Before 1990, Latter-day Saints in Czechoslovakia struggled to keep the flame of faith aglow amid the buffeting winds of war and communism. The story of their forty-year vigil and the remarkable events surrounding it is the story of the Czechoslovak Mission, for decades the lone outpost of the Church in Slavic Europe.
During the decade before World War II, 128 Czechs accepted the gospel and were baptized. During a three-year interval after World War II and following the collapse of Hitler’s empire, another 149 joined the Church. Remarkably, despite the rise of communism, the fledgling Czechoslovakian membership survived, severed from the free world, until the 1990 advent of new missionaries.
The story of the restored gospel in Czechoslovakia began when Elder Thomas Biesinger of Lehi, Utah, entered Europe in 1883 and served as a missionary under the supervision of Elder John Henry Smith, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. In March 1884 he and Elder Paul Hammer of Salt Lake City arrived in Prague. Although public preaching was disallowed, in casual conversation they would test people’s interest in learning about a new religion. Elder Biesinger eventually baptized Antonín Just.1
What turn-of-the-century Europe knew of the Church came primarily by rumors, which often curtailed LDS proselyting efforts. Several decades passed before the effect of the rumors subsided.
In the 1920s, the expansion of missionary work in Czechoslovakia was still limited by three factors: a sparse missionary force, the language barrier, and continuing civil opposition.
At about this time, in Utah, 83-year-old Thomas Biesinger, after expressing his desire to return to Czechoslovakia, was called on a mission to serve in that country. Arriving in Prague in February 1928, he visited police and government officials to request in behalf of the Church permission to preach the gospel. None of the officials opposed him, and Elder Biesinger reported that the way was open.
When Elder Biesinger was released after two and one-half months and no one was sent in his place, Sister Frantiska Vesela Brodilová (see sidebar) wrote to President Heber J. Grant asking him to send missionaries. That act of concern turned the key, and a locked door creaked open with the arrival of a tall, energetic, and engaging young man, Arthur Gaeth. Unlike the suspicion and opposition experienced by missionaries throughout Europe in the early part of the century, Elder Gaeth encountered nothing but friendliness. His journalistic bent and booming voice enabled him, within ten days, to arrange for two ten-minute radio talks to be read in Czech, to speak on German radio, to lecture at a German adult-education institution, and to write an article for a German-language newspaper.2
Having established his bearings in the capital, Elder Gaeth visited other cities. Returning from Plzen, he saw a magnificent castle upon a hill. It was Karlstejn, built six hundred years previously by Charles IV of Bohemia. Elder Gaeth visited the site and found a nearby wooded knoll suitable for a significant, upcoming event in Church history: the dedication of Czechoslovakia for missionary work and the creation of a new mission.
In July 1929 President Widtsoe, Church leaders from Europe, and five missionaries from the German-Austrian and Swiss-German missions arrived in Prague. Early in the morning of July 24, they awoke to thunder and rain, but by the time they arrived at Karlstejn at 8:00 A.M., the sun had broken through the clouds. President Widtsoe offered the dedicatory prayer, announced the establishment of the first mission in Slavic Europe, and appointed Elder Gaeth as its president.
With the mission established, the missionaries set about their labors. Much of their activity focused on friendshipping through participation in community organizations and providing printed material. During the first two years of the mission, 250 articles, most of them written by the missionaries, appeared in Czech newspapers and journals. In October 1929 the mission published the first Czech-language tracts and obtained permission to distribute them.
Yet President Gaeth lacked one thing in order to function more fully as mission leader—a wife. President Widtsoe served as matchmaker, introducing President Gaeth in November 1929 to Martha Králícková. Martha’s father, a professor, had been a close associate of Thomas Masaryk, the president of Czechoslovakia.3
President Gaeth baptized and married Martha in the spring of 1931. Sister Gaeth’s connections in Czech society allowed the newlyweds to become influential in Czech circles. They obtained a villa in a new section of Prague to serve as the mission home.
Church membership grew slowly at first. There were few missionaries; the economic hardship of the Depression years limited the number of missionaries serving in Czechoslovakia as it did elsewhere in the world.
In spite of the Depression and some prejudice, the mission made some progress. In February 1933, three thousand copies of the Book of Mormon in Czech came off the press. One hundred copies were sent to Czech libraries, and more copies were Christmas gifts to the country’s leaders.4 Baptisms rose from fifteen in 1935 to thirty in 1936, the highest annual total before World War II. As membership increased, so did the opportunity to create branch leadership positions. In May 1933 the first branch presidency was organized at Prague. Josef Rohácek, the first native Czech man called to a leadership position in Czechoslovakia, served as first counselor. Other branches in Brno and Mladá Boleslav/Kosmonosy were established before World War II.
After ten years of missionary service—three in Germany and seven in Czechoslovakia—Arthur Gaeth was released. In 1936 Wallace Toronto began his service as the Czech mission president, beginning a 32-year term of service, longer than any other mission president in Church history.
President Toronto’s efforts to refocus missionary work and open new areas were boosted by the visit of President Heber J. Grant in July 1937. The 81-year-old prophet’s stamina amazed the young mission president. The visit resulted in the publication of forty articles in the local press, giving the Church better visibility in the nation.5
The Church had established roots in Czechoslovakia in an era of peace, but a portent of change had occurred as early as 1933. As one missionary recorded: “Tracting was very difficult today. No one cared to listen to my message. Everyone wanted to talk about a man named Hitler who became Chancellor of Germany yesterday. They all seem to be extremely apprehensive of how this may affect Czechoslovakia.”6 The Czech mission began to suffer because the Czech people were preoccupied with political developments and had less time for religion.
As the portents of conflict increased, baptisms plummeted, and missionaries labored under increasingly discouraging circumstances. Eventually, the First Presidency, fearing for the safety of the missionaries, arranged for their departure to Switzerland. Concurrently, the Czech government banned all public meetings, and the mission closed in September 1938.
The Munich Pact, signed in September 1938, temporarily lessened the danger of war but ceded the Sudetenland to the Germans. In October President Toronto returned to Czechoslovakia with Elder Asael Moulton. President Toronto immediately revived branch activity, putting local leaders in charge of branches (Jaroslav Kotulan in Brno and Josef Roubícek in Prague) pending the return of the missionaries. By February 1939 the mission had translated and printed Elder James E. Talmage’s Articles of Faith, which would provide study material that President Toronto anticipated the members would need if the missionaries were evacuated again.7
In March 1939 the German army swiftly occupied Czechoslovakia. Regular missionary activity again ceased.
Under the increasing burden of German control, the Prague Branch met to celebrate Mother’s Day in May 1939. The service was drawing to a close when the back door opened to reveal a young German naval officer in uniform. Anticipating the worst, the congregation froze. Hesitating but a moment, the officer smiled and walked down the center aisle to meet President Toronto. Then the officer explained to the group that he, too, was a member of the Church and had come to worship. The women expressed their relief in tears; the men nodded in approval. The officer bore his testimony not to the enemies of his country but to the friends of his religion.8
In July the Gestapo arrested four missionaries; they lived on bread and water for forty days until President Toronto was able to negotiate their release.
On August 24 a cablegram from Church headquarters in Salt Lake City directed the few remaining missionaries to evacuate. The Toronto family left first, while President Toronto stayed behind a few days to arrange the departure of the full-time missionaries and conclude other mission affairs. He set apart 21-year-old Josef Roubícek to preside in his absence. In Denmark Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, assured Sister Toronto that the war would not start until her husband and the missionaries were all safely evacuated. President Toronto found passage on the last train to leave before war engulfed Europe.
Six years passed. Josef Roubícek, the acting mission president during the war, knew the whereabouts of eighty-six members still in the country. Of this group, President Roubícek had written a few months earlier: “Their testimonies of the truthfulness of the gospel have not wavered even in the worst moments of this great conflict.”9
During the war, President Roubícek sustained the faith and courage of the members amid privation, destruction, and fear. Each year, as a symbol of their ongoing commitment, a group of members visited the wooded knoll by Karlstejn, the site of Elder Widtsoe’s dedicatory prayer. In 1944 they erected a stone monument there, mutely announcing the intention of the mission to overcome any challenge to its existence.10
The visit of Elder Ezra Taft Benson, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, to Czechoslovakia in March 1946 presaged the official return of the Church. He was pleased to find the Czech people cheerfully at work. The Church had been as resilient as the country. Ten baptisms had been performed during the war. When Elder Benson inquired at government offices about reopening the mission, he discovered that the Church had an excellent reputation and would be welcomed back.11
On 28 June 1946, three missionaries reentered Czechoslovakia: Wallace Toronto (who had never been released as president), Victor Bell, and Heber Jacobs. The membership had waited seven long years for this reunion.
Church members had survived every hardship endured by their countrymen. Elfrieda (Frieda) Glasnerová Vanecková, a Jewish convert baptized at the time of Elder Widtsoe’s last visit to Czechoslovakia in 1932, represents that tenacity. She, her husband, and two sons spent two years in a concentration camp. Frieda was scheduled for execution on the day she was freed by the Americans.12 President Toronto found her in the hospital, recovering from her ordeal. She wept with joy to see him. Eleven members of her extended family had perished at Auschwitz. Now she had been reunited with someone of her faith. Released from the hospital, she faithfully began paying her tithing and saw to it that her two sons were baptized.13
In the spring of 1947, a year after his arrival in Czechoslovakia, President Toronto obtained suitable quarters for his family and rented a four-story villa to serve as the mission home. By October 1948 a steady stream of missionaries swelled the total proselyting force to thirty-nine.
Free Czechoslovakia did not survive long. A communist coup in February 1948 changed everything. Missionaries came under secret police surveillance. The police ordered the publication of the mission magazine, Novy Hlas, to cease. This hampered missionary work; the magazine had been a valuable missionary tool, with three thousand copies circulated, mostly to nonmembers. Church sermons were often censored, and by attending Church meetings, members risked losing their jobs and having their food rations reduced.
In 1949 the communist government began to restrict the missionaries. As government opposition increased, so did the rate of conversions. Baptisms rose from twenty-eight in 1948 to seventy in 1949. Among the new converts was seventeen-year-old Jiri Snederfler, who would later receive major responsibilities in mission leadership. There was unprecedented attendance at Church meetings.
Late in January 1950, two missionaries, Stanley Abbott and Alden Johnson, disappeared while attempting to visit a member living in a remote area. No word of their fate was received until eleven days later. They had been arrested for entering a restricted border zone and were accused of spying.
The communist authorities informed the United States Department of State that the two elders held in prison would be released if the other missionaries were evacuated. President Toronto had no alternative but to comply. Finally, word came that the imprisoned elders would be released if President Toronto could get them passage within two hours, which he managed to do. A Czech governmental decree liquidated the mission on 6 April 1950.
The decree could not eliminate the private faith and knowledge of the Church’s sundered membership. They knew—and the future would prove—that the decree was but a delay, though one that would last much longer than they expected.
For nearly fourteen years, the Czech membership kept their faith in silence, unable to worship publicly or to enjoy any type of regular contact with the Church beyond Czech borders. From his home in Utah, President Toronto continued to provide what assistance he could. When possible, he corresponded and sent financial aid, clothing, medicine, and Church publications. Ever persisting during the next fifteen years, he applied nine times and received nine refusals for a Czech visa.
It was not until 1964 that the official presence of the Church once again entered the nation. President John Russon of the Swiss Mission and Lynn Pettit, an early missionary in Czechoslovakia, arrived in Prague. Word of the visitors’ arrival spread, and a small group met at a member’s home for a celebratory testimony meeting. One sister requested a blessing for her heart condition and later reported having been completely healed.
Meanwhile, an even more momentous visit was in the offing. Member Marie Veselá was granted permission in 1964 to leave Czechoslovakia and visit her sister, Martha Roubícek, in Salt Lake City. Apprised of the visit, President David O. McKay advised Wallace Toronto to apply again for a visa, saying, “[The members] have been carrying on underground long enough. They need the authority of their mission president.” Within a week the Torontos received visas.14 They visited members in Brno and Prague, renewing acquaintances and learning about the state of the Church.
In July 1965 President Toronto returned to Prague alone, intent on reestablishing the Church. Although he was well received by many governmental officials, his prominence had attracted the attention of the secret police, who arrested him. To his surprise, President Toronto was interrogated by the very man he had hoped to see. He presented his case. In answer, he was escorted to the German border—evicted from the country.
Mission growth would be suppressed for another twenty-five years before reemerging in a new epoch of freedom.
When the presidency of Wallace Toronto ended with his death in 1968, the Church’s tenuous contacts with the outside world continued. William South, a former missionary, and his wife, Jane Brodil South, were asked to help sustain the faith of Czech members (see sidebar). The Souths began visiting Czechoslovakia annually. This responsibility was assigned to Calvin McOmber, also a former missionary, and his wife, Frances Brodil McOmber, in 1977, when the health of President South began to fail. President McOmber continued in this post until his death in 1980.
In 1972 President Henry Burkhardt of the Germany Dresden Mission appointed Jiri Snederfler to begin reestablishing contact with all members in Czechoslovakia and to begin holding meetings there.
The easing of political boundaries permitted increasing contact between the Church outside Czechoslovakia and Czech membership of the Church. President Edwin Morrell of the Austria Vienna Mission reprinted the Czech Book of Mormon in 1984 and took the first volumes into the country. The renewed energy of a long-restrained Church began to manifest itself.
A Church member in Brno, Otakar Vojkuvka, taught the gospel in quiet ways. Young Olga Kovárová learned about the restored church and was baptized in 1982. She, in turn, taught gospel principles to others. Her member-missionary work resulted in forty-seven baptisms over the next eight years.
While much Church growth can be attributed to the efforts of Czech Church leaders and members, unseen forces were also at work. After the Freiberg Germany Temple was dedicated in 1985, the baptismal rate in Czechoslovakia jumped from several a year to twenty a year. This first temple in eastern Europe symbolized the emergence of the gospel into a world controlled by communism for forty years.
In 1985 Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve was appointed to oversee missionary work in eastern Europe. He visited Czechoslovakia each year to request legal recognition of the Church. Just as often, he was told that the request was still under study.15
In May 1989 Czechoslovakia was still communist. Overcoming their reluctance to expose themselves to government authorities, Church leaders in the country submitted their own petition for recognition. The move was preceded by a year of fasting and prayer every third Sunday. At first there was no response. By the time the petition was resubmitted in November, the winds of change had begun to transform the communist world of the eastern bloc. The desired recognition came with the establishment of religious freedom for all faiths throughout the country in January 1990.
The document specifically recognizing the Church was received the following month. On 6 February 1990, Elder Nelson ascended the knoll by Karlstejn and offered a new prayer of dedication, reconfirming the prayer Elder Widtsoe offered six decades earlier.
After a forty-year absence, missionaries reentered Czechoslovakia in May 1990. The Church formally reestablished the Czechoslovakia Prague Mission (now the Czech Republic Prague Mission) on 1 July 1990. In June 1991, a great blessing occurred for the prestige and recognition of the Church in Czechoslovakia. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir came to Prague and sang in a historic opera house. Their concert was televised throughout the nation. A church once required to go underground for survival now was electronically acknowledged nationwide. This significant visit by the Choir helped firmly establish the Church as an important entity worthy of serious consideration by the Czech people.
After the mission’s first two years of operation, Czech membership reached 750, with 460 having joined since July 1990. During the same period, the missionary force grew from eight to sixty-four.
“Once the Czech people hear the gospel,” said Richard W. Winder who served as mission president from July 1990 to July 1993, “they become very interested and are very grateful for what they have learned.” Phil J. Bryson now serves as the mission president.
A majority of Czech converts are young, between the ages of eighteen and thirty. They are well educated and vibrant in their new faith. And there are the older members—those whose belief has survived decades of isolation and opposition. Together they are an enduring ensign of faith in a better future.