Because of the remarkable events that have occurred with the Church in middle and eastern Europe in the last five years, the Ensign staff has asked that I write a review of those events from my personal perspective. That part of the world has been the stage of much drama lately. Before considering the drama, I would like first to establish a few fundamental concepts by way of introduction:
This account, written by only one member of the Council of the Twelve, does not adequately reflect the ministries of my colleagues in their assignments to this and other sectors of the world. Each member of the First Presidency and all twelve Apostles have labored in the European theater—from the United Kingdom and Ireland to the countries of eastern Europe—during this period of time. Such an outpouring of effort has blessed this continent immeasurably. These Brethren, too, have heeded divine directives, opened doors to nations, and dedicated lands, while establishing the Church and setting its affairs in order. They have magnified their callings and have set standards of excellence that have been inspiring for me and others to follow.
Apostolic duty is not limited to one continent or its people. The Twelve are to teach inhabitants in all nations of the earth. (See Matt. 28:16–19; Mark 16:14–15; Luke 24:47–48; John 21:15–17; Rev. 14:6; Mosiah 3:13; Alma 29:8; D&C 42:58; D&C 107:33; D&C 134:12.)
The Twelve call upon the Seventy “instead of any others.” (D&C 107:38.) Under this divinely inspired organizational pattern, the Seventy serve in Area Presidencies and direct the work of mission presidents and local leaders.
The Twelve serve as assigned by the First Presidency of the Church. Under that commission, they qualify for this great scriptural promise: “The Twelve … shall have power to open the door of my kingdom unto any nation whithersoever [the First Presidency] shall send them.” (D&C 112:21.)
The Lord said, “I will hasten my work in its time.” (D&C 88:73.) Surely anyone observing the recent growth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is keenly aware of that hastening process. This should make us humbly grateful for the Lord’s omnipotent hand. Obstacles that seemed insurmountable have proven to be merely challenges for the faithful, for “with God nothing shall be impossible.” (Luke 1:37.)
Inspiration has prepared the way from the beginning, when the Lord impressed the Prophet Joseph Smith to compose the twelfth article of faith: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” This inspired statement was surely written for our day. The Prophet knew that the gospel was ultimately to be taken to all nations regardless of their governmental differences. He knew that the ordinances of salvation and exaltation could bless the lives of people regardless of their politics. And he knew that people who were taught correct principles and who were loyal to their civil leaders and observing of their local laws would be most able to enjoy the blessings of the gospel.
And so they have during this period of remarkable political change. It would be inappropriate to attempt analysis of such, except to note that efforts of Church leaders in these nations have preceded and not waited for those important political developments. Suffice it to say that nations of Europe have been subjected to political pressures, ideological tensions, and challenges of communication imposed by a babel of different languages. Boundaries have been altered by wars and treaties. Cities have been ravaged by bombings, but rebuilt by the indomitable spirit of dauntless citizens who yearn for a better future.
We have been keenly aware of this history. Europe is important to the Church. It was the fatherland for progenitors of many present leaders. Early missionary work, especially in the British Isles and in the northern portions of Europe, brought powerful stalwarts into the Church who gave strength and stability during the struggles of its fledgling years.
The progress of the Church in Europe in recent years is far too broad to consider adequately in this article. Therefore it becomes necessary to limit countries and circumstances to be described. Thus, a charge of omission of many important details is one to which I plead guilty at the outset.
When we attend a movie or a play, we note a list of credit lines appropriately acknowledging the cast of characters and names of individuals whose work behind the scenes has been essential. Space limitations require that I forgo that obligation. But I acknowledge the untiring and selfless efforts of General Authorities who have served in the Europe Area Presidency from late 1985 to mid-1991: Elders Joseph B. Wirthlin, Carlos E. Asay, Hans B. Ringger, Derek A. Cuthbert, John Sonnenberg, Russell C. Taylor, John R. Lasater, Albert Choules, Jr., and Spencer J. Condie. Courageous couples and pioneering missionaries all deserve much credit. The exemplary behavior of the Saints of the German Democratic Republic and of Czechoslovakia is especially important. Because of the excellence of their righteous example, positive recommendations were given by their governments to inquiring leaders of other nations.
I will frequently refer to Elder Hans B. Ringger of the Seventy. He has been the member of the Europe Area Presidency with assigned responsibility for these special countries of middle and eastern Europe. Elder Ringger is a native of Switzerland, a professional architect and electrical engineer. His partnership with me on these assignments has been most unusual to governmental leaders who were accustomed to dealing with professional clergymen. In fact, our uniqueness has at times been disarming. Invariably, our hosts have been startled, to say the least, when they have been introduced to an American heart surgeon and a Swiss architect, now joined in giving full-time service to their Church. I pay special tribute to Elder Ringger.
Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander of the Seventy was recently released after serving four years as president of the Austria Vienna East Mission. His pioneering efforts have been monumental in nearly all the nations of this report. Of eleven new missions created in Europe in the past two years, six (Czechoslovakia Prague, Finland Helsinki East, Greece Athens, Hungary Budapest, Poland Warsaw, and Bulgaria Sofia) have been created from districts of his mission during his period of presidency. No doubt more will come. That is a remarkable record.
Sister Beverly Campbell, President Ralph W. Hardy, Jr., and other members of the Church’s Washington, D.C., public affairs committee have been especially helpful in establishing contacts with ambassadors and magistrates there and abroad. They and their companions and fellow workers have earned our deepest gratitude.
Unitedly and thankfully, we all acknowledge the hand of the Lord in these remarkable accomplishments, for it is His errand on which we have been called.
This report will focus on ten countries in Europe’s middle and eastern sectors. Their geographical classifications are as follows:
Middle Europe includes the countries of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and, until 3 October 1990, the German Democratic Republic. On that date, the German Democratic Republic became united with the Federal Republic of Germany. Its sovereign existence previously as the German Democratic Republic was a very important part of this drama.
Five countries comprise the Balkan states, so named because they are situated on the Balkan Peninsula. They are Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and Greece.
At the time this report was written, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics consisted of fifteen republics, three of which were the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which border on the Baltic Sea. No doubt this will be changed by the date of publication.
The eastern boundary of Europe is defined by the Ural Mountains. The Soviet Union east of the Ural Mountains is classified geographically with the Asian continent. The area west of the Ural Range is therefore part of eastern Europe.
The term central Europe has not been used. To the European, there is no designated “center” of this continent.
Now let us put the Church on the stage and turn the clock backward. President Ezra Taft Benson became the thirteenth President of the Church on 10 November 1985. The Thursday after he was set apart as President of the Church, the First Presidency gave certain assignments to each member of the Quorum of the Twelve. Mine included that of first contact responsibility for the work in all of Europe, succeeding Elders Thomas S. Monson and Neal A. Maxwell. Elder Monson, now of the First Presidency, had shepherded affairs in middle and eastern Europe for about two decades. Elder Maxwell had been serving as first contact for the remainder of Europe, including the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Africa as well.
At that time, Church activities in middle and eastern Europe were limited. Elder Spencer J. Condie, now of the Seventy, was then president of the Austria Vienna Mission. A few courageous “friendshipping” missionary couples labored under his direction. One couple served in Poland, another went in and out of Hungary (from Austria), another couple or two served in Yugoslavia, and one or two couples were in Greece. Of course, we had none called to the U.S.S.R.
Meanwhile, faithful members of the Church had resided in the German Democratic Republic and in Czechoslovakia during decades of political duress. Of course, no missionary couples served there. Members’ activities were limited by the restrictive regimes of those lands. For example, the first time Sister Nelson and I visited Czechoslovakia in 1975, I had been invited to participate in a medical capacity. While in Prague, we met with a few Saints in a member’s apartment, which we accessed up a dimly lighted stairway. Well do we remember meeting the fifteen-year-old daughter of two members who indicated that they had never before revealed to their daughter their affiliation with the Church. That night—for the first time—she was being entrusted with that potentially dangerous information. After the meeting was over, the district president dropped us off some distance from our hotel so that police would not identify him in our presence. Under such imposed limitations, there was no hope of missionary work either in Czechoslovakia or in the German Democratic Republic, both of which had been blessed with missionaries prior to the onset of the Second World War.
A momentous event occurred in 1985. A temple was erected in the German Democratic Republic. It was dedicated 29 June 1985 by President Gordon B. Hinckley, whose prayer included this remarkable expression of hope: “May this day long be remembered in the annals of Thy Church. May it be recalled with gratitude and appreciation. May it mark the beginning of a new day of gladness for Thy people.”
The Lord surely honored that plea. This prayer became a prophetic promise. Now, in retrospect, it is evident that the influence of that temple has been immeasurably great. The spiritual radiation from that temple deserves much credit for the changes that have occurred. This house of the Lord was the pivot point around which all good things subsequently seemed to turn.
With the general backdrop laid for the drama, let us review specific progress in each nation, beginning at the northern portion of the middle European corridor.
On 31 May 1986, I accompanied President Thomas S. Monson and Elder Ringger in meetings with Adam Lopatka, head of religious affairs, and Tadeusz Dusik, director of non-Catholic relations, and their associates. To them, we expressed two hopes: for young missionaries to enter Poland, and for permission to buy or build a chapel. Both requests were granted!
On 15 June 1989, we broke ground for the first LDS chapel to be built on Polish soil. It has now been completed and was dedicated 22 June 1991.
On 1 July 1990, our first mission in Poland was established, with headquarters in Warsaw, with Walter Whipple as president. The first missionary to be called from Poland is a lovely young lady named Ursula Adamska, who served in the Washington Tacoma Mission. She is now residing in Warsaw and participated there with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as narrator at their recent concert.
Many strong converts early in the history of the Church came from the area more recently known as the German Democratic Republic. Karl G. Maeser, for example, was born in Meissen, near Dresden. Since the end of World War II, our members have cautiously and quietly carried on with great devotion. The very careful leadership of President Monson, Elder Wirthlin, Elder Asay, Elder Ringger, and other General Authorities engendered a level of earned respect among governmental leaders. They found our members to be upright and honest citizens. Literally, the moral integrity and devout faith of these Saints brought them their temple in Freiberg.
Henry Burkhardt was called as president of that temple, and his wife, Inge, was called as matron. For many years the Burkhardts have been beloved leaders of the Saints in the German Democratic Republic. On one occasion when President Monson presided at a regional conference there, he asked for a show of hands of all who at some time in their lives had received a blessing from, or been called, set apart, or counseled helpfully by President Burkhardt. The majority of the members of the congregation raised their hands! The influence of the Burkhardts has been incalculably great.
On 28 October 1988, President Monson and I, accompanied by Elder Ringger, President Burkhardt, and other Church leaders, met with governmental officials in East Berlin. We made two forthright requests. We asked permission for expatriate missionaries to enter the German Democratic Republic. Moreover, we asked permission for our worthy elders in the German Democratic Republic to leave for two years to serve missions elsewhere in the world. The answer ultimately given to both questions was yes! What a historic moment that was! (See Thomas S. Monson, “Thanks Be to God,” Ensign, May 1989, pp. 50–53.)
The government paid a remarkable tribute to President Monson, who had asked if they wished to designate any particular countries to which their departing missionaries should or should not be sent. After private consultation on this matter, their spokesman simply replied, “President Monson, we trust you! You may send them anywhere you like.” Those first ten outgoing elders were assigned to England, the U.S.A., Canada, Argentina, and Chile. They have all successfully completed their missions and have since returned with honor to their homes.
Our first small group of incoming missionaries entered the German Democratic Republic 28 March 1989, under the leadership of President Wolfgang Paul. Their numbers have now increased substantially. In the ensuing year and a half, more than 1,100 convert baptisms have taken place there.
When President and Sister Paul first moved to Dresden, their children were required to study Russian, so a female tutor was provided for them. In due course, this tutor was converted and baptized into the Church. Later her parents followed that same course.
In November 1989, the Berlin Wall opened, and events subsequently led to the unification of Germany on 3 October 1990. Less than three weeks later, on October 21, President Monson, Elder Ringger, and I returned to Berlin for reorganization of the Church in this part of Germany. Nearly 2,500 people attended the general session of that conference in Berlin. The Saints were so grateful to be together once again! There was hardly a dry eye in the congregation. Then we also met with more than 150 missionaries in Berlin.
This mission was divided 1 July 1991, and the new Germany Berlin Mission was established, with Manfred H. Schütze serving as president, replacing President Paul, whose pioneering efforts we gratefully acknowledge. President Magnus R. Meiser replaced President Paul in the Germany Dresden Mission.
Now Germany and its people are politically reunited; members of the Church are not only temporally but spiritually unified in the cause of the Master, whom they love and serve.
The road to recognition in this country has been both difficult and frustrating. Since receiving our European assignments, Elder Ringger and I have traveled to Czechoslovakia at least once each year to meet with governmental officials in Prague. Two transoceanic journeys were rewarded only with failed appointments or hopes dashed with the empty statement that “your request for recognition is still being studied.” When we returned to Prague on 6 February 1990, however, we found that the official with whom we had been dealing had been removed from his chair. When his successor heard our complete story, he said, “Your request for recognition will be approved this very month. Your people may again worship in full dignity. Your missionaries may again return to this country.” Recognition was granted February 21, effective 1 March 1990.
When that important declaration was made, I sensed that the real hero in this story was our district president in Czechoslovakia, Jiri Snederfler. Some two and one-half years earlier, Elder Ringger and I had learned that recognition could be formally requested only by a Czechoslovakian member of the Church. So we went to the home of Brother and Sister Snederfler. We explained that we had just received that information from the chairman of the Council of Religious Affairs. Knowing that other Czechoslovakian leaders and thinkers had been imprisoned or put to death for religious or dissident belief, we told Brother Snederfler that we, as his Church leaders, could not and would not make that request of him. After contemplating only a brief moment, Brother Snederfler humbly said, “I will go! I will do it!” As he spoke, his wife, Olga, shed a tear. They embraced and said, “We will do whatever is needed. This is for the Lord, and His work is more important than our freedom or life.”
Some months later, when the papers were properly prepared, Brother Snederfler submitted them personally. He and our members were then subjected to strict surveillance. The Saints continued in courage and faith. Ultimately, after periodic fasting and prayer and complete compliance with all requirements, that glorious announcement of recognition came. How I admire the Snederflers and all these stalwart members who endured so much interrogation and risk!
Brother Snederfler has been called to preside over the Freiberg Germany Temple effective 1 September 1991, succeeding President Burkhardt, who has given more than six years of devout and faithful service. Sister Olga Snederfler will serve as temple matron, succeeding Sister Inge Burkhardt.
On 1 July 1990, a mission in Czechoslovakia, forbidden for forty years, was again opened, with Richard W. Winder as president of the Czechoslovakian Mission. He had served in that country on his first mission as a young man. His wife, Barbara, was released as general president of the Relief Society to accompany her husband on this crucial assignment for which they alone were so uniquely qualified.
Upon authorization by the First Presidency, I was privileged to dedicate the land of Hungary on Mt. Gellért in Budapest, Easter Sunday, 19 April 1987. Two days later, Elder Ringger and I met with the chairman of the Council of Religious Affairs, Imre Miklos. Our reception at first was a bit tense. It was clear that we were neither welcome nor wanted. Things were not going particularly well. But then I felt impressed to let this leader know that two days prior to this meeting, I had offered a special apostolic prayer for his country and for its people. As this was mentioned, his countenance changed. Now he was listening. A meeting planned for thirty minutes lasted an hour and a half. From that point forward, he became our friend and advocate. Several subsequent meetings were successfully held. Fourteen months later, Elder Ringger and I returned to Budapest for formal ceremonies with Mr. Miklos on 14 June 1988 that confirmed official recognition for the Church in Hungary.
In October 1989, the annual seminar for all European mission presidents and their partners was held in Budapest. President Thomas S. Monson and Sister Frances J. Monson joined us. On the very date of that seminar, October 17, the Hungarian Parliament changed the name of their country from the Hungarian People’s Republic to the Republic of Hungary. That country had now become a democracy.
A new mission was opened 1 July 1990, with James L. Wilde serving as president. Our chapel in Budapest was dedicated by President Monson, and several congregations are developing there and in other centers of strength.
President Monson dedicated this land on 31 October 1985, just prior to his call to the First Presidency. My first visit to that country as a Church leader was in April 1987. Elder Ringger and I met with governmental directors of religious affairs for Serbia and Croatia, as well as for Yugoslavia. Our interpreter was Kresmir Cosic, once a star basketball player for Brigham Young University. Brother Cosic had become a national sports hero in Yugoslavia. Governmental officials confessed that they weren’t particularly eager to meet with leaders of the “Mormon” Church, but they were excited to meet Brother Cosic, whom they admired and watched regularly on television.
We now have a legally recognized chapel in Zagreb, and congregations in other major cities. Elders and couple missionaries serving in Yugoslavia are currently assigned from the Austria Vienna Mission. Earnestly we pray for peaceful resolution of the civil discord that besets this nation at the present time. So many choice souls reside in this beautiful land.
Elder Ringger and I first went to Bucharest, Romania, in October 1987, at which time we became acquainted in a preliminary fashion with governmental officials.
We returned in February 1990, five weeks after the bloody revolution that had brought down the country’s long-standing dictatorship. On February 9, as authorized by the First Presidency, I dedicated the land of Romania in Çismigiu Park—which, translated, means the park of “one who carries water.” That seemed significantly symbolic when one considers the message the Lord gave to the woman at the well in Samaria. Jesus said unto her, “Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again:
“But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:13–14.)
We asked the new governmental leaders what we as a church might do to be of help to them. They requested assistance with their orphans. We were told that there were more than thirty thousand orphans in the city of Bucharest alone. We visited one of the orphanages. I have seen a lot of pathetic sights in my day, having worked in charity hospitals in Bombay, India, and having performed surgical operations under difficult conditions in the People’s Republic of China and elsewhere. But no situation had ever seemed quite so tragic as that seen in this institution.
To afford relief, members of the Church responded in a most generous and humanitarian manner. Particularly do I pay tribute to the Saints in Europe who loaded countless numbers of trucks with needed goods to ease the plight of these unfortunate children.
Several mature, well-trained, and professionally prepared Latter-day Saints have responded to calls for special service in Bucharest, rendering voluntary relief, just as Ammon did in the days of the Book of Mormon. Certainly their efforts are as historic as those of other pioneers in the annals of Church history.
These missionaries now serve under the direction of the president of the Hungary Budapest Mission. Congregations of members and interested friends worship regularly in Romania.
When Elder Ringger and I first arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria, on 30 October 1988, we had been led to believe, through our indirect “third-party” contact, that we would be met at the airport and that proper appointments had been made. (Incidentally, it had been our experience that most leaders in these totalitarian governments did not confirm any arrangements in writing.) So we went to Bulgaria in faith. We arrived late at night. No one was there to greet us. We took a taxi, which delivered us to the wrong hotel. Once we made that discovery, we trudged, luggage in hand, through a snowstorm until we finally found our correct accommodations. Our frustration continued the next day as bilingual telephone operators at the hotel were not able to help us identify either the office or the leaders with whom we needed to meet. We were at a complete dead end. All we could do was to pray for help.
Our prayers were answered. In a marvelous way, a day later, at 10:00 A.M., we met with Mr. Tsviatko Tsvetkov, head of the religious affairs department for the country. He had just returned to the city, and his interpreter was available also. Incredible!
At first, the atmosphere was pretty cold. He didn’t know we were coming. Through his interpreter, he scolded, “Nelson? Ringger? Mormons? I’ve never heard of you.”
I replied, “That makes us even. We have never heard of you, either. It’s time we got acquainted.” Everyone laughed, and we went on to have a great meeting.
Elder Ringger and I returned to Sofia in February 1990, at which time, as authorized by the First Presidency, an apostolic dedicatory prayer was given on February 13 at Park Na Svobodata, which means “Liberty Park.”
On this visit we again met with Mr. Tsvetkov and other governmental leaders and also with many representatives of the media. The director of the International Foundation in Bulgaria asked if we could help provide teachers of English. We assured him that we could. Capable teachers were called and sent to fulfill that request. This director came to Salt Lake City in October 1990 to continue our friendship. With gratitude, he praised the work of our missionary sisters and couples who had begun teaching in Bulgaria. Their contacts have provided excellent referrals, and several individuals have since joined the Church.
A new mission, the 268th mission of the Church, was created on 1 July 1991. Kiril Kiriakov now serves as president of the Bulgaria Sofia Mission. President and Sister Kiriakov were both born in Bulgaria. Official recognition for the Church was granted by the Bulgarian government on 10 July 1991. Congregations of Saints and friends are growing in Bulgaria.
From the time of my first assignment to Athens in December 1985 to the present, growth of the Church in Greece has been steady. The Greece Athens Mission was opened 1 July 1990, with R. Douglas Phillips as president. Mission branches in Greece had previously been under the direction of the Austria Vienna and, later, the Austria Vienna East missions. Our members there are thrilled now to have their own full-time missionaries to teach their friends and strengthen their branches. They are accomplishing a mighty work in this land blessed by personal ministrations of Apostles both ancient and modern.
This nation outlawed religion and declared the country officially atheist in 1967.
Notwithstanding, Elder Dallin H. Oaks and Elder Ringger visited Tirane, capital of Albania, in April 1991 and became acquainted with leaders and circumstances in this small nation that only recently overturned its long-established constitutional provision for atheism. Opportunities for its people to be blessed by the gospel and the generosity of Church members appear better now than at any time in many decades.
The U.S.S.R. was a union of fifteen republics, one of which was the Republic of Russia. Others included Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and the Baltic states.
Although I had been to the Soviet Union three times before as a surgeon, Elder Ringger and I first went to Moscow as Church leaders in June 1987 on a very important fact-finding journey. We met with the chairman of the Council of Religious Affairs and with leaders of other religious denominations, including the Russian Orthodox, Protestant, and Jewish faiths. At the invitation of the chief rabbi, Adolph Shayevich, we attended a bar mitzvah service at the synagogue in Moscow.
We returned in August of 1989 to participate, along with philanthropists Dr. Armand Hammer of California and Jon M. Huntsman of Utah, in signing an agreement, August 8, for the Church to assist in relief efforts for victims of the disastrous earthquake of December 1988 in Armenia. May I digress to express gratitude for the faith and generosity of members of the Church who contributed funds generously and spontaneously for this cause. Though the Church never solicited a single coin, valuable donations have been voluntarily contributed by members throughout the world, either directly or via their own bishops and branch presidents.
In both of those visits to the Soviet Union, we met with the chairman of the Council of Religious Affairs and learned that recognition of a church was not given on a federal basis but was granted locally. A petition was required from a minimum of twenty adult members of the Church, all Soviet citizens residing in a given political district. Also, as in many of these countries, open preaching of the gospel was not allowed because that was deemed to be an infringement on the rights of others who chose not to believe in any religion. Thus, we were left with a real dilemma. Without missionaries, how could we get a congregation of twenty members in any district? And how could we teach the gospel without first having twenty members so that we could obtain legal recognition? But remember: “With God nothing shall be impossible.” Within a few months we had a congregation of twenty and more members in Leningrad!
The conversion of these pioneer members of the Church is truly a marvelous study in the workings of the Lord. Our branch president and his wife found the Church and were baptized on 1 July 1989 while in Budapest, Hungary. Russian-speaking home teachers from Helsinki, Finland, were assigned to visit these new converts upon their return to Leningrad. Another woman temporarily left Leningrad to find the Church in a miraculous manner. This beautiful young mother named Svetlana had importuned the Lord in prayer to make it possible for her to obtain a Bible written in the Russian language. Such a Bible is rare, precious, and very expensive. In the fall of 1989, she and her husband and their young child went to Helsinki in quest for a Bible. While walking through a park in Helsinki, she stepped upon an object hidden beneath the ground cover of autumn leaves. She picked it up and found it to be the answer to her prayers. It was a Bible written in the Russian language. So excited was she that she joyfully recounted the story of this great discovery to another mother who was also in the park with her youngster. The second mother then replied to Svetlana, “Would you like to have another book about Jesus Christ, also written in the Russian language?” Svetlana, of course, answered in the affirmative. The other mother then provided Svetlana with a Russian copy of the Book of Mormon and invited her to church. This other mother was Raija Kemppainen, wife of Jussi Kemppainen, then president of the Baltic District of the Finland Helsinki Mission. Shortly thereafter, Svetlana joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and returned with her family to Leningrad.
These early converts invited choice friends into their homes to hear news of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and many of these gratefully responded to the message of the missionaries and were baptized.
On 26 April 1990, we met with governmental officials and subsequently submitted application papers for recognition of the Leningrad Branch. That very day, I offered a prayer of gratitude and rededication in the Summer Gardens adjacent to the Neva River, just beyond Mars Field, where Elder Francis M. Lyman of the Council of the Twelve had dedicated Russia for the preaching of the gospel on 6 August 1903.
Our request for formal recognition for our branch in Leningrad was granted on 13 September 1990. Thus, an important precedent was established that congregations in other cities would follow.
The first missionary to be called bearing a passport from the U.S.S.R. is Elder Jaanus Silla, from Tallinn, Estonia. Soon after his baptism, he yearned for an opportunity to serve a mission. Yet practical obstacles loomed like impossibilities. He needed an exit visa, funds for a mission, and support for his mother. His mission president, Steven R. Mecham, counseled him to keep the commandments and to have faith that his righteous desires would be granted. In a marvelous manner, this occurred. Those obstacles were overcome. Elder Silla now serves in the Utah Salt Lake City Mission!
Many similar stories of the Lord’s hand in directing this work could be cited. Special credit should be given to President Mecham, who presided over the Finland Helsinki Mission when we took our first careful steps into the Baltic district of the Soviet Union—in Leningrad, in Vyborg, and in Tallinn, capital city of Estonia. This important work is now being carried on and magnified by Gary L. Browning, president of the Finland Helsinki East Mission, which was created 1 July 1990.
Upon authorization of the First Presidency, I dedicated Estonia on 25 April 1990. The site chosen, which overlooks the city of Tallinn and the Baltic Sea, bears the name Laululava. Some Estonians say the soul of their country resides there. It has a natural amphitheater where people come in large numbers to sing. On the brow of the hill above, early in the morning, that special prayer of dedication was offered under cover of large evergreen trees.
In due course, people from Lithuania and Latvia will also find the Church and its precious gospel of salvation, although we have no branches in those countries at present.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was given official recognition by the Republic of Russia on 28 May 1991. This historic decision was announced in Moscow on 24 June 1991 by the vice president of the republic, Alexander Rutskoi. Russia thus joined Estonia as the second of the fifteen republics formerly in the U.S.S.R. to grant recognition to the Church.
To assist members in the U.S.S.R. in their new faith and in their missionary zeal, full-time missionaries were called. Initially they entered on tourist visas, rendered their help, and then returned to headquarters (Helsinki or Vienna) after a brief period of three to four days or so. Missionaries first entered Tallinn on 8 December 1989, Leningrad on 19 January 1990, Kiev on 7 October 1990, and Moscow on 18 October 1990. As of July 1991, each of those cities has two branches.
The first baptism of an LDS Russian convert by an LDS Russian priest occurred in Leningrad on 17 February 1990. Meanwhile, many Soviet citizens found the Church while temporarily located in distant countries and have since returned to seed the growing Church in their home cities. They illustrate the fact that opportunities to establish the Church worldwide surely develop for those who regard newcomers among them as “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God.” (Eph. 2:19.)
Members now reside in Kurgan, Leningrad (recently renamed St. Petersburg), Moscow, Sochi, Vyborg, and Zelenograd, Russia; Tallinn, Estonia; Kiev, Ukraine; Sukhumi, Georgia; and other cities.
In June 1991, the Republic of Armenia donated land to the Church for the construction of a facility in its capital city, Yerevan, in gratitude for relief efforts extended in Armenia by the Church and its members worldwide. For example, Jon M. Huntsman, his wife, Karen, and their family have contributed funds and personal commitment to relieve thousands of homeless victims of the disastrous earthquake of December 1988. David M. Horne, a building contractor from Salt Lake City, responded to a special mission call from the Church to donate his time and skills to help build safe homes for these victims. A precast concrete fabrication facility, dedicated in Yerevan on 24 June 1991, will generate enough units to erect 6,500 apartments and provide housing for 25,000 people annually.
The Republic of Armenia was dedicated on 24 June 1991 by Elder Dallin H. Oaks. He and I stood arm in arm on a peak overlooking the city of Yerevan near the monument representing the mother of Armenia. Not far in the distance, we could see the snow-covered peak of Mount Ararat, where Noah’s Ark once had come to rest. (See Gen. 8:4.)
In June 1991, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir made its historic concert tour of eight countries of Europe. Included in their itinerary were performances in Warsaw, Poland; Friedrichsdorf, Frankfurt, Dresden, and Berlin, Germany; Budapest, Hungary; Prague, Czechoslovakia; and Moscow and Leningrad in the U.S.S.R. Concerts were also presented in Strasbourg, France; Zurich, Switzerland; and Vienna, Austria. Hearts were touched wherever they sang their beautiful songs of faith and devotion. The impact of this important tour has been well reported in articles appearing in the Ensign. (See Jay M. Todd, Ensign, Oct. 1991, pp. 32–53; and Russell M. Nelson, Ensign, November 1991, pp. 59–61.)
Elder Oaks and I were privileged to join the choir on that significant journey. Upon our return, we reported to President Ezra Taft Benson on 3 July 1991 the success of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s tour. Then we showed him certified copies of documents that attested to full recognition for the Church in the Republic of Russia. We shall never forget his look of joy. That has become one of our most cherished memories shared since our call to the Quorum of the Twelve in 1984. Poignantly, we recalled that President Benson had often referred to his own unforgettable experience when he had courageously spoken from the pulpit of a church in Moscow on 1 October 1959, telling the congregation:
“Our Heavenly Father is not far away. He can be very close to us. God lives, I know that He lives. He is our Father. Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the World, watches over this earth. He will direct all things. Be unafraid, keep His commandments, love one another, pray for peace and all will be well.”
President Benson noted that “as each sentence was translated for the congregation, I saw the women take their handkerchiefs and as one observer put it begin to ‘wave them like a mother bidding permanent goodby to her only son.’” (Ezra Taft Benson, Cross Fire—The Eight Years with Eisenhower, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1962, pp. 486–87. See also Sheri L. Dew, Ezra Taft Benson: A Biography, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1987, pp. 342–45.)
This prophet, who presided over the Church during the period described in this report, who had preached for freedom and pled with people everywhere to study the Book of Mormon and “sweep the earth as with a flood” (Moses 7:62) with its precious pages, lived to reap part of his harvest with news that the Church was fully recognized in the Republic of Russia!
This article is in some respects both a summary and a concluding personal report of an assignment. It reviews eyewitness excerpts of my ministry in Europe during more than five important years. The First Presidency has now changed assignments of members of the Quorum of the Twelve. They know that each member of that sacred quorum, as he moves through the chairs of succession and seniority, must be broadened by knowledge of the Church and its people in all aspects of the work, and in all parts of the world. Accordingly, on 1 December 1990, the baton of first contact responsibility for Europe was passed to the capable hand of Elder Dallin H. Oaks. He has already made many remarkable contributions in that capacity.
During my numerous assignments to Europe (and other continents), my sweet companion, Dantzel, and our family have sustained me with their prayers of faith. They have not murmured, no matter the risk or the hostility likely to have been encountered in some of these ventures. I gratefully acknowledge their support.
The drama that I have documented (at the rate of growth of the Church, no doubt this article will be somewhat outdated at the time of publication) has focused merely on a portion of the European theater. Meanwhile, apostolic prayers of dedication have been offered recently in many other countries in Africa, South America, Central America, the South Pacific, and Asia.
As the work expands at a rate that many have described as “unbelievable,” we should recall a remarkable admonition given by the Lord through the Prophet Joseph Smith on 11 September 1831 to the elders of the Church assembled at the Morley Farm near Kirtland, Ohio. There the Master simply said: “Wherefore, be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great.” (D&C 64:33.)
President Wilford Woodruff recorded more about that incident. He wrote: “On Sunday night the Prophet called on all who held the Priesthood to gather into the little log school house they had there. It was a small house, perhaps 14 feet square. But it held the whole of the priesthood of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who were then in the town of Kirtland. … When we got together the Prophet called upon the Elders of Israel with him to bear testimony of this work. … When they got through the Prophet said, “Brethren I have been very much edified and instructed in your testimonies here tonight. But I want to say to you before the Lord, that you know no more concerning the destinies of this Church and kingdom than a babe upon its mother’s lap. You don’t comprehend it. … [It] will fill North and South America—it will fill the world.” (In Conference Report, 6 April 1898, p. 57; see also Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, ed. G. Homer Durham, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1946, 1990, pp. 30–31, citing Millennial Star 54:605.)
The Prophet knew the destiny of this Church. We are now experiencing part of the growth he envisioned more than a century and a half ago.
I pray that we all may have that same understanding and faith. I bear witness that God lives. Jesus is the Christ. This is His church, and His work will fill the world to bless its people in the Lord’s due time.