Christmas Devotional with First Presidency

“It is the season of the winter solstice,” said President Gordon B. Hinckley at the First Presidency Christmas Devotional held Sunday, 7 December 1997, in the Tabernacle on Temple Square. “In a few days comes the promise that spring will come again and summer will return, as it has through all the millennia that men have been upon the earth. It is no wonder that in ancient times Christmas, commemorating the birth of the Christ child, was celebrated at this solstice season. Men had no knowledge of the time of His birth, and so they came to bond the celebration of Christmas with the celebration of the return of the sun. While we now know through revelation the time of the Savior’s birth [April 6], we observe the 25th of December with the rest of the Christian world.”

Speaking of modern society’s celebration of Christmas, President Hinckley said: “We offer presents one to another in a shoddy similitude of His great gift to all mankind. We empty the stores of vast inventories of merchandise. It almost becomes a travesty of the true spirit of Christmas. But possibly the effort is not all lost. At least there comes into our lives a touch of generosity toward others. Our hearts are opened, our thoughts are lifted as at no other season of the year. We greatly overdo it, but perhaps it is not all bad. We think of others, and what a blessing that is.”

In his devotional address, President Thomas S. Monson, First Counselor in the First Presidency, said: “Christmas is many things to many people—from the eager, materialistic grasping of a child for a present to the deep spiritual thankfulness of the mature heart for the gift of a Savior. If there is one common denominator, perhaps it is this: Christmas is love. Christmas is the time when the bonds of family love transcend distance and inconvenience. It is a time when love of neighbor rises above petty day-to-day irritations and doors swing open to give and receive expressions of appreciation and affection.”

President Monson related a Christmas story set in 1927 in the town of Hillspring, Alberta, Canada. Mary and Leland Jeppson and their six young children had experienced hard times, and oldest daughter Ellen, age 10, was particularly cynical about prospects for the family’s Christmas. Family members in Idaho had learned of their plight and promised to send some basics, but Christmas Eve arrived with no relief in sight. In the middle of the night, the postman arrived with 10 crates that had arrived late the previous afternoon. “Ellen, the very last to get up, rubbed her eyes in disbelief as she looked at the spot where her stocking was supposed to have been hung the night before and saw hanging there a beautiful red Christmas dress, trimmed with white and green satin ribbons. … That morning, with the Christmas dress for Ellen, a childhood had been brought back, a childhood of hopes and dreams and Santas and the miracle of Christmas.”

President James E. Faust, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, said: “Love brings joy, the sense of belonging to one’s family and to God’s family. Indeed, watching our children grow in faith and testimony brings great joy. Some have had children who have strayed. To those of you who suffer the pain of an empty chair, be assured that the Savior knows and understands your sorrow. The Good Shepherd is watching over them, and they will return, either in this life or in the life to come. During his ministry he gave us the parables of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the prodigal son. He said, ‘Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth’ [Luke 15:7]. We feel a particular kind of joy when a child that has been lost, for whatever reason, is found and restored.”

President Faust then told the story of a pioneer baby who was thought to be dead. With no time to dig a grave, her parents wrapped her body in a blanket and left her under a bush. But the mother did not feel right about it, and in the middle of the night she went back. In the early dawn she returned with the tiny girl in her arms—and the child was alive.

No greater tidings could have come to the couple, President Faust said. “A precious child was presumed to be dead, and yet she was saved by the unrelenting efforts of an inspired parent. Other beloved children, presumed to be spiritually dead, can be reclaimed through the same loving effort.”

[photo] A scene from the First Presidency Christmas Devotional held in the Tabernacle on Temple Square. (Photo by John D. Luke.)

President Hinckley Tours Mexico and Belize

Closing out 1997 with an undiminished schedule of visits and speeches, President Gordon B. Hinckley met with Church members in seven cities in Mexico and Belize, rededicated the renovated baptistry in the Atlanta Georgia Temple, addressed students at Utah State University and Brigham Young University, rededicated a Mormon Battalion monument in Salt Lake City, and spoke at a sesquicentennial awards dinner in Salt Lake City.

Mexico City

President Hinckley began his 8–13 November trip to Mexico and Belize by speaking to a total of about 42,000 members gathered in Saturday evening and Sunday morning meetings in Mexico City’s Palacio de los Deportes, a large sports arena. He was accompanied throughout the trip by his wife, Marjorie, and by Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve and his wife, Barbara, all of whom spoke in various meetings. Also accompanying President Hinckley at different times in Mexico were Elder Carl B. Pratt of the Seventy, Mexico South Area President, and his wife, Karen Ann, as well as the counselors in the Area Presidency, Elder Richard E. Turley Sr. of the Seventy and his wife, Jean, and Elder Octaviano Tenorio, an Area Authority Seventy, and his wife, Rosa Elva.

“We are out to turn this Church around in our attention to those whom you bring into the Church, that they will grow in faith and be worthy of the blessings that all of you have,” President Hinckley said in Mexico City. “The whole Church in Mexico is determined to help you in your great work, not only to teach and baptize but also to retain and strengthen. And to every member of the Church who is here today, I want to say this: you and I have a great responsibility to put our arms around those who are baptized into the Church and be a friend to them, to help them in their getting acquainted and to assist them in becoming strong, able members of the Church, such as you are.”

Puebla, Mexico

Later on Sunday, 9 November, President Hinckley traveled south to Puebla, Mexico, where he addressed about 12,000 members. Speaking to full-time missionaries seated together near the front of the congregation, the Church leader said: “Yours is only part of the process of bringing faithful members into the Church. … We are determined that we will all work together, every member of the Church, to help your converts become faithful and solid members of the Church.”

Oaxaca, Mexico

Next on President Hinckley’s itinerary was Oaxaca, Mexico, where he addressed about 4,000 members on Monday, 10 November. He was scheduled to speak to members at Tuxtla Gutiérrez later that day, but inclement weather forced the closure of the airport there. Members gathered in Tuxtla Gutiérrez were disappointed, but President Hinckley was able to send them a telephone greeting.

“What a wonderful thing is happening in Mexico, this beautiful nation of which you are a part,” said President Hinckley in Oaxaca. “For 100 years the gospel has touched the lives of the people. Once we were small and weak, just a little handful of people. We were held in suspicion. The government looked upon us with disfavor. Now all that has changed. We have status here. … What a wonderful thing has happened. You belong to a great family of Saints, 10 million members now across the world, and 800,000 of those live in Mexico. Nearly a tenth of the members of the Church reside in this land. We have become a mighty congregation.”

Villahermosa, Mexico

“I am grateful that we are here in this comfortable hall,” said President Hinckley to more than 5,000 members gathered in Villahermosa, Mexico, on Tuesday, 11 November. “We had a meeting with the governor of the state of Tabasco. It is through his kindness that we are met here now, and we wish to thank him for what he has done. This morning we had a very delightful meeting with the president of the nation of Mexico, President [Ernesto] Zedillo, at his residence, Los Pinos.”

During that visit, President Hinckley presented President Zedillo with a framed copy of the proclamation on the family and a book about the Church. “I was very impressed with Dr. Zedillo,” President Hinckley said. “He is a very able man. He was very friendly, courteous, and respectful. He knows something about the Church.”

Speaking in Villahermosa, President Hinckley said: “We have the truth of the word of God, revealed through modern prophets. There has been given to us what has been given to no other people, and where much is given much is expected. He expects us to show love of God by showing love of men. I don’t know of any other people in the entire world who teach that each of us is a son or daughter of God. What does that mean to you? It should mean that you have something of divinity within you, and if that divinity is within you you cannot stoop to do those things which are not compatible with that divinity. Never forget that each of us is a child of the living God.”

Mérida, Mexico

President Hinckley spoke to nearly 8,000 members gathered in the Poliforum in Mérida, Mexico, on Wednesday, 12 November. Earlier that day he visited the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá, of which he said: “I thought of the great people who lived there but who lived in such falsehood concerning the gospel of Jesus Christ in which their fathers once lived in peace. It was terrible to see what happened to them. I thought of these great words of the prophet Mormon, who saw his people go down to death by the tens of thousands, and in his loneliness and in his sadness he cried out:

“‘O ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord! O ye fair ones, how could ye have rejected that Jesus, who stood with open arms to receive you! …

“‘O that ye had repented before this great destruction had come upon you. But behold, ye are gone, and the Father, yea, the Eternal Father of heaven, knoweth your state’ [Morm. 6:17, 22].

“I thought of those words as I visited Chichén Itzá this morning and heard of the terrible human sacrifice that occurred there. Over the years thousands were killed because of the false worship of the people. I thought of Father Lehi and how he must have wept and mourned as he looked down upon his wicked children.”

While in Mérida President Hinckley was interviewed by newspaper reporters. They asked him, “How do you get along with the Catholics?” He replied, “We get along very well with the Catholics and with the Protestants and all people who are seeking to do good in the world. We do not argue with them. We do not debate with them. We do not oppose them or fight with them. We get along. We teach the positive gospel. And the first great principle of that gospel is this: ‘We believe in God the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost’ [A of F 1:1].”

Belize City, Belize

On Thursday, 13 November, President Hinckley became the first Church President to visit Belize, a small nation located between Mexico and Guatemala and populated by some 215,000 people. Missionary work began there in 1980, and today Belize has about 2,000 Church members organized into 3 districts with 13 branches. President Hinckley was accompanied to Belize by Elder Julio E. Alvarado, an Area Authority Seventy who serves as a counselor in the Central America Area Presidency. An estimated 1,200 members gathered to hear the Church leader speak in a college gymnasium.

“You fathers and mothers who are here, there has come to you through the restored gospel an understanding of who your children are,” President Hinckley said. “They too are sons and daughters of God. They are His children. They are to be reared in light and truth. … The restored gospel teaches us about the relationship of husbands and wives. They walk together, not the husband ahead, not the wife behind, but as companions walking side by side.”

Cancún, Mexico

President Hinckley’s last visit in Mexico was to Cancún, where 2,000 members gathered in a stake center to hear him speak. “I leave my blessings upon you as well as my love and say to you again, God be with you till we meet again,” President Hinckley said. “I don’t know when that will be. But I hope you will never forget that this night you heard Gordon B. Hinckley say that he knows that God our Eternal Father lives and answers prayers and that Jesus is our Redeemer and our Savior, and this is their work in which we are engaged.”

Atlanta Temple Baptistry Rededicated

On President Hinckley’s way home from Mexico on Friday, 14 November, he stopped at the Atlanta Georgia Temple to rededicate the temple baptistry, portions of which had been enlarged to accommodate more members participating in proxy baptisms. When President Hinckley originally dedicated the Atlanta temple in June 1983, he said the temple baptistry would be enlarged in the future. Attending the baptistry rededication were 37 local stake presidents and their wives. The Atlanta temple serves members in all or parts of the states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

USU, BYU Devotionals

On 21 October President Hinckley addressed Latter-day Saint students gathered for a devotional in Logan, Utah, at Utah State University’s Spectrum. He spoke of four basic obligations: to one’s vocation, to one’s family, to the Church, to one’s self. Of Church service he said: “Let the Church be your dear friend. Let it be your great companion. Serve wherever you are called to serve. Do what you are asked to do. Every position you hold will add to your capacity.”

Of the obligation to self, President Hinckley said: “You also need time to meditate and ponder, to think, to wonder at the great plan of happiness that the Lord has outlined for His children. … I heard President David O. McKay say to the members of the Twelve on one occasion, ‘Brethren, we do not spend enough time meditating.’ I believe that with all my heart. Our lives become extremely busy. We run from one thing to another. We wear ourselves out in thoughtless pursuit of goals which are highly ephemeral. We are entitled to spend some time with ourselves in introspection, in development.”

On 4 November, addressing some 23,000 students gathered for a devotional on the BYU campus in Provo, President Hinckley said: “I hope that you are gaining much more than a knowledge of the organization of the scriptures and such matters as that. I hope that you are receiving a great desire to walk in the footsteps of the Master, to reach out to those in distress, to serve the Church with great faithfulness, and to serve your fellowmen in a spirit of love and consecration.”

Speaking of “the BYU experience,” President Hinckley said: “I hope that this university will give to you a great sense of tolerance and respect for those not of your faith. The true gospel of Jesus Christ never led to bigotry. It never led to self-righteousness. It never led to arrogance. The true gospel of Jesus Christ leads to brotherhood, to friendship, to appreciation of others, to respect and kindness and love.”

Mormon Battalion Monument Rededicated

“I think our people generally don’t know very much about the Mormon Battalion,” said President Hinckley at the rededication of the Mormon Battalion Monument on the grounds of the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday, 1 November. “They know a few broad brush strokes, but that is all. In my judgment, with the exception of the sufferings of the handcart pioneers of 1856, the Mormon Battalion suffered more than any other body of our pioneers. That is saying a very great deal, but I believe it with all my heart.”

Originally dedicated in 1927 and recently restored, the 29-foot monument features a stone sculpture of Columbia overshadowing a bronze battalion soldier.

[photo] Thousands of members gather in Mexico City to hear President Gordon B. Hinckley.

[photos] Members in Mexico City wave white handkerchiefs in farewell to President Hinckley, who waves back.

[photo] Mexico president Ernesto Zedillo meets with President Hinckley.

[photo] Some of the 12,000 members who heard the President speak at Puebla, Mexico.

[photo] President Hinckley greets members in Belize.

[photo] President Hinckley speaks at the rededication of the Mormon Battalion monument on the grounds of the Utah State Capitol. (Photo by Matthew Reier.)

[photos] Photography by John L. Hart, Church News, except as noted

President Hinckley’s 1997 Travels

Some time after he was sustained as President of the Church, Gordon B. Hinckley said: “I am determined that while I have strength I will get out among the people at home and abroad to express my appreciation, to give encouragement, to build faith, to teach, to add my testimony to theirs and at the same time to draw strength from them. … I intend to keep moving with energy for as long as I can” (“This Glorious Easter Morn,” Ensign, May 1996, 65–66).

The year 1997 represented another busy year as President Hinckley traveled to locations on three continents and several isles of the sea. Following are chronological highlights of visits outside of Utah:

January—Jacksonville, Florida; Panama City, Panama; San José, Costa Rica; Managua, Nicaragua; San Pedro Sula, Honduras; San Salvador, El Salvador; Guatemala City, Guatemala

February—Palm Springs, California

March—Glendale, California; Knoxville, Tennessee; Santa Clara, California

April—Nauvoo, Illinois; Omaha, Nebraska; Elko, Nevada; College Park, Maryland

May—Sun Ranch, Wyoming; Hamilton, New Zealand; Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Sydney, and Brisbane, Australia

June—Colonia Juárez, Mexico

July—Simpson’s Hollow, Wyoming

August—Montevideo, Uruguay; Asunción, Paraguay; Guayaquil and Quito, Ecuador; Valencia, Venezuela

September—Denver, Colorado; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Window Rock and Mesa, Arizona; Evanston, Wyoming

October—Laie, Hawaii; Savaii and Apia, Samoa; Pago Pago, American Samoa; Nuku‘alofa and Vava‘u, Tonga; Suva, Fiji; Papeete, Tahiti

November—Mexico City, Puebla, Oaxaca, Villahermosa, and Mérida, Mexico; Belize City, Belize; Cancún, Mexico; Atlanta, Georgia

December—No visits outside Utah

[photo] President Hinckley in the Pacific. (Photo by Gerry Avant, Church News.)

Conversation: The Church in the Pacific

The Church’s Pacific Area covers not only Australia and New Zealand but also numerous islands of the sea, including Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, and Tonga. To learn more about the progress of the Church in the Pacific, the Ensign spoke with Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone of the Seventy, President of the Pacific Area; Elder Bruce C. Hafen of the Seventy, First Counselor; and Elder P. Bruce Mitchell, an Area Authority Seventy, Second Counselor.

Question: Can you briefly acquaint us with the historical background of the Church in the Pacific?

Response: The Pacific is an area of a very rich, long history for the Church. The first known missionary who learned to speak a language other than English was Addison Pratt, who was sent to French Polynesia by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the early 1840s. Many older Church members worldwide grew up hearing stories of Elder Matthew Cowley of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in New Zealand, where the first stake of the Church outside the U.S., Canada, and Mexico was organized in Auckland in 1958.

The Church has had schools in New Zealand since the turn of the century. Church schools were established in Tonga and Samoa in the 1930s and 40s. There is a Church school in Kiribati called Moroni High School that was established in the 1970s. While the era of starting new Church schools has essentially ended, the existing schools continue to have a great influence, including helping prepare missionaries. Almost all the missionaries in Tonga are Tongans, and the same is true in Samoa.

Members have discovered this year some connections to the pioneer sesquicentennial that weren’t very well known, such as the Julia Ann story (see “Was It Not a Revelation from God?” Ensign, Oct. 1997, 10). Not everybody who came to Zion crossed the plains. People in this area did a wonderful job of celebrating faith in every footstep. In Samoa, for example, 5,000 Samoan Church members dressed in pioneer outfits and rode wagons and pulled handcarts down the main street.

Q: Can you tell us about recent developments in the Church in the Pacific?

R: Just within the last few years, there has been a remarkable pattern here. It is not just growth—it’s an attitude of growth that is reflected in the number of stakes, for instance. It is really quite dramatic to go from 60 to 100 stakes in five years. Some people might assume, “Well, you can always divide stakes,” but these divisions have been accompanied by a great effort among the members. The percentage of adults who are endowed has been going up, as well as the percentage of adult males who hold the Melchizedek Priesthood—a statistic, by the way, that may be the most significant predictor of all other Church activity. Growth has been accompanied by real improvement, and we sense a lot of vitality and maturity coming into the area.

Right now the Pacific Area has about 336,000 members, including 134,000 families. The area has 101 stakes, the most recent at this date resulting from a division of the four stakes on the main island of Tahiti. Seven of the area’s 13 mission presidents are from the Pacific Area. The number of young men going on missions has increased in the area; this year the goal is 1,500, which would be an increase of about 450. The area has five temples, of which nearly all the leaders and workers are local members. Australia has 108 family history centers, New Zealand 34, and elsewhere in the Pacific 28. Last year about 200,000 people visited those centers.

The Church has come out of obscurity in the Pacific in some remarkable ways recently. President Gordon B. Hinckley visited Australia and New Zealand in May 1997 and five Pacific islands in October 1997, and the public media paid much attention to those visits as well as to Church pioneer sesquicentennial events during the year. One of Australia’s most widely watched TV programs, which usually presents investigative reports about frauds and scams, looked at the Church through the eyes of two native Australian missionaries. The missionaries turned out to be wonderful ambassadors and spokesmen for the Church, and the response to the program was as positive as anything we have seen.

Q: Will you comment more in depth about a few of the specific locations in the area?

R: The area is quite diverse not only culturally but economically. At one extreme are the sophisticated and successful businessmen of Australia and New Zealand, and at the other extreme is Papua New Guinea, which suffers from 85 percent unemployment and 15 percent literacy. That combination makes Papua New Guinea one of the most challenging places in the world right now. But the 38 missionaries of the Papua New Guinea mission are doing very well. They had 51 baptisms during a recent month. A Tongan mission president leads them, and most of them are native Melanesians, with a few Samoans and Tongans.

Australia is increasingly becoming a hub for the globalization between the West and the East. Because Sydney is so cosmopolitan and such a cultural and educational center, it attracts a very interesting international population. In the Hyde Park area, missionaries are finding a lot of openness and receptivity to the gospel message among international young people. They are very bright, capable people, mostly from Asian countries.

The Australian aborigines have what many regard as the world’s oldest living continuous culture, and many of them consciously distance themselves from modern culture. But missionaries are finding increasing interest among them, and there is an aboriginal branch in the Northern Territory. When aboriginal people stay in the Church long enough to get to the temple, they gain a vision about the meaning of the universe that helps them sort the true from the false in their own tradition. They have many true religious concepts to build upon, such as their sense that life has a purpose and their belief in a premortal life, life after death, and the need to be in harmony with nature.

Much cross-fertilization occurs among the cultures of the Pacific, and the Church is still opening new frontiers. The Church in New Zealand is interesting because of its strong Polynesian heritage. While about 80 percent of New Zealand’s population is of European descent and 20 percent is Polynesian, in the Church just the reverse is true.

Kiribati is a fascinating place with an especially interesting story. Several of those small islands played a key role in World War II. Back in the early 1970s some young people in Kiribati wanted more education, so they looked all over the Pacific for better schools. With the help of their teachers they decided to go to Tonga to the Church’s Liahona High School. Many of them joined the Church, went on missions, and then went back to their homeland. The first stake there was organized a year and a half ago. Another fascinating out-of-the-way location is French-speaking New Caledonia, which has been influenced by members from Tahiti. Elsewhere, missionaries first began proselyting in the Solomon Islands as recently as 1994.

The Church in the Pacific is becoming a model for international peace and harmony. In some congregations, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, visitors will see Asians, Polynesians, Europeans, and South Americans worshiping together. These countries are gathering places where different cultures are blending, and the gospel unites them. Latter-day Saint congregations are good models for cities, states, and countries as the world becomes more of a global village and people of diverse backgrounds learn to get along.

[photos] Elder Bruce C. Hafen; Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone; Elder P. Bruce Mitchell

Monticello Temple

There is no small dimension to what occurs here and what will occur within the walls of the temple,” said Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander of the Seventy, First Counselor in the Utah South Area Presidency, at the temple groundbreaking held on 17 November in Monticello, Utah, where the first of the new smaller temples announced by President Gordon B. Hinckley in October 1997 general conference will be built. “All the essential ordinances for the salvation of God’s children that are performed in the largest of the temples will be performed also in the smallest of temples.”

Also participating in the ceremony were Elder Ben B. Banks of the Seventy, President of the Utah South Area, who offered the dedicatory prayer on the site, and Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Seventy, Second Counselor in the Utah South Area Presidency. About 2,500 members from the five stakes in the temple district—Blanding Utah, Blanding Utah West, Durango Colorado, Moab Utah, and Monticello Utah—attended. A multistake youth choir sang, and young people were invited to turn the earth after leaders had done so.

“It will be a real blessing to us to be so close to a temple,” commented James Englebright, president of the Moab Utah Stake. “Even though we live in Utah, we’re all remote. It’s really wonderful that it’s happening at this speed. We’re impressed with President Hinckley and his dedication to move forward so quickly. I was thinking when they announced it that it might be a year or two down the road, but the groundbreaking was only six weeks after the announcement at general conference, and they plan to finish it by July 1998.”

“We have the opportunity to live in the greatest day in the history of the Church in building temples to our Father in Heaven,” Elder Banks said. “I pray that all may prepare to qualify to come to the house of the Lord.”

[photo] Members of the Utah South Area Presidency break ground at the Monticello temple site. (Photo by Ron Drake.)