The Rise of Mormonism
Columbia University Press, $39.50
In 1984, Rodney Stark published an article in an academic journal predicting The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would become one of the largest religions in the world in less than a century.
Most academic articles remain largely unread or quickly die from intellectual neglect. Stark’s article, “The Rise of a New World Faith,” in the Review of Religious Research, probably wasn’t read by more people than most academic articles, but its central point – often phrased as “Mormonism is the fastest-growing religion in the world” – received lots of attention. Still does.
In The Rise of Mormonism, editor Reid Neilson collects seven essays by Stark, including an updated version of the one with the original prediction.
The book gives readers a chance to examine Stark’s methodologies. Unfortunately, the sparse material Neilson provides doesn’t offer much of an explanation of why Stark’s prediction has become standard material in discussions of the LDS Church’s future, other than the obvious – that it’s interesting.
– by Richard John Neuhaus
The heart of Stark’s argument is that membership in the LDS Church will continue to grow at pretty much the same rate for the next three-quarters of a century as it has in the past century. That means, depending on exactly how those measurements are made, the church will have between 64 million and 267 million members by 2080. That would make it, he says, the first major new world religion since the founding of Islam 1,400 years ago.
Neither Stark nor Neilson clearly explains why the collective growth of Protestant churches did not constitute a major new world religion, although they do address the issue. Neilson, a Mormon, acknowledges that for the LDS Church to be considered a “new” religion it must “divorce” itself from traditional Christianity. But isn’t that what Martin Luther did? Stark, who is not Mormon – he teaches at Baylor University, a Baptist institution – refers to the LDS Church as something different from Christianity. He writes, for example, “Mormonism will soon achieve a worldwide following comparable to that of Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and other dominant world faiths.”
Stark also says “there is no such group” as Protestants and that we should instead “disassemble Protestants into their constituent groups.” This helps explain why Mormons, if his projections are accurate, will be the “first” major new world religion since Islam. Based on Stark’s projections, Mormons soon will outnumber even the largest Protestant groups, even if they don’t outnumber Protestants collectively.
Stark is a sociologist, and his predictions are based on his assumption that religious activity is essentially rational, and therefore can be measured by the same standards as other sociological phenomena.
The other six essays in the book reflect the professional sociologist in the author, peppered as they are with academic jargon and underpinned by an assumption that most readers are familiar with alternative ways of examining the information he presents.
Yet none of the essays are beyond the understanding of a reasonably intelligent person reading carefully. The final essay, the one most often quoted, even if people quoting it have no idea who wrote it, should be read by anyone wanting to make intelligent judgments about the future of the LDS Church.
Martin Naparsteck reviews books from and about the West for The Salt Lake Tribune.