Mormonism in Mexico, Part 4: Look out for places where our brethren could go

It seems that in times of trouble, the early Latter-day Saints looked towards Mexico for refuge.

What greater power can you acquire on earth than the priesthood of God? What power could possibly be greater than the capacity to assist our Heavenly Father in changing the lives of your fellowmen, to help them along the pathway of eternal happiness by being cleansed of sin and wrongdoing?[1]

~Adrián Ochoa


This is part 4 of a history series in connection with the Mexican Mission Hymns project.



When fleeing the United States in 1846, the Latter-day Saints aimed to settle in Alta California (with an eye towards independent governance). The territory that they settled was conquered by the United States, but when a large contingent of the U.S. army was dispatched to quell an alleged rebellion by Latter-day Saints in Utah Territory a decade later, rumors arose that the Latter-day Saints had again turned their eyes to Mexico and Central America. In the end, their move south in response to the arrival of the army remained internal to Utah Territory, but anti-polygamy legislation aimed at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the United States in the 1870s and onwards led to enough pressure that the Church ultimately did begin to colonize northern Mexico.

The late 1850s were a difficult period for the Latter-day Saints in Utah Territory. On the one hand, a drought impacted the agricultural economy of the territory, leading to frustration and concern. On the other hand, the relationship with the United States federal government was not positive. Believing that the Latter-day Saints were insubordinate and rebelling against the United States government, a large portion of the federal army was dispatched to support a transition in territorial governors in 1857. Without adequate explanation being given beforehand, Latter-day Saints panicked, fearing that they were about to face a new war of extermination. In this time of uncertainty, rumors flew that Latter-day Saints were considering fleeing to Mexico. For example, the Mexican periodical La Sociedad Periódico Político y Literario wrote on February 5, 1858 that: “In a letter from the United States, which has been published by several papers, manifests the fear that the Mormons, upon knowing that the North-American government is reinforcing its army in order to destroy them, will migrate to Sonora and occupy the State which is found greatly unattended.”[2] Likewise, Las Garantias Sociales of Merida in the State of Yucatán reported that: “The Mormons have 6,000 men, well armed and disciplined who have a resolve to defend themselves; and after they have burned the towns and fields, will go to Sonora.”[3] While there were grains of truth in these rumors (the Latter-day Saints were prepared to burn everything to the ground and did abandon Salt Lake City to move south), it seems that President Brigham Young never seriously considered abandoning Utah Territory during that conflict and only made it as far south as Provo.

President Young’s consideration of moving to Mexico began to change in the 1870s, however. In 1862, the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act was passed, outlawing bigamy in territories of the United States of America. It was not rigorously enforced until the act was reinforced in 1874 by the Poland Act, which sought to facilitate prosecutions under the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act by eliminating the control members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints exerted over the justice system of Utah Territory. In the spring of 1875, for example, Brigham Young and George Reynolds were both imprisoned over charges related to plural marriage. Recognizing that anti-polygamy legislation was ratcheting up, leaders of the Church began to consider moving outside of the United States to avoid prosecution.

In mid-to-late 1875, President Young called six missionaries to travel to Mexico. Perhaps feeling a sense of foreboding from the anti-polygamy legislation, when Elder Orson Pratt blessed the missionaries, he told them: “I wish you to look out for places where our brethren could go and be safe from harm in the event that persecutions should make it necessary for them to get out of the way for a season.”[4] Soon after the missionaries departed to proselytize in central Mexico, President Brigham Young contacted them and informed them of a change of plans, requesting that they travel through Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora to look for places to settle along the way and to teach the gospel to indigenous peoples who lived in those areas.

Ultimately, President Brigham Young looked to extend Latter-day Saint colonies throughout the Americas. As he worked with other leaders to plan colonies in Arizona in 1876, he said that:

Nor do I expect we shall stop at Arizona, but I look forward to the time when the settlements of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will extend right through to the City of Old Mexico, and from thence on through Central America … and this great backbone of the American Continent be filled, north and south, with the cities and temples of the people of God.[5]

The mission that Daniel Jones, Helaman Pratt, James Stewart, Anthony Ivins, Robert Smith, and Ammon Tenney were called to perform would be a mix of preaching and scouting through both Arizona and northern Mexico, with a view towards colonization.

This first expedition into Mexico took ten months. After making their way through Arizona, the missionaries scouted out areas in northern Mexico. After a chilly reception in the area of El Paso del Norte, the missionary company split, with some moving back to Arizona and others remaining in El Paso del Norte, earning money through saddle making and building alliances with some of the Liberals in the area during the winter. In the spring, the remaining missionaries made their way into the state of Chihuahua, where they had more success. In addition to finding some suitable locations for potential settlements, they preached and garnered some success (particularly among some of the indigenous peoples in the region), but did not baptize, since doing so was outside the purview of their commission. They brought with them fifteen hundreds of copies of the Trozos Selectos del Libro de Mormón (selections from the Book of Mormon) that Melitón Trejo had translated, packing them in by mule and horseback, and sent out five hundred copies to prominent men in central Mexico via mail while they were in Chihuahua City. The missionaries returned to Utah Territory and reported their findings in the summer of 1876.[6]

A second missionary expedition to northern Mexico soon followed. In the fall of 1876, another group was called and made their way south to Sonora. During the previous expedition, the missionaries had been warned that it was inadvisable to travel into Sonora because the Yaqui peoples were at war with Mexico, so they had focused their efforts on Chihuahua. Sonora was closer to both Arizona and Utah, where the Latter-day Saints had already been establishing colonies, and reports about the area were promising. Helaman Pratt and Melitón Trejo made their way to Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora, where they preached and baptized the first five members of the Church in Mexico. Terry and Stewart Garff, meanwhile, visited the Yaquis and, as outsiders visiting a people at war with Mexico, were almost executed when they did so, but were let go and left.

Map of the region where the first two missionary expeditions into Mexico ventured, with a few key cities that they spent time in pointed out.

The first mission to Mexico in 1875-1876, while it did not include any baptisms, prepared the way for future expansion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into that country. The distribution of the Book of Mormon would lead to interest and the beginnings of missionary work in central Mexico in 1879. Scouting out the land of northern Mexico eventually led to the establishment of several colonies where Euro-American Latter-day Saints would settle, acting as a base of operations for the Church growth in Mexico and other regions of Spanish-speaking America in future years. As a preliminary expedition, it would prove successful in preparing the way for future work.



[1] Adrián Ochoa, “Aaronic Priesthood: Arise and Use the Power of God,” CR April 2012,

[2] La Sociedad Periódico Político y Literario wrote on February 5, 1858, 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).

[3] Las Garantias Sociales of Merida, September 15, 1858, cited in Gomez and Castillo.

[4] James Z. Stewart Journal.

[5] Brigham Young to William C. Staines, January 11, 1876, Letterbook 14:124-126.

[6] See F. LaMond Tullis Mormons in Mexico: The Dynamics of Faith and Culture (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1987), 19-31.