International Latter-day Saint History

Who Were Mexico’s Latter-day Saint Pioneers?

In the eyes of many, those who became members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were traitors to their country.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has had a presence in Mexico for 145 years. Mexico is also the country with the largest Church membership outside of the United States, with almost 1.5 million members, 222 stakes and 13 temples. Its history is filled with rich stories of faith over the last century and a half. In this interview, F. LaMond Tullis discusses some of those stories from the history of the Church in Mexico.

Read the book by F. LaMond Tullis, Grass Roots in Mexico: Stories of Pioneering Latter-day Saints.

Table of contents

What led F. LaMond Tullis to write Grass Roots in Mexico?

Several factors influenced my book. 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.

Where did all this come from?

Keep in mind that in the 1950s through the mid-1980s, popular thought seemed to call for a rejection even of the word “international” when talking about the role of the Church in a changing world.

All that has changed now. I think the Church is positioning itself exactly as it should as it seeks to take the message of the restored gospel across all kinds of boundaries—linguistic, cultural, national, ethnic, political, economic, social.

I guess the final answer is that I have an expansive—rather than insular—mindset about my church.

Why did so many converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mexico face severe persecution?

All Protestant/new faiths entering Mexico encountered persecution. The Latter-day Saint brand was complicated in the beginning by the practice of polygamy, which was nearly universally panned in Mexico. Never mind that many Mexican authorities (civic, religious, media) were themselves practitioners of a variant (mistresses).

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.

Political authorities realized he was preaching against them.

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. U.S. Marines landed at Veracruz, marched to Mexico City and sacked the famous “Chapúltepec Castle,” spawning a whole genre of popular literature about the young Mexican cadets who jumped to their deaths from the castle’s walls rather than surrender to the Americans. This does not even mention the “Mexican American War” where Mexico lost nearly half its territory to the U.S.

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.

Grass Roots in Mexico by F. Lamond Tullis features stories of early Latter-day Saint pioneers in South America.

How well prepared were Mexican Latter-day Saints for an exodus of non-native leaders?

This is complicated. Let’s start by saying that early Mexican members seemed to have a built-in cultural proclivity to “love one another.” Thus, on the whole, except during 1936–46 when the Third Convention was alive and well, 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 (1889–1901-polygamy struggles in Utah Territory, 1912–1917-civil war, 1926–29-Cristero rebellion). 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.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mexico has grown substantially since native leaders assumed primary responsibility for the faith. The country now houses the Church’s second-largest missionary training center.

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.

They saw education as their ticket to a better life.

How was Isaías Juárez “the glue that held much of the Church together that could be held together”?

Born in humble circumstances, Isaías Juárez had self-improvement ambitions, inherent talents, and, on religious matters, behavior that endeared him to members wherever he traveled. He gave mesmerizing speeches about his bedrock convictions regarding the Church.

Where did all this come from? Some people thought he was born with some of it. Others opined that it all, over time, just became part of his persona.

Now, in other than religious matters, Juárez was a fiery orator on behalf of the lowly campesinos of Mexico, which earned him a forced exile from the country for a while when political authorities realized he was preaching against them.

Put together, Juárez had the desire, had developed the skills, and perfected his motivation to be a leader for good for the Church in Mexico.

Why was Jesusita Mera de Monroy so important to the Church in San Marcos?

Her early life had imbued her with a fierce desire to defend and help the downtrodden. She and her children had social status in an emerging agrarian middle class, which caused others to look up to her. Her steadfastness in the face of the martyrdom of her son by Zapatista rebels invoked considerable admiration among church members—and astonishment among her former friends who had become its enemies.

External circumstances (i.e., the Mexican civil war) set a prominent tableau for Jesusita’s proclivities, talents, natural instincts, and fierce determination to play out for all to see and many to be succored by.

Why did it take so long to organize a stake in Mexico?

A lot of “reasons” might be advanced here, but all would be subject to conjecture, ranging from the Church’s lack of institutional experience outside of Western European countries to ethnic wariness. Harold Brown did a masterful work in helping to prepare a leadership cadre to take the helm after the expansion of stakes got underway.

How did the Gospel reach the Tzotzil-Maya in Mexico?

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. For reasons that I ignore, 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.

Why are education and literacy so important in the vignettes in Grass Roots in Mexico?

I give considerable attention to this because all the protagonists in the stories did so, either through their documents, family traditions and oral histories, their accomplishments, or, in a few cases, to me personally. They saw education as their ticket to a better life. The Church eventually aided them in their educational pursuits.

How did Methodism prepare Consuelo Gómez González for her life as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

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.

The culture of Methodism encouraged people to think of the human soul in its corporal home as deserving of enlightenment, progress, and betterment. Their culture prized education as a vehicle to those ends. They taught that every child of whatever gender and economic station in life had a right to an education.

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.

What does F. LaMond Tullis hope people take away from reading Grass Roots in Mexico?

A lot of things. Among them, 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.” 

If F. LaMond Tullis could see one moment in the history of the Church in Mexico, what would it be?

I would like to have been a personal witness to the reunification of the Church in Mexico (Third Convention and Mainline Church) in 1946 during the visit of President George Albert Smith to that land.

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About the author

LaMond F. Tullis was professor of political science and Associate Academic Vice President at Brigham Young University from 1969 to 1998. He is a specialist in Latin American Studies and has written multiple works on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Latin America, especially Mexico. Some of his major contributions to Latter-day Saint history include Mormons in Mexico: The Dynamics of Faith and Culture and Martyrs in Mexico: A Mormon Story of Revolution and Redemption.

Further reading

Mexico Latter-day Saint pioneer resources

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

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