The grave of Parley P. Pratt’s son in Valparaiso, Chile

Francisco Javier Jara
Doctor of American Studies, researcher on Mormon History in Latin America.
Professor at ORT University of Uruguay School of Communication,
Montevideo, Uruguay.

francisco.jara@ucv.cl

On March 5th, 1852, Mormon Apostle Parley P. Pratt boarded an old sailing vessel in the Chilean port city of Valparaiso and began his return trip to San Francisco, California, ending the first Mormon missionaries’ attempt to proselitize in South America.

In Valparaiso, Pratt –a member of the earliest Quorum of the Twelve ordained by Prophet Joseph Smith– left the body of his son Omner buried in a cemetery. Parley’s baby was born in Valparaiso on November, 30th, 1851, and died 38 days later due to a “general weakness.”

The Apostle Pratt, his wife Phoebe and Elder Rufus C. Allen had sailed from San Francisco to Valparaiso to open the Mormon missionary work in South America. The three American missionaries were in Chile four months, but they achieved no converts in the strongly Roman Catholic country.

The three experienced some very hard days in Valparaiso, the most important port in Chile and one of the most active on the west coast of South America.

Today, the place where Omner Pratt was buried in the “Cementerio de Disidentes” (Cemetery for Dissidents) is holy land for Chilean Mormons. Every year, particularly in summer (December to March), many people from different stakes visit the cemetery, located on the top of a hill near donwtonw.

In 1990, Mormon Church officials put a white marble plaque in the Cemetery for Dissidents to commemorate Pratt’s visit to Chile. In 2001, on the 150th anniversary of his South American journey, dozens of LDS Church members gathered for a commemorative ceremony. LDS visitors usually place flowers in the plaque to remember Parley and Omner.

The cemetery was established in 1820 for “dissidents,” meaning non-Roman Catholic people, by General Bernardo O’Higgins, the leader of Chilean independence, two years after the patriots defeated the Spanish armies in the decisive Battle of Maipu.

During Spanish colonial rule, only Roman Catholic people could be buried in cemeteries and churches. In Santiago, the Chilean capital, the few non-Roman Catholic people were buried after their death in mass graves in the slope of Saint Lucy hill.

When Apostle Pratt arrived in Chile, Valparaiso was one of the most prosperous Chilean cities, with  many foreigners, particularly British businessmen and bankers. The city was cosmopolitan, although its percentage of foreigners never exceeded seven per cent of its population in the 19th Century.

Many visitors thought that Valparaiso was a more democratic and liberal city than Santiago, due to its Chilean and foreigner elite, self-made men who became rich in businesses such as banking, international trade and mining. There was no hereditary aristocracy in Valparaiso as there was in Santiago and Concepcion, the third-largest Chilean city.

People also were pragmatic in Valparaiso: many rich families chose a commercial education for their children and they were not interested in traditional careers, such as law or medicine. “As the result of this pragmatism, contemporary opinion considered that Valpapaiso was a place were people worked hand, in contrast to the other Chilean cities . . . It was generally accepted that its inhabitants lacked artistic and cultural sensibilities and that the theater and opera were considered a source of diversion rather than food for the spirit.”

These were the main features of Valparaiso when the Mormon Apostle and his companions arrived in the last days of 1851. President Brigham Young called upon Pratt to open a large mission that included almost one half of the world — the Pacific Islands, Baja California (Mexico) and South America.

Pratt left Salt Lake Valley on March, 1851, and traveled to California with Phoebe, his eighth plural wife. They rested several months in California, where the LDS Church members gave them $1,410 for their mission in South America.

On September 5th, 1851, Pratt, his pregnant wife and Elder Allen boarded a wooden sailing vessel in San Francisco and, after a “disagreeable and tedious passage of sixty-four days”, they arrived in Valparaiso.

Nobody knows why Pratt chose Valparaiso. Because he had not received specific instructions on where to establish his mission, he was free to choose. Perhaps in California, where the “Gold Rush” stimulated the trade with Chile, Pratt received favorable information about the Chilean port city.

On November, 8th, 1851, Pratt and his party arrived in Valparaiso to establish a base from which to preach the Restored Gospel in South America. But they had arrived in the middle of a Civil War, the so-called “1851 Revolution.”

DID PARLEY EAT “CHIRIMOYAS”?

The life of these first Mormon missionaries in Chile was very hard. They faced many problems, deprivations, and also bias. Pratt spent much time studying Spanish and Chilean history and reading newspapers.

Pratt started to learn Spanish before he arrived in Chile. “We study everyday”, he wrote to his family while sailing to Valparaiso. “[Spanish] is a beautiful language and wonderfully adapted to the simplicity of the Lamanites.”

The Mormons lived modestly four months in Chile. They stayed two months in a little house in Valparaiso, near the present Victoria Square. Then, they moved to Quillota, 36 miles to the east, a small farming town located in the middle of the fertile valley of Aconcagua River. The three traveled five days in a cart drawn by oxen from Valparaiso to Quillota.

In the 19th Century (and today) Quillota was famous for its avocados, oranges, and lemons. And, the town was famous for its “chirimoyas,” a sweet white fruit with green skin and big black seeds that Chileans usually mix with wine for drinking in the summer. (Nobody knows if Parley ate chirimoyas. I think he did it, because he was in Quillota in summer).

It is possible that Pratt chose to move to Quillota for economic reasons. But this decision hurt his mission because Valparaiso was the best Chilean city to introduce a new religion in the country. In fact, the first Chilean Protestant churches opened in Valparaiso at the same time Pratt was in the city.

DEFENDING “ARAUCANIAN” INDIANS

On March 5th, 1852, Pratt weighed anchor and returned to California, having had no success in his mission. He had been unable to convert anyone to his religion.

The Apostle wrote he had faced problems with the Spanish language and money. Also, he encountered political tensions and a deeply Roman Catholic people. Pratt’s journey to Chile is proof of the weakness of  LDS missionary programs during the beginings of the church.

Pratt wrote many critiques of the Roman Catholic Church and South American societies. “Priestcraft reigns in all these countries, as by law established; and by law paid and supported- by marriages and christening fees, forgiving sins, etc.”

“In Chile the charges are as follow: Twenty-five dollars for marriage, and one dollar for christening. For forgiveness of sins there are various prices to suit the circumstances of the customers”.

Pratt wrote good things of Chilean Mapuche indians, called Araucanos by Spanish conquerors (Araucanians in English).

The Apostle said in a letter to President Brigham Young: “I have also read a small work, on Natural History of Chili, near three times through, in which are many curious and imporant facts in relation to the wars with the brave and patriotic nation of freemen called the Araucanians.”

“These [Indian people] have mantained their liberty and independence unimpaired for three hundred years against the combined powers of old Spain and all her colonies, sustaining a defensive war, with but little cessation, for near two hundred years, without firearms or other means of defense. Some of their history I hope to translate and publish thereafter.”

The Mormon Apostle was one of the first men to praise the Mapuche Indians, historically persecuted by Spanish colonial rule and Chilean goverment. Even in 1990, after the restablishment of democracy after General Pinochet’s military rule, the Chilean Congress passed an act to protect Mapuche lands and culture.

The Pratt’s visit to Valparaiso was totally ignored by Chileans. All we know of his mission in South America was what he wrote himself of his efforts. The only trace Pratt left in Chile was the buried body of his baby in the Cemetery for Dissidents. The boy was born three weeks after his parents arrived in Chile and died on January 7th, 1852, when he was only one-month-old. Cemetery records show Omner Pratt died due to a “general weakness.”

Cemetery officials told me nobody knows where the Omner’s tomb actually is inside the Cemetery for Dissidents. Their records do not specify its location. The marble plaque was put by LDS Church officials in 1990 simply in a wall near the entrance.

A REAL PIONEER

Parley P. Pratt arrived back in San Francisco from Valparaiso on May 21st, 1852. He had failed to convert any South Americans to Mormonism, and the only person who seemed interested in the LDS Church was a crew member whom Pratt knew in the 79-day voyage to California.

Today, Parley P. Pratt is beloved by Mormons, but his journey to South America is unknown outside of LDS Church circles. No South American (non-Mormon) historian knows who the Apostle was and no Chilean (non-Mormon) person knows he was in Valparaiso in 1851.

In my opinion, Pratt was a pioneer in many ways beyond his participation in the colonization of Utah: He was one of the first American religious missionaries sent to preach to Latin America, and he was the first Mormon leader who proposed the translation of the Standard Works to Spanish.

He also was pioneer because he undertook his mission to Valparaiso when  diplomatic relations and trade between the United States and southern countries of South America were relatively limited. While American economic and political leaders were interested in the Caribbean, Chilean and Argentine ones were looking to Europe.

It is remarkable that Apostle Pratt sailed to Chile for one of the first LDS attempts to convert people in a Roman Catholic nation, only four years after Mormon pioneers had settled in the Salt Lake Valley.

Before Pratt traveled to Chile in 1851, Mormon Church had sent missionaries to only two Roman Catholic nations in Europe, France and Italy. In both countries, the Elders did not  find the success they had in Britain, where thousands of families joined Mormonism in the 1840’s (and thereafter) and emigrated to America.
Nevertheless, Mormon authors think Pratt was the right man to start the Mormon proselitism in South America, although he did not speak Spanish (neither had the Standard Works been translated).

Pratt wrote “in general (Chileans) are ignorant and devoted Catholics. Probably more than one-half of them can neither read and write. Their knowledge of arts and industry is extremely limited. In manners they are simple, frank, and extremely sociable.”
One hundred years later, the same type of kindness described by Pratt was found by the first two Mormon missionaries who arrived to proselitize in Chile, Elders Bentley and Allred, had arrived from Argentina, where LDS missionaries faced many problems and prejudices from government officials and Roman Catholic priests.

“PARLEY MEMORIAL”?

Although the Chilean Constitution restricted religion to the Roman Catholic Church, Pratt found in Valparaiso an Anglican and an American Congregational Church. Both of them were the seeds of growing Protestant movement in Chile. Twenty years after Pratt’s visit, Chilean law allowed non-Roman Catholic religions.

In my opinion, Pratt was the victim of bad luck. If he had had sufficient money, he could have established Mormon missionary work in Valparaiso, because it was the best South American city — better than Buenos Aires — in which to introduce a new religion in the middle of 19th Century. At the same time, ministers of several Protestant churches established their presence in Valparaiso.

In 1956, American Mormon Elders returned to Chile, and fifteen years later there were Mormon branches in all Chilean cities. In 2002, the LDS Church said there were more than 500,000 Chilean Mormons, 3.6 per cent of country’s population.

It is interesting that the country chosen by Pratt in 1851  became 150 years after in the nation with the fastest growing membership in South America. Also, in 2002 Chile had the world’s highest percentage of Mormon people, except for the little island of Tonga.

So important is Chile for Mormon Church, that in 2002 First Precidency sent one of its 12 Apostles to live in this country.

I am going to finish my presentation by observing that LDS officials do not seem interested in  preservation of church historical sites in South America.

I think it is not enough to put a marble plaque in the Cemetery for Dissidents to remember Parley and Omner Pratt. Valparaiso and its sister city of Viña del Mar are today a metropolis, where thousands of visitors come every year. Dozens of cruisers arrive every summer with thousands of American, Canadian and European tourists, who usually are looking for interesting places to visit.

Last year, Valparaiso was included on the list of “World Heritage” sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), and  many companies are investing in the tourist industry.

Perhaps a “Parley P. Pratt Memorial” –inside or outside the Cemetery for Dissidents–  could be included in Valparaiso’s tourist circuit (and to build it will be not expensive in Chile).

There is other evidence that LDS officials seem uninterested in preservation of historical sites outside United States: the first Mormon meetinghouse built in South America.

This meetinghouse was built in 1930’s in Liniers, a middle class Buenos Aires neighborhood, but it was sold when the church started its building program in South America.

It is true that a beautiful Mormon Temple was built and dedicated in 1986 in Buenos Aires suburbs, but the Liniers meetinghouse was built by spirited American Elders and Argentine and European converts. It was visited by the late President David O. McKay, when the prophet visited Argentina in 1954 and met General Peron.

After it was sold, the historical first South American meetinghouse has been used as housing and a shoe factory.

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Pratt, p. 492.

Pratt, p. 497.

Ibid.

Ibid.

Op. Cit., pp. 500-501.