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Mormon Battalion Monument

The next time you are traveling between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, give yourselves an extra 15 minutes or so. Turn off at the Budaghers exit and go south about a quarter mile along the west frontage road. There you will find a stele topped by a handcart wheel — a monument to the first members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to come to New Mexico.

Earliest times

The monument recognizes the 500-plus men of the so-called Mormon Battalion, a part of the 1,700-man Army of the West led by Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny. This army came into Nuevo Mexico along the Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail in 1846 to claim the province for the United States during the Mexican-American War. They would continue on to southern California, completing an almost 2,000 trek from their starting point in Missouri. Accompanying the men were 33 women and 51 children, although only four of the women would complete the journey to California.

In addition to being the first members of their faith to enter New Mexico, the men, women and children in the Mormon Battalion were the first members of the faith to enter Valencia County when they camped near Tomé Hill on their way to California. Despite entering the county, they were soldiers on their way to war and there were no reports of theological interactions with the Catholics of the Rio Abajo.

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Kearny’s camp near Tomé Hill in 1846.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, originally called the Church of Christ, was founded in 1830 in Palmyra, N.Y., by a 24-year-old man named Joseph Smith Jr. Smith published a book titled “The Book of Mormon,” which he and others declared to be a translation of a set of golden plates which he had been given by the Angel Moroni. Smith’s translation of the plates described a civilization in North and South America that had been visited by Jesus Christ following his death in first century Palestine.

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Title page from the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon

People in western New York found Smith’s writings controversial and threatening, so Smith moved his growing set of followers first to Kirtland, Ohio, and then to Missouri. Due to threats and violence, the Saints, as they came to call themselves, moved on to Nauvoo, Ill., in 1839.

After five controversial years in Nauvoo, Smith was jailed in nearby Carthage, Ill. On June 27, 1844, a mob rushed the jail and assassinated Smith. Two years after Smith’s death, the Saints moved west to the Utah Territory under the leadership of Brigham Young. Some people made this trek west pulling two-wheeled, hand-drawn carts, hence the wheel atop the Mormon Battalion monument.

In fact, the Mormon Battalion was recruited as a part of an arrangement between President James K. Polk and Brigham Young for U.S. government assistance for the Saints in their relocation to the Utah Territory.

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Mormon handcart statue in Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

Based on texts in “The Book of Mormon” and on the prophecies of Joseph Smith, the church believed that some or all of the Native American peoples, whom they referred to as Lamanites, were the descendants of members of the early civilization described in “The Book of Mormon.” In particular, they believed that these people were descended from the tribe of Manasseh as described in Genesis. For this reason, Young and other leaders in the church decreed that an important mission of the church was proselytizing to the Native Americans in the West, including those in the Territory of New Mexico.

Into New Mexico

In January 1876, a group of men led by Daniel Jones were sent to Mexico on an evangelical mission. Two of these men, Ammon Tenney and Robert Smith, decided to leave the group in El Paso and return north to proselytize among the Native Americans in New Mexico. They traveled to Isleta, Laguna and Acoma with little success, but found a much more receptive audience in Zuni, where they baptized more than 100 converts.

When word reached Brigham Young of the success at Zuni, he asked James Brown, a veteran of the Mormon Battalion, to raise a group of “good men” to go to Zuni because “the Spirit of the Lord is upon them, and they need a few men among them who will teach them the truth.”

The Zunis welcomed the new missionaries, but asked that they locate their settlement a few miles east of the Pueblo. Led by Lorenzo Hatch and Ammon Tenney, the missionaries complied, moving first to San Lorenzo (also known as Tinaja) and then a few miles further east to Savoia in far western Valencia (now Cibola) County. In early 1877, Hatch and his followers were joined by Ernst Tietjen and Luther Burnham.

In December 1879, missionary Wilford Woodruff returned to the Pueblos of Isleta, Laguna and Acoma. His success, or lack thereof, is not recorded, but he referred to these Native Americans as Nephites, a tribal name from “The Book of Mormon,” and called them a “noble-minded people.”

The residents of Savoia struggled almost from the start. Winters were severe, crops were dismal and the area was struck by a smallpox epidemic brought on by some infected Saints moving west from Arkansas. In 1883, the Savoia missionary community was relocated to nearby Ramah with Ernst Tietjen named the presiding elder.

After the relocation to Ramah, much of the evangelical work in western Valencia County ended, although the converts continued to practice their religion in Ramah and other parts of far-western New Mexico.

Back to Valencia County

Before going further, we need to describe the Church’s hierarchical structure. Catholics have dioceses, deaneries and parishes; Protestants have synods and conferences; and the Saints have areas, stakes, wards, conferences or districts, and branches.

An area is a major geographical subdivision, such as Europe or Southwest North America. Each area is divided into stakes which, in turn, have five to 10 congregations called wards. The term stake comes from a verse in the book of Isaiah, which draws the analogy between the Church and a tent secured by stakes. The term ward probably arises from the usage of that term, common in the Midwest and East, referring to a political subdivision that elects its own leaders.

Locations where there are too few congregants to form a stake are referred to as conferences or districts and are generally treated as mission areas. The local areas within districts where people gather to worship are referred to as branches.

With this structure in mind, the next major step in the story of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Valencia County does not come from the west but from the north.

Church activities in Albuquerque began in 1925. By 1957, there were four branches of the West New Mexico District in the Duke City. This number of congregants was deemed sufficient for the Albuquerque Stake to be formed, with the four branches upgraded to wards.

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A front view of the new stake center in Los Lunas.

In May 1959, a branch of the Albuquerque Stake was formed in Los Lunas. The initial membership consisted of 18 families and 56 members. The first branch president was commercial pilot Alden Stradling, and the congregation met in a local real estate office run by Clive and Hallie Carr of Los Lunas.

Only one month after the formation of the Los Lunas branch, ground was broken for a chapel on land donated by Joe and Birdie James on James Street, just west of U.S. 85 in north Los Lunas. Using mostly volunteer labor by members of the branch (80 percent of the support came from the branch and the other 20 percent from church headquarters in Salt Lake City), the chapel was completed and dedicated in 1963. As the branch continued to grow, the chapel was enlarged with meeting rooms, classrooms and other facilities added between 1970 and the early 1980s.

In an aerial view of the first James Street church, the original church is the small building in the top center. The white buildings to the left and below are early additions and the pitched roof section is the final addition which included a new sanctuary and an athletic facility.

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Aerial view showing the old and new complexes. 

By 1973, the branch had grown sufficiently to become a ward of the Albuquerque Stake, and Sandia engineer Ivan Waddoups, the branch president since 1971, was named bishop of the new ward. The ward served branches from Isleta on the north to Bernardo on the south and from Laguna on the west to Mountainair and Estancia on the east. Shortly after the initial formation, Laguna became a branch of the Albuquerque Stake, and the branches on the east side of the Manzanos were transferred to the East Albuquerque Stake.

In June 1982, Waddoups was called to serve as the president of the Albuquerque South Stake, then one of four stakes in the Albuquerque area, and Johann Seaman became bishop of the Los Lunas Ward. Because the ward had grown to 800 members, it was split with each of the two new wards reporting to the Albuquerque South Stake. Los Lunas No. 1 served the west side of the river with Steve Sheffield as bishop, and Los Lunas No. 2 (later renamed the Valencia Ward) served the east side of the river with Seaman retained as bishop. Both wards shared the Los Lunas chapel.

The original church complex in Los Lunas was replaced with a new chapel in 1998 on the site of a former chile field. This impressive new facility became the headquarters for the Albuquerque South Stake with Cayetano Aguilar as president.

The Albuquerque South Stake was reorganized with some boundary changes two years later, on May 21, 2000, and renamed the Los Lunas Stake with Reid Grigg from Socorro as president.

The old complex was razed and turned into an athletic field and parking lot.

The two Los Lunas wards were further subdivided in 1995 with the creation of the Belen ward with James Hanchett as the bishop. This new ward met in the Los Lunas building until the construction of the beautiful church for the new ward on Route 47 just south of the Reinken Avenue bridge was completed in 2006.

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The Belen church

Today the Los Lunas Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continues to thrive with a total membership of more than 3,750. These congregants are served by six English-speaking wards (two in Los Lunas, one in Belen, one in Socorro and two in southwest Albuquerque), one Spanish-speaking ward (in southwest Albuquerque), one Spanish-speaking branch (named the Tomé branch but meeting in Belen), and two English-speaking branches (one for single adults in Los Lunas and one on the Alamo reservation). Three of these wards/branches meet in the Los Lunas chapel. Other buildings that are used by these members are in Alamo, Socorro and southwest Albuquerque.

During the course of my research for this article, I was privileged to speak with several individuals from the Los Lunas Stake. Larry Schoof, Ivan Waddoups and Vern Payne not only provided information about the formation of the local Latter Day Saints community, but also painted a picture of a vibrant, faith-and-family-based church that is concerned not only for the good of their membership but also for the good of the community in which they live.

As a result of these discussions, I was able to develop an image of the church that went far beyond the simple chronology and the brick-and-mortar aspects of the organization. One of the important aspects to note at the outset is that there is no paid clergy in the church. All members who serve in leadership, teaching or preaching roles have outside jobs or are homemakers. They serve in church positions because they are called to do so by church leaders and by their own prayer life.

For example, Megan Ford and her family currently attend the Valencia Ward in the Los Lunas Stake. In chatting with her and her 11-year-old son, Derek, it was clear how integrated their family and church life are. She participates in the Women’s Relief Society and has been both a Sunday School teacher and a ward- and stake-level primary school administrator.

A college-educated, stay-at-home mom who home-schools her children, she feels this is one of the best ways she can share her faith with her family and others.

Derek was very enthusiastic about his participation in church activities, noting that they are fun and involve lots of singing, videos, games and treats. He also noted activities he participates in outside of Sunday School. Megan emphasizes the primary school program not only happens on Sunday, but is designed to encourage faith-based family activities all week long. It’s very clear she and her family feel that church and home life should be essentially indistinguishable.

Melanie Park has been active in local church activities for more than 25 years. She said that women play a strong role in both education and community outreach. The Women’s Relief Society, which has its roots in the widespread Benevolent Society movement that provided a welfare safety net in the early nineteenth century, provides physical help to families in need, provides disaster relief support locally, nationally and internationally, and provides faith-based help to families facing challenging personal or domestic situations.

Melanie noted that the church has often been criticized for the fact that men and women have distinct and separate roles in the church. However, she pointed out that she has served on numerous high-level committees with both male and female church leadership and that “her voice has always been heard and her suggestions and input have been considered and, in many cases, implemented.” Melanie also emphasizes the importance of integrating formal church life and day-to-day life.

Martha Larsen has recently joined the church. She was drawn to the faith because missionaries from the church were able to share particular Scripture passages that she felt “spoke directly to my particular concerns.” Since joining the Los Lunas Ward, she feels like she and her family have been warmly welcomed and made to feel loved and valued by the congregation. Her enthusiasm for her new-found faith and her new church family were palpable.

Another well-known aspect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is its emphasis on genealogy. This is based on their belief that families will live together into eternity. For that reason, one of their common slogans is, “Families are Forever!” The Los Lunas Stake supports this effort with a very active and knowledgeable genealogical staff which, incidentally, is available to any local individuals who are interested in discovering more about their own ancestry.

I was raised in a small town with a strong Latter-day Saints community. I was a member of a Boy Scout Troop sponsored by the local Latter-day Saints church. I have many close friends who are members of the Latter-day Saints, and I have to say that, despite theological differences between their beliefs and my own (full disclosure — I am Catholic), I can say without reservations that they are some of the best, most caring and most beautiful people I know.

I think this statement from a recent Latter-day Saints church conference probably sums it up best, “How we live our religion is far more important that what we say about our religion.”

From initial missionary forays in the late 1800s to a vibrant set of churches and an active set of congregants, the story of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Valencia County is truly a story of perseverance and dedication.

(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society. 

John Taylor

John Taylor

Author and Historian 

The author of this month’s column is a retired engineer from Sandia National Laboratories and board member of the Valencia County Historical Society. He is the author or co-author of 14 books on New Mexico history, including “Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem in the Rio Abajo,” “A River Runs through Us,” “Tragic Trails and Enchanted Journeys,” and “Mountains, Mesas, and Memories,” all co-edited with Dr. Richard Melzer. 

Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the author’s only and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)

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