A new tally by Anne Wilde still pegs the total number of fringe believers at 37,000, the same count she estimated in 2005 for Utah, surrounding states, Mexico and Canada.
But Wilde acknowledged that an accurate count is hard to come by, because as many as half the total are independents who don’t belong to any groups and most groups don’t keep membership records.
“You just have to get estimates,” said Wilde, who relied on group leaders for numbers.
She based the number of independents on book sales, personal experience and familiarity with family groups.
Wilde presented the new survey during a panel discussion on schisms within the Latter Day Saint movement at the annual Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City.
According to scholar Newell Bringhurst, there are 80 active schismatic groups that trace their theological roots to the church founded by Joseph Smith.
Most of these espouse the early doctrines of Smith, including plural marriage. The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints publicly gave up polygamy in 1890 under increasing government pressure about the practice.
In addition to the independents, there are four major sects and numerous smaller ones. Most are based in Utah.
Wilde estimates that just half of the 37,000 people in her count, which includes men, women and children, belong to plural families.
The most problematic count is that of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the sect led by Warren S. Jeffs.
Wilde said she has no reliable information about that group.
Two years ago, she put their membership at 10,000. Now, Wilde has lowered that to 8,000, reflecting what she said is an estimated 2,000 or so people who have left the sect. That would include teens who have left the community as well as families who no longer follow Jeffs.
Wilde said she includes those former members in her overall count, because they may still [adhere to] fundamentalist beliefs.
While some FLDS have scattered to other states, such as Texas, Colorado and Nevada, in the past two years, the majority still live in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. According to a 2006 population count, the two towns have 6,500 residents.
Some of those are ex-FLDS members who have remained in the community; it also includes people who live in the towns, but are members of the Centennial Park group, located just south of the Utah state line.
Membership numbers for all the other groups remain unchanged from 2005.
The Apostolic United Brethren, characterized two years ago as the state’s fastest growing group, still has 7,500 members. Centennial Park is static at 1,500 members. So is the Davis County Cooperative Society, which still has 1,500 members.
Wilde estimates there are about 1,500 people affiliated with smaller groups, which each have 300 or fewer members.
Sidebar: Estimates of LDS offshoot groups in Utah
Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: 8,000
Apostolic United Brethren: 7,500
Centennial Park: 1,500
Davis County Cooperative Society: 1,500
Smaller groups of 300 members or fewer: 1,500