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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Many colonies were established in the Arizona area by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or, colloquially, the Mormon Church in the second half of the 19th century. Mesa was first settled in 1878 when church leader Daniel Webster Jones led a group from Utah to establish a Mormon settlement at Lehi, now part of the northern suburbs of Mesa. Within months, another group of 85 church members, the First Mesa Company, moved to a mesa (or raised area) nearby where they repaired the canals abandoned by the Hohokam people more than 400 years earlier. A year later, a Second Mesa Company settled just to the east at a spot called Stringtown.

The influence of the Mormons in Mesa was significant from the start. They emphasised family and education, leading to strong community and education systems that still remain today. The first school was opened in 1879, along with many new shops and other businesses run by church members. Canals restored by the Mormons provided a reliable source of water, which was important to agricultural development and allowed growth in the area. The Mesa Canal was widened in 1895 and the flow was sufficient for a power plant to be built. Mesa City was registered in 1878. First mayor Andrew Findlay McDonald regulated saloons and guided the city in what he saw as the right direction. About half of the city’s 37 mayors have been Mormons, as well as many councilors and other leaders over the years.

A Mormon temple in Mesa was discussed as early as 1908, more than a decade before the Mesa Arizona Temple was announced in 1919. A 20 acre site was bought and dedicated in 1921. Church president Heber J. Grant conducted the groundbreaking ceremony in 1922. When finished in 1927, it was the third largest Mormon temple and the largest outside Utah. It became the centerpiece for the city’s Mormon community. As an indication of the strong presence and influence of the church at that time, 200,000 people took a tour through the temple.

In 1945, the Mesa Arizona Temple became the first to conduct ordinances in Spanish or any language other than English. Major renovations and an extension were undertaken in 1974. The temple had 250,000 visitors in 2004. Each year at Christmas, there is a display of 750,000 lights and a nativity scene. The Mesa Arizona Easter Pageant Jesus the Christ, conducted by the temple annually, attracts 150,000 people and lays claim to be the “largest annual outdoor Easter pageant in the world.”

The Mormon Church had missionaries working in the eastern United States from 1830 and missions from 1839. Since then, it has established missions all over the world. Despite the church’s presence in Arizona, the state had no mission for a long time and missionary work was carried out through the Home Missionary Program. It wasn’t until 1943 that the Navajo-Zuni Mission was formed to conduct church teachings to native Americans. It became the Arizona Phoenix Mission in 1984. The Arizona Mesa Mission was finally set up on 1 July 2002. It has 353 registered alumni, who must be returned missionaries, as well as 78 current missionaries and 67 “friends/members.” They promote mission reunions and one is scheduled for 18 September 2009.

In 1900, most of Mesa’s 700 residents were Mormons. Over the following four decades, the population increased tenfold as the Mormons and other whites, Indians, and Hispanics were joined by African Americans, Chinese, and Japanese, and the proportion of Mormons fell steadily. Since the mid 20th century, the city’s population has grown rapidly, and today only 10-15% of residents are Mormons. This hasn’t necessarily reduced the influence of the Mormon Church. The Mesa government is still dominated by church members and the city is “the most concentrated area of Mormon power and influence in the state,” according to the Mesa AZ Corruption Report.

The report suggests there is corruption among the city’s leaders and that getting ahead in business or commerce in Mesa often depends on having good relations with city officials. They also claim that legal action against the city, whatever the complaint, is unlikely to succeed or even get to trial stage, such is the influence of the church. A number of forums and blog sites indicate that young Mormon missionaries in Mesa can be a great source of annoyance and won’t take no for an answer.

The Mormon Church and its members still influence Mesa’s agriculture, government, and society today, as well as the progress and direction of the city. Getting involved in community activities, including education, youth affairs, politics, and business, has always been a church priority and members are encouraged to actively participate.