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Mormons; A modern prophet goes global
The Economist ^ | January 4, 2007 | Editors

Posted on 01/06/2007 5:57:50 PM PST by Torie


A modern prophet goes global

Jan 4th 2007

From The Economist print edition

The Mormon faith is spreading. But is it a world religion?


LIKE any religious community, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (better known as the Mormons) will always cherish the locations connected with its foundation story. Not only the places in New York state where its prophet, Joseph Smith, said he received a vision of God (in 1820) and then a new set of scriptures, or the faith's spectacular headquarters in Utah, the state where Mormon pioneers found refuge. Also dear to Mormon hearts are parts of northern and central England where, soon after Smith had his visions, the faith won many converts.

In those early days, people in Britain who accepted Mormon teaching were told to sail west and join the growing band of “saints” who were preparing for the second coming of Jesus, an event which was expected to happen soon, and in the new promised land, the United States.

But now, after a century of spectacular growth, the Mormon movement is flowing in the other direction: while it continues to be centrally directed from its headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, the faith has gained a foothold in virtually every country in the world—and the American share of church membership has fallen. In the north-west of England, for example, the Mormons want their converts to stay put and use their spanking new meeting-house and temple; and their keen young missionaries are as likely to be British or Danish (even, in one case, from Greenland) as American. And there is hardly anywhere (not even Mongolia, see picture) where the proselytisers do not reach.

Rodney Stark, an American sociologist, pronounced 20 years ago that the Mormon faith was on the way to becoming the first world religion to be founded since Muhammad; he thought the number of adherents might exceed 260m by the second half of the 21st century.

Since then, the rate of growth has eased a little, though it remains impressive compared with many Christian denominations. And the question of whether the Mormon faith really is a global religion—or an American one with many foreign adherents—still stirs arguments. Douglas Davies, a professor at Britain's Durham University, says the Latter-day Saints are too centralised to be a “world religion” in the full sense: only if different continents and cultures develop their own styles of Mormon worship can the religion be likened to universal ones like Buddhism or Islam.

For now, at least, the Mormons present as paradoxical a mix of American and global culture as any multinational with headquarters in the United States and customers across the world. When the Mormons hold their twice-yearly conferences in Salt Lake City, the great majority of the 21,000 people present are American—but organisers take pride in the fact that proceedings are translated into 86 languages and broadcast all over the world. The book of Mormon—the text which Joseph Smith said he received—has been rendered, at least in part, in over 105 tongues.

The best-known adherents of the faith—from Mitt Romney, the Massachusetts governor and possible future president, to Brandon Flowers, a singer with the Killers rock group—are emphatically American. Of the “12 apostles” who form the faith's inner circle, only one was born outside the United States, and most are from Utah. But non-Americans, especially from the Spanish or Portuguese-speaking world, are inching up the hierarchy. One of the “quorum of 70” (the next layer of authority after the apostles) is Japanese and another British.

Wherever it goes, the faith retains a Middle Western flavour, with its mixture of social conservatism, philanthropy, worldly shrewdness and devotion to a core set of beliefs. The movement's president—seen ex officio as a “prophet”—is an unmistakably American figure, 96-year-old Gordon Hinckley. But he has travelled to every corner of the world and overseen a global programme of building temples—giant buildings where sacraments, such as marriage and baptism, take place.

The faith's fastest growth has been in Latin America—where native Americans warm to the Mormon teaching that they descend from a lost tribe of Israel, and the Roman Catholic church is often too stretched, or ideologically divided, to feed its notional flock. Out of a worldwide membership of 12.7m, Brazil and Mexico each account for about 1m. The ex-Soviet republics—another area where many people long for religion and older faiths are imperfectly organised—could in principle be fertile ground, but in practice pickings have been thin: there are 19,000 adherents in Russia and 10,000 in Ukraine.

Why do the Mormons attract followers while many other religions decline? Is it the aura of American prosperity, health and sobriety, which seems so appealing in an African village or a Mexican slum? Mr Davies thinks the most compelling feature of Mormon teaching is its confidence that death has been conquered: believers look forward with certainty to eternal life (with their spouses), and by conducting posthumous baptisms they can also save their dead forebears. For Margaret Barker, a Methodist scholar, part of the faith's power lies in its insistence that prophecy and divine revelation did not just happen once, a long time ago: the flow of messages from God is still in progress.

Despite the good relations they cultivate with world leaders, the Mormons' expansion is not always popular: the late Alexander Lebed, a Russian politician, once said they should be banned. And in Islamic countries Mormons face at least as many obstacles as other non-Muslim believers do. But paradoxically these two faiths have things in common. Like the Muslims, the Mormons believe God's covenant with Abraham, and the message of Jesus of Nazareth, were distorted by later generations—only to be corrected by their own prophet. And like the Muslims, the Mormons will be preachers in the world pulpit in the third Christian millennium.

TOPICS: Religion & Culture; Religion & Politics; Theology
KEYWORDS: mormon

1 posted on 01/06/2007 5:57:51 PM PST by Torie
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To: Torie

"Also dear to Mormon hearts are parts of northern and central England where, soon after Smith had his visions, the faith won many converts."

Although I am not Mormon, I recognize some of my ancestors that came to the UD in the 1840s.

From around Manchester, I think they came up the Mississippi, to approx. Navoo, Illinois. Eventually Utah.

Names: Benson, Marsden, Forrester, Grimshaw. Cousin is Gerry Marsden, of the Pacemakers.

2 posted on 01/06/2007 6:31:47 PM PST by truth_seeker
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To: Torie
Mr Davies thinks the most compelling feature of Mormon teaching is its confidence that death has been conquered . . . .

Well, that is not just a "Mormon" teaching. It is a basic Christian belief that death was conquered when Jesus arose from the dead on the third day.

3 posted on 01/06/2007 7:08:06 PM PST by Logophile
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