Reflections on Establishing the Gospel in Eastern Europe

Dennis B. Neuenschwander

There is a divine destiny attached to the proclamation of the gospel throughout the world. The prophets have long taught that the Lord’s word will penetrate every nation and be preached to every kindred, tongue, and people. Abraham was promised that in his seed “shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:18; emphasis added). Nephi “beheld … the church of the Lamb … upon all the face of the earth” (1 Ne. 14:12). And the Lord himself declared, “[My] voice … is unto all men, and there is none to escape; and there is no eye that shall not see, neither ear that shall not hear, neither heart that shall not be penetrated” (D&C 1:2).

The establishment of the gospel in the nations of Eastern Europe during the past two decades provides clear testimony of the fulfillment of these and similar prophecies. But this fulfillment did not occur without long years of preparation and substantial transformation in the political atmosphere of Eastern Europe. Neither did it occur without similar years of preparation within the Church itself. What I share here are personal observations on a few of the events involved in that preparation and transformation. Between 1975 and 1991, my family and I lived in Europe for several years, where I served first in the Church’s family history microfilming work, then as a mission president, and finally as a General Authority.

Transformations in Europe

From the close of the Second World War, many people in Eastern Europe sought the freedom to express their personal, political, and religious preferences. But the domination of a single political party made these expressions difficult and resulted in dangerous political confrontation. The peoples of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia found themselves in the forefront of these conflicts. The most notable expressions of dissent occurred in the popular uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968. Workers’ riots in Poland in 1956, 1970, and 1976 eventually led to the establishment of the free trade union, Solidarity, in December 1980.

These expressions of political dissent culminated in Hungry in 1989. On 1 May 1989 Hungary began to take down its fences along the Austrian border and permit citizens of the German Democratic Republic (DDR) to enter Austria across its borders. By 10 September more than 100,000 citizens of the DDR had left for Western Europe.

My family and I were living in Vienna, Austria, at the time. Every night news stories on television contained reports of the raucous welcome given to citizens of the DDR as they crossed into Austria. With them came Hungarians. The roads in and out of Vienna were clogged with Hungarians now able to travel freely. Many came to see Austria for the first time and then returned home. Others chose to remain, taking advantage of liberal asylum laws. Yet others came to purchase appliances not available locally. It was common to see washing machines, refrigerators, or other appliances tied to the tops of cars making their way to Hungary.

The most visible result of this collapsing of borders was the collapse of the Berlin Wall itself. Though located only around the Soviet sector of Berlin, the Berlin Wall was the symbol of a closed political and economic system throughout all of Eastern Europe. The opening of the wall during the night of 9–10 November 1989 was the symbolic opening of Eastern Europe.

New life was dawning elsewhere in Eastern Europe as well. Just two weeks after the Berlin Wall opened in November, several thousand Czechs and Slovaks came to Vienna. Special parking lots were set up outside the city to handle the hundreds of buses coming from Czechoslovakia. There was a festive atmosphere throughout the city. Signs in Hungarian and Czech appeared in the windows of many shops.

As these events were transpiring, the people all over Eastern Europe were gaining increasing access to television, newspapers, and news magazines, to say nothing of personal contact with western businesspeople and others. Hope created by these contacts created a confidence and restlessness that could not be contained. The political division between East and West began to experience fundamental changes.

A significant contributor to these changes was Moscow itself. In 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev initiated his principles of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring). The terms reflect a change in attitude that had been growing among the peoples of Eastern Europe for years. Significantly, this change in attitude found expression in government officials who became increasingly sympathetic to the desire among the people for more individual freedom, including that of religious expression.

A Time of Preparation for the Church

Just as the political events of 1989 did not occur without long years of preparation, neither did the introduction of the gospel. The Church was no stranger to this part of the world. In earlier years and under different political jurisdictions, missionaries had served effectively in Eastern Europe, and General Authorities, business people, and academicians had frequent contact with leaders there. Still, the lack of an official Church presence took its toll. By 1975, with the notable exception of the German Democratic Republic, there was little Church activity in Eastern Europe.

A handful of valiant Church members remained in Czechoslovakia. 1 In the current territory of Poland and the former Soviet Union, many missionaries had previously labored successfully, though almost exclusively among the German-speaking population. But by the mid-1970s, most of these members had either passed away or had relocated to West Germany. Little remained from previous missionary activity in eastern Hungary and western Romania.

Representative of the members who struggled through this difficult time is Poland’s Marianna Glownia. During World War II, she and her husband became involved in the underground fight against the Nazi occupation and were captured. Both her husband and child were killed. She lived, but the rigors of interrogation left her with broken wrists and ankles. Given no medical attention, the joints healed in that condition, leaving her crippled. She walked with difficulty and depended on neighbors for assistance.

After she joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1958, representatives of another church told her they would care for her the rest of her life if she renounced her membership. When I visited her in 1981, she looked at me and my traveling companion, Matthew Cziembronowicz, and said, “Brethren, I want you to know I have never renounced my faith.” Because of the difficult circumstances she faced, she had lost contact with the Church but not with the Lord.

And neither the Lord nor his Church had forgotten her and the others like her. Quietly, patiently, both were at work preparing the way for the time when the full resources of the Church could be brought back into Eastern Europe.

Making Friends

One of the most effective of the Lord’s ambassadors was the Church’s microfilming work. In 1957, Hungary approached the Genealogical Department (now the Family History Department) regarding the preservation of its records. 2 Within a few years, Poland followed Hungary’s lead, with Elder Alvin R. Dyer, European Mission president, beginning negotiations in 1962. 3 By 1968 an agreement had been reached, and filming began shortly thereafter. This microfilming work brought the Church a number of influential friends who became valuable advocates just when the Church needed their help.

What made this work so effective was the opportunity it presented for friendships to develop between members of the Church and open-minded individuals behind the Iron Curtain. In 1975 I visited Kiev, Ukraine, as a participant in round-table discussions relating to archival matters. After one social event held outside the city, the participants boarded a bus for the long ride back into Kiev. One of the conference translators sat next to me. Because of the lateness of the hour, almost everyone soon fell asleep. At that moment he turned to me and asked if I were a Mormon.

His question took me by surprise. Who in Eastern Europe in 1975 would know about the Church and have the courage to inquire? I asked why he would pose such a question. He said he had met a member of the Church once at a conference. What he observed in me reminded him of his previous acquaintance. We spent several nights in rewarding conversation.

I do not know who that member of the Church was, but his example had made a lasting impression on this man. Individual members of the Church, through the power of their personal examples, introduce the gospel long before the Church is able to officially establish its presence.

Other personal contacts came from those offering professional assistance. Among the most important of these contacts came from Church legal counsel. The depth of political change in Eastern Europe created a crisis in the legal arena. Governments needed help to interpret current laws and write new ones. The value of the Church’s legal assistance in these developing years can hardly be overestimated.

Of inestimable value, too, was the contribution of the missionary couples called to serve in Eastern Europe. The service they performed was as diverse as it was effective. From humanitarian assistance at remote prisons in Russia to medical training in Romania, from establishing Church Educational System programs to translating Church materials—none of the great work the Church has done in Eastern Europe could have been accomplished without the work of missionary couples. They gained friends and experience that became invaluable in later years.

No greater tribute, however, could be rendered these pioneers than to acknowledge their example and the steadfastness of their faith in difficult circumstances. The mid-1970s and early-1980s were dangerous times to be working with religious matters in Eastern Europe, and the missionaries were sometimes searched and otherwise harassed. Many did not speak the language, and they knew what it was to have little food and no electricity, heat, or running water. Yet they freely shared their abundance with those who stood in greater need.

The couples were teachers, and where they could, they taught by precept the principles of the gospel. More often, they provided valuable lessons in Church leadership to new and inexperienced Church members. But the most significant teaching the couples did was by example. Their confidence in the future was contagious, and their love for each other provided an enduring example for members of the Church to emulate. The time will yet come when the full fruit of their examples will be seen in the lives of Eastern European Latter-day Saints who, through their own dedication, will pass that legacy on to others.

Some of the best ambassadors for the Church were those who shared their talents as performers. I remember one incident in Bulgaria in 1991 when Brigham Young University’s Lamanite Generation (now named Living Legends) came to Sofia. These singers and dancers performed in a large cultural center before some 5,000 people—including a large number of children. Many influential people were there; in fact, the minister of health was sitting next to me.

At the end of the group’s traditional numbers, in a spontaneous expression of love for the performers, the children rushed the stage. And with them was the minister of health. He was out of his seat and on the stage before I could even get out of mine.

As the children approached the performers, the Lamanite Generation began to sing “I Am a Child of God.” The Bulgarians had never heard the song, but it had such an effect that everyone stopped and reverently sat down, filling the stage.

That and similar experiences have convinced me that the Spirit knows no borders. It needs no visa to cross borders and touch hearts. The Lord was at work long before the Church was able to send missionaries back into the countries of Eastern Europe.

“Master of the Unlikely”

Missionary work was essentially reintroduced to these nations in 1972 when the Church organized the International Mission to serve members in areas of the world that were not part of organized stakes or missions. One of the responsibilities of the mission was to probe the possibility of preaching the gospel in these areas. Among those who served faithfully in this exploratory work in Eastern Europe, working primarily out of Austria, were Gustav Salik, Glen Warner and his wife, Renee, Edwin Morrell, Spencer J. Condie (now of the Seventy), and Johann Wondra.

By the mid-1980s Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Elder Hans B. Ringger of the Seventy were making frequent governmental contacts throughout Eastern Europe, 4 following groundbreaking work President Thomas S. Monson began as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the 1960s. As a result of their contacts, missionary work in several Eastern European nations gathered momentum.

In July 1987, I arrived in Vienna to preside over the newly created Austria Vienna East Mission. The mission began with 34 missionaries—22 in Eastern Europe, including 8 couples and 6 elders. With the political changes occurring throughout Eastern Europe and the effects of several Apostolic visits, it seemed possible that much could be accomplished. But as a new mission president, I was unsure how or whether to proceed with actual proselyting.

When Elder Russell M. Nelson visited us shortly after I arrived, I asked him what the Brethren expected. Should we try to proselyte, as unlikely as such an effort seemed at the time?

Elder Nelson put his hands on my shoulders and said, “The Lord is master of the unlikely, and he expects the impossible.”

With that, I felt we could make some progress. In making the effort, we discovered that there is something bright and wonderful about the gospel to the mind of an Eastern European. The doctrine of temple and family relationships, the hope the gospel brings, the upward mobility of people, the idea of reaching beyond themselves, the understanding that there is more to life than just the temporal—all these aspects of the gospel have great appeal. Particularly the young people, who have lived solely in a materialist society, seem to understand intuitively that materialism does not bring happiness. They yearn for spiritual nourishment.

One cold January day I visited a branch meeting in a single-room kindergarten in Bulgaria. The meeting had already started, and as we came up to the meetinghouse, we found all the men outside in the snow, standing in a circle. We asked, “What are you doing out here?”

They said, “The sisters need to be inside with the children. So we are holding priesthood meeting out here.”

The people joining the Church in Eastern Europe are spiritually sensitive people. They love the gospel, and they love the feeling of community the Church gives them. They love one another.

Of great significance for the Church’s expanding missionary effort in Eastern Europe was the establishment of a mission in the DDR. In October 1988, President Monson, Elder Nelson, Elder Ringger, and several local priesthood leaders met with Chairman Erich Honecker to ask permission for missionaries to proselyte in the German Democratic Republic—and for missionaries to be called from the DDR to proselyte elsewhere.

In opening the meeting, Chairman Honecker said: “We know members of your Church believe in work; you’ve proven that. We know you believe in the family; you’ve demonstrated that. We know you are good citizens in whatever country you claim as home; we have observed that. The floor is yours. Make your desires known.”

President Monson’s presentation was simple, direct, and effective. Permission was granted, and on 30 March 1989 the first missionaries in 50 years entered the country and began to share the gospel. Two months later, the first missionaries to be called from the DDR left for service outside their country. 5

By the time the Berlin Wall opened in November 1989, the Church had already established a firm base in Eastern Europe. Fifty-four missionaries were laboring there and in Greece. By then, the Church had also received official recognition from Poland (May 1977), Yugoslavia (October 1985), and Hungary (June 1988). Ground had been broken for a chapel in Warsaw, and a building in Budapest had been purchased and dedicated.

In October 1989, responsibility for the developing Church in northern Russia and the Baltic states was transferred from the Austria Vienna East Mission to the Finland Helsinki Mission. This historic step led to increased attention toward Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Romania. By year’s end missionaries were serving in each of these countries.

Other Eastern European countries soon followed. On 1 March 1990, Czechoslovakia recognized the Church, and elders reentered the country on 2 May, greeted warmly by members of the Church who had prayed for more than 40 years for their return.

In July 1990, five new missions were established: Poland Warsaw, Czechoslovakia Prague, Hungary Budapest, and Greece Athens. Moscow, which had been in the Austria Vienna East Mission, and Leningrad, which was administered from Helsinki, formed the fifth mission—the Helsinki East Mission. By July 1991, missions had also been established in Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Russia.

A Bright Future

The most important advancement for the Church in Eastern Europe during these years was the dedication of a temple in the German Democratic Republic. By 1978, the government of the DDR had decided to no longer extend visas to Latter-day Saints seeking to attend the temple in Switzerland. The Church explored every option but could make no progress with the government. The members began to fast and pray for divine help.

Then one day as Elder Thomas S. Monson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles met with government leaders, they proposed a simple solution: Why not build a temple here in the DDR? A parcel of land was purchased in Freiberg, and construction began in 1983. The temple was dedicated two years later, on 29 June 1985. 6

Certainly, the influence of the temple seemed to permeate the German Democratic Republic, softening hearts and helping prepare the way for the dramatic changes that took place all over Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s. The influence of the Church’s temples continues to be profound on all these nations.

I see a bright future for the countries of Eastern Europe. Almost all of them are passing through difficult moments. But there is very positive movement. Amidst these changes, the Church and its members are growing in stature, confidence, and hope.

In 1996, shortly before I was to return to the United States, I went to Moscow tosay good-bye to a number of people I had worked with there. This was at a time of great uncertainty concerning the political situation in Russia. Among the people I met was a sister who asked, “What will become of our country?”

I told her I couldn’t speak as a politician, but I could speak as a General Authority of the Church.

“So what would you tell us as a General Authority?” she responded. “What will become of us?”

I said: “The Lord protects and prospers countries according to the faithfulness of the few. The Lord will not permit the Church to falter or the country to be destroyed as long as the Latter-day Saints live their religion.”

That may sound egotistical to some, but I believe it to be true. If the Latter-day Saints in Russia, Ukraine, or anywhere else want their country to prosper, the best guarantee is for them to be faithful.

An experience Elder Thomas S. Monson had in the German Democratic Republic in 1968 illustrates. It was his first visit, and no diplomatic relations had been established. No one in the government yet understood the Church’s mission or trusted its integrity.

Elder Monson traveled to Görlitz to meet with the Saints there. He came with a heavy heart, knowing the members did not have the blessings that come with being part of a stake—no patriarch, no wards offering the full program of the Church, and no access to a temple. Yet they filled the hall with their faith in the Lord. As Elder Monson stood to address the congregation, the Spirit prompted him to make them a promise: “If you will remain true and faithful to the commandments of God, every blessing any member of the Church enjoys in any other country will be yours.”

That evening in his hotel room, the full impact of his words hit him. He knelt and pleaded with the Lord to honor the promise he had been moved to give. As he prayed, there came to his mind the words of the psalm, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). 7

Today, just 20 years later, Germany is united under a democratic government, the nation has two temples, and the Saints are organized into 14 stakes.

As we express concern over current uncertainties, we can be assured that the Lord will eventually turn events to the good of the righteous Saints and bless the nations in which they live.

[photo] Top: A statue of the angel Moroni by Valeriy Velichko of Ukraine seems to herald the gospel’s entrance into lands once denied religious freedom. (Photograph by Richard M. Romney.)

[photo] Below: Epitomizing the Church’s growing stature in Eastern Europe, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir pauses on Moscow’s Red Square while on tour in June 1991. (Photograph by Craig Dimond.)

[photos] From left: Dedication of the Freiberg Germany Temple in June 1985; in October 1988, Church leaders (including President Thomas S. Monson and Elder Russell M. Nelson) received approval for missionaries to enter the DDR; a year later, the Berlin Wall came down; members from Armenia attend the Freiberg Germany Temple. (Photographs courtesy of LDS Church Archives and Peggy Jellinghausen.) Background: The Berlin Wall. (Photograph by David A. Harvey © National Geographic Society.)

[photos] Brigham Young University’s Lamanite Generation, left and below, visited Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Yugoslavia in 1991. Like other LDS performing groups, these young performers made many friends. (Photograph of dancer courtesy of Performing Arts Management, Brigham Young University; photograph of group by Clyde and Rosmarie Burrell.)

[photo] In September 1995, the Church hosted a training seminar in Petrozavodsk for Russian microfilm operators. The seminar included a visit to this church on the nearby island of Kizhi. Microfilming opened many doors for the Church in Eastern Europe. (Photograph used by permission of the Russian Archives at Petrozavodsk.)

[photos] Missionaries and converts, clockwise, from left: Sebestén Matild and Lajos of Pécs, Hungary. (Photograph by Brian K. Kelly.) Mission president Richard Winder and his wife, Barbara, in Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1990, with two missionaries. (Photograph by J. M. Heslop.) The first group of full-time missionaries sent to the DDR, soon after their arrival in East Berlin on 30 March 1989, with Germany Dresden Mission president Wolfgang H. Paul (back row, left), Leipzig Germany Stake president Manfred Shütze (back row, right), and Sister and Brother Hans Schult, East Berlin Ward (front row, left). (Photograph courtesy of Wolfgang H. Paul.) Anton Skripko (left), the first Russian to serve a mission, and his home teaching companion visit Yuri Terebenin (right), one of the earliest Russian converts to the Church. (Photograph courtesy of LDS Church Archives.) Background: A baptism in Latvia. (Photograph by Matt Heiss.)

[photos] Left: Matthew Cziembronowicz; President Spencer W. Kimball and his wife, Camilla; Marion Cziembronowicz; and Fryderyk Czerwinski stand at Saxon Gardens in Warsaw, Poland, near where President Kimball dedicated Poland for the preaching of the gospel on 24 August 1977. Matthew and Marion served as couple missionaries in Poland from 1977 to 1979. Fryderyk signed the government documents in May 1977 that gave the Church official recognition in Poland. (Photograph courtesy of LDS Church Archives.) Center: Sister Evgenia, a stalwart member in Kiev, Ukraine. Right: Graduation day for seminary and institute students in Ukraine, 1996. (Photographs by Marvin K. Gardner.)

[photos] Czechoslovakian Saints, left, meet with visiting leaders (in the second row, from left): Sister LeAnn Neuenschwander, Sister Krejci, Sister Colleen Asay, Elder Carlos E. Asay, and Jirí Snederfler. (Photograph courtesy of Richard and Barbara Winder.) Center: Charone Smith holds a baby in an Albanian orphanage. She and her husband, Thales, and another missionary couple were the first LDS missionaries to enter Albania. (Photograph courtesy of LDS Church Archives.) Right: (from left) Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, and Elder Hans B. Ringger stand with Morris and Annetta Mower, the first missionaries in Bulgaria. (Photograph courtesy of Morris and Annetta Mower.)

[photo] In 1991, the Church rented the main floor in this community cultural center in Sofia, the first building used for Latter-day Saint meetings in Bulgaria. From left: Elder Bryon Meyer, Sister Laura Karren, and Elder Chris Elggren. (Photograph courtesy of Morris and Annetta Mower.)

[photos] Symbols of healing, left: Interior of the Church’s chapel in Györ, Hungary. (Photograph courtesy of John Toth.) Below: Behind Günter Schulze of Dresden, Germany, rise new buildings in a city once nearly destroyed by war and years of neglect. Unlike most cities in Eastern Europe, Dresden has had a unit of the Church continuously since 1855. (Photograph courtesy of J. M. Heslop.)

Show References


  1.   1.

    See Kahlile Mehr, “Czech Saints: A Brighter Day,” and Marvin K. Gardner, “Jirí and Olga Snederfler: A Closer Look at Two Czech Pioneers,” Liahona, September 1997, 10–24.

  2.   2.

    See James B. Allen, Jessie L. Embry, and Kahlile B. Mehr, Hearts Turned to the Fathers: A History of the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1894–1994 (1995), 255.

  3.   3.

    See Alvin R. Dyer, The Challenge (1962), 119–20.

  4.   4.

    See Russell M. Nelson, “Drama on the European Stage,” Tambuli, May 1992, 8–23.

  5.   5.

    See Thomas S. Monson, “Thanks Be to God,” Ensign, May 1989, 52–53; Thomas S. Monson, Faith Rewarded (1996), 132–35.

  6.   6.

    See “Thanks Be to God,” 51; Faith Rewarded, 53, 88, 104–06.

  7.   7.

    See “Thanks Be to God,” 50–51; Faith Rewarded, 2–7.