September, 13, 2011

Female Missionaries in French Polynesia

The story of George Q. Cannon visiting the Hawaiian Islands in the 1850s on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and tirelessly working for two years along with Jonathan Napela to translate the Book of Mormon into Hawaiian is a fairly popular story at Education in Zion. A lesser-known story, however, is the experiences of women who accompanied their husbands and fathers on these Pacific Island missions.

Courtesy Brigham Young University Hawaii Campus

After many years of proselytizing in the Pacific Islands and then returning to Utah, Addison Pratt was called to serve yet another mission, this time to French Polynesia. His wife, Louisa Barnes Pratt, realized that another long separation was more than she could bear, so she approached President Brigham Young and asked permission for her, her four daughters, and her sister Caroline Barnes Crosby to accompany her husband to French Polynesia.  Brigham Young acquiesced and although he did not officially call the six women to be missionaries, Louisa recorded in her journal that “[Brigham Young] said I was called, set apart, and ordained, to go to the Islands of the sea, to aid my husband in teaching the people.”

Once in French Polynesia, the family settled on the island of Tubuai. Louisa describes in her journal the struggles and rewards of learning Tahitian and preaching the gospel while in Tubuai. On February 12, 1852, she writes, “Today was our weekly prayer meeting. I spoke to the sisters twice at considerable length. Every attempt I make I speak with more ease. . . . At the close I asked them if they understood me well. They replied they did, and felt great joy, that I could speak their language so well.” Less than a month later she records, “Today [I] spoke at some length in our prayer meeting. It seemed that words were given me as I needed. I could feel that I was understood.”

Before leaving Tubuai, Louisa’s sister, Caroline, was determined to make a goodbye quilt for the queen.  The quilt, which showed a picture of the rising sun, was finished right before the family left for California.

Although another group of LDS missionaries wouldn’t come to Tubuai for another 40 years, the members there remained strong. And even in the twenty-first century, there is still the curious tradition of giving quilts as departing gifts to important visitors.