1. The Rise of a New World Faith

By Rodney Stark

Rodney Stark, “The Rise of a New World Faith,” in Latter-day Saint Social Life: Social Research on the LDS Church and its Members (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1998), 1–8.

Chapter 1: The Rise of a New World Faith

Rodney Stark

 

Abstract

This essay suggests that the Latter-day Saints present a unique opportunity to sociologists of religion: the chance to watch an extraordinarily rare event, the rise of a new world faith. The author traces patterns of Mormon growth from the start of the Church in 1830 through the present and reports that data on where the Mormons are growing, and their rates of growth, suggest that within a century there may well be more than 250 million Latter-day Saints. The essay concludes with suggestions for future research.

The formation of a new religion must occur almost daily somewhere in the world (Stark and Bainbridge 1984). For all that, it is exceedingly difficult to study the rise of new religions. Virtually all new faiths are born and die in obscurity, thus giving sociologists no opportunity to see what factors lead to success. And, nearly all of the others can be said to “rise” only in comparison with the utter failures, for they too pass into history as no more than a footnote, and that only because of their novelty. Indeed, it has been nearly one thousand four hundred years since a new religion has appeared that became a major world faith.

It is, of course, much too late to study how Islam arose in the seventh century, as it is too late to study the rise of the other great world faiths. Their formative periods are now forever shrouded in the fog of unrecorded history. Despite the many admirable efforts to deduce “histories” of these great movements by sociologizing upon shreds of texts (Scroggs 1980; Theissen 1982; Meeks 1982), there are severe limits to what can be learned by these means. Sociologists of religion must await new developments to provide them with critical evidence.

In this essay I suggest that we need wait no longer, that the time of deliverance is now at hand. I shall give my reasons for believing that it is possible today to study that incredibly rare event: the rise of a new world religion. I shall attempt to demonstrate that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, will soon achieve a worldwide following comparable to that of Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and the other dominant world faiths.

In other essays I offer a preliminary analysis of why the Mormons have succeeded and a general model of why new religions triumph or fail (Stark 1987). Here I limit my attention primarily to describing the Mormon “miracle” of rapid growth and to presenting plausible projections of the immediate future. Finally, I will explain why intense study of the Mormons is urgent for sociologists of religion, and suggest some useful directions for such study to take.

In the Beginning

On 6 April 1830, Joseph Smith, his brothers Hyrum and Samuel, Oliver Cowdery, and Peter and David Whitmer met in the Whitmer home in Fayette, New York—a farming village in the western part of the state. That day these six young men organized the Church of Christ, and afterwards Joseph Smith served communion and “confirmed” the world’s first Mormons. Of course, they did not call themselves Mormons then, and it was not for several years that they adopted the name The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But they were Mormons nonetheless (Arrington and Bitton 1979).

In the 150 years since these obscure beginnings, the Mormons have sustained the most rapid growth of any new religion in American history. Indeed, today they stand on the threshold of becoming the first major faith to appear on earth since the Prophet Mohammed rode out of the desert (whereas the Mormons gained strength initially by riding back into the desert). To understand where the Mormons may be in the near future, it is first necessary to see how they got where they are.

Initially there were six Mormons. But within days they were joined by others, mostly their relatives and close friends, and by September 1830 there were sixty-two Mormons. Almost immediately, missionaries were dispatched to bring the Mormon message to the world. Thus, late that first year four members led by Oliver Cowdery (who had been sent as missionaries to the Indians in Missouri) stopped in Kirtland, Ohio. While there they succeeded in converting Sidney Rigdon, a Campbellite preacher who had just broken with the Disciples of Christ, and more than one hundred of his followers.

In the spring of 1831 Joseph Smith led his followers from western New York to Kirtland, thus merging the two groups and establishing a center for the Mormon movement. By the summer of 1835 there were at least two thousand Mormons living in and around Kirtland and work was nearly complete on the first Mormon temple, a fifteen-room, sandstone structure. Meanwhile, a second major center had been established in Missouri, where thousands more flocked to the new faith (Arrington and Bitton 1979).

The rapid growth of this new religion, a faith that proclaimed that the Age of Revelation had resumed, provoked anxiety, opposition, and, soon, serious persecution. In Missouri public officials moved against the “heretics” and jailed Joseph Smith for six months in 1838–39. Seeking elbow room to freely construct their own Mormon society, five thousand Mormons migrated to western Illinois where they founded the city of Nauvoo in 1839. Joseph Smith joined them there and the city flourished, soon becoming the largest in the state with a population of more than eleven thousand, while many other Mormon families settled on farms nearby.

It was in Nauvoo that the Mormons fully demonstrated their capacity to build a civilization in the wilderness and to create a rich and distinctive culture. Indeed, it was in Nauvoo that Smith revealed the full scope of his revelations thus giving final form to a Mormon theology that clearly made it a new religion. The Book of Mormon, first published in 1830, may not have added enough doctrinal novelty to the Christian tradition to have made Mormonism more than a Protestant sect. The doctrines revealed in Nauvoo, however, added as much novelty to Christianity as it, in turn, had added to Judaism.

Once established in Nauvoo, the Mormons not only continued to send out large numbers of missionaries across the nation, but they opened an official mission in England. Within months, converts began to board ships chartered by the Mormon agency in Liverpool, headed for Nauvoo, Illinois. Thus, by 1840, only a year after the founding of Nauvoo, and only a decade since the original six young men organized the church, there were approximately thirty thousand Mormons.

The next decade was the most tumultuous and painful in Mormon history. Illinois proved no more hospitable than Missouri. Intermittent conflicts with state officials and nearby non-Mormons began to escalate. Then, on 25 June 1844, a lynch mob broke into the jail in Carthage, Illinois, where Joseph and Hyrum Smith were being held, and murdered them both. The prophet was only thirty-eight years old.

The death of Joseph Smith caused a crisis of leadership succession. Several schismatic groups broke off, while many individual Mormons simply drifted away. Finally, in 1846, under the leadership of Brigham Young, the main body of Mormons abandoned Nauvoo and began a long, slow and dangerous migration west. Sending farmers ahead to plant crops along the route to be harvested later by the great wagon trains as they went, the Mormons broke trail across the unsettled Great Plains and scaled the Rockies. Many died, but finally, the Mormons reached the isolated Great Salt Lake Valley. There, in July 1847, Brigham Young and the advance party selected the site for the main settlement and immediately began to lay out survey lines for the streets and for the foundation of the Salt Lake Temple.

What seems astounding is that, despite these terrible trials, the Mormons actually doubled in number during that second decade: by 1850 there were sixty thousand Mormons. How could this have been accomplished during a period of such internal strife and schism? It was due to the huge success of Mormon missionaries in Europe, especially in Great Britain.

From the beginning the Mormons have excelled at missionary effort—during their first decade of existence they managed to send forth 597 missionaries, some of them overseas. As a result, by 1837 they had 600 members in Britain. The early success of foreign missions has long been overlooked outside the Mormon community because until well into the twentieth century Mormon converts gained abroad were aided in coming to the United States. That prevented the buildup of local congregations and also came to hamper recruitment as converts departed for America before their network ties in the old country could be fully exploited (Stark and Bainbridge 1980b). Thus, Mormon congregations abroad today, especially in Europe, are of relatively recent origins and do not adequately reflect the nineteenth-century response to the Mormon message.

An examination of Mormon membership statistics for England, Scotland, and Wales from 1837 through 1980 demonstrates the extent of early missionary success and the way in which emigration drained their foreign congregations (see table 1.1). In only thirteen years (1837–50) Mormon membership exploded from six hundred to more than thirty thousand according to official church statistics which are confirmed by the British religious census of 1851 (Currie, Gilbert, and Horsley 1977). These data give new meaning to growth of Mormonism during the decade of the 1840s—for in 1850 more than half of the Mormons on earth were in Britain, not Utah. But, notice that by 1860, Mormon membership in Britain had plunged to less than fourteen thousand. Few had quit the Church. Instead, they had gone to America.

Table 1.1: Mormon Membership in Britain 1837–1890

1837

600

1840

3,626

1850

30,747

1860

13,853

1870

8,804

1880

5,112

1890

2,770

1900

4,183

1910

6,864

1920

6,797

1930

6,491

1940

6,364

1950

6,357

1960

17,332

1970

68,271

1980

90,982

As early as 1846 it is estimated that five thousand converts had come from Britain and by 1854 another fifteen thousand are estimated to have come (O’Dea 1957). By 1890 there were fewer than three thousand Mormons left in the British Isles. To local observers the Mormons must have seemed a brief-lived fad, and, during the first half of this century, Mormonism remained an insignificant religious group in Britain. But then a new burst of growth set in. In the thirty years from 1950 to 1980, the faith grew from about six thousand members to more than ninety thousand.

Today

Mormon missionaries are not paid professionals. Rather, each is a young volunteer who pays his (and, more frequently today, her) own expenses. The church pays only the cost of transportation to a mission assignment and back. All other costs needed to serve as a full-time missionary for two years are supplied by the missionary’s family, by money saved before going on a mission, or by a bank loan. All young Mormon men of good moral standing are encouraged to go on their mission, and today about 40 percent actually do. This has several consequences. First, it provides a steady supply of young, talented, eager missionaries—the best of each generation. Second, converts also tend to be young and talented, since people are most effective in sharing their faith with people like themselves. Third, the missionary experience has immense socialization benefits for the young missionaries and enables the Mormons to rely on a volunteer, unpaid, yet trained, priesthood to staff the church. Finally, it results in a worldwide missionary effort on a scale that would otherwise be inconceivable. The Mormons have nearly as many missionaries in the field as do all of the Protestant bodies of North America combined (Stark and Bainbridge 1984).

By 1979 more than two hundred and sixty thousand Mormons had served a tour of mission duty since the founding of the church. In 1980 there were thirty thousand Mormons on full-time missions. This incredible missionary effort is matched by equally incredible rates of Mormon growth.

Table 1.2 is based on official church membership statistics. It is worth noting that Mormon statistics are extremely reliable (is there another denomination that actually sends out auditors to check local figures?). The pattern of growth revealed in the table not only is rapid, but since World War II the rate has been accelerating. For each of the past three decades growth has exceeded 50 percent.

One reason for Mormon growth is that their fertility is sufficiently high to offset both mortality and defection. But a more important reason is a rapid rate of conversion. Indeed, the majority of Mormons today were not born in the faith, but were converted to it.

Table 1.2: The Growth Record of the Mormon Church

Year

Number of Members

Rate of Increase

1830

62

-

1840

30,000

-

1850

60,000

100%

1860

80,000

33%

1870

110,000

38%

1880

160,000

45%

1890

205,000

28%

1900

268,331

31%

1910

393,437

47%

1920

526,032

34%

1930

672,488

28%

1940

862,664

28%

1950

1,111,314

29%

1960

1,693,180

52%

1970

2,930,810

73%

1980

4,638,000

58%

Projections

Estimate

Estimated Rate

2080

63,415,000

30%

2080

265,259,000

50%

The rapid growth of the Mormons has gone amazingly unremarked by outsiders. There are probably many reasons for this, including the persistence of considerable prejudice against Mormons (Stark and Bainbridge 1984) and the seeming inability of the mass media to cover adequately much of anything that happens west of Chicago. A more basic reason may be the inability of people to think in terms of rates rather than in terms of absolute numbers. Thus we tend to dismiss small groups as insignificant no matter how astounding their rate of growth, and, until very recently, the absolute number of Mormons was small. Moreover, even today the Mormons appear to be but a small religious group, even in the United States, if we compare them to Roman Catholics and “Protestants.” Indeed, we are accustomed to regarding Protestants as by far the largest American religious group. But there is no such group. Protestant is a purely arbitrary and highly misleading statistical category embracing hundreds of very different, competing faiths (Stark and Glock 1968).

If we disassemble Protestants into their constituent groups, a most remarkable fact comes to light. The Mormons, with 3.1 million American members in 1980, are the fifth largest religious body in the nation. They are exceeded in size only by the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, and the National Baptist Convention, which is the oldest and largest of the black denominations. That the Mormons have overtaken such prominent and “respectable” faiths as the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and even the Lutherans, must be one of the most unremarked cultural watersheds in American history. Indeed, only a few Protestant sects have kept pace with Mormon growth in America (among them the Nazarenes and the Seventh-Day Adventists), although they remain much smaller.

Keep in mind that the Mormons are not a Protestant sect. To many Christian theologians, the Mormons are not even a Christian denomination. Albeit they have retained cultural continuities with Christianity (just as Christianity retained continuities with Judaism and classical paganism), but the Mormons are a new religion. Their rapid growth has occurred in the face of much greater hostility than has been directed towards any Protestant sect and is thereby all the more remarkable.

Mormon growth is not, however, a purely American phenomenon. Indeed, the church is growing even more rapidly in many other nations. Table 1.3 shows international Mormon growth rates for the two-year period 1978–80. In those two years the Mormons grew by 10 percent in the United States. But their foreign congregations grew by 32 percent! Moreover, growth rates in Latin America and parts of Asia often were double this worldwide rate. Average growth for South America was an incredible 72 percent in only two years, while in Asia growth surpassed 60 percent. In Chile the Mormons grew by 121 percent in two years, and in Argentina by 68 percent. In Korea the increase was 83 percent, and in Japan 79 percent. Granted that the absolute numbers of Mormons in these nations is small, but with rates of growth like this they will not remain small very long.

Table 1.3 Two Years of Mormon Growth, 1978–80

 

Percentage rate of membership growth, 1978–80

Number of members in 1980

Western Europe*

22%

99,994

Central America

15%

51,701

South America

72%

368,064

Asia

61%

139,523

South Pacific

17%

135,952

SELECTED NATIONS

   

Chile

121%

82,625

Argentina

68%

65,936

Brazil

59%

81,504

Mexico

21%

241,521

Japan

79%

57,093

Korea

83%

21,802

Philippines

59%

41,802

Samoa

23%

27,020

Tonga

21%

18,484

Australia

17%

39,699

New Zealand

12%

40,652

Great Britain

11%

90,982

Canada

13%

81,244

*These regions do not include many nations where Mormons have successful missions. For example, Mexico is not included in the Central American data and Great Britain is not included in Western Europe.

Tomorrow

Today there are more than five million Mormons on earth. How many will there be in the near future? Projections require assumptions. If growth during the next century is like that of the past, the Mormons will become a major world faith. If, for example, we assume they will grow by 30 percent per decade, then in 2080 there will be more than sixty million Mormons. But, since World War II, the Mormon growth rate has been far higher than 30 percent per decade. If we set the rate at 50 percent, then in 2080 there will be 265 million Mormons.

Admittedly, straight-line projections are risky; they assume the future will be like the past. There is no way to be sure that Mormon growth won’t suddenly begin to decline. But it would be wise to keep in mind that back in 1880 scholars would have ridiculed anyone who used a straightline projection to predict that the 160,000 Mormons of that year would number more than five million a century hence. But that is now history.

I recognize that most of my colleagues in the scientific study of religion will not be easily persuaded to anticipate sixty million, let alone 265 million Mormons in the late twenty-first century. Indeed, most still probably expect that the primary future trend in religion is secularization—that the spread of modernization and scientific rationalism will erode the capacity for faith in the supernatural. Elsewhere, I have attempted theoretically and empirically to refute the secularization thesis (Stark and Bainbridge 1980a; 1981; 1984). This is not the place to renew that debate. However, since the secularization thesis affects the plausibility of projections of Mormon growth, it is worth noting several things about where the Mormons are growing fastest and to whom they are most able to appeal.

The secularization thesis would hold that religious movements such as Mormonism will do best in places where modernization has had the least impact on the plausibility of supernaturalism, and among segments of the population least exposed to modernization. If so, then the spread of modernization would seem to present a serious future limit to continued Mormon growth.

These assumptions about secularization are refuted by research. Mormon growth rates are the highest in those nations of Latin America where the Catholic Church displays the greatest weakness. Indeed, Mormon growth rates in Latin America are correlated +.46 with the rates of persons claiming to have no religion (Stark, in press). Similarly, Mormon growth rates are correlated -.69 with weekly church attendance rates for European nations (Stark and Bainbridge 1984). That is, Mormons thrive in the most, not the least, secularized nations. In similar fashion, Mormon growth is very positively associated with measures of modernization and industrialization.

Thus, modernization may play a role in weakening or secularizing the conventional faiths of societies. But the result is not a population “immune” to supernatural beliefs. Instead, secularization creates a pool of people ready to embrace a new, less secularized, supernatural faith. Indeed, research shows that new religious movements most heavily over-recruit from those whose prior religious affiliation was “none” (Stark and Bainbridge 1984). Thus it is not only the Mormons who are thriving in the more secularized nations of Europe and Latin America; it is there too that the Scientologists, Hare Krishnas, and a variety of novel Indian and Eastern faiths also are having much greater success. But the Mormons are having much greater success than the others (Stark and Bainbridge 1984).

Neither does research support the thesis that the Mormons mainly find their converts among the poor and the dispossessed, those least affected by modernization and the onset of secularization. As with new religious movements generally, the Mormons appeal most effectively to the better educated and the more successful (Stark and Bainbridge 1984).

In consequence, I can find no reason to expect the Mormons suddenly to lose their ability to gain converts. In historical terms, they must lose their conversion capacities very quickly if they are not to become a major world faith.

 

Implications

In a series of recent articles, many with William Sims Bainbridge, I have extolled the value of studying cult movements. Since all new religions begin in obscurity, if we would see them in their formative days we must seek them out while they are tiny, deviant, and insignificant. Now I would like to qualify that advice. When we study cult movements we must keep clearly in mind that the data we collect are based mainly on groups that have got something wrong. Most are attempting to spread the wrong message, in the wrong way, to the wrong people, in the wrong time and place. Most probably will never attract five hundred members, and few will ever attract twenty-thousand. Most will not exist forty years from now.

When we base research on groups that have gotten something wrong, we risk enshrining their errors as intrinsic to religious movements. For example, most recent cult movements heavily over-recruit women (Stark and Bainbridge 1984). Undoubtedly it is important to explain why. But, it is equally important to ask whether that is simply how new movements get going, or whether it is a fatal flaw that ensures their failure. Only by comparisons between the more and less successful movements can we begin to answer such a question. Moreover, only by very careful study of a truly successful movement can we hope to glimpse how and why new religions succeed. Put another way, too much concentration on generalizing from many cases of cult movements may produce, unwittingly, a sociology of religious failure.

A second example might be helpful. John Lofland and I (1965) found from a field study of the first American cell of the Unification Church (now more commonly known as the “Moonies”) that interpersonal bonds, not ideological appeals, were the primary basis of conversion. We also reported that the Moonies did best by concentrating on methods to locate social isolates (often persons new to a particular locale), since they could most rapidly build intense social attachments with such people. The Moonies are, in fact, a relatively more successful new religious movement so far and therefore do not necessarily present us with a sociology of failure. But, the fact remains that subsequent study of the Mormons has revealed the superiority of recruitment strategies based on gaining access to new social networks. For them, much more sustained and rapid growth is possible as conversion spreads through preexisting social bonds (Stark and Bainbridge 1980b; Stark and Roberts 1982). If any of this was news to sociologists, it wasn’t to the Mormons. An article in a Mormon magazine, written by a mission president and intended to help individual Mormon families be more effective in converting others, showed practical awareness of virtually everything learned about conversion by sociologists over the past twenty years (Stark and Bainbridge 1980b). We can learn much, not only from study of the Mormons, but from them directly.

Conclusion

The “miracle” of Mormon success makes them the single most important case on the agenda of the social scientific study of religion. From the Mormons we can see how a successful movement differs from the thousands of failures. Moreover, not only are we fortunate to have such a movement available for study, but we can also hope to profit immensely from the extraordinary efforts of Mormon social scientists to study their faith. Through the years, I have consulted with many denominational research departments and have read countless reports of their results. I have often been very favorably impressed. Yet the research efforts of other denominations shrink to insignificance when compared with the quality, scope, and sophistication of the work of the Mormon social research department. One might as well be comparing missionary efforts.

Much of this work is not yet readily available outside the church and I have been unusually privileged to see it. Yet, there is every reason to be confident that the results of these truly important studies will find their way into the appropriate journals soon. And, even if we must wait awhile, what is really important is that the right data are being collected in the right way. Thus they constitute a prize for scholars, if not today, then at some future time. Suppose that the Apostle Paul had not only sent out letters, but questionnaires? And what if it were only today that the Vatican released them? Would we think them too old to be useful?

In closing, let me suggest that this special issue of the Review of Religious Research is intended not simply to present some significant research on the Mormons, but to encourage dialogue between Mormon and non-Mormon sociologists of religion. It is a potentially important exchange for both. For non-Mormons it increases the visibility of what I have attempted in this paper to establish as one of the great events in the history of religion. For Mormons it is a chance to dispel pernicious prejudice and to achieve unfettered participation in the social scientific study of religion.

I am quite aware how easy it is for one person’s faith to be another’s heresy. Indeed, that was the basis of my early work on religion and anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, one does not really expect to find hardline particularism among scholars of religion. Thus I continue to be astonished at the extent to which colleagues who would never utter anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, or even anti-Moslem remarks, unself-consciously and self-righteously condemn Mormons. It is time we did better.

Postscript

Since this essay appeared, the projections of Latter-day Saint growth have, from time to time, attracted considerable media attention. Sometimes this has been prompted by Mormon authorities who, understandably, have taken considerable satisfaction from my numbers. Some attention has been prompted by Mormon-bashers seeking to alarm the world against the impending Mormon takeover. Thankfully, most reporters were simply seeking confirmation of rapid growth.

Of greater personal significance is the amount of attention these projections received from my fellow social scientists. I have been given the benefit of an amazing amount of counseling concerning the pitfalls of straight-line projections. In assessing this earnest advice, I have had to consider that it was coming to me mainly from people who were utterly horrified at any conceivable possibility that in a century there might be more than 260 million Mormons on the planet. Moreover, I really did not need to be warned that projections like these rest on the assumption that tomorrow will be like today and yesterday. I am entirely aware that should significant conditions change, such projections will be inaccurate—perhaps too high, but also perhaps too low. Nevertheless, the best assumption about any trend is that tomorrow will be like the recent past. When a rate has held for a substantial period of time it is unlikely to respond to modest variations in social conditions. Big changes are needed, and those big changes are rare.

To demonstrate how robust Mormon growth rates have been in the face of seemingly immense changes, let us return to 1880. During the previous four decades, Mormon growth had averaged around 40 percent per decade. Suppose that back then a scholar had been asked to predict growth for the next century. Applying a growth rate of 40 percent per decade to the 160,000 Mormons of 1880 results in a straight-line projection of 4,628,000 Mormons in 1980, or only ten thousand short of the actual total of 4,638,000 Mormons in 1980. However, if we examine this projection decade by decade in table 1.4, we see that immense social upheavals do register on Mormon growth but only modestly. The left column in table 1.4 is the estimated Mormon membership based on the projection. The middle column shows the actual Mormon membership for the designated year. The right column reports the difference between estimated and actual membership as a percentage of the estimated membership. In addition, some very major factors influencing Mormon growth are identified.

The first of these has to do with the “polygamy crisis.” The decade 1880–90 was one of the most tumultuous in Mormon history. In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Bill. Two years later the federal government initiated serious prosecution of polygamists and many were imprisoned while many more fled to Mexico and to Canada. According to the Church Almanac 1995–96 (p. 372): “Most of the Church leaders went into hiding, which was referred to as the ‘underground.’ Similar conditions continued for the next few years. These years are sometimes called the years of the ‘Crusade.’” This disarray within the Mormon community clearly registered on church growth. In 1890 actual membership fell 16.1 percent below the estimate.

Table 1.4 Comparing Projected and Actual Rates of Mormon Growth, 1880–1980

Year

Estimate

Actual Membership

% Difference

Event

1880

 

160,000

 

Polygamy Crisis

1890

224,000

188,000

-16.1%

 

1900

314,000

284,000

-9.6%

 

1910

439,000

399,000

-9.1%

 

1920

614,000

526,000

-13.8%

World War I

1930

860,000

670,000

-22.1%

Great Depression

1940

1,205,000

863,000

-28.4%

World War II

1950

1,687,000

1,111,000

-34.1%

 

1960

2,361,000

1,693,000

-28.3%

 

1970

3,306,000

2,931,000

-11.3%

 

1980

4,628,000

4,638,000

.2%

 

A portion of this lag was recovered during the next decade as Mormon ranks grew by 51 percent from 1890 to 1900 and by 41 percent from 1900 to 1910. Then came World War I. With all travel abroad curtailed, Mormon growth slowed slightly between 1910 and 1920, and the actual membership fell 13.8 percent below the projection for 1920. Following the war, the world soon was in the grips of the Great Depression and this also registered on Mormon growth, which was only 27.4 percent between 1920 and 1930 and 28.8 percent between 1930 and 1940. Next came World War II, and once again foreign travel was impossible, and Mormon men who might have gone on missions were in the armed services instead. Again the growth rate was only 28.7 percent for the decade between 1940 and 1950. At this point, actual Mormon membership lagged behind the projection by a third (34.1 percent). During the next thirty years, however, with wars and the Depression behind them, the Mormons grew rapidly and caught up with the projection.

In my judgment these data show two things. First, major environmental disturbances did influence Mormon growth. Second, the impact was quite limited; even after forty years of wars and depression, the projected number of Mormons was not all that much in error. The fact is that straight-line projections will be accurate unless or until some basic changes in the process occur. That is, unless there is a dramatic shift in the basis on which current Mormon growth rests, the past does reveal the future.

It is pointless to note that an all-out nuclear war might influence Mormon growth, and equally so to concern ourselves with a collision between the earth and a large meteor. So what might bring a sudden halt to Mormon growth? The only change suggested to me that might have the potential to alter current Mormon growth rates is modernization—that modernization will soon dry up the primary sources of Mormon growth in areas such as Latin America. But when I analyzed the appropriate data, I found that Mormon growth is stimulated rather than curtailed by modernization (Stark 1990).

So, there the matter lies. I could not, of course, verify my projections. But neither could I discover a reason to rescind them.

Mormon membership was reported to be 9,024,569 at the end of 1994. This prompted me to go back to my projections and see how they are doing thus far. The results are shown in table 1.5. The column at the far left shows my projections based on a growth rate of 50 percent per decade (4.138 percent per year). It projects 8,182,000 Mormons in 1994. In the center is the low estimate based on a rate of 30 percent per decade (2.658 percent per year). It projects 6,697,000 Mormons in 1994. The column at the right shows the actual membership numbers for the first fourteen years of the projection. In all comparisons, the actual rate is substantially higher than the high projection. In fact, in 1994 Mormon membership exceeds the high estimate by about 10 percent. I have included high and low estimates for other target years so that in the future, interested parties can just fill in the blanks.

Granted there are eighty-six more years to go. But, so far, so good.

Table 1.5 Comparing Projected and Actual Rates of Mormon Growth, 1981–94

Year

High Estimate

Low Estimate

Actual Membership

1981

4,830,000

4,761,000

4,920,000

1982

5,030,000

4,888,000

5,161,000

1983

5,238,000

5,018,000

5,385,000

1984

5,455,000

5,151,000

5,641,000

1985

5,680,000

5,288,000

5,911,000

1986

5,915,000

5,429,000

6,167,000

1987

6,160,000

5,573,000

6,400,000

1988

6,415,000

5,721,000

6,721,000

1989

6,681,000

5,973,000

7,308,000

1990

6,957,000

6,029,000

7,761,000

1991

7,245,000

6,190,000

8,090,000

1992

7,545,000

6,354,000

8,404,000

1993

7,857,000

6,523,000

8,689,000

1994

8,182,000

6,697,000

9,024,569

1995

8,521,000

6,875,000

 

2000

10,436,000

7,838,000

 

2020

23,480,000

13,246,000

 

2040

52,830,000

22,387,000

 

2060

118,867,000

37,833,000

 

2080

267,452,000

63,939,000

 

Rodney Stark is professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle. This article was originally published in Review of Religious Research 26:18–27; reprinted with permission. The “postscript” is published here for the first time.

References

Arrington, Leonard J. and Davis Bitton. 1979. The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints. New York: Knopf.

Currie, Robert, Dan Gilbert, and Lee Horsley. 1977. Churches and Churchgoers. Oxford: Clarendon.

Deseret News. 1994. 1995–96 Church Almanac. Salt Lake City: Deseret News.

Lofland, John and Rodney Stark. 1965. “Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective.” American Sociological Review 30:862–75.

Meeks, Wayne A. 1983. The First Urban Christians. New Haven: Yale University Press.

O’Dea, Thomas F. 1957. The Mormons. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Scroggs, Robin. 1980. “The Sociological Interpretation of the New Testament: The Present State of Research.” New Testament Studies 26:164–79.

Stark, Rodney. 1987. “How New Religions Succeed: A Theoretical Model.” Pp. 11–29 in The Future of New Religious Movements, edited by David G. Bromley and Phillip E. Hammond. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.

———. 1990. “Modernization, Secularization, and Mormon Success.” Pp. 201–18 in In Gods We Trust, edited by Thomas Robbins and Dick Anthony. 2d ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

———. In press. “Secularization and Mormonism in Latin America.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Stark, Rodney and William Sims Bainbridge. 1980a. “Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation.” Annual Review of the Social Sciences of Religion 4:85–119.

———. 1980b. “Networks of Faith: Interpersonal Bonds and Recruitment of Cults and Sects.” American Journal of Sociology 85:1376–95.

———. 1981. “Secularization and Cult Formation in the Jazz Age.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 20:360–73.

———. 1984. The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stark, Rodney and Charles Y. dock. 1968. American Piety: The Nature of Religious Commitment. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stark, Rodney and Lynne Roberts. 1982. “The Arithmetic of Social Movements: Theoretical Implications.” Sociological Analysis 43:53–68.