Review: The History of the Mormons in Argentina

By February 4, 2010

Curbelo, Néstor.  The History of the Mormons in Argentina.  Translated by Erin Jennings.  Salt Lake City:  Greg Kofford Books.

Undeniably, one of the most underrepresented areas of Mormon historiography is the study of the International Church.  Trapped in a historiography that is almost universally dominated by nineteenth century Americanists, Mormonism?s international history often goes unnoticed and unevaluated.  While several reasons?some of which are beyond the control of Mormon historians?account for this underrepresentation, the fact nevertheless remains that Mormon history largely remains a branch of American history in spite of Mormonism?s growing international presence.

Accordingly, Néstor Curbelo?s History of the Mormons in Argentina is an important step toward filling a large hole in the historiography of Mormonism.  To go along with his history of the Church in Argentina, Curbelo has likewise written histories of Mormonism in Uruguay, Paraguay, and Boliva.  Although Curbelo is a native of Uruguay, he has lived most of his adult life in Argentina, where he has worked as the director of the Church?s Institute in Buenos Aires.

As with all histories, Curbelo?s book has both strengths that make it well worth the time to read, and weaknesses that prevent it from becoming a more significant contribution to the historiography.  Perhaps the book?s most important contribution is its wealth of primary information coming from interviews and oral histories.  While some portions of the book are filled with random dates and information, the majority of the book is a rather personal look at the beginnings of the Church in Argentina, with glimpses into the personal lives of the earliest members.  In preparing the book, Curbelo interviewed a number of the earliest members of the Church in Argentina as well as the descendants of those who had died.  By conducting these interviews and recording these stories alone, Curbelo has made an important contribution to Mormon history, and has helped to preserve a history which otherwise might be lost.  It is sincerely hoped that Curbelo will, at some point, deposit his notes of these interviews in an archive where they can be accessed and combed for further information regarding the beginnings of Argentine Mormonism.

Additionally, while the title of the book suggests that it would be entirely provincial, Curbelo acknowledges not only the American origins of the Church, but also the Church?s Latin American origins.  The first two chapters describe Parley P. Pratt?s mission to Chile, and the origins of the Church in Mexico as important preludes to the introduction of Mormonism to Argentina.  While both chapters are rushed and could undoubtedly be expanded and improved, they help to contextualize the remainder of the book and perhaps set a precedent which Americanist Mormon historians would be wise to follow.

While Curbelo recognized the importance of contextualizing the beginnings of Argentine Mormonism within the growth of the Church in other Latin American countries, he did not, unfortunately, contextualize the growth of the Church within the context of Argentine history.  Absent from the book are references to the political chaos which enveloped Argentina during these years.  His chapter on the growth of the Church during the 1970s and 1980s omitted any reference to the Argentine ?Dirty War,? during which, by some estimates, 30,000 Argentines ?disappeared? due to government purges.  While this remains an uncomfortable subject for most Argentines, it nevertheless profoundly affected their lives during that period and would have made an important addition to the book.  One section of the book does refer to an interesting interchange between David O. McKay and Argentine President Juan Perón, but it fails to adequately acquaint the reader with the politics and ideas which Perón adhered to.  Hence, some readers were undoubtedly left to their vague recollections of a supporting character in the movie Evita.

In terms of writing, the book does not always flow, making the book seem a little longer than its 230 pages, but much of this problem may be the result of translation rather than poor writing.  This is not to say that the book is poorly translated, but rather to remind the readers of the difficulties of language translation.  All things considered, Erin Jennings has done a remarkable job in translating Curbelo?s book into English, a process which anyone will agree is by no means easy.

Overall, the book is an important step forward in the study of international Mormonism.  It is to be hoped that in the future, a historian with an adequate understanding of both Mormon and Argentine history will be able to build upon Curbelo?s book and render an even more nuanced history of Mormonism in Argentina.  Indeed it is to be hoped that further books will begin to fill in the story of the International Church.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. “Undeniably, one of the most underrepresented areas of Mormon historiography is the study of the International Church.”

    This seems to particularly be the case when it comes to Saints living in the global South. Thanks for the review.

    Comment by Chris Henrichsen — February 4, 2010 @ 11:40 pm

  2. Great review, Bret. I wonder how much of that lack of local context is due to the fact that the book was first produced in Spanish, and, presumably, for an Argentinian audience–an audience which would have been more familiar with Argentinian issues.

    Comment by Jared T — February 5, 2010 @ 12:24 am

  3. Brett,

    I wonder how much of a role Argentinian nationalism played in the production of the book. If a historian accepts a national narrative without question he or she sometimes feels no need to be in dialogue with this narrative because it is assumed, as Jared seems to be pointing out, that readers will have internalized it to the same degree that the historian has. This happen all the time in the more popular genre of American history.

    Comment by Joel — February 5, 2010 @ 8:08 am

  4. Thanks for the informative review, Brett! It’s very nice to see foundation-creating works of this kind springing up in various places.

    Not to create a threadjack here, but could somebody define the phrase “the International Church” for me? I’m not offended or anything, but it seems to me an imperialist misnomer of an unfortunate kind.

    For example, when I write about Mormon history in Finland, I don’t write about “the international church.” I write about the history of the church in Finland, just as an American scholar may write about the history of the church in the US.

    Or would you like me to write a piece focusing on the hitherto neglected happenings of Jordan River, Utah, and then call it an article on the international church?? 🙂

    Comment by Kim — February 5, 2010 @ 10:43 am

  5. Another book dealing with the history of the church in Argentina, as well as South America, is Mark L. Grover’s A Land of Promise and Prophecy: Elder A. Teodore Tuttle in South America, 1960-65 published by BYU Religious Studies Centers in 2008. This was the era when the chapel construction program was getting underway. I don’t know if it has been translated into Spanish yet.

    Comment by Susan W H — February 5, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

  6. Great comments. I hadn’t thought about the way that Argentine nationalism would have influenced the book. As far as the term “international church,” I suppose I revealed my Americanist leanings in history. 🙂

    Comment by Brett D. — February 5, 2010 @ 6:07 pm

  7. Thanks for the review, Brett. The lack of dialogue with Argentine historiography shouldn’t be that surprising, right? Whatever contribution Curbelo is making to Mormon historiography, he’s an amateur (I don’t mean to start a storm here–amateurs can and do make meaningful contributions), and as such he lacks the professional training that would allow him to engage broader dialogues. We’re always complaining about how U.S. historians write on Mormonism without enough context. Why is it so surprising that Curbelo’s doing the same thing for Argentina? He’s plowing a lot of ground, but future scholars with a better grasp on Argentine and Latin American history will (hopefully) produce better interpretive works.

    Comment by David G. — February 8, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

  8. “International church” is problematic, which reveals more I think about the undeveloped nature of the historiography of Mormonism outside of the U.S. than Brett’s own training as an Americanist. Despite great new work on Mormonism in non-U.S. contexts, I don’t think there’s been enough theoretical work interrogating traditional concepts of center and periphery.

    Comment by David G. — February 8, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

  9. Thanks for the review, Brett.

    Comment by Christopher — February 8, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

  10. While I was on my mission in about 2004 I read Curbelo’s History of the Mormons in Paraguay (in Spanish). If I remember correctly, it also had a chapter or two on Latin American Mormon beginnings – I wonder if they are identical? Curbelo provided perhaps a little bit more context leading up to the entrance of missionaries in Paraguay, noting, for example, the dramatic decline in the male population from the War of the Triple Alliance (or was it the Chaco War?) as well as explaining why some of the earliest converts were German. The book was somewhat stale at times, but still had interesting information (for me it was sad to realized that a lot of the very first converts went inactive – I had been expecting to hear about how they became the first leaders as well).The primary focus, aside from the first converts, was on the lives of individuals who became prominent in the church and a chronology of early ward buildings, stakes, and finally the Asuncion temple. I believe that the books were written more for the members in those countries to get a sense of their spiritual heritage than as contributions to the Mormon historical studies corpus. But they are certainly an important pioneering effort in their own right.

    Comment by Craig M. — February 9, 2010 @ 10:42 am

  11. Craig’s comment piqued my interest so I brought out my copies of his histories of Uruguay and Paraguay in Spanish. I’m actually kind of surprised that these books are of fairly recent release. Uruguay in 2002 and Paraguay in 2003. I looked up the Argentina and it was published in 2000. So, he started with his home, went on to his birth country and then to Paraguay, which shares a lot culturally with Argentina and Paraguay.

    In looking through the Uruguay book there isn’t much national historic context either, but in the Paraguay book there are a few pages like what Craig describes. The LDS historical antecedents are understandably similar, but far from a simple cut and paste. Maybe I’ll get to reviewing these at some point. I’m definitely a fan of efforts like these as I express at the end of my review of the Denton, Texas history.

    Comment by Jared T — February 9, 2010 @ 11:55 am

  12. “In terms of writing, the book does not always flow, making the book seem a little longer than its 230 pages, but much of this problem may be the result of translation rather than poor writing.

    From what I read of the Spanish-language original, I think the problem is more likely in the original, which is quite dry. However, As I understand it, from talking with Erin several years ago when she was in the midst of the translation, Erin doesn’t speak Spanish. Her translation was done using computer aided translation. This also might explain some of the difficulties.

    This is not to say that the book is poorly translated, but rather to remind the readers of the difficulties of language translation. All things considered, Erin Jennings has done a remarkable job in translating Curbelo?s book into English, a process which anyone will agree is by no means easy.”

    Since I’m in the midst of several translation projects (see, I have to agree. We should be grateful for any translations we get.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — February 19, 2010 @ 2:47 pm


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