The Basis of Mormon Success

A Theoretical Application

Rodney Stark

Rodney Stark, “The Basis of Mormon Success: A Theoretical Application,” in Latter-day Saint Social Life: Social Research on the LDS Church and its Members (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1998), 29–70.


In this article a newly revised general theory of why religious movements succeed or fail is applied to explain why The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the fastest growing religions in the world. The model stresses both spiritual and secular factors, explaining success on the basis of what the LDS Church teaches, how it does so, and on its organizational and social capacities.

The Latter-day Saints offer sociologists the rare opportunity to observe the rise of a new world faith to which both quantitative and qualitative research tools can be applied [1] .

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 didn’t 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.

In the 166 years since these obscure beginnings, the Latter-day Saints have sustained an amazingly rapid rate of growth, having nearly ten million members worldwide in 1996. And if this growth rate continues much longer, Mormonism will become the first new world religion to appear since the Prophet Mohammed rode out of the desert. These membership projections are in chapter 1 of this volume. However, the likelihood that this immense future growth will be achieved can only be adequately assessed if we first understand why the LDS Church has been growing. That is my primary purpose in this essay.

This discussion will begin by summarizing the history and extent of LDS growth, noting that in recent decades, despite the Latter-day Saints’ continuing rapid growth in the United States, LDS growth rates have been substantially faster in Europe, Latin America, and in parts of Africa and Asia. Indeed, on 25 February 1996, LDS Church officials marked the crossover of worldwide membership from a U.S. to a non-U.S. majority.

Against this background, I present a more refined version of a theoretical model of why religious movements succeed. The initial version of this model (Stark 1987) was stimulated by the observation that the many case studies of new religious movements were in almost every instance a study of a group that had failed, or would soon do so. How could the failures be separated from the rare groups that succeed? An integrated set of eight propositions was developed and illustrated with historical materials. More recently, the model was incorporated in a lengthy study of the rise of Christianity (Stark 1996b). Subsequently, the model was extended to apply to all religious movements, having initially excluded sects (Stark 1996a). That is the version utilized here, and I will examine whether (and to what extent) the Latter-day Saints satisfy each element of the theory. Rather than using illustrative and qualitative materials alone, I will test major propositions using quantitative data from a variety of sources.

LDS Growth

As can be seen in table 2.1, originally there were only six Latter-day Saints. But within days they were joined by others—mostly their immediate relatives and closest friends—and by September 1830 there were sixty-two Latter-day Saints. At that point, missionaries were dispatched to carry the Latter-day Saint message to the world. Thus, late that first year, four members who had been assigned as missionaries to the Indians in Missouri, led by Oliver Cowdery, stopped along the way in Kirtland, Ohio. There they succeeded in converting Sidney Rigdon, a Campbellite preacher who had just broken with the Disciples of Christ. Rigdon, in turn, was able to recruit more than a hundred members of his congregation. So, by 31 December 1830 (less than a year after the Church was founded) there were 280 Latter-day Saints.

When word came back to New York about the conversion of Rigdon and his congregants, Joseph Smith decided to merge the two groups and lead his followers west to Ohio, making Kirtland the center of the new movement. By the summer of 1835 there were at least two thousand Saints living in and around Kirtland, and work was nearly complete on the first LDS temple, a fifteen-room, sandstone structure. Meanwhile, a second major center of the movement had been established in Missouri, where several thousand more flocked to the new faith (Arrington and Bitton 1979). By 1835 there were 8,835 Latter-day Saints.

It is appropriate to pause here to justify use of such detailed numbers on LDS membership. Because from the very first the church has kept detailed records on every person who ever joined (as well as all their relatives, and, eventually, their ancestors), the LDS Church today can provide the name and biographical information for nearly every Latter-day Saint, ever. As for the Church’s recent membership statistics, these are updated weekly and are subject to on-the-spot audits. These are extremely accurate data.

Between 1835 and 1840 LDS membership almost doubled to 16,865. But the Church’s troubles had begun. In Missouri, public officials moved against “heretics” and jailed Joseph Smith for six months in 1839. Keep in mind that this had nothing to do with polygamy, which had not yet begun, but was motivated entirely by claims by local divines that these people were not Christians. Seeking elbow room to freely construct their own society, about five thousand Latter-day Saints migrated to western Illinois (then a sparsely settled frontier), where in 1839 they founded the city of Nauvoo (Flanders 1965). Upon his release from jail Joseph Smith joined them there, and the city flourished, soon becoming the largest city in the state with a population of more than eleven thousand (Chicago was still a tiny trading village). Many other Saints settled on farms near Nauvoo. By 1845 there were 30,332 Latter-day Saints on earth.

Table 2.1: LDS Membership, 1830–1995


# Latter-day Saints

% Increase

1830 6 April



31 December






































































































But Joseph and Hyrum Smith were not among them. On 22 June 1844 they were arrested on charges arising from a dispute with the territorial governor of Illinois. Then, on 27 June a lynch mob broke into the jail at Carthage, Illinois, and shot the Smith brothers. A power struggle ensued among Smith’s lieutenants. Although Brigham Young was rapidly ratified as Smith’s successor, significant numbers defected to follow other leaders, and many also simply drifted away. Sidney Rigdon led one splinter group away from Nauvoo (having been excommunicated for his unwillingness to accept Young’s authority). A far larger group (perhaps numbering two thousand) chose to follow James J. Strang to rural Wisconsin, and eventually to Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan. Among Strang’s followers were several very prominent members including William Smith, another brother of Joseph Smith. But the most successful dissident faction united behind Joseph Smith’s young son Joseph Smith III and the prophet’s widow Emma. Breaking with the Young faction, this group returned to Missouri where the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was established in Independence. Today this group has about 190,000 members.

In addition to their losses to dissident groups, LDS numbers were reduced as members drifted away or simply stayed behind when the main body began its long and perilous trek west in 1846 (the first major contingent arrived in Utah in 1847). Amazingly, despite all of these losses, the total number of Saints in 1850 was 51,839, an increase of 71 percent. How could this possibly have been achieved?

The British to the Rescue

One of the most astonishing episodes in LDS history, little known outside LDS circles, involves the incredible success of the Church’s mission to Great Britain. On 4 June 1837 Joseph Smith approached Heber C. Kimball in the temple in Kirtland, Ohio, and told him that the Lord had revealed to him, “Let my servant Heber go to England and proclaim my gospel and open the door to salvation of that nation” (Allen, Esplin, and Whittaker 1992, p. 23). Thus on 13 June 1837 Kimball and Orson Hyde, both members of the Council of Twelve (the LDS governing body), along with Joseph Fielding and Willard Richards, left for Great Britain. Pausing in New York for a week to raise funds to pay their passage on the sailing ship Garrick, the LDS missionary party landed in Liverpool after eighteen days at sea. The missionaries were immediately struck by the immense class distinctions. Kimball later wrote in his Journal “. . . wealth and luxury, penuary and want abound. I there met the rich attired in the most costly dresses, and the next moment was saluted with the cries of the poor, without covering sufficient to screen them from the weather; such a distinction I never saw before” (p. 16). As soon as their baggage cleared customs (it took three days), the missionaries moved to Preston, a rapidly growing mill town, and began public preaching in Vauxhall Chapel. They met with immediate success, and by the end of the year they had recruited and baptized several hundred followers. The next year all of the missionaries but Joseph Fielding returned to America. Then in January of 1840, John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff, both members of the Council of Twelve, were sent to Great Britain. In April, Brigham Young, Heber Kimball, Orson and Parley Pratt, also members of the Twelve, accompanied by the young George Smith (Joseph’s cousin), arrived to help teach the British. And teach they did. With half of the Council of Twelve traveling the country and preaching, the ranks of British Saints swelled rapidly. By the end of 1840 they numbered 3,626, and by the end of the decade there were 30,747 Latter-day Saints in Britain (see table 2.2).

What makes this total even more remarkable is that, from the very start, large numbers of British converts departed for America. In 1840 emigration to the United States totalled 291 British Saints. The next year 1,346 came over—130 of them sailing from Liverpool on 21 April with Brigham Young as their group leader. As the decade passed, increasingly large numbers of British Saints arrived. Despite these departures, the number of Latter-day Saints in Britain also grew rapidly. Indeed, by 1848 half of all Latter-day Saints lived in Britain, and by 1850 six often Saints did so.

It was the British mission that more than accounted for Latter-day Saint growth during the terrible decade of the 1840s. The column at the far right of table 2.2 shows LDS membership with the contributions of the British mission removed. That is, the number of Saints in Britain, plus the number who had already emigrated, have been subtracted from the worldwide total of members. Notice the lack of growth and then the period of decline that occurred among non-British Saints. Put another way, LDS membership would have been greatly reduced and subsequent growth severely slowed had it not been for the astonishing results of the mission to Britain. In fact, in 1890, the first time since 1845 that non-British Saints made up half of the membership, the Latter-day Saints would have numbered only 95,798 without the British contribution. With it, they numbered 188,263.

Table 2.2: The Impact of Membership and Immigration, 1840–90


# LDS in Great Britain

Cumulative Emigration to USA

Total LDS Membership World-Wide

LDS Membership Minus British Saints1
































































































































































































































































1British Saints = Latter-day Saints in Britain plus cumulative emigration from Britain.

2U.S. Census of 1850 reported 11,354 white persons living in Utah.

3Non-British Saints outnumbered British Saints for the first time since 1845.

Why did the Latter-day Saints do so well in Britain? The 1840s were very stressful times there. The enclosure movement had driven millions from rural areas to lead lives of desperate poverty and misery in the polluted industrial cities. The majority of Britain’s seventeen million people were extremely poor; they lived in squalid, crowded tenements or were homeless on the streets. Given these conditions and the extraordinary class contrasts reported by Kimball, it is no surprise that there was increasingly bitter class antagonism. A substantial amount of this antagonism was directed towards the conventional churches; nearly all of them, including the “fundamentalist” sects, not only opposed the working class in terms of politics, but charged pew rentals that were well beyond the means of most citizens. Of course, most denominations offered some free seats, but they were clearly set apart, and most people found it degrading to use them. In contrast, all seats in LDS meeting halls were free.

But of even greater importance, Mormonism represented the American dream in very tangible ways. For people who still lacked the vote, had no realistic hope of ever owning property, and whose children would be lucky to attend school for even a year or two, America was a land of incredible plenty. Rich farm and ranch land was there for the taking. The income of the average American family was many times greater than the average income in any European nation, and even in remote wilderness areas, where there were settlers there were schools. It is no surprise that many people joined the LDS Church expecting to immigrate to the U.S. under church auspices. From the beginning, British Saints crossed the Atlantic on ships chartered by the Church. In 1849 the Perpetual Emigration Fund was established, not only to pay travel expenses, but also to advance sufficient funds to help the immigrants get started. Once they were established, the immigrants paid back their advance, thus restoring funds to be used by others to come over.

It is important to recognize that British immigrants did far more than swell the church rolls, for few of them were cynical opportunists. Once in America, surrounded by a Latter-day Saint society, the British Saints were models of devotion whose descendants still make up a significant portion of Utah Latter-day Saints. In 1990 the U.S. Census asked Americans their ancestry. In Utah, 44 percent said they were “English,” as compared with 30 percent in Maine, 29 percent in Idaho, 26 percent in Vermont, and 24 percent in New Hampshire (these were the top five). Examination of counties reveals an even more pronounced concentration of people of English ancestry in LDS areas. Of the twenty-five counties with the most English ancestry, nineteen are in Utah, and the other six are in Southern Idaho (which is overwhelmingly LDS). In Utah’s Beaver County, 66 percent claimed English ancestry, in Juab county 64 percent, in Rich county 62 percent, and in Garfield County 60 percent.

Building a Global Movement

In the twentieth century LDS growth no longer depended on the British mission, but it was impeded by world events. In 1914 World War I broke out in Europe, and soon travel abroad—including that of LDS missionaries—was curtailed. LDS growth slowed to only 13 percent between 1915 and 1920 (table 2.1). Following the war, growth returned to prewar levels, only to be sharply reduced during the Great Depression. Then came World War II, and once again foreign travel was impossible. LDS men who might have gone on missions were in the armed forces instead. Then, with wars and the depression behind them, the Latter-day Saints entered a period of very rapid growth—never below 22 percent for any five-year period since 1950. In 1995 LDS membership was nearly ten million.

As a result of this rapid growth, Mormonism is no longer an American or British-American movement. More than 50 percent of all Saints now live outside the United States. Indicative of this rapid rate of growth, Brazilian male converts often have been called to be bishops within a year of their baptism, and as of 1994 half of all bishops, branch presidents and stake presidents in Brazil were under age forty (Martins 1995). In fact, mission presidents in many nations, including most of Latin America, now devote effort to limiting rates of conversion so as not to overwhelm their wards with uninstructed newcomers. Table 2.3 shows that LDS growth is rapid in all parts of the world, but growth in Europe is slower than in Latin America, Asia, the South Pacific, or Africa—where LDS missions have only just begun (except for South Africa). Reasons for these regional variations are considered later.

Table 2.3: LDS Growth Rates, 1978–93


Percent Increase 1978–93



United States






Latin America




South Pacific




1Nearly all members are in Sub-Saharan nations where, except for South Africa, LDS missions began only very recently.

Indicative of the globalization of Latter-day Saint membership, eight nations have higher LDS membership rates than does the U.S. In Tonga Latter-day Saints make up 37 percent of the population; in Samoa, 25 percent are LDS. Tahiti, Cook Islands, Marshall Islands, Chile, New Zealand, and Uruguay finish out the list of eight, while Guatemala, Fiji, Ecuador, and Peru are close behind.

This long-term pattern of rapid growth can be explained with ten propositions that attempt to specify the necessary and the sufficient conditions for the success of religious movements. I will apply each proposition to the LDS Church in this chapter.

Conservation of Cultural Capital

It is axiomatic in the social sciences that, within the limits of their information and available choices, guided by their preferences and tastes, humans will tend to maximize—to attempt to acquire the most while expending the least. Put another way, humans will seek to conserve their capital. When economists apply this principle they concentrate on efforts to acquire and retain capital of the monetary variety, but the same principles hold when applied to cultural capital.

Cultural capital is the result of socialization and education. When we are socialized into a particular culture we also are investing in it—expending time and effort in learning, understanding, and remembering cultural material. For example, persons raised to be Christians have accumulated a substantial store of Christian culture—a store that can be conceived of as cultural capital. When faced with the option of shifting religions, the maximization of cultural capital leads people to prefer to save as much of their cultural capital as they can and to expend as little investment in new capital as possible (Stark and Bainbridge 1987, p. 220; Iannaccone 1990; Sherkat and Wilson 1995).

Stated as a proposition: People will be more willing to join a religious group to the degree that doing so minimizes their expenditure of cultural capital. An example may be helpful. A young person from a Christian background and living in a Christian society is deciding whether to join the Latter-day Saints or the Hare Krishnas. By becoming a Latter-day Saint this person retains his or her entire Christian culture and simply adds to it. The LDS missionaries, noting that the person has copies of the Old Testament and the New Testament, suggest that an additional scripture, The Book of Mormon, is needed to complete the set. In contrast, the Hare Krishna missionaries note that the person has the wrong scriptures and must discard the Bible in exchange for the Bhagavad Gita. The principle of the conservation of cultural capital predicts (and explains) why the overwhelming majority of converts within a Christian context select the Latter-day Saint rather than the Hare Krishna option, with the reverse being the case in a Hindu context.

In the form stated above, the principle of the conservation of cultural capital explains individual behavior vis-a-vis conversion. Since my concern here is with the fate of religious movements, a macro level form of the proposition is needed and becomes the first of the ten propositions comprising the theory: 1. New religious movements are likely to succeed to the extent that they retain cultural continuity with the conventional faith(s) of the societies in which they seek converts.

Mormonism is deeply rooted in Christian culture. It is not transplanted Hinduism or a novel amalgam of eastern mysticism or pure novelty. Rather, Mormonism embraces the entire Christian-Judaic tradition and adds to it in logical fashion, incorporating a more modern world view. Latter-day Saints continue to read and study the Old and New Testaments, but they also accept the authority of the Book of Mormon, “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.” Here the scriptural narrative of the Bible is continued to include the New World. Indeed it continues the story of Israel, beginning with the settlement of the New World by Hebrews well before the birth of Jesus.

The first two books, I and II Nephi, explain how Lehi, with his wife Sariah, his four sons—Laman, Lemuel, Sam, and Nephi—and their families and followers left Jerusalem just before the Babylonian captivity, and boarded a large ship, built by Nephi and his brothers, at God’s command, and sailed off to a new land across the sea:

And it came to pass after we had all gone down to the ship, and had taken with us our provisions and things which had been commanded us, we did put forth into the sea and were driven forth before the wind towards the promised land. (1 Nephi 18:8)

And it came to pass that after we had sailed for the space of many days we did arrive at the promised land; and we went forth upon the land, and did pitch our tents; and we did call it the promised land. (1 Nephi 18:23)

According to the Book of Mormon, these were the main ancestors of the population of the Western Hemisphere. Eventually they split into two great tribes, the Lamanites (descendants of Lehi’s wicked son Laman) and the Nephites (descendants of Lehi’s faithful son Nephi). A series of battles between the two is described until 3 Nephi, which recounts Christ’s visit to the New World following the resurrection and the long period of peace subsequent to this visit. But in Mormon we learn that the people turned once again to sin and conflict, leading to a great battle fought at the Hill Cumorah whereupon the Nephites were wiped out. Thus, all persons descended from pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere are called Lamanites, although because of intermarriage between groups they may also have Nephite and other ancestry.

The Book of Mormon not only extends the geographic scope of the Bible, but clarifies it in many ways. O’Dea (1957, p. 30) noted the impressive intellectual clarity of the work:

There is nothing obscure or unclear in its doctrine. Even the notion of prophecy and revelation, so central to it, leads to intellectual clarity. The revelation of the Book of Mormon is not a glimpse of higher and incomprehensible truths but reveals God’s word to men with a democratic comprehensibility. “Plainness” of doctrine—straightforwardness and an absence of subtle casuistries—was for its rural audience a mark of its genuineness.

Joseph Smith’s subsequent revelations added to this clarity and provided a much more full and comprehensible view of Jehovah and of the fundamental basis of existence. Smith did not add mysteries to Christianity; he dispelled them and offered a more complete cosmology.

In an age such as ours, marked by rapid change and constant technological innovation, there is a widespread predisposition to expect new tidings of all kinds. We expect to know more about everything than once was known. Yet Christianity has, for the most part, argued that the Age of Revelations is past—that two thousand years ago, God said everything there was to be said. In contrast, the Latter-day Saints argue that God has more to say as humans gain in their capacity to understand:

And now, O all ye that have imagined up unto yourselves a god who can do no miracles, I would ask of you, have all these things passed, of which I have spoken? Has the end come yet? Behold I say unto you, Nay; and God has not ceased to be a God of miracles. (Mormon 9:15)

Even the most bitter Christian critics of the Book of Mormon have noted its modernity and the immense suitability of the Latter-day Saint message for the contemporary consciousness. Indeed, they have used this as proof that the work is of modern authorship. But for the Latter-day Saints, this is simply proof that it was intended by God for latter-day readers, and they dare Christian theologians to deny that God is capable of foreseeing history.

I shall delay an examination of important LDS additions to Christian theology until the discussion of tension and strictness. Here we may examine several tests of the principle of the conservation of cultural capital.

The first of these is that Jehovah’s Witnesses will have an advantage over the Latter-day Saints when both seek converts within Christian societies. This is supported by the fact that Witnesses outnumber Latter-day Saints by 3.4 to 1 in Europe. In contrast, the two movements have achieved quite similar results in Asia where both lack cultural continuity.

The immense Latter-day Saint preponderance in the South Pacific is easily understood despite the LDS religion’s apparent lack of continuity with local religious culture. Polynesians are an unhistorical people in that they do not appear in secular histories until the arrival of European explorers, and very little then. However, a passage in the Book of Mormon (Alma 63:5) [2] has long been interpreted to refer to the settlement of Polynesia, and a considerable amount of Latter-day Saint culture has grown up on this topic. Polynesians have responded very favorably to their LDS history.

At first glance it would seem that the Christian sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses should have an advantage in Latin America on the basis of cultural continuity. This is not reflected in membership statistics, however, as the Witnesses are outnumbered by Latter-day Saints 2.3 to 1 in Latin America. But upon closer inspection it appears that Latter-day Saints enjoy greater cultural continuity in Latin America than do the Witnesses, despite claims that this is a Catholic continent.

The principle of the conservation of cultural capital favors the Witnesses over the Saints only if Latin America has been sufficiently Christianized. But it appears to me that most Latin Americans have such a small investment in traditional Christian cultural capital that the Witnesses have little advantage. Moreover, the cultural continuity between Mormonism and pre-Columbian faiths which have never died out may give the Latter-day Saints a substantial advantage.

Elsewhere I have demonstrated that, despite claims that these are Catholic societies, they are exceedingly unchurched (Stark 1992). Although more than 90 percent of the population in most Latin American nations are claimed as Catholics, levels of practice are extremely low, and for huge numbers of people “religion” is probably little more than an exotic mixture of fragments of Christianity and pre-Columbian religion, plus a great deal of folk magic.

Some evidence of this can be seen in the widespread belief in reincarnation found in Latin American nations. According to the World Values Surveys conducted in 1990 and 1991, 56 percent of Brazilians, 49 percent of Chileans, 43 percent of Mexicans, and 40 percent of Argentinians believe in reincarnation. Furthermore, within these Latin nations belief in reincarnation is concentrated among the Catholics. For “Catholics” who believe in reincarnation (and probably many other notions heretical to mainstream Catholicism), conversion to a Christian sect such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses probably would require as large a capital investment as would conversion to the LDS Church.

Furthermore, according to the Book of Mormon, today’s descendants of pre-Columbian Americans are, through Lehi, direct descendants of Abraham. To be Latter-day Saints is their birthright, and many Latin American Saints interpret this as a superior claim to membership in comparison with Saints of European ancestry who are, in some sense, Latter-day Saints only by “adoption” (Murphy 1996). Moreover, the Book of Mormon is accepted by Latin American converts, especially in Central America, as the authentic history of pre-Columbian times. Thomas Murphy (1996) found that Guatemalan Latter-day Saints referred to many ancient Mayan ruins by names found in the Book of Mormon. Of equal significance are the many parallels Guatemalan Saints identify between the Book of Mormon and a pre-Columbian Mayan epic known as the Popol Vuh. According to Thomas Murphy (1996, pp. 182–83):

The Popol Vuh . . . is required reading in public schools . . . Guatemalan members told me that although the names of the people and places were different, both books spoke of the visit of Jesus to the Americas, gods, wars, the tower of Babel, creation, trinity, and Satan . . . Jesus was explicitly identified by Guatemalan Mormons with the Sovereign Plumed Serpent in the Popol Vuh.

Not only does the focus of Mormonism on the Western Hemisphere and on pre-Columbian times provide substantial cultural continuity with indigenous religious culture, it also has had a major impact on LDS missionary approaches to that culture. Recall that only a few months after the founding of the church in 1830, four missionaries were sent to the Indians in Missouri. This reflected the immense concern Latter-day Saints have about all of the peoples native to the New World. Consequently, the Saints have directed a very substantial proportion of their missionary effort to Latin America. This extra effort may also help explain why they have out-performed the Jehovah’s Witnesses there.

Finally, Mormonism is very closely associated with Americanism—if for no other reason than the presence of large numbers of young American missionaries. Given the alienation of most American intellectuals (and especially social scientists) from American culture, it would be easy to overlook the immense admiration for this culture that exists in many other parts of the world. Just as British converts to Mormonism might have found it hard to distinguish the attractions of the religion from the attractions of emigration, so too many Latin American converts would find it very difficult to separate Mormonism from the modern American lifestyle. Indeed, many Latin American leftists cannot separate the two (Young 1994). Thus in 1989 leftist terrorists in Bolivia murdered two young LDS missionaries on grounds that they were violating Bolivia’s sovereignty on behalf of Yankee interests. The same rationale was expressed by the “Shining Path” terrorists in Peru following their murders of Latter-day Saint missionaries. In fact, there have been hundreds of bombings, arsons, and acts of vandalism against LDS church buildings in Latin America, reflecting attacks on “whatever smells Yankee,” according to a U.S. State Department spokesperson (Young 1994, p. 51). Indeed, rapid LDS growth arouses the political right as well as the left in many Latin nations, because the Saints proselytize the Indians, which antagonizes the wealthy landowners (Young 1994).

Lawrence Young (1994, p. 52) has written of the “challenges encountered by the Mormon church as it seeks to enter Latin America, where the church . . . carries a heavy load of cultural baggage related to its being marked an American church.” He also suggests the need for the Church to “develop indigenous religious expressions.” These points are probably well taken, especially in an analysis of causes of conflict between the Latter-day Saints and various host societies, but it seems important not to overlook the attractions of Americanism in the overall conversion process. Nor should we minimize the impressions made on locals by the mere fact that all these attractive, lively, young, American missionaries are self-supporting volunteers—that people who could be in college or otherwise enjoying the fruits of North American prosperity have instead chosen to share their faith with Latin Americans, regardless of their social status.

If Prophecy Fails

Other things being equal, failed prophecies are harmful for religious movements. Although prophecies may arouse a great deal of excitement and attract many new followers beforehand, the subsequent disappointment usually offsets these benefits. Contrary to textbook summaries, cognitive dissonance theory does not propose that failed prophecies typically strengthen a religious group. Nor is it established that religious groups respond initially to a failed prophecy with increased levels of proselytizing. A careful reading of the famous example (Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter 1956) reveals no such group effect actually occurred, nor have any subsequent studies found it (Bainbridge 1996).

This discussion leads to the second proposition in the theory: 2. New religious movements are likely to succeed to the extent that their doctrines are non-empirical. That is, religions are less vulnerable to the extent that their doctrines are focused on a non-empirical reality and are not subject to empirical tests.

Latter-day Saint liberals often concern themselves with conflicts between the Book of Mormon and archaeological research. Claims that Lehi and his followers found wild cows and horses do not seem to square with the fossil record. Of course, Christian liberals have long been expressing similar concerns about the Biblical account of the Creation and the Flood. But if these things worry liberals, it must be noticed that tens of millions of evangelical Christians are not troubled about the Flood, nor are millions of Latter-day Saints worried about Lehi’s horses.

The basic problem for both Christian and for Latter-day Saint liberals is that they inevitably project their inability to believe to everyone else. Latter-day Saint liberals worry about disconfirmations of the Book of Mormon because they don’t really believe this is an ancient and inspired scripture, but something composed, consciously or otherwise, by Joseph Smith. Orthodox Saints, believing the book to be the word of God, are not only able to accommodate some discrepancies, but fully expect archaeologists to find evidence in support of scripture, which is why the LDS Church has supported a considerable amount of New World archaeology.

Interestingly enough, the orthodox have had some substantial successes. For example, John L. Sorenson (1985) devoted many years to constructing a map of the Book of Mormon. Working entirely with textual references, he located places in relation to one another (how long did it take to walk from Nephi to Zarahemla and in what direction?) and to the topography as described therein. This map turned out to be a remarkable fit for the area surrounding the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Southern Mexico and Northern Guatemala. In any event, fundamental assertions about geography and culture found in the Book of Mormon are not very susceptible to disproof by archaeologists or anyone else, and LDS doctrines are not at risk of being too empirical. Of perhaps even greater importance, the LDS Church is not given to empirically vulnerable prophesying, unlike various Protestant sects that engage in dating the end of time. It is these short-term and dramatic prophesies that cause so much damage when they fail, as shown by studies of the impact of the failure of the end to come in 1975 upon commitment among Jehovah’s Witnesses (Singelenberg 1989).

Medium Tension (Strictness)

In order to grow, a religious movement must offer religious culture that sets it apart from the general, secular culture. That is, movements must be distinctive and impose relatively strict moral standards. 3. New religious movements are likely to succeed to the extent that they maintain a medium level of tension with their surrounding environmentare strict, but not too strict.

In its initial form (Stark 1987), the proposition made no mention of strictness. However, the implications of the proposition are more fully revealed if the theoretical work on “strictness” is made an explicit part (Kelley 1972; Iannaccone 1992, 1994; Stark and Iannaccone 1993). Strictness refers to the degree that a religious group maintains “a separate and distinctive life style or morality in personal and family life, in such areas as dress, diet, drinking, entertainment, uses of time, sex, child rearing, and the like.” Or, a group is not strict to the degree that it affirms “the current . . . mainline life style in these respects” (Iannaccone 1994, p. 1190).

To anticipate the argument, strictness makes religious groups strong by screening out free riders and thereby increasing the average level of commitment in the group. This, in turn, greatly increases the credibility of the religious culture (especially promises concerning future benefits, since credibility is the result of high levels of consensus) as well as generating a high degree of resource mobilization.

Free rider problems are the Achilles’ heel of collective activities. Other things being equal, people will not contribute to a collective enterprise when they can fully share in the benefits without contributing. This is called free riding, and the collective consequence of free riding is that insufficient collective goods are created because too few contribute. Everyone suffers—but those who give most generously suffer the most. Because religion involves collective action, and all collective action is potentially subject to exploitation by free riders, religious groups must confront free riding.

One need not look far to find examples of anemic congregations plagued by free rider problems—a visit to the nearest liberal Protestant church will usually suffice to discover “members” who draw upon the group for weddings, funerals, holiday celebrations, daycare, and even counselling, but who provide little or nothing in return. Even if they do make substantial financial contributions, they weaken the group’s ability to create collective religious goods because their inactivity devalues the religious capital and reduces the “average” level of commitment. However, strictness in the form of costly demands offers a solution to this problem.

At first glance it would seem that costly demands must always make a religion less attractive. And indeed, the economists’ law of demand predicts just that, other things remaining equal. But it turns out that other things do not remain equal when religions impose these kinds of costs on their members. To the contrary, costly demands strengthen a religious group in two ways. First, they create a barrier to group entry. No longer is it possible merely to drop in and reap the benefits of membership. To take part at all you must qualify by accepting the sacrifices demanded from everyone. Thus high costs tend to screen out free riders—those potential members whose commitment and participation would otherwise be low. The costs act as nonrefundable “registration fees” which, as in secular markets, measure seriousness of interest in the product. Only those willing to pay the price qualify.

Secondly, high costs tend to increase participation among those who do join by increasing the rewards derived from participation. It may seem paradoxical that when the cost of membership increases that the net gains of membership increase, too. But this is necessarily the case with collectively produced goods. For example, an individual’s positive experience of a worship service increases to the degree that the church is full, the members participate enthusiastically (everyone joins in the songs and prayers), and others express very positive evaluations of what is taking place. Thus, as each member pays the costs of membership, each gains from higher levels of production of collective goods.

From the start, Latter-day Saints have maintained a relatively high, but usually manageable level of tension with their surrounding society. When anti-Mormon antagonism in Illinois resulted in the murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and mobs demanded that Latter-day Saints leave the state at once, their initial response was to withdraw into their own isolated society in Utah. But as non-Mormons began to populate the West, persecution resumed, focused on plural marriage which was now openly practiced, especially by the most prominent Saints. During the 1880s, the federal government launched an all-out effort to prosecute polygamists under a new statute. Some polygamous families fled to Canada, others to Mexico; many church leaders went into hiding. Faced with these dangers, the church reduced its tension with the external society in 1890 by prohibiting new plural marriages. This drew a favorable response from United States President Benjamin Harrison who in 1893 issued a proclamation of amnesty to all polygamists who had entered into that relationship prior to 1 November 1890.

Subsequently, the church periodically has moved to prevent its tension with non-Latter-day Saint society from becoming excessive, most dramatically in 1978 when the revelation was announced that henceforth men of all races would be eligible for the LDS priesthood. This is not to suggest that the church changed its position in response to external pressures (which actually seem to have been lower in 1978 than during the 1960s). Indeed, it appears to this outsider that the pressures were largely internal as many members, including the President of the Church, did a lot of praying about the matter. In any event, the effect of this and other modifications has been not so much to decrease tension with the outside world as to keep it within tolerable limits. Put another way, the Latter-day Saints have softened many of their original positions on a variety of issues, and they have modified many practices, but the net result has been to maintain a relatively similar degree of tension over time (Mauss 1994).

Today, Latter-day Saint tension with the outside world takes two primary forms. First, the Saints are stricter in terms of the moral rules governing their lifestyles and the levels of commitment expected of the individual member. Second, they embrace a significantly different theology.

Latter-day Saints abstain from most forms of caffeine and therefore do not drink coffee or tea. Many also avoid caffeinated soft drinks. They also reject tobacco and alcohol. It is worth noting that these are norms, not rules, in that no one is expelled for drinking caffeine or liquor or for smoking. All that happens to people who do these things is that their LDS friends and relatives will indicate strong disapproval. Latter-day Saints also condemn pre- and extra-marital sex, and the latter can draw official church sanctions. In addition, Mormons are expected to devote a great deal of time and energy to church activities and to tithe their incomes.

Table 2.4: Active and Nominal Latter-day Saints, GSS 1972–94


Active (239) 1

Nominal (191)

Combined (430)

U.S. (GSS) (31,945)



“Strong” identification with denomination





Pray daily





Spouse is LDS2








Who smoke





Who drink





Who go to a bar at least once a year





1 Number of cases is slightly smaller for items not asked every year.

2 Married persons only.

Table 2.4 demonstrates the positive effects of strictness by comparing active and nominal Mormons and then merging the two groups to show what Mormon congregations would look like if the free riders were included. The data are based on the merged 1972 through 1994 General Social Surveys, which included 430 persons who identified themselves as Latter-day Saints (excluding Reorganized Mormons). Active Saints are defined as those who attend church at least once a week. Nominal Saints attend less often—two-thirds said they attended less than once a month. Of course, all church congregations have some very active and some very inactive members. What strict congregations lack is an excess of lukewarm members who do participate some, but not very enthusiastically. That is, Latter-day Saints who don’t go every week tend not to show up often enough to reduce the religious rewards of the active members.

More than 90 percent of active Mormons strongly identify with their faith. But this would fall to less than two-thirds if the nominal Mormons were counted. Prayer activity would fall drastically in a congregation in which the nominals took some part, but intermarriage would not be affected at all—mixed marriages being almost unknown even among nominal Latter-day Saints. No active member in the sample smokes, but nominal Mormons smoke at the national average. Hardly any (6 percent) of active Mormons drink alcohol, but the majority of nominal Mormons do. The same contrast shows up on going to bars and taverns. Thus strictness creates highly committed, distinctive LDS congregations by weeding out the potential free riders.

Distinctiveness also characterizes Latter-day Saint theology, for it is as much a departure from traditional Christianity as that faith was, in turn, from Judaism. LDS theology deals with many questions left unanswered by Christianity, including the origins of God, the creation of new souls, and the ultimate aim of the individual human biography. LDS theology postulates an infinite number of universes, each created and ruled over by an omnipotent God and his wife—the couple is the basic unit in Latter-day Saint thought. We live in one of these universes. Where did God and his wife come from? Once they were mere humans just as we are. They rose to divinity and hence to create and rule their own universe after a long period of spiritual development. Individual humans on earth possess immortal souls infused in each at the moment of birth. These souls, in turn, are the offspring of the divine couple, produced through their union. Each human thus begins not merely in the image of God, but as the literal child of the gods, possessed of the divine substance. Therefore each human can aspire to godhood, and each Latter-day Saint couple can hope one day to create and rule their own universe, which is why eternal, celestial marriages, sealed in LDS temples, are of such great significance. Latter-day Saints do not mean merely to worship God, nor do they contemplate only spending eternity with God. They mean to become divine.

These novel aspects of LDS theology are more than sufficient to generate several shelves of angry anti-Mormon books in every Evangelical Christian bookstore. And this ad has run for years in Christianity Today: “MORMONISM IS A FALSE RELIGION. For a FREE one-year subscription that offers a revealing look at Mormonism from a Christian perspective, call . . . .”

Legitimate Authority

While it is convenient to speak of organizations doing this or that, we must always keep in mind that, in fact, organizations never do anything. Only people can act, and individual actions can be interpreted as on behalf of an organization only to the extent that they are coordinated and directed. That is, all successful social movements require effective leaders, and this, in turn, requires that their authority be seen as legitimate. Stated as a complex proposition: 4. Religious movements will succeed to the extent they have legitimate leaders with adequate authority to be effective.

This, in turn, will depend upon two factors:

4a. Adequate authority requires clear doctrinal justifications for an effective and legitimate leadership.

4b. Authority is regarded as more legitimate and gains in effectiveness to the degree that members perceive themselves as participants in the system of authority.

There are many bases for legitimate authority within organizations, depending on factors such as whether members are paid to participate and/or whether special skills and experience are recognized as vital qualifications to lead. However, when organizations stress doctrines, as all religious movements do, these doctrines must define the basis for leadership. Who may lead and how is leadership obtained? What powers are granted to leaders? What sanctions may leaders impose? These are vital matters, brought into clear relief by the many examples of groups that failed (or are failing) for lack of doctrines defining a legitimate basis for effective leadership.

That doctrines can directly cause ineffective leadership is widely evident in contemporary New Age and “metaphysical” groups. If everyone is a “student,” and everyone’s ideas and insights are equally valid, then no one can say what must be done or who is to do what, when. The result is the existence of virtual non-organizations—mere affinity or discussion groups incapable of action (Wagner 1983). In similar fashion the early Christian gnostics could not sustain effective organizations because their fundamental doctrines prevented them from ever being anything more than a loose network of individual adepts, each pursuing secret knowledge through private, personal means (Pagels 1979). In contrast, from the start Christianity had doctrines appropriate for an effective structure of authority since Christ himself was believed to have selected his successors as head of the church.

LDS doctrine speaks with a clear, powerful voice on the matter of leadership. The President of the Church is acknowledged to be “prophet, seer, and revelator.” That is, since Joseph Smith was granted revelations by God, his successors to the presidency gain similar powers—what Max Weber described as a replacement of the charisma of the prophet by the charisma of office. The President gains office simply by being the senior member of the Council of Twelve which serves as the ruling body of the church. The Council selects its own new members to replace those who die and those who join the First Presidency. This Presidency comprises the President and two counselors he chooses through inspiration and with the approval of the rest of the Council.

The Presidency and the Council of the Twelve oversee both the temporal and spiritual affairs of the church. They frequently promulgate new policies and affirm old ones, often doing so in a letter to general and local church officers. This example, as reported in the 1995/96 Church Almanac, is instructive:

The First Presidency and Council of the Twelve reaffirmed the Church’s policy on discipline 2 November 1993, saying, “We have the responsibility to preserve the doctrinal purity of the Church. . . .” The letter explained that apostasy refers to Church members who “repeatedly act in clear, open and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders; or persist in teaching as Church doctrine information that is not Church doctrine after being corrected by their bishops or higher authority; or continue to follow the teachings of apostate cults (such as those that advocate plural marriage) after being corrected by their bishops or higher authority.”

The references to offenders being corrected by bishops affirm local LDS authority. Each ward (congregation) is led by a bishop and his counselors. They may inspect the lives of the rank-and-file and impose a number of sanctions upon miscreants. They can withdraw a member’s temple “recommend,” without which no one may enter an LDS temple. Members may also be disfellowshipped for a period during which they may not perform various ward functions such as teaching Sunday School or giving prayers at meetings. Excommunication is the most severe sanction and is very rarely used.

The LDS Church enjoys a vigorous leadership whose legitimacy is clearly and firmly based on doctrines. But it would be wrong to stress only the hierarchical nature of LDS authority and its authoritarian aspects, for the Latter-day Saints display an amazing degree of amateur participation at all levels of their formal structure. Moreover, this highly authoritarian body also displays extraordinary levels of participatory democracy—to a considerable extent the rank-and-file Saints are the Church. A central aspect of this is that among the Latter-day Saints, to be a priest is an unpaid, part-time role that all committed males are expected to fulfill.

First of all, Latter-day Saint men serve as priests [3] within their own families. The family home evening is conducted by the father and is partly devotional, partly focused on family activities together, and partly given to exploring any problems within the family. Secondly, LDS men serve as priests to one another’s families through their role as monthly visitors. Every Latter-day Saint household (including single people living alone) is visited each month by two LDS men from the ward within which the household is located. The visitors are assigned on a regular basis, and the visit is devoted to religious and personal counselling. Questions concerning a teenager’s new friends could easily come up during a home visit, as could family financial problems, marital difficulties, or absences from religious services. Indeed, Latter-day Saints who have not attended for years are still visited monthly. Visitors are required to call unless a person requests formal excommunication—a step many members do not take even if they are quite disaffected. Hence, should their outlook ever change, the church is still in touch with them and positioned to welcome them back.

While the impact of the visitor system must be great on Latter-day Saints generally, consider the impact on the visitors themselves. They routinely perform pastoral duties of great importance—they are being real, not nominal, priests. Indeed, all LDS priests are unpaid “amateurs”—each ward is led by a bishop who must earn his own living in a secular occupation, all stake presidents are self-supporting, and on up through the church. Although the President of the Church and the Council of Twelve do devote full time to their church duties and receive living expenses, they rose to those lofty ranks without payment from the church. This is also true for the thousands of young Latter-day Saint missionaries around the world. The church provides a ticket to and from their mission post. All other expenses during their two-year tour are paid by their families or by funds they saved prior to going on their mission—no missionary is permitted to work a regular job during a mission.

An unpaid, lay priesthood has several very important consequences. First, the Latter-day Saints attract no clergy motivated by a secure living, for the job of bishop usually involves financial sacrifices. Second, they do not suffer from having their affairs directed by persons of very little practical experience, something which tends to be true for groups having a professional clergy. Latter-day Saint leaders typically have had very successful secular careers. The late Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994), thirteenth President of the Church, served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1953 to 1961 during the administration of Dwight Eisenhower. His successor, the late Howard W. Hunter (1907–1995), fourteenth President of the Church, was a prominent corporate lawyer before being named to the Council. One current member of the Council has served as president of the Society for Vascular Surgery, another was a nuclear engineer, and former corporate executives abound.

To more fully appreciate the diffusion of authority within the LDS Church, consider the composition of the average congregation gathered in any ward hall on Sunday. Unpaid amateurs conduct the services. Many of those sitting in the audience have conducted the services in the past and could again on a moment’s notice. Many present are former bishops or assistants. Many others will become bishops. A substantial number in attendance (male and female) have gone on two-year missions. Everyone, male and female, devotes a substantial number of hours each month to volunteer work for the church. How could they not feel that they participate in the system of authority?

Moreover, for an “authoritarian” body, the LDS Church is amazingly unspecific and nondirective on many important issues. Consider the tithe. What could be more important to an organization than funding? Yet, the LDS Church steadfastly refuses to define the tithe. Is it 10 percent of gross income, or of after-tax income? Both views are widely held. If a family has someone on a mission, can their expenses be deducted from the tithe? Some say “yes,” some say “no.” The church won’t say. How is it determined who has tithed? Each year the bishop asks the head of each household whether the family tithed in the past year. Those who say “yes,” did. And what if a Latter-day Saint responds that he or she gave less than a tithe? Seldom will the bishop express disapproval.

The LDS Labor Force

In order to grow, religious movements need missionaries. Other things being equal, the more missionaries seeking converts, and the harder these missionaries work, the faster a religious movement will grow. In addition to doing missionary work, a large, volunteer religious labor force contributes to the strength of religious movements in other important ways (Iannaccone, Olson, and Stark 1995). For example, labor can often be substituted for capital. Thus, while many religious groups not only must pay their clergy, but also pay for all their clerical, cleaning, and maintenance services, other groups are able to rely on volunteer labor to provide all these things. This leads to the proposition that: 5. Religious movements will grow to the extent that they can generate a highly motivated, volunteer religious labor force, including many willing to proselytize.

The Latter-day Saints rely entirely on volunteers to perform all activities in the local congregation. This is facilitated by the fact that Saints are expected to contribute time to church work. In fact, this generates so much local labor that bishops and others in the ward devote substantial effort to finding things for volunteers to do, and it often turns out that a lot of the time is spent performing social services for other members.

But the most visible part of the LDS labor force is made up of those young men and women who knock on your door and offer to tell you about their religion. In 1994, there were 48,567 Latter-day Saints serving as missionaries. Most of them were under twenty-one, although an increasing number of LDS couples go on missions when they retire.

It must be recognized, however, that missionaries are not the primary agents of conversion. Data based on church records show that only one out of every thousand “cold calls” by missionaries leads to a conversion. In contrast, when missionaries encounter a person by prearrangement in the home of a Latter-day Saint friend or relative, a conversion occurs 50 percent of the time (Stark and Bainbridge 1985). But if missionaries are not the primary source of converts, they do serve as the primary means for bringing a conversion to fruition as they take primary responsibility for religious instruction both before and after the person is baptized into the church. That is, missionaries often enter the picture when a person has already been brought to a serious level of interest by LDS friends and/or relatives. The latter also are a major part of the LDS labor force.

It is possible that going on a mission has more impact on Latter-day Saint commitment than it does on LDS conversion. Preparing to go on a mission motivates years of preparation by LDS teenagers who attend seminary sessions each morning before school. Then the missionary experience not only reflects commitment, it builds it. It is one thing to be raised in a religion; it is quite something else to go out in young adulthood and witness full time for your religion—not only to teach your religion to others, but to participate in their conversion. The missionary experience ensures a deep level of understanding of LDS doctrines, not only in intellectual terms, but at the gut level of how they inspire the individual. Moreover, to have gained converts serves to validate the truth of the religion to the missionary (Festinger 1957). In fact, to gain converts greatly increases the missionary’s obligations to remain faithful—to then lapse from the Church is, in a deeply emotional way, to break faith with those converts.

The immense importance of the missionary experience for Latter-day Saints is underscored by the frequency with which reunions are held to draw together members of all ages who served in a particular mission area. Just prior to the semiannual general conference of the LDS Church, the Salt Lake City press carries hundreds of reunion notices. Much as their common experience once bound together Americans who had served in the armed forces (an experience that cut across age differences and cut out non-veterans), so does the mission experience provide a common cultural currency for Latter-day Saints.

But it is not faith alone that sustains LDS commitment to the mission. Latter-day Saints fully recognize its remarkable socializing effects on those who go. This is evident on a visit to Brigham Young University, where large numbers of students (especially men) are returned missionaries. Not only are they two years older than the average undergraduate elsewhere, they are far more self-assured, polished, mature, and above all, confident. A Latter-day Saint colleague who sent five sons on missions told me:

A boy who has spent two years going door to door in a strange place, where they may speak a strange language, trying to get people to join a strange religion, never lacks for confidence again in his life. Whatever else happens to him, he knows in his heart that he can handle tough assignments and that earning a living is not going to be a problem.

Moreover, people who have been on missions are extremely well-prepared for the life-long sharing of faith that really gets results—forming attachments to non-Latter-day Saints and building their interest in the church. Latter-day Saints are also good recruiters because they are unusually successful people. That is, when non-Latter-day Saints encounter the LDS subculture they not only meet a closely-knit community with an exemplary family life, but a community of high achievers.

The LDS Ethic

In my judgment, Latter-day Saint success is rooted in theology. Christian theology enjoins people not to sin, but acknowledges that no human is capable of sinlessness. LDS theology maintains that each person is expected to achieve sinlessness. The process may take several million years of posthumous effort, but there is no reason not to get started on the job now. If Christians feel guilt when they sin, Latter-day Saints often seem to feel disappointment and impatience. This seems to be the psychological basis for the very optimistic, “can-do” spirit so many have noticed among Latter-day Saints. A person who aspires to divinity is not likely to flinch from challenges in a business or professional career.

LDS theology also stimulates achievement in very direct ways, for it places a premium on rationality and intellectual growth. As Thomas O’Dea (1957, pp. 147–48) pointed out, the expectation that Latter-day Saints can achieve divinity rests not only on spiritual development, but on knowledge. God is not merely pure in spirit, but he fully comprehends the whole universe—indeed, he is its creator. Thus:

The Mormon definition of life makes the earthly sojourn basically an educative process. Knowledge is necessary to mastery, and the way to deification is through mastery, for not only does education aid man in fulfilling present tasks, it advances him in his eternal progress.

Joseph Smith wrote in the Doctrine and Covenants that the knowledge “we attain unto in this life will rise with us in the resurrection,” and therefore the more we learn now, the more our “advantage in the world to come.” Elsewhere in the same work Smith urged, “Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (see O’Dea 1957, pp. 147–48).

These were not pious platitudes. Mormon emphasis on education, both for children and for adults, was manifested in schools and in formal educational programs almost from the initial founding of the Church. Considering the virtual non-existence of higher education in America in the 1840s, it is astonishing that the Latter-day Saints established a municipal university in Nauvoo where it is believed that modern and ancient languages, history, literature, and mathematics were taught (O’Dea 1957). Then, in 1850, when the Latter-day Saints had only begun their immense struggle to create a new society in Utah, Brigham Young set aside funds to support a public university—the University of Deseret, now the University of Utah. The university opened briefly in the 1850s, but then was put on hold as other matters became too pressing. It was reopened for good in 1868 with 223 pupils, 103 of them women. Sixteen of the women belonged to Brigham Young’s family, and his daughter Susa edited the college paper (Arlington 1985, p. 337). This was entirely in keeping with Young’s views that “We have sisters here who, if they had the privilege of studying, would make just as good mathematicians or accountants as any man” (Arrington and Bitten 1979, p. 227). It should be noted too that one of the conditions imposed by the federal government in extending statehood to Utah in 1896 was the repeal of women’s suffrage. Until then, women voted in Utah.

Not content with a state university, in 1875 the LDS Church opened what would become Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Today it is the largest private or church-supported university in the nation, enrolling more than thirty thousand students.

The Latter-day Saint emphasis on education has been translated into achievement. Thus, data collected by the American National Survey of Religious Identification [4] (Kosmin and Lachman 1993) show that 26 percent of adult Latter-day Saints are college graduates, and another 31 percent have attended college. Conversely, only 9 percent of Latter-day Saints did not complete high school. Not surprisingly, these exceptional educational achievements translate into high incomes—the ANSRI data show that 41 percent of LDS households had annual incomes above thirty thousand dollars in 1990, well above the national median for that year.

Adequate Fertility

In order to succeed, 6. Religious movements must maintain a level of fertility sufficient to at least offset member mortality. If a religious movement’s appeal is too narrow this may result in a demographic composition incapable of sustaining its ranks. If a group is unable to replace itself through fertility, when the initial generation of converts begins to die its rising rate of mortality may cancel a substantial rate of conversion. In contrast, a religious movement can sustain substantial growth through fertility alone. For example, the Amish have not attracted converts for several centuries, and in each generation there is substantial defection. Yet, at the end of each year the number of Amish is greater than before due to their normal demographic composition and a high fertility rate.

Religious movements typically over-recruit women (Stark and Bainbridge 1985; Cornwall 1988; Thompson 1991; Miller and Hoffman 1995; Stark 1996b). But, this seems not to matter unless it reduces fertility. Thus, the early Christian communities had a substantial excess of females, but Christian women probably had higher rates of fertility than did pagan women (Stark 1996b). However, when movements greatly over-recruit women who are beyond their child-bearing years, that is quite another matter. For example, by greatly over-recruiting older women, Christian Science soon faced the need for very high rates of conversion merely to offset high rates of mortality (Stark and Bainbridge 1985). Thus, what had been a very rapidly growing movement suddenly ceased to grow and soon entered a period of accelerating decline.

Latter-day Saints have larger families than do non-Latter-day Saints. This has been carefully documented many times.

Ecological Factors

To the extent that a religious economy is crowded with effective and successful firms, it will be harder for new firms to make headway (Stark 1985; Stark and Bainbridge 1985, 1987, 1997; Stark and Iannaccone 1993,1994). Stated as a proposition: 7. Other things being equal, new and unconventional religious organizations will prosper to the extent that they compete against weak, local conventional religious organizations within a relatively unregulated religious economy. Put another way, new religious organizations will do best where conventional religious mobilization is low—at least to the degree that the state gives such groups a chance to exist. Thus, we ought to find that where conventional church membership and church attendance rates are low, the incidence of unconventional religious movements will be high.

The individual level form of this proposition is that converts to religious groups will come primarily from the ranks of the religiously inactive, people already involved in a religious body will be relatively unlikely to switch. There has been a considerable amount of research sustaining both the macro and the micro level versions of the proposition (Stark and Bainbridge 1985, 1996).

Applied to the Latter-day Saints this suggests that their growth will be more rapid where there is a relatively larger population of the unchurched and inactive. Table 2.5 shows tests of this hypothesis in Canada and in the United States. The data based on the twenty-five Canadian metropolitan areas show a strong correlation between LDS membership and the percent who gave their religious affiliation as “none” in the 1991 census. As predicted, the Saints thrive where there is a lower overall level of religious affiliation.

Table 2.5: Religious Ecology and LDS Growth

25 Canadian Metropolitan Areas (1991)


Correlations (r) with % giving their religious affiliation as none


LDS Membership



American States (1993)


Correlations (r) with:

% giving their religious affiliation as none

Church membership rate per 1,000

LDS Membership2



1 Based on ANSRI data Alaska and Hawaii not included in the survey.

2 Utah and Idaho omitted as extreme outliers.



To test the hypothesis in the United States requires recognition that the extremely high LDS membership rates for Utah and Idaho are more the result of migration and fertility than of conversion. For the rest of the nation, however, conversion overrides migration as the source of local Latter-day Saints. Thus, with Utah and Idaho omitted from the calculations, the predicted correlations show up strongly. Latter-day Saints are relatively more numerous where local churches are weak, as measured both by membership rates and the percent giving their religious affiliation as “none.”

Network Ties

Religious commitment is sustained by interpersonal attachments. People value their religion more highly to the extent that a high value is communicated to them by those around them. Moreover, social relations are part of the tangible rewards of participating in a religious movement—affection, respect, sociability, and companionship being vital exchange commodities. Therefore, religious movements lacking strong internal networks of social relationships—being made up of casual acquaintances—will be notably lacking in commitment as they will also be lacking in the capacity to reward members.

Weak internal networks have doomed many religious movements. I have already noted how doctrines and practices leading to singularity have impeded authority; they also undercut network ties within groups such as the gnostics or various New Age movements. Moreover, I suspect that all movements lacking in strictness will also be lacking in network ties, for there is nothing about their religion that sets them apart from the general public. Liberal Protestant denominations illustrate this principle. Their congregations are more like theater audiences than groups, for only small minorities of liberal Protestants report having close personal friends among members of their local congregation. In contrast, large majorities of members of conservative Protestant sects report that most or all of their best friends are members of their congregation (Stark and Glock 1968).

On the other hand, many religious movements are also doomed because of internal networks that are too all-embracing, thus making it difficult and often impossible for members to maintain or form attachments with outsiders. When that is the case, conversion is impossible. People do not usually join religious groups because they suddenly find the doctrines appealing. They convert when their ties to members outweigh their ties to non-members—for most people, conversion consists of aligning their religious behavior with that of their friends (Lofland and Stark 1965; Stark and Bainbridge 1980c, 1985,1987; Kox, Meeus, and Hart 1991). When members do not have outside friends, such realignments do not occur. Hence, this proposition: 8. New religious movements will succeed to the extent that they sustain strong internal attachments, while remaining an open social network, able to maintain and form ties to outsiders.

The need for strong internal social networks is particularly great to the extent that the group is in tension with its socio-cultural environment. Thus, Latter-day Saints in Utah and Southern Idaho are reinforced in their commitment not only in church, or within an LDS subculture, but daily from a Latter-day Saint-dominated environment. Elsewhere, however, strong LDS networks are needed to sustain Saints within a “gentile” society. Such networks are established and sustained in a number of ways. First, the ward hall is not simply a church. It is a community and social center providing scouting, sports teams, teen social activities including dances [5], activities for singles, for young marrieds, for widows, and so on. An array of volunteer social services also are organized through the ward, such as hospital and nursing home visitation, taking meals to the ill and elderly, baby-sitting cooperatives, day care, and more.

The seminary system also plays a crucial role in forming and sustaining teenage network ties. Rather than sending their children to parochial schools, Latter-day Saints send their teenagers to religious instruction classes (seminary) before the regular school day begins. In consequence, LDS teenagers go off to school with their seminary classmates, the shared before-school activity serving to form them into LDS cliques at school. Given that LDS prohibitions on pre-marital sex, coffee, colas, alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs are at variance with current secular teenage norms, these cliques play a very important role in effective adolescent socialization. Of course, the system sometimes fails, but there is much truth to the joke that rebellious LDS teenagers show off to their friends by sneaking a Pepsi.

It would be quite wrong, however, to describe Latter-day Saints in non-LDS communities as an isolated subculture. Most LDS children and teens have non-LDS friends. Most LDS adults have a great deal of contact with non-Latter-day Saints and have non-LDS friends. Indeed, their church urges them to cultivate such friendships since this is the primary source of converts. Church publications offer many suggestions about how to make friends with neighbors, especially newcomers to the neighborhood, and how to include them in ward social activities. They also are advised to avoid premature discussions of religion, letting that wait until potential converts have built ties to LDS social networks (Stark and Bainbridge 1980b, 1985).

Staying Strict

If strictness is the key to high morale and rapid growth, then: 9. Religious movements will continue to grow only to the extent that they maintain sufficient tension with their environmentremain sufficiently strict.

Earlier in the chapter I noted that over the years the Latter-day Saints have modified their position on a number of issues, thus keeping their tension with the outside world within tolerable limits. When federal officers searched for church leaders intending to have them sent to prison on bigamy charges, the level of tension began to exceed the level compatible with continued growth. The church met the crisis by rejecting polygamy. It must also be noted, however, that plural marriage was not only an external source of tension. The fact is that most Mormon families were not polygamous—natural sex ratios and inadequate wealth inevitably limited polygamy to social elites. This resulted in some resentment on the part of the non-polygamous majority. In similar fashion, when the church extended the qualifications for the priesthood to include non-white males, it not only reduced outside attacks on the church as racist, but defused growing internal dissatisfaction, and resolved confusions and inconsistencies in foreign missions where many non-white males already had been admitted to the priesthood.

However, as mentioned before, the major aspect of the modification of LDS doctrines and practices is that most respond to general social changes in a way that sustains a constant degree of tension over time. A fine study by Laurence R. Iannaccone and Carrie A. Miles (1991) shows that the church has responded to changes in women’s roles in the general society, but at a rate that has kept the gap between Latter-day Saint and secular sex role norms at a relatively similar level over time. For example, although the LDS priesthood is still restricted to males, it has now become common for young women, rather than only men, to go on missions, and the scope of female responsibilities has generally been expanded. However, the emphasis on distinctive gender roles, and particularly on the father as head of the household, continues to draw feminist antagonism, indicative of tension.

The tendency for Saints to maintain a sort of moving equilibrium vis-a-vis their differences from non-Latter-day Saints can be seen in fertility trends. Latter-day Saint fertility has paralleled changes in the general American fertility throughout the twentieth century. Just like non-LDS fertility, Latter-day Saint fertility declined sharply during the Great Depression, rose rapidly during the baby boom, and subsequently has been declining. But throughout, LDS fertility has exceeded that of non-LDS Americans at a relatively constant rate of about 50 percent (Heaton and Calkins 1983).

Despite their higher fertility, however, the Latter-day Saints currently grow far more rapidly through conversion than fertility. In 1993, for example, 76,312 children of LDS parents were baptized, compared with 304,808 adult converts. Thus, the church benefits from the well-known fact that converts are far less willing than those born into a faith to accommodate doctrines to reduce strictness.

Effective Socialization

To succeed, 10. Religious movements must socialize the young sufficiently well as to minimize both defection and the appeal of reduced strictness. As mentioned, many groups have perished for lack of fertility. A sufficiently high rate of defection by those born into the faith produces the same effect as low fertility. That is, much conversion is needed simply to offset mortality if fertility is cancelled by defection. Furthermore, religious movements must socialize the young sufficiently well not only in order to minimize defections, but to minimize pressures to reduce strictness.

An important mechanism in this regard is to involve people in the movement while they are young. As noted earlier in the chapter, the mission plays a vital role in this task. Teenagers who anticipate going on missions will invest greater time and effort in really learning LDS history and doctrines, and this will have very significant socializing effects even on many of those who end up not going.

Finally, because strictness generates strong congregational life wherein the enthusiasm of each member communicates a high value of the religion, Latter-day Saint children grow up in an atmosphere which strongly reinforces their commitment. Moreover, the most attractive role models within the LDS subculture are notable for their religious enthusiasm. Latter-day Saint religious life is not directed by a bookish, professional clergy, many of whom lack any obvious worldly abilities, let alone accomplishments. LDS leadership (male and female) involves the most prominent and successful members. Hence, the message to ambitious young Latter-day Saints: successful people are religious people.


Some years ago I was invited to contribute an article to a special issue of the Review of Religious Research devoted to research on the Latter-day Saints. The result was “The Rise of a New World Faith” (1984), the heart of which is a set of projections of LDS growth spanning the century from 1980 through 2080. When I learned that this essay was to be collected in the present volume, I updated it to take account of the additional fifteen years of growth. What the updating shows is that even though I projected as many as 260 million Latter-day Saints in 2080, during the first fifteen years of the projections, actual LDS growth has surpassed my highest projections by almost a million members. Consequently, I am convinced that by late in the twenty-first century The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be a major world religion. Hopefully, the theory outlined in this chapter provides valid insights into why this will happen.

Rodney Stark is professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle. This article is published here for the first time.


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[1] Through the years many members of the Church have patiently tutored me in LDS doctrines and culture, and it is appropriate to thank them all: Marie Cornwall, James T. Duke, Tim B. Heaton, Armand Mauss, Darwin Thomas, Stan Weed, and Lawrence A. Young.

[2] “And it came to pass that Hagoth, he being an exceedingly curious man, therefore he went forth and built him an exceedingly large ship, on the borders of the land Bountiful, by the land Desolation, and launched it forth onto the west sea, by the narrow neck which led to the land northward.” This is interpreted as a voyage of settlement to Polynesia from somewhere along the Pacific Coast of Central Latin America. Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki voyage in 1947 from Peru to Polynesia was regarded by many as confirmation of the story of Hagoth.

[3] I use the word priest in the generic sense, knowing that there are various levels of the LDS priesthood.

[4] Data available from the MicroCase Archive.

[5] Church headquarters issues periodic “play lists” to guide the selections of disk jockeys at church-sponsored dances. Because these events are carefully supervised, many non-LDS parents prefer that their teenagers go to these parties.