Matthew Gardner and Dr. Dennis Wright, Church History
How does the Lord view participation in something as controversial as war? In scriptural history, we read that He supports the righteous through added strength, prosperity, and oftentimes, victory. The Lord’s followers often fought due to the commandments of God, whereas today’s wars are fought for political reasons. While “History of the Church in Vietnam, 1965-1975” does not focus on the Lord’s opinion on war, it does show how He uses it as a tool to carry on his work. As Joseph Smith said: “Armies may assemble . . . but the truth of God will go forth, boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear.”1 The finished article shows that despite, or maybe in thanks to the assembled armies in the Vietnam, the truth of the Lord truly went forth, and the church grew in Vietnam.
As was anticipated, the article required in-depth research of primary documents. Articles from the time period were gleaned from publications including the Church News, Ensign, Improvement Era, and personal interviews. After gaining a knowledge of the time period through previous research on the Vietnam War, I then became acquainted with the articles and other resources discussing LDS servicemen’s and the Vietnamese’ experiences during the war. These articles and resources numbered over fifty. Brother Wright, who had previous and greater depth of knowledge on the subject, would often encourage me to seek out further information on certain topics to flesh out the paper in order to give a complete description of the Church’s wartime involvement. He also helped to ensure that the paper maintain the unbiased standpoint it needed to accomplish its task of providing simply an overview rather than an interpretation of the Church’s involvement.
In the production of this article, one of the things that impressed me most was the continuation of a pattern. The pattern is as follows: war in a foreign land, LDS soldiers involvement, and subsequent missionary work performed by those saints involved with the war. In both the first and the second volume of Saints At War, Veterans seemed bound to spread the gospel to those who did not yet have it. In Vietnam, the first Vietnamese Nationals to be converted were baptized in 1963. By the time the US soldiers were being called home, starting in 1973, there was a complete branch of over 200 Vietnamese members. And this growth does not take into account the numerous conversions of fellow US soldiers during the war who had already come and gone throughout the war. While researching for the article, I found, interestingly, that this is due in part to the influence of missionaries from other denominations to Vietnam previous to the war. One author attributes part of the success in LDS missionary work to this previous presence and knowledge of Christianity. It seems that the Lord had been preparing the way for his gospel to be shared.
Although I never came across a the total number of conversions resulting from the LDS involvement in the war, I would suggest that the number is substantial. By the end of the military occupation of Vietnam over two hundred Vietnamese members were on record in Vietnam. That number does not include new members that left the country or servicemen and women who were converted through the faith and examples of their fellow servicemen. At the high point of US military involvement there was an estimated 6500 saints in Vietnam. With such a great force of member missionaries in one country, it is no wonder that so many people converted to the gospel. The first few known saints arrived in 1962, and that group had their first baptism only five months after the organization of the first official servicemen’s group:
Captain John T. Mullennex of the U.S. Air Force appears to have been the first convert during the Vietnam War when he was baptized on November 3, 1962. Because the small group had no baptismal font and the nearby waters were polluted, Brother Mullennex was baptized in a 500- gallon water purification tank that had been “dressed up” with white sheets and palm leaves. One of the brethren had welded together some steel steps leading up and then down into the rubber “font.”
The next year, two Vietnamese women were baptized in that same tank. These women were taught the gospel by Patricia Bean who was working with the Vietnam American Association teaching English. It is thought that these two sisters were the first Vietnamese baptisms during the war.2
Clearly the Lord was able to work on the hearts of the people despite a lack of the usual material resources and the existence of the greater impediment of war.
The church did all that it could to support the members in Vietnam. Several General authorities including Elder Gordon B. Hinckley and Elder Ezra Taft Benson visited the saints during servicemen’s conferences. The church during this period instituted what were called servicemen training conference where authorities would speak to prospective servicemen with the intention of giving them the spiritual food that would serve as “a great survival meal for you, to sustain you in the field.” Besides these great measures taken, the church did all it could to provide all the services and support that a ward would provide elsewhere. Servicemen were encouraged to maintain current recommends, as well as attend sacrament meeting whenever possible. Many soldiers did not even need the encouragement and would go out of their way to hold sacrament meeting regardless of the number of members present. The minutes of one meeting recorded “Members present, two—members absent, none.” Eventually, when the environment was considered safe enough, full-time missionaries were even sent to work among the people of Vietnam.
The relationships fostered during the war led to conversions of both Americans and Vietnamese. Today, Vietnam is still closed to proselyting because of the communist influence. However, due to the saints’ efforts during the war and just after, we are blessed to have a Vietnamese translation of the Book of Mormon to aid in missionary work with Vietnamese speakers elsewhere. The article has clearly outlined that the Church was very active in supporting the servicemen in Vietnam. Veteran servicemen as well as the Vietnamese saints actively voice how blessed they were for that support.
- Joseph Smith, Jr. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 4:540.
- Matthew Gardner, “History of the Church in Vietnam 1965–1975,” Unpublished Manuscript, Saints At War.