Think of the term Mormon pioneers. What comes to mind? Probably an image of 19th-century Latter-day Saints pulling handcarts across dusty plains and over snow-capped mountains, struggling to reach a new home in Utah.
But pioneering isn’t restricted to 19th-century America. Today, all across the world, Latter-day Saints are pioneering the way for the Church to gain a foothold in their homelands. Some of these new places might surprise you—Mongolia, for example.
For many, the name Mongolia brings to mind images of Genghis Khan and his fierce warriors galloping on horses over grassy steppes. Landlocked between Siberia on the north and China on the south, Mongolia has historically experienced much warfare with its neighbors. But today’s Mongols are seeking peace and prosperity as their remote country undergoes social, economic, and political change. Not the least among these changes is that being experienced by humble, truth-seeking Mongols who are experiencing a “mighty change in [their] hearts” (Alma 5:14) as they learn about the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Mongolia is in the midst of a transition from socialism to a freemarket economy. Once the headquarters of history’s largest land empire, Mongolia was subsequently dominated by China for nearly three centuries and then became Russia’s first Soviet satellite in 1922. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mongolia established a multiparty system and a democratic constitution in 1990. Change is most evident in the larger cities, where many of the country’s 2.3 million residents live. Other Mongols live primarily on government-organized livestock farms or as nomads who tend their sheep, goats, yaks, camels, horses, and cows in the grassy countryside. The official language is Mongolian, and the chief religions include Lama Buddhism and shamanism.
Shortly after Elder Monte J. Brough of the Seventy met with several government officials and university directors, five missionary couples entered Mongolia in 1992 and 1993 to assist the country’s higher education system and teach people about the Church. In 1993 Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dedicated Mongolia for the preaching of the gospel, and the Ulaanbaatar Branch was organized that same year.
Ulaanbaatar, the country’s capital and largest city, is a study in contrasts. Many residents dress in native costumes called deels, colorful hats, and decorative leather boots with turned-up toes, while many others wear typical Western clothing. New German vehicles whiz past old, rebuilt Russian cars, four-wheel-drive vehicles, and trucks—and motor traffic sometimes has to dodge the wandering livestock that graze throughout the city.
In February 1993 Lamjav Purevsuren became the first native Mongolian baptized in the country. Purevsuren grew up in western Mongolia in a round, felt-lined tent called a ger. His family’s major challenge was providing for their animals during Mongolia’s harsh winters, when temperatures regularly fall as low as 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Several times during the year, the family would dismantle their ger and move elsewhere to find new grazing pastures.
Purevsuren met Elder Stanley Smith when he took Elder Smith’s marketing class at the Mongolian National University. “My classmate Tsendkhuu Bat-Ulzii and I were curious why this American professional would come to Mongolia,” Purevsuren recalls.
“Elder Smith told us about his church and invited us to attend, but he gave us an apartment address. We were very surprised!”
Purevsuren and Bat-Ulzii attended the small service with the missionary couples and agreed to hear the discussions. Both men joined the Church, and Bat-Ulzii was eventually called as president of the Ulaanbaatar Tuul Branch. Total membership in the nation now exceeds 550, with three branches in Ulaanbaatar, one branch in Erdenet, a city of 44,000 located northwest of the capital, and one branch in Darkhan, a city of 65,000 located north of Ulaanbaatar.
Togtokhin Enkhtuvshin, who now serves as president of the Ulaanbaatar Selbe Branch, recalls that during Mongolia’s socialist era, Mongolians “were not taught about religion. Moral values declined. Drinking, smoking, and moral sin became accepted. When I was a little boy, though, my grandmother taught me about God. She was Buddhist, but she told me about Jesus Christ. I felt that religion could unite our people and help them progress.”
Enkhtuvshin prayed to find something that would change his life and help the country. “I didn’t know what God I was praying to,” he says, “but my parents said that if there was a God, he would help me.” Eager to find out more about Jesus Christ, Enkhtuvshin accepted an invitation to study in Germany, where he knew he would find many Christian religions.
One day in Germany, Enkhtuvshin met Latter-day Saint missionaries on the street. “They gave me Russian and German copies of the Book of Mormon,” he recalls. “I read the book in one day and one night. I love this book.” Two days later he attended church, and during the summer of 1993 he was baptized. “I was excited to be baptized and thought I might be the first Mongolian member,” he says, “but I was concerned about returning home and not having the Church.”
Unaware of the gospel developments in his country, Enkhtuvshin returned to Mongolia the same month that six young elders arrived there to teach English, learn Mongolian, and share the gospel. He was shopping in a department store with his children when he noticed a familiar sight: clean-cut young missionaries! “At that time I knew that God was helping me,” he says. “I was very excited to find that I was not alone.”
Enkhtuvshin’s wife, Doyodiin Dashgerel, and their five children have joined the Church, and Enkhtuvshin has been a key figure in helping the Church gain government recognition. The Church was legally registered in October 1994.
As a professor, Enkhtuvshin struggled for many years to provide for his large family in a two-bedroom, Russian-built apartment. Inflation makes it difficult for Mongolians to live on an average salary of U.S. $50 per month, and they are dependent on imported goods that are expensive and limited in supply. With the new freedom of the market-based economy, Enkhtuvshin and his wife decided in 1994 to open a small delguur, or food shop. Shoppers in the couple’s food shop could find Dashgerel weighing sausage, cucumbers, or tomatoes in a four-foot-wide shop with a picture of the resurrected Savior on the wall behind her.
Another sign of the gospel’s growth in Mongolia is that several natives have been called on missions. Native Mongolian missionaries are serving or have served in the United States (in California, Massachusetts, Washington, Utah, and Washington, D.C.) and in Korea, Russia, and Canada.
At the time this article was written, Sister Magsariin Batchimeg was serving on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. She loves her native country and believes that the gospel of Jesus Christ will bring a “mighty change” to the hearts of many Mongolians. “Mongolian people are good people,” she says. “They are very friendly, and they have good thoughts about others. If they will hear the gospel and join the Church, their lives will be better.”
Sister Batchimeg joined the Church two years ago after taking the missionary discussions for almost three months. Although she could barely understand the missionaries because they were just learning Mongolian and she didn’t know English, Sister Batchimeg says she could tell the elders meant what they said when they bore their testimonies to her.
She wanted to know for herself, and soon she had gained her own testimony of the gospel. “So many people don’t know the purpose of life,” she says. “As I was growing up, I found it hard to believe that there was no reason for my life. The Church answered all of my questions, and the gospel makes everything clear.”
Now she shares her testimony freely with those who come to Temple Square. “I have a great desire to share the gospel. It is so sad when people feel the Spirit and know the Church is true but won’t accept it. I wish I could plant the seeds of the gospel in everyone.”
After her mission, Sister Batchimeg wants to continue with her studies—possibly in business or political science—and hopes to help the Church as it continues to grow in Mongolia. “The members need a lot of support because the Church is so new there,” she says.
With the support of hard-working Mongolian pioneers like Sister Batchimeg, the Church is certain to grow and prosper in Mongolia.