Missionary work in Chile began when Elder Parley P. Pratt and his group stepped ashore in 1851; but after this initial attempt, the land he admiringly described “as fertile as Eden” waited 95 years until two missionaries arrived from Argentina.
The first baptism service was held on November 25, 1956. Brother Ricardo García Silva, one of the first group to be baptized, remembers, “Just imagine it: at first there were just four of us. I knew that this was the true Church—mine was not just faith, but a conviction. But because of the teachings on the Word of Wisdom and tithing, I thought it would be impossible for the Church to succeed here. Now we attend conferences where there are hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. The Church is growing each day.”
In fact, the Church numbers approximately 22,500 members, grouped into the nine districts and 43 branches of the Chile Santiago Mission and the eight wards of the Santiago Chile Stake. Organized in 1972, the stake plans for its own stake center to complement the existing buildings—eight chapels, five Church schools, and the Church ranch—dotted throughout central and northern Chile where 90 percent of the nation’s population is clustered. Six more chapels are in the planning stages.
This vigorous growth fulfills the vision and faith of the early members. One year after the arrival of the first missionaries in 1957, five people organized the Church as a branch of the Argentine Mission.
Spreading the gospel in Chile proved to be a challenging task because of the geographical and climatic conditions; nevertheless, branches were soon thriving in Viña del Mar, Valparaíso, and Talcahuano, all in central Chile.
Héctor López, one of the first members in Talcahuano, recalls, “At first we had no place to hold meetings. For a while we met in some vacant rooms of a local union building. The rooms were in terrible shape—there weren’t any window panes and the rain came straight in on us. When we held meetings, we had to put papers over our heads so that we didn’t get soaking wet.” One of those early members was Carlos Cifuentes, first Chilean to serve in the positions of branch president, district president, and counselor to the mission president. He is now president of the Santiago Chile Stake, and he remembers “the strong feeling of brotherhood and friendliness toward those who were investigating. The first thing that the Church taught me was that I was a child of God. This surprised me more than anything else. I was just a mechanic, more in contact with grease and gasoline and iron than with God. You can imagine how surprised I was to find myself teaching a priesthood class. I had never imagined that I would have an opportunity like this—not in my entire life!”
Chile was organized as a separate mission in 1961 with 12 branches, four of them presided over by Chilean branch presidents. In 1963 the First Presidency authorized the construction of five schools which now provide educational opportunities for approximately 2,100 students, not all of whom are members of the Church. These progressive schools have an excellent reputation.
Missionary work also receives great emphasis in Chile. President Cifuentes comments, “Almost every week we hear of members who want to go on missions—not only youths, but also adults.”
Leaders identify the speed of Church growth as one of the great challenges of the Church, and the faithfulness of the members as its greatest solution. One says, “Since the regional meetings were begun in Chile in 1972 when the stake was organized, priesthood leaders from the entire country have come together twice a year in Santiago. Many of them have had to travel for as long as 48 hours by surface transportation to each of these meetings. But in spite of the difficulties, more than 90 percent of those invited have actually been present. This is a demonstration of the great faith and enthusiasm of the Chilean members of the Church.”
Royden J. Glade, president of the Chile Santiago Mission, adds, “The Chilean people are more open to the message of the gospel now than ever before. They have more time to think about things of lasting importance such as their families and religion. A feeling of hope and optimism for the future pervades the country, and our message of the restored gospel of Christ is adding to that hope.”
Chile was explored in 1536–37 by Diego de Almagro, one of Pizarro’s lieutenants who was in search of another Peru, but not colonized until 1540–41. The fierce Araucanian Indians, the “Apaches of South America,” began a resistance that lasted over three centuries, from 1553 until the 1880s, destroying a major city, Concepcíon, several times.
During the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, Chile acquired a taste for independence. In 1817, Chile won a decisive victory against the Spanish army.
Although Chile averages only 110 miles in width, it is 2,650 miles long. Superimposed on North America, it would stretch from southern Mexico to southern Alaska. About 90 percent of Chile’s approximately 10 million inhabitants live in the central portion.
Besides its mainland, Chile owns the Juan Fernández Islands, Easter Island, and a number of other South Pacific islands. It also claims a section of Antarctica.
The Andes Mountain range runs along the eastern border, towering as high as 22,835 feet at Mount Aconcaqua on the Chilean-Argentine border. A heroic-sized statue, the Christ of the Andes, stands in Uspallata Pass, immediately south of Mount Aconcaqua, as a symbol of Chile-Argentina friendship.
North Chile is the driest recorded region in the world. During a 21-year period, the city of Iquique has averaged only .06 inches (1.5 mm.) of rain annually while Arica, a town next to the Peruvian border, has less than one-half that much. In the south, however, rainfall averages 100 inches a year, and Bahia Felix, in the broken fjord country of the far south, receives a striking 216 inches annually.
Central Chile is a thriving industrial region. Huachipato, near Concepcíon in central Chile, is a steel center second only to Brazil’s Volta Redonda plant for Latin America.
About two-thirds of Chile’s people are of Spanish-Indian descent; about one-fourth are Spanish only. An estimated 2 percent of the Indian population remains unassimilated. The 19th century saw substantial immigration from other European groups: Italy, the British Isles, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, and Germany.
German immigration was especially encouraged in the mid-19th century by an open immigration policy.