Mormon proselytizing in Europe started early

Kiev, Ukraine — The preaching and proselytizing of the Mormon faith in central and eastern Europe has not been an inaugural endeavor in recent decades.

In fact, the presence of leaders and missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dates back nearly 170 years ago, when Orson Hyde of the Church's Quorum of the Twelve was making his 1841 journey to Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

He is credited as being the first LDS member to set eyes on what is present-day Austria, Bulgaria and Romania, as he took a steamer on the Danube River from Vienna to Galatz (now Galasi, Romania) on his way to the Black Sea.

"I am a witness that the gospel has been proclaimed all along the Danube," wrote Elder Hyde of this portion of his trip.

Initial missionary efforts in Europe beginning in the 1830s focused on the British Isles and the northern Scandinavian countries. The first missionaries reached Germany in 1840, and that country's first branch was established in 1843, several years before the America-based Latter-day Saints relocated from Nauvoo, Ill., to the Salt Lake Valley.

Thomas Biesinger is believed to be the first LDS missionary to set foot on the land that is now part of the Czech Republic, having arrived in Prague on Feb. 26, 1884.

After less than a month's time there, Biesinger was arrested by local authorities for preaching and was jailed for two months before finally being brought to trial. After the trial, he served another month in prison before his release in June 1884.

At the age of 84, Biesinger returned to Prague in February 1928, petitioning the authorities for permission to preach. Permission was later granted, and on July 24, 1929, the LDS Church's Czechoslovakian Mission was created.

Hungarian-born Mischa Markow perhaps was the most traveled of the church's missionaries in central and eastern Europe.

In the late 1800s, Markow was living in Alexandria, Egypt, working as a barber and feeling the urge to find "the true church." Meanwhile, Jacob Spori, who was serving as president of the Turkish Mission, felt inspired to go to Alexandria.

After three days, Spori found Markow on a steamer headed back to Turkey; the former baptized the latter near what was then Constantinople, Turkey, in 1887.

Markow became the one who first who preached in many of the central and European nations at the turn of the 20th century, having been called in December 1898 to serve a mission to Europe.

His travels took him to Bechkeret, of his native Hungary, in June 1899, where he was arrested and banished from the country in the following month for preaching.

Previously in Alexandria, Markow had met Argir Dimitrov, a Bulgarian who was investigating the church. He invited Dimitrov to join him preaching in Romania, and there, on July 30, 1899, he baptized Dimitrov — likely the church's first Bulgarian convert and certainly its first Bulgarian missionary.

He continued on to neighboring countries, visiting Hungary and returning to Bulgaria with little success. Trying to establish the religion in Bulgaria, he was arrested and banished from the country.

Between 1899 and 1903, Markow preached the gospel in Constansa, Romania; in Bucharest, Romania; in Temesvar, Hungary (now Timisoara, Romania); and in Brasso, Hungary (now Brasov, Romania).

In Temesvar, September 1900, he and his companion, Elder Hyrum Lau, established a branch of 31 converts before being banished again in April 1901.

Markow is also thought to be the first missionary to serve on Polish soil, when in 1903, he spent a day in Warsaw, in hopes of doing missionary work. But he realized he couldn't use his German-language capabilities to preach or communicate, so he opted instead to move on to Riga — then in Russia, now in Latvia — where he knew he could find German speakers to teach.

Other than larger LDS congregations in Germany and present-day Poland, most of the small branches and gatherings of LDS members scattered throughout central and eastern Europe struggled with limited or no contact with the church in the first few decades of the 1900s.

The advent of World War II only magnified the challenges.

Many members immigrated to other countries farther west; some fell away, the status of others unknown, while a handful of individuals held on to their faith until some sort of post-war church contact was made — sometimes many years after World War II.

By the mid-1950s, crackdowns by the Communist regimes in the area countries all but squelched any LDS presence in those countries, with several thousands of members in the German Democratic Republic and the Saints in Selbongen (formerly of Germany but part of Poland after the war) being the most notable exceptions.