Cultural Continuity and Tension

A Test of Stark’s Theory of Church Growth

James T. Duke

James T. Duke, “Cultural Continuity and Tension: A Test of Stark’s Theory of Church Growth,” in Latter-day Saint Social Life: Social Research on the LDS Church and its Members(Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1998), 71–104.


Stark (1987) asserts that for a new religion to succeed, it must maintain both cultural continuity and a medium level of tension with the host society. This essay investigates how these two conditions apply to LDS people by examining studies that compare LDS people to members of other denominations in the United States. Mormons are substantially different in some ways, including high levels of religiosity, missionary service, numbers of converts, acceptance of traditional family role definitions, low levels of mortality from cancer and cardiovascular diseases, and low levels of extra-marital sexual behavior. In some ways LDS people exhibit moderate differences, but in other ways they are indistinguishable from other Americans. This study concludes that LDS people epitomize the conditions of both continuity and medium tension.

Why has The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints been able to promote an exceptional rate of growth in its 165-year history? What are the social conditions that facilitate such growth? In this paper I address these questions by testing Rodney Stark’s model of church success with data drawn from sociological studies that compare American LDS people to other Americans, as well as studies that compare LDS people of other nationalities with their non-LDS peers.

Through his studies of the growth and success of the LDS Church, Rodney Stark developed a model of the conditions necessary for the success of any new religious movement (Stark 1987). This model incorporates eight conditions that promote success, two of which will be addressed in this paper.

In 1982, Rodney Stark delivered a paper at Brigham Young University entitled “The Mormon Miracle.” He noted the substantial growth of the LDS Church and developed a causal model comprising seven factors that explained such growth. Two years later, Stark (1984) published an article in the Review of Religious Research identifying the LDS Church as the first new world faith in thirteen hundred years and predicting strong growth for the Church for the next hundred years, for which he received considerable criticism from his colleagues. In 1987, Stark published his model of church growth, which he has further expanded for this volume (see chapter 2). The model now contains ten causal factors.

The purpose of this paper is, I believe, similar to Stark’s. It is to learn from what the LDS Church has done and explain how it has accomplished its remarkable growth. Stark argued that the LDS Church “got it right,” and he attempted to identify the social reasons behind its success. Whether or not one believes the LDS Church is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30), one can learn many important lessons from studying the sociological reasons for the success of the LDS Church.

Stark acknowledged that his model ignored theological and doctrinal teachings of religions. The leaders of most churches would say, I believe, that such doctrinal teachings are crucial to understanding and explaining their religion. Latter-day Saints believe that the first and most important aspect of religion is a correct knowledge of the true nature of God and of God’s relationship to human beings. Another crucial feature of LDS theology is a correct understanding of the plan of salvation, including the purpose of mortality, the role of sin and suffering, and what happens after death.

According to Stark, if a new religious movement is to succeed, it must (1) maintain cultural continuity with other social institutions in the surrounding society, yet (2) maintain a medium level of tension with the society. Thus far, social scientists have not developed strong empirical measures of either cultural continuity or tension with the host society. Lacking such a metric, they have engaged in futile debates concerning levels of tension and the extent to which tension fosters growth or decline. Such a debate, for example, took place at the 1994 meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion concerning the Catholic Church and the tension fostered by its policy concerning birth control.

Cultural Continuity

American Latter-day Saints are similar to other Americans in a great variety of ways. They can walk down the streets of any city in the United States or many other nations and not be identified as LDS or as different from other people. Latter-day Saints experience the same challenges as others, such as doing well in school and completing one’s education, finding a job and achieving occupational success, supporting themselves and their dependents, rearing and handling the stages of growth of their children, dealing with health problems and eventual mortality, and taking care of older parents and relatives. In these and many other respects, LDS people are able to maintain close cultural continuity with people from their host society.

The cultural continuity of LDS teachings with the cultures of the United States, the Philippines, and many South Pacific cultures (especially Samoa and Tonga) is substantial. Latter-day Saints also seem to be well-accepted in Mexico and in many areas of Latin America. The cultural continuity with the British and other Europeans is somewhat less strong, and the cultural continuity with the people in many nations of Asia and Africa is problematic. Generally, low to moderate tension is a typical feature of American LDS relations with other Americans, while the tension in other societies ranges from moderate to high.

However, to make a more nuanced analysis, we must recognize that there are many subgroups within any society, and LDS people may fit better with some subgroups than with others. The Church has had a better appeal to middle-class people than to lower-class people in some societies, while just the opposite is true in others. While the LDS Church typically appeals more to women than to men, this varies considerably in different parts of the world. Future research might profitably focus on the reasons the Church appeals to some subgroups more than others.

Tension with American Society

In the priesthood session of general conference on 1 April 1995, a group of Aaronic Priesthood young men sang a song, entitled, “As Zion’s Youth in Latter Days,” that contains these lines:

The truths and values we embrace are mocked on ev’ry hand.

Yet as we listen and obey we know we can withstand

The evils that would weaken us, the sin that would destroy.

With faith, we hold the iron rod and find in this our joy.

(McCloud 1985, p. 256)

This song epitomizes the challenge many LDS people feel. Their values and way of life are sometimes mocked, their faith is tested, and they clearly recognize the challenge. Yet they face the challenge with courage and moral strength.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church, warned members of the Church to avoid the dangers of popularity and to put distance between themselves and the “ways of the world”:

There are real dangers—subtle and obvious—when members [of the LDS Church] fall into lockstep with the world’s ways. In so many respects, the world’s ways head in opposite directions from gospel destinations. Moreover, as a covenant people, our behavioral loyalties are to be with the Lord, not with the Caesars of this world. But the tugs of the world are real and persistent. (1995, p. 12)

Elder Maxwell also quoted President Brigham Young as saying: “I do not want ‘Mormonism’ to become popular. . . . I would rather pass through all the misery and sorrow, the troubles and trials of the Saints, than to have the religion of Christ become popular with the world” (Young 1865, p. 297). Further, President Young said, the Saints “must be kept where the finger of scorn can be pointed at them” (Young 1869, p. 272). These Church leaders, then, believe that tension should exist between the Saints and the world, and that a reduction in tension would be dangerous because it would result in a decline in the level of righteousness of LDS members. Church leaders recognize the existence of such tension and counsel members to deal with the adversity generated by such tensions with courage and forbearance.

However, few LDS people wish to return to the state of high tension that existed in the early history of the Church in which Latter-day Saints were murdered, their homes burned, and an extermination order was issued by the governor of Missouri. Today there have been a few incidents in which missionaries have been murdered and LDS chapels bombed. Much more common is the mocking of individual members of the LDS Church, or the mocking of their values and beliefs.

Many of the strains felt by Latter-day Saints involve contrasts with others that involve either (a) making sacrifices, such as serving two years in the mission field, paying tithing, fasting, or having additional children, or (b) exerting self-discipline not expected of others, such as practicing chastity and abstaining from drinking, smoking, and other harmful drugs. Since the subcultures of many high schools and colleges revolve around drinking and partying, LDS students must either choose to avoid such activities or to participate in them at the expense of their religious commitments. Such pressures impact teenagers and young adults with special force, although pressures to conform to the expectations of business associates or neighbors may also have a strong impact on older LDS people.


Latter-day Saints also have to deal with the stereotypes concerning them that are held by other members of their societies. While there is little research on this topic (Bunker and Bitton 1983), Latter-day Saints currently are viewed by Americans as being (1) religious, (2) pro-family and pro-children, (3) hard-working, efficient, and middle class, (4) honest, chaste, and wholesome, (5) healthy, (6) pro-American and patriotic, and (7) politically conservative.

Most Latter-day Saints think of these characteristics as positive and praiseworthy, but in the minds of some Americans these stereotypes have negative connotations as well. LDS religiosity can be stereotyped as fanatic and cult-like. Large LDS families may carry the stereotype of the harried housewife or may be associated with lower-class people or people following archaic and inappropriate traditions. The wholesomeness of LDS behavior may be viewed as naive, gullible, or uptight. The conservatism of many LDS people is rejected by political liberals. Even the healthy life-style of Latter-day Saints is rejected by some Americans who believe it is narrow and restricted. As we shall presently see, most of these stereotypes have strong empirical support. Many Latter-day Saints do possess these characteristics, making them different in some respects from other Americans.

In summary, I have argued that the greater the differences between LDS and other people, the greater the tension. Conversely, the greater the similarity, the greater the continuity with the host society.


This paper makes use of a number of secondary data sources that compare Latter-day Saints and other groups (either the average citizen or members of specific religious denominations). Only adults are included in this report. Studies of student populations, I believe, are not representative of the adult population, so student samples are useful only with issues that involve youth or young adults, and only if they can be shown to be representative of some broader universe. I also did not include comparisons of Utah with other states or the national average. The population of Utah is 76 percent LDS (Church Almanac 1995–96, p. 417). Some inferences can be made about LDS behavior by looking at Utah data, but most conclusions are questionable.

I searched for published data sets that compare Latter-day Saints and members of other denominations. I have used seven national surveys of Americans; two that use the Canadian census, one that covers the United States, Great Britain, Mexico, and Japan; three that utilize local American samples; three reports of health practices from various sources; four reports that use secondary sources; and a qualitative summary of other differences. While many studies published in the last ten years that focus exclusively on LDS people have been examined, such data generally lack a comparative focus and are therefore not useful to measure either continuity or tension.

The studies reviewed here vary considerably in scope, sample size, and representativeness. I have indicated my judgment concerning the relative scientific acceptability of each data set. Unfortunately, some otherwise good studies could not be used because they combined Latter-day Saints with other denominations. For example, Ellison (1994) combined Latter-day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Beck, Cole, and Hammond (1991) combined LDS people with Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses into an “Institutional Sect” category.

In this paper, I use a measure of continuity and/or tension that has plausibility but does not put the controversy to rest. I believe the essential feature of cultural continuity is that the members of the religious group and of the host society are similar in a variety of ways, especially on those dimensions considered to be essential features of the subcultures of both. People who are alike are more likely to feel a sense of solidarity, unity, and fellowship. If Latter-day Saints are indistinguishable from other people in a society, it is not likely that either of the groups will feel a sense of tension when they interact with each other. LDS people will fit in and feel a sense of belonging, congruence, resemblance, and similarity. I assert, therefore, that similarities and/or differences in the behaviors, attitudes, and values of two groups are direct measures of the cultural continuity between the two.

Conversely, the essential test of tension is anxiety, strain, and stress, either at the personal or social level. Such tension can arise from many sources. Tension is likely to be present when there are substantial differences, especially when these differences are judged to be unusual, peculiar, or bizarre. The greater the difference, the greater the tension with the host society and the greater the probability that members of the religious group will be stigmatized and rejected by members of the larger society. A direct test of tension would be found in measures of emotional or attitudinal anxiety and stress, or in behavioral indicators of strain and tension, such as conflict, attacks, or discrimination between members of both groups. Similarities and differences, as we discuss them here, are more indirect measures of tension and will serve adequately until more specific and direct measures can be utilized.

Generalizations Concerning American Latter-day Saints

The United States is a diverse nation with many religions, ethnic groups, and regional variations. It should be obvious that LDS people will be similar to some subgroups and quite different from others, depending on the dimension chosen for comparison. In some ways, LDS peoples are like conservative Protestants (i.e., rejection of the “new morality”), while in other ways they are closer to mainline Protestants (i.e., educational attainment), Jews (i.e., norms of intermarriage), or Catholics (i.e., opposition to abortion).

A summary of comparisons between LDS people and others, drawn from recent research comparing the two groups, is in table 3.1 at the end of this article. This table is long and complicated. All data from all studies could not be included, so they have been abridged and summarized. The magnitude of differences, usually expressed in percentages, is indicated wherever possible. While it is not feasible to discuss all differences between LDS and non-LDS people, the main areas of tension or difference are summarized below.

The first conclusion is that there are some significant areas of behavior or attitudes in which Latter-day Saints are substantially different from other people. There are also a fair number of areas in which there are moderate differences and many areas in which there are few differences. I feel confident in this conclusion even though there is no recognized way to establish which differences are “substantial” and which are “moderate” or “low.” Whether the situation of having some differences that are substantial, some that are moderate, and some that are low results in a medium level of tension is the “great question” before us.

Substantial Differences

The area of religious commitment that most distinguishes Latter-day Saints from others is the degree of sacrifice they are expected to make for their religious beliefs and the degree of self-discipline they are expected to exert—a degree that many people regard as high or excessive. Other differences do not involve sacrifice or discipline, but are tied closely to the teachings of the Church.

1. LDS people exhibit higher religiosity than other people on several but not all dimensions.

In some ways, Latter-day Saints are much more religious than average Americans, while in other ways the differences are more moderate. LDS people make much greater financial contributions to their church than members of other churches and probably make greater time commitments as well. Hoge and Yang (1994, p. 125) concluded that “Mormons are far above the regression line” and that their financial contributions cannot be explained by the same theoretical model used to explain those of other denominations (see table 3.1). Dean Hoge believes that the secret of the LDS Church motivating its members to pay tithing is that “they check up on them”—that is, the church requires tithing as a condition of temple worthiness, and bishops interview members once a year concerning their worthiness. Comparable practices are rarely found in non-LDS congregations.

LDS people also have higher church attendance and stronger beliefs in life after death.

2. LDS people have a high level of missionary service and an accompanying high number of converts.

Serving a mission differentiates young LDS men and women from others in a very substantial way. It also distinguishes the lives of the many older Latter-day Saints who serve missions or who hold full-time leadership positions. The remarkable thing is that many LDS people are willing to serve a mission, whereas the members of other churches are rarely asked to do so. Why can the LDS Church elicit such commitment and service while others cannot? The answer apparently lies in Church members’ commitments, which are engendered by socialization to the doctrines of the Church, as well as in the belief that sharing the gospel with others is commanded by God and will be rewarded both in this life and in the life after death.

3. LDS people have a higher commitment to chastity and moral virtue, including refraining from unacceptable sexual relations.

Latter-day Saints are ideologically more conservative on moral and sexual issues. They are expected to adhere to a moral code that is stricter and requires more moral discipline than that adhered to by most others around them. Latter-day Saints are more likely to practice chastity, less likely to engage in premarital or extramarital sexual relations, and more likely to oppose abortion. Heaton, Goodman, and Holman (1994, p. 100) argued that “the findings on sexuality appear to differentiate LDS people from non-LDS people more than any other set of variables in this study.” The greatest level of tension with the host society is probably experienced in the areas of morality and sexuality.

LDS people are also more likely than others to disapprove of cohabitation, teen sex, unwed mothers, and homosexual relationships. However, in this regard they are only moderately different from most Americans, who also disapprove of such practices.

4. Latter-day Saints are more favorable to traditional families, including favorability to traditional role definitions within marriage and to having larger families.

Latter-day Saints have larger families than other Americans, on the order of one additional child per LDS family. The mean ideal size of a family reported by Heaton, Goodman, and Holman (1994) was slightly more than one child for men and almost two children for women. However, the figure for children ever born was almost exactly one child more for both LDS men and women. In Canada, the difference between LDS and non-LDS families is smaller, about 0.5 children per mother (see Heaton 1986). While this is a judgment call, the issue of the number of children per mother is probably a matter of moderate rather than high tension for most LDS couples today. Expectations concerning the number of children among LDS people have declined, as has the disapproval of the use of birth control measures.

LDS respondents, both men and women, differ from their non-LDS counterparts in that they favor the man making the living, disapprove of a mother working outside the home if she and her husband have small children, disapprove of putting small children into day-care centers, and favor older relatives living with them rather than having them live in care centers for the elderly.

5. LDS people exhibit low mortality rates from all causes, especially cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

The LDS health code, the Word of Wisdom, distinguishes LDS people from non-LDS people, although many Americans are now practicing a similarly healthy lifestyle. For many Latter-day Saints reared in the Church, practicing the Word of Wisdom is not usually viewed as onerous. However, it is frequently a challenge for young people, and new converts may have a difficult time giving up old habits, especially those that involve addictive substances.

Young Latter-day Saints who fall into inactivity often use the violation of the Word of Wisdom as a public signal to others of their rejection of the Church’s standards. Further, there may be a high level of tension concerning the Church’s health standards for some LDS people who wish to be like their business associates or co-workers. In cultures where drinking tea or alcohol are important features of social occasions, as in Great Britain and Japan, Latter-day Saints may experience an especially high level of tension.

Enstrom (1989) demonstrated a significant difference between LDS people and non-LDS people on mortality rates from cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and other causes. While these differences are substantial, they place Latter-day Saints in a superior position that may not generate much tension, although the life-style practices that lead to these outstanding health results may be a cause of tension. This may be supported by the finding that LDS people are only somewhat more likely to judge their own health as excellent, with LDS men feeling better about their health than LDS women do.

6. LDS people in the United States are more homogeneous in ethnic origin and area of residence than the American people as a whole.

Latter-day Saints in the U.S. are likely to live in the West, to live in central cities or other urban areas, to be white, and to originate from a British heritage. All these factors are due to historical conditions that led to the LDS settlement in the West, but are changing rapidly as the Church proselytizes throughout the world among peoples of all ethnic and status groups. We doubt that a high level of tension is engendered by such living patterns, although some moderate level of tension may result from the lack of ethnic diversity.

7. There is a relatively low participation by LDS people in the power elite.

Another difference of substantial statistical magnitude is the low level of Latter-day Saint representation in the power elite (Davidson, Pyle, and Reyes 1994), where Unitarians, Episcopalians, and other liberal mainline Protestants predominate. This may be offset somewhat by the more equal representation in the cultural elite and by the overrepresentation of LDS people in Congress. The latter is evidence that Latter-day Saints, along with Catholics and Jews, have been able to escape stigmas from the past. My subjective assessment is that Latter-day Saints feel that there are many successful members of the Church and therefore do not feel much tension in this area of comparison with others.

8. LDS people are more likely to believe that their Church is the true church, but this is accompanied by tolerance of people worshipping as they choose.

This generalization, drawn from the limited study by Johnson and Mullins (1982), indicates the strong beliefs many Saints feel concerning the theological claims of the Church. In contrast to mainline Protestants, who usually view all denominations as equally valid expressions of religion, LDS people believe in a single, divinely-guided Church led by prophets and apostles. They believe in one faith, one baptism, and one pathway to exaltation. But LDS theology also encompasses the belief that there are many righteous people in all religions, and the eleventh Article of Faith encourages acceptance of all people worshipping “how, where, or what they may.”

9. There are major theological differences between the LDS Church and other Christian churches.

The last substantial difference between LDS people and other Americans concerns the theological teachings of the Church. In many ways, the LDS Church is a typical Christian church whose teachings fit well with those of other churches. These similarities include belief in Jesus Christ, the atonement, baptism, the importance of love for others and the practice of the golden rule, faith, repentance, and the significance of the Bible.

However, as can be seen in the qualitative portion of table 3.1, LDS beliefs are different enough that some Christian churches reject the LDS Church as not being Christian, even though the name of Christ is a central part of the official name of the Church. This probably occurs because the LDS Church’s beliefs and practices are different in some ways from orthodox Christian theology. The two most important doctrinal differences may be the nature of God and of the plan of salvation, which includes the Latter-day Saints’ substantially different concept of the afterlife (see table 3.1, Qualitative Differences section).

Moderate Differences

In addition to the substantial differences noted above, there are some areas in which LDS people differ moderately from non-LDS people, and are therefore likely to experience a moderate level of tension with others. Such differences fit Stark’s model of religious success most fully. In comparison with others around them, Latter-day Saints exhibit the following trends.

1. LDS people in the U.S. are moderately more religious than most Americans on some dimensions.

In addition to the substantial differences in religiosity noted above, the areas of moderate difference include having spiritual experiences, attitudes toward the Bible and social issues, and other religious dimensions not covered in the studies reviewed here. However, Latter-day Saints are probably not very different from conservative Protestants, though they are much more religious than members of some other denominations.

2. LDS people in America are better educated than the American mean, with a slightly higher output of scholarly doctorate degrees.

The LDS Church strongly emphasizes the importance of education. One notable finding, however, is that their higher number of years of school completed does not translate into a higher level of income or occupational prestige. While we do not have data to show why this may be, it is possible that LDS people are more likely to choose occupations that receive less compensation than other professional occupations, or they may live in communities (such as many in Utah and Idaho) with lower average compensation for all jobs.

3. Canadian LDS women are more likely to marry a spouse of a different religion.

These data apply only in Canada, with no good data concerning marriage patterns in the United States. In most nations, women are more likely than men to be converted to the LDS Church, and may either be married to a non-LDS spouse at the time of conversion, or may later marry outside the LDS Church. In his 1994 address to the Association for the Sociology of Religion, Rodney Stark credited much of the growth in the early Christian Church to such a condition. He argued that women who became Christians either influenced their husbands eventually to believe or created a more favorable opinion of Christianity among such men.

4. LDS people in the United States are more politically conservative than members of most other denominations.

Pyle (1993) found this to be true of the “Spending Index.” Data from the General Social Survey, to be reported in a future paper, demonstrate the political conservatism of LDS people more fully. Latter-day Saints in the U.S. are more likely to consider themselves politically conservative and to vote for the Republican Party.

5. LDS people are somewhat more favorable to minority rights and civil rights.

On some survey questions concerning minority rights and civil rights for atheists and communists, LDS people are more favorable than most Americans, while being comparable or average on other questions. However, LDS people are slightly less favorable to civil rights for homosexuals. Generally, Latter-day Saints hold moderate attitudes on a variety of social and political issues while being more conservative on other issues.

6. Latter-day Saints in the U.S. are somewhat more likely than other Americans to be elected to Congress.

While most LDS people elected to the United States Congress come from western states in which the numbers of LDS people are substantial, Latter-day Saints are increasingly being elected in states or districts in which there are only small numbers of LDS people. The majority of LDS members of Congress are Republicans, although there is a fairly substantial number of LDS Democrats also. This indicates that the stigma attached to the Church and its members in the nineteenth century has now largely been dispelled. The same is true, by the way, of Jews and, to a lesser extent, Catholics.

Discussion of Moderate Differences

Greater tension is likely to be generated by some of these differences than by others. Moderate tension is probably produced by higher religiosity, political conservatism, and marrying a non-member spouse. In contrast, little tension is likely to be produced by tolerance of other religions, better education, or being over-represented in Congress.

Typical stereotypes applied to American Latter-day Saints by other Americans were noted above—that Latter-day Saints are religious, family-oriented, middle-class, moral and wholesome, healthy, patriotic, and politically conservative. Our summary of differences shows that these stereotypes are essentially correct, and that the areas in which LDS people are most different from other Americans are found in the dimensions covered by these stereotypes. The one exception concerns the alleged patriotism of Latter-day Saints, a subject on which we have very little data. National survey data do show, however, that LDS people in the U.S. are slightly less likely to have served in the armed services.

Areas of Continuity with the Host American Society

No conclusion regarding the overall level of tension that Latter-day Saints feel with the surrounding society can be made until we inspect the ways in which such people are similar to other Americans, and in which the differences with non-Latter-day Saints are negligible. In such cases, LDS people are more likely to maintain continuity with their society. While there are numerous ways in which American Latter-day Saints are similar to other Americans, we can make the following generalizations from the data presented in table 3.1 (see end of chapter).

1. Latter-day Saints typically have average socioeconomic status.

2. Latter-day Saints are ideologically moderate or close to the average on many social and political issues, including minority rights, civil liberties, and women’s rights.

3. Latter-day Saints are similar to others on a wide variety of family attitudes and behaviors, including the 126 non-significant comparisons reported by Heaton, Goodman, and Holman (1994).

4. Latter-day Saints are similar to other people on quality of life indicators, including overall happiness, marital happiness, and self-esteem.

5. Latter-day Saints are average (i.e., normal) on personality factors; Bergin (1994) concluded that Latter-day Saints had flat profiles on the MMPI (see also Judd, this volume).

6. Latter-day Saints are fairly average concerning the belief that the Bible should be taken literally and concerning the percent who have been “born again.”

7. Latter-day Saints are similar to other Americans in frequency of sexual intercourse, and are as likely to use contraceptives.

8. LDS women are just as likely as other American women to be gainfully employed.

This last characteristic requires further discussion. LDS women establish continuity with other American women in work experience and in educational achievement. What has not been measured in any of our data is the possible tension created by changes in women’s roles. Women’s concerns, including employment, have been a source of tension for some LDS women (Iannaccone and Miles 1994). The gender issue may be as important as any other issue at the present time and may be the source of substantial tension for some people.

The above list of similarities does not cover a host of other comparisons that might be made but have not yet been studied by sociologists. There are vast areas of work experience, economic and financial activities, travel and leisure pursuits, cultural beliefs and values, and food and other consumer preferences, for example, in which LDS people are likely to be similar to other Americans. In most respects, Latter-day Saints maintain continuity with the host society and do not wish to be regarded as different or unusual. In these areas, Latter-day Saints feel little tension in their relationships with other Americans.

Assessing the Level of Tension

I have reported statistical differences between LDS people and non-LDS people as an indicator of possible tension between Latter-day Saints and the host societies in which they live. In some areas that are particularly significant to them, Latter-day Saints are substantially different. There are also areas of moderate difference and many areas of continuity. We lack any metric or method of combining these differences into a single broad scale to indicate tension. Do some substantial differences, some moderate differences, and some negligible differences amount to a medium level of tension? The answer to that question is apparently affirmative. The data found in this study probably result in an overall moderate level of tension of LDS people with the host society and the consequent necessity of adjustment to this tension. Most Latter-day Saints seem to adjust rather well to such tension. Some Latter-day Saints seem to be proud of their differences, while others feel embarrassed and perhaps humiliated. The latter tend to use the host society rather than the LDS Church as their reference group and seek to reduce their own tension by becoming more “American” and less “Mormon.”

It is not an easy task for a church and its members to achieve the conditions Stark discussed—that is, to maintain continuity with the host society while sustaining a medium level of tension. Latter-day Saints seem to achieve this balance about as well as any group of people. One might even imagine an average American saying about his or her LDS friend, “You are just like me in many ways, yet you certainly are different in some important respects.”

The dilemma between wanting to be accepted and wanting to be different requires constant adjustment and adaptation. Church leaders have consistently advocated maintaining Church standards and being different and “peculiar,” while avoiding bizarre, odd, or outlandish behavior. Yet they have also been flexible and have appropriately relaxed some standards that once were commonly accepted by most Americans, but which have undergone substantial change. These include the use of contraceptives (an issue that has had a decidedly negative effect on the Catholic Church) and women working outside the home. On the theologically vital aspects of Church doctrine, the Church has exhibited stability and resolute firmness.

Summary and Conclusion

Latter-day Saints demonstrate remarkable continuity with other Americans on a variety of social dimensions, including family relationships, socioeconomic characteristics, and well-being indicators. They also exhibit significant discontinuity and tension on other dimensions. LDS people are most unlike other Americans in six major areas: (1) religious commitment to their church, including the willingness to make major sacrifices in support of their beliefs, (2) pro-family attitudes and approval of traditional family values and relationships, (3) more restrictive sexual and moral values and practices, (4) positive health practices, (5) political conservatism, and (6) theological distinctiveness.

Members of the Church will not be surprised by these findings, and most will see them in a positive light. They will feel that the sacrifices they make in attempting to live the principles they espouse do have beneficial results in their lives and the lives of their fellow members. However, they would also not deny that “living the gospel” requires diligence, sacrifice, commitment, and effort. Most LDS people recognize that they sometimes fall short, but they are also pleased that their religion has positive consequences for them and their families.

The LDS Church is continuing the rapid growth trend that has been evident since its founding. Stark’s explanation for this growth has focused on sociological and not religious causes, and a fuller explanation would need to take into account the religious dimension of members’ lives. The variables in Stark’s model, such as continuity and tension, are difficult to measure. We have measured continuity directly through a comparison of differences and similarities between LDS people and others, which have also provided us with an indirect measure of tension. Some of these differences are substantial and others more moderate. Latter-day Saints are also similar to other people in a wide variety of ways.

I therefore tentatively conclude that the level of tension with the host society is of moderate degree but allows American LDS people to maintain continuity with the host society. While such a study does not enable us to foretell the future, there is every reason to believe that these conditions will persist in the foreseeable future and that the LDS Church will therefore continue its long-term pattern of membership growth.

James T. Duke is professor of sociology at Brigham Young University. This article was originally published in Mormon Identities in Transition, ed. Douglas Davies. London and New York: Cassell, 1996, pp. 46–51; reprinted with permission.


Albrecht, Stan L. and Tim B. Heaton. 1984. “Secularization, Higher Education, and Religiosity.” Review of Religious Research 26:43–58. Also in this volume.

Bergin, Allen E., I. Reed Payne, Paul H. Jenkins, and Marie Cornwall. 1994. “Religion and Mental Health: Mormons and Other Groups.” Pp. 138–58 in Contemporary Mormonism: Social Science Perspectives, edited by Marie Cornwall, Tim B. Heaton, and Lawrence A. Young. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Brinkerhoff, Merlin B. and Marlene M. MacKie. 1984. “Religious Denominations’ Impact upon Gender Attitudes: Some Methodological Implications.” Review of Religious Research 25:365–78.

Davidson, James D. 1994. “Religion among America’s Elite: Persistence and Change in the Protestant Establishment.” Sociology of Religion 55:419–40.

Davidson, James D., Ralph E. Pyle, and David V. Reyes. 1994. “Persistence and Change in the Protestant Establishment, 1930–1992.” Association for the Sociology of Religion, Los Angeles. Unpublished manuscript.

Duke, James T. and Barry L. Johnson. 1984. “Spiritual Weil-Being and the Consequential Dimension of Religiosity.” Review of Religious Research 26:59–72.

———. 1992. “Religious Affiliation and Congressional Representation.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 31:324—29.

Ellison, Christopher G. 1994. “Religious Privatism and Subjective Well-Being.” Association for the Sociology of Religion, Los Angeles. Unpublished manuscript.

Enstrom, James E. 1989. “Health Practices and Cancer Mortality among Active California Mormons.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute 81:1807–14. Also in this volume.

Hardy, Kenneth R. 1974. “Social Origins of American Scientists and Scholars.” Science 185:497–506.

Heaton, Tim B. 1986. “Sociodemographic Characteristics of Religious Groups in Canada.” Sociological Analysis 47:54–65.

———. 1987. “Four Characteristics of the Mormon Family: Contemporary Research on Chastity, Conjugality, Children, and Chauvinism.” Dialogue 20:101–14.

———. 1989. “Religious Influences on Mormon Fertility: Cross-National Comparisons.” Review of Religious Research 30:401–11.

———. 1990. “Religious Group Characteristics, Endogamy, and Interfaith Marriages.” Sociological Analysis 51:363–76.

Heaton, Tim B. and Sandra Calkins. 1983. “Family Size and Contraceptive Use among Mormons: 1965–75.” Review of Religious Research 25:102–13.

Heaton, Tim B., Kristen L. Goodman, and Thomas B. Holman. 1994. “In Search of a Peculiar People: Are Mormon Families Really Different?” Pp. 87–117 in Contemporary Mormonism: Social Science Perspectives, edited by Marie Cornwall, Tim B. Heaton, and Lawrence A. Young. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Hoge, Dean R. and Fenggang Yang. 1994. “Determinants of Religious Giving in American Denominations: Data from Two Nationwide Surveys.” Review of Religious Research 36:123–48.

Iannaccone, Laurence R. and Carrie A. Miles. 1994. “Dealing with Social Change: The Mormon Church’s Response to Change in Women’s Roles.” Pp. 265–86 in Contemporary Mormonism: Social Science Perspectives, edited by Marie Cornwall, Tim B. Heaton, and Lawrence A. Young. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Johnson, Martin and Phil Mullins. 1992. “Mormonism: Catholic, Protestant, Different?” Review of Religious Research 34:51–62.

Johnstone, Patrick. 1986. Operation World. 4th ed. Waynesboro, GA: STL Books.

Jarvis, George K. and Herbert C. Northcott. 1987. “Religion and Differences in Morbidity and Mortality.” Social Science and Medicine 25:813–24.

McCloud, Susan Evans. 1985. “As Zion’s Youth in Latter Days.” P. 256 in Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City: Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Pyle, Ralph E. 1993. “Faith and Commitment to the Poor: Theological Orientation and Support for Government Assistance Measures.” Sociology of Religion 54:385–401.

Roof, Wade Clark and William McKinney. 1987. American Mainline Religion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Smith, Tom W. 1990. “Classifying Protestant Denominations.” Review of Religious Research 31:225–45.

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

Troyer, Henry. 1988. “Review of Cancer among Four Religious Sects: Evidence that Life-Styles are Distinctive Sets of Risk Factors.” Social Science and Medicine 26:1007–17.

Young, Brigham. 1865. Journal of Discourses. Vol. 10. Liverpool, England: Daniel H. Wells.

———. 1869. Journal of Discourses. Vol. 12. Liverpool, England: Albert Carrington.

Table 3.1: Comparisons between Latter-day Saints and Other Denominations, American National Samples

Roof and McKinney (1987)

Data source: General Social Surveys, 1972–84, with 176 respondents classified as Latter-day Saints, including an unspecified number of RLDS.


Percent LDS

Percent National Average

Religious Participation


Regular church attendance



High denominational commitment



Member of a church group



Belief in life after death




Socioeconomic Status


Percent college graduates



Family income over $20,000



Perceived social class is upper or middle class




Mean years education



Mean years occupational prestige




Ethnic Heritage























Can’t choose one group




Region and Community Type















Central city






Other urban



Other rural




Minority Rights


Blacks shouldn’t push where not wanted (disagree)



No objection to Black dinner guest



Whites shouldn’t exclude Blacks from neighborhood



Oppose laws restricting interracial



Favor local open housing laws




Civil Liberties


Atheists right to speak



Atheists right to teach



Atheists—oppose removing book




Communists right to speak



Communists right to teach



Communists—oppose removing book




Women’s Rights


Women should take care of home (disagree)



Both men and women emotionally fit for politics



Approve woman working if husband can support her




Would support woman as presidential candidate



Favor abortion in case of rape



Favor abortion for a married woman




Moral and Sexual Issues


Favor abortion for any reason



Extramarital sex not always wrong



Premarital sex not always wrong




Homosexuality not always wrong



Divorce should be easier to obtain



Marijuana use should be legalized



Pyle (1993)

Data source: Combined 1983–89 General social surveys. LDS N = 165. Data were shown graphically and no percentages were reported.

The “Spending Index” included two questions on equality of wealth and helping the poor.

LDS were the least favorable (the most conservative) of all denominations toward government spending for helping the poor.

Mauss (1994)

Data source: Combined 1972–90 General Social Surveys. LDS (N) ranged from 118 to 178


Percent LDS

Percent National Average



Strong belief in own religion



Belief in life after death



Bible should be taken literally



Bible is inspired but shouldn’t be taken literally




Conceptions of Afterlife


Life like the one here on Earth



Paradise of pleasure, delights



Life of complete fulfillment




Spiritual Experiences


Felt in touch with someone dead



Felt close to spiritual force



Feel close to God most of time




Personal Practices


Personal prayer daily



Church attendance weekly



Contribute $1000 or more yearly




Attitudes on Social Issues


People against religion should be allowed to express their beliefs



School prayers should not be required



Schools should teach sex education




Former Religious Affiliation of Converts











No affiliation



Heaton, Goodman, and Holman (1994)

Data Source: National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH), including 169 LDS Men, 236 LDS Women, 5,173 non-LDS Men, and 6,754 non-LDS Women



Other Men

LDS Women

Other Women

Demographic and Socieconomic Characteristics

Years of education completed





Gainfully employed





Mean income





Occupational status





Both LDS Men and Women Were Significantly Different From Others

Religious Belief and Behavior

Mean church attendance per month





Marital Values and Behavior (Rounded percentages)

Believe marriage is better than being single





Believe children have fewer problems in natural families than in step-families





Childrearing Values and Behavior

Mean children ever born





Mean ideal family size





Mean Times Per Month with Child (hours)

Having private talks





Help with homework





Sexual Values and Behavior

Approve of teenagers having sex





Approve of cohabitation if no plans for marriage





If have plans to marry





Who have cohabited themselves





Division of Labor—Gender Roles

Agree man should make living, woman should take care of home





Disapprove of mother working if child is under five





Disapprove of mother working part-time if child is under five





Believe preschooler suffers if mother is employed





Mean hours wish to work





LDS Men Were Significantly Different from Other Men but LDS Women Were Not Significantly Different from Other Women

Relationships with Kin

Say elderly should be allowed to live with children





Marital Values and Behavior

Mean age at marriage





Division of Labor—Gender Roles

Disapprove of children under three in day care





Disagreement and conflict

Respond to conflict by keeping opinion to self





Relationships with Kin

Mean relatives helped last month





LDS Women Were Significantly Different from Other Women but LDS Men Were Not Significantly Different from Other Men

Sexual Values and Behavior

Approve of unwed mothers





Division of Labor—Gender Roles

Mean hours spent:


Preparing meals





Cleaning house





Relationships with Kin

Say they get alonog well with all siblings of spouse

87 %




LDS Men and Women Were Not Significantly Different from Others

Religious beliefs and behavior

4 items

Marital values and behavior

24 items

Childrearing values and behavior

35 items

Sexual values and behavior

2 items

Division of labor—gender roles

11 items

Role evaluations

12 items

Disagreement and conflict

11 items

Relationships with kin

18 items

Quality of life

9 items

Smith (1990)

Data source: National Opinion research Council General Social Surveys 1980-1985 (GSS), and National Elections Studies for 1960, 1964, 1980, and 1984 combined (NES).

Percent who believe the Bible should be taken literally:

LDS 20.0% (N=60) Source=GSS

LDS 25.4 % (N=67) Source=NES

Other denominations ranged from 3.6% (Jewish) to 93.3% (Assembly of God in the GSS survey and from 7.1% Unitatian to 96.8% (Jehovah’s Witnesses) in the NES study.

Percent who say they have been “born again”:

LDS 56.7% (N=30) Source=NES (1980 & 1984)

Other denominations ranged from 7.1% (Jewish) to 93.8% (Church of God/Holiness).

Hoge and Yang (1994)

Data source: a 1988 Gallup survey concerning patterns of donations to churches. The survey included 2,556 respondents, 95 of whom were LDS.



Average of Protestant Respondents*

Mean family income



Average contribution



Percent of persons contributing



Percent of income contributed



*Calculated from data reported in table 2 (Hoge & Yang 1994:126)

Heaton and Calkins (1983)

Data source: all LDS respondents who were “once married, currently married, and white” included in the 1965 (LDS=70), 1970 (LDS=117), and 1975 (LDS=71) National Fertility Studies.





Ever Used Any Contraceptive Method:














Currently Using Any Contraceptive Method:













LDS and Non-LDS Fertility in Three Nations

Heaton and Calkins (1983)

Data Source: demographic surveys completed by the LDS Church Research Information Division between 1981 and 1984.

Great Britain

Children Born Alive in First Marriage

Number of Children


















5 or more




Children Ever Born to Married Women 16+

Number of Children












3 or more




Mean Number of Children Ever Born to Ever-Married Women 15-49

Mexico national average




Canadian National Samples

Heaton (1986)

Data source:1982 Canadian Census (82,00 LDS people).



Total Canadian Population

Percent ever married



Percent of ever married who are currently diforced or separated



Children ever born








Grades 11 to 13



Less than grade 11











Blue collar/farm



Average income



Heaton (1990)

Data Source: Canadian Census of 1981. (N) for LDS not reported.



Total Canadian Population

Husbands with a spouse of a different religion



Wives with a spouse of a different religion



Findings Based on Local Studies Whose Representativeness Is Unknown

Johnson and Mullins (1982)

Data source: two congregations each from LDS, Catholic, Disciples of Christ, United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Southern Baptist churches in a Midwestern city. Seventy-five LDS people participated.



Range of Scores for Other Denominations

“The teachings of my church are more correct and true than those of any other church.” (strongly agree)


2% to 23%

“People should have the privilege to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences, even if it is not as I worship, as long as they don’t infringe on the rights of others.” (strongly agree)


39% to 50%

LDS oriented thrology scale


2.09 to 3.04

Literal Biblical theology scale


2.87 to 3.84

Modernist theology scale


2.43 to 3.83

Personally oriented values scale


3.10 to 3.99

Socially oriented values scale


3.86 to 4.12

Brinkerhoff and MacKie (1984)

Data source: a random sample of couples in Calgary, Canada. Only 20 LDS respondents were included, so conclusions based on this sample are of questionable representativeness.

LDS people were the most traditional of all denominations on the Gender Attitudes scale (b = -3.702) and the most unfavorable on the Right to Abortion scale (b = -1.352).

Nones, Presbyterians, and those classified as Apostates were the least traditional on the Gender Attitudes scale and the most favorable on the Right to Abortion scale.

Health Practices

Javis and Northcott (1987)

Data source: review of various studies of LDS and many other religious groups. Some research was done by Enstrom and Jarvis.

The data are generally very good.

Descriptive Characteristics:

Utah people (not necessarily LDS) had high rates of consumption of sugar, a high incident of overweight, and a higher than average consumption of meat and fats.

LDS women had fewer sexual partners, more pregnancies, were older at first pregnancy, were less likely to use birth control pills, had fewer miscarriages and hysterectomies, examined their breasts more frequently, and had more breast x-rays.

Small differences were found between LDS and non-LDS women concerning the age at which they began using birth control pills, and a small difference in the age at first intercourse.

LDS Had Superior Health:

Maories in New Zealand who were LDS had lower morality rates.

LDS males had six years greater life expectancy (data from Enstrom).

Males had lower rates of overall cancer, cancer of the stomach, circulatory system conditions, ischemic heart disease, respiratory conditions, and infant deaths.

Males in Alberta, Canada, had 3-4 years greater life expectancy (Jarvis).

Females in Alberta, Canada, had one year greater life expectancy (Jarvis).

Females had lower rates of overall cancer, cancer of the breast, cancer of the cervix and ovaries, ischemic heart disease, and infant deaths.

More active LDS (judged by priesthood status for men and activity level for women) had lower rates of cancer of the lung, all smoking-related sites, stomach leukemia, and lymphomas.

LDS Had Average Health:

Active LDS had average rates of cancer of the colon and rectum, prostate, and pancreas.

LDS Had Inferior Health:

LDS men had higher rates of cancer of the brain and nervous system, and lip cancer.

Henry Troyer (1988)

Data source: review of various studies of the incidence of cancer and mortality for LDS, Seventh-Day Adventists, Hutterites, and Amish. The data are generally very good.

LDS had lower than average rates for cancer of:

Overall neoplasms (male=77.6, female=76.2), with more active LDS having lower rates than less active LDS.

Stomach (lower rates for men, average rates for women)




Urinary and bladder (lower but not significantly lower)

LDS had normal rates for cancer of:

Colon and rectum (not different from Utah non-LDS)

Leukemia (not different from U.S. whites)

LDS had higher than average rates of cancer of:

Prostate (even among more active LDS men)

Other Findings Based on National Data


The LDS Church has an extensive missionary program. “Mormons are able to put as many full-time missionaries in the field as can the combined Christian denominations of North America. This is possible only because so large a proportion of young Mormons volunteer [to serve a mission] and pay their own expenses” (Stark 1987, p. 17).

Johnstone (1986, p. 35) reported 49,000 missionaries originating from North America and sent from all Protestant denominations. In the same year, the Church Almanac (1992, p. 400) reported 31,803 LDS missionaries in the field.

By December 31, 1996, the LDS Church had 52, 938 missionaries currently serving as missionaries (General Conference Statistical Report, April 5, 1997).


The LDS Church also has a high conversion rate. In 1996, there were 321,385 convert baptisms in the LDS Church, compared to 81,017 baptisms of children eight years of age (called children of record by the LDS Church).

Congressional Representation

Duke and Johnson (1992)

Data source: data for the 101st Congress (1989-91) were taken from the Congressional Yellow Book, winter 1900. The Congressional Quarterly 12 November 1994 reported data for the 104th Congress (1995-97). Data on religious affiliation are self-reported, with a few members of Congress not reporting any affiliation.




LDS percent of total population



LDS representation in the Senate



LDS representation in the House



Elite Representation

Davidson, Pyle, and Reyes (1994)

Data source: all people listed in Who’s Who in America in both 1930 and 1992. Rates represent a ration of people listed to church membership in the U.S.A. A ratio of 1.00 denotes exactly proportional representation. Above 1.00 signifies the denomination is overrepresented, and below 1.00 indicates underrepresentation. The published article by Davidson (1994) did not include data on LDS members.



Highest Denomination

All persons listed



Unitarians = 20.72



Unitarians = 9.60


Power Elite



Unitarians = 18.24



Episcopalians = 7.41


Cultural Elite



Unitarians = 21.62



Unitarians = 14.81

Scientific Productivity

Hardy (1974)

Data source: Religious groups were rated by output of scholarly doctorates in the United States through a summary of several studies.

Highly Productive: Liberal Protestants, Unitarians, Quakers, Jews

Productive: Latter-day Saints, Brethren, Reformed, Evangelicals

Fair Productivity: Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Traditional Protestants

Low Productivity: Fundamentalist and Southern (white) Protestants (Blacks not included in study), Disciples of Christ, Lutherans

Very Low Productivity: Catholics

Differences between LDS and Non-LDS of a Qualitative Nature


The LDS Church places theological emphasis on:

The significance of additional scripture: the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price;

The personal nature of God. LDS people believe the Trinity is composed of three separate people. The Father and the Son are resurrected beings, and the Holy Ghost is a being of spirit;

Belief in personal revelation for the Church through a prophet and twelve apostles;

Belief in a “pre-existence” before mortal life;

Belief in the resurrection into “three degrees of glory”;

Belief that mortals can progress to become like God;

Belief in eternal marriage through “sealing” in an LDS temple;

The importance of the family in both the mortal world and in future worlds;

Genealogy and temple work. The LDS Church has the most complete genealogical library in the world;

Specific health practices called “The Word of Wisdom.”

Social Organization

The LDS Church is noted for the following organizational factors:

An extensive lay priesthood, which is held by all worthy males over the age of twelve years;

A strong, top-down system of centralized authority;

A high level of rank-and-file participation in governance (Stark 1987, pp. 16-17), with many men and women holding important callings during their lives. The frequent rotation in callings contributes to such participation;

Strong auxiliary organizations for women (Relief Society), young men (Aaronic Priesthood/Young Men and the Boy Scouts of America), young women (Young Women program), and children (Primary);

Language expertise and international experience due to the high percentage of members who have served missions in nations with different languages, cultures, and political and economic systems.