Mormonism in Mexico, Part 7: Popocatépetl

The mission to central Mexico had many successes, but also proved difficult to sustain.

Problems form an important part of our lives. They are placed in our path for us to overcome them, not to be overcome by them. We must master them, not let them master us. Every time we overcome a challenge, we grow in experience, in self-assuredness, and in faith.[1]

~Horacio A. Tenorio


This is part 7 of a history series in connection with the Mexican Mission Hymns project.



Plotino Rhodakanaty turning against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after Moses Thatcher refused to support establishing a Church-based communitarian system like those in Utah in Mexico was one challenge, especially since many other of the elders they had baptized left for reasons similar to the ones Rhodakanaty left.  It also proved difficult to attract converts in Mexico City proper.  On top of these issues, difficulties faced in the United States took a toll that eventually led to the closure of the central Mexican Mission in 1889.

Mexican politics played a role in the troubles that missionaries faced.  Porfirio Díaz and his army had overthrown the existing government in late 1876.  While this would bring a type of peace and stability, his dictatorship closed out the era of La Reforma that had opened the way for Latter-day Saints to enter Mexico and encouraged Catholic ascendancy in major population centers.  Instead, the majority of converts came from small outlying villages, such as Ozumba.  A year and a half after arriving, Moses Thatcher was frustrated with conditions and decided to do a second dedicatory prayer for missionary work in Mexico.

Popocatépetl with the “Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, Cholula, Puebla” in the foreground. Image courtesy Comisión Mexicana de Filmaciones from México D. F., México

On April 6, 1881 a group of Latter-day Saints, including Silviano Artega, Fernando A. Lara, Ventura Páez, Lino Zárate, Feramorz Young, James Stewart, and at least two other Saints from the region ascended the volcanic mountain Popocatépetl for a special conference.  The spend the day beforehand climbing, with Moses Thatcher noting that evening that: “To mind nothing conveys to the human understanding and so forcibly impresses the human heart with the wonderful Greatness of God and insignificance and puny littleness of man as a contemplation of a glorious work of the Creator like mount Popocatepetl (Smoking mountain, so called by the Aztecs).”[2] In the morning, a “meeting was opened at 8 a.m. with prayer by Elder Stewart, who was under the influence of the Holy Spirit and prayed earnestly for such blessings as we were in need of. Bro. Artiago by his own request followed praying, while tears flowed down his wrinckled cheeks, for the deliverance of his race and people. With both hands extended heavenward, the sun shining on his brown face while the wind played among his gray hair and his knees pressed under his prone body the yielding sand of the mountains, we all rejoiced because of the peaceful, heavenly influence that pervaded our hearts and surrounded us in this hallowed Spot. I never heard any man prayed more earnestly, and though praying in a language which I do not comprehend, yet I seemed to understand by the Spirit, all that he was pleading for.”[3]  After the morning meeting, Moses Thatcher and three others ascended the volcano for another two hours, then Elder Thatcher offered the dedicatory prayer:

We were far above the perpetual snow lines as indicated on the North and West side of the Mountain and had reached a point probably between 15500 and 16000 feet above sea level. Here crowding close up to the frozen snow under the rocky cliff I read a few selections from the Book of Mormon, refering to the promises made to the remnants of Israel on this Continent, and to the Covenants made with their forefathers, and then bowing down upon our knees I earnestly besought God in the name of Jesus to speedily fulfill these things and bring the oppressed remnants to a knowledge of the truth as understood by their ancester who served the Lord. I dedicated the land to Peace that the seed of Jacob through the loins of Joseph might learn to truth and rejoice in the gospel of their salvation. I dedicated the Mountain upon which we were praying that it might become a holy place of worship when the sons of Joseph Should hereafter upon it, seek the Lord; that they might knock it have the door open, ask and receive. That prophets might arise among the Lamanites to lead the people to the light; that visions dreams and manifestations might be had in their midst; that their bondage might speedily end, their shackels be broken and they be made to rejoice in the freedom of the gospel. Unto this end I prayed for blessing to rest upon the Church, upon the priesthood, upon this mission and upon our administrations therein. I prayed that the day might speedily come when the scepter of power should pass from the hands of the unjust into the hands of the righteous, that the people might not longer mourn under the rule of the wicked; that Zion might arise and shine while God’s Kingdom bore rule. I also remembered our famalies during our absence, that they might be preserved in purity health & happiness.[4]

The dramatic scene on Popocatépetl served as a backdrop for the several years of missionary work that followed, which saw hundreds of baptisms occur.

Image of Moses Thatcher’s journal entry

While the missionaries gained some ground, other challenges continued to face the mission.  One aspect was that Moses Thatcher strongly believed that Latter-day Saints should be gathered to a central settlement and pushed for forming a colony of central Mexican Saints in northern Mexico alongside the colonies formed by Utahans.  When this was attempted in 1887, however, the initiative was not successful for a number of reasons and fell apart within the year (more to come on that).  That failure resulted in some significant disillusionment with the Church among former converts in central Mexico.

Another issue was waves of sicknesses that affected missionaries.  Yellow and typhoid fevers and smallpox proved significant challenges that took the lives of the missionaries Feramorz L. Young, Sylvester O. Collet, and Elmer Hook.  In one of his books on the Church in Mexico, F. LaMond Tullis shares a story of how these same illnesses affected another missionary later on:

Around 1900, vaccinations for immunity against that disease [smallpox] were widely available in Salt Lake City.  Apostle [Abraham O.] Woodruff decided against it and, unprotected against the disease, left for Mexico with his wife and four children, not appreciating the danger he and his family were facing.

When Helen May Winters Woodruff contracted the dreaded pox in Mexico, thirty-one-year-old Abraham O. Woodruff frantically sought help from resident British medical personnel.  They quarantined his wife, took their baby (most likely placing the six-month-old in the arms of a wet nurse), and advised him the case was grim. Apostle Woodruff hired an English nurse to watch after his beloved wife. … With tender care and loving attention, Woodruff himself stayed close to Helen, desperately trying to relieve her fever and the wracking pain from the pox pustules that covered every part of her body.

The English nurse soon withdrew from the case.  Into the breach stepped Juana Páez, who gave Helen the competent and caring attention her English nurse could not or would not provide, willingly risking her own life for a dying sister in the faith.  Helen soon passed away, and Apostle Woodruff died of the same illness two weeks later.[5]

While this occurred years later (1904 rather than the 1880s), the same disease and others were affecting the missionary work in that earlier era.

The biggest issue to impact the decision to close the mission in 1889, however, was legal problems and the associated strains on finances and families of missionaries because of anti-polygamy legislation in the United States of America, something we’ll discuss in the next post.




[1] Horacio A. Tenorio, “Teachings of a Loving Father,” CR April 1990,

[2] Moses Thatcher Journal, 5 April 1881

[3] Moses Thatcher Journal, 6 April 1881,

[4] Moses Thatcher Journal, 6 April 1881,

[5] F. LaMond Tullis, Grass Roots in Mexico: Stories of Pioneering Latter-day Saints (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2021), 148-149.