In South America, the story of the Church is growth.
Evidence of that growth is the three area conferences to be held there this fall—in Montevideo, Uruguay, October 26–27; in Buenos Aires, Argentina, October 28–29; and in Sao Paulo, Brazil, November 3–5. The new Sao Paulo Temple will be dedicated October 30–November 2.
And South American people are being converted to the gospel at a rate of several thousand a month—tens of thousands a year. And as the Church grows in South America, members are faced with the challenge of keeping up with the growth.
The baptism rate in South America for 1976 was about 10,000; in 1977, it was 20,000. And by the end of 1978 it is estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 people will join the Church. “This means we’re building a lot of buildings,” says Elder Robert E. Wells of the First Quorum of the Seventy, area supervisor for Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay.
Missionary work in South America operates, ideally, on the principle of every member a missionary, he says. “Members are doing the finding of investigators. The missionaries work with the members to find investigators, but the members are really ‘fishers of men.’”
A priority in South America is to have wards and stakes divided down so that people live close to where they attend church. “Many members are paying another tithing in transportation to get to and from the meetings,” Elder Wells says. Because of transportation problems and other factors, not all wards, branches, and stakes have the full auxiliary programs of the Church, “but we’re carrying out the essentials,” says Elder Wells. “What we lack in organization is more than compensated for in spirituality and enthusiasm.”
Of course, even with a high growth rate, the percentage of persons in South America who are members of the Church is still small. In Brazil, where the Church has more than 50,000 members, the population of the country is 120 million.
However, the Church is recognized in South America. The 3,429 missionaries serving throughout South America are viewed with acceptance in most countries, as is the church they represent.
Through a member-referral system, missionaries teach friends of members. Many investigators experience spiritual conversions as they gain testimonies. While some converts “have dreams, see visions—you should hear their sweet, beautiful stories—” most are converted through study, decision, and prayer. They recognize the truth of the gospel “without any thunder and lightning,” Elder Wells says.
Elder Grant Bangetter of the First Quorum of the Seventy, area supervisor for Brazil, says that the member-missionary approach to missionary work could “almost explode the growth of the Church” in Brazil.
The caliber of people in the Church affects the growth of the Church, he explains. “We’re finding men of great stature and excellent ability in many positions of leadership. Some of them have fine connections in the social, government, and professional circles. We have reasonably large numbers of professional men in leadership.”
In the history of the Church in South America 1974 and 1975 were landmark years.
On 1 February 1974, South America got its first five stakes—Buenos Aires Argentina, Sao Paulo Brazil, Santiago Chile, Lima Peru, and Montevideo Uruguay. In 1975, area conferences were held in Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires. At the Sao Paulo conference, President Spencer W. Kimball announced plans for a temple at Sao Paulo—the first Latter-day Saint temple in South America.
The creation of the stakes did not come easily, however; Saints and missionaries in South America labored in years of diligent service to baptize new members and build meetinghouses.
The history of a ward in Ipomeia, Brazil, shows the dedication and spirituality of many South American members of the Church. The ward’s history began in Bremmer, Germany, in the early 1900s, when ten-year-old Robert Lippelt told his sister of an experience he had. While the boy, who was critically ill, was in bed, he saw his grandparents—dead for four years—standing in his room. He said they told him he would die in two days, and that his older sister, Augusta, would be taken to a church by a woman, and that church was the one she should join.
Two days later, Robert died. The following Sunday, as Augusta and her younger brothers were on their way to attend a church, a woman stopped them and invited them to attend church with her—and that morning the Lippelt children attended their first Latter-day Saint Sunday School. The children and their mother were soon baptized.
Her husband, antagonistic to the Church, wanted to move his family away from Mormon influence. He first chose Mexico, until he learned of Church colonies there. He considered several countries and finally selected Brazil, where the Church did not exist. In 1922 the family sold their belongings and moved to Porto Alegre in Southern Brazil. A year later they moved northward into the sparsely populated hills of Santa Catarina. Lippelt was pleased; he was sure this was the last place in the world the Mormons would come.
It wasn’t. One day, as Augusta walked into the city of Ipomeia, five miles from her farm home, she met a well-dressed man who, she learned, was president of the South American Mission. He was looking for members of the Lippelt family, at the request of President David O. McKay.
The branch grew steadily in spite of the sparse population. Even when the church was closed briefly during World War II, the members remained strong. Lippelt, who became seriously ill and paralyzed, studied the gospel and was baptized. His son and son-in-law carried him into the water to be baptized; he walked away from the baptism under his own power.
In March 1959, Elder Spencer W. Kimball of the Quorum of the Twelve dedicated the first chapel constructed in Brazil—in Ipomeia. It was one of two modern pieces of architecture in the city—the other was a bridge.
Many members of the rural town and branch moved to larger cities along the Atlantic Coast, where greater opportunities existed. As Church membership grew there, it declined in the Ipomeia Branch. Church population now is heaviest near the seacoast, and much missionary work is done there. Although the Ipomeia branch now has only forty-five members, Church leaders from Ipomeia are scattered throughout Brazil.
Brother Charles Blind, nephew of Augusta Lippelt and the current president of the Ipomeia branch, is not discouraged by the small numbers. Elder Kimball’s words at the chapel dedication, when he was eight years old, have planted in him a desire to live a worthy life.
The words he remembers best from that occasion were from the dedicatory prayer, which stated that though the chapel was full at that time, the members would go through difficult times when their numbers would be few. They were told to have faith, however, for the day would come when the chapel again would be full.
Today, as the Church grows in South America, and as many native missionaries spread the gospel among their own people, that day is close at hand.
The Ensign is grateful for the assistance of Elders Scott L. Bartlett and Eric D. Walton of the Brazil Porto Alegre Mission, who helped research this article by interviewing members of the Ipomeia Branch.