History of the Church in Panama

David R. Crockett

Among the first Latter-day Saints to visit Panama was the family of John and Phebe Robbins and John's brother Charles B. Robbins. The Robbins family had been passengers on the ship "Brooklyn" that sailed from New York to California in 1846. In 1850, the Robbins family decided to return to the east because some business affairs needed to be settled in New Jersey. They sailed to Panama and then prepared to make the overland journey across the Isthmus. Their provisions were packed on horses and mules. The men rode on donkeys while hired natives carried the women and children in hammocks suspended between poles. Four-year-old Georgianna Pacific Robbins, who had been born on the "Brooklyn" was taken across on the back of a native. When this group reached about the half-way point across the Isthmus of Panama, the natives put down the hammocks and refused to go further unless their pay was doubled. Brother Robbins refused to meet their demands and eventually the natives again took up their burdens and continued the journey. When the Robbins parted with the natives, John gave them each a substantial reward for their labor. The family made it to New Jersey and later went to Utah in 1853. (Our Pioneer Heritage, 3:572)

Several other Saints probably made the journey across Panama during this time while going to or from the gold fields in California. One of the families that traveled west across Panama during this time, perhaps in 1849, was the family of Eli and Patience Whipple. They lived in California for a time and arrived in Utah in 1851. (Ibid.)

In 1851, it appeared that thousands of European Saints would soon be making their way to Utah by way of Panama. The First Presidency wrote in an epistle: "It is wisdom for the English Saints to cease emigration by the usual route through the States, and up the Missouri river, and remain where they are till they shall hear from us again, as it is our design to open up a way across the interior of the continent, by Panama, Tehuantepec, or some of the interior routes, and land them at San Diego, and thus save three thousand miles of inland navigation through a most sickly climate and country." (James R. Clark, Messages of the First Presidency, Vol.2, p.70-1) This plan was abandoned.

In 1852, missionaries James Brown (Captain Brown of the battalion) and Elijah Thomas crossed the Isthmus of Panama on their way to a mission to British Guiana.

The first Apostles to visit Panama were Orson Pratt and Ezra T. Benson. In 1857 they were returning from their mission in Europe. When they landed in New York City, they learned that Johnston's army was on the way the Utah. The apostles and other elders sailed to Panama, crossed the Isthmus, went to San Bernardino, California, and arrived in Salt Lake City on New Year's Day 1858.

In the 1860s the brethren again considered bringing European Saints across Panama and then taking them up the Colorado River. In 1864, Anson Call established a small colony on the Colorado River in present-day Nevada named Call's Landing. Call's Landing was meant to serve as a weigh-station for Saints and freight being taken to Utah. With the completion of the transcontinental railway, this plan became obsolete. (Encyclopedic History of the Church, p.111)

In May, 1922, John Q. Critchlow of Salt Lake City, president of the Panama Sugar Company, climbed to the top of the 11,600 El Volcan in Panama. During his climb, he discovered ruins, petroglyphs, articles of gold, and pottery.

The Church came to Panama in 1841. A branch was organized for LDS servicemen stationed there. Membership reached one hundred members during the first year. During the 1940s the branch met in a Jewish Synagogue. President David O. McKay later said: "Ever since its organization, the Panama Branch in the Central American Mission has been the recipient of the hospitality of Rabbi Nathan Witkins and the members of the Jewish Church who shared their meeting accommodations with our Church members." (David O. McKay, Conference Report, April 1954.) The Panama Branch started to build their own chapel in the 1950s.

In 1952, Elders Spencer W. Kimball and Elder Bruce R. McConkie toured Central America with new mission president Gordon M. Romney. When they arrived in Panama, they found a branch of one hundred members. Most of them were Americans in the service, stationed at the Canal Zone. The branch had good leadership and the members had strong testimonies. (Gordon M. Romney Oral History, 14)

Two English-speaking elders were stationed in Panama. President Romney called several GIs to serve as local missionaries in the Canal Zone. Two of them were Eran Call, and Richard Taylor. [In April 1997, Eran Call was sustained as a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy.] Eran Call had served a mission to Mexico and was drafted into the Army in 1952. His orders to Korea were lost and he was instead sent to Panama. Elder Call recalled: "In Panama, [a small group of LDS servicemen] were very active in the Church. By divine guidance I was called to be assistant to the Lutheran chaplain, who was command chaplain for the Caribbean. It hadn't been a year since I was on my mission. We had three or four [LDS servicemen] who spoke Spanish." ("His Father's Legacy: Devotion to Church, Kindness to Others," Church News, May 3, 1997).

When Elder Spencer W. Kimball opened up the Central American Mission, he said firmly to new mission president, Gordon M. Romney, "Do not forget the San Blas Indians." These Indians live on islands off the east coast of mainland Panama. President Romney said: "I do not know whether he had ever seen the San Blas Indians before or not. I doubt it. But I know that he was inspired to tell me, 'Do not forget the San Blas Indians.'" In about February 1853, a copy of the Book of Mormon was given to Jose Coleman, the son of one of the San Blas chiefs. Later in 1953, President Romney visited the San Blas Indians on the Island of Ailigandi. Jose Coleman had been teaching the chiefs about the Book of Mormon, translating it from Spanish into their Cuna language.

John O'Donnal recalled: "The San Blas Islands were first visited on September 21, 1953 by Huish Yates and two missionaries. A chief on one of the islands was not surprised to see them. He told them that, as he lay in his hammock, a voice came to him saying, that white men from the north would come with a book containing the history of his people." (From John O'Donnal, "Pioneer in Guatemala")

President Romney added: "Promptly he [the chief] sent messengers to all nearby points telling them to be at their Congreso hall at three o'clock. When the missionaries arrived, the hall with a capacity of two hundred, was full. The people were ready and waiting. The elders had the great opportunity to teach the gospel and to tell them of Jesus Christ." The chief did not want the missionaries to leave. (Oral History, 25) As missionaries continued to meet with the San Blas or Cuna Indians, they discovered that many of their traditions corresponded with Book of Mormon events and that they had a pictograph history that included biblical events.

In 1954, President David O. McKay visited Panama. He had just made a tour of South Africa and South America, and then met mission president Gordon M. Romney in Panama. President Romney recalled: "We were wonderfully treated by the Army officers and their wives who were stationed there. We held a conference there." (Oral History, 22) During his visit, President McKay interviewed Jose Coleman for baptism. Eran Call served as translator during the interview. Jose Coleman was then baptized, the first of the San Blas Indians to join the church. He was ordained a teacher and given several copies of the Book of Mormon for his people.

Elder ElRay Christiansen was supposed to also meet the McKays in Panama, but he developed "Montezuma's Revenge" after a couple days in Central America and had to be hospitalized in Tegucigalpa, Honduras for two weeks.

During the months to follow, elders from the Canal Zone, including Eran Call, visited the San Blas islands. The Indians started constructing a hall to study the Book of Mormon, which they called their history. The Catholic Church became upset when they discovered that the Mormon elders were going to the islands and complained to the government. This hindered the work from progressing there. The Church still was not officially recognized my the Panamanian government and open proselyting was restricted outside the Canal Zone.

In 1955, Elder Ezra Taft Benson visited briefly with missionaries and members in Panama on the way back from a visit to South America. He was there on government business as part of his duties as Secretary of Agriculture. He later said: "It was always a great pleasure to see them [the Saints] at the airports or to hold a brief meeting with them or to join them for breakfast or lunch. I wish our busy schedule might have permitted us to spend more time with those fine groups." (General Conference, April 1955).

In 1961, Elder Marion G. Romney presented a copy of the Book of Mormon to Panama president, Roberto F. Chiari. In 1965, the Church received official recognition by the Panamanian government. Proselyting could begin in earnest. During 1965 President Ted E. Brewerton visited the San Blas islands and started full-time missionary work there. The first meeting house was completed in April 1970 on the island of Ustopo. (1997-98 Church Almanac, 370).

In 1971, Elder Howard W. Hunter stopped in Panama for a day on the way back from South America. As he and Sister Hunter were walking down Central Street, they were accosted by four men as they passed the entrance to an alley. They tried to drag Elder Hunter into the alley, but he dropped to the ground and yelled at the top of his voice. He related: "In the few seconds they went through my pockets except the one in which I had my wallet, and they could not wrench my hand away from it. A crowd quickly gathered and the men ran into the dark alley. I was not hurt, although I could feel the effects of the encounter, and nothing was missing except my hotel key. This is a rough place." (Knowles, Howard W. Hunter, 172).

In August 1972, an area conference was held in Mexico City presided over by President Harold B. Lee. There were 16,000 members in attendance, and at least ten members made the one-week journey from Panama by bus to be at the conference. President Quinten Hunsaker of the Central American Mission said: "With a week up and a week back and several days at conference, attendance at the conference would require up to three weeks for some of these people. The round trip would cost two to three months' salary of the average man's wage." ("The Remarkable Mexico City Area Conference," by Jay M. Todd, Ensign, November, 1972).

During the early 1970s, all of the branches on the San Blas Islands were closed due to inactivity except the branch on Ustupo. Two elders were assigned to the branch and the district presidency visited monthly.

In 1977, President Spencer W. Kimball visited Panama. His traveling party got up one early morning at 2 a.m. to catch a flight out of Panama. President Kimball asked everyone to gather in his room for prayer. Del Van Orden of the Church News related:

When they had gathered, he explained that he had received word from Salt Lake City of an accident. Some young people driving on a snowy road had collided with a snowplow. Two of them had been killed, three or four injured. President Kimball had been requested to offer a prayer for the afflicted families. He looked over at his counselor and said, "I would rather have President Marion G. Romney pray because he prays so much better than I do, but since the family has requested that I offer the prayer, we'll honor that requested that I offer the prayer, we'll honor that request." As they all knelt down, President Kimball poured out his heart, seeking comfort for those people who had met tragedy. (BYU Studies Vol. 25, No. 4, pg.56).
On November 11, 1979, the first stake, the Panama Stake was created with Nelson Altamirano as the president. In 1980 there were about 2,000 members in Panama.

In 1988, most of the North American missionaries were withdrawn from Panama because of dangerous fighting. In 1989, the Panama Panama City Mission was created from a division of the Costa Rica San Jose Mission. The new mission consisted of 10,422 members in the David, Panama City and San Miguelito Panama stakes and the Chitre, Colon, and San Blas Panama districts. President Randy H. Bowler of the Costa Rica San Jose Mission said that ongoing problems in Panama have resulted in strengthening of the Church. When the North American missionaries left the country the year before, many local young men were called as stake missionaries. President Bowler said: "Now we are reaping two-fold from that. Those young men are being called to full-time missions, and they already know the discussions; they are seasoned missionaries. In the long run, this has been a real blessing. The Lord is preparing this country for miraculous things to happen." ("New Missions Are Evidence of Church's Dynamic Growth," Church News, February 25, 1989).

On August 24, 1991, President Howard W. Hunter, of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, dedicated Panama for the preaching of the gospel. A group of about fifty Church leaders and members gathered together in the morning on Ancon Hill over Balboa, a suburb of Panama City. Elder Richard G. Scott, Elder Ted E. Brewerton, Regional representative Nelson Altamirano, and Pedro E. Abularach, Panama City mission president were also in attendance. President Hunter later commented: "It was a beautiful, clear morning and all was quiet except for the occasional chirp of a bird." In the prayer of dedication, President Hunter said:

On this occasion in this land of Panama, we pray that there may be a new day and that there might be a revival of the spirit of the gospel. . . . We have a desire to see the kingdom grow in this part of the world. . . . and the gospel taught to every person in this land. We pray that their hearts will be touched and that they will respond to the gospel. We dedicate unto thee our hearts and our persons and this land of the Republic of Panama. . . . With this dedication, we pray that the gospel will roll forward and that there will be a new day in this great Republic of Panama.
During his talk, Elder Scott said:
This is the beginning of a new era, but it is up to each one of us and the other members of the Church in Panama to cause those results to actually occur. The Lord will not do those things that are within our power to accomplish and we must inspire others to do their part. I have absolute confidence in the Panamanian people that this act today will signify a new trajectory for the work of the the Lord in Panama because Jesus Christ lives and this is His work. ("A New Day in This Great Republic," Church News, September 21, 1991).
In 1996 there were five stakes and two districts in the country and about 26,000 members.

On January 20, 1997, President Gordon B. Hinckley visited Panama City and spoke to more than 3,000 members at the Analyami Atlapa Convention Center. He also held a meeting with 177 missionaries in the Panama Panama City Mission. At the general meeting he said: "When you were baptized, you set aside the things of the world. Each Sabbath Day when you partake of the sacrament, you renew that covenant that binds you to your Father in Heaven." He challenged the members to live the gospel and to be worthy of and to hold a current temple recommend. ("An Outpouring of Love For Prophet," Church News, February 1, 1997).