Tongan Saints: A Legacy of Faith


Early Latter-day Saint missionaries in Tonga would probably call the August 1991 centennial celebration of the Church there a miracle. With heavy hearts, they closed the Tongan portion of the Samoan mission in 1897—just five years and nine months after it had been opened by Elders Brigham Smoot and Alva Butler.

Between 1891 and 1897, approximately twenty missionaries had labored in the Friendly Islands and had baptized only fifteen Tongans. A strong Christian tradition existed in Tonga, due to the efforts of early Protestant missionaries. (See accompanying article.) But the obligations Tongans felt toward the king and his religion—and toward the village ministers who kept a watchful eye over their flock—made most keep their distance from the American Latter-day Saints.

The mission reopened in 1907, growing gradually at first, then finally mushrooming into a mighty congregation of Saints. More than thirty thousand members, ten stakes, ninety chapels, a dozen middle schools, two high schools, and a temple attest to the miracle so visible in Tonga today and wherever else the Tongan Saints are represented.

Why has the Church become such a conspicuous presence in Tonga today—not just in congregational numbers, but also in the activity and devotion of the members? What changed the difficult, slow Tongan mission into one of the fastest growing in the world?

The answers lie in the personal histories and living testimonials of the members themselves. Their stories reveal a common trait responsible for much of the Church’s growth in Tonga—profound religious faith: faith to face nature’s harshest elements in accomplishing the Lord’s work; faith to overcome personal habits and prejudices; faith to trust that the Lord will provide answers to prayers.

Throw the Baby

Facing the harshness of nature in order to accomplish the Lord’s errand is a common theme of many Tongan stories of faith. Trusting God in the midst of difficult journeys and storms at sea, Tongan Saints have been blessed with courage to accomplish some unusual acts.

Sela Feinga, who now works at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie, Hawaii, remembers when she and her husband, Ha’unga, accepted a mission call in 1965 to build churches on Tonga’s various islands. Along with their five-month-old daughter, who was suffering from a high fever, the Feingas journeyed to the remote island of Fotuha‘a, an island of rocky cliffs surrounded by rough ocean.

Voyagers destined for Fotuha‘a transferred from the motor launch to an outrigger canoe and then swam to a rocky ledge jutting out into deep water. Those unable to swim had to jump toward the outstretched hands of islanders who stood to catch goods heaved from the canoe. Such landings were treacherous indeed, since their execution required perfect timing with the waves that rose to the level of the rock landing and then fell fifteen to twenty feet below it. Sister Feinga found that such a journey required a very literal leap of faith:

On the morning of our departure, the baby’s fever was still high. Little pustules began to appear all over her body from head to toe. She had measles. No amount of pleading, however, would change my husband’s mind. I wrapped our little one in a blanket and boarded the small open boat that would take us to Fotuha‘a.

As we approached the island from a distance, formidable cliffs and rocky coasts loomed in front of us. The waves around us were huge. A few of the island citizens had already begun to congregate on the rocky ledge, waiting to receive us and our goods.

The canoe came out to get us, a small outrigger paddled by a young school teacher on the island. When we got close to the rock, he said, “We will count the waves, and when one big enough comes in to lift us up even with the ledge, you must jump onto the rock or throw your goods to the people standing there.”

I was almost numb with fear as the rain fell and we drew closer to the treacherous landing. Then the teacher cried to my husband, “Prepare the baby! They will give orders for her first!”

The order came to my husband almost instantly from the man on the ledge: “Hey, you sir, holding the baby! Take off the blanket and remove all the baby’s clothes.”

“How can that be?” I cried. “The baby is sick with measles. We should not remove all her clothes.”

Our paddler spoke sternly to Ha‘unga, “You must take off everything, because you are going to have to throw the baby ashore. You can’t risk the man dropping her on the rocks or in the ocean because of the blanket or any loose covering.”

The command came from the ledge again: “Hurry up, remove the baby’s clothes.” But my poor husband simply could not do it. Perhaps by now he was as terrified as I.

The young school teacher wrenched the baby from Ha‘unga’s arms and, in a second, removed every speck of her clothing except her little diaper. In rushed a wave and lifted the canoe up, but not quite high enough. Down we went as the ocean retreated. Up again we came on the back of another wave. Not high enough still.

As we rose on the next wave, I heard the command, “Throw the baby!” I screamed and held my stomach. I couldn’t bear to see it. The next words were my husband’s: “Worry no more. The baby is safe.”

But Sister Feinga had little time to be grateful, for her turn to jump came next. Hysterical with fear, she missed the “right” wave four times before the man on the ledge shouted, “Woman, do you want to see your baby again or not?” With a prayer on her lips—“O Lord, please show thy love and help me now for my poor baby’s sake”—she jumped to safety.

Taukolo Langi also made a journey that required great faith, while serving a mission with his wife, Temalisi, in Ha‘apai. Asked to extend their mission in order for Brother Langi to serve as branch president in Felemea, the couple began working with the less-active Saints there.

One Saturday in 1958, Brother Langi and his five-year-old son, Taniela, found themselves unable to return to Sunday meetings in Felemea after attending district meetings in Pangai. While the low tide allowed them to cross the reef to Uoleva, their friend, Sione Moala Havili, discouraged them from even thinking about crossing the channel to Felemea. The ocean was so treacherous that no vessels were either coming or going. But brother Langi had only one thing in mind to get back to preside over Sunday services in Felemea and to see his wife, who was eight months pregnant with their second child:

I was determined to attempt the crossing and felt that since I was on the Lord’s errand, we would be protected. I asked Taniela to kneel with me by Sione Moala’s outrigger canoe and beg Heavenly Father to bless our crossing. We offered the prayer as huge waves crashed and rolled into shore.

I shoved off in the ocean with little Taniela seated just in front of me. Although my faith was strong, I was not expecting a smooth journey over these, the roughest waters in Tonga, especially in a Tongan outrigger that sat so low in the water.

But we might just as well have been skimming across a becalmed surface. We hardly got wet. Nor did we have to bail water. We landed easily through the surf and were pressed with questions by people astounded at our appearance. No one had left the shores of Felemea for three days because the sea had been so rough. I felt deep gratitude for the obvious blessing from the Lord.

Tongan Saints testify that faith in the Lord’s protection against the forces of nature has saved not only them, but also, as in the case of Tevita Taimani’s experience, those they tried to help. Brother Taimani remembers taking a sick woman to the hospital in Ha‘afeva aboard a boat powered by a fifteen-horsepower motor in the midst of massive waves and a terrible storm. Unbeknownst to him, however, the gas tank of his boat had tumbled overboard when a wave hit, taking with it the connecting hose to the engine:

I can hardly believe that when I started the engine after the patient had boarded, I did not notice the missing gas tank and hose. But the boat did start, and we made our way through the channel with the engine struggling in the huge waves, but never sputtering. Had it died, we would have been in a disastrous situation—drifting into the open sea or being dashed against a reef somewhere.

Only when we safely anchored in Ha‘afeva did I discover that the gas tank was not in the boat, that we had come through those rough waters without any gasoline feeding our tiny outboard engine. This is surely an example of how we are protected as we serve the Lord.

The Faith to Change

The Tongan Saint’s legacy of faith also extends to more subtle miracles—such as the miracle of being able to overcome habits and prejudices and, with faith, to change.

Lu‘isa Palauni Kongaika describes her husband, Viliami, as a “sweet-natured, lighthearted person” and herself, at one point, as “headstrong and argumentative, tending to be pushy and dominating.”

During the couple’s proselyting mission in 1946, Sister Kongaika had a dream that profoundly affected her. As a result, she realized that “my habit of scolding and my angry tongue had become a burden both to my husband and to our missionary labors.”

In the dream, Tonga mission president Emile C. Dunn came to me and said he wanted me to accompany him and his wife and daughter to a special conference where the Lord himself would be present. Happily, I went with them. When we arrived at the place, I beheld a high and massive stone shaped like a door. It was made known to me that Christ was behind the door and that he would see each one of us in a personal interview.

When my turn came, I walked happily and confidently forward for my interview, but the Savior looked sternly at me and said, “O woman with the evil mouth, I don’t want to see you. You speak such ugly words to your husband. Whatever your other fine qualities might be, your constant nagging and ridicule is a disgrace. Leave my presence.”

I howled and pleaded until finally I was left alone with my grief. My sobs woke me up, and I immediately begged for my husband’s pardon. I had been a bully, a combat artist, and had taken advantage of his sweet disposition. But now I pleaded for his forgiveness.

From that moment until this very day, I have been a changed person with regard to my husband, feeling much more love for him and being positive and supportive.

Sione ‘Oleli Piutau Tupou also discovered that personal and spiritual journeys require as much faith as physical ones. Raised in the Church by parents he calls “true stalwarts,” he strayed after their deaths, becoming active in another Christian congregation. But in 1984, after forty-six years, he heard that an anti-Mormon film would be shown in his village.

On the appointed day and hour, I sat in the community club watching people line up to see the film, feeling very disgusted and depressed that a church with so much good would be publicly attacked.

As I sat in this depression, I suddenly felt the presence of my father and mother who had been dead these many years. I broke down, unable to control my tears, and surprised my fellow club members by standing up and going home.

The night was miserable and sleepless for me, and the next morning was worse. I knew I needed divine help to escape the darkness surrounding me, and I started a fast in which I begged Heavenly Father to help me.

When I broke my fast, I felt an indescribable relief and joy: Heavenly Father impressed my heart with both the admonition and the courage to return to his church, my church, the church of my father and mother.

On Sunday I dressed in my best clothes and walked to the chapel. The Saints were as surprised to see me as my former church members were bitter to see me go. I have not missed a Church meeting since. So many blessings have come to my family after I “reconverted.” Often I reflect upon the strange circumstances that led me into serious reflection about the Church, that made me feel the closeness of my deceased parents, and that gave me the impetus to seek the witness of the truth through fasting and prayer.

The Lord Will Provide

Another important element of the Tongan legacy of faith is the faith to trust that God will provide—whether it be physical sustenance or help in an emergency.

When Saia Paongo served a mission in 1964, he was in charge of six missionaries living on the remote island of Niua Toputapu. Often, they didn’t know where their next meal would come from. On one particular day, they visited and preached in the homes in Falehau while fasting, but then they had no food to break their fast with. As the missionaries walked out of their hut, Elder Paongo felt a distinct impression:

It was as if someone said to me, “Take your missionaries to the beach on the back side of the island.” I told my companion to bring a fishing spear, and we all headed for the rocky coast of Niua Toputapu.

Unfortunately, the ocean was already at full tide when we arrived. There was no way we could do any spear fishing on the reef. Disappointed, we sat down to rest, except for Elder Fonua, who wandered off along the beach.

Suddenly Elder Fonua yelled for us to come and look. We scrambled over to him, and there we saw a wonderful sight: a large, fat menenga, or deep ocean parrot fish, which had almost beached itself. Incredibly, it had swum right up to the sand. Nearly three feet long and a foot thick, it made a wonderful feast for us.

I know that this fish was prepared for us and that Heavenly Father loves hungry young missionaries, even in tiny remote islands.

Dr. Salesi Havili’s answer to a fervent prayer occurred in the operating room of the Vava‘u Hospital. Dr. Havili and his wife, Selu, had joined the Church one year previously, in 1977, and were preparing to go to the temple. But he found that an experience during surgery was a test of faith that he needed to pass before taking that step.

Within the limitations of an island hospital, two surgeons and Dr. Havili, the anesthesiologist, began operating on Mafi Vakaloa, an elderly gentleman. When the nurse whispered to Dr. Havili that she could no longer feel Mafi’s pulse, Dr. Havili discovered that the patient had died on the operating table. Panicking, he checked and rechecked everything, trying to discover what went wrong. Finally, he began to pray:

It was a desperate but shallow prayer at first. After all, I knew scientifically that Mafi was dead. And given the limitations of my knowledge and environment, I had exhausted my personal resources in trying to revive him.

I continued to pray, a second and third time. Guilt and doubt dominated my feelings. Although I begged Heavenly Father to restore Mafi’s heartbeat, I was too aware medically that he was dead, and too fearful that I had caused his death. But as I prayed again and again, I had the sensation that Mafi’s life depended on the genuine sincerity of my prayer and the quality of my belief—that this crisis was to test my faith, almost on the eve of my going to the temple.

Eighteen minutes had passed since Mafi’s heart had stopped beating. I asked more fervently, reasoning with the Lord and promising a total concentration of my life to him if he would revive this man.

Finally I bowed my head again and prayed with a fervor and intimacy unmatched in previous prayers. As I spoke to the Lord, I suppressed every fragment of doubt and prayed until I knew that when I opened my eyes, Mafi’s heart would begin beating.

Miraculously, it was so. Mafi’s heart resumed beating after twenty-five minutes of not beating at all. I was overwhelmed with joy and awe. The next morning, I told the doctors and the nurse what had happened. As I made my rounds to the different wards, I was touched to see Mafi’s wife sitting on the edge of her husband’s bed. Mafi was very much alert, articulate—and alive.

Legacy of Faith

When Enoch LaVell Manwaring served as a building missionary in Tonga in 1957, he took some of the building missionaries to the island of ‘Uiha to build a chapel. A small, elderly lady named Vaikato insisted upon helping with the construction, although she was believed to be more than one hundred years old. The missionaries tried to persuade her not to carry heavy bricks and lift buckets, but she refused to quit helping them.

As the work progressed on the building, some of the Tongan building missionaries approached Brother Manwaring and asked if he had talked to Vaikato about the construction plans. He told them no, and was surprised when they told him that Vaikato already knew what the chapel would look like:

The men told me that she was telling all of the workers just where the classrooms would be, where the pulpit would stand, and just how the chapel would look when it was finished. It was amazing what she knew.

I learned through an interpreter that twenty years before the building program began in the South Pacific, she had received a blessing from Elder George Albert Smith, who was visiting the Tongan islands. In the blessing, he told her that if she would be faithful, she would live to see a beautiful chapel erected on her island—and she envisioned it perfectly while he spoke.

Surely the first Latter-day Saint missionaries who landed in Tonga one hundred years ago must have had their visions, too. Their humble efforts, commemorated this year in centennial celebrations, eventually paved the way for a vibrant, growing Church membership. Symbolic of that growth is the beautiful temple at Nuku‘alofa—a fitting monument to the faith so evident in the lives of the Tongan Saints.

Tonga’s Legacy: A Christian Foundation

Any celebration of the growth and stature of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Tonga today must recognize the men and women who helped bring Christianity to the Tongan Islands. Although they knew nothing about the Restoration, Christian missionaries, especially Wesleyan, were the kau fakamelomelo (those who went before to prepare the way). They taught prayer, translated the Bible, and organized schools and congregations for the Tongan people.

Palangi (white) Protestant missionaries combined forces with Tongan missionaries, but had difficulty overcoming the allegiance Tongans felt to their chiefs. An enormous transformation took place when Chief Taufa‘ahau was baptized a Christian in 1831 and began a vigorous campaign against the old indigenous religion.

Taufa‘ahau took the name of George as his Christian name, became fully literate, and served as a regular preacher in the Wesleyan church. An intelligent man with a commanding presence, he was a driving force within the church. When he became Tu‘i Kanokupolu—king of all Tonga—in 1845, he severely weakened the non-Christian alliances, until they ceased to be a threat.

The Wesleyan church remained the accepted national religion until 4 January 1885, when King George established the independent Free Church of Tonga. Although it was still Wesleyan in form and doctrine, it was independent in managing its own affairs. The social, religious, and political aftershocks from this split created a milieu of confusion, religious intolerance, and ongoing resentments.

It was into this setting that the first two Latter-day Saint elders, Brigham Smoot and Alva Butler, arrived on board the S.S. Wainui on 15 July 1891. The Tongan longing at the time for melino mo fe‘ofo‘ofani (peace and harmony) disinclined the whole society to any more disruption, change, or new religious causes.

Although religious strife at the time caused the mission to close, the Latter-day Saints would return again when the controversy had died down. They would draw upon the work of the kau fakamelomelo and bring many who already knew of Christ into the fullness of his gospel.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Clark Kelley Price

[illustrations] Above: On their first day in Tonga in July 1891, Elders Smoot and Butler visited King George I and received permission to preach in his country. Right: Today, some native Tongan elders wear traditional tupenu and ta‘ovalas with white shirts and ties.

[photos] Photography by William Floyd Holdman

[photos] Far left: The Tonga Nuku‘alofa Temple, dedicated in August 1983. Left: For Sela Feinga and her husband, Ha‘unga, a mission call resulted in a traumatic, but brief, separation from their baby. (See “Throw the Baby.”) Right: More and more native missionaries like these young men are taking the gospel to their fellow Tongans.

[photos] Far left: Lu‘isa Palauni Kongaika’s life was profoundly affected by a dream. (See “The Faith to Change.”) Left: Like many members of the Church around the world, Tongan Saints grow their own food supply, cultivating vegetables, root crops, and fruits. (Photos on this page by ‘Isileli Tupou Kongaika.) Right: A 1935 photograph of Relief Society sisters in the Ha‘apai District.

[illustration] Taukolo Langi and his son, Taniela, sought the Lord’s protection so they might be able to return to their home island across a storm-tossed sea. As huge waves crashed and rolled into shore, they found peace and strength in prayer.

[photos] Far left: A typical Latter-day Saint meetinghouse in Tonga. Left: The early missionaries of the Church would be pleased to see the dedication of present-day missionaries as they prepare to teach the gospel. Right: J. E. and Emma Giles (seated) posed for this 1895 photograph with their four children and three missionaries (standing).

Eric B. Shumway is vice-president for academics at Brigham Young University—Hawaii. These stories were excerpted from his book, Tongan Saints, Legacy of Faith, published by the university’s Institute for Polynesian Studies to commemorate the Church’s 100th anniversary in Tonga.