Matthew Cowley's Faith

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A Mission to New Zealand

We usually think of missionaries as teachers, and we consider investigators the students. But sometimes the opposite is true. Missionaries learn from the people they teach. That: was certainly true when young Matthew Cowley, seventeen years old, was called to his first mission.

When Matthew received his call, he thought of it as a dream come true. He had been called to Hawaii, where his brother Moses had served. Matthew had always wanted to go there. But then something strange happened. The Cowley's next door neighbor in Salt Lake City was Anthony H. Lund, a member of the First Presidency of the Church. President Lund told Matthew: "I was having dinner tonight, and the Spirit told me you should go to New Zealand instead of Hawaii. I don't know why. That's the way I feel. If it is all right with you, I will tell President Smith in the morning and you will be sent to New Zealand." Matthew might well have resisted the change, since his heart was set on Hawaii, but he didn't. He accepted the inspiration of a man he trusted. He could not possibly have known how important the change would be. As it would turn out, Elder Cowley would devote much of his life to the people of New Zealand whom he would come to love and from whom he would learn a great deal.

Think of going on a mission at age seventeen—to a completely foreign culture and thousands of miles from home. Now think of staying on that mission for five years. That's what Matthew Cowley did. He arrived in New Zealand in the fall of 1914 and didn't return until 1919. He entered the mission field as a boy and returned as a man of God.

The natives of New Zealand are called Maoris. They are a people of powerful, simple faith. And young Elder Cowley learned quickly from the Maori people. It was among them that he acquired the two great-spiritual gifts he would use all his life: the gift of tongues and the gift of healing.

The first few weeks of Elder Cowley's mission were hard. The language was confusing, and Elder Cowley was beginning to realize how much he lacked both in his ability to preach and in his knowledge of the gospel. He knew he had to follow the example of the Maoris and use faith to meet his challenges. He later described his learning techniques this way:

How I remember as a mere boy—I was alone for three months without a companion, not understanding the native language—how I would go into the grove every morning at six 'clock and study for eleven hours and fast and pray. Finally, within eleven or twelve weeks and all by myself with no missionary to encourage me, I had the audacity to stand up before a group of natives and preach the gospel in their own tongue. I was using words I had never read or heard, and there was a burning in my bosom the like of which I have never felt before nor since in my life...The power of God was speaking through me as a youngster, seventeen years of age.

From that day on, he spoke to the Maoris only in their own language. And his skill with the language became well known. One of the reasons he remained in New Zealand so long was that his mission president asked him to stay and translate the Book of Mormon, then the Doctrine and Covenants, and finally the Pearl of Great Price.

Elder Cowley learned that translation required more than knowledge. In a letter to his sister, he explained how he did the work:

The work [of translating) was extremely interesting and was comparatively easy when I had the spirit of it. At intervals, however, I would lose the spirit, and this would cause me to spend hours over one short verse. Sometimes I could not work at all.

When I found myself in this predicament I would lock myself in my room, fast and pray, until I felt the urge to continue...Now when I read these books, I marvel that I was the one that was supposed to have done the translating. The language surpasses my own individual knowledge of it. This was the great experience of my life, and it will always remind me that God can and will accomplish his purposes through the human mind.

But how had such a young man acquired this kind of faith. Perhaps it seemed only natural among the Maori people. One day shortly after arriving in the mission field, a woman ran to him and told him her son had fallen from a tree and was badly hurt. Elder Cowley followed her home, but when he saw the boy, very seriously injured, he told her she should call a doctor. "We don't need a doctor," the mother told him. "You fix him up."

Elder Cowley had never administered to anyone in his life. He was frightened by the mother's expectations of him. But he knelt down and anointed the boy with consecrated oil, and then sealed the anointing himself and blessed the child. The next day, the boy was not only well; he was climbing trees again.

This was only the first of many miracles Elder Cowley was to see brought about by the faith of the Maori people. He wrote of dozens of similar experiences and in the account one can see how the boy missionary was growing:

I was taken across the bay, and walked through [a] village, and in every home there were cases of typhoid fever. I walked fearlessly, with my head erect, impelled by the priesthood of God which I held, and in each of these homes I left the blessings of heaven, and I laid my hands on the sick. And then I had to go across the bay again and get on my horse and ride all night to arrive at another native village where there was sickness.

When Matthew Cowley returned to Salt Lake City, he finally began college. He studied law, but he had hardly entered his profession before he was called to return to New Zealand, this time as a mission president. The Maoris often came to him for help. Perhaps the most amazing story is one he told of a young father asking for a "small" favor:

I was asked to administer to a baby in New Zealand. I was asked to bless it. The father came up to me with this child, fourteen months old, and he said, "Our child has not been blessed yet, so I want you to give it a name." I said, "All right. What is the name?" He gave me the name of the child, and then he said in a matter-of-fact way, "While you are giving it its name, give it its sight." The child was born blind. He said, "We have had it to the specialists in Wellington. They said it was born blind and they cannot do anything for it. So while you are giving it a name, by the same authority you use to give it a name, give it its vision." Just as simple as that!

Well, I was scared. I never had that faith. The thing came to me just suddenly like out of the blue. But I went on and blessed the baby with a name. It was the longest blessing, I think, I have ever given. I was using all the words I could think of and had ever thought of. I was trying to get enough inspiration—enough nerve, if you want to call it that—to bless that child with its vision. I finally did.

Eight months later I saw the child, and the child saw me.

Elder Cowley, after all his great experiences in New Zealand, was still learning faith from the Maoris, as he did all his life. The boy missionary would eventually become an apostle, and he would be known for his great speaking ability and for his amazing faith. And throughout his life he would be assigned to serve the people of the Pacific islands. He would continue to return to the people he loved and the people who loved him.

From the book We'll Bring the World His Truth