Mormonism in Mexico, Part 1: Westward to Mexico

It’s time to return to the Mexican Mission Hymns project, with a slight change. Instead of running hymn translations and the brief history discussions together, they will be separate posts moving forward. To do this properly, the previous history segments are going to be rerun as their own posts, starting with this one.

“I know for myself that Joseph Smith was a prophet because I have applied the simple promise in the Book of Mormon: ‘Ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ’ (Moroni 10:4). In simple words, look up.”[1]

~Adrián Ochoa

When the Latter-day Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, they arrived as refugees fleeing the United States of America to settle in northern Mexico. Yet, fears and frustrations about Latter-day Saints that were sparked by the political and economic implications of them gathering to specific geographic locations, the level of control leaders of the Church were given over the lives of the Saints, concerns about perceived fanaticism, and internal dissent within the Church combined to repeatedly make the Latter-day Saints unwelcome in the various Midwestern communities that they settled. As a result, the Latter-day Saints had to repeatedly flee from violent opposition while living in the United States of America.

When they started the exodus from Illinois, it was the full intention of the Quorum of the Twelve to get out of the United States. Elder Orson Pratt wrote to the Saints in the eastern United States in 1845: “Brethren awake! Be determined to get out from this evil nation next spring. We do not want one Saint to be left in the United States after that time.”[2] He added that: “The time is at hand for me to take a long and last farewell to these Eastern countries, being included with my family, among the tens of thousands of American citizens who have the choice of DEATH or BANISHMENT beyond the Rocky Mountains. I have preferred the latter. It is with the greatest of joy that I forsake this Republic.”[3] Having faced persecutions and even a war against them in the United States, the Latter-day Saints were ready to leave behind the country that was, for many of them, their native land.

Granted, it wasn’t so much of a love of Mexico that they decided to move to the northern reaches of that country (called Alta California at that time). During a 22 March 1845 meeting of the Council of Fifty, Elder Erastus Snow noted that:

If we pitch upon California, and that seems to be the place where our feelings center, we can take care of ourselves. He [Elder Snow] often heard the prophet speak of that country last spring. . . . The only difficulty there appears to be in the way of our locationing in California is the Mexican government, and he has no fears about them. . . . He knows the Mexican government is weak, and they have never taken measures to place themselves in a situation of defense.[4]

At the time, Mexico was occupied with internal conflicts–the well-known Antonio López de Santa Anna had recently been overthrown and exiled, but the new president, José Joaquín de Herrera, was facing intense internal opposition due to his suggestion that Mexico recognize Texas’s independence in an effort to avert war with the United States. Herrera would, in turn, be overthrown by Mariano Paredes the following December.

Because of that turmoil, during the March 1845 meeting, Elder Snow expressed that: “Every information he has been able to get goes to satisfy him that there is a mere form of government but not much power. He dont think we would encounter the obstacles there as we would in other gentile settlements,” though he speculated that if Mexico did gain more control over Alta California, “they would naturally torment us, as much as the United States would if they had power.”[5] It wasn’t that the Latter-day Saints wanted to be a part of Mexico that made it their goal to move into Mexican territory so much as they thought they would be able to get away with governing themselves without external governments overseeing them.

Nor were Mexicans ignorant of what the Latter-day Saints were contemplating. On November 26, 1845, the newspaper El Monitor wrote that:

The new religious sect called Mormons, has revealed how closely it is being washed by the American Government, and the efforts and diabolic plans that it must pursue in order to free itself from such a terrible stepfather, who makes them so uncomfortable and threatens them from the center of their same soil. One of the suggested options for those that form this new sect is to migrate to the Californias, with the objective that once within this country [Mexico]; their independence will be easy and realizable within a short time.[6]

Thus, in Mexico, people knew what the Latter-day Saints were contemplating when it came to Alta California.

The plan to escape the United States, however, did not work out as initially hoped. In December of 1845, Texas was annexed by the United States of America. Texas and the United States also claimed more territory than had previously been claimed by Texas and began moving into the disputed territory, all of which sparked the Mexican-American War.[7] During the middle of the conflict, the United States government decided to offer an opportunity to the Latter-day Saints that would give them some payment through military service. After some lobbying for some financial support for the Latter-day Saint exodus, United States president James Polk authorized enlisting a group of Latter-day Saints to “conciliate them, attach them to our country, & prevent them from taking part against us.”[8] In hopes that it would make them more amenable to supporting expansionist plans of the United States rather than fighting against them (in support of Mexico, the United Kingdom, or their own independence).

“Calling Volunteers For The Mormon Battalion,” By C. C. A. Christensen

At first, the Latter-day Saints were extremely suspicious of this offer. For example, Hosea Stout wrote in his journal that:

We were all very indignant at this requisition and only looked on it as a plot laid to bring trouble on us as a people. For in the event that we did not comply with the requisition we supposed they would now make a protest to denounce us as enemies to our country and if we did comply that they would then have 500 of our men in their power to be destroyed as they had done our leaders at Carthage. I confess that my feelings was uncommonly wrought up against them. This was the universal feeling at Pisgah.[9]

President Brigham Young, however, recognized the opportunity it presented for the Latter-day Saints, and told Stout that: “They were going to comply with the requisition of the President of the United States and furnish the 500 men demanded and that there was a good feeling existed between us and him & all was right.”[10] In the Mexican-American War (the Intervención estadounidense en México), the Latter-day Saints sided with the United States and created the only religious military unit in the United States’ history.

Luckily, the Mormon Battalion did not have to fight during the conflict. They essentially spent a year marching from Council Bluffs, Iowa to San Diego, California, helping to occupy the latter for the United States before being released to return to their families. Still, the Battalion accomplished the major goals of those who set it up: The Latter-day Saints sided with the United States rather than fighting against it and, in turn, they received the desperately-needed financial assistance necessary to fund colonizing Alta California. With the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the territory the Latter-day Saints had settled officially became part of the United States. (Interestingly enough, this means that early settlements like Salt Lake City and Bountiful were originally established in Mexico.)

In relation to Mexico, however, this set up an interesting relationship for the Latter-day Saints with the country. They intended to escape to Mexico to get away from violent persecution in the United States because they thought they could get away with self-rule. When it came to the Intervención estadounidense en México, however, the Latter-day Saints sided with the United States rather than Mexico, providing a military unit of around 500 people that marched into Mexican territory. The war resulted in approximately half of the land that Mexico claimed being ripped away from that country by their more powerful northern neighbor – something that continues to be resented to this day. Hence, one prominent Mexican Latter-day Saint suggested that if Latter-day Saints want to appear less United-States-centric, they should avoid claiming links to the Mormon Battalion because: “The Mormon Battalion offends all of Latin America. Fortunately, the Battalion had no battles. Had it done so, the church would never have been allowed to enter Mexico.”[11]




[1] Adrián Ochoa, “Look Up,” CR October 2013,

[2] Orson Pratt, New York Messenger, 15 November 1845, 153.

[3] Orson Pratt, New York Messenger, 15 November 1845, 153.

[4] Council of Fifty minutes, March 22, 1846, The Joseph Smith Papers: Administrative Records: Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844-January 1846, ed. Matthew J. Grow, Ronald K. Esplin, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Jeffrey D. Mahas (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2016), 354-355.

[5] Council of Fifty minutes, March 22, 1846, The Joseph Smith Papers: Administrative Records: Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844-January 1846, ed. Matthew J. Grow, Ronald K. Esplin, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Jeffrey D. Mahas (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2016), 354-355.

[6] El Monitor 26 Nov 1845, cited in Fernando R. Gomez and Sergio Pagaza Castillo, Joseph Smith, Jr.: His Influence in the Mexican Press of the XIX Century (Mexico City: Museo de Historia del Mormonismo en México), chapter 2.

[7] The tactics the United States used to justify declaring war seem to have some parallels to how Russia justified its current invasion of Ukraine.

[8] James K. Polk Diary, 2 June 1846, in Milo Milton Quaife, ed., The Diary of James K. Polk during His Presidency, vol. I (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1910), 444.

[9] Hosea Stout Diary, June 28, 1846, in On the Mormon Frontier: The Diary of Hosea Stout, Volume One 1844-1848, ed. Juanita Brooks (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1964), 172.

[10] Hosea Stout Diary, July 3, 1846, On the Mormon Frontier, 174.

[11] Lozano Herrera, interview, cited in, F. LaMond Tullis, Mormons in Mexico: The Dynamics of Faith and Culture (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1987), 203-204.