Apostolic Church of Faith in Jesus Christ, Mexico
(Iglesia Apostólica de la Fe en Cristo Jesús de Mexico)

By Clifton L. Holland

Last revised August 10, 2001


The Apostolic Church in Mexico is a sister denomination to the Apostolic Assembly of Faith in Jesus Christ in the United States of America, and both trace their origins to the early days of the Pentecostal Revival in Los Angeles, California, that began in 1906. Due to a lack of denominational structures prior to the early-1930s, many of the early leaders of Oneness ("Jesus Only") Hispanic Pentecostal churches obtained their ministerial credentials from the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (PAW), which was organized in Los Angeles in 1906 as an interracial body. Both the Apostolic Church and the Apostolic Assembly, early in their development, adopted an episcopal structure of church government.

In the period 1900 and 1930, hundreds of thousands of people from northern Mexico traveled to the United States of America to escape the turmoil of the Revolutionary period (1910-1917) and to find employment, usually in the border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Many of the migrants traveled north via the Mexican national railroad system that connected to U.S. railroads at Loredo and El Paso, Texas, or at Nogales, Arizona, with connections to major cities in the Southwest, including those in California.

Numerous Mexicans who traveled to Los Angeles came into contact with the early Pentecostal Movement, were converted to the Apostolic Faith, and eventually carried the Oneness doctrine back to their homes in Mexico. Between 1914 and 1932, at least 26 Apostolic churches were founded in 12 of Mexico's northern states by migrants who evangelized their hometowns in the border states and then carried the Pentecostal message farther south to Nuevo León, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas and Veracruz. The first known Apostolic Faith church in Mexico was established in 1914 in Villa Aldama, Chihuahua, by Mrs. Romana de Valenzuela, who traveled to Los Angeles in 1912 as a Congregationalist and returned to her hometown in 1914 as a fervent Pentecostal.

Many of the early Apostolics in Mexico had close ties to the Apostolic Faith movement in California, which spread among the growing Spanish-speaking population between San Francisco and San Diego during the period 1910-1930. According to Apostolic historian Manuel Gaxiola, the Mexican Apostolic believers in Los Angeles accepted the "Jesus Only" doctrine that they should be baptized (or rebaptized) only in the name of Jesus Christ, and that "this is the true baptism that saves." This baptismal practice dates to 1909 in Los Angeles, which is four years prior to the controversy that erupted over the "Jesus Only" vs. Trinitarian baptismal formula that sharply divided Pentecostals at the Arroyo Seco Camp Meeting in 1913, held near Pasadena, California. In other matters the Hispanic Apostolics had beliefs and practices similar to the Pentecostal Holiness denominations in the period 1900-1930.

In the 1930s there were three geographical groupings of Apostolic churches in northern Mexico that were formed by migrants who propagated the Pentecostal message among their families, friends and neighbors. (1) The first convention of the Church of the Apostolic Faith (present name adopted in 1944) was held in the city of Torreón, Mexico, in August 1932, when 11 pastors from Torreón (Coahuila), Monterrey (Nuevo León) and Nuevo Loredo (Tamaulipas) met to officially organize themselves as a denomination. They elected Felipe Rivas Hernández (1901-1983) as their first Pastor General (bishop), and he continued to lead the Apostolic Faith movement in Mexico until 1966, when he retired as Presiding Bishop. (2) In 1933 Apostolic Faith pastors in the state of Sinaloa, located on the eastern side of the Gulf of California, held their first convention in the town of Flor de Canela. From the founding of the first Apostolic church in Sinaloa in 1925, the Apostolic leaders had maintained a fraternal relationship with the Apostolic Assembly in California; but in 1936 the Sinoloa Apostolics became officially affiliated with the Apostolic association in Torreón. (3) During the 1920s, Antonio Nava Castañeda and other Apostolic pastors evangelized and planted churches in the state of Baja California, which were affiliated with the Apostolic Assembly in California until 1937, when they were transferred to the supervision of the Apostolic Church in Mexico under bishop Rivas Hernández.

During 1928, Nava laid aside his responsibilities in California as Pastor General of the Apostolic Assembly and traveled to his hometown of Nazas, Durango, both to see his relatives and to visit the growing number of Apostolic churches in northern Mexico. Navas spent time with Rivas and his family in Torreón and then traveled with Rivas to preach and teach the Apostolic message among the churches supervised by Rivas, which were located in eight states. These activities strengthened the status and authority of Rivas in the eyes of other Apostolic leaders and their members throughout northern Mexico. Also, Rivas printed ministerial credentials in the name of the "Apostolic Assembly of Faith in Jesus Christ" with his headquarters address in Torreón, rather than the USA address. As the authority of Rivas increased, some of his rivals either distanced themselves even farther from his leadership or decided to submit to his authority and work together for the good of the Apostolic ministry in Mexico. In 1931, Rivas became the "official representative" in north-central Mexico of the Apostolic Assembly of California, according to a document signed by Antonio Nava and Bernardo Hernández, Pastor General and Secretary General respectively of the Apostolic Assembly.

However, some of the members of the early Apostolic movement were drawn away by the prophetic witness of two charismatic leaders, known as Saul and Silas, whose real names were Antonio Muñoz and Francisco Flores, respectively, who appeared in northern Mexico in 1924. The bearded and unwashed prophets, with similarities to the biblical John the Baptist, preached a message of repentance and faith, which required people to denounce their old religion and material possessions, and to be rebaptized in the "Name of Jesus." Their "authority" was derived from "special divine revelation" through their own prophecies, dreams and visions, rather than from the Bible, which was a relatively unknown and unread book in those days in northern Mexico. The Saul and Silas movement produced a great deal of confusion and dissention within the Apostolic churches during the decade 1925-1935, causing some Apostolic pastors and members--including entire congregations--to leave the Apostolic Faith movement. Another internal problem in Rivas home church in Torreón caused much conflict among Apostolics in the 1920s, with the result that some Apostolic leaders and churches formed another movement, which later became affiliated with the Spiritual Christian Evangelical Church with headquarters in Tampico, Tamaulipas, founded by Scotsman Joseph Stewart (1871-1926) in 1926. According to Gaxiola, there are few doctrinal differences between these two denominations.

As a denomination, the Apostolic Church grew slowly over a large geographical area of northern Mexico during the period 1930-1960. At the general convention in 1940, only 2,113 Apostolics were reported in the whole country, but by 1954 the denomination listed 8,313 members; and in 1960 there were 12,106 members, according to Gaxiola. During the 1930s, Rivas' influence and authority increased among Apostolics in northern Mexico and was extended to the Pacific states of Sinoloa, Nanyarit and Jalisco. At the convention in 1934, the Apostolic churches in Mexico began to feel part of a national movement that was separate from the Apostolic Assembly in California, but that maintained fraternal ties to the latter as the source of the Mexican Apostolic movement. Between 1933 and 1937, at least 24 new Apostolic churches were organized in Mexico, almost as many as in the previous period: 1914-1932. During the period 1937-1946, another 96 churches were formed at the national level, which indicates a time of significant growth as an organization.

Apparently, many of the leaders of the Apostolic movement were members of the growing middle class of small businessmen, artisans, shopkeepers and independent campesinos (small landowners rather than landless peasants), who were somewhat independent of the large landowners and the governing class. There was a certain amount of upward social mobility among the leadership ranks of the Apostolic Church based on merit and faithfulness as unpaid church workers. Leadership training was accomplished by pastors who selected and supervised natural leaders, who proved their worth by serving as deacons, evangelists and assistant pastors in existing churches and by helping to establish new congregations in nearby areas.

In the convention of 1935, Rivas was recognized (not elected) as Pastor General, José Ortega Aguilar (1908-?) as Secretary General, and Manuel Tapia as Treasurer General. In the conventions of 1940 and 1941, the first two posts remained the same and Aurelio Rodríguez was named Treasurer General, Maclovio Gaxiola López (1914-1971) was appointed Bishop of the Pacific Coast, Felipe S. Coronado as Bishop of Chihuahua, and Guadalupe García Enciso as Bishop of Durango. In 1942, three pastors were appointed as district supervisors: José Ortega for Coahuila, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas and northern Veracruz; Donaciano Gaxiloa López for Sinaloa; and Reyes Ruelas for Sonora.

However, it was not until 1945 that the Apostolic Church in Mexico approved its first constitution, which was almost identical to the one adopted by the Apostolic Assembly in California during 1944-1945, and the two editorial committees worked together on producing the various drafts and the final copies of the two constitutions, but with slightly different names for the two sister organizations. Mainly, the constitution, which took effect in 1946, formalized and unified an organizational structure that had developed in the two countries since about 1914, while upgrading the requirements and obligations for different church officers at the local, regional and national levels. It also defined procedures for electing and removing people from office at different levels of leadership, and it sought to prevent the formation of dynasties of church government at the higher levels.

Other important developments occurred during the 1940s and 1950s. The denominational magazine "The Expositor" began to be published in 1943, and two years later the first Sunday school lessons were published on a regular basis. In 1946, the Apostolic Theological Institute was established in Mexico City. In 1948, the Apostolic Church began to send out its first missionaries to Central America: Maclovio Gaxiola to Nicaragua in 1948, Leonardo Sepúlveda Treviño to El Salvador in 1951, and J. Guadalupe Ramírez to Guatemala in 1952. Later, missionaries were sent to Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba and Spain. Maclovio Gaxiola returned to Mexico in the early 1950s and served as supervisor of the Central District, president of the Apostolic Church from 1958-1962, Treasurer General and Bishop of Baja California from 1962-1966, and president again from 1966-1970.

At the national level, when Maclovio Gaxiola stepped down as president (Presiding Bishop) of the denomination in 1970, the Apostolic Church reported 459 organized churches and 505 preaching points ("campos blancos") with 15,244 baptized members and a total church community of about 40,000; also, there were 13 bishops, 446 pastors, 115 assistant pastors, 367 ordained deacons and 33 evangelists.

The new president of the Apostolic Church for the term 1970-1974 was Maclovio's nephew, Manuel de Jesús Gaxiola, age 43, a graduate of the School of World Mission (Master of Arts in Missiology, 1970) at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA, and a representative of the newer generation of trained professionals. Manuel Gaxiola was an innovator who brought many changes to the denomination's operational structure, including a new emphasis on "church growth" and on improved fraternal relationships with the Apostolic Assembly in Los Angeles, California, and the United Pentecostal Church in Hazelwood, Missouri. In the convention of 1974, the following statistics were reported: 471 organized churches and 1,131 ministers in 13 districts; although two districts did not report their membership, there were a total of 17,161 members in the other 11 districts, or about 19,000 members nationally.

Isidro Pérez Ramírez, a pastor in Tepic, Nayarit, was elected president of the Apostolic Church in 1974 for a term of four years. Manuel Gaxiola was chosen to be director of the department of Christian Education for this same term, but in 1978 Gaxiola was again elected as Presiding Bishop (1978-1981). In 1982, Manuel Rodríguez Castorena was elected as Presiding Bishop (1982-1986), after having served for eight years as Secretary General of the national board of directors.

At that time Manuel Gaxiola received a scholarship to continue his education in England, where he received a Ph.D. in Theology from the University of Birmingham; he returned to Mexico and, later, served on the board of directors of the Society of Pentecostal Studies (he held several positions, including at least one term as President of that body), and wrote an updated version of La Serpiente y la Paloma, a history of the Apostolic Church in Mexico (1994). Gaxiola also served for many years on the board of directors of the Mexican Bible Society, an interdenominational organization involved in Bible translation and distribution. Despite the historical tensions between the Oneness and Trinitarian branches of the Pentecostal movement, and between these two traditions and non-Pentecostals in general, Manuel Gaxiola has been one of the bridge-builders of fraternal relationships among Protestants in Mexico and elsewhere, and in so doing helped his denomination achieve a higher level of respect and acceptance in a generally hostile religious environment.

In 1986, Abel Zamora Velázquez was elected as Presiding Bishop for the term 1986-1990, but he died of cancer in 1987 and was replaced by Miguel Austín Reyes, the former bishop of Chihuahua and Secretary of Missions and Evangelism. From 1958 to 1986 the national offices of the Apostolic Church were in Mexico City, but when Zamora became Presiding Bishop the offices were moved to Guadalajara, Jalisco. The first headquarters of the Apostolic Faith movement in Mexico were in the city of Torreón, Cuahuila, from 1932 to 1958.

Domingo Torres Alvarado served as Presiding Bishop from 1990-1994. Torres was an experienced leader, having served as pastor of several congregations (including two in Mexico City), director of the national literature department, professor in the Apostolic Theological Seminary, Secretary of Social Assistance, Secretary of Evangelism and Bishop of the District of Tamaulipas. He is also a graduate of the Hispanic Ministries Department at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA, where he received the Master of Arts degree during the early 1980s.

According to Brierly, in 1995 the Apostolic Church of Mexico had 1,640 organized churches with about 41,600 members, with a projected growth of 1,810 churches and 46,400 members by 2000. Today, the Apostolic Church of Faith in Jesus Christ is one of the ten largest Protestant denominations in Mexico.

Dr. Clifton L. Holland

SOURCES:

Brierly, Peter, editor. World Churches Handbook. London: Christian Research, 1977.

Gaxiola, Manuel J. La Serpiente y la Paloma: Historia, Teología y Análisis de la Iglesia Apostólica de la Fe en Cristo Jesús de México (1914-1994). Second Edition. Nacaulpan, Mexico: Libros Pyros, 1994.

Holland, Clifton L. The Religious Dimension in Hispanic Los Angeles: A Protestant Case Study. South Pasadena, CA: William Carey Press, 1974.

Ortega, José A., editor. Historia de la Asamblea Apostólica de la Fe en Cristo Jesus, 1916-1966. Mentone, CA: Editorial Committee of the Asamblea Apostólica, 1966.