Mr. Latham had long been dissatisfied with his spiritual life, and, he said, something changed for him that day. Five weeks later, on Super Bowl Sunday 1988, he and his wife were baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As an African-American, Mr. Latham would not have even been permitted into the Mormon priesthood – a term for nearly all male church members – before 1978. Today he is a bishop, a type of lay leader, in charge of a 500-person congregation.
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“There is an inner peace, a joy with what I am doing now,” he said.
Tom Kimball isn’t quite so joyful. The marketing director of Signature Books, a Mormon press in Salt Lake City, he traces his heritage to some of the earliest Mormons, who migrated west in covered wagons. He’s become an outspoken critic of the church’s direction.
Mr. Kimball recalls a time when theological debate and doctrinal inquiry were integral to Mormon life – when it was OK for Mormons to raise questions about their religion. Today, however, they’re discouraged by the church’s hierarchy from doing so, he said. And as a result, “I see a lot of my generation sliding out of the church.”
In a sense, Mr. Latham and Mr. Kimball represent the triumphs and challenges facing the Mormon church, which this year celebrates the bicentennial of the birth of its founder, Joseph Smith.
Mr. Latham’s story, according to observers, is by far the more common one: Mormonism is America’s fastest growing denomination – and it’s spreading even more quickly abroad.
“The church has migrated from a provincial faith to a faith that can make itself at home in any space and every culture,” said Jan Shipps, professor emeritus at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis and one of the foremost non-Mormon scholars of the church.
But during these boom times, Mormons like Mr. Kimball – to the chagrin of some church leaders – are raising thorny questions about issues including the historical veracity of Smith’s teachings.
“As it grows and becomes more established, we have to wrestle with what other religions wrestle with – people with different temperaments under the same church culture,” said Dan Wotherspoon, editor of Sunstone, an independent Mormon journal.
With 5.5 million members in the United States, the LDS church has become the fourth-largest denomination in the country (up from fifth a year ago), according to the National Council of Churches.
Much of that growth has occurred in the South, including Texas, previously a weak region for recruitment, said Armand Mauss, professor emeritus of sociology and religion at Washington State University. (About half of the church’s domestic growth comes from comparatively high childbirth rates among members, he added.)
Outside the U.S. and Canada, the church has grown more than fivefold, to more than 6 million members, since 1980. And nearly 10 percent of that growth has come in the past five years, according to Mormon officials.
The church’s founder was born in Sharon, Vermont, on Dec. 23, 1805, the fourth of 10 children. When he was 11, his parents, frontier drifters, moved to a hamlet near Palmyra, N.Y. It was there, in 1830, that the church got its start. Initially, it had six members.
That same year, the Book of Mormon, an essential scripture of the faith, was published. Smith claimed to have translated the book from ancient golden tablets that were shown to him by the angel Moroni. The book, and the religion, take their name from Mormon, said to have been an early American prophet who abridged the ancient teachings and wrote them onto the golden tablets some 1,400 years earlier.
The book describes God’s interactions between 600 B.C. and 420 A.D. with a family of Israelites who came to America and gave rise to two tribes, Nephites and Lamanites.
From its humble beginnings, the church grew quickly. Adherents preached that God communicated directly with Smith and chose him to restore Christ’s true church.
But Mormons faced violent persecution, driving Smith and his followers steadily westward. In 1844, in Carthage, Illinois, the founder was jailed then killed by a mob, along with his brother, Hyrum.
After that, most of his followers continued westward under the leadership of Brigham Young, settling – and, eventually, coming to dominate civic life – in Salt Lake City. Utah was admitted as a state in 1896 only after the Mormons agreed to abolish the practice of polygamy. (Smith had at least 33 wives.)
In 1905, the centennial of Smith’s birth, Americans still treated Mormons as a threat to society, said Kathleen Flake, a professor at Vanderbilt University and author of The Politics of Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.
“A hundred years ago, the Latter-day Saints were so feared and hated that their missionaries were still being tied to trees and horsewhipped in the American South, and some were being shot,” Dr. Flake said.
What a difference a century makes.
“As Mormons began to stress the importance of the family and the church’s willingness to contribute to the larger American good, fears about a Mormon theocracy and anti-democratic tendencies began to lessen, until by the end of the 20th century, they were nearly forgotten,” the professor said.
Mormons prominent in American secular life today include Harry Reid, the U.S. Senate Democratic leader from Nevada; Mike Levitt, the secretary of health and human services; and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is often mentioned as a future Republican presidential candidate. (His father, George, unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination in 1968.)
Next month, the Library of Congress is co-sponsoring – with Brigham Young University – a symposium on Joseph Smith’s life and teachings. All tickets have been snatched up.
The first volume of his papers will be published, as will a major biography, Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.
The magnitude of the turnaround is not lost on Mormons.
“When Joseph Smith went to Washington to seek federal help after the intense persecution, he was essentially told by Martin Van Buren, ‘Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you,’ ” said Richard Turley, managing director of the church’s family and church history department in Salt Lake City. “So there’s a certain irony of the fact that the Library of Congress will be the venue for celebrating his bicentennial.”
But amid all the celebration, there is controversy, even within the church, regarding the accuracy of some of Smith’s teachings – in particular, his identifying Native Americans as the Lamanites who migrated from Israel. DNA studies support the far more widely accepted anthropological theory that Native Americans came from Asia via a “land bridge” to Alaska.
This has led some Mormons to characterize the Book of Mormon as, at best, an “inspired” fiction. “It creates contradictions that aren’t going away,” said Mr. Kimball.
But committed Mormon academics say the DNA evidence can be reconciled with orthodox belief.
One theory, known as “limited geography,” posits that the Book of Mormon doesn’t claim to be speaking of all Native Americans, said Dan Peterson, a BYU professor and director of the school’s Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts.
In his view, a careful reading of the book suggests that a small number of Israelites arrived in the New World, probably somewhere in Central America.
“The odds are very, very high you wouldn’t be able to recognize the genetic contributions of a very small group,” he said.
The church – which has disciplined some academics for taking positions that question the faith – dismisses the DNA controversy as the latest in a long line of efforts to discredit Mormonism. “Opposition to Joseph Smith is as old as the church itself,” Mr. Turley said.
The official church Web site (www.lds.org) calls the DNA-related criticisms “ill conceived” and includes links to journal articles supporting the limited geography theory.
However it’s interpreted, the Book of Mormon is now published in 72 languages besides English, with selections available in 32 other languages.
The broad appeal, experts say, is the result of energetic missionary efforts and a positive, “family-focused” message.
Mormons offer a structured and supportive community. They encourage members to seek reward through hard work, and demand a wholesome lifestyle – no tobacco, alcohol or caffeine. A recent study found that of all teens, Mormon youth are most likely to avoid risky behavior and do well in school.
Mormonism “communicates a sense of hope and confidence in the future,” said Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, part of the church’s leadership structure. “You’re not cut off from communication with the divine.”
Mr. Latham, the San Antonio bishop, said the church’s strict rules helped draw him into the faith.
“When I joined other churches, they really didn’t ask anything of me,” he said. But the Mormon church wouldn’t baptize him until he gave up smoking and drinking. “You had to be worthy,” he said.
That message is resonating strongly today in Latin America and West Africa, where the church is experiencing its greatest growth.
Still, appealing to a worldwide following has been a challenge for this quintessentially American church.
“One of the problems that the church has been coping with for some time is how it can disassociate itself from American culture and the American way of life and American foreign policy without denouncing those things,” said Dr. Mauss, the Washington State University professor. “The church has been trying very hard to present its message and its teachings as culturally neutral.”
Much of the church’s growth, especially domestically, has come at the expense of evangelical Christian missionaries, and this has produced some tensions, he said.
“Mormons and evangelicals tend to compete for the same market niche, religiously speaking – namely, people who are socially conservative, who commit themselves strongly to family values,” he said.
Some evangelicals – among others – contend that Mormons cannot be considered Christian. Some have seized on the DNA controversy as “proof” that the Book of Mormon is false – though, scientists note, that can be slippery ground for evangelicals who believe in biblical inerrancy, since DNA theories presume a very old earth and are based on evolutionary science, not the Garden of Eden account in Genesis.
Recently, however, there have been signs of detente. Richard Mouw, president of the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, became the first non-Mormon in more than a century to address the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, where he apologized for evangelicals’ treatment of Latter-day Saints.
But Dr. Flake, the Vanderbilt professor, predicts that any alliances will be short lived.
“These two groups (Latter-day Saints and evangelicals) are going to continue to be at odds with each other,” said Dr. Flake, the Vanderbilt professor, “because they are both very overt in their argument that it matters what church you belong to.”