History of the Church in Venezuela

David R. Crockett
During the 1950s and early 1960s, some American Mormon families made their way to Venezuela because of business opportunities. In 1954, Elder Ezra Taft Benson addressed the American Chamber of Commerce in Caracas. He later said, "Who should be presiding there as president, but one of our Mormon boys from Tooele, Utah. It was a great thrill as we went from Caracas over to Barquisimeto to have the opportunity of holding a service in a hotel room with representatives of three or four Mormon families in that area and to find that they were eager to get a Sunday School started." (Conference Report, April 1955, 48-9) In 1964, Elder Spencer W. Kimball met with the government leaders in Venezuela.

In the early 1960s, American families met in the home of Carl C. Wilcox, an executive in the Del Monte Corporation. Brother Wilcox helped gain legal recognition for the Church.

In 1966, Elder Marion G. Romney went to Caracas with President Brewerton (of the Central American Mission) and F. Burton Howard to dedicate Venezuela for the preaching of the gospel. On November 2, 1966, Elder Romney organized a branch of 45 members with Carl C. Wilcox as the branch president. In a garden of a home in Caracas, Elder Romney offered a dedicatory prayer which included: "We pray Father that thou will bless the people of this land. They need, O God, the redeeming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that they may come out of darkness into the marvelous light of truth, and look forward and move toward that great day in the not too distant future when the Savior will return to earth. We pray that Thou wilt open their minds to the truths that shall be brought to them. . . . There will soon come here, Heavenly Father, under the direction of the mission president, missionaries. Wilt Thou open the way before them and give them wisdom that they may know how to approach the people. Give them utterance from on high by the power of Thy Holy Spirit. Help them teach in wisdom and by the Spirit with such power that men in great numbers will be caused to listen and their hearts made to learn with testimony. Grant that people may come into the Church in great numbers and that the work may grow rapidly, Father, to the blessing of the people in this land." ("In the beginning. . ." By Alan Manning)

A few weeks later, President Ted E. Brewerton sent four missionaries to open up Venezuela. They were Elders Floyd Baum, Neil Gruwell, David Bell, and Fred Podlesny. The missionaries divided up the city into ten sections and started looking up referrals from the 1964 World's Fair. The work progressed slowly, but on February 12, 1967, the first baptism was held in the evening in a 14th-story penthouse swimming pool. Elders Podlesny and Bell baptized Herman Sepulveda.

The Elders first tried to labor among the wealthy class. In July, 1967, Elders Baum, Bell, Steven Jensen, and Stephen Edmunds opened up Maracaibo to the south of Caracas, where many poor Indians and mestizos lived.

In 1968, the Colombia-Venezuela Mission was created. Soon the Caracas District was organized with three branches and 150 members. Other smaller branches were established in outlying areas. On October 15, 1968, the first District Conference was held with 28 missionaries serving in Venezuela.

In 1971, the Venezuela Mission was created with 1,259 members. The work started to accelerate and the mission was blessed with about 40 baptisms per month. Getting the male family head to join the Church and stay active was a struggle. Emphasis was placed on bringing in entire families.

In February 1975, President Spencer W. Kimball visited Venezuela. President N. Eldon Tanner later shared this experience. "Now let me give you a little experience I had in Caracas, Venezuela. As we attended a meeting of the Saints and investigators there one evening, the president estimated about 500 people in attendance. As I got up to speak I asked those who had been baptized in 1974 and `75 to stand, and then in `73. `72. `71, `70. I then asked those who had been in the Church over five years to stand. Only three stood, and they were visitors. This gives you some idea how the work of the Lord is going forward in that area." (General Conference, April 1975.)

By 1977, there were 4,000 members in twenty-three branches and five districts. The first stake was created by Elder Bruce R. McConkie on May 15, 1977. Adolfo F. Mayer was called to serve as the first president of the Caracas Venezuela Stake. On July 1, 1977, Alejandro Portal, an early pioneer leader in Venezuela, became the president of the Venezuela Caracas Mission. In 1979, the mission was divided. President Portal presided over the new Venezuela Maracaibo Mission.

When a third stake was created in 1980, the Church membership stood at 4,963. By 1986 it rose to 23,516 in five stakes and eight districts. Within just four years (1990) the membership doubled to 52,000.

In 1991, the Venezuela Caracas Mission was divided to form a new mission. The Maracaibo mission was also realigned. In 1994, the fourth mission was created, the Venezuela Barcelona Mission.

In October, 1995 General Conference, President Gordon B. Hinckley mentioned "the possibility of a temple in Venezuela. Saints in Venezuela were able to hear this joyous news live, as satellite telecast of conference were viewed for the first time in the country. "More than 1,000 members filled the chairs inside the Caurimare meetinghouse, and beneath tents outside to hear the conference in the Spanish language," said David Demars, Caracas Venezuela Stake high councilor in charge of the project. "Many eyes filled with tears and hearts with joy as the hopes and dreams of a temple and seeing general conference are being fulfilled in this beautiful country." (Church News, November 4, 1995)

In 1996 the membership in Venezuela was 71,000 with fifteen stakes and four missions.

On August 13, 1997, President Hinckley went to Valencia, Venezuela. Members traveled from all over the country to here the prophet speak. More than 11,000 filled the large Forum de Valencia sports arena. Elder Francisco J. Vinas of the Seventy said: "Members were enthusiastic for the prophet's visit. To have 11,000 in attendance during a weekday is excellent attendance. The people were very reverent and they received his message with gratitude." ("Enthusiastic members welcome prophet" Church News, August 23, 1997.)

In October 1997 Conference, President Hinckley said, "Our previously announced plan to construct a temple in Venezuela is also going forward and we are hopeful of acquiring a site in the very near future."