In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Latter-day Saints in most of the world were organized under the leadership of a mission president from the United States who was assigned to their country. 1 From 1936 to 1946, about one-third of Latter-day Saints in Mexico formed a group known as the Third Convention, which taught the doctrines of the Church while rejecting the authority of mission presidents assigned to Mexico who were not ethnic Mexicans. In 1946, Church President George Albert Smith traveled to Mexico to preside over a reunification conference, bringing Third Convention members back into fellowship with other Church members. 2
Some unique factors led to the decade-long division. While Church members around the world sometimes experienced frustration with American mission leaders in the early 20th century, there were conditions unique to Mexico that created additional strain. Church leaders had closed the Mexican Mission altogether from 1889 to 1901 and withdrawn foreign missionaries from Mexico from 1912 to 1917 during the Mexican Revolution. 3 In 1926, Mexico’s government expelled foreign clergy as part of a struggle with the Catholic church. Public debates over the need for local religious leadership resonated with many Mexican Latter-day Saints. Given the history of racial prejudice against native peoples in the United States and Mexico, Mexicans with indigenous ancestry found strength in Book of Mormon teachings about indigenous Americans as a chosen people and looked forward to their promised renewal and role in leadership. 4
In 1931, after the sudden death of Rey L. Pratt, a longtime mission president who had won Mexican members’ respect, Antoine R. Ivins was called to preside over the Mexican Mission. During the Revolution, the mission had expanded to include Spanish speakers in the United States, and for almost a year, Ivins focused on those branches without contacting or visiting members in Mexico. During that time, local leaders including Isaías Juárez, Bernabé Parra, and Abel Páez twice petitioned the First Presidency to call a Mexican mission president who could operate fully under the country’s laws and help Church leaders understand Mexican members’ needs. The meetings where they organized these petitions came to be known as the first and second conventions. In 1932, Ivins rebuked participants for using the petition process in a Church setting but assured them their concerns would be addressed in due time. 5
Some Mexican members hoped that time had come in 1936 when the Spanish-American Mission was created for branches in the United States, leaving the Mexican Mission to focus on Mexico. When Harold W. Pratt from the Latter-day Saint colonies in northern Mexico was retained as mission president, a few leaders drafted a third petition calling for a mission president who was Mexican by “raza y sangre” (race and blood). This effort divided local leaders and members and led to the excommunication of leading advocates of the petition in 1937. Those who supported the petition chose to meet separately from the rest of the Church, with Abel Páez as their leader.
For the next decade, Third Conventionists held meetings, built chapels, published a newspaper, called missionaries, and otherwise carried out Church-related programs. Páez resisted efforts to change the group’s policies and expelled Margarito Bautista, a leader in the Convention, for attempting to practice polygamy. 6 In the early 1940s, mission president Arwell L. Pierce made a priority of listening to Third Convention members and gradually redirected conversations about indigenous leadership from the demand for a Mexican mission president to the prospect of future stakes in Mexico. Páez became persuaded by Pierce’s arguments. The First Presidency reversed prior disciplinary actions against Third Convention leaders. On May 20, 1946, President George Albert Smith arrived in Mexico City to visit members and attend a reunification conference.
Members of the Third Convention welcomed President Smith by singing the hymn “We Thank Thee, Oh God, for a Prophet.” At the conference, Smith spoke on the need for unity and harmony. Páez also spoke and shared his joy at returning to the Church and his excitement for what could be accomplished in the future. At the conclusion of the conference, President Smith invited members to gather their children so he could give them a blessing. 7
Following the conference, Pierce called local members, including Third Convention leaders, to a newly formed mission leadership council. Having gained experience, mission leaders and members found a new system for moving forward together.