Saints of Tonga: The Story of an Island Gem

Brent R. Nordgren and Scott C. Esplin

men shaking handsElders Brigham Smoot and Alva John Butler shaking hands with the king of Tonga as they ask permission to preach the gospel among his people. Clark Kelley Price, Meeting the King of Tonga.

President Russell M. Nelson traveled to Tonga in May of this year to minister to Latter-day Saints and to meet with government and interfaith leaders in this Pacific nation. “You are precious to us and to the Lord. We love you. We miss you when we are away from you,” said President Nelson as he visited the Kingdom of Tonga during his nine-day Pacific ministry to seven countries. “[The Lord] has special feelings for the covenant people on the isles of the sea,” he said. [1]

Tonga has the highest percentage of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of any country in the world. How did this happen? After Christian missionaries struggled to teach for several decades, King George I dedicated the Kingdom of Tonga as a Christian nation in 1839. Latter-day Saint missionaries arrived in 1891, and they too found limited success at first. After the mission was closed for a decade, the Church returned and began harvesting the fruits from the seeds that were planted earlier amid tremendous official opposition. The truths of the gospel resonated with the Tongan people, who exhibited tremendous faith and sacrifice. The Church grew to be a strong influence in the Kingdom of Tonga and with the people of the country. The country has important Church Educational System schools as well as a temple next to the Liahona High School campus in Nuku‘alofa with a second temple to be built in Vava‘u.

meeting the king of TongaAbove: President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, meet with His Majesty King Tupou VI and Her Majesty Queen Nanasipau‘u at the Royal Palace in Nuku‘alofa, Tonga, on 23 May 2019. Also pictured are Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Susan Gong, and Elder O. Vincent Haleck, a General Authority Seventy and President of the Church’s Pacific Area, and his wife, Sister Peggy Haleck. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

In addition to the members living in Tonga, Latter-day Saints from the island kingdom have spread across the Pacific and around the world, strengthening the Church wherever they go. Today, tens of thousands of Latter-day Saints with Tongan ancestry can be found in congregations stretching from Australia to Alaska. At the 1991 centennial celebration of the Church in Tonga, President Nelson blessed the Saints that “from this island kingdom, faith may radiate through the entire world and affect the lives of people all over the world.”[2]

The Book

In December, BYU’s Religious Studies Center is releasing the book Saints of Tonga: A Century of Island Faith, which traces the growth of the Church in Tonga from its earliest beginnings in 1891 to the present. It tells the history of the Church in Tonga and includes numerous intriguing narratives, including how the Church grew from limited initial success to become a central part of religious life for thousands of Tongans. The authors observe how this book “is a story of melding the best of the Latter-day Saint and Tongan cultures while enhancing faith on both sides.” Saints of Tonga captures the nurturing of that faith among a people who are fulfilling President Nelson’s prophecy.

Riley M. Moffat, retired senior librarian at BYU–Hawaii, teamed up with Fred E. Woods, Church history and doctrine professor, and Brent R. Anderson, former teacher at the Church schools in Tonga, to produce Saints of Tonga. The book is richly documented and beautifully illustrated.

a group of menThe history of the Church in Tonga, especially in the early years, is told largely through the journals of the missionaries who served there and through the manuscript history and historical reports of the Tonga Mission. Picture here are early Tongan missionaries in 1892. Top, left to right: Elders James Kinghorn, Alva Butler; bottom, left to right: Elders Olonzo Merrill, Brigham Smoot, William Hunter. Courtesy of Church History Library

Why write a history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Tonga? Tongans are a believing people. They have a great respect for God, their culture, and for their monarchy. The observance of the Sabbath by the Tongan nation is unequaled in all the world. Tongans have embraced the Latter-day Saint message of eternal families, as well as the invitation to deepen their discipleship through daily Christlike living. In addition, the Tongans have been very mindful of the Latter-day Saint belief that people in every nation should, as stated in the twelfth article of faith, be “subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”

These factors have helped inspire the Church to find a way to permanently become part of the fabric of the Kingdom of Tonga, paying rich dividends to the Tongan islands in the development of their education and citizenry as well as influencing Tongan communities worldwide.

Because of the tradition of oral history among the Tongan people, Saints of Tonga relies on the accounts of foreign missionaries and official records to document the early story of the Church across the island. However, as the Church has matured, written records and interviews collected by the authors from their long connections with local members have added important Tongan voices to the story. Moffat, Woods, and Anderson conclude, “Each of us has been touched and transformed through our contact with scores of faithful Tongan Saints. It is our desire that this island’s culture of faith will spread far beyond the reef that encloses it and strengthen members of the Church . . . and others throughout the world.”

people by the oceanElder John H. Groberg is pictured here with a group of Tongans while serving a mission to Tonga in the 1950s. The story of his mission and the faith of the Tongan people were captured in a book written by Elder Groberg titled In the Eye of the Storm, which in turn inspired the movie The Other Side of Heaven. Courtesy of Helen Berrett.

Another Side of Heaven

In 2019 another noteworthy event brought global attention to the small Kingdom of Tonga. This was the release of the motion picture The Other Side of Heaven 2: Fire of Faith. While an earlier film focused on Elder John H. Groberg as a young missionary, this second movie focuses on Elder Groberg’s years as a mission president. This film focused the attention of the world on the remarkable faith of the Tongan people.


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is stable and growing in the Kingdom of Tonga. Church statistics for 2018 show 106 chapels, 21 stakes, 168 congregations, 20 family history centers, one mission, and one temple with another one announced, as well as two high schools and five middle schools. As of 2018 fully a third of the kingdom are active members of the Church. This is remarkable, as the total population of Tonga is approximately 109,325 people. There are also over two hundred young Church missionaries and thirty senior missionary couples working with those who are less active and sharing the message of the restored gospel to the rest of the kingdom.[3]

“Great are the promises of the Lord unto them who are upon the isles of the sea,” the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob declared (2 Nephi 10:21), and he also later stated that a branch of the house of Israel was hid “in the nethermost part of my vineyard” (Jacob 5:13). The story of the Church in the island nation of Tonga appears to demonstrate a fulfillment of those promises, including how the Lord “remembereth all them who have been broken off” (2 Nephi 10:22).

Documentary Film

The book has a complementary documentary film with the same name produced by Martin L. Anderson and Fred E. Woods, augmented with dozens of interviews in both English and Tongan. It may be viewed at


[1] “Latter-day Prophet Meets with Tongan King and Queen” (news release, 23 May 2019),

[2] Quoted in John L. Hart, “Celebrating 100 Years in Tonga,” Church News, 31 August 1991, 9.

[3] Riley M. Moffat, “LDS Church History Sites in the Kingdom of Tonga,” Mormon Historical Studies 17, nos. 1–2 (2016): 217.