Located in the South Pacific, Western Samoa is a parliamentary democracy. The people are Protestant, 45 percent; LDS, 28 percent; and Roman Catholic, 20 percent.
On 24 January 1863, two missionaries from Hawaii arrived in Samoa. Kimo Pelia and Samuela Manoa had been sent by an apostate leader, Walter Murray Gibson. The pair labored faithfully for nearly 20 years without the support of the Church. The number of baptisms performed by them was never recorded (but ranged between 50 and 200). Upon learning of Manoa’s presence in Samoa, Joseph H. Dean was set apart by Hawaiian Mission president William King to begin missionary work in Samoa. Dean arrived in Aunu’u (now part of American Samoa) with his wife, Florence, on 21 June 1888. The Deans found that Pelia had died but Manoa was still very supportive and was rebaptized and reordained by Dean on 25 June. The same day, Dean baptized a woman named Malaea, who is considered his first Samoan convert. Dean remained in Aunu’u and within four months 40 others had joined the Church. Missionary work did not expand beyond Aunu’u until more missionaries arrived. A native named Polonga, was called as the first local missionary. Mission headquarters were eventually established on the island of Upolu, were the majority of Samoans lived. In August 1889, Dean purchased property in Fagalii, near the main village of Apia. It became the center of operations for a little more than 10 years. When the Deans left for home on 16 August 1890, there were 13 missionaries and around 80 members of the Church.
The use of lantern slide shows about the Church and a record player were used to attract attention and open the way to teach the gospel in villages that had been closed to missionaries before. Missionaries also helped educate youths in small chapel schools. By 1899, membership in Samoa had grown to 1,139. As Samoans were ordained elders, they were often called to leave their own villages and preside in distant branches, a pattern unique to Samoa that continued into the 1950s. Many local members also served missions and contributed toward the growth of the Church.
At the turn of the century, missionary work was made difficult by internal political conflicts. In 1899, the Samoan islands were divided between Germany and the United States. Western Samoa, consisting primarily of the islands of Upolu and Savai’i, became a German colony. Shortly thereafter, the Germans banned English-language schools, an act that temporarily slowed missionary work. German control ended in 1914. Eastern Samoa became and remains a U.S. territory, of which Tutuila is the primary island. In the early 1900s, President Joseph F. Smith authorized the establishment of Sauniatu, in the mountains near the capital city of Apia, as a refuge for converts expelled from their villages for joining the Church. Today, it encompasses a small LDS primary school and the Sauniatu Agriculture Center, a program designed to promote family self-reliance based on gospel principles and training in agriculture and entrepreneurship. In 1902 mission headquarters were moved from Fagalii to Pesega, on the outskirts of Apia.
By June 1903, the Book of Mormon had been translated into Samoan. By 1920, membership numbered 3,500, about 5 percent of the total population. A visit by Elder David O. McKay, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, in May 1921 had great impact upon the membership. He made a special visit to the Saints at Sauniatu where he offered an apostolic blessing upon the village prior to his departure. Conversions increased afterward and some entire villages joined the Church. Schools were the most important missionary tools of the Church. Foreign missionaries staffed some grades of the central schools, but young graduates of the schools did most of the teaching. Before World War II, almost none of the Samoan teachers had a high-school education. The main Church sponsored schools on Upolu were at Sauniatu and Pesega, and at Vaiola on Savai’i.
The year 1938 marked the 50 anniversary of missionary work in Samoa. Elaborate plans were made to celebrate the jubilee. George Albert Smith of the Council of the Twelve and Rufus K. Hardy of the First Council of Seventy arranged a tour of the South Pacific missions so that they could be in Samoa during the celebration. With war looming in 1939, missionaries from the United States were sent home, the last leaving in November 1940. Only the mission president and his wife, Wilford W. and Hannahbel Emery, remained. Thousands of marines were stationed on Tutuila and Upolu during World War II. As a result of the war, the Samoan priesthood bearers proved not only capable of leading the Church, but enlarging it as well. They were also able to continue the schools, but the Church-owned buildings had fallen into disrepair because of the unavailability of supplies. Missionaries returned to Samoa in 1946.
When President McKay visited Samoa in 1955, Church membership numbered 6,853, despite a growing trend of Samoan Church members to emigrate to Hawaii and New Zealand. His visit to Sauniatu was a spiritual highlight. He told the members they soon would be able to “enter a house of the Lord in some location not far away, and this would be one of the greatest blessings they could obtain.” When the New Zealand Temple was dedicated in 1958, 50 Samoan Church members participated in the services.
Membership grew from 7,808 in 1951 to 16,649 by 1961. The growth that came during these years was founded on significant advancements in Church organization and administration, education, and meetinghouse construction. By the mid-1960s more than 50 new concrete-brick chapels had been constructed in Samoa, mostly by labor missionaries. Because transportation facilities were generally poor, it was necessary to construct chapels close enough to the people so that most ward or branch members could walk to meetings. A stake was organized in Apia on 18 March 1962 with Percy J. Rivers as president. By 1974, the country had six stakes and became the first country of the world to be entirely covered by stakes.
In February 1976, 11 General Authorities, including Presidents Spencer W. Kimball and N. Eldon Tanner, visited both American and Western Samoa, holding as area conference in Pago Pago and Apia. On 15 October 1977, a temple was announced to be built in American Samoa, but it was later determined that it would be better suited if it were built in Apia, Western Samoa. The temple was dedicated on 5 August 1983. At that time, membership had reached an estimated 20,000, about 20 percent of the population of the islands.
Six new stakes were created in Western Samoa between 1994 and 1996. In 1997, the country changed its official name from Western Samoa to Samoa. President Gordon B. Hinckley visited Savai’i on 12 October 1997, where he spoke to 4,000 members and met with Samoa’s Prime Minister Tofilau Eti Alesana. He addressed another 10,000 that afternoon in Apia Park on Upolu.
In October 2000, the Prime Minister of Samoa visited the Humanitarian Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, and learned of the contributions of clothing and education and medical supplies the Church has quietly made to help the Samoan people.
In 2000, there was a resurgence among the local community chiefs (matai) in exerting control over land use and title to land, in addition to making the final decision as to which religions would be allowed in the village, even though the Samoan Constitution provides for freedom of religion. The Church was excluded from three villages, including one where the Church had constructed a meetinghouse. A decision in July 2000 by a Samoan Supreme Court Justice ruled that the freedom of religion provisions in the Samoan Constitution does not allow the villages to exclude or limit religious worship. The Church established a Community Leader and Government Relations committee in Samoa to improve relationships and understanding between the Church and the village Matai.
While the Apia Samoa Temple was closed for renovation, a fire engulfed it on the night of 9 July 2003, making this the first time that an operating temple had burned. The First Presidency announced a week later that the temple would be rebuilt using a new temple design.
Nearly 1,000 people came from overseas and all parts of Samoa in November 2004 to participate in the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the village called Sauniatu, originally created on 8 November 1904. The celebration honored the early Samoan members who fled here seeking refuge from religious persecution. It is sometimes referred to the “Nauvoo of the South Pacific.”
Membership in 2003 was 62,413. President Hinckley returned to Apia 4 September 2005 to dedicate a new temple rebuilt after the previous temple was destroyed by fire 9 July 2003, during renovation project.
Andrew Jenson, “Samoa,” Encyclopedic History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1941; R. Lanier Britsch, Unto the Islands of the Sea, 1986; R. Carl Harris, Samoa Apia Mission History, 1888-1983, 1983; Jennie and John Hart, R. Carl Harris, The Expanded Samoan Mission History, 1888-1900, Vol. 1, 1988; Gerry Avant, “Prophet Goes to Islands of Pacific,” Church News, 25 October 1997; “One-time Refuge Now is Center of Self-reliance,” Church News, 19 February 2000; Samoan Mission, Manuscript history and historical reports, Church Archives; “South Pacific’s Nauvoo,” Church News, 15 January 2005; “Precious gift returns to Samoa,” Church News, 10 September 2005.