Thomas Farrar Whitley’s Mission Photos of Tonga, 1935–1938

Photo Essay

When Thomas Farrar Whitley was called to the Tongan Mission in 1935, he had “never heard of the place.”1 His reaction was not unusual. In 1935, Tonga was one of the least accessible nations on earth. Whitley and his two companions, Donald Anderson and Floyd Fletcher, spent nearly three months in transit just to get to their mission. They left San Francisco, going by boat through Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia. Then they had to travel back through New Zealand to Fiji, where they waited ten days for a boat going the right direction.2 When Whitley finally got to Tonga, he made sure he would remember the place. He carefully recorded his mission in a daily journal, a set of papers, and some remarkable photographs.3 Taken together, Whitley’s records capture the traditional life of the Tongan people and reveal the changes that were occurring in the culture. Perhaps most importantly, they demonstrate the remarkable faithfulness of members and missionaries who helped the LDS Church recover from a series of devastating blows that had begun nearly four years earlier.

On August 17, 1932, Newel J. Cutler, president of the Tongan Mission, left Tonga to take his wife, Floy, to Hawaii for medical care. Although President Cutler expected to be back shortly, Sister Cutler’s condition was so severe that her husband was unable to return to Tonga at all. Given the exigencies of communication and travel through the Pacific in the 1930s, it was fifteen months before the new mission president, Reuben Wiberg, arrived.4 During that interim four missionaries, three Americans and one Tongan, had utterly abandoned their covenants and led members astray. They left disharmony among members of the Church and disgust among Tongans in general.5

The Tongan Mission may well have closed had it not been for the faithful service of a strong cadre of dedicated members and missionaries. Both their dedication and their way of life are demonstrated in Tom Whitley’s photographs.

Provenance and Background of Whitley’s Photographs

While many parts of the world were changing rapidly in the late 1930s, Tonga remained largely untouched. Cars were few and motion pictures were barely beginning to arrive. Few people had cameras, and fewer still took pictures of LDS congregations and activities. Whitley used a camera he describes only as a Kodak and then sent his black-and-white film to New Zealand for processing by Ralph Sanft at his drug and variety store, Ralph’s Reliable Remedies.6 He mailed several of the finished photos home to friends and family and carried the rest of his prints and negatives back to Salt Lake City with him when his mission ended in 1938. They remained in his possession in his Holladay, Utah, home until his death in 1975. In 1976, his wife, Dorothy, died exactly one year after her husband’s funeral. The negatives and photos were given to Whitley’s son, Tom (my husband), and me, who also live in Salt Lake City. We approached Craig Dransfield of Bountiful, Utah, who produced positive prints from each of the negatives using his collection of frames to fit all sizes of negatives. We then scanned photos and negatives and provided digital or print copies of all of Whitley’s records to family members, Tongan scholars, the LDS Church Archives, BYU, and BYU–Hawaii, along with permission to make copies for interested parties. All of Whitley’s original records, including his photographic negatives, are currently in possession of his daughter, Kristine Whitley Paulos of Provo, Utah.

Tom Whitley was both a talented and an eclectic photographer. He took pictures of a wide range of people, places, and events. The photographs’ value was greatly increased in 2002–2004, when Salote Wolfgramm and her daughters, Tisina Gerber and Taiana Brown, identified almost every person in the more than 130 photographs found to date.

Whitley served nearly his entire mission in Vava’u, the northernmost of Tonga’s three main island groups, home to the Wolfgramm family. Salote Wolfgramm was the Relief Society president for Vava’u during the time the photos were taken (and later for the entire mission), and her daughters grew up there; in many cases, in addition to names, they have also added the genealogy, marriages, children, occupations, and details from the lives of the people in the photographs. Gerber literally went many extra miles to obtain identifications; she took copies of the pictures to older Tongans now living in the Salt Lake area, to the Tongan ward, and to individuals from specific islands when it was clear that a picture had been taken on those islands.

’Isileli Kongaika of BYU–Hawaii identified his family members and put Tom and me in contact with them. All of the missionaries named in the pictures were identified by Hyde Dunn, the son of mission president Emile Cranner Dunn and his wife, Evelyn Hyde Dunn. Hyde Dunn was seven years old in 1936 when his father was called to lead the Tongan mission. His father served as mission president for ten years, throughout World War II.7 In addition, Paul and Carolyn Tuitupou graciously translated records written in Tongan and explained customs and traditions mentioned in the records or evident in the photographs. Carolyn also proofread the article and checked the spelling of names.

Whitley’s records include a daily journal, correspondence, genealogy, programs, membership lists, financial statements, and statistics. Both his papers and his journal contain spelling and punctuation at variance with modern norms in both English and Tongan, as do several of the other journals and manuscripts cited here. There are several reasons for these variances. Tongan spelling and grammar was regularized in 1943 when the Tongan Privy Council established norms. For example, they declared that “b” and “p,” which are not phonemic in Tonga, would always be represented by a “p.” They also replaced the “g” with an “ng” to differentiate it from the “n.” Consequently the nation of “Toga” is now written as “Tonga.” In addition, in the 1930s, simplified English spelling was being touted by individuals and organizations ranging from George Bernard Shaw to Time magazine. In several cases cited in this article, so many variant spellings exist in a single quotation that the number of [sic]s in the text would be more intrusive than they would be helpful. In all quotations used here, spelling and grammar have been retained as in the original documents, although some traditional punctuation has been added for clarity.

Today Tonga is a stronghold in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The nation has the highest per capita LDS Church membership of any nation in the world.8 Its members attend the temple and send missionaries to other parts of the world. This stands in sharp contrast to the situation seventy-four years ago when Thomas Farrar Whitley began keeping his records, in both words and photographs, of the way of life in Tonga and, even more, of the faithful members and missionaries who overcame tremendous difficulties to salvage and strengthen the faltering Church.

[See the PDF version of this article for the photographs.]

About the author(s)

Colleen Whitley is retired from teaching for the English and General Education and Honors departments of Brigham Young University. The author expresses sincere appreciation to Craig Dransfield, Paul and Carolyn Tuitupou, ’Isileli Kongaika, Salote Wolfgramm, Tisina Gerber, Taiana Brown, Hyde and Cleona Dunn, and Lorraine Aston, who have made Thomas Farrar Whitley’s records and photographs accessible.


1. Thomas Farrar Whitley, “Praise and Criticism from Tonga,” Improvement Era 34 (May 1936): 328.

2. Whitley, Anderson, and Fletcher started from San Francisco on March 6, 1935, on an ocean liner, the S.S. Monterey, with four other missionaries and the family of M. Charles Woods, newly called president of the New Zealand Mission. The ship traveled through the Pacific, dropping two missionaries off in Hawaii, and skirting the northern tip of the Tongan Islands. The ship did not stop, however, since Tonga’s major ports were over three hundred miles away in the southernmost group of the island chain. The ship traveled on to Fiji, where the three missionaries expected to find transport to their field. The people who were supposed to meet them, however, were not there, and the Fijian authorities refused to allow them to land since they had no visible means of support. Consequently, they went on to New Zealand with President Woods. Eventually they had to go on to Australia to find a ship that could deliver them to their assigned area. They finally arrived in Tonga two and a half months after they had set out from Salt Lake City. Their return trip in 1938 took another two and a half months, this time going through Hawaii. Thomas Farrar Whitley, Journal, March 6–May 18, 1935, in possession of Kristine Whitley Paulos.

3. Transcribed, annotated, and indexed print copies of the journal and papers, as well as records and discs of the scanned photographs, have been placed in the Church History Library, the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University, and the Joseph F. Smith Library at BYU–Hawaii along with permission to reproduce those photos and to release materials to interested researchers for personal and scholarly use.

4. The difficulty of travel through the Pacific in the 1930s is demonstrated by the experiences of Whitley and his companions in coming to Tonga, and further by the adventures the new Tongan Mission President Emile C. Dunn and his family faced the following year when he came to replace Reuben Wiberg as mission president. They left San Francisco on January 5, 1936, but had to wait weeks in Pago Pago, American Samoa, until a ship came by that could take them to Tonga. They did not arrive in Nuku’alofa until March 12. Emile C. Dunn, Journal, January 16 and March 12, 1936, microfilm copy, December 1935–August 1950, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.

5. Maurine Clark Wiberg, “As I Remember,” personal history, unpublished and undated, 11–12, copy provided by Gladys Farmer, Salt Lake City; R. Lanier Britsch, Unto the Islands of the Sea: A History of the Latter-day Saints in the Pacific (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1986), 451; Ermel Joseph Morton, history of the LDS Church in Tonga, unpublished mss, copy in possession of Colleen Whitley, copy also available at the Church History Library. All four missionaries were excommunicated and the Americans returned home. The Tongan missionary returned to full fellowship; Whitley’s journal notes his participation in Church activities on several occasions.

6. Among Whitley’s papers are several letters from Sanft on his letterhead “Ralph’s Reliable Remedies, Ralph Sanft, Ph.C., M.P.S. N.Z. Chemist and Druggist, 201 Symonds Street (Opposite Post Office).” Down the side is a list of his services ranging from imported drugs to dog food. Correspondence from Ralph Sanft to Tom Whitley, in Thomas Farrar Whitley: Missionary Diaries and Records, Tonga 1935–1938, ed. Colleen Whitley (privately published, 2004), 297.

7. The senior Dunns returned to Tonga as labor missionaries and once again as mission president, serving a total of nine missions between them. Hyde Dunn also returned to Tonga as a missionary twice, once in 1950 as a labor missionary building schools and again in 1993 with his wife, Cleona. Hyde and Cleona Dunn, interviewed by Tom and Colleen Whitley, Brigham City, Utah, September 2, 2000; Hyde Dunn, correspondence with Colleen Whitley, 1999–2004.

8. “Temple in Tonga Attracts 40,000 Visitors,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (accessed April 2, 2009).

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