Shortly after his 1924 election as president of Mexico, Plutarco Calles took steps to curb the power of the Catholic church in Mexico. Religious liberties were greatly restricted, a nationalist church (the Mexican Apostolic National Church) was formed under state control as an alternative and opposition to traditional Roman Catholicism, and terrible acts of violence took place on both sides of the Catholic/Cismatico (as the nationalist parishes were called) divide.
This is no doubt such a gross oversimplification of complex events about which I know almost nothing as to be useless, except as the broadest context for events that happened in March 1925, to LDS missionaries Leland Meres Mortensen (1901-1990) and Abdon Aragon Hernandez (1904-1976), serving not far from Mexico City. Both men were native Mexicans, although Elder Mortensen was an Anglo from the Mormon settlement at Colonia Dublan. His younger companion, Elder Aragon, was an Hispanic from the Mexican state of Chihuahua, baptized in 1921. Interestingly (to me, at least), both elders were serving their missions without having received their temple blessings; both men were eventually able to be endowed at Mesa, Elder Mortensen in 1929 and Elder Aragon not until 1958. Both men left written records of their experiences in March 1925.
In the early part of that month, the Cismaticos had taken possession by violence of several Catholic churches in Mexico City. Immediately Catholics rose in defense of their rights and ecclesiastical property, and a virtual civil war raged. “Strangers and merchants,” wrote Mortensen, “found it unsafe to travel alone in any of the outlying districts, and especially in the Indian villages.
But the Indian villages were exactly where the two elders were working. On March 11, they were driven at knife-point from one native village where they were attempting to tract. Later in the same day, they were threatened with clubs at another village: “In the second village, at each door where we called, a woman met us with a club. After we had gone about four blocks, without any good results, or without any chance of conversation, we found that about fifty or more women were following us with clubs and sticks. They threatened us with bodily harm if we stayed; so we left rather abruptly.” (Mortensen) The elders understood that in this case, the threatened violence was not directed toward them because they were Mormons, but because the Catholics of those small towns were not making distinctions: if you weren’t Catholic, you might be a Cismatico, and you might be a threat to the local parish.
The elders decided that tracting was pointless under such conditions, and instead decided to visit the Inclans, a family of Saints living at Tenango del Aire, about 12 miles from the elders’ home base at Amecameca. They walked the distance to Tenango del Aire on the morning of Friday, May 13, intending to take the train home in the evening. Brother Inclan was away working when the elders arrived, but they spent the afternoon with other members of the family, singing, praying, and giving a gospel lesson.
About five o’clock, we walked uptown to see just when the train would leave. On the way back to the Inclans’ we noticed small groups of natives standing at corners and gates, talking eagerly. Not in the least did we suspect anything amiss. We nodded a friendly greeting and they returned the salutation as we passed. When we arrived at the home of the Saints, the bells in the churches pealed forth with thundering noise. We paid no particular attention to this, since the Mexican people are always ringing bells, for saints’ days, festivals, and on almost any other occasion. (Mortensen)
But then –
The house where we were was almost literally surrounded by people. I could not say how many people were there, but perhaps the number reached fifty. The amazing thing for us, however, was not the number but the threatening attitude of them shouting at us to go out into the street so they could kill us. The landlord’s brother then came out and asked them to withdraw, but some responded that they would not leave without the Mormon missionaries who were there. The brother then pushed us back inside and closed the door behind us, saying, “Brothers, you cannot leave now; you are at risk.” (Aragon)
The crowd around the Inclan home increased, and the mob began calling aloud for the elders to be handed out to them. When Brother Inclan arrived home from work, they threatened to hang him if he let the elders escape. Finally, a police officer arrived about eight o’clock, spoke to the elders and determined that they were unarmed. At one point he fired his gun into the air in an attempt to disperse the mob, but they surged around the house again. The Saints tried to sleep, to no avail – the nine of them – two elders, Brother and Sister Inclan, Sister Inclan’s parents and blind brother, the Inclan baby, and two investigators – to no avail.
The noise increased. We hid our valuables, and placed our Bibles in our coat pockets. Brother Inclan tried to talk to the mobbers, but they demanded the ‘Mormon’ ministers and would not be stilled. He returned and we held a circular prayer. We all knelt down together and each, in turn, offered a prayer for our safety. (Mortensen)
Eventually the mob broke through the gate, and although the elders attempted to hide in a loft, they were discovered and dragged out into the street.
Upon reaching the street, several of the group managed to strip away my clothes. But I struggled free and started to run. I did not know the terrain well, the night was dark, and I stumbled into a ditch. I do not know how many jumped on me. I tried to get free and run again, but in vain. A rain of blows fell on me, especially on my eyes. The more I struggled, the worse it seemed to be. One of then armed with a machete ran up and brought it down on my head. I felt an indescribable pain and noticed blood dripping on my shoulders. At that moment I felt faint and felt as if I were dying. Seeing that I was stunned and only semi-conscious, they dragged me from the ditch to a nearby schoolhouse and sat me on a bench. (Aragon)
We were taken to the street, threatened, and beaten. It was unbearable, and I spoke to my companion in English. “Brother Aragon, let’s run!” He got free first and dashed away; then I got loose and ran around the corner and down the street. In some way, we ran in opposite directions; then I saw him stumble. “Shoot him! Shoot him! Came the cry. But the natives either dared nto shoot, or had no ammunition, for they swarmed along behind, uttering curses and threats. I ran zig-zag to misplace ay gun sights that might be aimed at me, but no one fired. I had been a long-distance runner in school, but I was afraid for Brother Abdon Aragon. (Mortensen)
Elder Mortensen was caught, just as Elder Aragon had been, and pummeled with rocks and sticks.
One thing was in my favor. There were so many natives trying to hit me that they got in one another’s way, and did much damage to themselves. Finally I was beaten to the ground, and the last I remembered was the hurting crunch of pieces of volcanic rock as they hit my head and back. (Mortensen)
Elder Mortensen was dragged to the schoolhouse where Elder Aragon was being held. The beatings continued. Finally some of the town officers arrived and took charge.
Suddenly an armed man stood at the door of the room and spoke: “Men! What is going on here?” The man with the gun lowered his weapon, the man with the machete melted into the crowd. In silence they left the room, leaving us alone with the newcomer and another man who came in with him. When everyone else had gone, the first man asked who we were. I replied saying that, as missioanries, we represented the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They asked other questions, which today I no longer remember, but I answered all of them with a tone of assurance. I was convinced it was the Lord who had saved my life by the unexpected arrival of these men, so I felt no fear. I did not ask these men who they were, but I supposed them to be policemen. They spent the night by our side to prevent the return of our attackers. (Aragon)
The next day the two elders – Elder Mortensen suffering with a delirious fever – were taken by train to Chalco, the county seat. There they were put into jail, where they would remain from that day (Saturday) to the following Tuesday.
Saints and elders from the Ozumba district came to our assistance and tried to have the secretary of the town let us go; but in vain … A merchant of Chalco, who was a member of our Church, heard of our plight and brought over his only American mattress for us to lie upon. During the day Mexican Saints brought us food and tried to comfort us. It made tears of gratitude flow to see those dear sisters come into the room loaded down with food and clothing.
[Sister Inclan’s brother], partly blind due to age, had escaped the mob, and had traveled in the night from Tenango del Aire to Amecameca … to warn the Saints of that place of our danger. Our landlady sent a telegram to the elders in Mexico City. (Mortensen)
Elder Aragon, despite his own injuries, cared for the feverish Elder Mortensen. On Sunday morning two more elders – William Walser and Dewy S. Farnsworth – serving in Mexico City arrived from that place bringing a doctor, who treated both of the beaten elders. Elder Farnsworth returned to Mexico City to seek the help of the American consul, while Elder Walser stayed to share prison conditions with his brethren and care for their needs.
With the help of the American consul, both injured elders were soon allowed to go to Mexico City – Elder Aragon to the Mission Home, and Elder Mortensen to the American hospital.
“I was in bed for only five days, but Brother Mortensen had to stay there a little over a month – he had been beaten so brutally on his back. I know the doctors had to draw out the clotted blood that had formed in his body.” (Aragon)
The elders soon returned to work, as companions, but not to tract – that work was temporarily suspended by the mission.
The Saints seemed to have a greater love for us, and many new friends arose on every hand to delight our souls. Our testimonies were greatly strengthened, and even the presidente of Tenango del Aire gave us a special invitation to visit him in his home any time we wished. The greatest part of the testimony I gained was through seeing how Brother Aragon’s testimony had been tried and tested, and found true and steadfast. (Mortensen)
It seems to me now  to be a very long time from those days of trial. What I have related happened about seven or eight months after beginning my mission, which I could not finish because of malaria. But since that terrible night I’ve never been afraid of anything, because I know the Lord will not abandon us when we are faithful. Today, after many years, I have been privileged to come with my wife and eight of my ten children to a temple of God, being sealed to them for eternity. I know positively that this is the gospel of salvation. I know that God lives and cares for us. Truthfully, we can say that His purposes are more powerful than those of men. Perhaps that is why I am still alive. (Aragon)