Taking the Gospel to Mexico

Matthew G. Geilman

Meliton Gonzalez Trejo: Translator, Missionary, Colonizer

Meliton Gonzalez Trejo

A blue-eyed Spaniard from Garganta la Olla,1 Meliton Gonzalez Trejo was small in frame but courageous and resolute.2 Born in 1844 to a family with some financial means, he was able to go to military school, become an officer, and receive advanced education at Bordeaux University in France. His path, though, led him to a life quite different than perhaps he or his family might have expected. On one occasion, Trejo “heard a fellow officer make a remark about a group of ‘Saints’ in the Rocky Mountains who were led there by a prophet of God.” For reasons perhaps not fully understood at the time, he became “filled with an urgent desire to see these people.”3

He sought a military appointment in the Philippines to get him closer to America but, once there, “became so engrossed in his work that the real purpose of his trip was temporarily forgotten.”4 His desire to go to the Rocky Mountains was renewed, however, when he came down with a severe illness. He sought a confirmation from the Lord about what he should do, and then it happened—in answer to his prayer, Meliton had a dream, “a dream which satisfied him completely and which he always considered exceedingly sacred.”5 Prompted by this experience, he settled his affairs in the Philippines and set out to a place and culture largely foreign to him, arriving in San Francisco on July 4, 1874, and in Salt Lake City shortly thereafter. Though Trejo apparently never shared the details of his dream with anyone but President Brigham Young,6 its impact upon him was definite, and the timing of his arrival in Utah was truly remarkable.

A little over a month before Trejo arrived in Utah, Brigham Young had called two men to prepare to serve a mission to Mexico and to translate “extracts from the Book of Mormon.”7 Daniel W. Jones and Henry Brizzee each knew some Spanish,8 but their ability was limited. As Jones noted, “We began to study and prepare for translating. My own feelings were that it would require considerable study, although I understood Spanish quite well. Still to translate for publication required a more thorough scholarship than either of us possessed.”9 Trejo’s arrival in Utah was a great blessing. He was soon baptized and expressed to Brigham Young that “his most fervent desire was to translate the Book of Mormon into the Spanish language.”10 His role in the translation proved invaluable.

This first translation of the Book of Mormon into Spanish, called Trozos Selectos del Libro de Mormon (Selected Passages from the Book of Mormon), consisted of only about 100 pages, but it was an important step in making the Book of Mormon available in Spanish. Deseret News Press printed 1,500 copies, which were taken by horseback to Mexico when the first missionaries left for Mexico in September 1875.11 This first mission to Mexico was by nature more of an exploratory expedition than a traditional proselyting mission. The missionaries mailed hundreds of copies of Trozos Selectos del Libro de Mormon throughout the country, and for the first time, portions of the message of the Book of Mormon were made available to the Spanish-speaking world. Trejo did not serve with this initial exploratory group, but his impact on the mission was significant.12

In the coming months and years, Trejo had his own opportunities to serve as a missionary to Spanish-speaking people. In 1876, he was part of a second missionary group sent to Mexico by Brigham Young. In May 1877, while in Hermosillo, he and his companion, Louis Garff, baptized the first five members of the Church known to have been baptized in “Old Mexico.”13

In 1879, in response to letters from interested individuals in Mexico City,14 Church leaders decided to send Elder Moses Thatcher of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to open missionary work in the heart of the country. Trejo and James Z. Stewart (a member of the original missionary party to Mexico in 1875) were selected to accompany him. Trejo spent about a year sharing the gospel in Mexico City and the surrounding areas. He also continued to translate Church materials into Spanish, including A Voice of Warning (Una voz de amonestación) by Parley P. Pratt15 and several discourses by leaders of the Church. This mission to Mexico City was in many ways the official beginning of the Church in Mexico, and Trejo was a key participant.

After returning home, Stewart and Trejo helped to finish the translation of the Book of Mormon into Spanish, which was published in 1886.16 Though perhaps the importance of this project was understated in their personal records,17 the effect of their work blessed the lives of countless members of the Church in Latin America. Their original translation would be adjusted and revised over time, but their faithful and dedicated work was foundational to taking the restored gospel to the Spanish-speaking world.

First Spanish Book of Mormon

Beyond these initial missions and translation projects, Trejo lived a life full of service and dedication to the gospel. Under assignment from Church leaders, he later settled in Colonia Chuichupa, one of the Mormon colonies in Mexico. He remained there with his family until the Mexican Revolution, and in 1912, they, along with thousands of fellow Saints, were forced to flee to the United States. After securing his family in St. David, Arizona, Trejo went back to Chuichupa to gather some personal belongings, including his diary and the manuscript from the translation of the Book of Mormon into Spanish.

The histories vary regarding what happened when Trejo returned to Chuichupa. According to an account in his son’s journal, while Trejo was back in Mexico, he hid the well-known Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa for a night in the attic of his home. The next day when the army of Venustiano Carranza came looking for Villa, they shot all of Trejo’s cattle, threatened to hang him, and then burned his house to the ground. Trejo was then held against his will in Mexico and forced to teach school for several months without any contact with his family to let them know he was alive. Fortunately, he survived to tell the tale, but tragically, most of his personal records were lost in the fire.18

Just a few years later, in 1917, Trejo passed away and was buried near his humble home in St. David, Arizona. It was said of him that when he related his testimony, he would slap his chest with both hands, saying, The gospel truths came to me like this.”19 Trejo made sacrifices to do a work that he was uniquely qualified and prepared to do at a time when he was much needed. He was a translator, missionary, and colonist, playing an essential though largely unrecognized role in the beginning of the Church in Mexico. His life became woven together with a land and a people who, though far distant from his native Spain, shared with him a common language and love for the gospel.