Called to Testify: Opening the Church in Estonia


Excerpted from Young Lions: Ordinary Kids with Extraordinary Courage, Deseret Book Company, 1993.

Jaanus Silla * was in his last year of high school in Harjumaa, Estonia, when he started thinking seriously about religion. Although he lived in a country that frowned upon worship, Jaanus still knew a few things. His mother had taught him to believe in God. Sometimes, when he was younger, they had attended a Christian church at Christmas, after trimming their tree with candles and waiting for Jõuluvana, the Estonian Santa Claus.

Recently, while trying to decide about his future, Jaanus had even prayed for the first time. He remembered the prayer, short but sincere: “Father in Heaven, if you exist, then help me.”

He finished high school and went to work in a photo studio, developing film and studying photography while he continued searching for spiritual truth. Meanwhile, the tremor of political change had begun to softly shake Estonian life. People began to question the government openly for the first time.

One evening Jaanus and some friends carried the Estonian flag, fluttering over their shoulders, on the way to a patriotic song party. Enraged police saw the flag and chased them down. When they caught them, the police grabbed the flag and ripped it, but Jaanus and his friends were only reprimanded. This treatment by the police was a big change for the better.

“There is a special feeling in Estonia,” Jaanus later explained in an excited voice to his mother. “People are patriotic. We all feel this new warmth and happiness.”

Then, a few weeks before Christmas 1989, Jaanus met 30-year-old Enn Lembit, who told Jaanus, “I have a new testimony about Christ and what prophets say nowadays. Come to my house to hear about this wonderful news.”

“Imagine that,” Jaanus thought, “a prophet speaking to people on earth today!” His spine tingled as he and his friends went to Enn Lembit’s apartment for a meeting.

At that first meeting, Enn Lembit explained, “My father-in-law, Valtteri Rötsä, was converted to the Mormon church in Finland. He returned to Estonia to his family with his pockets full of literature about the Mormon faith.” Enn’s eyes shone with enthusiasm as he explained the gospel message to Jaanus and others in that small room.

About an hour after the meeting had started, Brother Uusituba, a businessman from Finland, suggested they pray and ask God if this church were true.

Jaanus thought, “I feel really good in this home, and I like what he is saying.” When they prayed, he felt a warm glow and believed that the gospel was true. Jaanus took the news home to his mother, and together they attended the first sacrament meeting held in Estonia.

On 16 December 1989, Enn Lembit was the first convert baptized on Estonian soil. Jaanus and his mother were baptized on 6 January 1990.

Excited by their newfound religion, Jaanus and his friend Urmas Raavk decided they must spread the gospel. They spoke with at least 50 people on the streets and knocked on 20 doors. They tried to talk like missionaries, explaining the story of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. The missionaries later asked Jaanus, “Why did you do that? Who gave you the authority to act as a missionary?”

“We know from reading in the Bible that everybody must be a missionary,” Jaanus answered. “I already have a strong desire to serve. It is hard to wait until I get a mission call.”

The elders smiled. “In opening this new mission, we need to be very careful and work only through referrals to members’ friends,” they explained. President Steven R. Mecham of the Finland Helsinki East Mission said that this proved to be important in getting the Church accepted by the government. Proselyting needed to be handled carefully, so as not to offend. From then on, Jaanus and Urmas worked with the missionaries.

Estonia was dedicated for the preaching of the gospel by Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve in the spring of 1990. On June 29, the Estonian government officially recognized the Church.

The laws of the land required that an Estonian Church member who did not hold a position in the Estonian branch presidency sign the petition for the Church to become recognized. President Mecham asked Jaanus if he would consent to be the Church spokesman to testify before the Minister of Religion and sign the petition.

Jaanus was puzzled. “There are many people who could do that.”

“We would like you, Jaanus, to be the authorized person to sign the document because you have demonstrated such leadership,” answered President Mecham.

Jaanus testified before the Minister of Religion that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a legitimate church working in the country to help people and that the programs were not contrary to any laws of the government.

Then Jaanus picked up the pen, remembering that he had been at the first meeting of the Church in Estonia, had attended the first official sacrament meeting, and was one of the first youth to be baptized. Twenty others signed their names below his signature.

[photos] Photography courtesy of family and Maren Younce

[illustrations] Graphics by Neil Brown

[map] Estonia is one of the Baltic states that became independent after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Located just across a gulf from Finland, Estonia is a small country with approximately 1.5 million people. Just before Estonia was declared a separate nation, one of the ways people could peacefully demonstrate their patriotism was by attending large gatherings where national songs were sung. Now Estonians can listen openly to the missionaries and attend Church meetings.

[photos] Far left: Elder Russell M. Nelson (standing, right) of the Quorum of the Twelve, dedicated Estonia for the preaching of the gospel in the spring of 1990. He was assisted by Elder Hans B. Ringger (standing, center), then president of the Europe Area. Jaanus is kneeling at left. Above, left: Jaanus worked with the full-time missionaries to spread the gospel message. Above: Jaanus, having completed his full-time mission, is now at Brigham Young University.

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    Note

  1.   *

    Jaanus served a mission to the Utah Salt Lake City Mission and is now attending Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.