Although missionaries were first called to Argentina at the request of German colonists, the desire of finding and teaching “real” Lamanites was a prime motive for opening the South American Mission. The first missionaries – three general authorities: Melvin J. Ballard, an apostle, and Rey L. Pratt and Rulon S. Wells, two presidents of the Seventy – arrived in Buenos Aires in the last weeks of 1925. They found immediate success among the Germans who had summoned them, and the work spread relatively quickly into the Spanish-speaking majority, and among Italian, Irish, and other European immigrants in the neighborhood of Buenos Aires.
The dream of contacting Lamanites was never far below the surface. By February 1927, only a year into the work in South America, the new mission president, Reinhold Stoof, was making plans to begin that work. The Indians he had met in Buenos Aires did not meet his ideal of “Lamanites” – these were usually the mixed-race children of European immigrants and “pure” Indians, and lived at the margins of Buenos Aires society. “Real” Lamanites, he thought, might more easily be found in the Argentine interior, at a distance from the cosmopolitanism of Buenos Aires. He decided to send a part of his very small corps of elders to Jujuy Province, at the extreme northwest corner of Argentina. This region had been suggested by Elder Ballard before he left South America.
Elders Sharp, Christian, and Merrell reached the city of Jujuy in March, 1927, and held their first public meeting in a park there on March 29. Elder Sharp was the only one with much knowledge of Spanish (he had been transferred from the Mexican Mission) and took the lead. He wrote to President Stoof that people sat on park benches to listen to the elders; about 60 listened to the entire presentation, in addition to those who paused briefly and moved on. The elders distributed tracts after their meeting, and in a few days were holding small cottage meetings and selling copies of the Book of Mormon.
And they did meet Indians in Jujuy – two Indian sisters were so interested that they walked through a severe rainstorm to attend a scheduled meeting. But the elders found the same “problems” with the Indians in Jujuy as they had found in Buenos Aires: It was not “justifiable to work among the class of Indians who live around the cities, because they are mostly half-breeds and a very low class of people.” The elders left Jujuy after only a few weeks.
“But I would still advocate a work among full-blood Indians,” President Stoof urged. He read a newspaper notice of a labor dispute in the province of Chaco, northwest of Buenos Aires but not quite so far away as Jujuy. “A chief of an Indian tribe advised his people not to work for the white colonists during the harvest because of the poor wages the Indians will receive from them. This little notice showed me that the Indians live in tribes there under a chief and that this chief has so much influence over his people that he can command them not to work for the white men.” This show of native independence “verified my opinion that in the Chaco there may be a good field of labor among the Indians.” He decided to go to Chaco himself, accompanied by one elder, Waldo I. Stoddard, to survey the field. After all, President Stoof recalled, “this important work must be done, and I have no rest in my heart. Brother Ballard has blessed and dedicated this great South American Continent also for this purpose, to bring the glad message to the Lamanites, and I feel that I have to work for this purpose.”
Elder Stoddard left an interesting account of their brief survey of Charata, in Chaco Province, in May, 1927. It is easy to read in his report the expectation, or maybe just the hope, that the two elders would enjoy a classic Book of Mormon experience in the mold of Alma and Ammon and Aaron and Omner and Himni.
The trip of Elders Stoof and Stoddard to the small town of Charata, a small settlement in the middle of the vast plains of northern Argentina populated by German colonists, Argentines and half breed Indians, proved to be very interesting. The entire distance from Buenos Aires to Charata, about 800 miles, failed to reveal an elevation of land with a height of more than a few feet above the surrounding territory. All was an immense plain, only slightly cultivated, but covered with a plentiful supply of grass; and, in the northern part, with alternate areas of hardwood forests and small ranches of cotton, peanut plants and castor oil fields.
According to all reports obtainable, it was learned that a few scattered tribes of Indians, peaceful and civilized but residing under the power of their own chief, lived near Charata. To visit with these tribes was the object of the journey, to see, if they could speak Spanish and would be interested in hearing of the Gospel or at least to see if they would be glad to hear of the history of their forefathers.
Upon arriving in Charata, about five o’clock in the evening, the town was found to be enveloped in a cloud of dust as it was the dry season and the heavily laden wagons bringing the harvests to town certainly filled the atmosphere with dust. A kind German family furnished a room for the voyagers and cheerfully withdrew water from a fifty foot well – for the water level is very far below the surface of the ground there – for washing purposes. Also they gave the desired information as to the whereabouts of Indian tribes.
The next afternoon, loaded in a Ford truck with a bunch of supplies going from an importing house to a small trading post in the forests, the two brethren headed for the Lamanites. It was a wonderful Fall afternoon, and the ride through the semi-tropical forests, full of chattering parrots and flocks of vultures, and the occasional appearance of small ranch houses surrounded by cotton, corn or castor oil fields, gave the travellers a new experience. Also, it was a peculiar setting with Elder Stoddard seated on a huge whisky barrel (full), in a Ford truck riding through semi-tropical forests to carry a message to Indian tribes, while Elder Stoof chatted freely with the German driver. Upon arriving at the trading post, it was found that the storekeeper did not have accommodations for guests, but through the influence of the truck driver, a German farmer living on a cotton plantation with his wife and family, furnished us with a bed for the night. Also, upon learning that we were missionaries he kindly consented to drive us in his coach to visit the chief of the tribe in his vicinity.
The particular tribe in this vicinity consists of about 1700 families, according to unauthoritative reports, all under the control of one chief, although quite widely scattered. Also they have the privilege of settling down and cultivating the land if they choose; if not, the government will take it from them and sell it to colonists.
As we approached the humble little shack of mud and straw, the home of the chief, we encountered the kind old chief who was chopping wood. He immediately greeted us cordially by shaking hands with us and chatted friendly with our German host. Within a few minutes a group of young fellows gathered around while the many kiddies and women shyly remained in the distance. We tried to explain to the amiable old chief the object of our visit and to present him with a Book of Mormon. However, after many attempts to explain in various ways our mission, it was found that he could not understand us. evidently their knowledge of Spanish is confined to the “price of cotton” and a few friendly greetings. We also tried to find if they believed in some kind of a God or a Great Spirit, but either they could not understand us or else their social system does not include a religious belief in any way similar to ours. It seems they have adopted some of the vices of the White Man, but have not accepted any truths of Christianity.
However, we had a pleasant visit, succeeding in taking several snap shots of the men and groups of the kiddies and their mothers. The obedience of the children in obeying the chief when we offered them pieces of chocolate was especially noteworthy. They did not fight or rush to get an extra piece but patiently waited for their turn. truly, even though they were poorly dressed and extremely dirty, they should make an attentive group of students if a person could speak to them in their own language.
The elders would next pin their hopes on Bolivia as the place to introduce the work among the Indians of South America. One elder had visited La Paz on his return to the United States, and had paused to do a little proselyting. “There he found a fine type of Indians, and in his tracting he met with good success. He said that La Paz is his best field of labor he could find in all his mission … According to his reports it seems to me that Bolivia would be an ideal country to start missionary work among the Lamanites of South America. They speak their own language too, but understand enough Spanish, as Brother Sharp told me, that the Gospel may be preached to them in Spanish. Also it seems that the majority of the Bolivian people are Indians. I am waiting anxiously [to do] a possible work among the Lamanites in Bolivia. I would be more than happy to see a wonderful work established among the Lamanites.”
Eventually, of course, that “wonderful work” was established. But that’s another post.