At last came the long expected day. The people had been waiting quietly and anxiously for over an hour before the temple doors. It was Tuesday, November 6, 1945, and the Saints from the Republic of Mexico and Spanish-speaking Saints from the United States were about to enter the Arizona Temple to participate in ordinances for the first time in their native language.
But these Saints had waited much longer than this quiet hour. Years of planning and preparation, hope and faith had preceded this moment. As early as October 23, 1927, President Heber J. Grant had prayed at the dedication of the Arizona Temple:
“We beseech thee, oh Lord, that thou wilt stay the hand of the destroyer among the descendants of Lehi and give unto them increasing virility and more abundant health, that they may not perish as a people but that from this time forth they may increase in numbers and in strength and influence, that all the great and glorious promises made concerning the descendants of Lehi may be fulfilled in them; that they may grow in vigor of body and of mind, and above all in love for Thee and thy Son, and increase in diligence and in faithfulness in keeping the commandments which have come to them through the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that many of them may have the privilege of entering this holy house and receiving ordinances for themselves and their departed ancestors.”
The construction of temples on the American continent, as revealed in the Book of Mormon, dates from an early period in the Nephite history. These sacred buildings were in use among the Nephites throughout their existence as a nation. After the destruction of the Nephites, the building of temples was continued by their Lamanite conquerors.
It was not until the gospel was again restored to the earth in these latter days, however, that the true purpose of a temple dedicated to the Most High became known among the children of men. The English-speaking Latter-day Saints were the first to enjoy the blessings of the house of the Lord, since it was in this language that the ordinances were first performed. However, Lorin F. Jones, president of the Spanish-American Mission, which covered the states of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California, had a great desire to have the Church provide the members of his mission with the opportunity of receiving the temple ordinances in their own language.
In October 1943 President Joseph Fielding Smith, then a member of the Council of Twelve, was assigned to visit the Spanish-American Mission.
In the course of this visit President Smith, accompanied by President Jones, met with President Charles Pugh, of the Arizona Temple, and the presidency of the Maricopa Stake at Mesa, Arizona, concerning the matter of the temple ceremonies in Spanish. He stated, “I see no reason why the English language should monopolize the temple session. When I return to Salt Lake City, I think we may be able to discuss this matter with the members of the First Presidency.”
Sometime in 1944 the First Presidency authorized translation of the complete ceremony into the Spanish language; the work was to be done under the direction of President Antoine R. Ivins of the First Council of Seventy, with the assistance of Eduardo Balderas of the Church translating department. These brethren were requested to proceed at once in order to complete the translation far enough in advance so that everything would be in order by November 4, 1945, for on this date an excursion made up of Saints from the Republic of Mexico and the Spanish-speaking membership in the United States would gather for a temple session in the Spanish language.
The opportunity of translating the sacred ordinances within the confines of the Salt Lake Temple was, of course, a wonderful privilege and blessing to the two brethren involved, and both of them have borne humble testimony to the influence of the Holy Spirit that guided them in their challenging but enjoyable labors.
While the translation was in progress, preparations for the temple excursion were being made in the areas involved: in Mexico, under the leadership of President Arwell L. Pierce of the Mexican Mission, which at that time covered all of Mexico and part of Central America; and in the United States, under the direction of President Lorin F. Jones of the Spanish-American Mission. The Arizona Temple at Mesa was designated as the site for the historic event.
In connection with the excursion to the temple, special meetings for those who were expected to attend were also being planned. They would be held on Sunday, November 4, 1945, at the beginning of the eventful week.
In the meantime other preparations of a different type needed to be made. Almost all those who were planning to attend were persons of limited means, and in the majority of the cases it would take almost everything they had saved just to pay the cost of transportation. To the people from Mexico, this meant exchanging 12.50 pesos (the peso being their currency) for each American dollar. The food problem was solved when members of the Maricopa Stake generously offered to provide sufficient provisions for 200 people during the five or six days that they would be in Mesa, and in addition, Relief Society sisters of the stake and of the Spanish-speaking branch in Mesa offered to prepare the meals.
Then there was the housing problem. Where to accommodate the visitors? When this problem was presented to the branch leaders in Mexico, their answer was, “We have talked this matter over with our members, and they said to tell you not to worry about it. They will be happy to sleep on the floor, just so they get to Mesa.”
But this was not necessary. The stake presidency gave permission for the use of the Mezona, a large recreation hall used by the local wards and stakes for their social functions. The problem of beds was finally solved, just a short time before the people were due to arrive, by a member of the Church who offered to provide a large number of surplus army cots, mattresses, and blankets. These were arranged on opposite sides of the spacious dance floor, one side for the use of the brethren, the other for the sisters.
Beginning Friday, November 2, and continuing through all day Saturday the people arrived by bus, by private automobile, and by truck. They expressed great joy at being in Mesa and at being able to participate in the blessings of the temple in their own language. To add to their happiness, it was announced that President David O. McKay of the First Presidency and President Antoine R. Ivins, together with representatives from the general boards of the auxiliary organizations, were there.
The Saints of Mesa provided food and opened their homes to those who could not be accommodated at the Mezona. The language barrier was overcome through love, understanding, and empathy. It can be truly said that a spirit was born that day which even now reappears every time a group of Spanish-speaking saints gathers at Mesa for a temple excursion. What a fitting prelude to the events that followed!
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to describe with words the joy and gratitude that welled up in the breasts of those who filled to overflowing the small chapel of the Spanish-speaking branch on the morning of Sunday, November 4. The beauty and calm of the Sabbath morning added to the spirit that was present at that gathering.
President McKay called the attention of those present to the fact that this was a historical event of the greatest importance, for they were to have the opportunity of participating for the first time in the history of the Church in the temple ordinances in a language other than English. President Ivins, a lifelong student of the Spanish language, also spoke and bore his testimony in fluent Spanish.
A second meeting was held in the early afternoon, and many of the branch leaders from the missions had the opportunity of speaking and bearing their testimonies. That meeting closed with an impressive discourse by President McKay on the importance of keeping covenants.
Monday was spent in checking recommends, family group sheets, preparing temple clothing, etc. On Tuesday, November 6, the eager Saints were conducted into the chapel of the Arizona Temple, where an impressive and unforgettable chapel meeting was held. President McKay and President Ivins had remained in Mesa so they could be present on this momentous occasion, and both spoke at this meeting.
A group of temple workers had been called and prepared for these special sessions. During three days the ordinances, blessings, and sealings of the temple were administered to the children of Lehi in their own tongue by these devoted workers, who had made a special effort to learn in Spanish the instructions that they needed to impart. There were 124 baptisms performed for the dead, 375 endowments, 38 sealings of wife to husband, and 165 children sealed to their parents. Of those who attended the temple sessions, 69 were there to receive their own endowments.
This history-making event proved to be the inauguration of yearly excursions to the Arizona Temple on the part of the Spanish-speaking members, and these have continued to the present time. No sacrifice has been too great for these faithful members.
For two consecutive years one member from Mexico made the trip with his family after being warned by his employer that if he left without permission, which was denied him when he requested it, he need not return. On both occasions he went back to a different employer and a better-paying job.
On one of these excursions an older sister related how grateful she was that she had finally been able to go to the temple. A fruit vendor in Mexico City, she would buy from the wholesaler each morning only enough fruit for that day’s sales, because she had no refrigerator to store extra fruit. From her meager earnings she would set aside her tithing money and a small amount for the trip to the temple, and she would live on what was left. This she did for several years. One day, feeling that perhaps she had saved enough for the trip, she took a bag full of small coins to the mission office to be counted. The mission secretary found the amount was not quite sufficient, but rather than disappoint her, the elder made up the difference. She had enough for her ticket and even for a few meals.
The people of Mesa are deeply touched when they hear these stories, and they have continued to open their hearts and homes to the faithful Saints who come from so far away in order to comply with their Heavenly Father’s commandments.
This concern and kindness perhaps causes the greatest impression on the Spanish-speaking members while at Mesa, as they see their hosts receive them so willingly as guests in their homes. The fact that they speak no Spanish, nor the guests any English, has never been a deterrent to their being able to understand and mutually enjoy their brief but happy association. In many instances, when the time comes to say goodbye, the guests seek an interpreter through whom they may be able to at least express their sincere thanks to their hosts for their kindness. In return, many of the hosts have gone to someone through whom they might communicate to their guests how grateful they felt for having had the privilege of receiving them into their homes.
President McKay greeted the Spanish-speaking Saints at a special meeting at the beginning of their temple excursion in October 1955, shortly after the Swiss Temple was dedicated. “It was because of your faithfulness and diligence that we felt impressed to give to other people the opportunity of receiving these blessings,” he said. “You are serving as an example to the members of the Church in Europe; their eyes are upon you.”
In October 1958, the First Presidency called a committee that would from that time forward make all the necessary arrangements to receive, house, and feed the visitors. The First Presidency has also provided the services of Spanish-speaking patriarchs, so that the people who come to do their temple work have the privilege of receiving their patriarchal blessings in their own language.
The spirit of Elijah has indeed taken hold of the hearts of the children among the descendants of Father Lehi, and their hearts are turning more and more toward their fathers. The number of excursions has been increasing steadily. Eight will be held in 1972 and ten are planned for 1973.
A very important door was opened to these people by a loving Heavenly Father when arrangements were made between the Genealogical Society and the governments of Mexico, Guatemala, and other Latin American countries for the society to microfilm civil and church records in these countries. Copies of these microfilms are available in the branch genealogical library in Mexico City, and the members are taking advantage of this opportunity to search these records so that the work may be done for their kindred dead in the temple of the Lord.
What will be the fruits of this ever-increasing temple activity by the children of Father Lehi? Elder Spencer W. Kimball of the Council of the Twelve may well have given an answer in 1947 as the Spanish-speaking Saints gathered for their annual temple excursion. He said to them:
“As I look into the future, I see the Lamanite people rise to their great destiny. … I see the Lamanites coming into this church in great numbers, and instead of coming in small groups of tens or hundreds, they will be in the thousands. I see them organized in wards and stakes made up of Lamanite people. I see them filling the temples and officiating therein.”
The work among the children of Lehi is growing at a tremendous pace, and the influence of the great temple work that is being accomplished by these faithful Latter-day Saints, in most cases with great sacrifices, is being felt throughout the Republic of Mexico and Central America. The fruits are seen in the ever-increasing number of converts, in the stakes that are continually being organized among the people, in their activity, and in the spiritual strength that is felt so strongly among them. And the way in which they respond to the call “Vamos al Templo” (“Let us go to the temple”) bears undeniable witness of their faithfulness as members of the kingdom of God.