The Mormon Moment

The Church of Latter-day Saints grows by leaps and bounds

U.S. News and World Report/November 13, 2000
By Jeffery L. Sheler

The gleaming white spire of luna pearl rises high above the tree line, topped by a golden angel that glitters in the hot Texas sun. Deep inside the air-conditioned chambers below, white-clothed Mormons pad about in luxuriously decorated rooms, performing secret rituals aimed at securing eternal rewards for themselves, their families, and their ancestors.

To the casual observer, this new temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may seem strangely out of place in a Texas bastion of Baptists and Big Oil. But the recent dedication of the massive $17 million edifice in a northwest Houston suburb, like the 31 other Mormon temples that have opened so far this year (bringing to 100 the number of Mormon temples worldwide), is a tangible sign of the rising fortunes of this unique American religious movement. Once an obscure and isolated sect, born and bred in controversy, the Salt Lake City-based church is finding a home in the least likely places, from Houston to Helsinki and from Tampa to Tokyo.

By almost any measure, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the world's richest and fastest-growing religious movements. In the 170 years since its founding in upstate New York, the LDS church has sustained the most rapid growth rate of any new faith group in American history. Since World War II, its ranks have expanded more than 10-fold, with a worldwide membership today of 11 million - more than half outside the United States. In North America, Mormons already outnumber Presbyterians and Episcopalians combined. If current trends hold, experts say Latter-day Saints could number 265 million worldwide by 2080, second only to Roman Catholics among Christian bodies. Mormonism, says Rodney Stark [often referred to as a "cult apologist"] , professor of sociology and religion at the University of Washington, "stands on the threshold of becoming the first major faith to appear on Earth since the prophet Mohammed rode out of the desert."

Church leaders express little surprise. The LDS message "strikes a spiritual resonance in people," says Elder Neal Maxwell, one of the church's 12 Apostles, a body of lay leaders near the top of the LDS hierarchy. Indeed, say religion experts, Mormonism's unique doctrines along with its emphasis on family and wholesome living may help explain why so many spiritual seekers are drawn to the LDS church. But there are other, more mundane reasons. Among them, say the experts, are an aggressive missionary program that enlists more than 60 percent of all young Mormons; a powerful hierarchy of lay leaders who maintain organizational discipline and marshal the church's vast resources with a businesslike efficiency unrivaled in other religious movements; and a highly motivated membership that submits in overwhelming numbers to the church's strict moral code and to its taxing demands on their time, money, and allegiance. "We have a demanding religion," says Gordon B. Hinckley, the church's president, prophet, and chief spiritual leader, "and that's one of the things that attracts people to this church."

Being flush with cash doesn't hurt either. The church keeps a tight lid on its financial records, but bits and pieces of information extracted over the years by journalists and former church members offer a tantalizing glimpse into the depth and breadth of the Mormon financial empire. In their 1999 Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, journalists Richard N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling estimate the church's assets at $25 billion to $30 billion, and annual revenue approaching $6 billion, at least $5.3 billion of which comes from member contributions (officials say tithing - the giving of 10 percent of one's income - remains the primary source of church revenues). In recent years, the church has divested itself of some commercial assets, including banks, hospitals, and manufacturing plants. But it continues to amass farm and ranch land, is heavily invested in stocks and securities, and operates a far-flung media empire that includes two television stations, more than a dozen radio stations, and a newspaper. Besides its opulent temples, traditionally located in major Mormon population centers, the church owns and operates more than 12,000 local churches, or meetinghouses, throughout the world. Its real estate holdings are valued in the billions.

Yet as Harold Bloom noted in his 1992 book, The American Religion, beyond the inner circle of the Mormon hierarchy, "no one really knows what portion of the liquid wealth in America's portfolios is held by the Latter-day Saints Church." Even so, it is clear, wrote Bloom, that "Mormon financial and political power is exerted in Washington to a degree far beyond what one would expect from one voter in 50."

That influence has been hard won. In its early years, the LDS church was widely regarded by outsiders with suspicion and outright disdain. Its members, many of whom practiced "the divine principle" of polygamy, were run out of Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. The movement's leader and founding prophet, Joseph Smith, was murdered by an angry mob in 1844. Years later, the stronghold where the Mormon faithful had settled, now Utah, was denied statehood until after the church officially abandoned its practice of polygamy in 1890.

Although violent opposition has long since faded, the church has continued to face almost unrelenting controversy over its origins. From the beginning, critics have disputed and ridiculed Smith's claim that an angel led him to a set of golden plates hidden in a woods near his home in Palmyra, N.Y. The plates were said to contain the sacred history of an ancient Israelite civilization in North America, along with teachings said to have come from Jesus during a post-Resurrection visit to America. Smith published his translation as the Book of Mormon.

Detractors have dismissed Smith's story as religious fantasy and the Book of Mormon as coarse fiction filled with clumsily reworked passages from the King James Version of the Bible. They argue that there is no archaeological evidence of an ancient Israelite sojourn in America - although some Mormon scholars say a link may exist to the ancient Mayan culture. Other critics contend that Smith, a former Mason, drew upon Masonic rituals rather than divine revelation when he instituted Mormon temple rites.

But today, religion experts note, the LDS church is widely respected for its devotion to faith and family, and its pioneer past is celebrated as an integral part of the American saga. Such a dramatic shift in public perception has not come easily or by accident. In 1995, leaders hired an international public-relations firm to combat what they saw as unfair characterizations of Mormons in the media. One of its first efforts was to encourage the redesign of the church's logo to emphasize the centrality of Jesus Christ in LDS theology. "We don't see it so much as PR," says Maxwell, "as trying to define ourselves, rather than . . . letting others define us." Church headquarters is gearing up for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and plans to take full advantage of the limelight.

The afterlife. Savvy media relations aside, LDS leaders emphasize the church's unique doctrines and beliefs. Among LDS teachings, say church leaders and others, none has proved to be more attractive to potential converts than the church's view of the afterlife. Mormons teach that only "sons of perdition"lapsed Mormons who betray the church and its teachings face eternal punishment. Everyone else will at least make it into the "telestial kingdom," a sort of third-rate Paradise where one spends eternity apart from God. The most faithful attain the "celestial kingdom," where they commune directly with God and may themselves become gods and inherit universes to rule and populate with their own spiritual offspring.

Even those who die outside the faith will get a second chance in the afterlife to hear and respond to the Gospel, according to Mormon doctrine, and will receive eternal rewards if they accept it. To pave the way for such postmortem redemption, Mormons believe they can undergo proxy baptism on behalf of ancestors who died as nonbelievers. Mormon temples are typically busy six days a week with the comings and goings of members taking part in the ritual. The church's world-famous genealogical library in Salt Lake City has hundreds of millions of microfilmed records, many of them available on the Internet, to help church members identify non-Mormon ancestors for proxy baptism.

A strong focus on traditional families is a central feature of Mormon teaching, one many converts find appealing. As in other faiths, marriage is sacred and couples are encouraged to bear children and build strong, stable homes. But Mormons also teach that families can be bound together "for time and eternity" by undergoing a special "sealing" ritual in the temple. In the here and now, families are expected to conduct once-a-week "family home evenings" during which parents and children play, pray, and study Scripture together. Most local congregations, or "wards," sponsor Scout troops, youth recreation programs, and other family activities.

For a devout family, like David and Mary Driggs and their four children, of Salt Lake City church activities dominate the week, from worship, classes, and committee work on Sundays to youth activities, temple visits, and volunteering at church-sponsored charities during the rest of the week. "It's no burden," says Driggs, 38, a University of Utah fundraiser and fifth-generation Mormon. Because so many church activities involve the entire family, he says, "it means we're able to spend more time together, not less. And it gives my life and my family's life tremendous order and peace and blessings."

Faithful Mormons also are expected to adhere to a strict moral code that, among other things, emphasizes modest dress and rules out gambling, premarital and extramarital sex, and the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, or caffeinated beverages. The church's heavy emphasis on a "wholesome lifestyle" is so pervasive, one academic observer wryly notes, that while many of their young peers get into trouble experimenting with sex, drugs, and alcohol, when Mormon teenagers rebel, "they sneak off and drink a Pepsi."

Despite a birthrate higher than the national average, church officials say more than two thirds of new members each year are converts, making the Mormon church one of the most aggressive and successful at proselytizing. Last year, the church dispatched 58,600 missionaries about three fourths of them 19- or 20-year-old males across the United States and to 119 other countries. Each spent from three to eight weeks in "boot camp" at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, or at one of 14 satellite centers in other countries, where they study foreign languages and polish their door-to-door skills. Then they set out in pairs, at their own expense, on two-year assignments of teaching and preaching. Last year Mormon missionaries won more than 306,000 converts.

Inspiration. Beyond a bountiful harvest of new recruits, the church's massive missionary program pays the Mormon church another important dividend. During a recent Sunday service at the LDS 7th Ward in Fruit Heights, Utah, a bedroom community of tract houses and neatly manicured lawns some 23 miles north of Salt Lake City, 21-year-old Brett Jones just back from a two-year mission to France told how he helped convert a Russian banker living in Paris. "I was fascinated to see someone so influential accept the Gospel," Jones said. "When I started out on my mission, I really believed that the church was true. I came back knowing it was true." Indeed, says Stark, the Mormon missionary program may well have "more impact on Latter-day Saint commitment than it does on LDS conversion."

At least part of the Mormons' international success is the result of the church's efforts to nurture good relations with government authorities. Unlike some religious groups that have been known to circumvent government resistance by smuggling Bibles or dispatching missionaries under cover, says LDS apostle Maxwell, "we go in the front door or we don't go in at all." But the church's expansion has not been without growing pains. At the end of World War II, a renewed and heightened emphasis on missionary work sparked a sudden growth spurt that the church's bureaucracy was not ready for. By the 1960s, the church was getting more members by conversion than by birth, creating a huge demand for new meetinghouses, more support services, and greater attention to training members unfamiliar with traditional Mormon ways. As local and national church leaders struggled, says Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis, church decision making often suffered from a lack of internal communication and coordination. The Mormon church faced the prospect of devolving into "little more than an institutional umbrella" over a family of diverse congregations.

Determined to prevent the "disintegration of Mormonism into a diversity of Mormonisms," says Shipps, the LDS in the 1970s installed a more centralized system that placed nearly absolute power over church life in the hands of the top LDS officers. The result of this "correlation" process, says Shipps, was not only a more efficient and coordinated church bureaucracy but "a more standardized and simplified brand of Mormonism" that emphasizes families, temple work, and the pre-eminence of the Book of Mormon. But the "cookie cutter" effect of correlation, notes Shipps, has meant less tolerance for diversity and dissent. A move among some LDS scholars in the mid-1980s, for example, to critically re-examine the church's history and origins drew a decisive crackdown from church headquarters, resulting in the termination of at least one Brigham Young University professor and the departure of several others. Members who publicly question church teachings or criticize church leaders risk excommunication. All of this has had "a chilling effect on academic inquiry" within the church, says Elbert Peck, editor of Sunstone, an independent Mormon journal. Scholars have become more circumspect in their historical pursuits. Their work goes on, says Peck, "but the joy and enthusiasm are no longer there."

Even now, LDS leaders pay close attention to the potential pitfalls of the church's rapid international growth. Some of it even hits close to home. Utah ranks fourth among the states in population of Pacific Islanders, immigrants or descendants of immigrants from Tonga, Samoa, and other islands where Mormon missionaries historically have been active. Many came to the Salt Lake City area out of religious devotion. But their assimilation has not been easy. School dropout rates, unemployment, and domestic violence are growing problems. And while Pacific Islanders make up less than 2 percent of Salt Lake City's population, police say they account for 9 percent of its youth-gang members.

In Africa, says Dennis Simmons, a corporate lawyer from Las Vegas who until recently headed church operations in southern and eastern Africa, the church already has lost control over the process. In some villages in Mozambique, Malawi, and Angola, he says, small pockets of Mormons are practicing without the services of any official LDS organization. Some church members warn that polygamy may come back to haunt the church as it expands under conditions like this in countries that have their own polygamist traditions. "The problem will come," says Peck, "as those people find polygamy in our Scriptures and ask, 'Why not?' "

Mormons number some 114,000 and counting in Japan, and many openly participate in annual observances of o-bon, a "Festival of the Dead," with some Buddhist trappings, when the souls of ancestors are believed to return to their graves. At the Mormon temple in Tokyo, the entrance is marked with an ishidoro, an ornamental stone lantern typically found in Shinto temples. But church officials say such observances are cultural, much like Halloween in America. When Mormons participate in o-bon, says Norman D. Shumway, an American LDS elder based in Japan, "they do not do so because of any religious significance, but rather as traditional, cultural events." The church in Japan, he says, "does not make concessions for the sake of cultural adaptation."

Yet there is clear precedent for the LDS church to alter its teachings in the face of strong cultural tides in order to survive and flourish. It abandoned the practice of polygamy, which had been instituted as a "divine principle" by Smith and other church leaders in the face of congressional opposition to Utah's statehood. And only in 1978, as the church began making inroads into Africa and South America and amid strong pressure at home, did then LDS President Spencer W. Kimball receive a divine revelation declaring blacks eligible for the Mormon priesthood, a title bestowed on all faithful males. In the aftermath, church leaders even revised the Book of Mormon to eliminate a passage deemed particularly offensive to blacks.

Big in Africa. Those adjustments made a world of difference. In South Africa, where the church historically had been a white institution, the church's black membership has skyrocketed since 1978. Within 10 years officials expect a majority of LDS members in South Africa to be black. Now the church faces other obstacles. In Africa, says LDS leader Simmons, "some husbands tell us not to teach their wives. They say, 'Teach me, and if I join, she'll join.' " Some village chiefs, Simmons says, have expressed the same attitude toward their tribes. "They say, 'I'll decide if it's a good idea.' But we tell them it's an individual decision and that we have to teach everyone."

So what will happen if the LDS church continues to grow at this rate? While their wholesome lifestyle and careful attention to families may seem to make Mormons ideal neighbors, in Utah and other parts of the West where LDS influence is strongest, not everyone appreciates the result. Close-knit Mormon families often result in close-knit Mormon communities, and in places where the LDS church is dominant, non-Mormons sometimes feel left out. Amy Rowland, 39, a Roman Catholic, remembers as a teenager when her family moved to the Salt Lake City suburb of Cottonwood Heights from Wyoming in 1974, she and her siblings often felt ostracized by the Mormon majority at school. "At first they invited us to their homes or to social events," Rowland recalls. "But once they realized we weren't going to convert, they weren't interested in us, and we were left pretty much alone. Those were difficult years." Now, Rowland and her husband live in a more diverse downtown neighborhood and send their 8-year-old son to a private school where Mormons are in the minority. "It works much better this way," she says.

Being non-Mormon also can be a drawback in the LDS-dominated business community. "I go into a business meeting and someone asks, 'What ward are you in?' " says Claudia O'Grady, a housing executive in Salt Lake City. "As soon as they discover I'm not Mormon, a barrier goes up. I have to establish a level of trust that would be automatically assumed if I were LDS."

In the political arena, LDS leaders are outspoken in opposing what they call negative influences on families, such as pornography, abortion, gambling, and alcohol abuse. In California, Alaska, and Hawaii, they mobilized Mormon voters against propositions to legalize gay marriage. And in Utah, where Mormons are 76 percent of the population and dominate state and local governments, liquor laws are among the most restrictive in the nation. Outside of restaurants, which may serve alcohol only with food, only state-licensed private clubs can serve liquor by the glass, and new licenses are difficult to obtain. Packaged liquor is sold exclusively in state-run stores. "It's frustrating sometimes," says Vickie McCall, the only non-Mormon on the state's Alcohol Beverage Control Commission, "when you have people making these decisions who have never had a drink in their life." At the same time, the American Civil Liberties Union is fighting the church's $8.1 million acquisition of a public plaza next to its headquarters in Salt Lake City where smoking, skateboarding, and distributing non-LDS literature will be forbidden. Such restrictions, argues an ACLU spokesman, would turn the space into "a little bit of Beijing."

The LDS church also continues to run up against other religious groups that challenge the Mormon claim to be a Christian church. Earlier this year, for example, the 8.4 million-member United Methodist Church declared that Mormonism "by self-definition, does not fit within the bounds of the historic, apostolic tradition of the Christian faith." Mormon leaders readily concede that LDS doctrine differs substantially from that of traditional Christianity, which, they believe, went badly astray soon after the death of Jesus's Apostles. Those differences, says church spokesman Michael Otterson, "are an essential part of our message to the world, that the Church of Jesus Christ has been restored in this latter-day period of the Earth's history" through Mormon teachings. Nonetheless, LDS officials get rankled by the accusation that Mormons are not Christians. Says Otterson, "We revere Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Redeemer and Savior of the world."

God's image. Critics contend that while Latter-day Saints may use much the same vocabulary as mainstream Christians, they frequently attach radically different meaning to the terms. While both Mormons and non-Mormon Christians accept the biblical statement that humans are created in God's image, for example, Christians traditionally have interpreted that to mean that humans, like God, are free moral agents. Mormons, on the other hand, teach that God has a physical body, is married, and begets children; humans are made quite literally in God's image. Mormon founder Smith even declared in 1844 that God "is an exalted Man" who "was once as we are now" and that humans, in the afterlife, may progress to become gods who create and sustain universes of their own.

It's unlikely that conflicts between Mormons and other religious groups will go away anytime soon, as the church continues to expand. And so far, experts say, there is little reason to expect a reversal of Mormonism's fortunes. "The nation," wrote The American Religion author Bloom, "will not always be only 2 percent Mormon. The Saints outlive the rest of us, have more children than all but a few American groups, and convert on a grand scale, both here and abroad. . . . Their future is immense."

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