LERWICK, SHETLAND ISLANDS As part of my responsibilities as an Area Authority Seventy in the Europe West Area, I dedicated Scotland's newest meetinghouse for the Lerwick Branch in the Shetland Islands on Sept. 21.
Twenty-seven years ago, I arrived there as a young missionary with my companion, Elder John Forsyth, to open the Shetland Islands for missionary work. Our mission president, President Derek A Cuthbert, who was later a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, had given us the commission to "begin the work in Shetland, baptize, and organize a branch of the Church!"
The Shetland Islands are the most distant of the northern isles. First settled some 5,000 years ago, Shetland lies on the same latitude as Anchorage in Alaska. Its 3,000 miles of rugged coastline is caught between the conflicting currents of the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, and has been home to Celts, Picts, Vikings and Dutch and German settlers as well as the Scots. With no part more than three miles from the sea, Shetland is renowned for its horizontal rain, its natural habitats, its hard-working, hospitable people and its long summer days. The islands are inhabited by 22,000 people and more than 100,000 sheep.
We arrived in Lerwick on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 1976, with our luggage and Church supplies. We had nowhere to stay and nowhere to hold meetings. That first night we slept in the chair store of the local Salvation Army building. The very next day, in heavy rain and fierce winds, we arranged the rental of two rooms in a local theatre for Sunday meetings, and we also found a small caravan (trailer) for lodgings.
The first Sunday School meeting was held the following Sunday, Oct. 10, with 10 people attending, including the missionaries. The Lerwick Branch was organized three months later, on Sunday, Jan. 30, 1977. Elder Forsyth was the first branch president, followed by me four months later.
In recent years the Lerwick Branch has met in two small wooden huts on Church owned-land. Today, the new chapel has been constructed within an existing building, the former print works and offices of the local newspaper, The Shetland Times. The structure has "listed building" status which has meant that the exterior needed to be preserved. Inside, the building has been transformed into a lovely chapel and multi-purpose room capable of seating 120. A new side extension has been built with classrooms, offices and a kitchen/library. The building has an upper floor which will provide for future growth.
This is a unique building. When I entered it for the first time I felt such a deep sense of reverence. It was a very tender moment. I thought of the missionaries who had served here since 1976, of the local members who have been so faithful despite their remoteness from the main body of the Church, and of the growth that would come as a result of this blessing. I felt that we were standing on holy ground.
The new chapel, with its superb workmanship, has brought much welcome public attention, with numerous favorable articles in the local newspaper. Over 100 people attended an open house; and some 80 people were present at the dedication, the largest congregation ever to have gathered in Shetland.
In an interview printed in The Shetland Times following the open house and dedication, branch President Ian Williamson said: "Hopefully, those attending will now have a clearer understanding of the Church, its teachings and principles; and will recognize that as a Christian church we are keen to share the message that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been restored to the earth and, in consequence of that restoration, we have the answers to some of the most vexing questions of our day."
In the dedicatory prayer, mention was made of John Sutherland, the first missionary of the Restoration to serve in Shetland back in 1887. His journal records his frustration at failing to find any place in which he could preach, prevented by local ministers and landlords whom he described as "like dogs in a manger; they will neither hear the gospel themselves, nor let others hear it if they can prevent it."
In the dedicatory service, I said that John Sutherland would be well satisfied with this new building, and went on to express thanks to the representatives of several other faiths who were in attendance, and who "honour us with their presence."
President David M. Porch, president of the Preston England Temple, and President William C. Vriens of the Scotland Edinburgh Mission, also spoke during the service.
Elder David S. Baxter is an Area Authority Seventy living in Suffolk, England.