The drive to become a ‘world religion’ has led them to gain a foothold in virtually every country
Like any religious community, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (better known as the Mormons) will always cherish the locations connected with its foundation story.
Not only the places in New York State where its prophet, Joseph Smith, said he received a vision of God (in 1820) and then a new set of scriptures, or the faith’s spectacular headquarters in Utah, the state where Mormon pioneers found refuge.
Also dear to Mormon hearts are parts of northern and central England where, soon after Smith had his visions, the faith won many converts.
In those early days, people in Britain who accepted Mormon teaching were told to sail west and join the growing band of “saints” who were preparing for the second coming of Jesus, an event which was expected to happen soon, and in the new promised land, the United States.
But now, after a century of spectacular growth, the Mormon movement is flowing in the other direction: while it continues to be centrally directed from its headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, the faith has gained a foothold in virtually every country in the world — and the American share of church membership has fallen.
– by Richard John Neuhaus
In the northwest of England, for example, the Mormons want their converts to stay put and use their spanking new meeting house and temple; and their keen young missionaries are as likely to be British or Danish (even, in one case, from Greenland) as American. And there is hardly anywhere (not even Mongolia) where the proselytizers do not reach.
Rodney Stark, a U.S. sociologist, pronounced 20 years ago that the Mormon faith was on the way to becoming the first world religion to be founded since Muhammad; he thought the number of adherents might exceed 260 million by the second half of the 21st century.
Since then, the rate of growth has eased a little, though it remains impressive compared with many Christian denominations. And the question of whether the Mormon faith really is a global religion — or an American one with many foreign adherents — still stirs arguments.
Douglas Davies, a professor at Britain’s Durham University, says the Latter-day Saints are too centralized to be a “world religion” in the full sense: only if different continents and cultures develop their own styles of Mormon worship can the religion be likened to universal ones such as Buddhism or Islam.
For now, at least, the Mormons present as paradoxical a mix of American and global culture as any multinational with headquarters in the U.S. and customers across the world.
When the Mormons hold their twice-yearly conferences in Salt Lake City, the great majority of the 21,000 people present are American — but organizers take pride in the fact that proceedings are translated into 86 languages and broadcast all over the world. The book of Mormon — the text that Joseph Smith said he received — has been rendered, at least in part, in more than 105 tongues.
The best-known adherents of the faith — from Mitt Romney, the Massachusetts governor and possible future president, to Brandon Flowers, a singer with the Killers rock group — are emphatically American.
Of the “12 apostles” who form the faith’s inner circle, only one was born outside the United States, and most are from Utah.
But non-Americans, especially from the Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking world, are inching up the hierarchy. One of the “quorum of 70” (the next layer of authority after the apostles) is Japanese, and is another British.
Wherever it goes, the faith retains a midwestern flavour, with its mixture of social conservatism, philanthropy, worldly shrewdness and devotion to a core set of beliefs.
The movement’s president — seen ex officio as a “prophet” — is an unmistakably American figure, 96-year-old Gordon Hinckley. But he has travelled to every corner of the world and overseen a global program of building temples — giant buildings where sacraments, such as marriage and baptism, take place.
The faith’s fastest growth has been in Latin America — where Native Americans warm to the Mormon teaching that they descend from a lost tribe of Israel, and the Roman Catholic church is often too stretched, or ideologically divided, to feed its notional flock.
Out of a worldwide membership of 12.7 million, Brazil and Mexico each account for about 1 million. The ex-Soviet republics — another area where many people long for religion and older faiths are imperfectly organized — could in principle be fertile ground, but in practice pickings have been thin: there are 19,000 adherents in Russia and 10,000 in Ukraine.
Why do the Mormons attract followers while many other religions decline? Is it the aura of American prosperity, health and sobriety, which seems so appealing in an African village or a Mexican slum?
Davies thinks the most compelling feature of Mormon teaching is its confidence that death has been conquered: believers look forward with certainty to eternal life (with their spouses), and by conducting posthumous baptisms they can also save their dead forebears.
For Margaret Barker, a Methodist scholar, part of the faith’s power lies in its insistence that prophecy and divine revelation did not happen just once, a long time ago: the flow of messages from God is still in progress.
Despite the good relations they cultivate with world leaders, the Mormons’ expansion is not always popular: the late Alexander Lebed, a Russian politician, once said they should be banned. And in Islamic countries Mormons face at least as many obstacles as other nonMuslim believers do. But paradoxically these two faiths have things in common.
Like the Muslims, the Mormons believe God’s covenant with Abraham, and the message of Jesus of Nazareth were distorted by later generations — only to be corrected by their own prophet.
And like the Muslims, the Mormons will be preachers in the world pulpit in the third Christian millennium.