Until two years ago when Mormon missionaries knocked on the door of his family home, José Guadalupe Pérez had never heard of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He had no idea what a Mormon was, nor what they believed or practiced. Yet he was impressed by their manner, their enthusiasm and energy, and he soon started meeting with them for chats about the faith.
“At first I liked the missionaries because they were friendly and they listened to me,” he said, “but as I heard more, I began to realize that it was the truth.”
Converts like José have made Mexico home to the largest body of Mormons outside of the United States, with the church reporting over 1.2 million members in the country. There is a huge temple in Zapopan, one of thirteen in the country, and around 200 foreign missionaries in Guadalajara alone, with thousands more local believers.
The converts are transforming the demographics of the church, and the projection is that the majority of Mormons will be Latin American by the end of 2015. “The Church has allocated much of its mission resources to reaching Latin America and Spanish-speakers in the United States,” Matt Martinich, a church-growth researcher, said. “This population has also exhibited higher receptivity to outreach than many other people groups.”
So what draws them to this traditionally Anglo-American faith? Some analysts see underlying cultural similarities.
“I think one of the reasons the church has grown so much in Mexico is that the culture has had an inclination towards the spiritual since ancient times,” said Tomás Hidalgo, a former church spokesman in Mexico. Others point to the declining influence of the Catholic Church, and to the Mormon missionary impulse, which has seen them organize recruitment drives throughout Latin America.
The first missionaries came to Mexico in the late nineteenth century. Fueled by criticism at home, the church sought expansion.
“Mormons sharpened their tools in situations of intense competition for followers with other Christian groups,” said Laurie F. Maffly – Kipp, a Professor of Religion at Washington University in St. Louis.
Conversion rates have risen to the extent that the Mormon minority is now large and conspicuous. Yet few outside the faith are familiar with their beliefs, fewer still are aware that their history is inextricably tied to Mexico.
Mormon theology holds that Joseph Smith, a charismatic farmer’s son from New York, recovered some golden plates given to him by an angel. The plates, translated into the Book of Mormon, tell the story of an ancient tribe of Israelites who sailed to, and settled in the Americas. Shortly after his Resurrection, Jesus Christ visited this faithful tribe, and told them to reorganize his church.
Archaeologists have noted that American indigenous groups are of Asiatic origin, not Israelite, as the Book of Mormon contends. They have also pointed out that the horses, cattle and elephants in the story were unheard of in Pre-Columbian America.
Yet it is here that the first link with Mexico is found. Since the early years, Mormon researchers have looked to Mesoamerica’s ancient civilizations to provide support to their foundational narrative. Some apologists believe that the Mayan ruins on the Yucatán Peninsula belonged to Book of Mormon peoples. So to many Mormons, it’s no surprise that Mexicans would take an interest in their faith. “They have all these pyramids right in their backyards offering proof of what is talked about in the Book of Mormon,” said Ann Goulding, a church elder from Utah.
The second link with Mexico is tied to its most controversial early practice. Polygamy among early Mormons was encouraged by Smith, who himself is thought to have had as many as fifty wives. Opposition to polygamy led many Mormons to emigrate to Mexico, and colonies sprang up throughout the north. One of these, Colonia Juarez in Chihuahua, was the birthplace of the father of presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, and it became the center of a flurry of media interest during the election of 2012.
Mexico, in short, is a special place for Mormons, a second home providing a legal and intellectual shield from criticism in the United States. Yet the modern Mexican church is growing through conversion, not immigration, and this is a process that throws up challenges. The church’s growth has slowed down slightly over the past three years, mostly because many converts are baptized too quickly, and soon stop attending. “Many new members lack the commitment to regularly go to church and become a contributing member” Matt Martinich said. Bryan Lott, a volunteer missionary, also finds cultural attitudes a problem.
“The biggest challenge I feel is the strong sense of tradition. Many times they believe what we are teaching, but they can’t change because of family tradition.”
Yet the slowdown shouldn’t fool you: church growth is still steady, with membership rising by 3.5% in 2012 alone. There may not yet be a Mexican Romney, but Hidalgo predicts that there will be in the future.
“The flourishing of our members in important positions of Mexican society is just starting,” he said.
“The church has reached a level of respect that it obviously didn’t have at the beginning, and we are in a period when the harvest is going to be big.”