Mormonism in Mexico, Part 8: Colonization

One of the important aspects of the Church’s presence in Mexico was the establishment of colonies in the far north.  Intended as refuges against anti-polygamy legislation and persecution, the colonies were a constellation of settlements that proved successful for many years and, in some cases, still continue to exist to this day.

To the degree that members of the Church live the gospel and follow the counsel of the prophets, they will, little by little and even without noticing it, become sanctified. Humble members of the Church who conduct daily family prayer and scripture study, engage in family history, and consecrate their time to worship in the temple frequently, become Saints.[1]

~Benjamín De Hoyos


This is part 8 of a history series in connection with the Mexican Mission Hymns project.



Historian Leonard J. Arrington once wrote that Latter-day Saints in the late 19th century faced “a trial even greater than that of Jackson County, Far West, and Nauvoo” that forced “the goal of the Kingdom… to be tragically revised, or largely abandoned”.[2] The practice of plural marriage, first introduced in secret by Joseph Smith and publicly announced by Orson Pratt in 1852, proved unpopular among the neighbors of the Latter-day Saints. It became a subject of ridicule, a core component of “the Mormon problem” in United States politics, and even an excuse to consider Euro-American Latter-day Saints as their own burgeoning race.  Partially in reaction to this opposition, the Latter-day Saints doubled down on the practice, speaking of it as divinely ordained and necessary for salvation.  This, in turn, led the federal government of the United States to pass a series of laws aimed at forcing the Latter-day Saints to abandon the practice.

By 1890, those laws had imposed draconian measures that nearly broke the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  The Republican party had been founded in the 1850s on the platform of eliminating slavery and polygamy.  While slavery was their initial focus, polygamy was not forgotten and became an area of focus over the course of a few decades.  The 1862 Morrill Anti-bigamy Act banned bigamy in federal territories such as Utah and limited church and non-profit ownership in any territory of the United States to $50,000, though it was not enforced at that time (the country was engulfed in the Civil War and ignored enforcement of the Act as long as Utah didn’t attempt to leave the Union).  After the Civil War, however, the Poland Act was passed in 1872, giving teeth to the Morrill Act by eliminating the control members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints  exerted over the justice system of Utah Territory.  The pressure continued to grow, and the Edmunds Anti-polygamy Act of 1882 prohibited “bigamous” or “unlawful cohabitation” (an easier thing to prove than polygamy) and made it illegal for polygamists or cohabitants to vote, hold public office, or serve on juries in federal territories.  When this began to be enforced in 1887, it effectively disenfranchised all members of the Church, since it was treated as being applicable to anyone who professed belief in polygamy.  The Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 then disincorporated both the LDS Church and the Perpetual Emigration Fund on the grounds that they fostered polygamy, prohibited the practice of polygamy and punished it with a fine of from $500 to $800 and imprisonment of up to five years, dissolved the corporation of the church and directed the confiscation by the federal government of all church properties valued over a limit of $50,000.  Upheld by the Supreme Court, these laws put significant pressure on the Church to abandon plural marriage.

The chaos that this caused for the Church and its members was extensive.  As a result of the Edmunds-Tucker Act, the Church handed over property valued at $807,666 to the federal government, including stock, land property, buildings and livestock.[3] Adjusting for inflation, that sum would be equivalent to $25,196,924 US dollars in 2021.[4] Included in this sum was the Temple Block of Salt Lake City, which was leased back to the Church for a minimal sum per month, though construction on the temple was halted.  These financial pressures were a major consideration in closing the mission in central Mexico during that time.  Almost all male leaders of the Church went into hiding, were imprisoned, or left the country to escape imprisonment. For example, Joseph F. Smith went to Hawaii, President John Taylor snuck from home to home in northern Utah before his death in Kaysville in 1887, and George Q. Cannon could hardly spend two nights in one place  as he was pursued all over the West by the United States marshal and his deputies before his final capture in 1886. Many members migrated to colonies in Chihuahua and Sonora in Mexico, and a few went to Albert, Canada with one of their families to avoid the US laws. To catch these “criminals,” government officials would invade Church meetings and beat on doors late at night, disrupting the lives of all members of the community.[5]

As a result of these pressures, Church leaders explored the option of moving to Mexico to escape prosecution.  The first mission to Mexico in 1875 was not only a proselytizing mission, but one that included a directive to scout out potential areas for colonization in northern Mexico.  These early missionaries explored Chihuahua and reported their findings to leaders of the Church, with a second expedition in 1776 exploring Sonora.  When missionaries arrived in Central Mexico in 1779, they not only answered the call of Plotino C. Rhodakanaty to share the Gospel and baptize members in the area, but also began meeting with government officials to explore options for establishing settlements in the north.  Despite polygamy also being banned in Mexico, the Latter-day Saints convinced Mexican government leaders that the benefits of allowing them to colonize in Mexico outweighed concerns about plural marriage.  For example, in 1880, Moses Thatcher met with Foreign Minister Zárate, Minister of Public Works and Colonization Fernández Leal, and Minister of War Carlos Pacheco, all of whom were familiar with Latter-day Saints and impressed by their ingenuity and prosperity in Utah. As a result, they invited the Saints to settle in Mexico.

Part of why these ministers were impressed with the Latter-day Saints is that news in Mexico portrayed the  Latter-day Saint colonization effort in a positive light. For example, on August 2, 1854, the daily El Universal published an editorial where they noted that:

In material prosperity, the new republic [Deseret or Utah] that in 1854 had only six years of existence has progressed at a truly astonishing pace if we consider the obstacles they had to overcome. . . . The colony has barely celebrated its fifth anniversary, and besides the agriculture achievements that we have mentioned, they had completed an admirable irrigation system, they had built bridges over their principle rivers, and had access to deposits of ore and coal mines, a sugar beet factory, a nail factory and innumerable sawmills; and even had gotten fancy, establishing the manufacturing of fine quality combs. . . .

They carry out this endeavor, not in an independant or disorganized or isolated exploration, but under a centralized organization, whose influence in promoting the work of energetic men, has been amazing.[6]

Likewise, when I. Ramirez visited with President John Taylor in 1884, he wrote that Salt Lake City “is very clean and is in an unbeatable hygienic state. You do not see beggars or bums, nor drunks, neither the scandalous number of free women that one sees in cities of the same category.” He noted that because he was “surprised by the order of things, opposite of what I had expected to find,” he talked to John Taylor, who told him that: “This land was deserted and unproductive and that they have fertilized it: that it was once surrounded by wild tribes, and they have civilized them: where there was only sand and stones, now they have a prosperous city.” Of course, the Mexicans generally didn’t agree with the Latter-day Saint practice of plural marriage. For example, Ramirez stated that: “I was very much surprised, that in our day and here in America, where women have in their midst are accustomed to seeing couples where the wife is absolute owner of one man, would agree to posses it in the company of others. . . . I indicated that . . . Latin women were more jealous and passionate, and would not fit well in his religion.”[7] Despite finding polygamy distasteful, reports like these cast Latter-day Saints as ideal colonists for establishing settlements in the arid regions of northern Mexico.

Finding territory to settle, however, would prove difficult at first.  Various deals were explored through the 1880s without success until 1885, when President John Taylor approved and purchased a site and a settlement began to be established in Apache territory near the border of Mexico and the United States.  Called Colonia Díaz, the area began to see a flood of polygamous refugees moving into the area in Chihuahua before land negotiations were even complete.  After a few hiccups with their Mexican neighbors during the time of their initial settlement, the Latter-day Saints began to establish more colonies in Chihuahua and Sonora, ultimately resulting in 10 colonies and hundreds of families settling in northern Mexico.  Many of the families were connected to people in high positions of leadership in the Church and proved successful in colonizing difficult areas.

Combination church-schoolhouse with Sunday School congregation in Colonia Díaz. Courtesy Wikimedia.

The colonies would prove to be important centers for the Church in Mexico, providing a missionary force of people with cross-cultural awareness and the ability to speak Spanish.  Several influential leaders of the Church have had ties back to these colonies, including President Henry B. Eyring and President Marion G. Romney.  And, perhaps most significant to this project, most of the hymns included in the 1907 and 1912 Mexican mission hymnals seem to have been written by people living in the colonies during the early 20th century.




[1]  Benjamín De Hoyos, “Called to Be Saints,” Conference Report, April 2011,

[2] Leonard J. Arrington, Great basin kingdom: An economic history of the Latter-Day Saints 1830-1900 (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1958), 354.

[3] Leonard J. Arrington, Great basin kingdom: An economic history of the Latter-Day Saints 1830-1900 (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1958), 371.

[4] Morgan. “The Inflation Calculator.”

[5] Thomas G. Alexander, Utah, the Right Place, revised ed. (Salt Lake City: Gibbs-Smith Publisher, 1996), 192-194.

[6]  Cited in Fernando R. Gomez and Sergio Pagaza Castillo, Joseph Smith, Jr.: His Influence in the Mexican Press of the XIX Century (Mexico City and Provo: El Museo de Historia del Mormonismo en Mexico, A.C.).

[7] Cited in Gomez and Pagaza, Joseph Smith, Jr.

1 comment for “Mormonism in Mexico, Part 8: Colonization

  1. I love this series. I have family that settled in Mexico with the colonies and I am always surprised how many influential families in the church were in Mexico at this time.

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