There were only six days until Christmas of 1991, and weather forecasters were predicting snow and bad road conditions for Eastern Europe. Traveling was not advisable. But Johannes Gutjahr had a promise to keep, and a lot of Christmas presents were depending on him.
Several months before, Brother Gutjahr, a Church translator in Friedrichsdorf, Germany, had promised President James L. Wilde of the Hungary Budapest Mission that as soon as copies of the long-overdue Hungarian Book of Mormon arrived in Germany, he would load his car with as many copies as would fit and would take them to Hungary. So now, Thursday afternoon, Brother Gutjahr—who says he has a “soft spot” in his heart for Hungarians since he has some Hungarian ancestors—was trying to fulfill his promise and deliver the new books before Hungarian customs offices closed on Friday for Christmas. He and President Wilde shared a common goal in this effort: To give the Hungarian Saints a Christmas present they would never forget. And it was a Christmas present they didn’t know was coming. President Wilde hadn’t told the members—or many of the missionaries—that the Hungarian Book of Mormon was finally ready.
Originally, Brother Gutjahr thought he would be making this trip in September. But, he says, “Come September, the Book of Mormon still was not around.”
“Still not around” was not a new line for the Hungarian Saints; they had been waiting for the Hungarian Book of Mormon for a long time. “When I first got to Hungary,” says Elder Victor Sipos, who began his mission in February 1990, “people were saying, ‘Just a few more months and we’re finally going to have it.’” But “just a few more months” always became “just a little bit longer,” he says.
By the time the book finally did arrive—Christmas 1991—the Church had been officially recognized in the country for three and a half years, and the Hungary Budapest Mission had been open for almost a year and a half. It had been a long wait.
However, hopes for the Book of Mormon in Hungarian began long before the first members were baptized in Hungary in the late 1980s. These hopes were at least 83 years old.
Just after Christmas of 1908 (83 Christmases before the Hungarian Book of Mormon was finally ready) Elder John Ensign Hill from Logan, Utah, began serving as the first LDS missionary to learn Hungarian and then preach in that language.1 During his mission, Elder Hill translated missionary tracts, conducted the first Church meeting held in Hungarian, and performed the first baptism in Hungarian. And, in November 1910, he and a Hungarian friend began work on Elder Hill’s “greatest aim” in his mission—translating the Book of Mormon. But after they had translated just 100 pages, the mission president told them to stop. At that time, Elder Hill wrote in his journal, “I felt that half my life had been taken away.”
Soon Elder Hill returned home. In 1914, less than four years later, the last missionary left Hungary and World War I began. By 1987, when Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dedicated the land of Hungary, a few Hungarians had been baptized while in other countries, and some selections from the Book of Mormon had been translated into Hungarian. However, no further missionary work had been done in the country, and the complete Book of Mormon had not been translated into that language.
When missionaries again began work in Hungary in the late 1980s, they faced a situation similar to the one Elder Hill had faced: limited resources. Other than Selections from the Book of Mormon, only a few other basic materials were available in Hungarian, such as a hymnbook of fewer than 50 hymns and the book Gospel Principles.
However, despite the limitations of not having the complete Book of Mormon, many members in Hungary, through great faith, had gained strong testimonies of the book.
The Hungarian members of the Church had manifested their faith. The Book of Mormon had finally been translated and printed in Hungarian. Now it was up to Brother Gutjahr to get the books from Germany, through Austria, and into Hungary—a trip of about 1,000 kilometers.
So at about 3:00 P.M. on Thursday, Brother Gutjahr loaded 1,600 copies of the new Hungarian Book of Mormon into a van and started his journey. Passing the Austrian border at about 9:00 P.M. and the Hungarian border at about 3:00 A.M., Brother Gutjahr arrived at the city of Györ in good time early Friday morning. But then the difficulties started.
At the Hungarian border, officials had told Brother Gutjahr he could pass customs in Györ, but officials in Györ said he couldn’t. So in the early afternoon, after hours of unsuccessful efforts by Brother Gutjahr and two missionaries who were serving in Györ, Brother Gutjahr drove on to Budapest, hoping to find some help there. But help was not quick in coming.
First, the weather forecasts finally came true. “All the way down Germany and through Austria, I had not seen a single snowflake,” remembers Brother Gutjahr. “But between Györ and Budapest, especially on the autobahn, it started to snow very heavily.” Braving the storm, which did not last very long but was enough to slow him down, he pressed on to Budapest, where he encountered his second obstacle: By the time he arrived at the mission office, it was past closing time, and it was the Friday before the long holiday weekend. The customs office would not be open again until January.
Fortunately, Elder Sipos and his companion, Elder Kuen Damiano, were waiting in the mission office when Brother Gutjahr arrived. Then serving as zone leaders in Budapest, the two missionaries were determined to help Brother Gutjahr get the Book of Mormon distributed before Christmas. But when they asked a customs officer if there was anything they could do, the response was, “Absolutely not. Come back in January.”
But January was after Christmas! Elder Sipos, who is from Morgan, Utah, but grew up speaking Hungarian with his native Hungarian parents, persisted. He explained the situation. These were religious books; they were very important. “We’d really like the people to receive them by Christmas,” he said. “We’ve all been waiting years for this.”
The customs officer continued to say no, but the missionaries—offering many silent prayers—continued to urge him to make an exception. Suddenly he changed. “Something finally touched him,” recalls Elder Sipos, “so he said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’”
What did Elder Sipos say to change the customs officer’s mind? “Oh, I don’t think I’m the one who did most of the convincing,” he says. “The way he turned around, it seems there was something else. I think the Spirit made the difference.”
The customs officer turned from impatient, says Elder Sipos, to so willing to help that he not only told them they could distribute the books, but he also said, “I will take personal responsibility for everything that happens to that shipment of books.”
Brother Gutjahr had kept his promise; the 1,600 books were now in Budapest, Hungary. But copies still needed to be distributed to the other 10 cities where members met regularly. And there was only one day, Saturday, to deliver them so the members would receive their surprise Christmas present on Sunday, three days before Christmas. Friday evening, missionaries met Brother Gutjahr in a hotel parking lot, loaded their cars with copies of the Book of Mormon, and headed east, south, and west to deliver the books to other missionaries who would then make the surprise announcements in Church meetings on Sunday.
Elder Sipos and Elder Damiano were among the missionaries who loaded their cars with books and took them to the other cities. One of the last stops on their trip was Debrecen, a city in eastern Hungary, where they stayed for Church meetings on Sunday, 22 December. “I’ll never forget the reaction in the Debrecen Branch,” says Elder Sipos.
Elder István Berente—a Hungarian who had escaped from the country during the Communist regime, had been baptized, and had returned to his homeland as a missionary—made the announcement. Sister Carina Ragozzine, a missionary in Debrecen at the time, remembers that he started giving a talk about the importance of prophets, especially President Ezra Taft Benson. He emphasized President Benson’s message to read the Book of Mormon and said, “To help you do this, we have a little something for you.” Then the missionaries started handing out copies of the Hungarian Book of Mormon.
“The reaction was amazing,” says Elder Sipos. “Some people were crying, some people started laughing, others started clapping.”
Sister Ragozzine remembers everyone being quiet and making comments about how beautiful the book was. “So many people had joined the Church without seeing it. Finally seeing it made it an even more beautiful book to look at,” she says.
For the next couple of hours the members of the Debrecen Branch wouldn’t leave the room. They were pouring over stories they had heard about from missionaries but had never been able to read for themselves. And they were signing their names and testimonies in other people’s copies of the new Hungarian Book of Mormon.
“It is inexpressible the happiness that fills this day,” wrote Sister Králik Ida2 in Sister Ragozzine’s copy. “I’ve waited a long time for this moment.”
In Elder Sipos’ copy, Sister Fegyverneki Ágnes wrote, “I am so happy. … This was the greatest Christmas present I’ve received. Please don’t ever forget what this Christmas means for us.”
“It was definitely the best Christmas present of the season,” says Sister Ragozzine.
The reaction was similar throughout the country. “People in some instances were just clutching it to their hearts; they had waited for it so long,” says President Wilde. “Virtually all of the members in Hungary, except those with abilities to speak either English or German, had joined the Church with just the Selections from the Book of Mormon. They had had no opportunity to read from the complete Book of Mormon the story of the conversion of Alma the Younger or the mission of Ammon or so many other stories.”
The members didn’t waste time learning the stories they had missed. Sister Müllek Julianna of the Székesfehérvár Branch read her copy two or three times in the first week, says Elder Sipos. Brother Takács Gábor of Szombathely tells a similar story of a sister in his branch who read the entire book during the two-day Christmas break.
In the southern Hungarian city of Pécs, the topic of the first Sunday School lesson after they received the Book of Mormon was Lehi’s dream in 1 Nephi 8 [1 Ne. 8], a story not included in the selections. “The members loved it,” says Elder Brian Blum. “They kept drawing it on chalkboards.”
In Pécs, the books were handed out in a special Christmas family home evening. Elder Blum particularly recalls the reaction of one member, Sister Szücs Krisztina, who had been baptized about three months earlier. “She didn’t get up. She was just sitting there,” he says. “And I was wondering why she wasn’t doing much with her copy of the Book of Mormon. Then I looked down and saw she was crying as she was reading several parts from the Book of Mormon.”
Elder Michael Mátyás of Redmond, Washington, who was serving in Veszprém, remembers the first copy he gave out. It was to Sister Petö Éva, a member of about six months. Sister Petö had to leave the meeting before the announcement was made. “I stopped her and said, ‘I know you have to go, but before you go, there’s something I want to give you.’ And I gave her a copy of the Book of Mormon. She started crying then. Since that was the first one I had given out, it was fairly emotional for me, too,” he says.
Recalls Brother Kucora Sándor of Budapest, “It was wonderful to receive the whole book. It was almost like being reborn and going to school all over again. It was like having a whole new picture revealed before us.”
“One of the most moving memories I have,” says President Wilde, “is of a sister who had been a member of the Church for two years and finally saw the Book of Mormon in front of her. She simply grabbed the Book of Mormon to her heart and just began to sob with joy.”
A long journey that began with Elder Hill in 1908 had been completed. The Book of Mormon in Hungarian finally reached the members of the Church in Hungary who had waited for it so long and so faithfully. And now they were grateful. Writing in Elder Sipos’ copy of the Book of Mormon, Sister Szabó Ágnes of Debrecen seemed to be expressing her gratitude to all who had helped in the process. She wrote, “I cannot tell you how happy I am. … Thank you for everything.”
“We still have that same book we received that Christmas night,” says Brother Takács, three years later. “It’s old and battered from much use. We have newer ones now, but the one we received first of all remains our favorite.”
“It was the greatest Christmas gift we could have received,” says Brother Hevesi András of Budapest. “It was the realization of a long-awaited dream.”
For Hungarian Saints like Brother Hevesi, receiving the Book of Mormon in Hungarian was just that—a dream fulfilled. For Brother Gutjahr, being able to be the one to deliver the books was the joy of giving, the joy of the Christmas season.
Some time after that 1991 Christmas journey, Brother Gutjahr again found himself in Budapest, Hungary. While riding the bus one day, he saw a young man on the bus reading a book, a sight not surprising in central and eastern European countries. The book was worn and showed signs of being well-used. But looking closer, Brother Gutjahr saw something that did surprise him. The tattered, blue cover bore the title Mormon Könyve, Hungarian for “The Book of Mormon.”
The joy of the Christmas season returned. The Christmas present Brother Gutjahr had delivered over a year earlier was still giving.