Ever since the first missionaries stepped ashore here in 1851, Norwegians have needed a great deal of personal courage, as well as a testimony, to join the Church.
In the early days, public opinion, which was against Mormon converts, led to persecution and even some "Mormon hunting parties" that forced many away from embracing the new religion.Active persecution has long since ceased but the pressure of public opinion continues to be an adversity to converts. Today, 137 years after the first missionaries arrived here, those who join the Church feel a social pressure that sorts out the courageous from the less-courageous.
One convert who has felt the cutting edge of public opinion is Rigmor Heistoe, a school teacher and public communications director of the Oslo Stake. Her conversion, she said, "cost me everything but my life." When she was baptized, her family members could not accept the Church. They had heard too much misinformation, she believes.
Now, as stake public communications director, she leads efforts to let the public know the truth about the Church. Because most of the misinformation about the Church stems from books written by scholars and theologians, she has made it a point to meet them. Sister Heistoe has made friends with many of the authors, and because of her influence some have changed some of the things they have written about the Church.
The authors, she said, are not generally hostile; they just don't understand the consequences of what they write." She also has made considerable progress with educators at a local university, and even enrolled in a theology school to represent the LDS viewpoint among theologians.
On one occasion Sister Heistoe told an author that if he were in her school class, she would flunk him for what he had written about the Church. To another author, she said, "I give you a C grade; not because you earned it, but because your book is the least worst of the ones I have seen."
"None of them," she lamented, "have even read the Book of Mormon."
Despite public opinion, thousands of Norwegians have joined the Church over the years. Their contribution to the Church has been significant, Church historians say. Pres. Stein Pedersen of the Oslo stake estimated that if all the converts since 1851 had remained in Norway, the Church population here would number 60,000 instead of about 4,000.
Many of the members are first- and second-generation, some third-generation members. They are those who stayed, or were converted, after World War II ended. Norway was severely damaged during the war and many members immigrated to the United States afterwards. "The nation was very poor," said Pres. Pedersen. "We lacked everything, especially food."
Over the past four decades, the country has built itself one of the highest living standards in the world. The Church also grew during this time.
One family who contributed to the growth were longime members Kaare and Elin Waal, now of the Drammen Ward near Olso.
After the war ended and life began to return to normal, the Waals decided they should go to the temple. they sold everything they owned to purchase passage by ship to the United States and transporation to Utah, where they received their endowments and were sealed in the Salt Lake Temple. Afterwards he got a job in Salt Lake City and worked for 10 years to earn enough to return to Norway. During those needy times he refused to accept state welfare. When the family returned to Norway, he became a stalwart and leader in the branch and helped build it up.
One of the converts of that period was Jan Knut Evansen, Waal's son-in-law and now first counselor in the stake presidency.
"I was very hard to convince," said Pres. Evansen. He said he felt threatened by the missionaries and, "I used to kick the missionaries out of my home." His first wife, Turid, was a member. She contracted cancer, and the illness softened him to accept her influence. He agreed to be baptized. "My wife was very happy," he said. "But she died in my arms in the hospital on the day I was to be baptized."
Difficult as it was, the experience solidified his commitment to the Church. He later married Marit Waal, and they have six children.
Families such as this give strength to branches and led to the creation of the Olso stake in 1977.
Now, according to Pres. Pedersen, more growth should come. "Zion must enlarge her boundaries and increase in her beauty," he instructs his priesthood leaders. "We have been thinking and praying about growth; we feel we are at the start. First we must cleanse the inner vessel."
To help the stake grow, 30 stake missionaries working with full-time missionaries are finding success.
In the Drammen Ward, for example, average attendance in the past six months has increased from 140 to 198. In addition, nine people were baptized in the stake in December, the highest monthly number in five years.
Stake missionaries are contributing to both reactivation and conversions, said former stake president Osvald Bjareng. "To be a Mormon here in Norway, you need to have a testimony." So missionaries work with less-active members to strengthen their testimonies.
Erik Berg, high councilor and stake mission president, said missionaries also penetrate rural areas. "It is so easy to tract some areas in the city over and over," he said. "We have a responsibility to talk to all people, not just those within city boundaries."