Back step in time just over three decades. For Mexican members, 1972 marked a historic, happy moment.
Church membership in Mexico that year had just reached 100,000. Many graduates of the Church-owned Benemerito de las Americas preparatory school in Mexico City had returned home from full-time missionary service, married, started families and were being called as bishops, Relief Society presidents and other leaders in their respective wards and branches. And bus loads of faithful Mexicans were crossing northern borders en route to Mesa, Ariz., or, perhaps, Salt Lake City to claim temple blessings — all the while looking to the day when they would visit temples in their own land.
Now jump forward a relatively short 32 years later. Today, few Mexican members are more than a half-day's drive away from the temple. Twelve dedicated edifices dot the nation — from Juarez in the north to Chiapas in the south. A few of those local leaders have become General Authorities. Some 200 stakes are operating in Mexico, along with 20 missions and 1,873 wards and branches.
Meanwhile, the Mexican Church roster since 1972 has multiplied by 10. By August 1, a million Mexicans are expected to belong to the Church, according to the Member and Statistical Records Department. The land of the Aztec will become the first country outside the United States to reach seven-figure membership.
"We have enjoyed success because as people apply the gospel principles in their lives, they see their own lives progress, and other people see it," said Jesus Madera Lopez, president of the Zacatecas Mexico Stake. "The gospel brings light and the light helps us move forward."
Yes, the past three decades in Mexico have been top-heavy with history and milestones. But a glance at Church history suggests the prolific fruit being harvested in Mexico today is the product of maturing, deep- rooted seeds planted and nurtured years earlier by faithful men and women.
That first band of missionaries to arrive in Mexico in 1876 perhaps never fathomed a million members in Mexico. Still they seemed to sense they were working fertile ground. "I have reason to believe," wrote Elder James Z. Stewart in his missionary journal on April 20, 1876, "that much good can be done here."
Those early missionaries — and their many successors — found a people sensitive to the message of the restored gospel.
"(Mexican converts) found great comfort in the Book of Mormon. It had a message that gave them hope," said F. LaMond Tullis, author of Mormons in Mexico, in a Church News interview.
As those early missionaries were planting seeds, members from the United States were beginning to "colonize" sections of northern Mexico. It was there in the Mormon colonies that the institution of the Church first took hold in the eventual form of the the Juarez Stake (organized in 1895) and a Church-operated school.
Yes, there were tensions between the colonists and the native Mexicans, said Brother Tullis. But the colonies also blessed the lives of many Mexicans, both directly and indirectly. Many ethnic Mexicans living in the colonies joined the Church and learned English skills that would serve them in later professional and ecclesiastical capacities.
Meanwhile, the Mexican colonies produced a long line of faithful families (recognize the names Pratt, Call, Romney or Eyring?) whose background in Latino culture and language transitioned into invaluable leadership roles throughout Mexico and other Latin American lands experiencing rapid Church growth.
The Mexican Revolution of the early 1900s limited missionary work in the Church. A pair of faithful Mormons, Rafael Monroy and Vicente Morales, were executed because of their belief in the gospel. But amid the violence, the gospel testimony of many Mexican converts matured and was passed along to the next generation.
Peace and vigorous missionary work had been restored to Mexico by 1922. Still, challenges arose. A divisive, local debate over Church leadership in Mexico resulted in the Third Convention in 1936. Many associated with the Convention would be excommunicated and found themselves outside the Church for almost a decade. This painful period of separation ended in the form of a reunification conference presided over by Church President George Albert Smith. It was a conference of unifying love, highlighted by the shepherding leadership of President Smith and the earnest willingness of many "Conventioneers" to return to the mainstream Church and move forward, Brother Tullis said.
"It was a great moment in Mexico," he said.
With unity restored, the Church in Mexico could get to the business of growth and development. The programs of the Church were soon being fully realized. Missions would be divided and, in 1961, the first Spanish-speaking stake was formed. Meanwhile, many young LDS Mexicans were being educated in Church-operated schools, seminaries and institute programs. Mexicans were being taught the gospel by fellow countrymen and women and then baptized. The Church was becoming institutionalized and a century's worth of labor on the part of faithful Church members and missionaries was poised to bear fruit.
First came the historic announcement in 1976 that Mexico's first temple would be built. The Mexico City Mexico Temple — a dramatic white stone building adorned with ancient Mayan designs — was opened seven years later. In his dedicatory prayer, President Gordon B. Hinckley asked the Lord to bless the Mexican members who visit the temple, adding, "Most have in their veins the blood of Father Lehi. Thou hast kept Thine ancient promises."
With the blessings of the temple available to more Mexican members, families were sealed and their faith increased. A temple in Mexico also possessed symbolic weight. No more could the Church be regarded as an American church — but, instead, the Church of Jesus Christ, Brother Tullis said.
Missionary work has also taken pivotal strides and sparked growth, say Church leaders. Elder Gary J. Coleman of the Seventy has spent eight of the past 11 years working in Mexico and has seen the benefits of a maturing missionary program.
"I have witnessed a tremendous change in the missionary force among the young men and women, as well as the availability of mature couples serving in the missions of Mexico," Elder Coleman said. "The faith and dedication and abilities of the full-time missionaries and the Church service missionaries have risen to the level of a powerful force for good among the people of Mexico.
"You can see it, you can feel it, you can marvel at it in every visit to the missions and stakes and resource centers across the land."
Each year, scores of missionaries are returning to their home units and continuing to serve and teach their fellow Mexicans. The building of the Church in Mexico goes on under the direction of devoted, savvy local leaders, Elder Coleman said.
"We now have complete stake presidencies, ward bishoprics and presidencies of auxiliary organizations who are all returned missionaries and worthy to enter the temple," he added. "I feel the Lord is very pleased with this remarkable contribution the missionaries and their families have made to help reach the milestone of 1 million members of the Church in Mexico."
Now Mexico could aptly be called "templolandia." There are now 12 temples in operation in Mexico. With each dedication in recent years, humbled members speak of the changes a temple will bring to their respective cities.
Some say they are blessed to live in a land with a million fellow members — then add the sacred charge to build continues.
"My question," asks Elder Benjamin De Hoyos, an Area Authority Seventy and third-generation Church member, "is how many more things will we see in the next 50 years?"
Sources: Museum of Mormon History in Mexico; Mormons in Mexico, by F. LaMond Tullis.