Called to Tubuai: Missionary Couples in French Polynesia, 1850


“Ia ora na, ia ora na” (Peace be with you), the islanders chorused, welcoming the twelve new Latter-day Saint missionaries and their families to the tiny island of Tubuai in the South Pacific in October 1850. Among the company were four couples and Louisa Pratt, whose husband had previously served on the island. They were the first missionary couples in the Church to serve a foreign-language, foreign-culture mission.

Map of French Polynesia(click to view larger)

Tubuai is four hundred miles south of Tahiti and three by five miles across.

Never before had the Church asked couples to serve in an environment so alien and primitive. The couples, especially the Pratts and Crosbys, would set standards of faith, industry, leadership, and love that later missionaries to Polynesia would follow for decades.

As the natives swarmed the beach at Mataura village to welcome the company, Elder Benjamin F. Grouard, who had spent seven years in this mission, gave each person a Tahitian name and introduced him or her. Unfortunately, Elder Addison Pratt was not there to greet his wife, Louisa, and their four daughters. A misunderstanding with the French Protectorate on Tahiti, where Elder Pratt had been proselyting, had placed him under house arrest until he could satisfy the government that he and the other LDS missionaries would be self-supporting.

Still, Sister Pratt was grateful to be on Tubuai. The voyage had been hazardous, and she took momentary leave of the crowd to step into the fare pure raa (house of worship), “where six years before,” she later wrote in her journal, “my husband had been wont to pray. In the pulpit … I kneeled before the Lord to thank him for preserving all our lives while crossing the great waters.”

The natives escorted the missionaries to a great feast prepared umu style—baked in an underground oven—consisting of taro and poi, fish, pork, and fowl, and the bountiful island fruits. Sister Pratt and Sister Crosby, who had been seasick the entire thirty-five-day voyage, observed, “Everything was new to us and happened to please our tastes remarkably well.”

Following the feast, the natives gathered around the newcomers and passed the evening singing hymns. “The music was delightful!” Sister Pratt wrote. “Their voices are loud and clear, and no people can excel them in keeping time. Such perfect harmony I never heard before.” As Sister Pratt drank in the joy and harmony there, her mind filled with the impression that “God is in it all.”

The calling of these missionary couples ushered in the second phase of the Church’s first missionary endeavor among the Polynesians. The first phase had begun at Nauvoo 1 June 1843, when Noah Rogers, Addison Pratt, Benjamin F. Grouard, and Knowlton F. Hanks left for the Pacific Islands. (Elder Hanks died and was buried at sea.) On Tubuai, Elder Pratt established the first branch of the Church in the Pacific 29 July 1844. That branch included people from the two villages of Mataura and Mahu. Eventually, half the population of two hundred would become members. His companions Noah Rogers and Benjamin Grouard established several branches in Tahiti and in the Tuamotu Archipelago, where well over a thousand joined the Church.

After a year or so, Elder Rogers returned to the United States to look for his family among those making the 1846 western trek of the Church. He died at Mount Pisgah. Elder Pratt, failing to hear from his family or the Church, and receiving only secondhand stories of tragedies at Nauvoo, left Elder Grouard in charge of the mission and made his way to the Salt Lake Valley. He arrived 28 September 1848, after more than a year had passed, to discover that his family had arrived the week before. He had been away from them five years and four months.

He reported his mission at the October general conference and was called, along with others, to return to the Society Islands. Elder Pratt and James S. Brown left in October 1849 for Tahiti. Sister Pratt, however, could not stand to see her husband leave without her on another long mission. Interviews took place, and she and several more were called to the mission, to leave in spring 1850. On May 7, President Brigham Young blessed her. She wrote that President Young said “I should be honored by those with whom I travelled, that all my wants should be supplied. That no evil should befall me on the journey, that I should lack nothing. I should have power to rebuke the destroyer from my house, that he should not have power to remove any of my family, that I should do a good work, and return in peace.”

Also called were her sister and sister’s husband, Caroline and Jonathan Crosby; Thomas and Jane Tompkins; Joseph Busby and wife; Samuel McMurtrey and wife; and single elders Alvarus Hanks (brother of the missionary who had died at sea), Simeon A. Dunn, and Julian Moses. The Pratts’ four daughters, Ellen (18), Frances (15), Lois (13), and Ann Louise (10); the Crosbys’ son, Alma (13); the Tompkins’s two children; and the McMurtreys’ child were to accompany them. These missionaries left the Valley 14 May 1850 (ten days before Elder Pratt and Elder Brown landed at Tahiti). They reached Tubuai five months later, 19 October 1850.

In time, Elder Pratt resolved the misunderstandings with the government and at the end of January 1851, he reached Tubuai and joined his family. He had not seen Elder Grouard for four years and the people of Tubuai for five. He had fulfilled his promise to return.

Addison Pratt now presented the government restrictions to the native chiefs: The missionaries had to be self-supporting, and they had to pay for what they received from the natives. The chiefs called a council, deciding that the missionaries should be welcome to stay, that the natives would assist them in building houses, and that they should have the privilege of occupying what land they needed for farming.

The natives proved true to their word. Sister Pratt said that the islanders prepared for them “little white cottages in the woods, shining through the green trees. … The buildings [were] low but very long, plastered inside and out, with lime made from the coral rock; there cannot be a purer white.”

Sister Pratt made a garden of common vegetables with seeds she had brought—“everything grows apparently by magic,” she wrote. When they lacked meat, Brother Pratt, who enjoyed hunting, went “to the woods for wild hens, and to the tarrow patches for ducks; and thus supplie[d] his family with meat.” There were pigs and goats besides, and fish.

While Elder Pratt was in the United States, Elder Grouard had started building a schooner on Tubuai, enlisting the help of some white residents and natives. Elder Pratt and Elder Grouard felt that the schooner would help ease the mission’s financial problems by transporting elders to their island stations and engaging in interisland trade, carrying fruits and produce, lime juice, cattle, and pigs as cargo.

The new missionaries helped finish the ship. Christened the Ravaai (Fisherman), the schooner was launched the week of March 18–25, 1851, and set out on her maiden voyage May 10, taking missionaries hundreds of miles away to Tahiti and to Anaa and the Tuamotus.

Meanwhile, the missionary work “at home” on Tubuai went smoothly. Religious services on the Sabbath day, of course, were the center of the missionaries’ week. The first Sabbath initiated the newcomers into the routine, as Caroline Crosby described:

“The bell rang for church at 7 o’clock. We all repaired to the fare pure raa, where some 80 or a 100 persons were collected for worship. We were highly pleased to see the decency and order which prevailed among them, almost all of them with Bibles under their arms ready to follow the speaker where ever he might appoint them. They have 3 meetings and a school in the course of the day, besides our white brethren have one expressly for ourselves.”

Sometimes Elder Pratt arranged meetings of the papaa (foreigners), where he taught “the first principles of the gospel, for the benefit of the children.” Often the Saints of one village would go to the other village for services and meet friends and missionaries. Each Wednesday at sunrise, a prayer meeting was held. Sister Pratt rejoiced in the meetings:

“Went at early sunrise to morning service. I enjoy religious exercises better at such an hour than at any other. It seems like beginning the day aright. The prayers sound sublime; the singing sweet and heavenly. The exercises seldom last more than a quarter hour, a custom I quite admire.”

Command of the Tahitian language came slowly to most of the newcomers. No doubt Louisa Pratt and Caroline Crosby had picked up some words and phrases from Addison Pratt before they came. In the winter of 1848–49, he had conducted a Tahitian language class in his cabin in the Old Fort in Salt Lake City. Ellen Pratt, however, displayed an aptitude for Tahitian and could speak it fairly well in a few months. She also got along well with the people and the sea. She served as interpreter for her mother and her aunt for months. When she went with the elders on the Ravaai, she spoke to the natives and played her musical instruments—a novelty for them.

By mid-1851, the Busby, McMurtrey, and Tompkins families returned to the States; and by the end of November, Elders Dunn and Moses also returned. This left the missionary couples of Addison and Louisa Pratt and Jonathan and Caroline Crosby, supported by Elders Grouard (and his native wife, whom he had married while Addison Pratt was in the United States), Elder Brown, and Elder Hanks.

The Paraita,named after Addison Prat

The Paraita, named after Addison Pratt, carried missionaries between islands in the 1850s. (Photo courtesy of Church Archives.)

The mission had not been easy on the Pratts and Crosbys. The husbands were sometimes gone for long periods. Addison Pratt made two major cruises of 41 and 73 days, and Jonathan Crosby was gone 103 days on his first teaching assignment in the Tuamotus. The parents also felt many apprehensions about their children. The young people needed schooling, and the parents tried to keep them busy being useful. Could these very active teenagers take the isolation from Western society and cope with the problems caused by a new language and culture?

The missionary couples made a major effort to conduct school. “Every day finds me at the old fare pure raa teaching the natives and my own children,” Sister Pratt wrote. The school was attended by children of the villagers, of the missionary couples, and of the foreigners with native wives. As soon as Ellen, Frances, and Lois gained sufficient fluency in the language, they began to superintend and teach manners and English to their own groups of children. When Elder Pratt was on Tubuai, he also instructed the children in reading and mathematics. He observed that “those that attend school regularly make good proficiency.”

At the end of her first year on Tubuai, Sister Crosby evaluated their efforts: “Our teaching has been mostly by example thus far, being unable to use precepts to their understanding.” Sister Pratt was also aware of the influence of example: “I have been toiling all the morning cleaning my dooryard. I often do such things to encourage the native women to clean theirs.”

The missionary couples also noted the reverence and devotion of the Tubuai Saints. Sister Pratt wrote: “They take great pleasure apparently in reading the scripture and in prayer; they are very punctual to observe family devotion. … Often before the dawn of morning, they rise. The first thing done is to call the family together and fall on their knees in prayer; they then ring the bell and go to the house of worship, to read the Bible.”

How did the missionary couples and families adjust to this new life? Sister Pratt noted particularly the “profound stillness” of the island, when the only sound was that of the “mallets of the old women pounding bark to make cloth. … It breaks the monotony and is preferable to no noise at all.” For Sister Pratt, the time passed slowly and the routine was “dull, dull, dull.” However, Sister Crosby felt that “time has glided away almost imperceptively. … This island is so pleasantly situated, such a calmness and serenity pervading it, … that a calm contemplative mind could not in my opinion be unhappy.”

Evenings were often spent in music. The natives would gather at one of the cottages and spend the evening singing hymns (though the island Saints “wear out a tune in learning it,” Sister Pratt wrote). Frequently, Ellen Pratt, Alma Crosby, and Jonathan Crosby would play their instruments together—Ellen, the flutina or accordian; Alma, the violin; and Jonathan Crosby, the flute.

Brother and Sister Pratt often rode on horseback from one village to the other on mission business or as a retreat. Once a party took a trip to the little islands off the east coast. They explored, had a feast umu style, and stayed overnight.

The sea inside the Tubuai reef offered many attractions. Sister Pratt noted: “Our chief amusement is on the beach at the close of day, when the air is cool watching the children play in the water, when the breakers are dashing on the beach.” On one occasion, a group took a canoe out to the reef and observed the coral depths, fish of all shapes and colors shooting about among the cavities. And another day, family and friends took the day to climb the thirteen-hundred-foot-high mountain.

Despite the missionaries’ success, the mission was not to continue. By early 1852, changing government policies in the French protectorate made missionary work practically impossible. There seemed nothing left to do but close the mission. On April 1, Louisa and Ellen Pratt and Caroline Crosby met with many of the sisters in the afternoon female prayer meeting and took their farewells. Sister Crosby wrote: “I felt quite affected with the idea of its being the last of our assembling with them.”

Departure was set for Tuesday, 6 April 1852, nearly eighteen months after the couples’ arrival. Caroline Crosby was concerned whether they would have food sufficient for their trip to Tahiti. However, early in the morning, friends began to bring in food for the voyage. The provisions were so bountiful that Elder Grouard commented that they had plenty to take them to California. Sister Pratt gave parting counsel to special friends and encouraged Chief Hoatau, an elder in the Church, to guard all the children under their immediate care, to “preserve them as far as possible from temptation.”

The people followed them to the beach. All wept freely as they gave the parting hand. The natives waded into the water, alongside the Ravaai, pronouncing blessings upon them as they moved.

At about four o’clock, the ship set sail with a fair wind. The small craft moved through the smooth waters quietly and got through the reef opening before dark. Aboard ship, the missionaries could still hear the choruses of Ia ora na outou.

It is difficult to measure the influence these missionaries had, particularly the missionary families. Elder Grouard estimated they left from fifteen hundred to two thousand converts in French Polynesia. They had taught gospel principles; they had taught, by example, family relations, care and schooling of children, cleanliness and orderliness in the house, personal dress, manners, and handicrafts like sewing, knitting, and quilt making. Caroline and Louisa had even made a bed quilt for the queen.

Sadly, the mission remained closed for forty years. During that time, Catholic and RLDS missionaries actively proselyted the Saints. Yet the LDS missionaries’ residual influence was powerful. An 1873 visitor to Faaa, Tahiti, found a Latter-day Saint community there called Tiona (Zion). He found Church teachings and services fully perpetuated and gospel doctrines clearly understood, and the Saints exhibited excellent morals.

When Elder James Brown (Elder Pratt’s 1849 companion) returned to the Society Islands in 1893 to reorganize the Church there, he found a warm reception in Mahu on Tubuai. Shortly after, he found entire congregations of Saints in the Tuamotu Islands who had resisted the proselyting by other faiths, waiting forty years for the return of missionaries with true authority.

The impact of the mission experience was profound and lasting on the missionary couples, too. They continued to cherish memories of the customs, the language, and the people they had lived among and loved so much.

The mission also benefited all Polynesia. Success in French Polynesia led to a mission in Hawaii; and then from Hawaii, the gospel went to Samoa; and from Samoa, it went back to the Society Islands.

Thanks to the foundation a few hardy missionaries laid, the Church today is established throughout Polynesia.

This account is based on the journals and letters of Noah Rogers, Benjamin F. Grouard, Addison Pratt, Louisa Barnes Pratt, Jonathan Crosby, Caroline Barnes Crosby, James S. Brown, Simeon A. Dunn, and Julian Moses. Spelling in quotations has been standardized.

[photos] Louisa Barnes Pratt; Addison Pratt

[photo] The reef around Tubuai (above) forms a lagoon. (Photo by R. W. Pratt.)

[photos] Top: Addison Pratt’s permis de séjour (permission to reside in the islands), issued 13 November 1850. Middle left: This perpetual calendar, found in Elder Pratt’s Tahitian Bible, helped natives determine the Sabbath day.

[photos] Above right: The islanders met at the fare pure raa for worship. This sketch of the period shows Tahitians leaving church. Left: Jonathan and Caroline Barnes Crosby were called with the Pratts to serve in the islands. Caroline was Louisa’s sister. Shown are Jonathan, Caroline, and their son, Alma.

[photos] Below: The upper photograph is of Benjamin F. Grouard, who introduced the gospel to the Tuamotus and sustained the mission for nine years. James S. Brown, who taught on several islands and reestablished the Church in the islands in 1893, is pictured beneath.

[photos] Above: This letter in Tahitian is from Brother Haametua to Louisa Pratt, inviting her and her older daughters to Tahiti. Above left: Addison Pratt’s memory book, which he carried with him, is handmade and contains a page from each family member. Left: Today, a monument at Mataura honors the first missionary couples to serve on Tubuai. (Photo by R. W. Pratt.)

S. George Ellsworth is professor emeritus of history, Utah State University. He serves as stake historical clerk, Logan Utah Central Stake.