Mormonism and its growth rate

Hi folks,

I recently did research on the growth rate of Mormonism in the US and world-wide and found the statistics interesting and many times contradictory.  In general, however, I thought the following excerpt from and article on Mormonism by U.S. News and World Report from November 2000 worthy to pass along.  It is just a portion of the article, so as not to violate fair use law.  As with any article that contains membership numbers, they must be taken with several grains of salt because many people are retained as members even after they have left the church, which has always puzzled me.  If, after all, they are indeed the fastest growing religion, why the need to hold on to those who have left and thereby lie about how many members they actually have?

By the way, more interviews have been posted at www.solomonspalding.info, so be sure to check back at our site from time to time.

Art

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.

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