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Samoan Missionary Life, 1921

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 31, 2008

John Q. Adams, president of the Samoan Mission, wrote the following description of a typical day of tracting in the Samoan Mission of 1921. He sent it to Liahona: The Elders’ Journal, prefacing it with a few comments suggesting that missionaries in the States couldn’t really appreciate how lucky, even easy, their mission life was, with their regular mails and the apparent ease with which they distributed tracts and copies of the Book of Mormon. Then he went on to describe facets of Samoan mission life that must have caused elders in the States to marvel:

May we take you on an imaginative typical proselyting hike over Samoan trails and under obtaining Samoan environment? In comparison and contrast and interchange of facts and ideas we profit as a whole.

“Mamona ma le ato pa’u,” a native call of derision, literally meaning: “Mormons with a pack.” So we shall expect to see our pair of proselyters each with that necessary appendage, which proves to be the case. No mere leather nor other sort of suitcase or grip similar to those carried in the States would be practical here, as the almost daily downpour of rain soon soaks through all such material and it deteriorates very rapidly with mould and consequent decay. As a substitute for a grip, the Elder purchases a square yard or more of heavy black water-proof oil cloth, wraps his few essential things in a neat bundle, straps it securely, slings it to his shoulder and away goes “The Mormon with the pack.”

If the journey commences in the morning it commences on an empty stomach, as no Samoan eats an early breakfast. Their food, such as green bananas, taro and breadfruit is baked only after much slow and laborious exertion, and consequently but one good big hot meal is the usual menu per diem. On a special occasion, as in entertaining a guest, this rule doesn’t hold. Generally, calls come from those seated in their houses by the trail’s side to come in and eat with them, and lest it be the last opportunity of that day, the invitation is accepted, even if several round meals be partaken of within an hour, for native food fails to cloy and hibernate in the stomach as does the heavier food of temperate climes. According to Samoan custom, if the native fails to call you in to eat, he at least sings out that there is nothing good in his house, and you answer politeness and hospitality with like virtues, replying that he needn’t worry as you didn’t expect it anyway.

On we go along the coast, at places wading bridgeless streams, at whose conjunction with the sea you are forced to cross, as the Samoan trails usually follow closely the level contour of the beach. Often there is deep sand, so that the raising or lowering of the feet requires a fractional horsepower of energy, but the ocean on one side and towering cliffs on the other hem the way so that circumnavigation is not on the guide book. At other places the waves come lapping our feet or the impounding surf showers us with spray if the breeze be landward, deafening us with its thunderous detonations as it roars and growls and frothily crashes over the coral or lava reef. It is all so beautiful, so impressive, so new at every turn, that bodily fatigue and physical discomfort sink into oblivion.

Leaving this realm of charm, let us approach the real missionary side of the trip. No Samoan house has doors, so we are not under the painful necessity of having the door slammed in our face as we hesitatingly knock for admittance, for we do not even knock, such is the hospitality here. We select a house and walk straightway in, only coughing gently or creating an accidental noise to attract attention so that a mat may be spread for us to sit on by the time we cast anchor.

We sit down cross-legged on the mat, hang our hats and packs upon the floor and are greeted with the customary “You have come?” “Yes, your honor, we are here,” we reply, and then if we are to be accorded traditional courtesy the host makes us a neat little speech of welcome couched in eloquent and high class chief’s terms, for a far different language is addressed to high chiefs than to common folks. We reply in kind, and should he see fit to go still further in honoring us, a wooden bowl full of respectful drink is made from the kava root by a “taupou” or “virgin girl” and passed to us in a cocoanut-shell cup with much ceremony.

One by one a circle of chiefs drop in to extend greetings over the kava bowl, and here is where a good Gospel conversation may ensue if the Elders are conversant with the customs and language of the islanders, and approach the subject properly. The dignified old chiefs like to hear outside news and this may profitably be made to introduce many an excellent Gospel conversation. As the talks take the turn towards religious topics, opposition may and often does crop out bitterly, but proverbial Samoan courtesy prevents any overt act or bodily violence or refusal to provide food and shelter except very infrequently.

In the course of a day many such a ceremony is gone through with, and there may or may not have been obtained a meal, although you may rest assured that if it is in the house you will be tendered something eatable, even if the people themselves go without. Chicken dinners are often enjoyed, and even a pig may be killed for you. The variety of Samoan food is wide and delicious and exactly suited to the tropical climate.

As evening falls a house is selected for the night, and the routine of settling down gone through as explained. All Samoan families hold evening prayers, a very commendable practice for all to pattern after. A very pretty sight it is to peep into the houses as one may walk slowly down some village green in the flood of moonlight, and hear the evening hymn in which the whole family joins, and see the tiny flickering flame of a cocoanut-shell fire in the scooped out fire place. Following the hymn a chapter is read from the Bible, after which all kneel, and one leads in prayer. The Elders are given the privilege of taking charge of this service by the family they stay overnight with. The whole evening – for twilight is but a brief transition from broad light to night – is open for either a meeting or Gospel conversation, and here, as at the other homes visited during the day, a tract is left if acceptable, as it nearly always is. the Samoans are not a people to go reveling about at night, retiring early and arising thus.

As bedtime arrives, a mosquito net is hung up, a few mats spread on the pebble floor, and into this the tired but happy missionary crawls, wiggling about sufficiently to create a shallow depression in the floor, into which his body fits somewhat, and away to dreams of the past and the future of his work as a preacher of the Truth.

I served in the Alps and along the French Riviera 25 years ago. Had I written a report like President Adams’, I would have described exotic landscapes involving vineyards and seascapes and mountain peaks, and clear sunlight that has an indescribably different quality about it, like Impressionist paintings. I could not have reported the sound of prayers floating from the houses, but I could tell of walking down a deserted residential street in Marseilles during a World Soccer Cup match, with simultaneous cheers or groans coming from every window. How about you?



3 Comments »

  1. John Q. [Quincy] Adams was born 19 May 1882 in Centerville, Utah. He married Thurza Tingey on 4 Jan 1912 in the Salt Lake Temple. He died at age 88 on 20 Mar 1971 in Bountiful, Utah.

    He served three missions to Samoa, two as mission president, accompanied by his wife Thurza.

    Comment by Maurine — October 31, 2008 @ 9:27 am

  2. I recall a sureal moment in an obscure village (Tiu Keng Ling) in Hong Kong, scheduled to be demolished. Accessible only by boat, we arrived at the ferry dock and wandered through town, winding our way up the side of the hill to the chapel. While in the town you can’t see past the buildings because the “street” are so narrow. But when we arrived at the chapel which sat on the highest point in the town, we could look back over our path. From every peak of every building flew a flag of the Republic of China (ROC). And this on the eve of the turn over to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The defiance was striking, as if just flying the flags would keep the impending takeover, and the demolition, at bay.

    Eventually the members moved out one by one until just the Branch President was left, and the branch closed down. Not long afterwards I was transferred, the last person was moved to public housing elsewhere in Hong Kong and the flags came down. Bulldozers erased the village and a high rise public housing project took its place. In 1997, the PRC took control of the former British colony.

    Comment by BruceC — October 31, 2008 @ 10:33 am

  3. Except for the last 4 months of my mission (serving in an inland branch with campesinos), I was on the Pacific Ocean in each area.

    I would have written of the view of the fishing boats, the wafting smoke from the wood-burning stoves, the smell of the sea in the fresh fish and mariscos and oysters at the market, the taste of the fresh fruit from the fields. I’d have written of manjar taken at “once”, with milk available at the better households, and freshly baked bread. I’d have written of the cazuela, with slices of beef and pumpkin (although not the noodles with marmalade), and the raspberry juice in cartons.

    I’d have soberly reminded of the general hatred of America and the CIA in particular, although individual Americans were beloved.

    Now I’m homesick.

    Comment by queuno — October 31, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

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