid with the traditional sign of respect, a woven mat called ta’ovala held on by cords of coconut fiber around the waist.
Modern native Tongan elders arrive at a new area of labor, having obtained passage on the fishing boats in the background. Barefoot, the elders wear their native tupenu and ta’ovalas with white shirts and ties, and they carry on their shoulders their mats made from laufa, for sleeping and sitting on. They roll all of their possessions, including clothing and bedding, into this mat and carry it with them wherever they go. Their baskets contain their scriptures and tracts.
The young man in this painting is Elder John H. Groberg, now of the First Quorum of the Seventy, as a young missionary to these islands from 1954 until 1957. The story depicted here concerns the yacht on the horizon. Its owner is a rich and worldly foreigner who had come to the island and taken advantage of the innocence of the natives. The missionary is attempting to console an elderly native, but he learns a great lesson in the process. The missionary begins to say, “I’m sorry …” for the harm the worldly man had done to the people. But the elderly brother cuts him off, saying, “Yes, I too am sorry for that poor man. How sad is his kind of poverty,” implying that the true riches of the island people cannot be taken, much less appreciated, by the worldly.
The artist painted himself and his companion (an East Indian) teaching a village family in Fiji, where he served from 1964 to 1966. The huts in the villages were approximately 20 feet by 30 feet, unfurnished, and usually divided into two rooms. Typically, they taught farmers and fishermen by the light of a single lantern.