In the 1970s, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are sometimes called Mormons, wanted to build a center in Jerusalem where students at church-owned colleges could study. However, it was extremely difficult to obtain land and permission to do so unless you were part of the special five churches that had official recognition. The Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, Armani, Baha’i, and the Anglican Church had all been in existence there prior to the formation of the State of Israel. They were told they needed to prove an official existence in the country before 1948.
The situation seemed hopeless. There had been a mission home (the official headquarters for a mission area) in Haifa before 1948, but they could not find any records showing the Church had actually owned the property outright. Then two gravesites were discovered. The graves belonged to John A. Clark of Utah and Adolf Haag of Germany. Both tombstones identified them as missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, proving an official presence in Israel at the proper time.
Elder Haag had served in Haifa in 1892. He died of typhus and was buried in Haifa, Palestine, which is now Israel. Elder Clark died of small pox in 1895 and was buried in the same cemetery.
Elder Clark was a school teacher when he decided to serve a mission. When the call came to serve in Palestine, his parents begged him not to go because they were afraid of having him go to such a remote place, but he insisted. He began his mission and reported that he had learned the language very easily and never spoke English anymore, except in his own thoughts. He contracted smallpox while visiting a home where everyone was sick and died just a few days later.
Although both young men gave their lives while serving God, their deaths were to change history almost a century later. Their graves proved the church had been in the country prior to Israel’s formation.
Today, that center is enriching the educations of many students. Called the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, it is home for six months to students studying the Bible, ancient and modern near-eastern studies, Hebrew, and Arabic, and the life of Jesus Christ and the work of the apostles. The center is located on Mount Scopus overlooking the Mount of Olives. It also serves as a center for researchers and provides church services for Mormons in the area. Everyone who participates signs a commitment to avoid missionary work. The center opened in 1987, and the local anti-defamation league there agrees there is no sign that anyone has converted during the center’s years in Jerusalem.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.