Recap of the Conference on the History of Mormonism in Latin America and the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands and the Centennial Commemoration of the Mormon Exodus

This past weekend several events took place that helped mark the 100th anniversary of the flight of Mormon Colonists from Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. Through a more than year-long process, Fred Woods, professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University,  led efforts to create a museum exhibit, a documentary, and a special commemorative event marking the centennial along with the help of several institutions including the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation. Seeing an opportunity to share audiences, I decided to organize an academic conference to coincide with those commemorative events.

On Friday night, I had the pleasure of hosting about 20 folks for dinner, including Michael Landon, Matt Geilman, Edje Jeter, Mark Grover, Elisa Pulido, Catherine Ellis, Fernando and Enriqueta Gomez, Barbara Jones Brown, Steve Olsen, Senior Curator at the LDS Church History Department, Barbara Morgan, John Glaser, director of Hispanic Leadership Development at the Community of Christ, Mike Hutchings and Kenny Mays, board members of the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation, stake president Karl Murphy, local historian Mike Mullins and his wife, bishop Sam Alva (whose ancestors include some of the first Mexican Mormon converts in the 1880s). Among other things, I made Mexican hot chocolate ice cream.

Saturday morning at 8 am I had breakfast at the conference hotel with several of those already mentioned and Daniel Herman, Professor of history at Central Washington University.

At about 9 am we crossed the street to the El Paso Museum of History where several dozen people had gathered. With the help of Steve Olsen and others, the museum exhibit turned out very well.  I had earlier suggested that the text of the exhibit also be made available in Spanish, and was subsequently drafted to make said translation (Careful what you wish for!). Steve Olsen, Mike Hutchings, and Museum staff offered remarks. See pictures of the exhibit and the ribbon cutting at the El Paso Museum of History Facebook Page as well as at the Mormon Exodus Facebook Page album 1 and 2, as well as this news article in the El Paso Times.

A little bit before 10:00 am, when the El Paso Public Library’s Main (Downtown) branch opens, with the kind assistance of library staffer John Ferria, Fred and I gained access to the library auditorium before opening in order to set things up, as Fred was going to present first.

Fred’s presentation, “Finding Refuge in El Paso: the 1912 Mormon Exodus from Mexico” offered an overview of the causes of the Exodus and how El Pasonas, the U.S. Military at Ft. Bliss, and others rendered aid. Fred’s book of the same name will be released in November through Cedar Fort, and is sure to be a meticulously researched and interesting volume.

Catherine Ellis, independent historian, presented “A Miner’s Wife: Roberta Flake Clayton in Mexico and El Paso.” From her abstract:

Roberta Flake Clayton, as a divorcee needing to support her son and herself, was living in Chihuahua about 1908.  Initially she worked as a tutor for a private family and then as a cook at the Madera lumber mill.  In 1909, she was living at Rio Verde when Samuel N. Dedrick was murdered.  When she returned to Ciudad Chihuahua, she cooked at the Hotel Iturbedi.  In 1910, she married J. W. Clayton, a man from Georgia who was president of the Virginia C. Mining, Milling and Smelting Company that operated the Hidalgo Mine west of Ciudad Chihuahua.  The Claytons were in and out of Mexico (often living in El Paso) depending on activities associated with the Revolution.  They did not flee Mexico with other Mormon settlers in 1912, but did flee in April 1914.  Roberta’s son attended school in Ciudad Chihuahua, Colonia Juárez, and El Paso. Roberta Clayton’s experiences in Mexico seem far different from the experiences of her sister Jane Wood in Colonia Juárez.  Roberta learned Spanish whereas her sister never did, [etc.]

Her presentation comes from a larger book project on Roberta Flake Clayton, which should prove fascinating.

Mike Landon, archivist at the LDS Church History Library, presented “Fruits of the Mormon Exodus: The History of the El Paso Douglas Street Chapel.” Mike’s abstract reads:

This paper will explore the impact of the Mormon exodus from Mexico during the Mexican revolution on the subsequent growth and development of the LDS Church in El Paso, Texas, resulting in the construction of the Douglas Street Chapel. The paper will also describe the relationship of Bishop Arwell L. Pierce with the non-LDS El Paso community, Pierce’s interaction with Church President Heber J. Grant, and Pierce’s influence on the decision to build the Douglas Street Chapel. The paper will also highlight the historical and architectural significance of the building, a Spanish Revival style meetinghouse still operated by the Church and which is today a Texas State Historic Landmark.

Barbara Jones Brown, grad student in history at the University of Utah, presented “’A Very Pitiable Site”: Mexican Revolution, Mormon Exodus, and the Break-up of Polygamous Families.” Her abstract reads:

Beginning in 1912, when these American polygamists fled to the United States to escape revolutionary violence, they found themselves facing not only federal prosecution but also ostracism from their own, monogamous, Church members. Rather than returning to revolutionary Mexico, many refugees thus chose to break up their polygamous families and live monogamously so they could remain in the United States. A minority of polygamous families chose to return to their homes in Mexico—at tremendous risk and sacrifice—so that their families could remain intact. This paper explores these issues through the experiences of Julia Call, whose polygamous family stayed together after fleeing and returning to Mexico three times, and her mother, Louisa Done, who raised her five youngest children alone in Arizona after 1912, when her husband and his first wife returned to Utah.

With our first session concluded, we broke for lunch. During the break, several of us went out to the Douglas St. chapel that Mike had presented about, and with the kind assistance of President Murphy, took a historic tour of the building. It is truly a remarkable piece of historic architecture.

We reconvened at 1:20 pm.

John Glaser [I’m very embarrassed that I seem to have spelled your name wrong in the program. Sorry, John!], director of Hispanic leadership development at the Community of Christ, presented, “Accomodating the Voice, Struggle, and Identity of U.S. Latinos within Latter Day Saintism’s Larger Narrative: Exploring the Community of Christ’s Experience.” From John’s abstract:

Evangelism of the Community of Christ among Latino populations in the United States has been haltingly slow and has not produced replicable models of successful growth. The cause of this slow growth has been attributed in part to dysfunctional evangelism frameworks that unsuccessfully integrated the cultural history of US Latinos and the history of the Community of Christ. These efforts contributed to: the imposition of a false consciousness and identity among Latinos, the dismissal of the struggles confronting Latinos in the United States, and the inability of Latinos to share and exercise their own history within the larger church narrative. Beginning in 1987 the Community of Christ implemented a program known as Transformation 2000 which had among its major objective the articulation of a theology of peace and justice. An important part of this transformation has included an official statement that prescribes inquiry practices and the official use of church history.  These prescriptive practices have yet to be exercised by Latinos in their incumbent investment within the church’s historical narrative.  These prescriptive practices will be explored and evaluated for their ability to accommodate Latino voice, struggle, and identity within Latter Day Saintism’s larger narrative. From this discussion, potential modifications to the Community of Christ’s statement on history will be explored and proposed in order to facilitate growth among US Latinos. A sample narrative will be shared to demonstrate the expression of peace and justice in a hypothetical strategy to evangelize among US Latinos.

John passed out a handout with the Community of Christ’s Church History Principles and talked about efforts to relate Mormon history to the plight of marginalized peoples such as undocumented immigrants in contemporary society.

Mark Grover, subject specialist at the BYU Library, presented, “Zion, Lamanites, Outposts, and Converts: The Image of Latin America in the LDS Church.” From his abstract:

Latin America has been an interesting enigma for the Church. It’s perceived importance has fluctuated since Joseph Smith first declared that all the Americas should be considered Zion. It has been considered a place of prominence, a forgotten land, a distant outpost, and finally a mission field that has yielded such large numbers of converts that it will soon numerically represent over fifty percent of the membership of the Church. In this paper I propose to do an overview of the evolving image of Latin America during the various periods of the history of the Church. I will look at broad questions of why fluctuations of the image occurred. I will show that often that image was related to a theological definition of who were considered the chosen of Zion. This paper will provide a case study of the place of the international in the Church in general.

Elisa Pulido, poet and PhD candidate at Claremont in Religions of North America, presented “From LDS Indigenization to Reunification: Mexico’s Third Convention.” From her abstract:

From 1936 to 1946, the Mormon Church in Mexico put its proselytizing efforts aside in order to focus on a sustained reconciliation effort, which resulted in the mass reunification of a splinter movement known as the Third Convention. Given the prevalence of religious schism amongst missionary movements in Latin America, the fact that this schism occurred is not surprising. However, the reunification of approximately a third of the church membership in Mexico defies the historical trend. It is therefore appropriate to consider: why did members of the third convention come back to the main body of the Latter-day Saints? This paper argues that a conciliatory attitude on the part of the mainstream Mormon Church, and a commitment to sharing resources and rebuilding community on both sides of the divide, eventually healed the rift. The findings of this paper have been influenced by the availability of interview subjects, who were Mormon missionaries in Mexico from 1945 to 1948.

My presentation, entitled, “Gender and Mormon Worship in Early 20th Century Mexico” dealt with Ammon Tenney’s work to reopen the Mexican Mission in 1901 and how a pivotal part of his efforts focused on the role of Mexican women in worship services and how he approached and directed their religious devotion.

After a brief break, Barbara Morgan, assistant professor of Church History and Doctrine at BYU, presented “Academia Juarez and Bilingual Education in Mexico. From her abstract:

Academia Juarez was established in 1897 by members of the LDS Church who left the United States for religious reasons, a major one being the practice of polygamy.  Over the years, the school has evolved from an English-speaking school, primarily serving the colonists’ children, to a bilingual Spanish and English school serving a much broader community, composed of the colonists and many locals, now converted to the Church.  The mission statement of the Juarez Academy is ‘to prepare students to serve as bilingual leaders through balanced spiritual, academic, technological, physical and cultural education.’  Due to the overwhelming evolution of the student body and faculty in the school in terms of cultural and language background, much emphasis has been placed by the leaders of the LDS Church to improve the English communication abilities of the students in order to help these students take their role as leaders both in Mexico and throughout the world.  In recent years the Church Educational System has implemented a new language learning program into the school.  This paper is a description of the implementation process of this language learning system and the difficulties and successes associated with this process including cultural biases, language difficulties, funding, misunderstanding in leadership between the United States and Mexico, human resource strains, and perceived Mormon culture.

JI’s own Ed Jeter, MA in American history and current physics instructor, presented “The Central States Mission: A Transnational, Mormon Space, 1885-1915.” Edje posted a  summary of his paper on Sunday.

Finally, Dr. Daniel Herman, professor of history at Central Washington University, presented “The Mormon Legacy of Arizona’s Rim County War.” I wish we’d had a whole hour to devote to his paper, but in short, one of the points he discussed was how  the differing participation of LDS familes, such as the Flakes, in violence during the Arizona Rim County Wars contrasted with the non-participation of other LDS families and how these differing approaches help us understand the political trajectories of descendants of those families in the present as either predominantly Democratic (such as the Udalls) or predominantly Republian (such as the Flakes).

At this point, it was 4:30 pm, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief that things seemed to have gone well and that I could basically sit back and relax for the final leg of the day. Two separate counts put the crowd in the course of the conference at 75-100, which was much higher than any conference session I’ve participated in in recent memory, including the last MHA session I presented at.  Pictures from the conference at the Mormon Exodus Facebook Page. A group of us headed out to a local Mexican restaurant for dinner. After dinner, we made our way to the UTEP Union Cinema where, I’m guessing, over two hundred gathered.

Mayor Cook provided opening remarks and entertainment when he took out his guitar and sang a rendition of “This Land is Your Land” but with the lyrics, “El Paso’s Your Land, El Paso’s My Land…” Then, President Murphy presented Mayor Cook with seven (I believe) generations of his family history. A choir of local LDS Church members sang “Come, Come, Ye Saints.” Which set the stage for Richard E. Turley Jr.’s remarks about life in the Mormon Colonies and the Exodus. Turley’s presentation drew from personal writings and reminiscences, which made for a colorful, intimate, and even humorous presentation. It was then time for the premier of the documentary. There are a couple of minor points in the course of it that I’d quibble with, but those aside, I think this has to be one of the best produced, best written, best edited short (30 min) documentaries on a Mormon topic that I have ever seen. “Finding Refuge in El Paso” integrates the story of the Mormon colonies with that of the Mexican Revolution and tells the story of the flight to El Paso and the ways in which the citizens of El Paso rendered aid to the refugees. The documentary utilizes historic photographs, interviews with local and other historians (including myself, making my on-screen talking head debut), descendants of the refugees, and also decades-old audio interviews with colonists that made the trip. Particularly impactful is a statement of gratitude by President Henry B. Eyring of the LDS First Presidency at the end to the people of El Paso. It is available at the Museum gift shop, the UTEP bookstore, or online at Cedar Fort or Amazon. I highly recommend you see it. After another number by the choir and brief remarks by Fred, the Fort Bliss First Armored Division Band played three pieces, two known to have been played for the Mormon refugees (and the third believed to have been) by the Fort Bliss band 100 years before. Pictures from the commemoration at the Mormon Exodus Facebook Page. 

Perhaps the most rewarding part of all of this, to me, was to hear bits and pieces of conversations throughout the day between presenters and others, conversations which indicated plans for future projects and collaborations. This was one of my hopes in preparing the conference—to help build connections and community.

Finally, I want to share an exchange I had with a local newspaper reporter who sent me a few questions about the conference. To my knowledge, a story was never produced as it shuffled from one reporter to another, so I’ll post the questions and my answers here:

Q. Tell me about your interest in hosting this conference, why are you doing it, and why do you think it’s important?

Unsurprisingly, much of the material in this year’s news cycle that talks about Mormonism is based on observations of U. S. Mormons and the function of Mormonism in U. S. society. We can easily forget that the Mormon story becomes even richer and more complex as you start approaching and crossing borders. One purpose of this conference is to take steps toward contemplating that richness and untangling some of that complexity by exploring the history of Mormons in the U. S.-Mexico borderlands and Latin America. The last ten or so years have seen a flourishing of academic work on Mormonism in the United States; work that has better contextualized the Mormon story, and which has also shown how Mormons have played a role in shaping the larger course of U. S. history and culture. Similarly, the study of Mormons in Latin America and the borderlands has great potential for helping us better understand Latin American history and its intersections with U. S. history. Though barely scratching the surface, this conference aims to draw increased attention to the possibilities inherent in academic work on Mormon history in these understudied contexts. It also seeks to foster a sense of community and collaboration among scholars interested in this history.

Q. Was it challenging to find speakers on this topic or is there a lot of awareness and interest in this aspect of Mormons’ history?

The response to the initial call for papers was better than I expected> Nearly a dozen other presenters expressed interest in participating but could not, largely due to logistical issues. In addition, since setting the schedule, I have been in contact with several religious scholars in Mexico and South America who are actively studying Mormonism in a Latin American context. So, there is a certain level of awareness, but though some excellent work has been done, the corpus of published histories pales in comparison to that which has been produced about Mormonism in the U. S. So, much remains to be done.

Q. What is the most interesting thing you learned in putting this conference together?

This has been a learning experience in terms of understanding the investment that different groups have in Mormonism’s history and the challenges involved in telling that history.

Any lingering questions may be sent to: Or you can visit (and thanks to Keith Erekson for providing the web space and managing the formatting as well as the Mormon Exodus Facbook Page).

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