Finally, Fewer Mormons, or Happy 24th of July Weekend!

There are very few Mormons in the world. There are also very few Mormons in Utah.

Now that a faithful Latter-day Saint has admitted this, everyone can be happy, can’t they? If not, why not?

From the Bloggernacle, e.g. here and here, to talk radio with Doug Fabrizio (Radio West on 7/26 and 7/27), people have been discussing the “real” number of Latter-day Saints in the world. This discussion comes on the heels of the 24th of July weekend[1] over which the Salt Lake Tribune ran its series of articles[2] on the declining numbers of Latter-day Saints in their geographical homeland, Utah.

Matt Canham and Will Bagley were on Doug Fabrizio’s show today (7/27) discussing the Tribune’s series of articles celebrating the decline of LDS numbers in Utah. Will Bagley went on at length about how it has long been the LDS strategy to inflate membership numbers, claiming that it dates to Brigham Young trying to exaggerate the number of Mormons[3] to lure more converts from England to Utah so that he could become a powerful state governor or theocratic leader of a strong independent country. (No chance that the heavy focus on missionary work and conversion in England and other places in the mid 1800s was motivated by a sincere belief that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was God’s true restored Church and desire to share that message with others so that they could also enjoy that truth.) Bagley also turned the figures on decline into a lecture of sorts on the secrecy of Church finances and how the Church Office Building is known to be rife with corruption–on anecdotal evidence, of course.

These numbers, however, are less positive than one might think. After sharing the hard data on Church numbers, the Tribune also shares the scientific observation that “[e]ven in the least LDS county, it is easier for Mormons to find a sense of community than it is for non-Mormons in the most LDS county.” (See “Steadily Shrinking”). In a series of articles rich in numberrs and abounding in hard data, no numbers were needed to substantiate that one, apparently; after all, that should be merely intuitive, sort of a universally known and accepted truth, right?

[1] The 24th of July is when Latter-day Saints in Utah celebrate the temporal salvation of their literal and spiritual ancestors in finding a homeland of their own where they could build a community of their choosing and worship and live as they chose without fear of reprisals, persecution, molestation, or extermination.

[2] Keeping members a challenge for LDS church (7/26) (“And most telling, the number of Latter-day Saints who are considered active churchgoers is only about a third of the total, or 4 million in the pews every Sunday, researchers say. . . . The CUNY survey reported the church’s net growth was zero percent.”).
Unintended consequence of church’s ‘raising the bar’ (7/26) (“But two years after that speech, the church’s global missionary force has dropped from near 62,000 to about 51,000, a fact that may have contributed to the declining number of new LDS converts from around 300,000 to 241,000 in 2004.”).
LDS future may be divined from Grand County experience (7/25) (“In 2004, 28 percent of Grand County residents were LDS, according to church numbers. . . . The Knutsons as Utah Mormons and religious minorities may be somewhat of a novelty now, but they also serve as a window on the future, as some of Utah’s most populous counties become non-Mormon majorities during the next few decades.”).
Mormons in the mix (7/25) (“If these trends continue, Mormons will make up less than 50 percent of southern Utah residents between 2015 and 2020 – about 10 years faster than the state as a whole.”).
Avenues wards continue to lose members (7/24) (“The Avenues wards continued to lose members despite the continuous prayers from those like Wentworth, Spencer and Mower. . . . Salt Lake County, the most populous of Utah’s 29 counties, has recorded a net decrease in Mormon residents in four of the past six years, according to an analysis of LDS membership data by The Salt Lake Tribune. In the past 15 years, the percentage of LDS residents in Salt Lake County has dropped from 63.2 percent to 53.3 percent.”).
Mormon portion of Utah population steadily shrinking (7/24) (“According to the 2004 count, Utah is now 62.4 percent LDS with every county showing a decrease. . . . If that’s true, then, at most, 41.6 percent of Utahns are church-going Mormons.”).

[3] Somehow, it was also very important to Bagley to point out that Latter-day Saints were actually a minority in Utah for much of its early history because of the Native Americans living there. Bagley also seemed to feel that it was highly relevant to point out that, of course, LDS Utah was among the last states to grant Native Americans the right to vote.

11 Responses to Finally, Fewer Mormons, or Happy 24th of July Weekend!

  1. Anonymous says:

    John,

    Thank you for bringing up this issue. I have read the Salt Lake Tribune series and it was very thought-provoking and interesting. I read the paper, and listened to the Radio West show, much like I would take any assertion, with a critical eye.

    I remember the very first time I came to Utah. I remember thinking while I walked down the concourse at SLC airport whether the person to my left was a member of the LDS church, whether the airline customer service rep, the bagle shop owner, the coffee server, everyone!?! We drove from the airport to SLC and I kept thinking if the drivers next to me were LDS members. That person smoking in front of temple square! I was young and naive. I returned to California and I remember asking whether that person had voted for Clinton, or Ross Perot, or even George Bush! In CA, my thoughts were more along the lines of whether the person next to me thought I was a “wetback” undocumented immigrant rather than what religion they were.

    Back to this exposure in the press about the LDS membership numbers. First, there is always an agenda. Fabrizzio began the show by asking Canham the reason why he wanted to pursue this subject. Canham’s reply was that he simply wanted to satisfy his curiosity. Does he think the audience is really that naive to think that the media (print, web, or A/V) would pursue a story simply because the reporter’s benign agenda is to fulfill his curiosity?

    Assuming that curiosity was the impetus. What of the data? The paper attributes its sources simply to the State of Utah and the LDS church. Like any statistical study, the source is only one factor of many to consider in the ultimate accuracy, and validity, of the results. As with any other study, the numbers can easily be manipulated. But assuming the Tribune is right on target and accurately presents the statistical picture. The ultimate question becomes, as with anything we do in life, “So What?”

    What is the purpose or objective of the data? In this case, what does a shrinking population of LDS members, and even a decline in the number of active and regular attendees and participants of the LDS faith in Utah, say about the state I now call home? But the most critical question, at least in my mind, is Why is this information important to me, as a devout member of the church, and to the church as an institution? The reporting and exposure raises more important questions, such as how is the demographic change affecting my neighborhood here in Utah? what is the importance of a shrinking LDS majority? and so on and so forth.

    The bottom line, for me at least, is that I am GLAD there is a declining LDS population in Utah. I have my personal reasons, atop of which is that I want my little daughter to know and befriend people of other cultures, religions, points of view, etc. Another reason why I hope that the data is correct, is to motivate us to share a gospel message we hold near and dear. To those who have ever shared the gospel to a family member of close friend (outside of the full-time missionary assignment of our late teens and ealy 20s), you know the sweet and joyous feeling it is to bring someone into, or return to, the fold that is the church. One last reason why I hope the data is right, and we don’t take personal offense to the reporting, is that relations in our communities can morph from a ward/congregational level to a more global neighborhood association where religious affiliation is down the list of priorities for extending a hand of friendship.

    I’m glad for diversity of thought, religion, and even a dosage of criticism and ill-intended commentaries. The scripture reads that Nephi “beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few.” See 1 Nephi 14:12. So why am I not surprised at Canham’s reports? It’s nothing new. Whether the numbers are in Utah or Mongolia, today or 1847. 

    Posted by Simón

  2. Anonymous says:

    Simón, thanks for the input. You are a good example in light of my negative and sarcastic view of the series of articles (and particularly their intentional slap-in-the-face timing) to point out the positive in the fact of declining LDS numbers.

    Like you, I am proceeding on the assumption that Canham’s numbers, gathered for whatever agenda/motivation (naturally, I am presuming the worst here and couldn’t possibly believe that he did this digging to “satisfy his curiosity”), are accurate. My reaction is, “so what?” And the only answer I can find is that Canham and his audience are seeing this as extraordinarily good news, although Stack’s articles include some sobering points that the declining numbers won’t translate into lessened indirect LDS influence on policymaking in the state. Reading between the lines, this seems to be presented as a most unfortunate caveat.

    I should certainly follow your example and look with gladness at the Tribune’s celebration of the decline in LDS numbers as an opportunity for missionary work and for my children to have exposure to people with different beliefs. I am having trouble getting over the smug triumphalism embedded in that series of articles, however. Pride is probably the only reason why I let the articles and their timing bother me. Pride that is injured by relieved assertions that LDS numbers are declining in the city that Latter-day Saints created for a particular purpose  out of the desert. Geographical Zion is gone. And yet my literal ancestors and your spiritual ancestors gave up everything to establish it. I struggle to see how their sacrifice was not in vain when I realize that a huge number of the non-LDS people in SLC are literal physical descendants of those very people who fled extermination in the United States to create Zion in the desert, burying husbands, wives, and children in the frozen ground along the way, and living in dire circumstances once arriving in this naturally inhospitable location.  

    Posted by john fowles

  3. Anonymous says:

    John,

    The numbers have been run by a wide range of different people in recent years. One study, by a BYU professor with access to the church’s confidential attendance statistics, confirms that the zero-to-negative growth in attendance estimates since about 2000 are accurate. So, whatever else we can conclude about the studies, we at least don’t have to speculate too much about motivated reasoning on this point.

    There’s something more than wounded pride at stake for me here. I served my mission in a part of the world where the church could perhaps be best described as a people factory: people come in the front door and leave by the back a few months later. The statistics I saw in the mission office suggested something on the order of a 120% turnover in active membership annually. I couldn’t help but ask myself about the purpose of my efforts and those of other missionaries in the Dominican Republic if the people we taught were so essentially uninterested in our church. Does it really help anyone to be Mormon for 6 weeks or 3 months? I can’t help but wonder. If not, then we didn’t really accomplish very much… 

    Posted by RoastedTomatoes

  4. Anonymous says:

    RoastedTomatoes: Can you tell us what study you are talking about? I’d love to hear more about it.
     

    Posted by ed

  5. Anonymous says:

    Great post John, though certainly you meant “fewer Mormons”, and not “less Mormons” (whatever that is). :) 

    Posted by Anonymous

  6. Anonymous says:

    Good point. I knew it kind of sounded funny. Changing it now. 

    Posted by john fowles

  7. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. I felt a smugness emanating from some of these articles as well, although I did enjoy getting the perspective of some older members on a situation that is occurring throughout the US. Wards are stakes are shrinking in the older part of cities across the US. On the other hand new wards are springing up in the suburbs. I really think that this slow-down in growth is part of a cycle that will reverse itself. Our critics and accusers will always enjoy what they perceive as bad news.

    As an asides, I wonder what the newspapers in Illinois said as the Saints started their exodus. It was probably far worse than a series of ill-timed articles, although they must have felt frustrated that the religion carried on despite their best efforts. 

    Posted by Matt Sommer

  8. Anonymous says:

    Interesting stuff, John. I think I’m in agreement with Matt that this is trend will reverse. I think the slow-down came at the time of the whole “raising the bar” deal (which included an intensified focus on retainment from what I gather from subsequent words by the prophets) which will obviously stunt the growth until those mechanisms take effect and start churching more naturally and gathers steam. I think we’ll soon be right back where we were, if not moving on even farther:) 

    Posted by Bret

  9. Anonymous says:

    I suppose that I’ll have to take the sandpaper to the rest of my skin, not just my fingertips, in order to get thin-skinned enough to let the Tribune  series bother me. The underlying assumption of your post appears to be that we settled Utah first, sacrificing much to get there, and therefore it’s ours, and let’s keep the heathens out.

    Further, you ascribe the worst of intentions to the Trib’s writers and editors, and top that with complaints about their printing the series around the 24th of July. Isn’t it newsworthy that the state settled by people of one faith has a smaller majority now of that faith’s adherents? And isn’t the anniversary of the settling of the state an appropriate time to look at the numbers?

    Do we really need to fear a loss of influence, and a resumption of persecution, should our numbers fall below 75% or 65%? Is that what really bugs you about the series?

    I didn’t hear the Bagley/Canham interview, but I’ll admit that the Bagley statement about the Indians is idiotic. But, then, so is your maudlin comment about “burying wives, husbands and children in the frozen ground along the way.” If you think anybody was buried in frozen ground, I’d be willing to give you a pick and shovel and let you start digging. The fact is, almost all pioneer travel occurred between April/May and September–the Willie and Martin handcart companies of 1856 being a notable (and tragic) exception. So those who died (and I understand that death rates in Mormon companies were generally lower than those among other settlers) were not “buried in frozen ground.”

    The sacrifices were great enough without embellishment. 

    Posted by Mark B.

  10. Anonymous says:

    No “fear” hear, Mark B. Just annoyance at intolerance. I guess mostly the timing is the bothersome aspect of the series of articles. Also, you could say that the triumphalism of the articles’ tone (sort of, haha, you stupid Mormons, there are fewer of you, just like we [at the Tribune] always said would and should happen).

    Your point about the pathos involved in the sentence about the frozen ground is well taken. But the fact that one can’t bury someone in frozen ground does not mean that my ancestors didn’t leave everything behind in order to have the possibility to build a society of their choosing, a society which, to the Tribune’s great happiness, simply does not exist anymore. 

    Posted by john fowles

  11. Anonymous says:

    Oops, of course that should be “here.” That’s what I get for commenting after several days of just speaking German. 

    Posted by john fowles

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