Reaching the Nations

Marshall Islands

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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Geography

Area: 181 square km.  Located in the northern Micronesia in Oceania, the Marshall Islands consist of two island chains and five separate islands.  The two island chains, the Ratak and Ralik Chains, contain 29 atolls and many small islets.  Most of these islands and atolls sit at sea level and are made up of coral limestone and sand.  The climate is tropical and wet, although water shortages have occurred in the past on the islands.  Due to the Marshall Islands' location in the Pacific Ocean, typhoons are not as frequent as in other areas of Oceania.  The country is divided into 33 municipalities. 

Population: 67,182 (July 2011)

Annual Growth Rate: 1.954% (2011)

Fertility Rate: 3.44 children born per woman (2011)

Life Expectancy: 69.67 male, 73.95 female (2011)

Peoples

Marshallese: 92.1%

Mixed Marshallese: 5.9%

Other: 2%

The Marshall Islands have little ethnic diversity, with 92.1% indentified as Marshallese and an additional 5.9% classified as of mixed Marshallese heritage.  Other ethnicities make up the remaining two percent of the population and are likely concentrated in Majuro and Ebeye. 

Languages: Marshallese (98.2%), Other (1.8%).  Both Marshallese and English are spoken as official languages for the islands, the latter being a commonly spoken second language.

Literacy Rate: 93.7% (1999)

History

The Marshallese people were believed to first settle the islands thousands of years ago.  Europeans explored the islands but did not claim the island or establish a presence on them until the late 19th century.  The Marshall Islands received their name from a British captain named Captain John Charles Marshall.  Spain and later Germany occupied the islands, which were eventually taken by the Japanese legally after World War I.  The United States captured the islands in World War II and added them to its overseas possessions.  Following the war, nuclear tests were done in the islands, most notably Bikini Atoll.  Nuclear tests resulted in the evacuation of several of the islands due to radioactive fallout.  Several of these islands remain uninhabited today.  Greater autonomy was given to the islands and independence occurred from the United States in 1986. 

Culture

Marshallese culture shares many similarities with other nations in Micronesia.  Historically they traveled between the various islands in the area on canoes, which they were highly skilled in making.  Like many Oceanic peoples, the Marshallese society is matrilineal. 

Economy

GDP per capita: $2,500 (2010) [5.3% of US]

Human Development Index: N/A

Corruption Index: N/A

The fragile economy in the Marshall Islands depends heavily on the United States for survival.  Due to the small population of the islands, which have limited natural resources, little economic growth has occurred.  Services account for half of the country's GDP.  The nation sees its greatest prospects for additional economic growth through tourism.  Agriculture is important, with coconut and breadfruit being the greatest cash crops.  Fishing, especially for tuna, is important for the agricultural sector of the economy.  These foods are exported along with craft items.  Industry makes up 20% of the economy. 

Faiths

Christian: 97.5%

No Religion: 1.5%

Other: 1%

Christians

Denomination  Members  Congregations

Protestants  35,358

Assemblies of God  16,6646

Catholic  5,419

Latter-Day Saints  4,476  11

Bukot nan Jesus  1,806

Seventh Day Adventists  4,581  20 (includes Mirconesia, Northern Mariana Islands, and Palau)

Jehovah's Witnesses  186  3

Other Christians  2,323

Religion

According to the 1999 census, nearly all Marshallese (97.5%) belong to a Christian denomination.  Protestants account for 54.8% of the population and the Assemblies of God make up 25.8% of Marshallese.  Other smaller Christian churches provided with their percentage of the population include Catholics (8.4%), Bukot nan Jesus (2.8%), Mormon (2.1%), and other Christians denominations (3.6%).  One percent of the population adheres to other religious and 1.5% do not have a religion.

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index:

Religious freedom is existent on the islands as a result of the country originally belonging to the United States.

Major Cities

Urban: 71%

Rita, Ebeye, Laura, Ajeltake, Enewetak. 

The five largest cities and villages are listed in descending order by population.  Cities listed in bold do not have a LDS congregation.  All population centers with over 1,000 inhabitants have a congregation of the Church.  The five largest cities and towns make up 56% of the total population of the country.  Majuro, the nation's capital, is home to over 25,000 people on the atoll. 

LDS History

The first Church presence in the Marshall Islands was established in Majuro.  Elders William Wardel and Steven Cooper arrived in early 1977 and baptized the first convert who had first learned about the Church in Hawaii.  In 2006 the Church announced the creation of the Marshall Islands Majuro Mission from the Fiji Suva and Micronesia Guam Missions.  The new mission included the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, and Nauru. 

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: 4,476 (2008)

By the end of the year 27 converts were baptized, with membership increasing to 177 by the end of 1979.  Membership reached 1,100 members in 1990.[1]  By 2000 there were 3,524 members.

Membership increased to 4,623 in 2007 and decreased in 2008, dropping to 4,476.  The drop in membership likely occurred due to members moving out of the country or the Church updating its membership records.  The drop in membership does not appear to have signaled any weakening in the Church considering the first stake in the country was organized the following year. 

Despite the Church's establishment in the Marshall Islands in the late 1970s, one out of every 14 people in the country is a Church member according to official membership records.  The percentage of Church members in the islands has held steady since 2000 due to membership and population growth rates staying constant.  

Congregational Growth

Wards: 6 Branches: 5

The first branch, the Laura Branch, was created in 1978 with a second branch created shortly thereafter named the Rita Branch.  A district with five branches was created in 1986.  In 1987 there were five branches in the Majuro District. 

Due to a military base on Kwajalein, a branch was created in 1978 for U.S. military and citizens living on the island.  Missionary work did not open on the more populous, neighboring island of Ebeye until 1989.  A district in Kwajalein was organized in 1991, which also included Ebeye. 

Branches were established in more remote areas of the Marshall Islands in the late 1980s in Arno and Mili.[2]  By 2000, there were 11 branches throughout the islands.  The Majuro District had seven branches and the Kwajalein District had four branches. 

Senior missionaries reported that as early as 2004, the Micronesia Guam Mission was striving to help Marshallese Church members in the Majuro District learn how to function as a stake.[3]  Senior missionaries strengthened the branches and district, but stakehood was not reached until June 2009 when the Majuro Marshall Islands Stake was created.  The new stake included the following six wards and one branch: The Delap, Jenrok, Laura, Long Island Marjuro, Rita and Uliga Wards and the Ajeltake Branch.  The new stake was created by Elder David S. Baxter of the 70.  With the creation of the new stake, the Marshall Islands became the nation with the smallest population with a stake of the Church. 

Marshallese Church members also live outside of the Marshall Islands, meeting in branches designated as Marshallese speaking in the United States.  Four Marshallese branches were functioning in late 2009 in Arkansas, Hawaii, Oklahoma, and Washington.  The branches in Hawaii and Oklahoma were created prior to 2006, and the branches in Washington and Arkansas were created in 2007 and 2008 respectively. 

Activity and Retention

From 2000 to late 2009 there was no change in the number of congregations in the Marshall Islands.  Despite no increase in reported congregations in the country, membership increased by 1,100 members to 4,623 in 2007.  Due to no increase in Church units, the average number of members per congregation rose from 330 to 420 during this time period.  The seminary program gained greater numbers of Marshallese attending, with enrollment climbing to 60 in 1991 in Majuro.[4]  Active membership in the country is likely no greater than 1,500 considering all the congregations in the country where branches at the beginning of 2009.

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: Marshallese, English 

The Book of Mormon translation in Marshallese became first available in 1984 in selections and in its entirety by 2005.  The Church has translated a large amount of ecclesiastical materials in Marshallese.  Priesthood, Relief Society, Primary, Sunday School, Young Men, and Young Women's materials were available in Marshallese in the fall of 2009.  The Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price have not been translated yet into Marshallese and it is unclear whether the Church is currently undertaking to translate these scriptures.

Meetinghouses

The first Church built meetinghouses began construction in 1984 for the Laura and Rita Branches.  Most of the buildings the Church uses for worship are likely Church built meetinghouses.

Humanitarian and Development Work

The Church has likely conducted several humanitarian projects in the Marshall Islands, but only one was reported to have occurred as of the fall of 2009.  In 2009, the Church collected needed items donated by business and individuals in the United States and distributed them to schools on Majuro. 

 

Opportunities, Challenges, and Prospects

Religious Freedom

No limitations on the freedom of religion appear in the Marshall Islands.

Cultural Issues

Although part of the United States until 1986, the Marshall Islands struggle economically.  The unemployment rate is 36% and the GDP per capita fell $400 between 2005 and 2008.  Adverse economic conditions have likely increased the receptivity of the people to the preaching of the Gospel.  On the other hand, these conditions have likely limited leadership development and perhaps encouraged some to emigrate out of the country.  Some Marshallese study at BYU-Hawaii, but it is unclear how many will return home or seek to stay in the United States.  Many Marshallese members have either joined the Church in their native country and immigrated to the United States or immigrated to the United States and later joined the Church as evidenced by the existence of four branches in the United States. 

National Outreach

Although preaching the Gospel to a small population comes with the benefits using fewer full-time missionaries and Church resources to reach most of the inhabitants of the country, added challenges also occur.  The population of Marshallese living on atolls and islets which do not have a published Church presence may be as much as a third of the country's inhabitants.  Many of these atolls have fewer than 1,000 inhabitants.  These remote locations may have groups meeting that are attached to the mission in Majuro or different branches throughout the islands.  It appears that the Church will most likely be introduced to these remote areas through Marshallese joining the Church in areas where it is established and then returning to atolls with no Church presence.  Marshallese on Majuro and Ebeye may also share or have shared the Gospel with friends and family that live on these isolated, sparsely population atolls.  The small population distributed over a large, isolated geographic area demands member involvement in preaching the Gospel. 

Missionaries in 2009 were reportedly serving not only in Majuro and Ebeye, but also Jaluit and Lae.  These outer atolls in the Marshall Islands had small populations, with Jaluit's population totaling about 1,700 in 1999 and Lae's population numbering only 319.  The Church has placed great effort and resources into establishing itself in select, sparsely populated areas with full-time missionaries. 

Member Activity and Convert Retention

Inactivity appears to have worsened especially in the 1990s and 2000s.  The CIA World Factbook listed Mormons accounting for 2.1% of the population according to the 1999 census.  This figure is much lower than the raw membership numbers provided by the Church which should stand at seven percent.  Some of those who are active members of the Church may not have been identified as Church members on the census if they were youth and their parents responded that the whole family belonged to a religious tradition.   Nonetheless, inactivity rates for the Marshall Islands may be among some of the highest in the Pacific for countries with more than 2,000 members.  Although inactivity likely delayed the creation of the first stake in the country until 2009, many converts have joined the Church later on through their associations with less active members. 

Ethnic Issues and Integration

Due Marshallese consisting over 90% of the population of the Marshall Islands, ethnic issues and integration in the Church appear nearly nonexistent. 

Language Issues

Although a large number of Church materials have been translated into Marshallese, not all of the LDS scriptures have Marshallese translations.  Future Marshallese translations of the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price seem likely due to the existence of a stake now in the islands and several Marshallese speaking congregations in the United States.  The Church encounters few language problems in the Marshall Islands due to the homogeneity of the Marshallese speaking population.

Missionary Service

Small numbers of Marshallese serve full-time missions regularly, but the Church relies on foreign missionaries to staff the assigned number of missionaries to the islands.  Active outreach targeting youth may culminate in greater numbers of local members serving missions in the years to come.

Leadership

The Church currently does not seem to face many challenges in administration with membership mainly residing on two atolls.  However, if membership growth continues and becomes spread throughout the inhabited atolls of the islands, stress and administration challenges could occur.  This could lead to the establishment of a mission branch comprised of groups meeting throughout the country on lesser populated atolls.

Temple

No temple is near the Marshall Islands.  Members in the country must travel to the Laie, Hawaii to perform temple ordinances.  It appears that the Marshall Islands will likely not be able to support a temple until multiple stakes are established.  A temple in Kiribati to the south of the country appears likely considering two stakes function in the country and nearly 1,000 converts join the Church a year.  Temple excursions to Hawaii are likely too costly for most to afford and result in most members of the Church infrequently attending the temple. 

Comparative Growth

Benefiting from a population primarily on only a few atolls, the Church has taken advantage of the opportunity to preach the Gospel to the majority of the inhabitants of the Marshall Islands on Majuro and Ebeye.  The small population of the islands has proved much less daunting to missionary work efforts than other more populous nations and has resulted in a sizable minority of Church membership compared to most countries in which the Church has been established for such a small amount of time.  Church growth in the Pacific has been among some of the most rapid and widespread experienced throughout the world.  However the Marshall Islands fall short of the progress the Church has made in other nations of Oceania, such as Tonga and Samoa where the Church is one of the Largest Christian denominations.  Due to similarities in culture, the Marshall Islands may experience more sustained, rapid growth in the future seen in other areas of Oceania. 

Other Christian denominations with strong missionary programs which involve their members sharing their beliefs with others exist in very small numbers in the Marshall Islands.  Jehovah's Witnesses counted 189 active members in three congregations in 2008.  The Seventh Day Adventist Church did not provide specific membership totals for the Marshall Islands, but counted 4,320 members in 18 churches throughout Guam, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints appears as one of the more successful churches to have arrived in the last couple decades.  The Church has also been one of the faster growing Christian denominations in recent years in the Marshall Islands.  

Future Prospects

Due to currently inactivity problems and the recent establishment of the Majuro Marshall Islands Stake, little growth in new congregations on the islands will likely be experienced.  Additional branches or groups may be organized if the Church gains a presence on isolated islets and atolls.  Future membership growth on the islands will likely be slow and consistent unless greater progress is achieved on several, sparsely populated atolls or on Majuro and Ebeye.

One of the areas where the Church may gain addition opportunity for further growth is through humanitarian work.  Possible humanitarian projects the Church could undertake in the islands include education and employment workshops and fresh water projects.


[1]  "Marshall Islands," Country Profile, 2 April 2011.  http://newsroom.lds.org/country/marshall-islands

[2]  Leddy, Herbert.  "Gospel gaining foothold on 2 atolls in Marshalls through 'pioneer' efforts," LDS Church News, 4 March 1989.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/18560/Gospel-gaining-foothold-on-2-atolls-in-Marshalls-through-pioneer-efforts.html

[3]  "Living by the scriptures," LDS Church News, 22 April 2006.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/48869/Living-by-the-scriptures.html

[4]  "Island seminary teacher shares 'loving radiance'," LDS Church News, 24 August 1991.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/20955/Island-seminary-teacher-shares-loving-radiance.html