Counting the faithful: Mormon church thrives

In-Forum, Mar. 30, 2003
http://www.in-forum.com/
By Erin Hemme Froslie

Becky Hendrickson never expected to move back to the Dakotas. But her return nearly six years ago helps explain why The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is maturing in North Dakota.

In the 1970s, her family was one of a handful that belonged to the church in Aberdeen, S.D. Members joked that her parents and their nine children doubled the local congregation.

At Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City, Hendrickson met her husband, Todd. The couple raised four sons in Utah for 12 years.

They moved to Casselton, N.D., when Todd, a federal bank examiner, took a job in Fargo.

“It seemed like a good place to raise the boys, and we’ve loved it,” Becky said.

Between 1990 and 2000, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints grew by 55.4 percent, or 1,307 members, in North Dakota, according to a religion census released last November.

That makes it the fastest-growing religious body in the state, according to the Religious Congregations and Membership report, which is released every 10 years.

It is also one of the five fastest-growing faith communities in the country.

That growth is maintained with a healthy mix of Mormons who move into the area and converts, local church leaders say.

But equally important to the church’s stability and expansion are second- and third-generation members such as Becky Hendrickson.

“I think we really see a sign of maturity when these members stay in the community or return,” said Todd Hendrickson, who serves as president of the Fargo stake, or district.

Temple in Bismarck

The first Latter-day Saints missionaries arrived in North Dakota in 1885, 65 years after a 14-year-old boy named Joseph Smith said God appeared to him. The first meetinghouse in the state was built in Sully Lake in 1919. In 1930, church membership was about 145 people.

By 1977, North Dakota became the final state in the nation to have a stake within its boundaries. The Fargo stake had a membership of 2,000 in four wards, or congregations.

The local congregations have kept pace with national trends. Most of the growth in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has occurred in the past 50 years. Currently, the average growth rate is 3 percent each year.

Worldwide, much of this increase can be credited to the church’s intensive volunteer missionary efforts. More than 60,000 missionaries teach in 334 missions located in 141 countries.

There are Mormon missionaries in North Dakota communities, but church leaders say most of the local growth is split between members of the church who move to the area for jobs, and converts who are referred to missionaries by other members.

In 2002 the Fargo stake, which includes 10 congregations in eastern North Dakota, western Minnesota and northern South Dakota, increased its membership by 2.85 percent, Todd Hendrickson said.

The year before, the Fargo Second Ward (one of two congregations in Fargo-Moorhead) grew by 21 members — nine moved into the community and 12 converted to the religion.

Rachel Laframboise was baptized into the church 1½ years ago. What attracted her to the faith was the other members.

“They had a strong sense of community and values,” she said. “I was introduced through a co-worker and what attracted me to the church was the character of that person. The more I started to get to know this person, the more I realized he was who he was because of the church.”
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One draw for Mormons who have moved into the area is the temple in Bismarck, which was built in 1999 for about $4 million. While weekly services are held in local meeting houses, the temple is where sacred ordinances and covenants are made that make it possible for families to be united eternally.

Before the Bismarck temple was dedicated, the closest one was in Denver or Chicago. A temple near St. Paul was dedicated in January 2000.

The North Dakota temple “hasn’t had a dramatic effect, but it’s been an important addition,” said Brad Lesser, a member of the church. “People look at where the nearest temple is and when they see one in Bismarck, they’re happier to move here.”

An extended family

Latter-day Saints consider themselves Christians, but neither Protestant nor Catholic. They believe their church is the restored church Jesus Christ established while he was on earth.

Family relationships and service to others are central to the faith.

Since the early 20th century, the church has abstained from scheduling events on Monday nights so that families can spend an evening together at home. Many Latter-day Saints families share daily morning devotions.

The church relies completely on lay ministry. Members voluntarily fill every position from Sunday school teachers to district presidents.

“It’s about total participation,” said Jim Staley, bishop or pastor of the Fargo Second Ward. “You’re engaged and involved and that builds up people.”

Expectations are high for all. Youth as young as 11 or 12 are encouraged to speak publicly during the weekly sacrament meetings. Committed members abstain from tobacco, alcohol and caffeine.

“It’s really about a lifestyle,” Staley said.

And living in a community like Fargo-Moorhead can help support that lifestyle, the Hendricksons say.

When he moved to the area, Todd Hendrickson was surprised to see a congregation so active in North Dakota. There’s a belief, he said, that the farther wards are from Salt Lake City, the stranger the congregation.

But that wasn’t so.

In Utah, there were more Latter-day Saints. But on the Dakota plains, where church members are a minority, “You either stand for what you believe or you don’t. There’s no gray,” Becky Hendrickson said.

Yet, they have found their neighbors respect and often share their values. When the Hendricksons’ third son, Matthew, 11, wanted to join a summer baseball team, his coach and team members supported him even though he didn’t attend practices on Sundays.

For those who are members of the church, the ties are tight.

“Here, when we meet once a week, it feels like a reunion,” Todd Hendrickson said. “It’s like an extended family.”

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