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The Biggest Little Mormon Country in the World

ISSUE:  Fall 2007

The Very First Saint in South America

On September 5, 1851, less than a decade after Joseph Smith, founding prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, died at the hands of a violent mob in Carthage, Illinois, Apostle Parley P. Pratt boarded the steamboat Henry Kelsey in the port of San Francisco, and set sail for Chile. Pratt, ordained by Joseph Smith himself in 1935, left his native land with the same objective that had inspired millions of other missionaries throughout the ages: “to open the door of every nation and tongue, as fast as the way is prepared and the Lord directs, for the preaching of the gospel of salvations.” With him was his eighth plural wife, Phoebe Sopher, several months pregnant at the time, and missionary Elder Rufus Allen. During their 64 agonizing days on the Pacific, the three saints diligently studied Spanish between spells of seasickness and deadening boredom. By the time they disembarked at the bustling seaport of Valparaíso, they had little command of the language. They were, however, entranced by the countryside in full bloom, which inspired Apostle Pratt to wax poetic from his tiny rented cottage on Victoria Street: “To her nest in the Andes,” he wrote in a letter to friends, “the condor retires, the winds from Magellan no longer prevail, And Sol, with the north breeze returning, inspires New life on the zephyr, and love on the gale.” An intrepid man of faith, he was surely emboldened by his perilous voyage and, very possibly, the imminent birth of his next son, who would come into the world on November 30th of that year.

From Valparaíso, Parley took his brood inland to the village of Quillota, where figs and plum grew plentifully under the blinding January sun. After discovering a little hill with a panoramic view of the fertile valley below, he boldly declared it “one of the most beautiful scenes I ever beheld in the old or new world.” As for the Chilean people he found them to be “a neat, plain, loving and sociable people; very friendly, frank, and easy to become acquainted with.” He also found them to be “ignorant and devoted Catholics,” which likely spurred his missionary zeal. But his stalwart faith and pioneer spirit, honed during the Mormons’ long exodus in the American wilderness, were not enough to keep the delegation going in this strange new world. Sadly, little Omner Pratt died on January 7, 1852, after only thirty-seven days on earth, and his parents laid him to rest in the dissident cemetery of Valparaíso, the burial ground for non-Catholics. His grave marker, the only evidence of this first voyage to South America, is now something of an LDS pilgrimage site.

Their ideas and resources running low, the Pratts returned to San Francisco after only four months in Chile, without having converted a single soul or translated a single church document into Spanish. Pratt chalked it up to the omnipotence of Catholicism and the specter of Spanish colonialism but it was probably a language and logistics problem: Pratt’s compatriot David Trumbull, for example, had successfully started a tiny Congregationalist community in Valparaíso in the mid 1840s, and there were small but significant German and British immigrant communities of practicing Protestants as well. Their presence ultimately led to a law guaranteeing religious freedom in 1865. Hindsight, of course, is always 20/20.

Back on American soil, Apostle Pratt drafted a fiery “Proclamation Extraordinary! to the Spanish Americans,” exhorting them to complete their freedom from Spanish oppression by abandoning Catholicism. He also advised Brigham Young, the LDS’s brand-new president, to have the Book of Mormon translated into the languages that “command the influence and keys of communication with most of the nations, tribes and languages of the earth.” Unfortunately, Pratt would not live to see this dream fulfilled on account of Hector McClean, the rather inconvenient husband of his twelfth plural wife, who ended Pratt’s days in a bloody act of cuckolded vengeance.

He would no doubt be thrilled to know that the church heeded his advice. The LDS’s massive missionary program sends over 50,000 missionaries every year to travel the globe in search of converts. In any event, he certainly fathered enough children –thirty-five– to ensure plenty of future missionaries. He would probably also be delighted to know that his great-great-grandson, Elder Carl B. Pratt, is presently the Santiago Chile Area President and that there are now 593,193 baptized Mormons on the books in Chile. In global terms, this makes Chile the fifth most Mormon country in the world after the US (5,690,672 members), Mexico (1,043,718 members), Brazil (928,926 members) and the Philippines (553,121 members) —a mighty achievement considering the other four countries claim between 89 and 300 million inhabitants. Pratt would also be glad to know that his own family settled south of the border (thanks to the US’s 1890 law outlawing polygamy) and that his church spread through the Spanish colonies like wildfire: to date, Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela each have over 130,000 baptized saints; and Argentina and Peru have over 350,000 each, pushing the Latin American LDS total to over 2 million. It is clearly a massive growth region in the Mormon diaspora. Ever since the late 90s, over half of the worlds 12 million plus Mormons now live outside the US. It is an amusing irony that the spiritual organization most harshly repudiated and maligned by the US government in the nineteenth century has come to symbolize American values and the American way of life for so many foreigners, in so many corners of the world.

After Parley P. Pratt, the saints waited over sixty years to return to the southern cone, and when they did it was on the other side of the continent: Buenos Aires. Among the delegation this time around was Elder Rey L. Pratt, grandson of Parley P. Pratt. Despite Rey’s fluent Spanish, they focused their efforts on the German immigrant community in the Argentine capital, and for some ten years trudged up and down Avenida Rivadavia, Buenos Aires’s longest thoroughfare, handing out pamphlets to the passersby. The takers were few at first but they put their determination and prayers to good use. Plus, they wised up: instead of doing the usual door-to-door routine, they began holding slide shows to anyone willing to listen. With images of the church, some panoramics of Salt Lake City, and choice passages from the Book of Mormon, they realized something that Marshall McLuhan identified decades later: the medium is the message, man.

The new techniques worked like a charm—in fact they were a kind of charm, a talisman that worked 20th century wonders on people who would have otherwise had to pay money to see the moving pictures at the cinemas on Avenida Corrientes. Encouraged by this blessed reversal of fortune, the missionaries dreamed up another enterprising idea: free English classes. People dropped in for the English and stuck around for the faith. They then added baseball and basketball to their activities, and it worked. But it sure was slow going: ten years after arriving in Argentina, the saints could only claim 339 souls in all South America: 137 in Brazil and 192 in Argentina. This time around, the Mormons ascribed it to “religious indifference,” but there were other hiccups as well: in 1939 the Buenos Aires police raided the LDS mission house believing the missionaries to be Nazi agents since they proselytized largely in the German language. Then, for a time the German communities began to suspect the LDS of harboring American agents. The Mormons were befuddled and frustrated: didn’t people want to hear the Good News?

Dream Weavers: The Mormons, the Old Testament, and Manifest Destiny

To some degree or another, the Mormons have always been a beleaguered people. In the US, founding prophet Joseph Smith came of age during the Second Great Awakening, and spent his late adolescence working as a “diviner” who specialized in locating buried treasures. In March 1826 he was taken to court and found guilty of being a “disorderly person and imposter.” As such, his neighbors were not terrifically inclined to believe him when, in 1823, he received the revelation from an angel named Moroni that led him to unearth a box of golden plates inscribed with a sacred text written in “reformed Egyptian.” As per the Book of Mormon, “the book was written by many ancient prophets by the spirit of prophecy and revelation. Their words, written on gold plates, were quoted and abridged by a prophet-historian named Mormon.” As Joseph described it (and this was confirmed by nineteen witnesses who testified to having seen the golden plates), Moroni provided him with a set of “interpreters,” spectacles that would allow him to understand this ancient language. With these aids, Smith translated the texts that are now the Book of Mormon, the LDS’s most sacred scripture alongside the Holy Bible. Maybe it was his checkered past, or maybe the story was just too astounding for the residents of Palmyra, but Smith and his followers were soon driven out of town.

Being a prophet is never easy: Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed knew that, and very possibly it was with these figures in mind that Joseph heeded the revelation he received in December of 1830 and left Palmyra in the company of his followers. They arrived in Kirtland, Ohio, where they erected the very first Mormon temple, but they were soon driven out by disbelievers yet again. Their next stop was Independence, Missouri, which Smith believed to be his New Jerusalem, and declared that Jackson County was the location of the Garden of Eden. This incurred the skepticism and wrath of God-fearing Christians who were loath to believe it was anywhere but Mesopotamia, as per the Bible, and so after suffering attacks to person and property, the saints fled to Illinois, where their prophet was killed in 1844 by angry disbelievers. It wasn’t until Brigham Young, Joseph Smith’s successor, dragged his faithful to the desert of the Great Basin in the still-Mexican territory of Utah, that these religious pioneers could finally breathe easy. In 1847, they baptized the place that became their new Zion: the Great Salt Lake City.

Even after they had planted their stakes in the red soil of Utah, trouble still dogged them at every turn. Those politicians in Washington, puritans in mind and deed, did not take kindly to the eccentric practice of polygamy. This was compounded by the saints’ “self-exile from the rest of country,” which made the East Coasters skeptical about granting statehood to the Utah Territory, administered by its flamboyant governor, Brigham Young. Between 1849 and 1870, the Mormons’ self-styled State of Deseret was denied admission to the Union over and over. Finally, and despite the commandment of plural marriage in Chapter 132 of Doctrine and Covenants, the LDS handbook of officially-recognized revelations, the church banned polygamy in 1890. To get around this inconvenient law, a number of LDS families trooped over the border to Mexico, where their bountiful concept of marriage was tacitly tolerated. There, they spawned new generations of saints, some of whom enjoy prominent positions in the church today. Officially, the LDS excommunicates polygamist members, but in many parts of the world, Mormons are still associated with the practice.

The saints feel a strong connection to the Jewish experience. Their histories bear a startling similarity: two tribes, wandering through the desert. Mormon scripture actually establishes an historic link to the Jews. According to the Book of Mormon, some 600 years before Christ, God warned Lehi, a resident of Jerusalem, that his people would soon be persecuted. Lehi, says the book, was an Israelite belonging to the tribe of Manasseh—in other words, a descendant of Joseph, (and Jacob, and Abraham, and Isaac). Around 590 BC, the story goes, Lehi’s people traveled to the promised land somewhere in the Americas. There, two of Lehi’s sons attracted followers: on one side were the righteous Nephites, and on the other, the wicked Lamanites. “After thousands of years,” says the Book of Mormon, “all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.” Some time later, the Book says, a resurrected Jesus Christ appeared to the Nephites on the American continent to remind them that he was “the light and the life of the world.” There is no evidence to prove the existence of the Nephites on the American continent, nor that the Native Americans are the descendants of the Lamanites. The only place where these astounding claims can be proven, it seems, is in the realm of faith. I talked about this one day with a pair of LDS missionaries I met at a government office in Santiago while waiting on a very long line to get my visa extended. When I asked them what they made of these historically dubious and difficult-to-prove assertions, they didn’t balk at or object to my doubts at all: they just said you had to pray about it.

The notion of a Hebrew tribe in the Americas may offer one reason for the Church’s ability and desire to attract converts south of the border. None of the LDS’s sacred texts specify Lehi’s exact disembarkation point, and there are speculations that he may have landed in Mexico, or Costa Rica, or Guatemala, or–who knows?–maybe even Chile. This mystery is delightfully explained by travel professionals in Guatemala and Peru who offer tours of Mayan and Incan archaeological sites for Mormon travelers wishing to learn about the “parallels” between the pre-Colombian civilizations and their LDS forebears.

According to David Knowlton, an associate professor of Anthropology at Utah Valley State College whose masters and doctoral work in Latin America focused on religious minorities, the LDS “takes local geography and local history and sacralizes it in the Mormon context, to make it part of LDS history.” Indeed: a number of LDS historians and archaeologists are working hard to trace the itineraries of the ten lost tribes of Israel, in an effort to establish a more concrete link between the LDS church and the tribe of Joseph. After all, those other landing spots could be quite a providential tool for LDS missionary efforts. Mainstream Egyptologists and historians may find this research disturbing, but believers will usually just tell you what those missionaries said to me: you’ve got to have faith.

Chile and the LDS: A Match Made in Heaven?

Beyond the dream that Chichén Itzá or Machu Picchu might be sacred LDS sites, beyond the biblical parallels, the LDS appeal also exists in the here and now. Take the temples: all around the globe, Mormon temples are hulking white specimens of spectacular, aggressively American-style architecture, with American-style fences and American-style landscaping. Atop their steeples stands a gold-drenched Moroni trumpeting his message to all and sundry. “The LDS architecture,” David Knowlton remarked to me during a phone conversation, “reflects the notion of an international church that is American in focus, offering the spiritual model of an empire all over the globe.” For people who want in on the American Way of Life, the LDS church seems like the place to go.

In Chile, this has always been a significant propaganda tactic: in Santiago, the LDS temple looms large on an ample chunk of real estate in Providencia, one of Santiago’s posher neighborhoods. For some members of the Chilean middle class (as opposed to the poorer classes that are more seduced by Chile’s charismatic, home-grown evangelical churches) the LDS world may represent an upwardly mobile, American lifestyle filled with American-style opportunities that other religions in Chile cannot offer. David Knowlton describes it as an “international mobility structure,” an apt term that identifies the three main attractions of the church: travel, mobility, and structure. To be encouraged to travel (and, in some cases, have the LDS subsidize it) is a thrilling prospect for anyone, especially someone earning the equivalent of $750 a month. And as for mobility, the prospects for it in Chile can only be described as grim: skin color and last name are the kinds of things that can determine whether you work as an office drone on the 10th floor, or upstairs with the waspy looking executives who look remarkably like American preppies.

Therein lies another element of the LDS appeal: foreigners visiting Chile, especially those who have traveled through places like Bolivia and Peru are often surprised at how all-American it feels here. The big Jumbo supermarket up at the Alto Las Condes shopping mall is much fancier than my local Gristedes on 24th Street and 9th Avenue, and as big as any Sam’s Club. On swanky Avenida Alonso de Córdova, lined with galleries and shops selling Alvar Aalto chairs you could almost be lulled into thinking this is Greenwich, Connecticut. The only difference is, if the people here are religious at all, they are probably Catholics. In Chile, members of the golf-and-ski set tend to be right-wing Catholics, many of them members of exclusive sects like the Opus Dei or Legionaries of Christ. The LDS church, in contrast, offers an alternative hierarchy through which people may rise and achieve a kind of status that is exceedingly difficult in the Catholic world here. Jon Krakauer, author of Under the Banner of Heaven, states that Joseph Smith’s “inspired re-working of the traditional Christian narrative had much to do with the religion’s rapid growth. Many Americans were dissatisfied with the calcified religions of the Old World.” In Latin America—especially in class-conscious Chile—this may be true as well.

The small-town American structure of the LDS, with its manageably-sized wards and stakes, as well as its focus on family and community, may be another plus. Sure, Chileans may have a tough time ditching the booze, coffee, and cigarettes but they get an awful lot of support, which may be where the Catholic church has failed. In 1907 barely 2% of the population in Chile was non-catholic; now, that figure is up to 20% thanks to the evangelical churches, the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others. According to Arturo Fontaine, director of the Centro de Estudios Públicos and author of a study of the Chilean Evangelical community, the Catholic church may espouse family values, but it “has not had success in transmitting these notions.” Despite their very different origins, and their slightly different target audiences, the Mormons and the Chilean evangelicals offer somewhat similar spiritual programs of revelation, empowerment, and family-oriented faith that are far more meaningful than the hierarchical offerings of the European Catholic tradition.

I’ve Got You, Babe: Pinochet and the Mormons

There is another reason for those big Mormon numbers in Chile. As with everything here, politics has something to do with it. In Chile, you are either on the left or on the right: Pinochetista or Izquierdista. Politics is a topic that has kept and continues to keep the country divided down the middle. Mindful of its own good fortune during some of Chile’s darkest years, and slightly sheepish about a few overezealous declarations and dictatorship-era photo opportunities, LDS authorities rarely make public statements regarding national politics these days. Nonetheless, it is certainly political.

The ethos of Cuban Revolution made its mark on the Chilean left, which was not taken lightly by the Kennedy administration. When avowed Marxist Salvador Allende narrowly missed beating his conservative rival Jorge Alessandri in the presidential elections of 1958, the US sprung to action. As we now know thanks to both the Church Report of 1975 and the many documents declassified under Bill Clinton, the US government carried out a program of covert operations in the 1960s, all designed to thwart Allende’s rise to power—a movement the US viewed as inseparably linked to the rise of Communism. The LDS, perhaps recalling its endless squabbles with the federal government in the 19th century, made no bones of its pro-America, anti-Communist stance in the 20th. Mincing no words, LDS Apostle Ezra Taft Benson called the fight against Communism “a struggle against the evil, satanical priestcraft of Lucifer” and exhorted his flock to “accept the command of the Lord and treat socialistic communism as the tool of Satan.”

After beginning its missionary efforts here in 1956 thanks to an American Kodak executive, the LDS Church had cultivated some 600 members by 1960. And the years that followed would be golden ones: as the CIA tried to foil Allende at every turn, the LDS’s average annual conversion rate rose to 37.91%. As Betsy Cramer, a journalist in Chile in the early “80s notes, it may be that a lot of Chileans decided to play it safe and stick with the winners, the spiritual cheerleaders of the American empire. By the next decade, the number of Mormons in Chile would skyrocket to over 17,000 members.

The Mormons” star only shone brighter after General Augusto Pinochet seized power on September 11, 1973. LDS missionaries literally poured into the country: under Allende the average number of missionaries in Chile was around 150; by 1977 it had ballooned past 600. As Knowlton notes, “between 1976 (three years after the coup) and 1980 the church had its highest growth rates, besides those of its first decade when the overall numbers were rather small. During this period its membership would double almost every two years. At the peak of this period, 1978, it grew by an amazing 45.49%.” By 1980 there were 90,598 saints in Chile, and by 1990 some 290,500. In other words, during the dictatorship, the LDS attracted an average of 12,000 converts per year—far more than in any other Latin American country. During this “golden age,” the LDS also built some 350 chapels in Chile.

The reasons? Aside from strictly religious considerations, people may have flocked to the Mormons to satisfy their spiritual needs without raising the eyebrows of the military government. After all, with the Catholic clergy protesting human rights abuses, the church of Rome suddenly seemed an unlikely place for peace and tranquility. As this happened, the dictatorship cultivated alliances with other religious groups, and the LDS was thrilled to be included. So thrilled, in fact, that prophet Spencer Kimball met with Pinochet in 1977, gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon as a gift, and then promptly declared Pinochet to be “one of the great leaders of Latin America.” The Chilean magazine Ercilla described this now-historic encounter in Viña del Mar as “A Pleasant Get-Together on the Sea”—and why not? It was a win-win situation: the dictator had broken bread with an American religious group that supported its anti-Communist stance, and the LDS, after all their backbreaking efforts, finally found someone who “appreciated” them. The missionaries could now preach the good news with abandon, knowing they would always be protected by the guys in green. So it was win-win. For a while.

Blowin’ in the Wind: the CIA and the LDS

Nowadays in Chile, say the word “Mormon” and the automatic word-association response is often “CIA.” Lots of people think the LDS church is a CIA cover. Can you blame them? The buildings look like bunkers, the Temple with its chambers and top-secret rituals are verboten for outsiders –e.g., if you haven’t been granted entry to the temple you can’t even go to your own kid’s wedding. No exceptions. Nevertheless, every time I approached an expert I asked the question and I always got the same answer: nothing has ever been proven. Even rabid anti-Mormons like Humberto Lagos Schuffeneger, a prominent human-rights lawyer and expert in religious minorities, grudgingly admit that there is no hard evidence. When you think about it, it does seem kind of dumb to plant CIA agents in big white American-style Mormon churches.

And well, why wouldn’t there be Mormons in the CIA? Beyond the inflammatory claims of a “Mormon Mafia” in Washington, it doesn’t take an intelligence expert to see why upstanding Mormons might make good CIA material: they are patriotic, terrific at keeping secrets, obedient and abstain from alcohol and drugs. Plus, those long missionary stints (2 years for men, 1½ years for women) mean they are good with languages, foreign cultures, and general endurance: when out on mission, they can only call mom twice a year, on Christmas and Mother’s Day.

Also, it is no big secret that Mormons have worked at the US Embassy in Chile. In 1999, when two LDS apostles made a special trip from Utah to meet with Ricardo Lagos, then-candidate for the presidency, one of matchmakers was the US embassy’s Commercial Counselor at the time, who happened to be a Mormon. In researching this article, I talked to a delightful Mormon mom of two who works part-time at the US embassy in Santiago, as does her husband who “works for the State Department.” So there are Mormons at the Embassy. And probably in the CIA, too. But there is a big difference between an informal overlap and a concerted program to filter spies through a religious organization. As sinister, secretive, and political as the LDS can be, until there is some real evidence–names, dates, and job titles–there isn’t much of a basis for this claim.

Also, as Francisco Jara points out, the CIA had plenty of other avenues for Communist-busting: for one thing, there was all that money the agency poured into the far-right newspaper El Mercurio (still the biggest, fattest paper in town), and then there were all those multinational corporations ready and willing to help out. In South America, and especially in Chile, concocting CIA conspiracy theories is a popular leisure activity but facts are facts: the Church Report very clearly states that “covert United States involvement in Chile in the decade between 1963 and 1973 was extensive and continuous,” and the LDS is not mentioned anywhere.

(Not So) Happy Together: LDS and the Democratic Transition

Nevertheless the CIA connotation, much like polygamy, has lingered. In the early 1980s, when Chile’s much-touted neoliberal economy tanked, two radical left-wing groups began attacking Mormon chapels in the middle of the night, presumably as a way of lashing out against the US. They also attacked a few McDonald’s. There were no human casualties but the LDS endured some 185 attacks between 1984 and 1990, and all of a sudden the tables were turned. Suddenly the LDS was not the safe haven it had once seemed. Even after democracy was restored, the attacks continued, possibly because of the LDS’s guilt by association. In December, 1990, for example, a bomb was planted on the occasion of a visit from then-president George Bush. And it does not seem unrelated to the fact that LDS membership has leveled off considerably since the dictatorship. As David Knowlton points out, from its heyday in the late ‘70s, the LDS dipped about 10 percentage points in the 1980s, and by the 1990s the annual growth rate had dwindled to single digits. “Retention rates” are not looking very good, either. In the 2002 census, of 11,226,309 Chileans over 15, only 103,735 identified themselves as Mormon, compared with almost 8 million Catholics and 1.7 million evangelicals. When I mentioned this to the people at the Press Office at LDS headquarters in Santiago, I was told that the 539,193 saints in Chile, as noted on the LDS web site, referred to the number of baptized members, not people who are active in the Church—a generous form of identifying “members.” Also, there have been, are, and always will be people who flock to the LDS believing that a big, rich American church will give them a leg up in the world, but when they find out its not quite so easy to hook up with that cushy job at LDS headquarters, they take off.

As for those low Census numbers, 103,735 is a pretty far cry from 520,202—the number of members the Church had accounted for by the last day of 2001. The LDS may well be over reporting its success in Chile. But why? Well, it just seems like such a perfect fit. Chile is still the Latin American economic miracle, and its citizenry is known for being conservative, rule-oriented, and law abiding—you can’t even bribe cops here. Santiago’s uptown looks like any other American city—busy with workaholics by day, and pretty dead at night. It’s not a party town like Buenos Aires or Rio (which doesn’t have a temple), and these qualities are valuable to a conservative, rule-oriented, law-abiding church. But it may not be enough.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the LDS discontinued some 40 stakes and David Stewart, the Mormon behind The Cumorah Project, a non-LDS affiliated web site that publishes global LDS statistics, told me that the number of regular church attendees in Chile is an underwhelming 57,000. There also appear to be 200,000 names in the “lost addresses” file, which seems odd given the Mormons’ assiduous record-keeping of the dead. Finally, if you flip through the pages of the 2006 Church Almanac, which has photos and bios of LDS General Authorities, you sure don’t see much of anything but white Americans in suits: the only non-American Apostle is a Czech-born German, and of the First Quorum of the Seventy, there are two Brazilians, two Uruguayans, one Mexican, and one Guatemalan, but not a single Chilean, which seems odd given those high numbers. There has been talk of a crisis in leadership—after all, the maximum LDS authority is not even a Chilean. It is, rather providentially, none other than Elder Carl B. Pratt, the Mexican-born great-great grandson of old Parley P. Pratt. Elder Carl may well have been brought in to help steer the Church toward better, or at least, more significant numbers, as was the case with his predecessor, Elder Jeffrey Holland.

Seeing is Believing: My Own LDS Experience

After so many statistics, there comes a moment when you need to see things for yourself.

This is how I found myself sitting outside the Public Affairs office at Chile’s LDS headquarters on a leafy cobblestoned avenue in Providencia. I was a little nervous. I had arrived ten minutes late for a 4pm meeting, and the instant I walked into the place, I suddenly felt as if I had been transported back to the US, where punctuality actually means something. Barely seconds after checking in with the guard on duty, a tall Romanian man peered out from a little office, and ushered me into a small waiting room. I sat down and promptly started leafing through an oversized book filled with crystal-clear photos of Mormon temples scattered around the globe, gleaming under a radiant sun. Fidgeting slightly, I suddenly tried to remember if I had told anyone where I was going to be that afternoon, just in case—of what, I had no idea. Nothing was wrong, nobody was out of line, ever, in any way, but I would be lying if I said that the LDS world didn’t give me the creeps. The very religious always unnerve me, since they are sincere believers, and I am not, despite the great temptation. Rock-solid faith—especially in this religion—makes me very skeptical, because I see a lot of fiction in the Book of Mormon (and the Bible, too, for that matter), and I have a hard time seeing beyond it, even though every religion, to some degree, is informed by plenty of fiction and myth.

After a few minutes more of sweaty palms, I was whisked upstairs to a more spacious room with a round table, three or four chairs, and not much else aside from a framed picture of a man with long hair and flowing robes that was a cross between Burt Lancaster and Charlton Heston. Jesus, of course. After shaking hands with public affairs director Elder Gonzalo Sepúlveda, and his assistant Ionut Finaru, a Romanian volunteer in from Brigham Young University, I explained the reason for my visit. Smiles all around. Slightly tight, slightly mistrustful smiles. But smiles. For the next half hour, Elder Sepúlveda, a cagey-eyed man dressed in the regulation LDS uniform of dark suit and bright white shirt, stared me down without saying much, letting his slightly friendlier underling do the talking. And boy did Ionut talk: for a full hour and a half he got me up-to-speed on LDS basics, then took me on a little tour of the building so I could check out the Missionary offices, which had big maps on the walls and little passport-sized photographs of all the missionaries in the region. Then he loaded me up with LDS pamphlets and books, including the Book of Mormon. Grateful, I told him I would be glad to return the Book of Mormon, since it was an awfully nice-looking edition with gold-edged pages, but he just looked me in the eye, shook my hand and thundered, “No—it’s a gift. But I only ask one question of you: I want you to promise me you’ll read it.” This was not unexpected: I have spent long hours in the company of enthusiastic Opus Dei numeraries who, when trying to save my mortal soul, often used similar interpersonal techniques: penetrating stares, enthusiastic handshakes, and an answer for just about everything.

Still, I took a shine to Ionut, who was a slicker dresser than the usual Mormon, and extremely efficient to boot. He was also pretty amenable, at least until the Rodolfo Acevedo incident. Rodolfo Acevedo is known around town for being the “unofficial historian” of the Mormon church in Chile. A longtime saint, he has written extensively on the matter (his writing is frequently cited by LDS scholars), and I was keen to meet him, but since the LDS Chile site is a little light on basic information (eg., no names, no numbers), I asked Ionut if he could help. He obliged, but when I trotted into the office for our next appointment, something was different. Ionut was cold. He was dismissive. As he tended to the phone and other pressing matters, I slouched down in a chair and idly looked around: pretty typical. Modular wood desks of the OfficeMax variety piled high with manila folders, photos on the walls. At the far end of the office, three older white men in almost-identical suits smiled out at me from a framed photo hanging above a PC workstation, and behind a round conference table where I sat was a wall covered, Carnegie Deli style, with photographs of Saints hobnobbing with sinners: the dean of the University of Chile, the editor in chief of El Mercurio, a few congressman, a government minister or two, even Luisa Durán de Lagos, former first lady, enjoying a photo opportunity on a visit to Salt Lake City. Everything seemed great, everyone smiled in this little two-dimensional wall world.

But not Ionut. After a few minutes more, I asked him about Acevedo. That was all it took: the mere mention of the name made Ionut’s eyes start flashing, and he told me that he had indeed located Elder Acevedo and relayed my message, but Elder Acevedo had no interest in meeting me. It seems that he had gotten burned by one too many journalists, and he clearly explained this at length to Ionut, who was kind enough to give me the abridged version of their conversation. When the word “pigs” entered the story, I got the feeling it was hopeless, so I decided to give up on ever meeting Acevedo.

Next, I asked him what he made of the LDS’s image as an “exclusive and exclusionary” organization, as Humberto Lagos Schuffeneger had put it. Pulling out a sheaf of thank-you notes from dozens of charitable organizations with which the LDS has collaborated, Ionut gave me a withering look. He was “so sick” of that question. Very frequently, he informed me, the LDS is simply not invited to ecumenical events, despite his office’s active efforts to reach out to the evangelicals, the Jews, the Catholics—anyone.

“We have a big database full of the information—senators, diputados [congressmen], government people—we invited them to the temple dedication, for example. We invite choirs all the time and do presentations, But they never come.” It is not easy being Mormon.

Later that week I decided it was time to meet a real-life Mormon, someone unrelated to the LDS administration. Through the intercession of a friend I managed to get my hands on the cell phone number of Patricia, a member of the Las Condes ward. I called her and she suggested we meet close to the Las Condes stake headquarters, where she had to collect her daughter later that day. As I raced up Apoquindo, past the department stores, bank headquarters, and the military academy that recently hosted Augusto Pinochet’s lavish military funeral, I located the corner with the Pizza Hut where we had agreed to meet. Not long after, I spotted her emerging from the shadows on Flor de Azucena street. Dressed in a peach-colored shirt and sandblasted denims, her hair a jumble of chestnut brown and streaked highlights, she came as something of a relief after Ionut’s New York ad exec look, or Elder Sepúlveda’s Mormonwear. After introducing ourselves we walked into the stake headquarters, past a roomful of LDS tweens learning how to make sushi from an effervescent–and surprisingly sexy–Argentinian saint in her early thirties wearing a tee and flipflops.

There was a lot to like about Patricia, most of all her gentle smile that didn’t break out with quite the frequency or fervor of many of her fellow Mormons, whose pearly whites had long since begun to grate on my nerves. Sitting side by side at a pew, we talked about the church as I snuck looks at the chapel, which was pretty standard looking—just a little cleaner, a little shinier, and sans iconography. People stopped to chat occasionally, or else rumbled past us with cans for food drives, or kids in tow for some Church-related activity in one of the buildings many community rooms. Nothing to write home about. Patricia told me a bit about herself—she is a single mother, active in the LDS singles group, friends with Mormons and non-Mormons alike—and described her participation with the church as active but by no means all-consuming. As I asked her questions about tithing (yes, they follow up), the Mormon temple garments (yes, many people wear it), and the no-alcohol policy (well. . .) she suggested I come with her to services that Sunday. I readily accepted.

On Sunday at 9:30 sharp I returned to Flor de Azucena street. At the gate were two bright-eyed, long-skirted American missionaries, who I chatted with until Patricia turned up. As we walked into the 2 ½ hour spectacle, the soft strains of Silent Night wafted through the morning air. The sanctuary where the Sacrament Meeting would take place was a simple chapel of white walls and blond wood, with a small proscenium where, Patricia told me, the ward authorities sat. As I sat there watching the Sunday momentum build—married couples trudging in with babies and toddlers, older women giving each other friendly hugs, organizer-types running to and fro—I noticed that the room did not fill up as dramatically as it had at the Pentecostal service I had visited the previous week, but it was certainly better attended than most Catholic masses I had been to in Santiago. But that’s what everything was here: somewhere in the middle. The people seemed neither rich nor poor, the building was neither elegant nor decrepit.

First up: stake announcements, most specifically a reminder about the “tithing settlement meetings” that every family had to attend to review their tithing accounts with their bishop or branch president. Patricia shot me a knowing, sly smile at that one—they’re good with the bookkeeping. The sacrament meeting continued as two pre-teen boys were ordained as deacons, and then two members got up, one after the other, to offer person spiritual testimonies, sort of like AA qualifications—though there didn’t appear to be a time limit here. Moms would get up and carry out the occasional screaming baby, but in general the children just sat around playing unbothered. All of it was far less solemn than a Catholic ceremony, plus the lighting was better—oddly enough, there was nothing mystical or secret here in the chapel, and I was reminded of the services I had attended a few years back at the roadside evangelical churches along the Mississippi River in Louisiana. When it came time to receive the sacrament of communion young men in shirt and tie walked around bearing trays piled high with big bread crumbs and little plastic shot glasses with water.

In less than an hour it wrapped. As the little ones were shuttled off to Sunday school, the escuela dominical for adults began, and for another half hour I listened to a schoolmarmish thirtysomething woman expound with intensity on the fire-and-brimstone topic of the week, the prophet Jeremiah. As she spoke of Jeremiah’s faith and suffering, a Merle Haggard lookalike with sideburns stood to the side with a microphone, and whenever anyone in the room raised their hand to make a comment, he would race up and down the aisles to pump up the volume. The general theme of the lesson that morning had an us-against-them motif, as teacher and students discussed the parallel between the LDS and the prophet of the day.

By the end of the lesson, I was ready to leave, but the LDS Sunday service is a three-act play and I still had one to go: the relief society meeting. During this last hour, the men go off to their “Priesthood” meetings and the women to the “Relief Society.” This was the most informal of the events, involving some prayer, some singing, some announcements, and some informal sharing. The Relief Society president, an enthusiastic blonde in a stylish black sweaterdress, took a moment to introduce me, the guest, which meant that when the meeting ended, of course, the four missionaries in the room were on me like cheap perfume.

I dedicated most of the meeting to gazing at the backs of the women in front of me, to see if I could spot any of that sacred underwear I’d heard so much about and goggled with only limited success. And yes, I did see the faint outline of those prim undergarments on a few, mostly older types. The younger set dressed with a lot more sizzle than I had expected—the sexy sushi instructor of my previous visit was outfitted today in a snug tee and shrug, and another woman sashayed in and out of the meeting room in a Diane Von Furstenberg-esque wrap dress in a shiny leopard print. Aside from the rules, the hellfire talk, and the tithing deposit slips I spotted outside the chapel, it wasn’t too earth-shattering.

In the end, I surmised, a lot of this comes down to aesthetics. Every religion in the world the earth is comprised, wholly or partially, of fictions, tales, allegories and myth. Some of our most ancient spiritual traditions revere prophets and holy men about whom precious few facts are known, and the authenticity of countless scriptural texts has been clouded by centuries of translations, transliterations, and plagiarism. As the two Mormon missionaries I met in downtown Santiago wisely said to me, it is a question of faith.

But it is also a question of politics, culture, and aesthetics. Perhaps this is what makes the non-believer titter at all those Mormon missionaries trotting the globe, but read avidly about Francis Xavier’s travels to Goa, or Augustine of Canterbury’s voyages to convert Anglo Saxon heathen. For many people, the aesthetic, the practices, the holy texts, and the imagery of the LDS church is too kitschy to take seriously. And kitsch effectively describes a lot of what might be considered the aesthetic of America, where everything is new—New York, New Mexico, New England. That newness is what makes the LDS seem appealing to some, absurd to others. Less than two centuries old, it offers us an historical advantage: it is all too easy to peer into the archives and drag out all sorts of dirty laundry about Joseph Smith—something we cannot do, say, in the case of Jesus. In every sense the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the true American religion of our time, an international enterprise that, like Microsoft or Starbucks, travels the world seeking to stamp its culture and beliefs on a new population of adherents. It seems appropriate that an empire-building religion would emerge precisely during the boon years of the greatest industrialized nation of the modern world, and as has often happened both in colonial and post-colonial periods, Latin America has found itself susceptible to the not-so-discreet charms of the American bourgeoisie. For a time, Chile was especially keen to hear the LDS’s message, and now, poised on the cusp of a new world order, there may be a communication glitch.

It is very tempting to think that the LDS in Chile just doesn’t fly under democracy. After all, the LDS church is nothing if not categorical, unyielding and tenacious. And this may not be so appealing to Chileans anymore, especially now that the LDS has so much local competition: Since 1999 over 1300 organizations have solicited legal status as churches in Chile. I learned this from Lagos Schuffeneger, a member of the Baptist church who harbors deep reservations about the LDS, calling it an “old-world sect” rather than a religion because of what he terms “exclusive, exclusionary practices,” and also because of the Mormon belief that they and only they hold the keys to the pearly gates. Lagos Schuffeneger, a voluble man with emphatic opinions, bristles somewhat at the fact that the LDS church makes no effort to adapt to Chilean society in any way, echoing David Knowlton, who seems to hit the nail on the head in a more evenhanded way: “It’s hard to put your finger on ‘American power’ in any visual way,” he said to me in a telephone interview, “and the LDS church fulfills that fear for a lot of people.” Scholars like Samuel Palma, of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, or Arturo Fontaine, director of the Center for Public Studies, who I interviewed as well, seemed a bit more bemused about the Mormons in Chile, perhaps because down here they seem such an odd, isolated little American phenomenon.

But the LDS is nothing if not big—very big. With twelve million members worldwide and growing, the Church has new temples slated for Mexico, Brazil, Panama City, Honduras, and Guatemala. It’s also possible that the LDS has set its sights on other areas that are far riper for the pickings: on, which lists temples in the planning and construction phase, one city does look rather incongruous next to Tegucigalpa, Quetzaltenango, and Curitiba. If all goes according to plan, sometime in the next few years a temple will rise in Kiev, which may begin an entirely new chapter in the book on LDS diaspora. After the Berlin Wall fell the LDS began making inroads, slowly but surely, in Eastern Europe. Their numbers aren’t great—yet—but with 56,000 missionaries trotting the globe, it shouldn’t take too long: in a decade or two there may be big white temples sprouting up in places like Dubrovnik, Croatia, and Bratislava, Slovenia, which so far boasts 127 Mormons—and counting. And if they somehow locate one of those lost tribes in Eurasia, they’ll really be in business.

And Chile? As David Stewart of the Cumorah Project pointed out in an email to me, the Church has taken steps to reclaim all those lost Mormons, and to slow down the baptisms so as to focus on quality rather than quantity in the conversion process. It remains to be seen whether Chile’s golden age of Mormonism is over, but my guess is that once the LDS plants its stake in the ground, it’s going to be around for a long, long time.


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Nathaniel's picture
Nathaniel · 7 years ago

Parley P Pratt was ordained by Joseph Smith Jr in 1835 and not 1935 (for clarity sake); great article anyway.


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