History of the Church in El Salvador

David R. Crockett

On August 20, 1948, President Arwell L. Pierce, president of the Mexican Mission, visited El Salvador to see if the time was right to open up missionary work in the country. On May 26, 1948, the first two missionaries were sent into the country: Elders Gleen Whipple Skousen and Omer Farnsworth. They did not stay long because of unsettled political conditions. In 1951, the work again made progress as Elder Albert E. Bowen of the Twelve visited the country and presided at a meeting with 63 people in attendance. (1997-98 Church Almanac, 321).

On March 2, 1951, Ana Villasenor was the first person baptized in El Salvador. Eleven others were baptized at service held at Apulo Beach at Lake Ilopango.

During the fall of 1952, Elders Spencer W. Kimball and Bruce R. McConkie toured the Central American countries with Gordon M. Romney, the president of the newly formed Central American Mission. They visited the city of San Salvador. After holding a conference and a delay at the consul's office, they took a thirty-seven minute flight back to Guatemala City. As President Romney organized the new mission, he had two elders in San Salvador. Soon the city of Santa Ana was opened, and it proved to be "a dream come true" as the gospel went forward in El Salvador. Elizabeth Romney (wife of Gordon M. Romney) recalled: "El Salvador also had a little branch. My impression of this country at first was sad. It was a country that bore the name of the Savior and had a great white statue of the Savior on its main street, yet it was such a wicked, filthy city. I learned to love it and its emerald beauty. It is the smallest, but the wealthiest of all the republics. It has beautiful plantations of coffee." (Gordon M. Romney Oral History, 15,20, 44)

In 1965, the San Salvador District was organized. Also that year, The Guatemala-El Salvador Mission was organized. There were 4,200 members in El Salvador at that time. When a terrible earthquake hit Guatemala on February 4, 1976, two trucks left San Salvador by evening loaded with food and supplies from the two stakes in San Salvador for their neighbors in Guatemala. Also during 1976, the El Salvador San Salvador Mission was created, with Eddie Barillas as the first mission president. El Salvador became the second smallest nation in the world to have a mission entirely within its borders. (Only Singapore was smaller.) ("Central America: Saints in Six Nations Grow in the Gospel." Ensign, February, 1977).

In 1980, civil war broke out in El Salvador and the mission was closed. The missionaries were reassigned to other missions. There were 14,000 members in the country at that time. In 1984, the mission was reopened. Carlos H. Amado, president of the Guatemala City Mission first presided over the newly reopened mission, while still presiding over the mission in Guatemala. He then turned the mission over to newly called Manuel Diaz. No missionaries were brought in from the United States.

On October 10, 1986, a 5.4 earthquake shook San Salvador, killing two members and seriously injuring five others. The homes of 245 members were damaged or destroyed. About 700 members were left homeless. There were no injuries among the missionaries, who were all from Latin American. Overall, about 1,200 people were killed by the quake. Elder Gene R. Cook arrived in San Salvador on October 12 and met with the presidents of the three stakes in the city. Relief efforts were underway. More than six hundred people were being housed in Church meetinghouses. Food was supplied from surrounding stakes and from Guatemala. On the next day, three plane-loads of food, medical supplies, and tents arrived.

One of the members severely injured was sixteen-year-old Neidyn Janette Martinez of the Santa Anita Ward. She was pinned under the wall of her house, and remained in the rubble for two days. When she was finally rescued, she was taken to the hospital where Elder Cook gave her a blessing. The December 1986 Ensign reported: "She was paralyzed from the chin down and was told she would live for only twenty-four hours without an operation. Since the only neurosurgeon available in the area was at the military hospital, Sister Martinez was packed with sandbags and moved to the hospital. Just before the doctors began to operate, the girl said to them, 'Before you touch me, kneel down and pray first.' The doctors and all other people in the operating room knelt and prayed. The operation was finished at 9 a.m. and Sister Martinez is making an excellent recovery." By October, 17, she began regaining feeling in her feet and hands. ("Earthquake Brings Death, Injury to Members in San Salvador, Ensign, December 1986).

A tent city sprang up next to meetinghouses for those who had been left homeless. The Church News reported: "Throughout the day, children seemed happy, acting as if they were on some glorious camping excursion. Dressed in clean clothing, they played games and happily posed for photographs. Outside the Zarahemla meetinghouse, one group of children gathered at dusk on the basketball court. But instead of playing games, they sat in a circle and sang Primary Songs. 'I Am a Child of God' was as comforting to listening adults as to singing children." ("El Salvador Quake Doesn't Shake Members' Faith." Church News, October 26, 1986).

In 1988 the only full-time missionaries in El Salvador were still all from Latin America. The mission president, Franklin Henriquez said: "The local stakes here are sending us all [the missionaries] we need at the moment. And we also have Salvadorenos serving in Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica." ("Taking the Gospel to Their Own People", Ensign, October 1988).

In 1990, hostilities caused by the long war were severe. The mission continued to operate, but all missionaries from Guatemala and Honduras were withdrawn, leaving only native El Salvador missionaries. The February 1990 Ensign reported that thirteen members had been killed in recent fighting along with many nonmember relatives. "An estimated five thousand members have had their lives disrupted because of the fighting. In addition seven LDS chapels were reported damaged." ("13 Members Die in El Salvador Conflict." Ensign, February, 1990).

On April 7, 1990 Elder Russell M. Nelson and Elder Richard G. Scott formally dedicated El Salvador for the preaching of the gospel. The brethren gathered with 39 local members and leaders in a home on a hill overlooking San Salvador. Elder Nelson offered the dedicatory prayer on the balcony of the home. He prayed:

This nation is rich with the blood of Israel. Wilt thou bless the missionaries to seek the honest in heart, thine elect who are hungry, and are thirsting for thy word. . . . Wilt thou bless this nation that it may prosper, and that the people may be able to live the commandments that thou hast given, which will enable them to have prosperity and happiness in this life and in the life to come. Wilt thou bless their flocks and their herds, that they may grow and multiply upon the fields and upon the hills. Wilt thou bless the trees that bear fruit, the ground that bears vegetation and the sustaining powers of life. Wilt thou bless this land so symbolically named for thy Beloved Son, El Salvador, 'The Savior.' As He learned obedience by the things that He suffered, so may this land of 'The Savior' learn by the things it has suffered." ("Two Central American Lands Dedicated." Church News, April 21, 1990).
During their visit in El Salvador, Elders Nelson and Scott also created two new stakes.

On July 1, 1990, the El Salvador San Salvador mission was split to create an East and West mission. There were 34,000 members in El Salvador. President Franklin Henriquez reported that in the eastern part of the country, they experienced about one hundred baptisms per month. "Every missionary in El Salvador is from El Salvador. Being natives, most missionaries know what is going on, and they know how to handle themselves. They have learned where the potential dangers are. We are well-protected by the Lord." The Church was strongest in the western portion of the country where the area was mostly unaffected by the continuing civil war. (Church News, February 3, 1990).

The long twelve-year civil war ended in 1992, leaving about 75,000 deaths in its wake. About eighty percent of the population were in poverty. Soon, North American missionaries would return to the country.

The Central America Area Presidency reported in 1995:

El Salvador is the second-fastest nation for Church growth in Central America. We have ten stakes, two missions, a vigorous priesthood, and tremendous leadership. The end of the civil war there has made a big change in the political and economic picture. The country's last three mission presidents were from El Salvador, and missionaries are operating in all corners of the country. Many people, including members, who went to the United States during the war are returning. Even if they were less active while in the United States, members are being activated as soon as they return. They enjoy seeing how the Church has progressed in their absence. ("A Conversation with the Central America Area Presidency," Ensign, January 1995.)
In 1996, Church membership reached 64,000 in fifteen stakes and two missions. An additional stake was created in 1997.

On January 23 1997, President Gordon B. Hinckley visited El Salvador. He met with 374 missionaries and spoke to 10,000 members assembled at the National Gymnasium. Some had been waiting six hours in the bleachers. President Hinckley said: "I want to tell you how important you are in this Church. God bless you, my companions in this work." He lingered after the closing prayer to wave and express love to those who had come to see him. (An Outpouring of Love for Prophet: Pres. Hinckley Addresses 88,000 in Central America." Church News, February 1, 1997).