Elsie was moving away from her small town in India. But this move wasn’t merely across town, across the country, or even across the continent. She was moving across the world—to Samoa, an island country over seven thousand miles away from the land, customs, and people that were familiar to her. Elsie’s husband, Edwin, was a renowned entomologist and had accepted a new job, which necessitated the long journey to Samoa. Although this area of the world was new to the couple, it didn’t take long for them to make friends. Soon after their arrival, they befriended Lillian and Richard Ashby, an American couple living in Western Samoa. Richard was a doctor, and the Ashbys were serving a unique medical mission in a hospital in Apia.1
Lillian and Richard were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and did their best to share the gospel with Elsie and Edwin. Initially, Elsie wasn’t interested in the Church. She was the daughter of a devout Baptist minister, and Edwin’s family had been loyal Anglicans for over a century. Everything changed, however, when Lillian learned that her breast cancer had returned. Prior to the Ashbys’ mission call, Lillian’s cancer had gone into remission after she received treatment. But when malignant cells reemerged, Lillian’s health declined rapidly. Acknowledging the possibility of death, Lillian wrote her testimony in her white leatherbound Book of Mormon and made her husband promise that he’d give the book to Elsie and Edwin if she died. True to his word, when Lillian passed away in 1976, Richard delivered her scriptures to the Dharmarajus.2
Elsie opened the Book of Mormon and read Lillian’s touching testimony. Lillian’s words, as well as the influence of the missionaries and Samoan Church members, prompted Elsie and Edwin to earnestly study the Book of Mormon and the principles of the gospel. Within three months, Elsie and her family were baptized. Little did Elsie know that she would soon be instrumental in bringing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to her homeland.3
An Instrument in His Hands
Elsie and Edwin took every opportunity to share their conversion with others. When they traveled to India for their daughter’s wedding, they enthusiastically discussed the restored gospel with their extended family. When they returned back home to Samoa, they wrote to Church headquarters and requested that missionaries be sent to India. Church leaders listened and responded with a special mission call—for Elsie and Edwin to return to India and teach their relatives for three months. The couple didn’t want to go to India emptyhanded, so in preparation for their mission, they shipped nearly five hundred pounds of Church materials to India—all donated by fellow Latter-day Saints in Samoa.4
Just two months after the Dharmarajus started their mission, many in their extended family embraced the gospel. In December of 1978, they gathered around Elsie’s brother-in-law’s swimming pool, which had been cleaned, painted, and filled with fresh water. Twenty-two family members, including Edwin’s parents, were baptized, and the first branch in India was organized in Hyderabad, Telangana.
Elsie knew that to further the missionary work in India, it was important for the Book of Mormon to be translated into Telugu, one of India’s most widely spoken languages. And she had the perfect person in mind to do it: her father, Reverend P. Sreenivasam. Although the reverend hadn’t joined the Church, he felt that the Book of Mormon was of great value. He was eighty-two years old and in poor health, but he began translating one page per day. Two years later, Elsie and Edwin delivered the seven-hundred-page manuscript to the prophet, Spencer W. Kimball. As a result of their dedication and the gracious diligence of Elsie’s father, selections of the Book of Mormon were made available in Telugu.5
Embracing the Future with Faith
For the rest of their lives, Elsie and Edwin were committed to the Church and continued to share the gospel with zeal. When Edwin died, Elsie moved to the United States where she worked at the University of Utah and served as a Relief Society teacher in her ward. Even after she had been a widow for thirty years, she often visited her son and relatives in India, where she’d drop by the branch that she and her husband had helped organize.6
While living in the Gilbert Islands, Elsie was a science teacher, and she later worked as a research assistant for the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Utah. All five of her children married and became scientists with graduate degrees.
Prior to Elsie and Edwin’s mission, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had attempted to establish a presence in India for 125 years. Their efforts had been more or less unsuccessful until the Dharmarajus assumed the mantle of missionary work. The Church’s presence continues to increase in India; in 2012, the first stake was organized in Hyderabad, and total Church membership has since surpassed fourteen thousand.7 The Church continues to grow slowly but surely in India. Such growth didn’t begin with the traditional missionary programs the Church implemented in other countries. Rather, it began with the friendship between two women, a testimony written in a leatherbound Book of Mormon, and a Latter-day Saint’s willingness to listen to the Spirit and share her love for the gospel with her family.8
Many of these women’s stories are not widely known, but they offer examples of faithfulness that can inspire us to be active participants with the Lord in directing our future.
- “Richard Orran Ashby,” Obituaries, Millard County Chronicle Progress (Delta, UT), November 24, 2017, https://millardccp.com/obituary-announcements/2597-richard-orran-ashby.
- William Kesler Jackson, “Lillian Ashby and the Dharmarajus: How One Woman Helped Plant the Church in India,” Church History, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/content/lillian-ashby-and-the-dharmarajus?lang=eng.
- “I Will Establish a Church by Your Hand,” Global Histories, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/global-histories/india/stories-of-faith/in-03-i-will-establish-a-church-by-your-hand?lang=eng; Taunalyn Rutherford, The Worldwide Church: Mormonism as a Global Religion (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2016), 78.
- Elizabeth S. VanDenBerghe, “Edwin Dharmaraju: Taking the Gospel Home to India,” Ensign, April 1990, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1990/04/edwin-dharmaraju-taking-the-gospel-home-to-india?lang=eng.
- VanDenBerghe, “Edwin Dharmaraju.”
- VanDenBerghe, “Edwin Dharmaraju.”
- “Facts and Statistics: India,” Newsroom, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/facts-and-statistics/country/india.
- Rutherford, Worldwide Church, 72, 75.