My thesis deals with the Mexican Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1879-1889. This is a little-explored page in LDS history that has come to vivid life through a wealth of primary documentation which has been assembled together for the first time. I discuss how the racial constructions that the missionaries and other leaders carried with them to the field affected their labors. Specifically, I focus on the failed colonization of Mexican Mormons by Mission leaders to the Mormon colonies in northern Mexico in 1887 and how this failure led to the closing of the Mission. Previously, works like LaMond Tullis’ Mormons in Mexico and Agricol Lozano’s Historia del Mormonismo en Mexico have argued that the Mission closed because of the financial pressures facing the Church due to the Federal Government’s crackdown on polygamy in Utah. My research demonstrates that events closer to the ground in Mexico were the principal reasons the Mission closed. This post discusses the racialist perceptions the American missionaries shared about the sexuality of the Mexican people, which formed part of the rationale for pursuing colonization of Mexican Mormons.
Mormons believed that Mexico was a dangerous country and that Mexicans were dangerous, even criminal in nature. Nudity and a perceived sexual depravity were other aspects of Mexican culture that the Mormon missionaries struggled to understand. In doing so they constructed complex and inconsistent identities for the peoples they encountered in ways that conflated race, religion, and sexuality to produce a profoundly negative vision of Mexicans. Together, these factors convinced Thatcher and subsequent missionaries, that the only way to preserve faithful Mexican saints was to gather them out of their fallen environment and to a Mormon community where they could be tended and watched over and learn a Mormon way of life.
In Thatcher’s view, degradation was built into the very flesh of the Mexican people. “I cannot ignore the fact that the Mexican is an indolent, shiftless race and those of mixed blood are self conceited and bigoted beyond measure…Should the pure blooded Indian race ever secure the ascendency here then I believe strong hopes of better days and better things might reasonably be entertained. But on natural principles, what can we expect from the issue begotten in the heated passion of lust [between] the degraded Indian mother and the adventurous lustful white man?”
For Thatcher, Catholic festivals provided ample evidence of this sexual depravity and its interconnectedness with a fallen religion. In observing one such festival, Thatcher was considerably repulsed: “We beheld thousands of Indians wending their way…Women by hundreds half clad and half drunk…sights like this and others of even a more disgusting and immodest nature…soon [convinced] us that we had seen enough of a Catholic feast and of the loathsome fruits born by that religion.” On another occasion, missionary Ferramorz Young encountered “many nude and semi-nude women” while searching for a baptismal location. He complained that “They seemed to lack both shame and modesty.”
During Helaman Pratt’s tenure as Mission President (1885-1887), a late night incident involving his Mexican housekeeper and Gabriel, one of missionary Franklin R. Snow’s English studentsfurther compounded these visions of a morally fallen society. Shockingly, this perceived sexual degeneracy manifested itself inside the Mission’s headquarters itself.
According to missionary Horace Cummings’ account, one evening, after all had gone to bed, Pratt’s wife,
… had occasion to go into the kitchen, so she took the lamp and entered the hall which leads to it. Hearing a noise in the further end behind the corner . . . she called to the servant girl, but getting no reply walked to the corner where she saw the servant nearly naked, and greatly confused. On the floor were the books Gabriel had been studying. Bro. Pratt was called and an explanation demanded. The servant said Gabriel had returned, she had let him in. He wanted her to marry him and she had allowed him to make improper advances… she made a full confession, saying that Gabriel had seduced her, She said, however, it was the first time he had had intercourse with her. Sister P. almost caught them in the act. . . .Thus a friend who has visited us almost every evening since we came here and who was for many months a pupil of Bro F. R. Snow, gained our confidence, and respect, turned out to be a low-lifed seducer of an ignorant, simpleminded Indian girl! The loose training, corrupt morals, and bold lasciviousness that I have witnessed in the country is sickening, and makes me long to be home among the Latter-day saints.
This longing which Cummings expressed suggests the importance of gathered Mormon societies in his mind where all shared common religious values and could protect against unwanted outside influences. Incidents like this would confirm to Pratt, Snow, Cummings, and others the need to gather Mexican Saints, similar to the broader Euro-American gathering that typified the Mormon experience in the intermountain West.
The missionaries developed a growing concern that centered upon a desire to protect and preserve those of the Mexican people who responded to the Mormon message from the cultural trappings that might easily cause them to drift from their newfound faith. Reflecting in a letter to an LDS Church periodical on what he felt was the endemic depravity of the people and the difficulty of creating and retaining “Saints,” Thatcher wrote,
The remnants of Joseph in Mexico we find in a sad condition of superstition and ignorance. Were it not for the promises, even to us, it would appear almost hopeless, because of the deep depravity into which they have fallen. It seems hard for them to understand why they may not continue to exhibit their former characteristic traits as shown in a reckless disregard of all moral principles, and still be Saints”
To Thatcher, because of the breadth and depth of their natural depravity, even those Mexicans who converted to Mormonism had almost no hope of remaining so. Later, Horace Cummings’ experiences dealing with cases of adultery among Mexican converts would serve to confirm these notions of the moral corruptibility of the Mexican people, even those who joined the Latter-day Saints.
Even as the Mormon missionaries struggled to establish a foothold and stem the tide of perceived corrupting racial, cultural, and religious forces, a potential solution emerged that dovetailed with longstanding Mormon notions of “gathering.” After only a few months in Mexico, Thatcher met a Belgian business man, Emilio Biebuyck, who had received large land concessions from the Mexican government. Biebuyck and Thatcher discussed the possibility of Mormon settlement in Mexico. Biebuyck, as Mexican government officials also expressed, felt that the presence of an industrious and “forward thinking” people like the Mormons would bring prosperity to Mexico.
The idea of a Mormon colonization effort offered a way to stabilize and fortify Mexican converts, to gather them out from a fallen world and into a Mormon colony. “For my part, taking into consideration the peculiar condition and habits of the Mexicans I really cannot see how they can ever be benefited much by the gospel without colonization.”
Thatcher decided to pursue the terms of Biebuyck’s land offer and planned to go with Biebuyck to Salt Lake City to speak directly to the Church’s ruling bodies about the possibilities. Before leaving, Thatcher, Trejo, and Stewart “blessed and dedicated the land of Mexico to the Lord for the benefit of its people, and the colonization of the Saints, and the spread of the Gospel.” Specifically, Thatcher blessed Mexico for, “the colonization by His Saints of any or all parts thereof; that through them salvation may come to many of the inhabitants of the republic, and especially to the remnants of Israel, the poor forsaken Lamanites, who for so many centuries have known naught but bondage and sorrow.” Then, Elder Trejo prayed, “pleading earnestly for the Lamanites, and for the way to be opened up so that the land can be settled by the Saints who thereby might teach the down-trodden remnants of Israel, temporal and spiritual salvation.”
Removing a body of Mexican Mormons to a closed community would not be enough. The Mexicans saints would still have to learn not only spiritual, but temporal salvation from their fellow Anglo Mormons. As Helaman Pratt later expressed, “they [the Mexican Saints] would not get along very well unless some good prudent man was with them to lead them along as a father would his little children, and if they were taken there with no one to look after and encourage them they would soon become disheartened.” The implicit cultural disparity between Anglo American and Mexican Mormons aside, Pratt’s fears of disheartenment proved prophetic.
Arriving in Salt Lake, Thatcher and Biebuyck presented their plans for colonization. Church leadership carefully considered the proposal, but ultimately declined to purchase land and concluded that such a move was “premature.” Thatcher returned to Mexico disappointed and somewhat embarrassed for having brought Biebuyck all the way to Utah without completing the purchase. Thereafter, colonization plans for Mexican Mormons were put on hold for a few years before a subsequent Mission president, Helaman Pratt, revived them with a proposal to settle the Mexican Saints in Arizona. At about the same time, U. S. government pressure to end plural marriage changed the idea of colonization in Mexico from “premature” to indispensible.