Mormonism grows in Massachusetts; church is small but expanding

BELMONT, Mass. —The Mormons left Boston more than 160 years ago, breaking up the young religion’s largest congregation in the eastern U.S. around 1845 to seek refuge in a solitary West.

Their founder, Joseph Smith, had been killed the previous year by a mob in an Illinois prison and church adherents were despised as heretics. So the 400 members of the Boston church found strength in numbers, joining Mormons nationwide to migrate to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.

It took more than a century for Mormons to return in notable numbers to Massachusetts in the 1960s, and longer to see real growth here. Today, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is small but expanding in Massachusetts at time when other denominations with long local histories are struggling.

Between 1994 and 2004, Mormon church membership increased 56 percent, from 14,840 to 23,161. That’s tiny, compared to the state’s 3 million-member Catholic church, but it approaches the 33,400 state members of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which has roots in the state going back to the 18th century.

Mormons now have 39 congregations, or “wards,” in the state, compared to 15 in 1980. To the west of Boston, the only Mormon temple in New England has a granite grip on a hill in the suburb of Belmont, home to perhaps its most prominent member: Gov. Mitt Romney. Others among its ranks are key players in the state, including Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and several noted academics, including Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard history professor Laurel Ulrich.

Mormon missionaries take to cold state streets to spread faith

Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor and church elder, is convinced the region’s once hostile territory will soon host greater numbers of Mormons.

He points to the appeal of area universities on an increasingly well-heeled and well-educated church population. Another draw, he said, is a fulfilling egalitarianism in which lay people, rather than clergymen, lead the church, and all take responsibility for their needy.

Massachusetts, he said, “is a perfect, fertile ground.”

The Mormon Church

Given that the theology and practice of the Mormon Church violates essential Christian doctrines, Mormonism does not represent historical, Biblical Christianity, is not a Christian denomination, and is not in any way part of the Christian church.

Others aren’t as sure. If overt hostility against Mormonism has dissipated, skepticism about their beliefs has not. For instance, the Mormons are listedPDF file among “Cult, Sects and other New Religious Movements” by the Southern Baptist Conference, the country’s largest Protestant denomination.

Alan Wolfe, head of The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, said he could “never imagine” Mormonism growing to a sizable faith in a tradition-bound state where Catholicism is dominant.

“Massachusetts is a relatively stable place in terms of religious composition, and I don’t think it’s really going to change that much,” he said.

Smith founded the Mormon church in 1830, a decade after he proclaimed that God had told him in a vision that the world’s churches had corrupted the true gospel. Smith produced new scriptures — The Book of Mormon — which he said were translated from a set of gold plates given to him by an angel. The church now has 12 million members worldwide.

Mormons say Jesus is the resurrected Son of God, but Smith made hundreds of “corrections” to the Christian Bible and Mormons hold beliefs that differ significantly from traditional Christian doctrines.

For instance, The Book of Mormon tells of a post-resurrection visit by Jesus to an ancient Israelite civilization in the Americas. They believe the dead can be baptized by proxy, then accept salvation in the afterlife. They speak of attaining a godlike existence in the afterlife.

Book of Mormon

Mormons claim that the Book of Mormon is “Another testament of Jesus Christ,” and try to pass it off as a companion to the Bible. Over and over again, those claims have been disproven.

Is the Book of Mormon “the most correct of any book on earth” as Joseph Smith claimed it to be? Watch the online video, DNA vs. The Book of Mormon

Theologically, the Mormon Church is a cult of Christianity

Mormons also believe that learning carries into eternity, which explains the heavy emphasis on education that has attracted Mormons to Massachusetts, Christensen said.

Ulrich, the Harvard history professor, said the church in recent decades has cultivated an “intellectual elite” at church-run Brigham Young University, which has naturally been drawn to the Boston area’s renowned universities.

“We’re probably importing a lot of people,” Ulrich said.

Mormons have also pushed evangelization in immigrant communities. Of the 22 wards in the Boston area, four speak a language other than English, including Spanish and Portuguese, Christensen said.

About 140 Mormon missionaries work daily in Massachusetts, spreading the faith through street evangelism and door-to-door visits. Cameron Johnson, a 21-year-old missionary from Idaho, said he’s found it difficult to penetrate the New England reserve, but rewarding when he does.

“It’s harder to get somebody that’s really interested,” he said. “When you find somebody that’s interested, they truly are.”

Former Harvard Business School Dean Kim Clark moved to New England in late 1960s, before leaving last year to become president of Brigham Young University-Idaho at the request of church leader Gordon Hinckley.

Clark said when he first came to New England, the faith was considered an oddity and he was confronted by “bizarre” misconceptions, including that the church still practiced polygamy, was a cult and rejected Christ. Now, the church has broader acceptance as Mormons have become more visible. For example, Clark said Romney with his clean-cut manner and wholesome family life, has given the church a prominent ambassador. Romney is serving out the remainder of his first term as governor and considering a possible run for president in 2008

“He might be the only Mormon people know,” he said. “He’s a great example of the principles people in our church believe in.”

While Mormon membership in Massachusetts has clearly grown, the rolls can be inflated by loose membership rules. Children are baptized into the church, and added to membership, at age eight. The only way for somebody to be taken out of the membership is by excommunication or to request removal. Other churches remove people from membership lists if they never attend.

“That’s the dirty little secret of Mormon growth,” said David Campbell, a Notre Dame professor and Mormon. “Lots of baptisms don’t necessarily translate into long-term membership.”

The Mormon temple, which overlooks a primary highway into Boston, is, by far, the most visible sign of the church’s presence in Massachusetts. Though fiercely opposed by neighbors before its construction in 2000 because of its 139-foot spire, that controversy ironically awakened the general public to the church’s presence in the state, Christensen said.

Non-Mormons aren’t allowed into the temple’s inner rooms, and Mormons can enter only if clothed completely in white. After a meeting in a temple anteroom, Christensen explained his certainty about the bright future of his conservative and relatively little-known faith in a liberal, Catholic state.

“The truth,” he said, “has strong legs.”


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
AP, via the Boston Globe, USA
Jan. 28, 2006
Jay Lindsay, Associated Press Writer
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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday January 28, 2006.
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