Kneeling on a wooded hill overlooking Tokyo Bay, Alma Taylor was full of joy as he heard Elder Heber J. Grant (1856–1945) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dedicate the land of Japan. Although at the time Alma was only a 19-year-old boy far away from home, he would go on to help lay the foundation of the Church in this great Asian nation.
Alma Owen Taylor was born in Salt Lake City on 1 August 1882. From an early age, he showed great ability and intellect. At 17 he graduated from Salt Lake City’s Latter-day Saint College, and a year later he graduated first in his class from Chicago’s Harvey Medical College. He then returned to Salt Lake City, where he began working in his father’s mortuary business.
About this time, the First Presidency called Elder Heber J. Grant to establish the first Japanese mission and to serve as its president. Elder Grant then called two men to accompany him: 45-year-old Louis A. Kelsch and 29-year-old Horace S. Ensign. Several months later, Elder Grant also felt inspired to call young Alma to join his group.
The four missionaries departed from Salt Lake City on 24 July 1901, traveling by train to Vancouver, Washington, where they boarded their steamer for Japan. On 12 August the missionaries arrived in Tokyo Bay.
Their initial exuberance at being in Japan was tempered a few weeks later as they watched their ship sail from the harbor. Alma wrote, “With longing eyes we stood on the shore and watched [the ship] as it moved gently out of the harbor, and we felt as though we were parting with a dear friend. But,” he continued with his characteristic optimism, “still we were happy in the thought that we had come to this land for the purpose of winning souls unto Christ.”1
During their first weeks, Alma and his companions busied themselves with various responsibilities, including responding to a barrage of anti-Mormon press. On Sunday, 1 September 1901, the fasting elders gathered together on a wooded hill in Yokohama to dedicate Japan for the preaching of the gospel.
Alma’s journal entry is the only written account of the momentous occasion. After the four missionaries sang several hymns, Elder Grant dedicated the isles of Japan for missionary work. Wrote Alma, “[Elder Grant’s] tongue was loosed and the Spirit rested mightily upon him; so much so that we felt the angels of God were near for our hearts burned within us as the words fell from his lips. I never experienced such a peaceful influence or heard such a powerful prayer before. Every word penetrated into my very bones and I could [have] wept for joy.”2
While praying, Elder Grant asked Heavenly Father to bless Alma with “further knowledge and power,” that he “might become as Alma of old, full of the Spirit and powerful in the Word of God.”3 Alma would continually draw strength from that prayer and its promises as he struggled through the difficult times of his mission.
By nature Alma was a thoughtful young man. His journals and letters brim with inspiring insights and testimony. On 13 October 1901 he recorded in his journal: “In the evening before supper, I took a walk out on the Bluff … to a place which looked out over the bay. The sight was a pleasing one. … The restless billows seemed to [bear] me home again, for before my mind there arose the loving and familiar features of my folks and the Wasatch Range [of Utah], with its canyons, its snow-capped peaks, its streams of crystal water, and its fascinating grandeur. …
“I thought of friends and the happy associations which I had left, to come out into this distant land. And why had I left the happiness of home? Why was I here traveling among those whom I knew not, and to whom I was a total stranger? I am here to preach the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to those who know not God. …
“But why do this?” Alma asked himself. “The doctrine which you teach is mocked by men; your efforts are ridiculed by those whom you seek to convert; and your earnestness and sacrifice is not appreciated, but on the contrary, it is made a matter of sport and a subject for hilarity with those who see or hear of your labors. Why not return to your friends where your society and efforts will be appreciated?
“Because the Lord has called me to this land to proclaim the truth unto this people, and I have received the promise that if I do not succeed in converting one soul, yet am diligent in carrying out the duty that has been imposed in me by the Prophet of God, in spite of the ridicule and persecution of men, I shall in no wise lose my reward, nor will the Lord fail to recognize my labor.”
In spite of his strong desire to declare the gospel, the formidable Japanese language humbled Alma. Two months after arriving in Japan he confided in his journal, “[This] afternoon I spent in study and research after the Japanese language, which seems at present an almost insurmountable task, most discouraging to the mind of its young student.”4
But it was not the language itself that fueled Alma’s discouragement; rather it was not having the ability to share the gospel with the people. “It almost makes my heart sick,” he wrote, “when I think of the opportunity there is in this land to preach the gospel … if we could only speak the Japanese language. It is truly hell to want to, and not be able to.”5
Alma’s hopes of learning the language were kept alive, however, often in undeniable ways. During a fast and testimony meeting, Elder Grant prophesied that Alma “would be the main instrument in the hands of the Lord in translating the Book of Mormon into the Japanese language,” further stating that “he had been praying that [Alma] should be assisted of the Lord to learn this language speedily so that the translation of this book might be made in the near future.”6 Several months into his mission, Alma received by letter encouragement from his mother: “I still think you are doing well in the language. … With a prayer in your heart get up and preach and if they understand you, thank God; if they don’t, keep on preaching and the Lord will, according to promise, come to your relief.”7
On the group’s first Christmas in Japan, Alma wrote, “I hope that by the next Christmas, that I will have received from my Heavenly Father that gift which I so much long for, namely the knowledge of the language so that I may preach the Gospel of the Man whose birth these days commemorate.”8
As Alma endeavored to increase his understanding of the language, he also gained a deep appreciation for the people. During the New Year’s holiday, Alma and his companion, Horace Ensign, were invited to visit the home of a Japanese acquaintance. Traveling by train, the two reached the small farming village of Kameari and were greeted by their Japanese host. That evening, the missionaries slept on futons on the floor, next to their host family. As was custom, the family heated their wooden home with small stoves called “hibachi.”
“At midnight or soon thereafter I woke up and saw our friend sitting by one of the ‘hibachi,’” wrote Alma, “but did not realize why he was doing so. It leaked out in the morning, however, that he feared we would be cold in the night and he has sat up all the time to keep the fires going for the comfort of [us], his guests. Such a display of kindness and consideration found a soft place in my heart for him. … Let people say what they will concerning … the heathenism that prevails here, so long as [the Japanese] can demonstrate, by such actions as this, their appreciation of friends and friendship, they can teach their more civilized neighbors how to be considerate of the comfort of the stranger traveling in their midst. …
“I asked myself if I would be willing to sit up all night long to look after the comfort of a sleeping friend, much less a comparative stranger, and I feared that my disposition was faulty, so I tried to profit by the lesson which this incident taught me.”9
For the first several months in Japan, the four elders enjoyed little missionary success. Most of their time was spent studying Japanese or in defending, rather than sharing, their faith. Finally, a young Shinto priest by the name of Hajime Nakazawa began to show interest and eventually desired to be baptized.
Alma’s journal chronicles Brother Nakazawa’s conversion. On 8 March 1902, Alma and the three other missionaries hired a small rowboat and ferried their investigator and an interpreter out into Tokyo Bay. Once they reached the requisite depth for immersion, Elder Grant and Brother Nakazawa lifted themselves over the boat’s frame and into the salty water. Clasping Brother Nakazawa’s right wrist with his left hand, Elder Grant raised his own right arm to the square and performed the first Latter-day Saint baptism in Japan.
Alma described the historic event: “All was peace, and Apostle Grant’s words were spoken slowly and with marked distinctness. Our bosoms swelled with emotion as the words of the prayer fell upon our ears and we could have shouted with thanksgiving when the waters parted and enveloped within their rippling folds one of God’s children, who soon came forth from that ‘burial with Christ’ unto a new life, having taken upon himself the covenant of the everlasting gospel. …
“It can only be left to the imagination of others the feelings which passed through my mind and heart, for this was the first time for me to witness the initiation of a convert into the fold in the mission field, and it was with the deepest sentiments of brotherhood that I welcomed this soul into the chosen fold of the Father. … We began the day with four members … and ended with five.”10
Alma would go on to spend eight more years in Japan as a missionary, eventually serving as president of the Japanese Mission and producing in October 1909 the first Japanese translation of the Book of Mormon.
Only 35 people joined the Church in Japan during all the years of Alma’s tenure there. But his efforts lay the foundation for what has today become, 100 years after its first baptism, a nation of more than 110,000 Latter-day Saints, with 2 temples, 31 stakes, and 8 missions.
In a letter to an acquaintance of another faith, Alma bore powerful witness of the gospel and of missionary work, stating: “It is the universal testimony of all the missionaries of our church that their missionary days are the happiest of their lives. We leave our homes, loved ones, friends, business, and all that is near and dear to the natural heart of man and go to any part of the world we may be sent … among strange people in strange lands. … Yet, ask any ‘Mormon’ missionary if money or any of this world’s riches or honor could buy from him the testimony that such experiences have given him and you will find that practically without exception they hold such a testimony as a priceless pearl.”11