History of the Church in Colombia

David R. Crockett

In 1961, two years after the opening of the Andes Mission with headquarters at Lima, Peru, President J. Vernon Sharp and his wife were instructed to visit Bogota, Colombia to investigate the possibilities of beginning missionary work there. At that time it was felt wiser to concentrate missionary efforts in Peru. During the term of President J. Avril Jesperson, the decision was made that the time had come to begin work in Colombia. The Jespersons and the first two missionaries, Elders Randall Harmsen and Jerry Broome, went to Bogota with Elder Spencer W. Kimball.

At a meeting with American LDS families living in Colombia on May 11, 1966, in a secluded spot in a Bogota park, Elder Spencer W. Kimball dedicated the country for the preaching of the gospel. Speakers at the service pointed out that it was perhaps the first official Church meeting in Colombia since Book of Mormon days. Harold M. Rex, a U.S. government official and a former Brazilian Mission president, was appointed as president of the new Bogota Branch. Antonio Vela was among the first converts in Colombia.

During 1966, the city of Cali was also opened to missionary work. Aura Ivars was the first convert in Cali. By the end of the year the missionaries started to take the gospel to other towns. About twenty missionaries were laboring in Colombia at that time. Branches were established in Bogota and Cali, with a total of 45 members. In December, 1966, a government resolution was granted to give the Church legal status in Colombia. During 1967, other Colombian cities were opened and the first district was created in Bogota. In 1968 the Colombia-Venezuela Mission was created with headquarters in Bogota. At that time there were 800 members and 12 branches in Colombia. ("A Church for All Lands -- Colombia", Church News, October, 1978)

In 1971, Colombia received its own mission with headquarters in Bogota. The Church had grown to 27 branches in ten cities. In 1975, the mission was divided, and the Colombia Cali Mission created. During that year, the first chapel built in Colombia was built at Cali. On January 23, 1977, Elder Bruce R. McConkie created the first stake in Colombia. Julio E. Davila was called to serve as the first stake president in Colombia. On March 5, 1977, President Spencer W. Kimball visited Colombia and presided at an area conference of 4,600 Saints. By 1978, there were nearly 13,000 Saints in Colombia, with 42 wards and branches.

In 1983, a terrible earthquake hit the city of Popayan, in the southern part of Colombia. The Saints united to help provide the necessities of life as well as housing for the thousands injured and made homeless by the quake.

In 1988, the Colombia Barranquilla was created from a division of the Colombia Bogota Mission.

During the 1980s, tension and violence grew in the country. Many government officials and judges were assassinated. Because the United States tried to help cut back on the drug trade, high anti-Americanism and terrorism existed. Sadly the Church also was a target of this violence as local chapels were bombed. In September, 1989, North American missionaries were withdrawn from the country. The Church News reported: "Because of general threats expressed against Americans in Colombia during increasing drug-related violence, Church leaders decided Sept. 9 to give early releases or transfer some of the missionaries serving in that country." ("Some Missionaries In Colombia Transferred or Released Early." Church News, September 16, 1989)

Elder M. Russell Ballard presided at a regional conference in Colombia during 1989. At the October General Conference, he reported: "When a problem occurs, such as the recent unrest in Colombia, the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve, through the able leadership of the General Authority Area Presidencies, monitor conditions daily and even hourly, if necessary. Be assured that the safety and protection of missionaries always is a paramount concern. At the same time, however, the Church cannot retreat from areas of the world that are in turmoil unless absolutely necessary. Brothers and sisters, the charge from the Lord to 'go ye therefore, and teach all nations" is a difficult one to fulfill.' (Matt. 28:19.)"

Despite these difficulties, Church growth continued in Colombia. In 1992, the Colombia Bogota South Mission was created from the Colombia Bogota Mission, which has been renamed Colombia Bogota North Mission. President William L. Riley of the Bogota North mission described missionary work in that area of Colombia: "Missionaries work mostly through references from members. Bogota is a very modern city and there is so much home security that it is very difficult to tract. . . . We do a lot of work on fellowshipping." He said missionaries serving in Colombia were South Americans who related well with Colombians. [North American missionaries were again sent into Colombia about this time.] (Church News, February 29, 1992)

On April 7, 1984, the First Presidency announced that a temple would be built in Colombia. A site was finally announced in 1988, but because of unstable conditions and political problems getting approvals, ground was not broken until June 26, 1993. Still, there were difficulties getting construction approvals.

By the end of 1994, the Church in Colombia reached 100,000 members. It had 13 stakes, 262 wards, four missions, and a missionary training center.

In 1995, after holding several country-wide fasts, government approvals were received to begin construction on the Bogota Colombia Temple. By 1996, the patron housing was nearing completion.

In November, 1996, President Gordon B. Hinckley visited Colombia. He inspected the temple under construction in Bogota, met with missionaries, and held a fireside with 7,100 members. At a member fireside in Bogota he said: "Now is the time to get your lives in order that you may be worthy to go to the House of the Lord. Get a temple recommend. Get it now. If every man and woman in this hall tonight would make that resolution and go to work to be worthy of a temple recommend, your lives would be blessed, your homes would be blessed, you would feel the Spirit of the Lord in your homes." (Church News, May 3, 1997).

At the time of President Hinckley's visit, there were 125,000 members of the Church in Colombia, 15 stakes, and nearly 500 missionaries in the four missions. In 1997, there were nineteen stakes in Colombia.

In January 1999, it was announced that Archie O. Egbert of Salt Lake City was called to serve as president of the Missionary Training Center in Colombia.

On January 25, 1999, an earthquake devastated the city of Armenia, killing about 920 people. About 750 LDS members were affected, three killed and ten injured. Elder Robert J. Whetten reported: "The Relief Society and priesthood leaders swung into action and donations from members throughout Colombia poured into a designated chapel in each city. Seven-year-old Neidi, wanting to help, noticed that no shoes for children were being packed. 'Please give these shoes to another little girl in Armenia who has lost hers,' she said to the bishop as she offered her shoes. 'Her bare feet made no sound as she slipped away.' (April Conference, 1999)

Church assistance was immediately shipped to Armenia. One meetinghouse was seriously damaged along with 147 homes belonging to LDS families. The Church News reported: "President Alexander Nunez of the Colombia Cali Mission said that a day after the earthquake, a truck from the stakes in Bogota arrived in Armenia with three tons of food, clothing and water. Two trucks later arrived from Cali, and another from the two stakes in Medellin and several nearby districts. Some of the food was purchased by the Church and some was donated by members." Several families were temporarily housed in local meetinghouses. The missionaries were all fine. One of their apartments was ruined. ("Hundreds of LDS affected by Colombian earthquake," Church News, February 6, 1999).

After a long wait of fifteen years, the Bogota Columbia Temple was complete. The Open house began on March 24, 1999. During the three-week open house 127,138 visitors toured the temple. LDSWorld-Gems subscriber Javier Tobsn reported: "One catholic priest said 'I wish I had my life and my soul as this temple.' Another nonmember said when leaving the temple, 'Again in the world.' A neighbor lady said 'Just like what I had imagined the heaven.' As a result the missionaries have now thousands of golden referrals, some of them only waiting to finish the discussions to be baptized."

The visitors were welcomed by members of the South America Area presidency: Elder Francisco J. Vinas, president; and his counselors, Elder Robert J. Whetten and Elder Walter F. Gonzalez, all of the Seventy. (Church News, April 3, 1999).

Jeremiah P. Cahill, of Salt Lake City was called to be the first president of the Bogota Colombia Temple. At the time of his call, President Cahill was serving as executive secretary for the Central America Area presidency and was living in Guatemala. He had previously served as a mission president of the Colombia Bogota South Mission. (Church News, April 3, 1999)