John L. Sorenson
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My Missions

Going on 66 years ago (1946), I received my first mission call. Circumstances were so different at that time that it is almost impossible for my descendants to understand what the call and mission meant to me. A desire to be understood leads me to tell about those events in some detail for those coming after me to learn more about me. As I grew through my teenage years in the late 1930s hardly any men I knew received mission calls (and only one woman, Beatrice Thornley, a neighbor). In fact I do not recall a single man going out from my Smithfield Third, although that may be my memory problem. This was the time of the Great Depression, and there was simply not money, at least among the people I knew, for families to afford to send any one. Besides, emphasis was not being made on missions at that time. World War II started for the USA in 1941 with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Spending on war preparations led to greater prosperity in Utah but for nearly five years during the war while most young men had to enter the military service, few mission calls were issued by the church. I was a 17-year-old student at Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) in Logan, Utah, when the war started. In November 1942 I signed up as a reservist in the U.S. Army Air Corps (later renamed the U.S. Air Force) and waited to be called to active duty. That came in March 1943 while I was still 18. Thirty-nine months later, in the summer of 1946, I was discharged. At that time there were several thousand young men who were war veterans who felt they should go out as missionaries. I was one of them. Neither the local nor general authorities of the Church formally pushed that movement; it just happened, by the action of the Holy Spirit acting through individuals, I suppose. Many of us had enough savings from our military pay so that money was not a major problem. Because I had been an officer (First Lieutenant), I had been able to save more than regular GIs; I had $1500 (the equivalent today because of inflation of at least $10,000) in savings (although I had also supported my parents financially while in the service—my dad was 71 when I returned home). My decision to serve a mission was not due to any dramatic vision or fanfare of heavenly trumpets in my ears. The realization simply grew in me that I was able to go, I should go, and in fact I wanted to go, as other veterans were then thinking. I suppose that the prospect was also more attractive to me than settling down to routine college classes in Logan, none of which really interested me anymore. That seemed pretty dull after learning and living in five states and abroad while in the military. So I told my bishop I was ready to go, and he submitted papers to Salt Lake City. In those days prospective missionaries were interviewed by whatever Church general authority came to the next quarterly stake conference (and one always did). I was interviewed by Elder Oscar A. Kirkham, one of the Presidents of the Seventy. In the course of it he asked where if anywhere I would like to go (not that my preference would necessarily make a difference). In my mind I thought (for no particular reason), well, maybe Australia or New Zealand, but I did not feel strongly enough about it to say so. Then he said, “Well, with a name like Sorenson, you’ll probably be sent to Sweden or Denmark.” Whatever …, I thought. When my call arrived in August, it was to the New Zealand Mission. However, the call (letter) said that regular transportation across the Pacific was not available yet after the war (there was no airline service to New Zealand at that time nor had there ever been, so I could not know when I might actually be able to travel. It turned out to be not until the following January. Meanwhile a beautiful 20-year-old woman moved in with her sister next door to my parents’ house. She was Kathryn Richards who would become my wife for 43 years before her death. After a few months, we decided we should marry. Her realistic view was that she might not be around when I came home in two and one-half years and neither of us liked that prospect. On Nov. 22, 1946, we were married in the Salt Lake Temple. The Church had not faced enough situations like ours to have a policy about married veterans going or not going on missions, so we simply told our bishops our plans and proceeded. Mine might have been puzzled about what to say or do, but he decided to just let any problem that it caused find its own solution. There was never any question in either of our minds about my fulfilling the mission. The only question was what arrangements we could make for her (and the baby she very much hoped for) while I was gone. For the nearly two months we had together, before I finally boarded ship in San Francisco, we lived with my parents. Kathryn found a job in Smithfield, and after I left, she went back to living with her sister Barbara Francisco and husband (and later with her parents in Magna). The ocean voyage in January and February 1947 (on the first ship carrying civilians to go to the South Pacific after the war) was on a slightly converted troopship where there were no ”rooms” (only bunk beds, three deep, in empty cargo spaces, one for all the men and another for the women. Our three-week voyage stopped only once, in Pago Pago, American Samoa, before reaching Auckland, New Zealand. Six of us elders got off there (six others stayed aboard to go on to Sydney, Australia). The New Zealand mission president, A. Reed Halverson, had lived in my ward in Smithfield where he had served as our stake president, so he already knew me. (I had collected fast offerings from his home as a deacon, and when I was a priest, at 16, he had invited me to perform the baptism of his oldest son.) In part because he wished to save me money (he of course knew my family situation) and in part because he trusted me, he chose to send me to the island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, 1500 miles northeast of Auckland. The Cooks were included in the New Zealand Mission. One small branch of the church (40 people) existed there, started by a Samoan, Fritz Krueger, who had opened a bakery to support his family while he and his wife served part-time as missionaries. When he left Rarotonga after the war, a young New Zealand/Canadian couple were assigned as missionaries there, and an American elder, DonLon Delamare of Salt Lake City) had also arrived there accidentally (because of a mistake in booking his voyage to “Rarotonga” instead of “Tonga”!). He too was a veteran (of the war in Italy), and I was to be his companion. But the schedule of when the only ship (a 60-foot diesel- engine vessel, named the Maui Pomare, that “accommodated” six passengers plus a crew of six) was unpredictable, so it was April before I actually got to the island after a week’s voyage. Until the ship was ready to go, I (with an American companion) was assigned to search the Auckland area to find “lost members” at old addresses who had had no one from the church contact them since before the war. Much of our work in the Cooks turned out to be organizing and teaching Primaries (groups of children meeting once a week during the day for religious instruction and “fun” activities) all over the largest island, Rarotonga which had by far the largest population; another half dozen islands did not get missionaries until after I came home). Kids loved to come to Primary and their non-LDS parents allowed them to. We worked through the children to teach some of the parents. One problem was that we had no church literature printed in the language (called Rarotongan; the language is more or less common to all the widely scattered Cook group; it is related on the one hand to the New Zealand native tongue, called Maori, and on the other to Tahitian (in the Society Islands to the east). All we had to begin with was the Bible, which had been translated by Christian missionaries a hundred years earlier. There was no grammar book or dictionary to learn from. Once I had learned to speak more or less effectively (in about six months), I began to translate some basic materials, with help from the most literate members—the sacrament prayers then a couple of tracts (gospel booklets to be given to investigators) and some excerpts from the Book of Mormon. Younger people had had five or six years of public school in English under teachers from New Zealand, although at best the everyday English they managed was pretty feeble. We also taught individuals and families who were influenced by our members to want to learn more. Occasionally we “tracted” at houses, but the scattered nature of the homes “in the bush” made that difficult. We also taught evening English classes that were popular with young people. The work was hard and grew unsteadily, yet eventually three branches were functioning (more or less) plus a total of seven or eight Primaries and several English classes. By the end of two years, membership was over 140 in addition to some emigrants who’d moved to New Zealand to find jobs. Our son Jeffrey was born in Logan on 18 Sept. 1947. I learned about it when a cable (international telegram) from Kathryn arrived in my mail! (Mail arrived every two weeks by a scheduled N.Z. airplane that wended through various island groups to a final stop in Rarotonga; the plane then turned around and went back after a two-hour stopover. That was the only way for visitors or mail to come in or leave, except for the irregular little boat I arrived on. We had visits from or mission presidents from New Zealand only four times in my two years on Rarotonga. We four missionaries were pretty much on our own, which was generally an advantage.) President Halversen’s intention to let me live cheaply was fulfilled. In Rarotonga I only spent from $12 to $20 a month. A constant in our diet was bananas (friends would give us stalks of them—50 or so fruits on a stalk which we valiantly tried to eat up!), along with sweet potatoes, breadfruit or fish from the lagoon a hundred feet away. My companion and I lived in two tiny rooms of a native-style house that the Church members had built for the missionaries attached to a small chapel of the same materials, in the village of Muri Enua. The walls were of small sticks tied together or nailed; the temperature varied year–round between 78 and 60 degrees. The roof was of woven palm leaves (inhabited by abundant cockroaches and six-inch long centipedes, who didn’t bother us very often). We rode bicycles everywhere. There was only a single road, around the island, near the shore, and probably there were no more than 20 cars/trucks on the island. Altogether, after leaving Salt Lake City, I calculated that I traveled by ship, train, air and bicycle nearly 25,000 miles on my mission, living or stopping in six foreign countries. About two years from my arrival, I sadly, and hurriedly, left “my people” by plane (by way of Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji) for New Zealand. I had been summned to attend the N.Z.-wide annual conference of the New Zealand mission, the “Hui Tau” in the city of Hamilton, where I made a brief oral report about the status Church in the Cook Islands. Apostle Matthew Cowley was there for the occasion. He had earlier been a much-beloved N.Z. mission president. (He had visited us in Rarotonga for five days during 1948 on a unique stopover on his way by air between Tahiti and New Zealand. During that visit he urged DeLaMare and me to go home, get an education, and prepare to return to the Cooks as mission presidents; that never happened, of course). After the conference for me it was a matter of waiting for a ship to depart for America out of Wellington. Eventually five of us homebound missionaries set sail as the only passengers on a freighter (the food was excellent, the quarters were cramped), for what would prove to be a very boring trip). After stopping in Fiji to pick up a load of sugar, we arrived (non-stop) in Vancouver, Canada, completing a sea trip that totaled 44 days. From there we went on to Salt Lake City by train. It was then May, 1949, 30 months after leaving Utah. Jeffrey was a precocious 20-month oldster when I first saw him, his mother was going on sweet 23, and I was 25. Was the mission worth it? Yes! For at least these reasons: (1) After the mission, most of our later problems in life seemed relatively minor. (2) Both Kathryn and I learned a great deal, especially appreciation for each other and about our own natures. (3) We enjoyed the faith and help that relatives and friends extended to us beyond what we would have felt had we just gone on with married life at home. (4) I learned enough about my “native people” that I eventually decided to become an anthropologist, to which my mission experience contributed notably; and I mastered a new language (at home in Provo I completed composing a grammar of Rarotongan that was used by later missionaries as a learning device for at least the next 30 years). (5) I got to know hundreds of wonderful people, including some of the dearest souls I have ever encountered; if I ever was prejudiced against people with darker skins, any vestige of it was purged out by this experience. (6) I learned by hard experience to exercise faith, hope, patience, self-discipline, charity, and other virtues in the course of doing the Lord’s work. (7) For two years I lived in some of the most beautiful natural scenery in the world. (8) I learned that there is nothing wrong with not having money that can’t be made up by other things. And I could go on. Especially I value having achieved membership in a great world-wide fraternity, Those Who Have Been Missionaries. Beyond what I received I was able to give greater good to needy human souls. I gained the ability to communicate gospel truths and testimony to bless many lives. I left beneficial ideas and products behind to bless others. What I experienced, said, and taught on my mission was and is true and good. My life was permanently shaped for good. In later years, I had further missionary experiences of value. While I was a graduate student at BYU, I served a (part-time) stake mission for about a year in the East Provo Stake, teaching mainly non-Latter-day Saint students attending BYU. Later, while we lived in Orem, in 1970-71, I was again a stake missionary for a year (during which one of the men we taught was an old fellow who had been a buddy of Jack Dempsey, who became the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, while Dempsey lived in Provo for a couple of his youthful years after moving from Colorado). I was a Seventy in the Melchizedek Priesthood for 28 years. The office of Seventy was supposed to be concerned with promoting missionary work, although it was never very clear how that was to be translated into action. Mostly we worked at projects to raise money for the ward missionary fund, but it was never clear that raising a field of potatoes, or cutting and selling Christmas trees, or selling flags for home display were particularly productive ideas. I did serve a term of four or five years as one of the seven presidents of the Seventies quorum in the Springville Stake. At several points in the period since about 1973 I have also been called upon to render service on general church committees. In the later 1970s for several yearsI acted as a member of a panel of consultants to evaluate research projects being conducted by the Correlation Committee of the church, chiefly on missionary programs and their outcomes. Later I was a consultant for the LDS Motion Picture Studio in Provo in contributing to and critiquing several documentaries on the Book of Mormon and its peoples (only some of my advice was paid attention to!) Finally around 2002 at my request I was assigned to serve a “church- service mission” with the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), and for that purpose I was designated by BYU President Merrill Bateman a “Special Representative” to that organization (which is now part of the Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU). My task was to continue (as I had done informally since 1981) to respond to inquiries sent in by FARMS members and other people concerning my special area of expertise on the Book of Mormon, as well as to continue to research and write on relevant Book of Mormon subjects. This assignment was “until released,” which happened de facto in 2009. I am pleased and gratified to have been considered worthy to serve in this or any other way in the cause of the kingdom of God on the earth and the establishment of Zion.
Reminiscenses by John L. Sorenson