I wonder how many man-years LDS missionaries have spent at sea traveling to and from their mission fields?
In rare instances, elders tried to travel incognito: When South Africa was denying entry to missionaries in the 19-teens, for no apparent reason other than that they were Mormons, it was easier to slip elders into the country if they traveled alone and were not known by their fellow travelers to be missionaries. But as often as possible, elders traveled in pairs or groups and were recognized by shipmates for who they were.
Traveling together for days at a time in the relatively small society of the ship must often have been many people’s first close association with missionaries. Especially when elders were on their homeward voyages, missionaries took advantage of this association to act as missionaries, sometimes offering their services as clergymen to conduct Sunday worship – generally not the only religious service onboard that day, but as an additional or alternative service. If you were an elder in such a position, knowing that your temporary congregation was drawn together out of curiosity as much as for worship, what kind of a meeting would you hold?
In 1930, 25 elders released from service from missions throughout Europe and Australia1 were in company aboard the George Washington. They offered to conduct a service, and the ship’s personnel both granted permission and furnished assistance by providing a place to gather and access to the ship’s printing press, where words to the hymns selected for the meeting were printed for distribution.
The Mormon service was the third one scheduled that morning (March 23), following Catholic and Episcopal services. The meeting, conducted by Max Christensen (released from the Danish Mission) opened with prayer, followed by the opening song, “O Say What Is Truth?” Elder Weston N. Nordgren, formerly of the European Mission2 responsible for reporting the service, noted that “many of the passengers joined in with the missionaries as they became accustomed to the tune.”
Next followed two short talks designed to introduce the missionaries to their audience as well as to preach a little Mormonism: Elder Christensen explained who the elders were and what they had been doing for the past two or three years. Elder Nordgren then spoke briefly about the Plan of Salvation.
These introductory talks were followed by the evident highlight of the service: a duet sung by Clifton G.M. Kerr (released from office duty in the British Mission) and Lamont L. Larsen (returning from Australia), singing “O, My Father.” “During this song,” Elder Nordgren wrote, “the whole audience seemed spellbound, so powerful was the influence of the message borne.”
The concluding sermon was given by Elder Kerr, discussing some differences between Mormonism and other religious beliefs. Then the elders and their congregation sang “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet,” a closing prayer was offered, and, as per shipboard tradition, one verse of “The Star Spangled Banner” was sung.
Again from Elder Nordgren: “Throughout the service, the spirit of brotherhood and the Spirit of the Lord were abundantly present; many passengers remarked upon it to the Elders afterwards, though they did not all seem to know the reason for the wonderful power manifested. Many complimented us on our religious stand, and all in all, the service was one of the high-lights” of their crossing.
Have you ever participated in an ad hoc congregation like this, perhaps at a campground or other resort, with a largely non-member congregation? What do you think of the elders’ choices of hymns and talk topics for such an audience?
The elders aboard the George Washington in March, 1930:
(kneeling, left to right:) Weston N. Nordgren (European Mission), Richard A. Jorgensen (Norwegian Mission), Max R. Christensen (Danish Mission), Clifton G.M. Kerr (British Mission), Wayne R. Nelson (British Mission), Edward L. Blacker, British Mission), Theron S. Covey (German-Austrian Mission).
(standing, left to right, reading both rows as one:) Willard G. Noble (German-Austrian Mission), Leo A. Teerlink (Netherlands Mission), Walter Schultz (Swiss-German Mission), Ariel A. Anderson (Australian Mission), Lewis A. Christensen (Danish Mission), Lamont L. Larsen (Australian Mission), R. Welling Roskelley (German-Austrian Mission), Kenneth R. Huber (Swiss-German Mission), Magne Agle (Norwegian Mission), George E. Brunt (French Mission), Miles Burgess (Swiss-German Mission), Adrian R. Gibby (German-Austrian Mission), T. Scott Varley (German-Austrian Mission), Glen Merrill (German-Austrian Mission), Hugo M. Erickson (Swedish Mission), Brigham Nebeker (Netherlands Mission), Max Schmidt (Swiss-German Mission), John W. Southwick (British Mission).
(No name reported for the photobomber in the upper right corner.)
- Elders from Australia sometimes sailed directly to the California coast; at other times they returned to the U.S. via England because better and more frequent steamer service could be had that way. [↩]
- For decades, the European Mission served as a supervisory mission over all the missions of Europe – a sort of prototype Area, perhaps – and handled trans-Atlantic travel services for all missionaries, emigrating members, and even LDS tourists if they chose to use that service. [↩]