Back in 1997, M. Russell Ballard spoke about how we should take the “opportunity to honor … the remarkable efforts of our pioneers in every land who have blazed spiritual trails with faith in every one of their footsteps.” (M. Russell Ballard, “You Have Nothing to Fear from the Journey,” Conference Report, April 1997.) In a recent interview over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, F. LaMond Tullis discussed some of the stories of Latter-day Saint pioneers in Mexico. What follows here is a co-post to the interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).
F. LaMond Tullis recently published a book covering the stories of 19 pioneering members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the interview, he discussed some of the reasons that led him to write Grass Roots in Mexico:
First, I had a long and abiding interest in Latin America triggered by college friends who taught me Spanish. I also had an academic focus on the area at Harvard University, where I wrote several articles about the Church in Latin America, and published my book Mormons in Mexico (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1987). I’ve also struggled over the years to say to an insular Latter-day Saint population that becoming a world-wide church entails attention to cultural matters at home as well as sending out missionaries abroad.
He added that he hopes that people who read the book gain “a realization that the gospel is for everyone and that people in the Church’s heartland could profitably realize that our current “anxiety” (if not “hate”) boundaries have no place in God’s Kingdom, where we are taught that God is “no respecter of persons” and that “all are alike unto him.””
Mexico has a long history with the Church, with missionaries first visiting in 1879 and the country being officially home to more Latter-day Saints than any other country outside of the United States. Early converts frequently faced intense pressure to not join the Church, and many of them were people who had already left behind the fold of Catholicism. One example from the book was that of Consuelo Gómez González, who joined the Church after living much of her early life as a Methodist. Tullis stated that:
Methodism helped prepare not only Consuelo for her life as a Latter-day Saint, but also a goodly number of other new members of the Church. To shift from Catholicism to Methodism required a certain element of independent thought—and a bit of a daring personality. …
Once a person accepted the restored gospel it was not such a large shift to adopt much of the Latter-day Saint faith’s cultural artifacts. Consuelo was a stellar example.
He also noted that:
All Protestant/new faiths entering Mexico encountered persecution. …
The Spaniards destroyed the display and practice of indigenous faith constructs at the point of a sword. Imposed Catholicism became the only acceptable form for the public display of religiosity and, later, of cultural symbols of Mexican nationhood.
The Church was headquartered in the United States, and there was a near universal antagonism against the U.S. deriving in part from it’s foreign policy at the time. …
In sum, in the eyes of many, those who became members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were traitors to their country.
Thus, it was difficult for people to convert because they were seen as traitors to their culture and country for leaving behind Catholicism for an American-based church.
Problems internal to Mexico also posed some considerable difficulties for early members of the Church there. During three major time periods, missionaries and American leaders pulled out of the country: “1889–1901-polygamy struggles in Utah Territory, 1912–1917-civil war, 1926–29-Cristero rebellion.” These retreats by the Church at times left members there feeling abandoned, but also provided opportunities for growth and leadership that might not have been available to them otherwise. LaMond Tullis explained that they fared as well as they did because:
Early Mexican members seemed to have a built-in cultural proclivity to “love one another.” Thus, on the whole … members started their Latter-day Saint lives with culturally motivated bonds of solidarity—a meaningful sisterhood and brotherhood.
Add to this the appearance of some really spectacular indigenous leaders during the times that foreign missionaries were absent. … Add to that the multi-decade mission presidency of Rey L. Pratt, whose manifest policy was to put native leaders in place and tutor them.
On the whole, most native leaders were not so much schooled in arcane church doctrines as they were in applying fundamental principles to their flocks and watching after them. There were no administrative manuals and no on-site supervision from Salt Lake City.
It’s remarkable that the Saints in Mexico appeared to have no larger attrition rate than rural Latter-day Saint villages in the U.S while at the same time they were aggregating new converts through their missionary activities.
While members would wait until 1961 to have the first stake organized in Mexico outside of the Euro-American Latter-day Saint colonies in the north, the work had been done to “prepare a leadership cadre to take the helm after the expansion of stakes got underway”, resulting in a rapid expansion of stakes soon afterwards.
While much of the history of the Church in Mexico revolves around central Mexico and the colonies in northern Mexico, the gospel has expanded to all major areas of the country. Tullis discussed how the gospel reached a group of Tzotzil-Maya in southern Mexico during the interview:
The essential details (known to me) are summarized in the chapter on Agustín Gutiérrez. In sum, “push” factors (drought, civil war in Guatemala with accompanying population shifts, drastic reduction in infant mortality) combined to motivate young people to leave their mountain villages and seek work in cities and towns such as San Cristóbal de las Casas.
One such barely teenager, Fernando Ruiz, left his village of Chojolhó and migrated twenty miles to San Cristóbal. … He found lodging in a home of members of the Church. They shepherded him to find work and to get an elementary education. He joined the Church.
This took him back to Chojolhó under a government contract, where he began to teach children from his home village the basics of elementary education and adults about his newfound religion.
Gutiérrez’s missionary work paved the way for future growth of the Church in the area.
As always, there’s a lot more to the interview than I’ve been able to cover here. For more, please head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, where F. LaMond Tullis discusses some of the stories of Latter-day Saint pioneers in Mexico.