Study finds they top peers at handling adolescence
It’s still dark when 16 Mormon teenagers file into a Durham church classroom at 6:20 a.m. and take turns reading a chapter from the Gospel of Luke.
At an hour when most teenagers are still in bed, these students — members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — are attending a 45-minute class to memorize Scripture and learn about the Bible and Mormon sacred texts. Afterward, they head to school.
“When you do what you’re supposed to do, you feel blessed for it,” said Lindsey Furstenberg, a senior at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, explaining why she gets up so early. “Plus, having good friends who share the same values as you do brightens your day.”
Sociologists say this daily religious training, known as early morning seminary, may be one reason Mormon children score so well on a range of emotional, spiritual and academic measures.
A groundbreaking study of American teenagers and religion conducted at UNC-Chapel Hill finds that of all the religious groups surveyed, Mormons fared best at avoiding risky behaviors, doing well in school and having a positive attitude about the future. Conservative Protestants came in second.
The study, a four-year effort, included telephone interviews with 3,370 randomly selected U.S. teenagers ages 13 to 17, followed by face-to-face interviews with a subset of 267.
The result, called the National Study of Youth and Religion, is a massive compilation of data on Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish and religiously unaffiliated teenagers. The study was led by UNC sociologist Christian Smith and financed with $4 million from the Lilly Endowment.
Smith reports the results in a book just published with Melinda Lundquist Denton titled “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers,” (Oxford University Press).
He found that most American youths believe in God and expect to continue in the religious traditions of their parents. Roughly two-thirds of teenagers are involved in religious activities, and 69 percent are now or previously have been involved with a religious youth group.
But while teenagers who are religiously involved fared well overall, the 2.5 percent of respondents who identified themselves as Mormon fared best when it came to traversing the choppy waters of adolescence.
“Across almost every category we looked at, there was a clear pattern: Mormons were first,” said Steve Vaisey, one of the researchers involved in the study and the person who interviewed most of the Mormon youths.
Conservative Christians — members of evangelical congregations — and black Protestants bested Mormons in some categories, especially in their high rates of belief in God. For example, 94 percent of conservative Protestant teenagers and 97 percent of black Protestant teenagers said they believed in God, compared with 84 percent of Mormon youths. Similarly, when asked whether they made a personal commitment to live for God, 79 percent of conservative Protestants and 74 percent of black Protestants said they did, compared with 69 percent of Mormons.
But when it came to measuring rates of sexual activity and drug and alcohol use, Mormon teenagers showed a greater willingness to adhere to the requirements of their faith.
“Mormons generally have high expectations of their youth, invest a lot in educating them, and intentionally create social contexts in which religious faith matters a lot,” said Smith, a professor of sociology at UNC-CH. “These investments pay off in producing Mormon teenagers who are, by sociological measures at least, more religiously serious and articulate than most other religious teenagers in the U.S.”
Mormon youths also spend more hours a week in religious devotion. In addition to the early morning classes Monday through Friday, they attend Sunday school and Wednesday-night church activities. That’s a far greater investment of time than other faith groups.
Ashley Raleigh, 15, who attends Northern High School in Durham, said she would continue to go to early morning classes even if her parents didn’t require it.
“I want to go on a mission, and I want to do everything I can to help me prepare,” she said, referring to the two-year voluntary service that many Mormons undertake.
Despite such high marks in the study, Mormons make up a tiny fraction of American believers. There are 5.5 million Mormons in the United States. Of those, 62,200 live in North Carolina. More than 1,600 teenagers were enrolled in morning seminary programs last school year. (In Wake County, 66 percent of Mormon teenagers attend seminary; in Durham and Orange counties, 54 percent.)
Most of the Mormon teens in the Durham classroom said that it was hard to wake up so early, and that often they felt tired. But they said there were benefits.
“It gets your day started off right,” said Kimberly Applewhite, 16, a junior at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics. “It keeps me more mindful of the things I do. If I’ve been to seminary, I wouldn’t want to make fun of people or do bad things. It sets the tone.”
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