“The Church in Mexico: The Centennial Year for Missionary Work,” Ensign, Oct. 1979, 78–79
The beginnings were rough. But now, a hundred years after the first missionaries arrived in Mexico, the Church is solidly established and local missionaries are teaching the gospel to their own people.
The first steps toward establishing missionary work in Mexico were made more than a century ago when President Brigham Young sent Daniel W. Jones and a small group of elders on a reconnaissance trip to northern Mexico in 1876. As part of their work they mailed selections from the Book of Mormon in Spanish to every post office in Mexico.
One such pamphlet came into the hands of Dr. Plotino C. Rhodakanaty in Mexico City. He shared its contents with others and wrote President John Taylor, requesting that missionaries be sent to Mexico. In response to that request, Elder Moses Thatcher of the Council of the Twelve and two companions, Elders James Z. Stewart and Meliton G. Trejo, went to Mexico City.
When they stepped off the train on 15 November 1879, they began a work which has several times been interrupted by civil strife and at other times been carried on by just a handful of faithful Mexicans. Now, however, this work has blossomed in the care of capable local leaders.
The limited work done during the ten years of the first mission met with little success. Usually only two missionaries were in Mexico at any one time, with their efforts confined to Mexico City and nearby small villages. Their greatest obstacle was Mexican social conditions. The native Mexicans, who had been governed by Spanish conquerors for 300 years, were still under the domination of the Creole aristocracy, even though Mexico’s independence had been declared in 1821. The average Mexican had little chance for education or economic improvement and was tied to his traditions.
These and other difficulties caused the interruption of missionary work in 1889. It was resumed in 1901, but again interrupted in 1913, this time because of the Mexican revolution, a massive social upheaval in which the Mexican people sought freedom from the domination of wealthy Mexican families. As Mormon missionaries again left Mexico, the departing mission president called local brethren to take charge of the branches.
Decades of turmoil followed. Missionaries could not return to Mexico until 1921, and five years later they left again. Once more, the direction of branches was left in the hands of local priesthood leaders. These men labored heroically to hold the Church together in the troubled country. Not only did they succeed, but they even called local missionaries to go to villages and establish new branches and groups.
In 1936 the mission headquarters was re-established in Mexico City, with many of the missionaries provided by the Mormon colonies in northern Mexico. Beginning in the 1950s, the Church in Mexico began to grow. The membership, which had been confined mostly to the Mexico City area, multiplied through missionary expansion into all parts of the Mexican republic. New cities were opened to proselyting, more organized methods of missionary work were employed, and the original Mexican Mission was divided several times.
At the same time, Mexican society was changing. Education and economic conditions improved. People flocked to large urban centers such as Mexico City and Monterrey. In this more open society, Mexicans became more receptive to the gospel.
Growth brought its own problems, though, one of the most pressing being the need to train members as leaders. Generations of mission presidents devoted themselves to this effort. Also, a system of schools, eventually numbering nearly forty, was established by the Mormon Community in 1960 to give Latter-day Saint students a better education and to provide leadership training.
As leaders developed, so did stakes. The Mexico City Stake, organized in 1961, was the first Spanish-speaking stake in the Church. By 1975 there were eleven stakes in Mexico, and since that time stake growth has mushroomed. By mid-1979 forty more stakes had been organized. Nineteen were organized from mission districts after long years of preparation, and twenty-one came from the division of existing stakes.
Mexican leaders of stature have come forward in the Church, not only to serve as stake presidents and bishops, but to fill the ranks of the regional representatives needed to supervise Church activities.
Today, the Church message has a broad appeal in Mexico. Only the doors of the poor were open to missionaries in the past, but increasingly the Church is reaching those in the middle and upper class as well, people who have to some degree developed their leadership potential already.
Increased member missionary work is partly responsible for this shift, as is the increased number of Mexican elders and sisters who served full-time missions in their own country. Sometimes these missionaries serve at great sacrifice to themselves and their families. The efforts of these young Mexicans have accelerated the pace of proselyting.
A satellite missionary training center was opened in Mexico City in January to train these full-time Mexican missionaries. The first group trained in a five-day orientation at a southern Mexico City stake center numbered twenty-four. Subsequent groups in the monthly sessions have numbered between fifty and eighty.
“There has been a great degree of support from local leaders for this missionary effort,” says Steven R. Wright, assistant director of training at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, who helped establish the Mexican MTC. “Stake presidents and regional representatives have been greatly stressing the calling of missionaries.”
As the MTC in Mexico City trained the first group of elders in the last week of January, “a strong impression came to me that it was a very historic moment,” Brother Wright says. “Great things will come of it, I’m sure.”