Reaching the Nations

Northern Mariana Islands

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

Return to Table of Contents

Geography

Area: 464 square km.  Consisting of 14 islands in the North Pacific Ocean north of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands are located between the Philippines and Hawaii.  The islands' geology differs by location as northern islands are volcanic whereas southern islands are composed of limestone and surrounded by coral reefs.  Tropical climate occurs year round with dry (December to June) and wet (July to October) seasons.  Volcanoes and typhoons are natural hazards.  Environmental issues include ground water contamination, proper waste disposal, and the protection of endangered species.  Five of the 14 islands are inhabited; two islands have a population less of than ten.  The Northern Mariana Islands is a commonwealth of the United States.

Population: 48,317 (July 2010) [some population estimates are as high as 87,000]      

Annual Growth Rate: -5.567% (2010)    

Fertility Rate: 2.18 children born per woman (2010)   

Life Expectancy: 74.27 male, 79.68 female (2010)

Peoples

Asian: 56.3%

Pacific islander: 36.3%

Caucasian: 1.8%

other: 0.8%

mixed: 4.8%

The Northern Mariana Islands have exhibited the sharpest percentage decline in population growth rate for several years due to emigration. 

Languages: Philippine languages (24.4%), Chinese (23.4%), Chamorro (22.4%), English (10.8%), other Pacific island languages (9.5%), other (9.6%).  

Literacy: 97% (1980)

History

Chamorros inhabited the islands prior to European discovery.  The Spanish landed in the sixteenth century and ruled until 1898 when the islands were sold to Germany.  In World War I, Japan annexed the islands and developed a sugarcane industry.  Following the Japanese invasion of Guam in World War II, Chamorros from the Northern Mariana Islands participated in the Japanese administration of Guam.  This precipitated in a division between the Chamorros in the Northern Marianas and Guam during the subsequent decades.  The United States invaded the Northern Marianas in 1944 and less than a thousand of the 30,000 Japanese troops stationed on Saipan survived.[1]  In the 1970s, the Northern Mariana Islands determined not to seek independence from the United States but rather to become a United States territory.  In 1976, a covenant came into force which declared the islands a commonwealth of the United States. 

Culture 

Filipino, Chinese, Micronesian, and Chamorro cultural practices are most apparent in the Northern Mariana Islands as these ethnic groups support the largest populations.  Saipan underwent a dramatic cultural change between 1980 and 2000 as the population more than tripled as a result of immigration.  The Catholic Church has strongly influenced local culture as the indigenous Chamorro and most immigrant groups are predominantly Catholic.   Cuisine consists of seafood and many dishes common to the Philippines, Oceania, and East Asia.

Economy

GDP per capita: $12,500 (2000) [26% of US]

Human Development Index: N/A

Corruption Index: N/A 

Financial assistance from the United States and tourism stabilizes the economy.  The tourist industry employs approximately 50% of the work force and generates around 25% of the GDP.  Many tourists vacation from Japan, but financial challenges have reduce their numbers in recent years.  Additional industries include banking, construction, fishing, clothing, and handicrafts.  Vegetables, melons, nuts, livestock, poultry, eggs, and fish are common agricultural products. 

Faiths

Christian: 90%

other: 10%

Christians

Denominations  Members  Congregations

Catholic  

Latter-Day Saints  735  1  

Jehovah's Witnesses  188  2  

Seventh-Day Adventists   4,320  18 (includes Guam, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, and Palau)

Religion

Most adhere to the Catholic Church.  Chamorro maintain strong ethno-religious ties with the Catholic Church.  Other Christian denominations comprise most of the remaining population.  Some Asians are Buddhist.

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index:

The United States' constitution protects religious freedom and is upheld by the local government.  There have been no reported instances of societal abuse of religious freedom. 

Largest Towns

Urban: 91%

San Antonio, Garapan, Koblerville, San Vincente, Tanapag, Chalan Kanoa, Kagman, Dandan, Gualo Rai, Susupe.

Cities listed in bold have no LDS congregations.

One of the ten largest towns has an LDS congregation.  46% of the population resides in the ten most populous towns.

LDS Background

LDS servicemen in the United States military were the first known members to live on Saipan during World War II, first arriving in 1944. Among them was future LDS apostle Elder L. Tom Perry.[2]  190 LDS servicemen gathered for a conference in 1945.[3]  In 1975, the Church reestablished a permanent presence on Saipan when two full-time missionaries were assigned from the Hawaii Honolulu Mission.[4]  The first LDS missionaries visited Rota and Tinian in the late 1970s and were later temporarily assigned to serve on the islands in the late 1980s and early 1990s.[5]  An addition to the Saipan Branch meetinghouse was necessitated by membership growth in 1988.[6]

In 1996, President Hinckley briefly met with local members and missionaries while refueling his plane on a visit to the Philippines.[7]  In 2005, President Boyd K. Packer and Elder David A. Bednar held a member meeting.[8]  Elder L. Tom Perry visited Saipan following the creation of the Barrigada Guam Stake in late 2010.[9]  Missionaries infrequently visit Rota and Tinian today.

There were fewer than 100 members in 1987.  There were 280 members in August 1988 and most members were from Micronesia, Palau, the United States, American Samoa, the Philippines, and Saipan.[10]  Membership reached 400 in 1993 and 500 in 1997.[11]  By year-end 2000, there were 856 members.  During the 2000s, membership increased to 932 in 2002 and declined to 888 in 2003, 811 in 2005, 777 in 2007, and 735 in 2009.  In 2009, one in 66 was LDS.  The Saipan Branch was organized in the late 1970s and was assigned to the Guam District in the early 1980s.  The San Jose Branch operated on Tinian between 1990 and 1997 and was discontinued as many of the members left the island.[12]  In late 2010, the Saipan Branch became a ward in the newly created Barrigada Guam Stake.  The congregation meets in southern Garapan.  60 of Saipan's 300 Latter-day Saints met with President Hinckley in 1996.[13]  In late 2010, full-time missionaries reported that there were approximately 200 active members, or 27% of total membership.

All LDS scriptures are translated into Japanese, Korean, Chinese (Traditional and simplified characters), and Tagalog.  The Prophet Joseph Smith's Testimony is translated into Chamorro.  The Liahona magazine has 12 Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Tagalog issues a year.  The LDS Church has not performed any major humanitarian or development projects in the Northern Mariana Islands.  The Northern Mariana Islands pertains to the Manila Philippines Temple district. 

Opportunities

There are no restrictions on religious freedom.  Latter-day Saints proselyte, worship, and assemble freely.  LDS mission outreach benefits from a predominantly Christian population representing various ethnic groups from Micronesia, East Asia, the Philippines and the United States which has fostered the integration of differing ethnic groups into the same congregation.  Small geographic size necessitates the establishment of few LDS mission outreach centers for national outreach.  The Saipan Ward provides mission outreach to the entire island of Saipan, although some areas of the island are lesser reached due to distance from the LDS chapel.  Full-time missionaries regularly visit and proselyte in most urban areas on Saipan, indicating that up to 90% of the population may be reached by the Church.  Ten full-time missionaries from Yap, the Philippines, the Marshall Islands, and the United States served on Saipan in 1996.[14]  Multiple missionary companionships served on Saipan in early 2011, labored throughout Saipan, and appeared to baptize converts regularly.  The Church is unlikely to organize additional mission outreach centers elsewhere on the island due to its small geographic size, tiny population, and low member activity rates.  The establishment of additional congregations in urban areas with concentrated numbers of Latter-day Saints may help improve member activity rates in some areas.  The establishment of additional congregations to spur new leadership, decrease travel times, and generate local LDS communities may increase active membership over time. 

LDS services are held in English which is spoken by most members.  Church materials and scriptures are available in the native or most regularly-spoken language of nearly the entire population.  In 1988, the branch president was from American Samoa.[15]  The leadership of the Saipan Ward appeared to be self-sufficient as evidenced by the branch maturing into a ward in late 2010.  The Church would have been unable to organize the Barrigada Guam Stake in 2010 without the inclusion of the LDS congregation on Saipan due to lacking numbers of active Melchizedek Priesthood holders on Guam. 

Challenges

The Northern Mariana Islands has held the dubious position of the nation or territory with the most Latter-day Saints with only one congregation for over a decade as the sole Saipan Ward has a membership of nearly 750.  Low member activity and poor convert retention appear to be the result of a combination of quick-baptism tactics in the 1990s and 2000s on Saipan combined with many non-native members originating from areas which exhibit low member activity rates, such as the Philippines and Guam.  Dependence on full-time missionaries for teaching, baptizing, fellowshipping, and reactivating efforts have reduced local member-missionary involvement.  It is unclear whether progress in the 2000s had occurred regarding reactivation and convert retention initiatives.  Emigration does not appear to have adversely affected member activity rates, but high rates of member turnover have created administrative challenges and frustrated leadership growth.   Nominalism in the Catholic Church among Filipinos, Micronesians, and others has challenged LDS efforts to instill habits of regular church attendance and engage investigators and converts into individual religious practices like personal scripture reading, prayer, and living LDS teachings on a daily basis.  Non-Christian Asians require missionary approaches tailored to their religious and cultural backgrounds.  The strong ethnic ties among Chamorro and Carolinians to the Catholic Church create obstacles for mission outreach.

There is no LDS Internet outreach specialized to Saipan or other islands.  None of the Carolinian languages have LDS materials.  Temple trips likely occur as a stake.  Prospects for a small LDS temple in the Micronesian area appear favorable over the medium term.

Member activity rates appear comparable to activity rates throughout Micronesian nations and territories.  Many nations or territories with over 700 nominal members often have two to four LDS congregations whereas the Northern Mariana Islands has only one.  Other mission-oriented Christian groups operate on Saipan and some maintain multiple congregations.  Jehovah's Witnesses reported nearly as many active members as Latter-day Saints in 2009 yet operated two congregations.  Seventh Day Adventists had at least one congregation on Saipan in early 2011. 

Prospects

The advancement of the sole LDS congregation from branch to ward status in late 2010 demonstrates that the sizeable, self-sufficient local leadership and active membership body on Saipan is capable of fulfilling the responsibilities and demands merited by a ward.  The inclusion of the islands' entire LDS membership into a single unit may have compromised member activity rates and deterred the development of additional leadership on a greater scale as leadership positions are limited and LDS activities occur in a single location.  The creation of additional congregations in lesser-reached communities may warrant future consideration to improve member activity rates, stimulate local leadership development, and promote long-term self-sustainable growth.  However, large-scale emigration from the islands and limited mission resources may restrict medium-term expansion of outreach.


[1]  "Northern Mariana Islands," Wikipedia.org, retrieved 22 January 2011.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Mariana_Islands#History

[2]  "Early beginnings," LDS Church News, 18 October 1997.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/28725/Early-beginnings.html

[3]  "This week in Church history," LDS Church News, 7 January 1995.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/25661/This-week-in-Church-history.html

[4]  "Early beginnings," LDS Church News, 18 October 1997.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/28725/Early-beginnings.html

[5]  "Northern Mariana Islands," Deseret News 2011 Church News Almanac, p. 549-550.

[6]  "From around the world," LDS Church News, 12 August 1988.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/17740/From-around-the-world.html

[7]  "Final stop: 'Just one more meeting' in Saipan," LDS Church News, 8 June 1996 . http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/28166/Final-stop-Just-one-more-meeting-in-Saipan.html

[8]  Hill, Greg.  "New 'beginnings' in southeastern Asia," LDS Church News, 12 March 2005.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/46985/New-beginnings-in-southeastern-Asia.html

[9]  "Constructing a chapel and testimonies," LDS Church News, 15 January 2011.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/60363/Constructing-a-chapel-and-testimonies.html

[10]  "From around the world," LDS Church News, 12 August 1988.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/17740/From-around-the-world.html

[11]  "Early beginnings," LDS Church News, 18 October 1997.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/28725/Early-beginnings.html

[12]  "Northern Mariana Islands," Deseret News 2011 Church News Almanac, p. 549-550.

[13]  "Final stop: 'Just one more meeting' in Saipan," LDS Church News, 8 June 1996 . http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/28166/Final-stop-Just-one-more-meeting-in-Saipan.html

[14]  "Final stop: 'Just one more meeting' in Saipan," LDS Church News, 8 June 1996 . http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/28166/Final-stop-Just-one-more-meeting-in-Saipan.html

[15]  "From around the world," LDS Church News, 12 August 1988.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/17740/From-around-the-world.html