“Mormons in Mexico: The First 96 Years,” Ensign, Sept. 1972, 20
Origins. Sometime between 1875 and 1878 an instructor of Greek in Mexico City named Plotino Rhodocanaty received a booklet in the mail. It was entitled Selected Portions from the Book of Mormon. This little work had been translated into Spanish by Daniel W. Jones and Meliton G. Trejo at the request of Brigham Young in 1874.
In 1875 Daniel Jones, again at the request of President Young, led a small party of missionaries 200 miles into Mexico to the city of Chihuahua. There, with the governor’s permission, they held meetings and mailed copies of their booklet to government officials throughout the country.
How a copy got into the hands of Plotino Rhodocanaty is not known. But we do know that Plotino organized a group that met in his home every Sunday to study the booklet, and in 1878 he requested additional literature from Church headquarters in Salt Lake City.
A year later, on November 15, 1879, Elder Moses Thatcher of the Council of the Twelve, with Meliton Trejo, J. Z. Stewart, and others, arrived in Mexico City. Within a week nine of Plotino’s group were baptized, four brethren were ordained elders, and the Mexico City branch was organized.
Two weeks later, a small group of disaffected Catholics, who had been meeting for Bible study at the house of Julian Rojas in rural Ozumba-Tecalco, invited that same group of missionaries to speak. All but one of this Bible class were baptized, and the second branch was organized.
On April 6, 1881, Elder Thatcher dedicated Mexico for the preaching of the gospel.
These events marked the beginnings of the missionary work and the inauguration of Church history, growth, and progress in Mexico.
The first missionary labors lasted ten years. After that, the emphasis shifted to colonization, and the missionary work lost momentum. In those ten years, eighteen missionaries had served in Mexico, 241 converts had been baptized, and ten branches had been organized. When the missionary work ceased in central Mexico, the colonies of the north became known as the Mexican Mission until the organization of the Juarez Stake in 1895.
Revolution and Martyrdom. A new chapter opened in 1907 with the appointment of Rey L. Pratt as president of the Mexican Mission, a position he would hold until his death twenty-three years later.
The administration of President Pratt was fraught with political unrest. The Porfirio Diaz regime, which had tightly controlled Mexican politics for several decades, was forced out of power. A long, devastating period of revolutionary activity followed. Masses of common people were pitted against each other, and the fighting was intense. In February 1913, missionaries were recalled to the mission home for safety.
About this time, Rafael Monroy, a new convert from San Marcos, Hidalgo, received a strong impression to see President Pratt. When he arrived at the mission home, he found the leaders and missionaries ready to depart. President Joseph F. Smith had instructed President Pratt to evacuate his family and the seven remaining missionaries.
Monroy had only one thought: in the absence of these leaders, who would guide the little group of seven members in San Marcos? President Pratt replied, “Sit down. We will ordain you an elder and set you apart as the leader of that group.”
No one could know at that time that young Elder Monroy was destined to die violently after giving his final testimony to the Saints at San Marcos. Rafael Monroy magnified his calling, and the branch membership soon increased tenfold.
The little town of San Marcos was in the path of two revolutionary forces, and when the Carranzistas were driven out of the town by the Zapatistas, the Zapatistas were falsely informed that Monroy had collaborated with their enemy, the Carranzistas. Monroy and Vincent Morales, another member of the branch, were placed under arrest. When asked to give up their arms, Monroy drew the standard works from his pocket and said, “Gentlemen, these are the only arms I carry.”
Incensed at the response, the Zapatistas threw the two men in jail. At dusk they were taken to the outskirts of town to stand before a firing squad. The officer said he would free them if they would forsake their religion, but the brethren refused. Monroy was granted a final request to pray, and he asked the Lord to bless and protect his loved ones and to care for the little struggling branch. A few moments later, the rifles fired and the voices of Elder Monroy and Brother Morales were stilled.
Withdrawal and Return. When the political climate moderated, twelve elders returned to Mexico City in 1921. President Pratt recorded in his diary:
“Only those who have experienced it know the joy of meeting these dear people after a long absence. Their faithfulness through eight long years … during which time they passed through a veritable hell of war, is wonderful. I feel to thank the Lord that he has permitted me to return here and find so many of the people strong in the faith.”
But more difficulties were hovering on the horizon. In 1926 the Mexican government decided to enforce a constitutional amendment that barred foreigners from active ministerial work. And so, for the third time in the fifty-year history of the Mexican Mission, the missionaries were withdrawn. Complete reliance was laid upon the local leaders to carry out the branch and district activity.
After the death of President Pratt in 1931, President Antoine R. Ivins of the First Council of the Seventy was called as Mexican Mission president. But it was not until 1940 that U.S. citizens could enter Mexico as missionaries. Up to that time only those young men and women who could claim Mexican citizenship were permitted to serve as missionaries.
Apostasy and Reconciliation. A few years prior to World War II, the spirit of apostasy broke out among some of the Mexican Saints. A group known as the Third Convention organized themselves and demanded, among other things, that the First Presidency name a mission president of their own nationality. When the First Presidency reiterated that Church leaders are called by the inspiration of God, many of the group separated themselves from the Church. They carried on their own extensive missionary activity in the small mountain communities of central Mexico.
Thanks to the skillful leadership of President Arwell L. Pierce and others, most of the Third Conventionists eventually recognized the authority of Church leaders. President George Albert Smith spent ten days in Mexico in 1946 holding conferences in various districts of the mission. He accepted back into full fellowship 1,200 individuals who had followed the Third Convention movement.
Wherever President Smith spoke, he manifested love and kindness, stressing the need for harmony and unity. One of the Third Conventionists leaders stood in conference and declared, “There is only one president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he is here today. There is only one president of the Mexican Mission, and he is here today.”
Unity and Expansion. Increased unity was followed by a period of remarkable growth. The geographical area of the mission was enlarged in 1947 to include Central America, and missionaries were sent simultaneously to Guatemala and Costa Rica. Success in these lands resulted in the organization of the Central America Mission in 1952.
In the two decades that followed, Church membership mushroomed and stakes and wards were created in order to meet the ever-growing needs of thousands of new converts.
During the ninety-six years since Plotino Rhodocanaty and his little group of friends were baptized, the Church in Mexico and Central America has passed through a history of persecution, revolution, sacrifice, struggle, and even martyrdom, all as a seeming prelude to the miraculous growth and development of recent years. Little could those first few converts have guessed what impact their new religion and their own pioneer faith and vitality would have upon the future lives of so many persons in generations to come.