The Mexican Revolution was a decade of terrible destruction that brought a wave of changes to the Church in Mexico.
“Even though our understanding of the gospel may not be as deep as is our testimony of its truth, if we place our confidence in the Lord, we will be sustained in all of our difficulties, our trials, and our afflictions.”
~Benjamín De Hoyos
This is part 14 of a history series in connection with the Mexican Mission Hymns project.
Porfirio Díaz’s dictatorship brought peace and progress to Mexico after decades of instability and warfare, but it came with a cost. His interest in benefiting from the economy led to the promotion of foreign interests—particularly those of the United States—often at the expense of Mexicans. The poor and indigenous felt this particularly acutely. Hence, Porfirio’s regime was increasingly unpopular. Further, as he aged, he struggled to find a way to pass on the presidency to a successor of his choice in a peaceful way while dealing with discontent caused by his regime’s oppressive rule. Surprisingly, he agreed to an election in 1910, stating that he would abide by the results. This sparked a series of events that resulted in civil war for nearly a decade.
In the 1910 presidential election, Díaz was challenged by the wealthy northern landowner Francisco Madero. When Madero seemed to be actually succeeding in winning the votes of the people, however, Díaz had Madero arrested. After escaping prison, Madero called for an armed uprising in the document known as El Plan de San Luis. Rebellions broke out in Morelos and in northern Mexico that successfully resisted the Federal Army. As a result, Díaz resigned in May 1911 and went into exile. In the place of the Porfirio regime (the Porfiriato), Madero organized an interim government and then was elected in November 1911.
Peace proved fragile as different factions with different goals competed for implementing their agendas. Emiliano Zapata launched an armed rebellion in the central Mexican state of Morelos, backed by peasants who demanded rapid action on agrarian reform to help relieve conditions of poverty. Other rebellions broke out and in February 1913, Victoriano Huerta—one of Díaz’s old allies—staged a counterrevolutionary coup d’état in Mexico City. The coup resulted in Madero’s resignation and assassination. This, however, provoked even stronger reactions from revolutionary forces, leading to the bloodiest phase of the war.
Several factions emerged in the aftermath of Huerta’s ascent to power:
- Huerta had control of the Federal Army and the capitol, fighting, more or less, for a continuation of the Porfiriato. His dictatorship gained support from business interests in Mexico, the Roman Catholic Church, and the German and British governments. Despite some forms of underhanded support, the U.S. turned against Huerta and seized Veracruz to block arms shipments from Germany.
- Zapata and his followers (the Zapatistas) continued their insurrection just south of the capitol, focusing on demands for land redistribution and greater rights and economic opportunities for peasants while embracing both traditional Catholic values and Mexican nationalism (including a particularly strong hatred of foreign influence).
- Venustiano Carranza led a coalition known as the Constitutionalist Army and took on Huerta’s forces as well. The Constitutionalists advocated for universal male suffrage, secularism, workers’ rights, economic nationalism, land reform, and a centralized government.
- Francisco “Pancho” Villa led a revolutionary army from the north that allied with Carranza until Huerta’s regime ended in July 1914. After Huerta’s defeat, however, his forces turned against Carranza due to Villistas pushing a more radical agenda than the one embraced by Carranza.
With Huerta’s defeat in 1914, the war entered a new phase, with the various factions turning against each other. The Zapatistas and Villistas loosely allied against Carranza, led a Convention to form a government, and successfully seized the capitol in 1914. However, both Zapata and Villa were not particularly interested in leading the country themselves, leading to a power vacuum in the Conventionalist government. The United States felt that both Zapata’s and Villa’s factions were too radical and anti-United States, so put their support behind Carranza’s faction, recognizing his Constitutionalist government and allowing them to take control of Veracruz (and thus allowing them to receive the arms shipments that they had been holding off).
A crucial battle between Villa’s army and a Constitutionalist army led by General Álvaro Obregón in April 1915 led to the defeat of the Conventionalist forces. Carranza emerged as the victor, though instability continued in the country, with Villa and Zapata continuing to complicate the situation (including a notable raid into the United States by Villa in 1916-1917 that resulted in an incursion into Mexican territory by the United States Army). A new constitution was put in place in 1917 that guaranteed many of the rights for which the revolutionaries had fought. Emiliano Zapata died in 1919. Venustiano Carranza was forced from office and assassinated in 1920, with Constitutionalist Felipe Adolfo de la Huerta serving as an interim president until Álvaro Obregón was elected later that year. Negotiations with Villa in 1920 brokered a peace agreement and the official end of the Mexican Revolution.
How did all this affect The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mexico?
First, most people in Mexico had people in their life who were casualties during the war, and the Latter-day Saint converts were no exception. Some Mexican converts who were living in the northern colonies were conscripted in north by Villa, such as José Medina Zúñiga and Margarito Bautista (who fled the country before they were forced into the fight). Some Latter-day Saints in central and southern Mexico were protected by and fought on the side of Zapata’s army. Others, such as the somewhat famous martyrs Rafael Monroy and Vicente Morales, were sympathetic to Carranza and suffered at the hands of different factions. As one member named Rivera Soriano recalled:
One night the rebels entered our home and store plunder all the merchandize that we had and from that moment on we were pretty sad and in misery. … Those days were years of hunger and I remember we ate wheat tortillas with quintoniles [a spinach-like plant] that at that time were delicious and a great meal while others did not have even that and they starved to death.
Pretty much everyone in Mexico was affected by the Revolution in one form or another.
Second, there were elements of strong anti-United States sentiments among Mexican revolutionaries that made it unsafe for U.S. nationals to stay in the country. That included many of the colonists in Chihuahua and Sonora and the Euro-American leadership of the Church in Mexico. The beloved mission president Rey Lucero Pratt (a grandson of Parley P. Pratt) effectively ran the Church via letter during an exile abroad as a result. The aftermath of the Revolution continued to make this a problem for leadership and supplies for the Latter-day Saints in Mexico that would contribute to a schism of the Church in the 1930s. As one historian put it:
The Mexican revolution, which started in 1910, once again interrupted the work. President Pratt, his family and missionaries exited the country in 1913, again leaving seeds to wither away or take root by themselves. He selected and to some degree prepared local leaders for the challenge. This unexpected isolation was to last nearly ten years [before the missionaries returned in 1921].
Third, the Revolution drew attention to Mexico by Church leadership in the United States, and not always in a good way. As explained by Fernando Gomez:
By late 1912, the majority of Anglo Latter-day Saints had little positive to say about Mexicans. Evacuees from the colonies shared tales of depraved Mexicans of all political ilks’ threatening their lives and property. Most of the refugees went first to El Paso, then spread throughout the southwest and Utah, which brought them in contact with the majority of the LDS membership. The stories of hardship thus spread quickly.
This anti-Mexican tone was soon echoed by the Church hierarchy.
Still, a couple former residents of the country in Church leadership positions worked to counter this attitude. President Anthony Ivins, for example, spoke at the April 1912 general conference, reminding the congregation that social and religious reform generally comes with bloodshed. He said that “there is a great problem being worked out” in Mexico and that “I do not remember in the history of the world any civil reform that has ever come to it that has not been established by force of arms.” And Rey Pratt published a series of articles in the Improvement Era in 1912 and 1913 that offered explanations as to why the Revolution was happening, framing it as a just struggle of a people simply seeking for freedom rather than the standard anti-Mexican rhetoric. He reaffirmed this during the October 1916 General Conference, stating that “the Mexican people never again will lay down their arms until the people of the country have an opportunity to participate in the ownership of the country. … They have never had property, and they have never had political liberty, they have never had religious liberty. … Until the time comes that they get these things, the masses of the people, the thirteen millions of the people, will never lay down their arms.” These efforts provided a different perspective for Latter-day Saints, even while the Mexican Revolution was still unfolding and ultimately winding down.
 Benjamín De Hoyos, “Called to Be Saints,” CR April 2011, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-
 Rivera Soriano, Blas, Oral history, recorded at Amecameca, Mexico. Museum of Mexican Mormon History, 1999.
 Fernando Gomez, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Lamanite Conventions: From Darkness to Light (Mexico, A. C.: El Museo de Historia del Mormonismo en México, 2004), 11.
 Fernando Gomez, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Lamanite Conventions: From Darkness to Light (Mexico, A. C.: El Museo de Historia del Mormonismo en México, 2004), 42.
 Eighty-second Annual Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1912), 62, https://archive.org/details/conferencereport1912a/page/60/mode/1up.
 Eighty-seventh Semi-annual Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1916), 147, https://archive.org/details/conferencereport1916sa/page/n145/mode/1up.