The average 17-year-old boy has plenty to worry about. There are school tests, homework, jobs, chores, church responsibilities, and more homework. But a mission call, of course, won’t come until a little later.
In times past, however, before the Church standardized the age for full-time missionary service, calls could come at surprising times. Matthew Cowley’s call came when he was still in high school and had just turned 17. His ordinary and faithful missionary service eventually led to extraordinary opportunities for this future member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
The year was 1914. The Titanic had sunk two years earlier, and World War I had erupted in Europe. Young Matthew left Salt Lake City for New Zealand in October. Almost a month later he arrived in the town of Tauranga, where he labored among the Maori people, the original inhabitants of New Zealand.
Elder Cowley’s daily journal entries reflect concerns common to all missionaries. He anxiously awaited letters from home. The first letter did not arrive until more than six weeks after he started his mission.
“The fleas bothered me so much that I was unable to sleep,” he wrote one day. Still, he managed to find humor in the situation. “I call them my best companions because they stick to me so close.”1 He soon began rubbing flea powder over his entire body and sprinkling it liberally on his covers before going to bed. “I trust that this will stupify [sic] them.”2
The “ordinary” life continued: he was sick for two days with a stomach ailment; he performed his first baptism; he was delighted to get a fruitcake from home.
Young Elder Cowley quickly grew to love the people in his mission field. He felt at ease with the Maori people and took an interest in their culture. He and his companion frequently traveled some distance—by foot, bicycle, horse, boat, or train—to meet with members and investigators.
But by early February 1915, Elder Cowley was temporarily without a companion (a difficulty not encountered by present-day missionaries), and he battled homesickness by studying the Maori language and visiting his Maori friends. His journal entry for 8 February is typical: “This is a very lonely place and I am afraid that I would be inclined to be homesick if I didn’t have my books to study. … After studying several hours I took a walk up the road to another Maori home. Here I made some new friends and had a little religious conversation.”3
Elder Cowley’s assurance that his family was praying for him also strengthened him in hard times. “For eight months I was very sick,” he later wrote. “I had boils, sunstroke, tapeworms, was kicked in the abdomen by a horse, and it was just one thing after another. I used to wake up in the morning, and I would say to myself, ‘Well, all of them at home, my father, mother, and brothers and sisters are down on their knees offering up their prayers in my behalf.’ … That meant something to me.”4
As his love for the Maori people blossomed, Elder Cowley had even more of a desire to learn their language. Soon after rising, he would turn to his books. “I studied until noon and then had dinner and took a little rest,” he wrote. “The rest of the afternoon was also spent in studying.”5
Years later, Elder John Longden, an Assistant to the Twelve, told how Matthew, when he was only 17, was blessed to learn Maori. “He had only been out for two and one half months, and a district missionary conference was called. … Brother Cowley had an opportunity to speak. … He spoke for fifteen or twenty minutes in a fluent Maori tongue, so much so that it amazed the older Maori people in the congregation.
“After the meeting … the district president said … ‘How did you master this Maori language in such a short time?’ …
“Brother Cowley said, ‘When I came here I did not know one word of Maori, but I decided I was going to learn twenty new words each day, and I did. But when I came to put them together, I was not successful.’ By this time they were passing a cornfield, and Brother Cowley said, ‘You see that cornfield? I went out there, and I talked to the Lord, but before that, I fasted, and that night I tried again, but the words just didn’t seem to jell. So the next day I fasted again, and I went out into that cornfield, and I talked to the Lord again. I tried that night with a little more success. On the third day I fasted again, and I went out into the cornfield, and I talked to the Lord. … I told him that I had been called by this same authority to fill a mission, but if this was not the mission in which I was to serve to please make it known because I wanted to serve where I could accomplish the greatest amount of good.’
“That was the spirit of Brother Cowley. He said, ‘The next morning, as we knelt in family prayer in that Maori home, I was called upon by the head of the household to be mouth. I tried to speak English, and I could not. When I tried Maori, the words just flowed forth, and I knew that God had answered my prayer and this was where I should serve.’”6
Though he was scheduled to complete his three-year mission in 1917, Elder Cowley had become so fluent in the Maori language that President Joseph F. Smith (1838–1918) asked him to remain in New Zealand an additional two years to translate the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price into Maori. Elder Cowley willingly complied. He later served as president of the New Zealand Mission and presiding General Authority over the entire Pacific area, never losing his fluency in Maori.
Just months before he died of a heart attack in 1953 at the age of 56, Elder Cowley wrote that his experiences in New Zealand “have since been an anchor to my faith. … It was there that I learned the value of patience, long suffering, kindliness, forgiveness and the other virtues that are so necessary in the regeneration of the human soul … There amidst the fleas and filth, I loved and was loved.”7