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Women of Conviction

Capable of “Great Good”

Louisa Barnes Pratt Nurtured Saints in French Polynesia

Brittany Chapman

Girls of Tahiti

Louisa Barnes Pratt, one of the first women missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in French Polynesia, served with her husband and four daughters on the island of Tubuai from 1851 to 1852. Louisa’s husband, Addison Pratt, had been called by Joseph Smith on May 11, 1843, to preach the gospel in the Pacific. Addison and three companions arrived at Tubuai on April 30, 1844, and commenced teaching the gospel, with converts numbering in the hundreds.

Not long after Addison returned in 1848, he was called back to the Society Islands. Louisa and her children left the Salt Lake Valley in 1850 to join him there. Louisa recorded her experiences as a missionary in her “Reminiscences”—now located at the Church History Library—written in 1879 when she was 77 years old. She begins with the day of her call:

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Louisa Barnes Pratt

While conference was in session [in the spring of 1850], Thomkins Thomas was called on a mission to the Islands to take bro’ Pratt’s family. It was a great shock to me, being present, little did I hear of the preaching the remainder of the meeting. A journey of a thousand miles by land, & a voyage by sea of 5000 miles. My four daughters to be fitted up in a suitable manner to be presented to their father’s acquaintance in San Francisco, I could not avoid a dread of the labor that would crowd upon me. By the aid of the kindest hands & hearts I was made ready, & on the 7th of May 1850 we bid farewell to the Saints in S Lake & started on the long journey. Pres’t B[righam] Young blessed me; said I should go & return in peace, in the due time of the Lord, be enabled to do great good, that I should have power over the destroyer to rebuke him from my house, that none of my children should be taken from me by death, while I was absent from the church. The promise proved true to me; & in one instance when death seemed inevitable, I claimed the promise, & it was fulfilled. We met our friends in San Francisco, who received us with great kindness, & administered to our needs in every thing. On the 15th of Sept we set Sail for the South pacific Islands. We had a pleasant passage of 35 days, in the Brig Jane A Hersey, Capt. Salmon. I suffered greatly with seasickness; as did my sister C[aroline]1 Crosby,  the most prostrating of all diseases in the world! My daughters did not seem affected in the least, could walk the deck when the ship was rolling from side to side. I could only rally when I heard the cry of Shark, Skipjack, Albatross! I could then rush to the vessel’s side, hang on to the bulwarks, while I viewed the wonders I had often heard of, but never saw before. The voyage wore away, & we landed on Tubouai, 300 miles south of Tahiti, where we expected to find “bro Pratt”, but lo! & behold he was not there.

While we were waiting with great anxiety to hear of his release from confinement, the natives showed us the most unlimited kindness & attention. The king was mindful of our comforts, & directed that everything needful be done for us.

Louisa Barnes Pratt

We soon learned he was detained on Tahiti by orders of the French Governor his excellency having heard that other missionaries were on their way to the Islands, gave orders that Mr. Pratt should be confined to the Island untill the others arrived. ... When we had been there three months in suspense, he came down on an english schooner, Capt Johnson. It was a great day with the natives, & with our daughters. While we were waiting with great anxiety to hear of his release from confinement, the natives showed us the most unlimited kindness & attention. The king was mindful of our comforts, & directed that everything needful be done for us. I wish all kings were as good & true hearted as good old Tama toa; for that was his name. . . .

Mr. Pratt’s companion in the mission was there with a native wife, Benjamin F. Grouard. Likewise two other elders, white men, who embraced the gospel on the Islands, & had been ordained under the hands of “Pratt & Grouard.” They were good faithful men; they did all in their power to reconcile us to our disappointment in not finding bro’ Pratt on the Island. The natives fitted up the mission house according to their views of comfort, & we could not help admiring their ingenuity. Every thing was so new & astonishing; our minds were necessarily diverted & amused. The beautiful trees & flowers, the delicious fruit, the splendid fish, with red & green scales, such as we had never seen before; every article of food was new to us except fish & fowls, & even that being prepared on a plan entirely different from our method seemed another sort of food, but not the less palatable; even the first meal was agreable to me, & I believe it was to all the company. We commenced immediately to study the Tahitian language. The native brethren & sisters were extremely attentive in teaching us; would manifest uneasiness if we were in the least dilatory in our studies. They would say to us, “ha pe pe, te ha piu, te parau tahiti.” make haste & learn to talk tahiti. My daughters soon learned to talk with the children; within three months the eldest daughter was able to interpret for me when I wished to address the native sisters in a meeting. I had been there nearly a year before I could stand up in a publick meeting & speak independently. I could then translate readily, & write letters in the Tahitian. The native sisters expressed great joy at my first attempts, wherein I exceeded their expectations as also my own. To tell of the great faith of these child-like harmless people, their hospitality, & the beauty of their Island home, (a little speck in the midst of the ocean) where nature has poured out her bounties & dwells in isolated grandeur, would require too much space, at the present best it will be found written in my full history, which I hope to have published.

One year & a half I taught school in the “pere hur” (house of worship) both Sabbaths & weekdays. I taught the women to knit; Some of the old men came & wanted to learn, so I learned them to knit suspenders, of the yarn I took from California. For needles we used the stem of the cocoanut leaf, which answered a good purpose. The women were very teachable in learning any thing I attempted to teach them. . . .

It was sad parting with the loving souls, & especially with the children we had kept in our family. It was thought wisdom to leave, as the Island was under the french protectorite & the governor had sent away the english missionaries, & we knew not how soon he might order us away. Three months we stayed on Tahiti after leaving Tubouai; the elders built a house for the merchants to get money to defray our expenses over the sea. That great centre island is a fruit & flower garden! such enchanting scenery my eyes never beheld before, nor since.2

Due to legal restrictions enacted by the French government, the mission in French Polynesia was closed in May 1852. Addison, Louisa and their children departed for the United States and arrived in San Francisco on June 30, 1852. They lived in a Mormon community in San Bernardino, California, from December 1852 to January 1858. Heeding a call from Brigham Young to gather with the Saints in Utah, Louisa and her daughter journeyed to Salt Lake in 1858 (her other children preceded them in 1857). Addison stayed behind in California, and for most of the remaining fifteen years of his life, Louisa and Addison lived apart. From 1858 until her death in 1880, Louisa lived in Beaver, Utah.

Footnotes

[1] Caroline Barnes Crosby and her family joined Louisa as missionaries in the Society Islands.

[2] Louisa Barnes Pratt, Reminiscences, 78-80, 81-82, Church Archives.