Family Life

Darwin L. Thomas

Darwin L. Thomas, “Family Life,” in Latter-day Saint Essentials: Readings from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism​, ed. John W. Welch and Devan Jensen (Provo, UT: BYU Studies and the Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2002), 157–62.

Family Demographics

The inherent emphasis on family in Latter-day Saint theology is expressed in demographic patterns that are different for Mormons compared to the general population. First, Mormon fertility rates have consistently been higher than national averages. Utah has traditionally had the highest fertility rate of any state in the Union due to the high percentage of Latter-day Saints in the state (approximately 70 percent).

Research shows that the larger than average family size among Latter-day Saints is not due to their reluctance to use various methods of birth control. Heaton and Calkins’ research (1983) shows that in a national sample they are just as likely to use modern birth control methods as are the rest of the nation. But for Latter-day Saints, contraceptives often are not used until after child rearing has occurred and is used less frequently so that the desired larger family size can be obtained. Heaton concludes that the larger family size for Latter-day Saints is associated with beliefs of LDS parents regarding the value of having children, involvement with an LDS reference group, and socialization in a context which favors having children (1988, p. 112).

In the general population, as family size increases, so does coercive discipline. Affectional family relationships decrease. But research among Latter-day Saints shows an opposite pattern, with larger families reporting increased affectional relations (Thomas, 1983, p. 274).

Latter-day Saints consistently report lower than national average rates of premarital sexual experience, teenage pregnancy, and extramarital sexual experience (Heaton, 1988). Yet, research reported by Smith (1976) shows that inactive Mormons were changing toward more liberal sexual attitudes and behavior during the 1970s, even while active Latter-day Saints showed no movement toward more liberal attitudes or behavior. The percentages reporting no present premarital sexual activity by active Latter-day Saints actually increased between 1950 and 1972, from 95 percent to 98 percent for men and from 96 percent to 98 percent for women (pp. 79–81).

Current data show that a higher percent of Latter-day Saints will marry than does the general population. They will also marry younger, have a lower divorce rate, and remarry after divorce at a higher rate than is found in the general population (Heaton, 1988, pp. 110–11).

With respect to divorce, it is clear that the most religiously committed Latter-day Saints have divorce rates considerably lower than the inactive or noncommitted Church members, even though Utah is one of the mountain and western states which have generally had higher than national average divorce rates (Thomas, 1983, p. 277). Heaton and Goodman’s research (1985) shows that of Latter-day Saints attending church regularly, 10 percent of men and 15 percent of women report divorce, compared to 21 percent of men and 26 percent of women who do not attend regularly. Also, among men with temple marriages, 5.4 percent reported divorce compared to 27.8 percent of the nontemple group. For women with temple marriages, 6.5 were divorced while 32.7 percent were divorced in nontemple marriages.

Family Roles and the Church

With the emphasis upon family found within all of the organizations of the Church, from primary to priesthood quorums, the husband and wife become the main points of contact between family and Church. The wife’s involvement with the Church will most likely emerge through primary and Relief Society activities. The husband’s contact with the Church can emerge through almost any organization with the exception of the Relief Society, which is limited to women.

Since the Church is organized around a lay male priesthood, more positions of leadership are occupied by husbands than by wives. In addition, the reorganization of Church procedures and functions begun under the general heading of “priesthood correlation” reemphasized the role of the father in conducting family councils, which were seen as part of the councils designed to govern the Church extending all the way to the council of the First Presidency. The family is seen as the most basic unit of the Church, and all Church programs are designed to strengthen the family.

Given the role of the priesthood in LDS Church government, as well as the teachings about the family, Latter-day Saints have been seen generally as encouraging traditional division of labor along gender lines within families, while at the same time emphasizing the authority of the father through priesthood lines. When researchers have asked about who should perform various functions within the family, Latter-day Saints have tended to score high on measures of traditional beliefs regarding who ought to do what in a family (Brinkerhoff and MacKie, 1988). However, in research that asks husbands and wives what they actually do in decision making within the family or how they carry out various duties (that traditionally were seen as belonging to either the husband or the wife), Latter-day Saints have consistently emerged as high on egalitarian measures (Thomas, 1983; Brinkerhoff and MacKie, 1983, 1988). These somewhat paradoxical patterns have not been adequately explained. A common explanation, namely that egalitarian pressures from the larger society is changing the behavior of LDS husbands and wives, is not a convincing one, in light of these recent research findings. Wuthnow advises those who study religious influence to keep a healthy skepticism toward any description of religion “as a force in the service of social conservatism” (1973, p. 128). His advice seems especially relevant to this issue with LDS attitudes and beliefs.

In addition, while the Latter-day Saint father is given responsibility to lead the family, he is expected to do so in a manner which helps every family member grow and develop. LDS beliefs also emphasize the egalitarian nature of men-women relationships. LDS doctrine teaches that there is a Mother in Heaven as well as a Father, that Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit furthered God’s plan of salvation, that women must perform certain essential priesthood ordinances in the temple, and that the highest order of the priesthood and the complete blessings of exaltation are available only to the married couple; neither can enter exaltation without the other.

This egalitarian relationship between men and women is symbolized in the LDS portrayal of relationships between Adam and Eve after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The two must earn their bread by the sweat of their brows and “Eve did labor with him” (Moses 5:1). They are both commanded to offer sacrifices, and they teach their children all these things (Moses 5:5, 12). Eve along with Adam mourns for the wickedness of their children, and they seek the Lord in prayer together (Moses 5:13–16). After receiving information from God, Eve in turn instructs Adam about some basic points of the gospel (Moses 5:11).

Another egalitarian emphasis emerges in temple ceremonies and ordinances. Without women performing sacred priesthood ordinances in the temple, the highest saving ordinances performed on earth by men and women could not be completed. This is symbolic of men-women relationships generally. Alone they remain incomplete while united man and woman develop their highest divine potential.

Parental Beliefs and Family Behavior

Family commitment is deemed crucial for both husbands and wives, although the wife typically bears the greater responsibility for management of the home and the nurturing of the children. Thomas (1988) studied a sample of LDS parents and documented that the degree to which husbands and wives shared in their child-rearing duties was the second strongest influence on marital satisfaction. More recent research (Thomas and Cornwall, 1990) has documented that it is the wife’s marital satisfaction that is highly correlated with shared child-rearing, while the husband’s marital satisfaction is unrelated to shared child rearing. This finding corroborates a long-standing general pattern in family research which shows that what happens in family life is more central to a wife’s definition of satisfaction than a husband’s. It also points to the need for LDS husbands to realize that their increased involvement in child care will be one of the best contributions they can make to their wife’s marital satisfaction. Also, those families that score high on the measure of home religious observance (family prayer, scripture reading, and family council) also report the highest amount of shared child-rearing.

In related findings, whether the couple had been married in the temple was the best indicator of whether the family would carry out their home religious observance. These data support the conclusion that temple marriage is related to family behaviors which include more home religious activities, increased husband involvement in shared child-rearing activities, and thus increased marital satisfaction.

The emphasis among Latter-day Saints on family often can lead to greater involvement with members of the extended family. The Church encourages families to organize across generations to foster family history and genealogical work deemed essential to the family’s well-being in eternity. Such work is often discussed at family reunions. However, there is not good comparative research available to know to what degree LDS families are different from or similar to other families on extended family interaction.

The Church and Family Functioning

These demographic realities mean that generally LDS families are larger, are more likely to avoid divorce, are characterized by religious commitment and activities centered around child-rearing, and require great financial resources. In addition to providing financially for the family, running the household, and rearing children, adults usually have one or more Church callings that may involve extensive time in service to others. And, since the number of LDS women who are employed outside the home is virtually equal to the national average in the United States (see Mason, p. 103; Heaton, 1986, p. 184, 190), making home a first priority is a genuine challenge. As children grow, parents are encouraged to include them in doing household tasks, with the goal that the resulting skills and attitudes which they develop can contribute to the quality of family life, as well as prepare them for confidence and competence in the world external to the family. Church leaders are encouraged to minimize the time they and other members spend in their callings and to safeguard family time from constant intruding influences.

Sometimes the focus of Church activities on the two-parent family belies the truth that not all members are in a stage of life where they can rear children with a committed mate. Those who never married, are divorced, are widowed, are single parents, or are married to non–Latter-day Saints are always in LDS wards and, ideally, they are included in the community of Saints. Priesthood quorums and the Relief Society are charged both to integrate such families into ward activities as well as provide for special needs. And, when members of any family become involved in such activities as drug abuse, divorce, or family violence, the Church intends that leaders provide a network of emotional support, prevention, and rehabilitation.


Bahr, Howard M.; S. J. Condie; and K. L. Goodman. Life in Large Families. Washington, D.C., 1982.

Brinkerhoff, Merlin B., and Marlene MacKie. “Religious Sources of Gender Traditionalism.” In The Religion and Family Connection: Social Science Perspectives, ed. D. Thomas, pp. 232–57. Provo, Utah, 1988.

Heaton, Tim B. “The Demography of Utah Mormons.” In Utah in Demographic Perspective, ed. T. Martin; T. Heaton; and S. Bahr, pp. 181–93. Salt Lake City, 1986.

Heaton, Tim B. “Four C’s of the Mormon Family: Chastity, Conjugality, Children, and Chauvinism.” In The Religion and Family Connection: Social Science Perspectives, ed. D. Thomas, pp. 107–24. Provo, Utah, 1988.

Heaton, Tim B., and S. Calkins. “Family Size and Contraceptive Use among Mormons: 1965–75.” Review of Religious Research 25, no. 2 (1983): 103–14.

Heaton, Tim B., and Kristen L. Goodman. “Religions and Family Formation.” Review of Religious Research 26, no. 4 (1985): 343–59.

Lee, Harold B. Strengthening the Home. Salt Lake City, 1973, (pamphlet).

Mason, Jerry. “Family Economics.” In Utah in Demographic Perspective, ed. T. Martin; T. Heaton; and S. Bahr, pp. 91–109. Salt Lake City, Utah, 1986.

Smith, W. E. “Mormon Sex Standards on College Campuses, or Deal Us Out of the Sexual Revolution.” Dialogue 10, no. 2 (1976): 76–81.

Thomas, Darwin L. “Future Prospects for Religion and Family Studies: the Mormon Case.” In The Religion and Family Connection: Social Science Perspectives, ed. D. Thomas, pp. 357–82. Provo, Utah, 1988.

Thomas, Darwin L. “Family in the Mormon Experience.” In Families and Religions: Conflict and Change in Modern Society, ed. W. D’Antonio, and J. Aldous, pp. 267–88. Beverly Hills, Calif., 1983.

Thomas, Darwin L., and Marie Cornwall. “The Religion and Family Interface: Theoretical and Empirical Explorations.” Paper presented at the XII World Congress of Sociology, International Sociological Assn., Madrid, Spain, July, 13, 1990.

Wuthnow, R. “Religious Commitment and Conservatism: In Search of an Elusive Relationship.” In Religion in Sociological Perspective, ed. C. Glock. Belmont, Calif., 1973.