Mormons, it seems, are on the move.
Just last week, Newsweek devoted a cover story to the Utah-based church, which the magazine described as “booming.”
Over the summer, the dean of Harvard Business School, Kim Clark, quit Cambridge, Mass., for Rexburg, Idaho, to take up the presidency of a branch of Mormon-run Brigham Young University.
Mormons are also rising to new positions of prominence in politics and business. Governor Romney of Massachusetts is a member of the church and a top contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. Political pundits are already debating whether his Mormon faith will be an asset or a liability in the race.
Senator Reid of Nevada, who became minority leader of the Senate earlier this year, is a Mormon. So, too, is the CEO of one of America’s most successful new airlines, David Neeleman of JetBlue.
Closer to home, a Mormon congregation in Harlem is preparing to trade its present cramped quarters for a larger, brand-new temple set to open on Malcolm X Boulevard next month.
“I think there is growing interest in the church,” the former Harvard dean, Mr. Clark, told The New York Sun in a telephone interview from his new post in Idaho. He said the attention is benefiting the church’s ubiquitous missionaries, young people who don white shirts and black name tags to seek converts across America and the world. “A lot of people are opening their doors,” said Mr. Clark, who spent 27 years on Harvard’s faculty before making the move West in response to a request from the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Gordon Hinckley.
Mr. Clark acknowledges that his decision stunned some in the Harvard community. “People who don’t know me well were thinking what in the world I had in mind,” he said.
Mr. Clark, who formally assumed the presidency of BYU-Idaho at a ceremony last week, said that as a lifelong Mormon he could not refuse the entreaty from Mr. Hinckley. “We hold him to be a prophet of God,” the school president said. “We think of him as standing where Moses stood. So, imagine you’re getting a phone call from Moses. It kind of focuses the mind a little bit.”
Mormons view Mr. Hinckley as a spiritual heir to the church’s founder, Joseph Smith Jr. Smith was born in 1805 in Vermont, but later moved with his parents to upstate New York, where many of his visions took place. It was from a hillside near Palmyra in 1827 that, according to church history, Smith retrieved gold plates that contained the church’s sacred text, the Book of Mormon.
In its early days, Smith’s newfound sect was met with downright hostility, particularly from Christians who believed Smith was perverting the teachings of more established Christian churches. In 1832, Smith was tarred and beaten by a mob in Ohio. In 1838, the governor of Missouri issued an “extermination order” aimed at driving all Mormons out of the state and killing those who wouldn’t go. Smith, who eventually formed a militia to defend his followers, was killed in 1844 by an angry mob that dragged him from a Carthage, Ill., jail where he was awaiting trial on charges of treason and riot.
“That was a dark period in U.S. history,” Mr. Clark said. “It has not found its way into mainstream public education.”
The Mormon church has rebounded dramatically since those difficult early days. According to official statistics, membership in the church stood at about 12.3 million in 2004, with nearly 5.8 million of those members in America.
The church is often described as the fastest-growing in America and, sometimes, the world. A graphic that accompanied the recent Newsweek story showed the Mormons posting 1.71% growth in America last year, outpacing Roman Catholic congregations, which reportedly grew at 1.28%.
However, another church, the Seventh Day Adventists, claims that it is growing faster than the Mormons, at least internationally. The Adventist church reports that its roll of adherents climbed by more than 600,000 last year, or nearly 4%.
Some critics have questioned the Mormon church’s membership claims. “They are pretty notorious about not explaining what exactly it means to be a member,” a Colorado actuary who prepared a 2002 study of the church’s statistics, Roger Loomis, said. “The growth rate of the church is slowing down. It’s incapable of growing exponentially. They’ve been working harder and harder to get fewer converts each year,” Mr. Loomis, who quit the Mormon church more than a decade ago, said.
Mr. Loomis said the strict lifestyle that the church promotes, eschews alcohol, premarital sex and even coffee, prompts many converts to drift away. One independent study lends some support to the doubters. The American Religious Identification Survey, conducted by the City University of New York in 2001, estimated the number of American adults who describe themselves as Mormons as about 2.8 million. An author of the study, Ariela Keysar, said it found that new conversions to Mormonism in the 1990s were offset by a roughly equal number of people leaving the church. Ms. Keysar said virtually all of the church’s net growth in America was the result of children born into the church. “The demographics are helping their growth,” she said.
Ms. Keysar also said the Mormon church is faring better than many mainline religions. “They’re not shrinking. Other groups are shrinking,” she said.
– by Richard John Neuhaus
A Mormon who offered some criticism of the church for placing too much emphasis on baptism statistics and not enough on retaining members, Dr. David Stewart Jr., said the church’s hierarchy has begun responding to those concerns. “We’ve had challenges in many areas of the world that many of the new converts have not remained active long-term in the church,” said Dr. Stewart, who is an orthopedic surgeon in Nevada. “Things now, this year, last year, are significantly better than they’ve been.”
Dr. Stewart cited as evidence of the change a new manual for missionaries that stresses retention and a new edict requiring several church visits before a baptism. “There’s no promise in scripture that the true church, so to speak, would be the fastest-growing one,” he said.
One reason Mormons may now be more of a presence on the American scene is that an increasing number of members are venturing beyond the religion’s traditional strongholds in the West.
“It’s a lot more common now for someone to know a Mormon rather than just know of Mormons out in Utah,” a philosophy professor at Brigham Young University, James Faulconer, said. “We seem more normal. We’re not as exotic.”
The geographic concentration of Mormons in places like Utah and Idaho may also have served to undercut the political importance of church members. In last year’s presidential race, no state was redder than Utah, where 72% of voters cast ballots for President Bush.
The conservative teachings of Mormonism on issues like abortion prompt many analysts to view Mormons as part of the so-called religious right, but that view overlooks a longstanding and often bitter divide between the Mormon church and other Christians.
The managing editor of a religion Web site, Beliefnet.com, said the strains among the sects became clear when the site received protests about listing the Mormons along with various Christian denominations. “There were other Protestants and Catholics who really didn’t like it,” the Web editor, Deborah Caldwell, said. “Many evangelicals, in fact, many non-evangelicals believe Mormons are not Christians.”
The dim view some Christians take of Mormonism has been cited as a possible impediment to the presidential bid of Governor Romney, particularly in the Republican primaries and caucuses. A professor of church-state studies at Baylor University in Texas, Francis Beckwith, said those concerns are probably overblown.
Asked if evangelicals could support Mr. Romney despite doctrinal disagreements about the legitimacy of Mormonism, Mr. Beckwith said, “I think they would. It may not have been possible 20 years ago. “
Mr. Beckwith, a Southern Baptist who recalled listening to attacks on Mormonism during Sunday school as a child, said Mormons are becoming more sophisticated about relaying their message to outsiders. “They’re starting to represent the Mormon view in a way more palatable to traditional Christians,” he said.
Mr. Faulconer said it may also be a mistake to assume that a vast majority of Mormons will remain in the Republican Party. The BYU professor and Democrat, who is teaching in London this semester, said Mormons overseas do not share the conservative political views of most Utahans. “Most Mormons in Europe are anti-American,” Mr. Faulconer said. “They sure don’t like George Bush.”