From Footholds to Strongholds: Spreading the Gospel Worldwide


The message of the restored gospel is spreading throughout the earth. In some countries, missionary successes have been fueled by the pioneering work of LDS visitors or residents converted abroad who returned to help prepare their land for later harvests.

Skilled mountain climbers are able to ascend even the steepest slopes if they can but gain a secure foothold from which to proceed. The Master taught a similar principle in his parable of the sower (see Matt. 13:3–8) when he taught that some seeds take root in good soil and produce fruit abundantly.

This principle applies as we discharge our responsibility to share the gospel (see D&C 18:15–16) and as we seek to “gather [the] elect from the four quarters of the earth.” (D&C 33:6.) Experiences in Church history likewise illustrate the advantage of having some groundwork laid in an area before beginning regular missionary work there.

Early Lessons

Many of the missions launched during the early years of the Church did not have the benefit of advance preparation. To test the climate for teaching the gospel worldwide, Brigham Young called more than one hundred missionaries in 1852 to China, Hindustan, the West Indies, Gibraltar, and the Cape of Good Hope. Lacking necessary preparation, however, those early fields of labor yielded no footholds.

The missionary experience of Elder Parley P. Pratt in Chile was seemingly unsuccessful. Arriving at Valparaiso in early November 1851, Elder Pratt found a revolution in progress and the people consequently uninterested in hearing about a new religion. Despite diligent study on his part, Elder Pratt did not acquire fluency in Spanish. After four discouraging months, he left South America lamenting that he, together with his wife and Elder Rufus Allen, had not been able to “turn the keys of the Gospel as yet to these nations.” (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1985, pp. 365–66.)

The first missionaries to China, arriving in 1853, were similarly unsuccessful and departed after only seven weeks. In other parts of the world, however, LDS missionaries had help in gaining footholds in a variety of ways.

Bringing the Gospel Home

The first LDS missionaries reached England in 1837 and went directly to Preston, where lived a Protestant minister, Reverend James Fielding, brother of one of the elders, Joseph Fielding. Reverend Fielding invited them to attend his church on their first Sabbath morning in England.

As the service drew to a close, Elder Heber C. Kimball and his companions prayed that the Lord would open a way for them to preach. To their great joy, the reverend announced to his congregation that the American ministers would preach in the afternoon service. The message of the Restoration was enthusiastically received; soon many people requested baptism. Interestingly, on the very day that the elders began preaching in England, the Lord gave a revelation affirming that the Twelve held the keys of opening doors to the gospel in all lands. (See D&C 112:21.)

Family ties also facilitated the introduction of the restored gospel to New Zealand. The first LDS missionaries arrived there from Australia in 1854. Failing to find a foothold in Auckland, the elders went to the Wellington area, home to family members of one of their group, Elder Thomas Holden. His mother and sister became the first members of the Church in that land.

Converts from minority groups in various lands have been instrumental in carrying their newly adopted faith back to their home cultures. Mischa Markow, a Hungarian living in Istanbul, Turkey, heard the gospel there and was baptized in 1887. The following year he returned to his hometown and shared his newfound faith with members of his family. Over the next decade, more than one hundred Hungarians were baptized.

In another part of the world, just before World War II, a mission was formed to reach people of Japanese ancestry residing in Hawaii. A large share of those converted became missionaries and mission presidents in Japan once proselyting was reopened there after the war. (See Ensign, Oct. 1992, pp. 34–36.)

During the early 1960s, missionaries in Switzerland began working with the Italian minority living there, most of whom had relatives in northern Italy. At the same time, many Italians who had moved to West Germany in search of work received the gospel and carried it back to their homes in northern Italy. These contacts, plus the activity of LDS servicemen farther south, formed the basis of reopening missionary work in Italy in 1965. (See Church News, 20 Mar. 1965, p. 12.)

A door was reopened in India when Edwin Dharmaraju and his wife, Elsie, both of whom had joined the Church in Samoa, returned home to Hyderabad and shared their new faith. Twenty-two family members were baptized, and a branch was started. Sister Dharmaraju’s father, a Baptist minister, became interested and translated the Book of Mormon into Telegu, a language spoken by more than fifty million people. His help was especially valuable in south Asia, where local laws and immigration policies generally excluded missionaries representing new churches. (See Ensign, Apr. 1990, pp. 60–62.) The work of these good people was a necessary prerequisite to the establishment of the India Bangalore Mission on 1 January 1993, with Gurcharan Singh Gill as mission president.

Missionary Tracts

In other fields of labor, Church literature prepared the way for the spread of the gospel. The first LDS missionaries to Mexico, in 1876, translated selections from the Book of Mormon and mailed them to five hundred community leaders. One of these tracts fell into the hands of Palatino Rhodakanaty in Mexico City. Three years later, convinced of the truth of the Book of Mormon and having converted a circle of friends, he requested that missionaries be sent. Soon there were several small branches in the area.

Another example is Paul Thirothuvadoss, of Coimbatore, India. A Christian since birth, he was dissatisfied with many Christian denominations he had known. But in 1954, as he was considering converting to Hinduism, he found a Church tract in a used book he had bought and was so impressed that he requested more literature from Church headquarters in Utah. Within three years he had read the standard works, requested baptism, and started a Sunday School that eventually numbered 250 members. The many gospel seeds he planted continue to bear fruit.

Church growth in Nigeria and Ghana has at its roots the work of people who came into possession of Church literature and wrote to Salt Lake City on their own. Many had testimonies long before Church representatives arrived to baptize them. By 1968—a decade before the first Ghanaians were baptized into the LDS faith—a group of Ghanaian believers had their own small meetinghouse bearing the name “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” When missionaries were sent to these areas in 1978, they found hundreds of people eager to become official members of the Church. Within a year there were some 1,700 members in Nigeria and Ghana.

Minority Successes

Ethnic minorities have played a key role in the Church’s worldwide spread. Members of these groups have often been the first in their countries to receive the gospel message. For example, in the Society Islands in 1843, Addison Pratt found his first converts among English-speaking shipbuilders living on the island of Tubuai. Later, however, he also enjoyed great success among the natives. In the early years of the mission in France, most converts were foreign-born Protestants who spoke English or German. But later the majority of converts were French-speaking Catholics.

After World War I, German immigrants carried the restored gospel to Argentina. Wilhelm Friedrichs, a Latter-day Saint from Germany, joined many of his countrymen in quest of a better life in South America. He arrived in Buenos Aires in 1923 and began sharing his faith with the German community there. Soon several German families were reading the Book of Mormon and preparing for baptism.

In 1925 the First Presidency sent Elder Melvin J. Ballard to Argentina to officially open missionary work there. He was accompanied by two members of the Seventy: Rulon S. Wells, who was fluent in German, and Rey L. Pratt (Parley’s grandson), whose knowledge of Spanish and Latin American customs proved valuable. They disembarked in Buenos Aires in December and were greeted by the Friedrichs family with tears of gratitude. The elders were conducted to a cottage meeting in a nonmember’s home, with fifty interested persons in attendance.

The first converts (six Germans) were baptized less than a week later. For several years thereafter, missionaries continued to concentrate their efforts on the German-speaking minority, thus developing a firm foundation for expanding the work.

When members of Roberto Lippelt’s family accepted the gospel in Germany, he was resentful and eventually decided to immigrate to Brazil “to rid himself of contact with the Mormons and start a new life with his family in another land.”

In 1923 the family settled with other German immigrants in a small farming community in southern Brazil. Missionaries were sent there after Augusta Lippelt, Roberto’s wife, wrote to Church headquarters to request literature to use in teaching her children. The missionaries were warmly received. Eventually Roberto and many of his German friends joined the Church and became the nucleus of the first branch in southern Brazil. (See Church News, 31 May 1980, p. 5.)

By the late 1930s, the focus of missionary work in Argentina and Brazil had shifted from the German minority to the Spanish and Portuguese majorities—the mainstream peoples among whom the future growth of the Church in South America would take place.

Good Examples Abroad

In this century, Latter-day Saints living abroad on military, government, or business assignments have been an increasingly effective ethnic minority in carrying the gospel to new lands. Since World War II, LDS servicemen have helped establish the Church in such places as Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, Italy, and Spain.

In 1964 the Swiss Mission president encouraged American LDS servicemen in Naples to learn Italian so they could share the gospel there. One year later Elder Ezra Taft Benson, then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, told a group of Americans in Rome that “their work would be a vital factor in the eventual setting up of a mission in Italy.” (See Church News, 9 May 1964, p. 10; 16 Jan. 1965, p. 3.) The Italian Mission was reestablished in August 1966.

In Spain in 1967 the Franco government passed a law granting freedom of worship and legal recognition for the first time to churches other than the Roman Catholic church—but only to those churches already established in the land. Servicemen’s branches on several military bases, together with a small number of Spanish members, qualified the Church for this recognition. (See James R. Moss et al, The International Church, Provo: BYU Publications, 1982, pp. 107–8.)

Church growth in Latin America has especially benefitted from the examples of faithful LDS families on business or governmental assignments. John O‘Donnel, who was working in Guatemala for the United States Department of Agriculture, asked the First Presidency in 1946 to send missionaries there. Elders arrived the following year, and Brother O‘Donnel’s wife, Carmen, was among the first four converts baptized in Guatemala.

A governmental assignment took the Frederick S. Williams family to Uruguay in 1943. They became the nucleus of Montevideo’s first LDS branch, which consisted mostly of similarly employed North Americans. Branch members made a favorable impression on local officials and facilitated the opening of a mission there after World War II.

These families and others not only provided leadership for growing branches in Latin America but also served as excellent role models for new members. At first most of these families came from the United States, but in recent years they have been joined by member families from other countries, particularly western Europe.

Immigrants and Refugees

Economic pressures and political crises in recent decades have forced many people to leave their homelands and to form ethnic enclaves abroad.

Australia has received some three million immigrants since World War II, most from eastern Europe; there are three hundred thousand Greeks in the city of Melbourne alone, the largest Greek community outside of Greece. More than a million Hispanics live in New York City, and there are thousands of Czechs in Austria, Indians in Fiji, and Pakistanis in Britain, to mention a few examples. Los Angeles is one of many large cities worldwide that have sizable ethnic populations. (See Ensign, Sept. 1992, pp. 35–37.)

The Church has taken steps to reach such groups. In south Florida in 1980, a third of all baptisms were Cuban refugees. Missionaries preparing to serve in southern California may be prepared to teach in any one of twenty-six different languages. Several hundred full-time missionaries have been assigned to ethnic minorities scattered in nations around the world.

The largest wave of refugees in recent years came as hundreds of thousands fled Southeast Asia during the 1970s. About one-half million of these “boat people” came to the United States. Church members have reached out to them, helping them find happiness and meaning in life through the gospel.

When a number of Laotians in Elgin, Illinois, joined the Church, a returned missionary who had served in Thailand commuted thirty miles from Chicago to serve as a translator for them. In Oakland, California, English classes taught by missionaries led to the baptism of 350 Asians. A Cambodian family in Long Beach, California, and their friends accepted a missionary’s invitation to attend church. Though these people could not speak English, the members’ friendliness encouraged them to continue attending and to invite more friends. After six weeks the number of Asian investigators passed the one hundred mark.

Charlotte Yeakley of Bellevue, Washington, found homes for six hundred Asian refugees, many of whom became interested in the Church. Soon an Asian branch numbering four hundred was formed there. In the Salt Lake City area, special branches have been organized for Laotians, Cambodians, Hmongs, and Vietnamese.

President Spencer W. Kimball believed that teaching the gospel to refugees was a preliminary step in taking the gospel to all the world, for refugee converts may one day carry the gospel to countries where the Church is now unable to go. (See Church News, 14 June 1980, p. 16.)

Eastern Europe

As remarkable political changes have swept eastern Europe since the autumn of 1989, doors have opened to the work of the Lord there. Again the Church is able to benefit from footholds already established in these lands.

Following World War II, part of Germany was transferred to Poland. For at least two decades, German Saints living there maintained their small branches and shared the gospel with their Polish countrymen. Largely through the efforts of David M. Kennedy, the First Presidency’s special consultant for diplomatic affairs, the Church ultimately gained legal recognition in Poland, and President Kimball dedicated that land in 1977 for the reception of the gospel.

Following the Tabernacle Choir’s 1982 European tour, the airing of a Hungarian television program about the Church stirred up interest. Dr. Gedeon Kereszti, a surgeon who saw the telecast, wrote to a doctor in Utah and expressed his interest. He was later baptized, becoming president of the Hungarian District and key to the Church’s official recognition there in 1988. (See Ensign, June 1990, p. 13.)

It is apparent that individual Latter-day Saints have exerted, and will likely continue to exert, a powerful influence on the worldwide expansion of the Church. In a variety of ways, they have helped secure footholds that in many instances help the Church flourish and expand, like the proverbial tent with lengthening cords and strengthening stakes. (See 3 Ne. 22:2.)

Of course, not all footholds develop into strongholds. Sometimes even the seeds that find root in good soil do not produce the same amount of fruit—“some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.” (Matt. 13:8.) Although generally “the field” may be described as “white already to harvest” (D&C 4:4), the Lord may choose to pour out his Spirit in a particular area at a particular moment according to his divine timetable.

Yet each contribution we make—as a church or as individuals—in spreading the gospel is an important beginning of unlimited potential. Our opportunities to open the way for the gospel message will abound if we prayerfully seek them. Any foothold we obtain is significant, for “by small and simple things are great things brought to pass.” (See Alma 37:6–7.)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Robert T. Barrett

Richard O. Cowan is a professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.