Latter-day Saints have been interested in South America almost from the beginning of the Restoration. In 1833, Joseph Smith prophesied to a small group of priesthood bearers gathered in Kirtland, Ohio: “Brethren . . . you know no more concerning the destinies of this Church and kingdom than a babe upon its mother’s lap. You don’t comprehend it. It is only a little handfull of Priesthood you see here tonight, but this Church will fill North and South America it will fill the world.” He continued to prophesy that from a stronghold in the Rocky Mountains the Saints would “open the door for the establishing of the Gospel among the Lamanites” (Woodruff, 57). Then in 1844, the Prophet declared that “the whole of America is Zion itself from north to south” (TPJS, 362).
Elder Joseph Fielding Smith linked an Old Testament prophecy to the Americas when he suggested that Isaiah’s declaration of “Woe to the land shadowing with wings” (Isa. 18:1) would be better translated, “Hail to the land in the shape of wings” (Signs, 51). President Spencer W. Kimball tied all these thoughts together as he reminded the Saints in Brazil and Argentina that “Zion was all of North and South America, like the wide, spreading wings of a great eagle, the one being North and the other South America” (4).
South America needed to be prepared for the preaching of the gospel and the establishment of the Church. Elder Ezra Taft Benson saw the hand of the Lord in this process: “In the decade prior to the restoration of the gospel, many countries of South America fought wars of independence to free themselves from European rule.” Their independence was further protected by the inspired 1823 proclamation of the United States known as the Monroe Doctrine, declaring that there should be no further colonization in the Americas by the European powers (31). Finally, the divinely inspired Constitution of the United States (D&C 101:80) became the pattern for the written constitutions in most other American countries.
The Church’s first contact with South America came in 1851. Elder Parley P. Pratt was appointed to preside over the “islands and coasts” of the Pacific, with headquarters at San Francisco. From there he sailed to Valparaiso, Chile, arriving 8 November. Even though South America had already gained independence from Europe, revolutions continued in many areas, including Chile. These conditions diverted the people’s attention from an interest in religion. Furthermore, despite diligent efforts, Elder Pratt did not succeed in learning Spanish. On 2 March 1852, he left Chile for home, lamenting that he had to depart “without a sufficiency of the language to turn the keys of the Gospel as yet to these nations” (Pratt, 371, 397).
The next contact did not come for three quarters of a century. In 1925 two German families residing in Argentina wrote to the First Presidency, asking for missionaries to come and establish the Church. In response, Elder Melvin J. Ballard of the Council of the Twelve, together with Elders Rey L. Pratt and Rulon S. Wells of the First Council of the Seventy, were sent to Buenos Aires. On Christmas Day, in the beautiful Tres de Febrero Park, Elder Ballard dedicated South America for the preaching of the gospel. For nearly eight months he and his two general authority missionary companions “walked the streets of Buenos Aires giving out two hundred to five hundred handbills every day but Sunday, inviting the people to learn the message of the Restoration” (Ballard, 13).
As Elder Melvin J. Ballard was addressing a small congregation during a testimony meeting in Buenos Aires on 4 July 1926, he felt prompted to share a prophetic vision about the future in South America: “The work of the Lord will grow slowly for a time here just as an oak grows slowly from an acorn. It will not shoot up in a day as does the sunflower that grows quickly and then dies. But thousands will join the Church here. It will be divided into more than one mission and will be one of the strongest in the Church. The work here is the smallest that it will ever be. The day will come when the Lamanites in this land will be given a chance. The South American Mission will be a power in the Church” (quoted in Ballard, 13).
One aspect of Elder Ballard’s prophecy was fulfilled in 1935 when the original mission was divided to form the separate Argentine and Brazilian missions. The work in both countries had begun among German immigrants; with the coming of World War II, however, both governments discouraged the use of German in public meetings, so the missionaries shifted their emphasis to the larger Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking majorities. This change opened the way for greater growth. In 1936 there were only 329 members in South America, but by 1945 there were 1,200 even though no missionaries arrived during World War II.
The postwar decades witnessed an acceleration of Church growth. In 1956 the first missionaries were sent to countries along the western coast of South America; significantly, this is where those of Lamanite heritage are found in greater numbers. On 1 May 1966 Elder Spencer W. Kimball, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, organized the first stake in South America at Sao Paulo, Brazil. The second was organized in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 20 November of that same year.
It is interesting to compare the Church’s growth worldwide during its first 75 years with the growth in South America during a comparable period. In 1905 the Church had a membership of 322,779; at the beginning of the year 2000, after three-quarters of a century of growth, South America had 2,464,785. In 1905 the Church had four temples, all in Utah; by the year 2000 there were 13 temples announced or completed in South America. In 1905 there were 55 stakes, all in the Intermountain West; at the beginning of the year 2000 there were 560 stakes in South America.
South America could never become a power in the Church without being “endowed with power from on high” (D&C 95:8). President Wilford Woodruff prophesied that temples would “appear all over this land of Joseph, North and South America” (JD, 19:230). The fulfillment of this prophecy for South America began with the dedication of the temple in Sao Paulo on 30 October 1978. Three more temples were dedicated during the coming decade: Santiago, Chile, in 1983, and Lima, Peru, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1986. Eight more were announced during the 1990s: Cochabamba, Bolivia; Recife, Campinas, and Porto Alegre, Brazil; Bogota, Colombia; Caracas, Venezuela; Guayaquil, Ecuador; and Montevideo, Uruguay. In the year 2000 a temple was announced for Asuncion, Paraguay.
As prophecies have been fulfilled, South America has become a land of power in the Church.
Ballard, M. Russell. “The Kingdom Rolls Forth in South America.” Ensign 16 (May 1986): 12-15.
Benson, Ezra Taft. “A Witness and a Warning.” Ensign 9 (November 1979): 31-33.
Journal of Discourses [JD]. 26 vols. London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854-86. 19:223-30.
Kimball, Spencer W. Conference Report (April 1975): 3-9.
Peterson, John D. “History of the Mormon Missionary Movement in South America to 1940.” Master’s thesis, University of Utah, 1962.
Pratt, Parley P. Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt. Edited by Parley P. Pratt Jr. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1966. 371-403.
Smith, Joseph. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (TPJS). Selected by Joseph Fielding Smith. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1963.
Smith, Joseph Fielding. The Signs of the Times. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1964.
Tuttle, A. Theodore. “South America . . . Land of Prophecy and Promise.” Improvement Era 66 (May 1963): 352-96.
Woodruff, Wilford. Conference Report (April 1898): 57.
CARLOS E. AGUERO
From Arnold K. Garr, Donald Q. Cannon, and Richard O. Cowan, eds., Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000), 1161-64. Used with the permission of the Deseret Book Company. Copies prohibited by law.