A Mormon Narrative for the 21st Century

Historians don’t just catalog events, they assemble events into stories or “historical narratives.” But to really be relevant or worth reading, a given historical narrative has to tap into a bigger theme or “grand narrative” (using the term rather loosely). I’m going to flesh out that concept a bit, then float some observations on the emerging grand narrative that might frame Mormon history in the 21st century.

First, some background. I’m using the term “grand narrative” in the way that John H. Arnold, an English historian, does in his book History: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2000). After using sources to piece together an illustrative tale of a rather obscure 17th-century Englishman who headed off for New England (leaving behind his wife and children), Arnold gave two examples of how such a story (or hundreds of others like it) might be tied in to a “grand narrative”: the English Civil War (which partly motivated our hero to flee to the colonies) or the colonization of America. Such grand narratives lend meaning and context to the stories historians tell such as the story of an Englishman who ran off to America.

And don’t be misled by labeling historical narratives as “stories.” They are based on facts and sources. Here’s Richard L. Bushman (in his 1969 essay “Faithful History”) describing how it works:

I doubt if any historian today thinks of history as a series of bead-like facts fixed in unchangeable order along the strings of time. The facts are more like blocks which each historian piles up as he or she chooses, which is why written history always assumes new shapes. I do not mean to say that historical materials are completely plastic. The facts cannot be forced into any form at all. Some statements can be proven wrong. But historians have much more leeway than a casual reading of history discloses.

So, using that leeway, how have historians tied Mormon stories into the grand narratives of each era? In the 19th century, we have The Restoration of the Gospel (covering 1805-1844), a religious theme. Then there is Pioneers Moving West (for Mormons, that covers the balance of the 19th century), a secular grand narrative that runs parallel to and merges with the general acquisition of territory in the western United States and the migration of hundreds of thousands of settlers. Those are great themes to work with for telling the LDS story in the 19th century (well, unless you are looking at it from the perspective of Native Americans, but that’s another story).

For the 20th century, I’m not sure there are any natural grand narratives for Mormon history, which is why 20th-century Mormon history seems rather shapeless. Institutional retrenchment and growth is a possible theme, but “How the Church Got Big and Rich” doesn’t really resonate with most readers and runs counter to the habit of depicting the Church as a persecuted sect. The mainstreaming of Mormonism in the 20th century is another possible theme, but “How Mormons Became Good Americans” isn’t really a story Mormons want to hear either. If you are trying to become a global church, you want to suppress or downplay national ties. There’s always “How We Got Rid of Problematic Doctrines,” namely plural marriage and the priesthood ban, but that’s one more theme that no one is too excited about, even critics (who aren’t generally willing to concede the Church has abandoned these doctrines). So, as I see it, 20th-century Mormonism lacks any generally accepted “grand narrative” to frame the story.

But it’s 2007. We’re seven years into the 21st century and a lot has happened in those seven years. Without dwelling on the details, I would note the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City; the sudden emergence of Mormon Studies programs at several universities; Mitt Romney’s serious candidacy for the presidency; and continued LDS temple-building in cities all over the world. And have you noticed how it is suddenly unacceptable for political candidates to dis Mormonism in public? This is a strange new world for Mormonism. Into what grand narrative will these (and subsequent) events be fitted? Here are a couple of guesses.

First, the there’s the “Emergence of a New World Religion” frame, which certainly qualifies as a “grand narrative.” I know, that idea has been around for twenty years. I think the new Mormon Studies programs — which will give serious scholarly reflection on Mormonism a new institutional sponsor that will legitimize the whole endeavour for a much larger audience — will lend credibility to that idea, partly by their scholarly work and partly just by being there. Being a “world religion” isn’t about just having congregations scattered across the globe. It turns on how the rest of the world is willing to regard your denomination or religion. And the present signs suggest the world is now beginning to regard the LDS Church differently.

A second theme (which may not rise to grandness but is still worth talking about) is the “Becoming a Good Religious Citizen” theme. By this I mean a self-conscious effort on the part of LDS leaders to scale back rhetoric, practices, and even doctrines that are offensive to members of other faiths. Have you noticed how no one talks about “the Great Apostasy” anymore? In addition, various LDS scholars have been very active in promoting ecumenical partnerships and programs with scholars and officials in other denominations. This is building a lot of goodwill, I think. Being more open about historical events we’d rather forget is part of this change, too. Even the shift from all proselyting to a mix of proselyting hours and service hours for our full-time missionaries seems to reflect this shift. Maybe this is just the internal aspect of the emergence theme referred to in the last paragraph. I suspect some people would describe this as a shift from a sect mentality to a denominational mentality. But it does suggest a change in Mormon self-identity as significant as the shift in the first two decades of the 20th century.

As noted in the quoted passage above, history “always assumes new shapes.” Perhaps other new shapes will appear to frame Mormon history in the 21st century, but these seem like promising candidates.

98 comments for “A Mormon Narrative for the 21st Century

  1. DKL
    June 24, 2007 at 12:54 am

    I see the grand story as Mormons becoming Good Americans. Definitely. Mormons may not like that as an area of emphasis, but they’ve got to admit: Mormons used to practice polygamy and theocracy, and that made them bad Americans. We are not bad Americans. Something happened in the meantime. And it’s a very big deal.

    It is much bigger than the simple adaptation of Mormonism to US culture. It also covers the acceptance of Mormons by many areas of US Culture. For example, it also covers the emergence of Mormon studies as something that allows America to recognize Mormonism as an historically significant religion and a significant part of its history (quite apart from the question of the validity of Mormon claims).

    Fawn Brodie’s book on Joseph was the first measurable step forward in this area, convincing Americans to take notice of Joseph as an historically notable figure, when they’d previously written him off as a plagiarist of the Book of Mormon and the charismatic front-man for Sydney.

    Mormons do have some growing up to do before they can come to terms with this kind of analysis. Perhaps this process of reaching an acceptable level of intellectual maturity will be the next great narrative.

  2. David
    June 24, 2007 at 2:29 am

    I believe that one grand narrative for the twentieth century, at least for American Mormons, is what Jan Shipps called the scattering of the gathering. Wes Johnson’s research (summarized in an article in the most recent BYU Studies and soon to be out in book form) promises to take Shipps’s analysis to a new level. That Mormonism moved from a primarily agrarian and rural Utah chuch in 1900 to being an urban and middle class religion in 2000 is indeed a breathtaking transformation. I suspect that most, if not all American Mormons have been deeply affected by this change. Those that left Utah, as my family did, had to develop their Mormon identities in a completely different atmosphere than their ancestors. And those that converted to the Church in the 20th century but did not gather to Utah similarly experienced things differently than 19th century converts.

    As for the 21st century, I sense that we will sooner or later have to come to grips with the fact that this will not be a primarily middle-class American church for very much longer. Sure, we talk a lot now about how this isn’t an American church, because more members live outside now than within. But in the not-too-distant future I believe that we will begin to see what challenges come when there are twice as many members of the Church that are not Americans. This new Mormon majority will not be middle class and white, but in many cases poor and from third world countries. And they will likely see the world in a very different light than we do. How the Church negotiates that transformation, I believe, will be a significant grand narrative of the 21st century.

  3. June 24, 2007 at 2:37 am

    Interesting points all around Dave. I will be paying special attention to the church’s growing ecumenical efforts in the years to come. I suspect you are right that we are getting a lot less talk about the great apostasy in recent years in General Conference and President Hinckley is leading the ecumenical charge by focusing on our church being “the truest and livingest” (ya like that?) church rather than emphasizing terms like “only true and living” — a term which of course implies that all other churches are, well, you know… false and dead. (Not a very neighborly thing to call all other churches.) The question is: what effects will this change in the emphasis will have on missionary efforts? (I suspect it will help even those efforts in the long run actually.)

  4. Kristine
    June 24, 2007 at 8:13 am

    I think Armand Mauss’ conceptualization of a pendulum moving between retrenchment and assimilation is a useful, if not overly grand, narrative for organizing the history of the church in the 20th century. And the angel and the beehive make very nice metaphors, which I suspect end up being more important than historians might concede to their colleagues in English departments :)

    I think any grand narrative for the 21st (and late 20th) century will need to take account of the increasing emphasis on the mid-20th-century middle-class American family model as prescriptive, and the church’s political efforts to enshrine that model in law. The emphasis on family is certainly part of the becoming good Americans story, but it has other valances as well–it could end up being the midpoint where Mauss’s pendulum comes to rest, at least for a while.

  5. Bill MacKinnon
    June 24, 2007 at 9:01 am

    I like your thoughts about the 21st century, but I suspect that before too much more of it passes that something wholly new and now unforeseen will emerge to shape any similar discussion of the past say one hundred years from now. How does what one would likely have foreseen in 1910 match the view from the end of that century? Quite different for most of us guessers. Is it conceivable that a grand narrative for the 21st century may involve the “W” word involving at least half the LDS Church’s membership? I’m not necessarily predicting a change in the composition of priesthood holders, but is there apt to be some change in the leadership role of female members of the LDS Church not visible today in somewhat the way that occurred in virtually every church in the U.S. during the 20th century except the Roman Catholic Church? When that century opened, American women could not even vote — except in Wyoming and maybe a few other places — let alone aspire to being a rabbi.

    My only quibble is with your view of the 20th century as being “shapless” and without a discernible grand narrative. I think that there were at least two enormous such narratives, each of which are essential building blocks for what is unfolding during this century.

    The first I’ll call “From Pariah to Peer.” This grand narrative [story] goes far beyond the notion of becoming the Good American. In 1907 it was far from clear that the U.S. Senate would permit its one LDS member-presumptive — Reed Smoot — to take his seat. By the end of the 20th century there were multiple members of the Senate (and the House) who were LDS Church members, and one — Harry Reid (not even from Utah) — was poised to become Senate Majority leader in 2007, although no one then realized it. With this grand narrative, members of the LDS Church rose to positions of preeminence in which they were not only members of the House and Senate but were or had been state governors, the head of NASA, cabinet officers, the lieutenant general serving as National Security Advisor, candidate for President (the other Romney), leading forces in both the FBI and CIA, etc., etc. Far more than tokenism or the Good Citizen role…more like Preeminence, although for now I’ll call it Peer. What will happen in the 21st century in the U.S. will prove to have been possinble only with this sea-change or grand narrative of the 20th century. Mitt will not be possible without George (literally as well as politically). Or we could call this grand narrative of the 20th century “From Reed to Reid.”

    The second grand narrative for the 20th century was the LDS Church’s globilization. As pointed out above, it was during that century that the non-gathering began and that membership mushroomed to what it is today (almost twelve million members, four times what it was when I began to study Mormonism a half-century ago), with more than half outside the U.S. If the 21st century is to be a grand narrative of “emergence,” then again that will be the case because of the blossoming or mushrooming phenomenon that took place in the 20th century, some of which, of course, has been possible not only because of the Second Manifesto of 1904 but the change in the priesthood standing of male members of color in the 1970s.

    Richard Bushman’s use of the word “blocks” is an interesting one. From Dave’s quote he seemed to use the word to mean that history isn’t as neat, orderly, linear, and rigid as beads on a string. Blocks can be rearranged and tumble all over themselves (overlap). Importantly, they can also be stacked on top of one another — as in the indispensible case of building blocks. If Mitt Romney becomes president, he won’t just be a Good American…he’ll be a Preeminent one. A grand narrative possible only because before him came George Wilcken Romney, elected Governor in the mid-1960s of not Utah but Michigan and seriously considered a candidate for the Presidency in 1968 without his religion being a major issue. To me it’s significant that the major challenge to George Romney’s candidacy was based not on Mormonism but on the constitutional issue associated with his Mexican birth, without the country even aware of why it was his father had fled to Colonia Juarez in the first place (polygamy).

    Oh yes, the Wilcken in the family name reminds me of another grand narrative that overlapped the ones Dave has identified for the 19th century: Mormonism’s part in the American struggle to clarify the meaning of federalism and the indivisibility of the American Union. First Utah Territory and then the American South were part of that grand and very painful narrative.Charles Henry Wilcken became caught up in all that, because before he became bodyguard-driver-nurse-pallbearer to Presidents John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff (and a witness to Taylor’s visitation by Christ and Joseph Smith while on the underground) , he was during President Brigham Young’s time a private soldier in the Utah Expedition’s Fourth U.S. Artillery commanded by a man who was to be a candidate for the White House in 1880.

  6. queuno
    June 24, 2007 at 10:12 am

    I think the road for the Church in the 21st century is to strip off the label “American Church”. I believe it was Elder John Carmack, in a recent Deseret News article on the PEF, who said that he envisions a day where General Conference may be partially conducted from Mexico or the Phillipines or Chile or Brazil or somewhere else.

    I think of the great memes likely to write itself is the growing “Localization of the Church” — local leaders having the blessing of SLC to administer programs as they see fit for their areas. 20 years ago, that would not have occurred. Now we’re seeing the development of programs and policies specifically in mind to assist units in this area — consider the revamped Duty to God program and how it is poised to replace Scouting where it can’t be implemented (or in this country, when it becomes undesirable to continue with it). 20 year ago, few went on the warpath against conference talks that emphasized American themes (football, fighter pilots). Now, those talks are practically DOA.

    Even 15 years ago, few of the Saints outside the US were particularly interested in whether or not American Mormons are considered good Americans. Members met on my mission, or in travels through Europe in recent years, would yawn at the attention wasted on Mitt Romney.

    I think the Internationalization — and Localization — of the Church is one of the great themes to emerge. That might be called “Emergence of a New World Religion”.

  7. Kristine
    June 24, 2007 at 10:35 am

    good point, queno–maybe there will be an Un-Correlation Committee :)

  8. Jonathan Green
    June 24, 2007 at 10:40 am

    Dave, I think the key sentence of your post is disguised as a throwaway line: “Those are great themes to work with for telling the LDS story in the 19th century (well, unless you are looking at it from the perspective of Native Americans, but that’s another story).”

    This, in a nutshell, is one definition of post-modernity, namely, the insight that grand narratives are always contested, and they have a way of leaving a bloody trail behind them. In a lot of ways, the modernist belief in progress died in 1914, and it died some more in 1939.

    But eventually people realize that seeking out a space devoid of all identity-foundational narratives is not a solution, either, because there is no identity without narrative. Eventually, even if you recognize that grand narratives are contested and contingent, you have to pick one or more of them. Most people are quite skillful in switching between identities as necessary, even self-contradictory ones. Part of the Mormon narrative for the 21st century needs to be a way to manage multiple identities and narratives. What I hope we see is more people embracing a Mormon identity without embarrassment.

    As far as what the narrative for the 21st century will be, it will be used to explain not only the present century, but the previous one as well. Whether we end up thinking of ourselves as assuming preeminence in American society, or as becoming an international and not American church, or something else entirely, we will do so with reference to events of the 20th century.

  9. Rob
    June 24, 2007 at 10:43 am

    If you read http://www.cumorah.com you might make the case for something like “Mormons Fall Behind on the Global Stage” as a grand narrative that could shape discussion of LDS history over the last few decades, as other churches have moved much more quickly and have more effectively grown throughout the world while the LDS church has made only modest gains, and has perhaps even lost ground, in many countries. Or perhaps “The Rise of Nominal Mormons” to reflect the huge number of people baptized but never fully integrated into the Church, as well as the growing and very visible number of actively disaffected or publicly wandering Katherine Heigl type members–when most people may have a better chance of knowing a “lapsed” Mormon than an “active” one. Or perhaps maybe there is more of a “Forsaking Zion” theme as Church activity becomes more about something other than a larger people, city, or nation building endeavor? Looking forward, barring a “Holy Shoot, the Second Coming Really Happened” grand narrative for the 21st Century, perhaps we’ll see something of a Christ-predicted “Lion Among the Beasts of the Forest” scenario where the gospel is taken from its traditional Gentile base and given to another people, perhaps linked to demographic shifts in the U.S.? Sorry if these possibilities sound overly negative, though not sure they are more negative than a “LDS=Hyper Conservative American” theme that could also be employed to explain some aspects of a Romney presidential campaign or above-average LDS support for an unpopular president and unscriptural doctrines of pre-emptive war. While all of these themes could be brought under a larger “The Church Sort of Stumbles” rubric, hopefully what will emerge is something more grand, and I agree that the grand narratives of the 20th and 21st Century Mormonism will have to be written from a perspective of events yet to come, which at this point reflect mostly our individual hopes or fears.

    With a nod to Orwell, control of the LDS past must be looked for in the present. Do we have a clear idea of who or what controls the LDS present? What it means to be LDS today will shape the “what it meant to be LDS” of the future.

  10. Adam Greenwood
    June 24, 2007 at 11:01 am

    I think DKL gets royalties every time a Brodie book gets sold.

  11. June 24, 2007 at 11:19 am

    Dave: very interesting ideas. I wonder about your contention that the Church is shying away from emphasizing the great apostacy. While such may have been the case in conference, my impression is that missionaries still teach the apostacy as a cornerstone of LDS doctrine. In any case, the apostacy’s potentially diminishing role in our teaching brings up the same paradox as our current “mainstream Christianization:” greater doctrinal orthodoxy buys us a greater measure of legitimacy and (we hope) acceptance by the larger religious world which (we also hope) will open to us the doors of more potential converts. At the same time, if we become too (mainstream) Christian, or if we downplay the meaning of the apostacy or the unique truth and vitality of Mormonism too much, then we rob the message of the powerful sway which attracts converts in the first place.

    Also, one questions whose answer probably involves little more than conjecture but which is interesting to ponder nonetheless: will the ethnic makeup of the Church’s governing bodies begin to reflect the diversity of the Church membership as the Church expands?

  12. June 24, 2007 at 11:47 am

    You know….

    We tend to get all excited about the LDS Church becoming more and more “international,” and less and less “American.”

    But is that really a good thing?

    Let’s take a single hot-button issue to illustrate – “when does human life begin?”

    The American-dominated LDS Church we have today has seen a gradual softening in its stance on this issue that has manifested in changes on birth control and abortion. Many in the bloggernacle welcome these shifts and are encouraged with the long-term trajectory of Church policy, should these shifts continue.

    What happens when our population is dominated by Third World countries?

    I’ll tell you right now, Latin America and Africa have downright draconian views on abortion. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that these countries represent far more chauvinistic cultures than America’s. How are the gals on fMh going to take it when we start getting Apostles from Guatemala and Nigeria dictating terms to the saints in Michigan? The status of women in the Church could be set back 20 years.

    We’ve already seen the Anglican church torn apart by squabbles over gay clergy between the more permissive First World congregations and the ultra-conservative Third World congregations. The Mormon leadership better be thinking long and hard about how to deal with the “barbarians at the gate” or we could be looking at a major schism 50 years from now.

  13. Bill MacKinnon
    June 24, 2007 at 12:23 pm

    Seth R. raises a VERY interesting point about the by-products of a globilized or international church vis a vis the culture/climate/authority of the headquarters/founding country. The Anglican example that he mentions is the most current and most publicly disruptive. But the Roman Catholic Curia has also had its hands full lately, excommunicating an African archbishop with multiple wives and excommunicating one or more American bishops by insisting that the Mass be celebrated in — gasp! — Latin instead of the vernacular. Then there’s the Liberation Theology thrust that began in Roman Catholicism’s Third World (principally Latin America) and the anti-war movement in the U.S. How WILL the LDS Church’s female members react if the pressures build up among the increasingly powerful membership-blocs outside North America for a diminished role in church affairs and governance for women rather than a progressively enhanced one? Aren’t we seeing such forces at work in Islam in which a radically conservative wing of that religion is forcing the role, attire, and behavior of women back into a medieval code in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and even Great Britain, with the most dramatic example in Afghanistan of the very-recent-and-not-yet-done Taliban era. .

  14. Mark D.
    June 24, 2007 at 12:38 pm

    Geoff J (#3),

    Just to quibble, the opposite of “only true and living” is not “false and dead” it is “either false or dead”, or more charitably, “false and living”, “true and dead”, or “false and dead”.

  15. June 24, 2007 at 12:44 pm

    Wow, I’m flattered by the fine comments, which have made considerably more hay from the 20th-century experience that I did. A few responses:

    David (#2), thanks for the pointer to Wes Johnson’s article. Maybe “migrating Mormons” is a theme that could span all three centuries. Mormons tend to be rooted in the Church as an institution rather than to a particular place. We make great expats.

    Kristine (#5), you are right that “Mormons as middle-class Americans” is not a stereotype that works outside the USA. I have never really given any thought to what the stereotypical Mormon family is in cultures where the term “middle class” has no particular relevance, say in South America or Africa or Japan. If American Mormons aspire to become successful middle-class Americans (college degree, stable job, a house with 200-channel cable and a widescreen TV, etc.), to what do Saints in other cultures aspire? That would make a great article for someone.

    Bill (#6), I think “Pariah to Peer” works well. I thought Ken Verdoia’s comments about the “breathtaking transformation” of Mormons in America over the course of the 20th century was one of the most striking moments of the recent PBS series. I wonder if Terryl Givens’ The Latter-day Saint Experience in America (2004) covered this or similar themes? Or his upcoming history of Mormon culture?

    Jonathan (#9), it wasn’t quite a throwaway line — it was more like a preemptive disclaimer. After blogging to “all the world” for a few years, one starts to anticipate how different audiences might read (or misread) one’s remarks. And I like your idea that the 21st-century Mormon themes will grow out of the 20th-century experience. That’s much like the “good Americans” theme of the 20th century being directly related to what happened to Mormons in America in the 19th century. Perhaps “diverse Mormonism” will grow out of a rejection of pre-1978 practice and thinking?

    Seth (#13), yes, we’re all laughing at the Anglicans now, but it’s sort of a firebell in the night for First World Christianity, whatever the denomination. Imagine how strange it would be if Correlation could, by keeping global Mormonism in perfect harmony, make “ultra-conservative” American Mormonism become the most “liberal” denomination in Africa?

  16. mlu
    June 24, 2007 at 12:46 pm

    I can easily imagine the next century’s grand narrative to grow out of the church’s growing internationalism and its emphasis on family.

    The narrative of family in Mormonism has always been so much more than the “mid-20th-century middle-class American family model as prescriptive”-story. Family includes all who were ever here and all who will ever be here, and is timeless. Before the rise of nations and of bureaucracies, family was often a primary means of governing society. The great houses had main responsibility for the education and cradle to grave welfare of all their members. At a time when we see nations being dissolved from below by multiculturalism and from above by globalism, I can easily imagine us learning more than we have hitherto dreamed of about family.

    And as the church becomes increasingly international, we shall certainly see a waning of the Utah Mormon culture as definitive of who we are. My theory is that it takes a couple generations, usually, to “grow” a good general authority, and we shall see apostles who were not born in the West. No doubt their views will seem draconion in some ways for those whose minds have simmered for decades in the juices of modernity. Perhaps they will reawaken the primacy of miracles, for which the first condition is belief.

  17. Mike
    June 24, 2007 at 2:18 pm

    I hope the 21st century has some grand narrative for the Mormon movement and I like quite a few of those suggested. However, I am also concerned, like Rob #10, that our future might be more difficult than we expect. Generally institutions go through cycles and so any downturn is not surprizing. It would be a trap to think that a bright future is inevitable because of previous success and divine approval.

    When I look at the future of Mormonism, I see a couple of big clusters of problems that could bring us to our knees. First is the attack on how the contemporary Mormon family is being formed. Every young person today, when they become an adult must pass between two horns or get skewered by one of them. The horn on the right is the horn of perpetual singlehood and no offspring. Although single people make extremely significant contributions, when large numbers of the population do not reproduce, the future is diminished proportionately. The horn on the left is the horn of divorce. Break-up of the family is never easy, but in the Mormon culture and theology of eternal families it is a particularly bitter pill to swallow. Few children of divorce survive spiritually or otherwise in condition to form a solid foundation for the next family in their line. The sins of the parents are visited on the children for 3 or 4 generations.

    These two horns have always been there. But the distance between them is getting rather narrow. I think real historians could provide better exact numbers. But my seat-of -the pants guess is this: Up until and including the golden age of say around 1950-1970, about 98% of Mormon women marrried and had about 5 or 6 kids each, maybe more in some circumstances but not often fewer. The right horn was less than 2%. The divorce rate was also less than 2% before it began to climb in the 1960’s and it did not affect the church institutionally. A population of 1000 women and 1000 men in this golden age would grow to at least 5000-6000 in a couple of decades. Retention has alway been a problem; but with the Mormon population isolated and mostly living together in the same communities, it was always possible to reactive the children or even the grandchildren of these back sliders. And this happened, often. With the transition from intermountain rural to widely scattered suburban middle class, this reclaimation is not going to happen very often any more.

    Today we have about 30% of our young people getting caught on the horn on the right and never getting married. Further, they obey (mostly) the law of chastity and so there is no next generation of them, even if it were to be a bastardly generation. Much of the rest of American society is also not getting married in large numbers; but they do shack up and have a few kids (in spite of BC). They reap the rewards of their sin in many ways including drug abuse, high criminal activity and every other manner of wickedness in their offspring. But a few of the next generation gets their act together, joins the ranks of decent people raising more decent people and becomes the hope of the future. And so many of our beloved singles who remain faithful often do not stay active all the way to their golden years but join the ranks of nominal Mormons because the family-centered church is not designed for them and inadvertantly marginalizes them.

    Huge numbers of Mormons are getting hung up on the horn on the left. Our divorce rate, depending on how it is defined seems to be somewhere from 20 to 40%. Temple marriages have rates at the lower end of that range but the proportion if not the total number of them is falling and all rates are either unacceptably high or increasing. How can a community of what we think of as Mormon families survive this onslot? Run those numbers through 3 or 4 generations and what do you have? Less than half, maybe only 3 or 4 out of 10 are making it between these two horns each generation with the horns likely getting even closer before they move apart. The grand view is of an exponentially decreasing population of what we would see as conventional Mormon families to under 10% of what it is now by the end of the next century.

    The other cluster of problems that I see surrounds falling missionary conversion rates, basement bottom retention rates among new converts, decreasing rates of retention of multi-generational LDS youth, and a general sense of apathy, malaise and lack of vitality in our mission field that now extends without borders. All of these problems are complex when viewed across decades and across continents. But a grand view is more like the high Sonoran desert with huge rocky areas of no vegetation, patches of sagebrush and a few scruffy cottonwoods along parched creeks; than the grand view of a rain forest of growing strong timber with only a few hidden problems. One of the reasons that the problems that Seth #13 above suggests are not going to happen to us Mormons is because our retention rate of these new ultra-conservative third world converts is too low for it to happen. Count your blessings.

    That we face these two problems, which I believe are (either one of them) worse than anything we have ever seen before, and that we face both of them at the same time sends shivers up and down my spine. I think it already touches almost every family in the church and there is no sign of it relenting.

    The third problem, and I am not as certain that this is even much of a problem, has to do with the increasingly easy availability of information about a church with a very colorful and embarassing history that previous inspired leaders felt was best kept hidden as much as possible. We will get a nice dose of this with the release of that movie about the MMM soon and the anticipated responding Ensign article discussed elsewhere on this blog. But I suspect this is not going to be as serious or far-reaching as the two I describe above. I also think the idea of a Un-correlation Committee is excellent; but it is a pipe dream, with apology to #7 and # 8 above. Scouting is agonal in our ward and the new DTG program is stillborn, unheard of entirely. My ward is likely representative of much of the church in the eastern US since it is mostly nomadic from all over the place. Our local leaders are going in the other direction and will circle the wagons even tighter as these flood waters deepen.

    In conclusion, the grand view of 21st century Mormonism might be how we went down the toilet with only slightly more resistance than the rest of what was known as conventional decent American or Western society; ushering a new, and if not dark, at least a cloudy and troubled morally famished age.

    I hope this proves not to be true. I hope and that in spite of the problems so glaringand obvious to the cynics like me, our youth of the noble birthright will find their way to a new and brighter place. I will stumble along and follow them as long as I live, help where I can and try to restrict my negative perspective to a few nearly anonymous blogs.

  18. Mike
    June 24, 2007 at 2:39 pm

    P.S. mlu #17

    How does it take a couple generations to grow a good general authority when the best general authorities were almost all of them new converts? I refer to Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Oliver Cowdery, Sydney Rigdom, Parley P. Pratt, B. H. Roberts, Jeddy Grant (my relative), Porter Rockwell (almost a GA), J. Golden Kimball ( 2nd generation), David O. McKay (2nd generation), and all the others. Trivial question: Who ws the first 3rd generation GA? I don’t know but I would guess probably one of Joseph F.Smith’s sons in the early 20th century. I might argue that maybe we need to return to the practice of only calling 1st or 2nd generation GA’s when you look at the list. (I am a 7th generation Mormon and not even close to GA material.)

    That is not the reason we do not have GA’s from elsewhere.

  19. Adam Greenwood
    June 24, 2007 at 3:51 pm

    My vote for the 21st Grand Narrative:

    Laser battles on Pluto!

  20. DKL
    June 24, 2007 at 6:48 pm

    David: Wes Johnson’s research (summarized in an article in the most recent BYU Studies and soon to be out in book form) promises to take Shipps’s analysis to a new level. That Mormonism moved from a primarily agrarian and rural Utah church in 1900 to being an urban and middle class religion in 2000 is indeed a breathtaking transformation.

    Hmmm. I’ll have to disagree here. Emphatically. I don’t think that any narrative that starts with the notion of “an agrarian society” can qualify as grand. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that transformations from agrarian economies are so common that they are (at best) marginal narratives.

    Adam Greenwood: I think DKL gets royalties every time a Brodie book gets sold.

    Wrong again, Adam.

  21. June 24, 2007 at 8:56 pm

    I think the rising divorce rates and falling marriage rates, while certainly bad from many perspectives, are a symptom of something extremely good, i.e. the rise of the independence and power of women. Face it, women were so economically disadvantaged in times past that they had little choice about whether or not to marry. It was either marry or live life as a domestic servant in a relative’s house, with very few alternative options (teaching children, nursing, and other traditionally female jobs paid little and had very little autonomy and scope.) So women did marry, even when their marriages put them in legal servitude to their husbands. And they rarely divorced, no matter how intolerable the situation, whether it be physical abuse (“you mean to tell me I can’t even beat my own wife?“) infidelity, addiction, etc.

    Yes, it’s true that the lifting of the legal servitude of women has resulted in more divorce and fewer marriages. Perhaps these missing marriages were the ones that shouldn’t have occurred in the first place, those that wouldn’t have occurred if both participants had real alternatives, and actual agency, in their life choices. Whenever I see breast-beating about the state of the family today, I look in vain for the acknowledgement of this great change for the better that has happened at the same time, the fact that women now actually have a choice. Their choice has inevitably led to a renegotiation of the marriage contract, with the partners more equally bearing the risks and responsibilities, as well as more equably reaping the rewards. If the number of marriages had to take a gigantic decrease for this to happen, I still count it as a gain for the institution of marriage, which is far stronger and healthier now that the element of coercion has been largely lifted.

  22. Adam Greenwood
    June 24, 2007 at 9:39 pm

    ……30% of our young people getting caught on the horn on the right and never getting married…..Our divorce rate, depending on how it is defined seems to be somewhere from 20 to 40%…..falling missionary conversion rates, basement bottom retention rates among new converts, decreasing rates of retention of multi-generational LDS youth, and a general sense of apathy, malaise and lack of vitality in our mission field….

    I look forward to Mormon Studies programs examining these issues in greater detail. I can’t seem to find this information at lds.org.

    Not every comment you read on the internet is gospel truth. Conversion rates have fallen off in recent years as the Church emphasized making sure converts were truly converted–this has helped with retention rates, which were never “basement bottom” to begin with. But now conversion rates have started to pick back up. I for one think the regular members of the church are going through a complacent moment right now where they’re resting on their laurels when it comes to missionary work, but I don’t think scattershot malaise is the solution.

  23. Bob
    June 24, 2007 at 10:35 pm

    #23…I can’t buy most women in the past had little choice in their lives, or less than men. Nor do I believe that most lived in servitude to their husbands. Like today, I think most men felt a duty to their wife and kids.

  24. Adam Greenwood
    June 25, 2007 at 12:43 am

    I think DKL gets royalties every time a Brodie book gets sold.

    Wrong again, Adam.

    You missed a trick, DKL. I’ll fix it for you.

    I think DKL gets royalties every time a Brodie book gets sold.

    As Fawn Brodie conclusively shows in her breathtaking book, you’re wrong again, Adam, just like that mountebank Nibley.

  25. David
    June 25, 2007 at 1:00 am

    DKL #22 – I’m no economist, but the shift from agrarian to urban seems to be more than a _marginal_ narrative. What Charles Sellers describes in _The Market Revolution_ is hardly a minor detail in American history. Just because this shift is common does not make it insignificant for understanding the Latter-day Saints in the twentieth century, since it seems to have strongly influenced our identity and image in the United States and abroad.

  26. June 25, 2007 at 9:21 am

    “20 year ago, few went on the warpath against conference talks that emphasized American themes (football, fighter pilots). Now, those talks are practically DOA.” –queuno #7

    Perhaps some arrived late for the last general priesthood meeting and missed the talks by Wirthlin and Hales. They were pretty good.

  27. Mike
    June 25, 2007 at 11:11 am

    I think Tatiana #23 and Bob #25 are both partially correct.

    Not that many marriages in the 19th century were in servitude ( impossible to prove) and there were ways for women to terminate bad relationships; ranging from arsenic to fast horses to getting their many brothers to save them and many more. Yet women today do have so much more freedom and more choices as Tatiana as pointed out so well. My mother was highly intelligent and if she lived in the current rising generation, she probably would have gone to law school or obtained a PhD. But in her day, right off the farm after WWII, her best option was to graduate #1 from LDS Busines college as a top notch secretary who could type flawlessly at 200 words per minute and take short-hand as fast as you could talk and keep complex paper files in order. I celebrate this progress and hope my teenage daughter can reap the benefits from it. But if enough bad things happen in her personal life, she won’t. She will not do as well as her great-grandmother who “only” managed to be a poor farmer’s housewife and do only a moderate job raising her children under horrible conditions.

    That is the point. What the 19th century Mormons did worked, mostly. Looking back, they collectively succeeded, in spite of the many faults and mistakes. Enough people figured out how to make it work and overcome enough of their limitations that the sum total was a remarkable success that we still celebrate and make myths out of how great it was.

    The question for me is how will we be able to succeed in the 21st century? And my point is that if our families collectively go down the toilet in large numbers in multiple ways, as they seem to be doing, then all the progress we have made socially, technologically, etc. will not matter. The future narrative story of Mormonism will be one of decline and excuses.

  28. DKL
    June 25, 2007 at 11:17 am

    Adam, I fear that you missed the trick. You see, you’re wrong often enough that it seldom bears elaborating. I can understand how you’d want it to be otherwise, but that’s just the way that it is.

  29. Bob
    June 25, 2007 at 11:32 am

    #22 & #27: May I direct you to the fine work of Dean L. May on this shift from agrarian to urban Mormon: “Three Frontiers”. Sub/title Family, Land, and Society in the American West, 1850-1900.

  30. Bob
    June 25, 2007 at 11:57 am

    #29: ” who “only” managed to be a poor farmer’s housewife”. My point is for every ‘poor housewife’..there was a ‘poor farmer’. Neither one was going to be a PhD. Both men and women were limited, now each have less/or different limits.
    See #31: Dean May says Women ran the Family Farm in the Jeffersonian agrarian West. It was when farming became a “cash” business, that men took the farms over.

  31. David
    June 25, 2007 at 12:03 pm

    Bob: Thanks for the recommendation. May’s work is on my shelf, waiting to be read. I’ll try to move it up on my list.

  32. DKL
    June 25, 2007 at 12:04 pm

    David, the agrarian theme remains marginal. Take, for example, the Charles Sellers book you mention. As exciting as that may be, if you ask historians what the grand narratives are for the US in the 20th century, you’ll get things like the transformation into a super power, or the demographic shift from western Europeans to central/eastern Europeans, Hispanics, and Asians. Even the political transformation to executive/judicial supremacy is more interesting than the tired old “we were once agrarian” theme. Shoot, that’s not even interesting in Ireland.

    The only “we were once agrarian” theme that has any “grand narrative” kind of interest is that of the Jews, since they seem to have jettisoned agrarian culture for urban life hundreds of years sooner than any most cultures (the Kibuttzim movement notwithstanding).

    That’s not to say that you won’t find interesting books on the topic. It’s just that it doesn’t really capture anyone’s imagination.

  33. David
    June 25, 2007 at 12:26 pm

    DKL: Sure, few American historians of the 20th century look at the shift from agrarian to urban, with the exception of some western historians like Brian Cannon. Even Cannon admits that his work is boring. But for the 19th century, this shift is central to understanding American history, and, an argument could be made that without a solid understanding of this 19th century shift one cannot understand the developments of the 20th.

    For Mormons, this shift took place in the 20th (like the west in general). The change in culture from rural to urban and middle-class is crucial to understanding Mormonism in the 20th century. Whether this topic attracts popular interest depends a lot on Wes Johnson’s ability to sell the topic.

  34. June 25, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    Dave: excellent post — and a lot to think about. In your discussion of the twentieth century, my mind kept turning to the Prince biography of McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. Perhaps the “Rise of Modern Mormonism” is the descriptive phrase that best encapsulates the century.

    Bill # 6: very thought-provoking. I think “Reed to Reid” is a great insight and one not to be overlooked as a subset of “From Pariah to Peer” and, like Dave, my mind turns to Verdoia’s comments in the PBS documentary.

    mlu # 17: I thought your comment was very insightful. Your observation about the inevitable rise of an Apostle or Apostles “not born in the West”, presumably meaning from a third-world country or from an Asian country, was particularly ironic but something well worth considering. You wrote No doubt their views will seem draconion in some ways for those whose minds have simmered for decades in the juices of modernity. Perhaps they will reawaken the primacy of miracles, for which the first condition is belief. There is a lot there to feed the imagination. It is ironic because although such non-Western Apostles and other GAs are so often called for on some LDS blogs in the name of diversity, the result could actually be the opposite of what is imagined — the introduction of a neo-stringent-orthodoxy in the mold of Joseph F. Smith or BRM into the life of the Church and the meaning of being a Mormon rather than some kind of progressivism in the Gospel. The plight of women and homosexuals, for example, is far worse in many third-world, middle-eastern, and Asian countries than in the “conservative” view of Western religionists.

  35. Rob
    June 25, 2007 at 12:48 pm

    How about “Acted Upon Rather Than Acting” do describe the various ways that the Church has become shaped and defined by larger social issues and economic factors (many mentioned here already) rather than creating its own unified of-one-heart-and-mind society of peculiar people?

  36. June 25, 2007 at 1:02 pm

    Even the political transformation to executive/judicial supremacy is more interesting than the tired old “we were once agrarian” theme. Shoot, that’s not even interesting in Ireland….That’s not to say that you won’t find interesting books on the topic. It’s just that it doesn’t really capture anyone’s imagination.

    Probably true. But that just says more about the failure of our imaginations than the importance of the theme.

  37. Mike
    June 25, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    Adam #24 writes:

    “Not every comment you read on the internet is gospel truth. Conversion rates have fallen off in recent years as the Church emphasized making sure converts were truly converted–this has helped with retention rates, which were never “basement bottom” to begin with. But now conversion rates have started to pick back up. I for one think the regular members of the church are going through a complacent moment right now where they’re resting on their laurels when it comes to missionary work, but I don’t think scattershot malaise is the solution. ”

    I mostly disagree. This is a cup half full, cup half empty perception. I think the cup is far more than half empty and is leaky. (And I think Adam undoubtedly reads more on the internet than me, luddite that I am.) But how do I convince you? Perhaps it is impossible without pissing everyone off.

    Here are some points to consider:
    1. The modern LDS church is PR conscious and publishes most of its accomplishments. Well that it does. What is Pres. Hinckley’s professional background?
    2. We have a history of snuffing out the publication of unpleaseant information ranging from the multiple responses to MMM from 1857 to 1997 to the near financial backruptcy around 1960 to ending the “Arrington Spring,” etc. Compare the Church News and the SL Trib (or even the Deseret News) on any current issue.
    3. We never see any stats on church wide retention rates of new converts, church wide home teaching averages, portion of YM/YW choosing to serve missions, temple marriage numbers and rates, divorce rates of the same, from official church sources. Some of these numbers are impossible to know without cooperation from church bean-counters. If they are so easy, then give them to me with their sources.

    So I conclude that these hidden numbers must not paint a very pretty picture.

    Next, I examine my own experience to see if it is consistent with my conclusion. I live in a somewhat nomadic ward with many friends who have moved to other wards (often in other cities) and many new friends who moved in. I keep in touch with some of them and invariably I ask how their new ward is. They usually say about like the old one. A little better in some ways and worse in others. I often ask for specific numbers because I am curious about this. Although I don’t agree when some testimony bearers proclaim idiotically that the church is exactly the same everywhere they go, I do think that my ward resembles many others in most ways. This impression was confirmed for me when our then Stake President (who is now in one of the Q. of 70 ) told me that our ward closely represented a statistically average ward outside of Utah in the US about 10 years ago. Finally, remember what Elder Packer said: The church is only as large as your ward for you.

    I also spend several weeks a year visiting relatives in Utah and attending their wards. What I notice is that they have most of the same problems but to a far lesser degree. I notice that denial is much more easy in Utah. I also sense a much stronger feeling that “All is Well in Zion” in Utah. I can’t measure or prove this. Complacency is associated with success not failure.

    At one time I was the EQP and I knew most of the stats cold in my ward and I have kept tract of them since then to some degree. Baptisms had been around 70-90 per year in our ward in the late 1980’s to early 1990’s. They fell to the 30 range in the late 1990’s and then went as low as only 4 annual baptisms a few years ago. They are around 15-20 now. (I discard the 4 baptisms year as an aberation).

    Retention has never been good. It was less than 10% after one year in the church when I was EQP, it was near zero from the 70-90 period a few years before and it has not gone up. Even in the year of only 4 baptisms we had poor retention. The one family fragment that we managed to retain recently, we find out are illegal immigrants and are probably going to get shipped back. It is a myth that falling baptisms are associated with increasing retention, at least in this ward. Perhaps we have different perspectives of what “basement bottom” is but this does it for me. We certainly have opposite views about cause and effect of rising and falling baptism and retention rates.

    The new singles ward Bishop booted out about 40 single men age 31-35 all at once when I was EQP. (The previous singles ward Bishop had been slack in “graduating” the singles when they turned 31 and the new one was strict ). We lost all but 2 of them in 6 months. With over 200 singles in that ward you might expect dozens of marriages each month, but there are less than a dozen in some entire years. We have less than 50% of the few active YM serving full-time missions and if you include the deeply inactive YM, our full-time missionary service rate is under 10%. We have only 6 active YM in the ward this year and we can only meet that one a year goal in the next half decade if every single one of them goes on a mission. (We had around 20-30 YM when we were statistically average.) If you think about two published numbers; 50,000+ full-time missionaries and 25,000+ wards, you conclude only 2 missionaries serving on average from each ward or one departing each year. We are at double that number today but can not sustain it. When Elder Ballard asked for one more missionary from each ward each year he was actually asking us to double the missionary force. Impossible demographically for my ward and every other one in this stake. Some of the wards further out in the suburbs can do it but not that many.

    So many of our youth graduate and move away and their parents never say another word about them again. When asked, they say their kids are doing fine at some vague job or college program. Rare are wedding announcements, or mission calls. Not even military service or peace corps volunteers. The single most disturbing stat is that in 2 decades we have not converted a single intact family with mom, dad and kids who live at the same address in our ward. Not that this is never done any more, but it is rare enough that an “average” ward can go 20 years and not see it happen. If we don’t add families to the family-oriented church how is that going to result in sustained growth?

    When I served a mission the total church-wide missionary force was about 14,000 and we baptised about as many as they did last year. In the 1980’s the annual baptisms rose to nearly 400,000 each year when the force was still much smaller than it is now. Recently the missionary force peaked at over 60,000 and fell back into the 50,000s and is struggling back up some. So missionaries today are about 4 times less effective as we were. I wonder why the missionaries are far better prepared today, but less successful? (One of my companions got drunk his last night before going into the LTM, for example.) But we all know that it is the members who give the missionaries all those golden referrals. Today we have 13 million members to give referrals while during my mission days it was more like 3 million. I would expect that 4 times as many members would result in 4 times as many referrals and baptisms, at about 1.5 million baptisms each year. But members today are even more than 4 times less effective than missionaries. That is because most of them are inactive. Since 1970, the May Ensign has published some annual stats. If you look at them closely, put them in an excel file and start calculating averages and ratios etc., you will discover some disturbing things. ( I did this a few years ago). First is that the stats do not make sense and must not be that accurate (with the exception of how many full-time missionaries in the field) and next you will see unveiled before your eyes disturbing downward trends across the past couple decades. Don’t take my word for it.

    As far as the complacency moment, Adam: My feeling is that we have been flogged and flogged and flogged with missionary work for so many years. Our ward has never had fewer than 6 full-time missionaries and as many as 16 during the high baptism days. In my observation more than 95% of them have been polite but pretty aggressive in their quest for investigators. Most members have experienced a slow melt-down when it comes to missionary work and just turn off any further requests for referrals. For me, seeing and helping teach good friends who join the church and then leave because things don’t work for them at this church, several times over, just takes all of the wind out of repeating the cycle. Rather than being excited to share the gospel with others, I battle tendencies to run off myself. Resting on laurels with several effective polite and skillful full-time missionaries has never been possible in this ward.

    I do agree that “scattershot malaise” is not the solution. What is? What can I do to help?

    Do we keep trying to do the same things that are not working? Putting rosy colored glasses in place with faith and pretending everything is fine? Do we give up? Do we try something new? What do you think happens to an EQP who makes strong rational efforts to go only a short distance outside the box? (Those above me slapped me down and ruined my already questionable reputation and harassed my children. But that was just another aberation that would never happen in any of your wards and because I am so fetchin’ obnoxious and deserved it. Part of the perfecting process.) But if the problem isn’t just me, if the problems are institutional problems, won’t they need to be solved at the institutional level?

    The 21st century Mormon narrative willl be whether or how we solve these problems I describe or don’t.

  38. Bob
    June 25, 2007 at 1:58 pm

    I am sorry that Thomas Jefferson and we are boring DKL about one man farming, but for most Americans, it was one of their possible Dreams, up to 1920 or later. And many tried to live it. I guess the “Grand Narrative” is that it never worked out. Both of my parents were born into this ‘failure’, and had it followed by the Great Depression. It was never ‘marginal’ to them. I add to the reading list (of the West), the works of Wallace Stegner. Maybe DKL can find something of ‘interest’ in them about this transformation.

  39. Adam Greenwood
    June 25, 2007 at 2:10 pm

    published statistics don’t really bear out your picture. I think most members think the church will do OK in all these areas without them and don’t really try very much, and I think in every era of the church’s history there have been serious problems that need addressing, but your willingness to believe that things are terrible even where you lack evidence will not solve anything. Faith and hope should be reserved for good things, not bad things–trust me, I know from experience. Things are never quite as good nor quite as bad as they appear. My ward is fairly apathetic in lots of ways but the work of Christ is going on here.

  40. Rob
    June 25, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    Amen, Mike (#39). I just got called on my third stake/ward mission. In the last two years in my East Coast ward, we’ve had 13 convert baptisms, 3 are active adults with callings, 1 is a semi-active primary age child with a semi-active mother, and 9 are not active. Several never came back after their confirmation. Only one of the active converts did not have a family member already in the Church. We have an average sacrament meeting attendance of 160, and a ward roster of over 350. I think that is pretty average.

    However, one inner-city ward in our stake went from 150 attending in Dec 2004 to 419 attending when they split the ward in April 2006. They’ve pulled all the missionaries out of many suburban wards such as ours to focus them on working in these Black inner-city wards. They claim a 60-70% retention rate down there. So, here’s hoping.

    But worldwide, many other churches including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Adventists are baptizing and retaining many more than we are. It’s pretty sobering.

    Another example I know of personally. Almost 20 years ago I was a missionary in a small town of 15,000 in Ecuador. A branch had started almost a year before, and had a membership of 90 or so. We more than doubled that in my time there, but attendance was lucky to get over 60 or so. A North American paid to have a chapel built there, and eventually the district became a stake, and the branch became a ward. But now, with a population over 60,000 in the city there is still only one ward there. Not much to show for 20 years of work there.

    When I read Rough Stone Rolling and other accounts of life in the early part of the dispensation, I have to think that compared to missionary work in the 1830s-60s, our stone is still pretty rough, and perhaps not rolling quite as well. When I hear that 40% of missionaries in this dispensation have served under Pres. Hinckley, and that the 25% of all members have been baptized during this time frame (see here), but we’re only creating an average of 36 new stakes a year (down from 146 new stakes formed in 1996), it makes me pause. LDS growth rate is declining faster than the rate of global population increase.

  41. Bob
    June 25, 2007 at 3:02 pm

    Mike may not have won his case…but he did have “evidence”.

  42. June 25, 2007 at 3:15 pm

    Rob: If it is any consolation, retention was pretty awful in the nineteenth century as well… (Of course, it is not much of a consolation.) I do wonder, however, if our growth rate is dropping as percipitiously as it appears. I suspect that for many years we had a very inflated notion of how fast we were actually growing, so that the leveling off of growth rates seems more dramatic than it actually is. Not, of course, that this is really all that much of a consolation. There is clearly something messed up with the way in which we handle missionary work and retention.

  43. Ray
    June 25, 2007 at 3:23 pm

    IMO, the messed up part was the assumption that we could separate conversion (particularly social conversion) from baptism – hence, the fact that many were baptized without even the beginning of an integrated conversion. We still need to fix it at the practical (ward/stake & mission) level, but I love the way that the overall issue is addressed in Preach My Gospel. Now the membership has to live up to it.

  44. June 25, 2007 at 3:34 pm

    “If it is any consolation, retention was pretty awful in the nineteenth century as well.”

    I don’t doubt you’re right, Nate, but is there any way you know to put numbers and percentages to that? I was not under the impression that 19th-century (and early 20th-century, for that matter) proselytizing records were all that extant or reliable.

  45. bbell
    June 25, 2007 at 3:35 pm


    To me the truth seems somewhere between the rosy picture painted by the SLC PR people and the pessimists like Mike. The church is still growing but its not setting the world on fire.

    Truth is a lot of the “Growth” in the 80’s to mid 90’s was really poor missionary work in the Phillipines and South America. Much of that has been sorted out in the last 5-8 years

    Activity rates in the “Corridor” have historically been much lower then they have been in the last 30 years or so.

    According to the SWK biography (1977) Activity rates in Europe were in the teens-20’s as far back as the 1960’s. The biography also points to really low activity rates in rural AZ in SWKs pre-apostle days and really low retention rates in South and Central America in his apostleship days as well.

    Rural AZ seemed to be dominated by what we would consider by todays standards inactive or non-observant Mormons. Non tithe paying, non temple attending non WOW observing etc.

    Can things be better? Yes.

    Is the Church falling apart and going backwards? No.

  46. Rob
    June 25, 2007 at 3:52 pm

    I think membership or unit growth is just a reflection of other things going on in the Church and the larger societies in which it operates. That said, I wonder why the restored gospel light we all think is so much brighter than that of other faiths isn’t really “setting the world on fire”? Is there an “Unfulfilled Expectations” meme going on? Or to ape Nibley, perhaps the 21st Century Mormon narrative will be something like “The Rise of the Blogosphere and the Decline of Everything Else”?

  47. Adam Greenwood
    June 25, 2007 at 3:57 pm

    I wonder why the restored gospel light we all think is so much brighter than that of other faiths isn’t really “setting the world on fire”?

    Reading the scriptures I don’t see that the gospel has every really set the world on fire. There have been a few times, but they all ended badly.

  48. bbell
    June 25, 2007 at 4:03 pm


    Here is a personal anecdote on activity from my family history on both sides of my family since 1830. I am a 8th generation member on both sides of my family with easy access to the data thanks to all my relatives


    First 2-3 generations exhibited high levels of activity from 1830 till about 1890’s Lots of missions and temple marriages

    next 2-3 generations exhibited really low levels of activity from 1890’s to the 1950-s-1960’s. Typically kids were baptized and then nobody attended church much except for some of the women from time to time. No missions or temple marriages. According to now dead relatives the WOW was a major factor in the inactive status of much of the family.

    Starting in the 1960’s all my great grandfathers returned to church prior to death after kicking the WOW habits and the following generations have exhibited extremely high levels of activity comparable to the first wave.

  49. Rob
    June 25, 2007 at 4:03 pm

    So what, Adam, do you make of the promise of Zion? Isn’t a major selling point of the restored gospel supposed to be that it will end better this time? Maybe we’re a little to blase about it all? What’s that scripture, “where there is no vision, the people lapse into low activity rates and spend their time playing wii rather than building up the Kingdom of God on the earth and establishing Zion”?

  50. Rob
    June 25, 2007 at 4:07 pm

    bbell, some of that sounds like much of my family as well. Though I also lost a lot of uncles and cousins (Lyman Wight, Alpheus Cutler, San Bernardino colonizers, etc.) in the 1840s and 1850s. After a mixed early 20th Century, the 1970s and 1980s were a high point, and now I’m losing a lot of cousins again.

  51. Ray
    June 25, 2007 at 4:34 pm

    #50 & #52, I don’t mean to be flippant at all, but, given all of our historical scriptures, how can we be surprised at ebbs and flows of activity? Success; complacency; struggle (external or internal); winnowing; gradual re-establishment of success; complacency . . .

    #51, Yes, there is / has been a level of blase “All is well in Zion” going on, but I don’t see it as a lack of vision by the leadership, but rather a lack of internalization by the membership. Also, the scripturally-promised better ending of the Restoration is the Second Coming, which will save the world from complete and utter destruction – not world domination by baptizing billions. Rolling forth to penetrate every nation doesn’t define explicitly the magnitude of numerical success.

  52. Ardis Parshall
    June 25, 2007 at 4:36 pm

    A library worker just handed me a copy of the program for the recent groundbreaking for the Kiev temple. It’s going to be a while before I lose much sleep over the nonsense offered as comments here.

  53. Adam Greenwood
    June 25, 2007 at 4:48 pm

    “So what, Adam, do you make of the promise of Zion? Isn’t a major selling point of the restored gospel supposed to be that it will end better this time”?

    The way I read the scriptures, the better ending is going to come after a extremely liberal helping of death and destruction. You’re right that we need more vision, more faith, and more work, but I don’t think having unrealistic expectations actually helps that much. Optimists who aren’t clear-eyed turn into pessimists real fast.

  54. Rob
    June 25, 2007 at 4:51 pm

    Gee Ardis, I guess all is well in Zion after all. Good on ya! Your comment raises nonsense to a whole ‘nuther level. I’m disappointed. You of all people could have something useful to say about all of this. Care to give it another shot?

  55. Rob
    June 25, 2007 at 4:56 pm

    Ardis, sorry if that came off harshly, but the Church isn’t really lighting Ukraine on fire. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are putting our efforts to shame there.

  56. June 25, 2007 at 4:57 pm

    I’m disappointed, Rob, that YOU’re disappointed in the building of a temple in the Ukraine. Why ever would you voice such contempt for what most Latter-day Saints would consider good news?

  57. Ray
    June 25, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    Why should Ardis give it another shot? I held off on commenting for most of the discussion because I largely agree – and I only joined in finally in order to make one very narrow point and then a bit of a correction. So, Ardis, FWIW, “What you said!”

  58. Rob
    June 25, 2007 at 5:02 pm

    Ardis, I’m not sure where you are reading contempt. I never said I was disappointed that we are building a temple in a country with probably only 3,000 active members. If I’m disappointed that there are only 3,000 active members in a country with over 112,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses…well, I hope I’m not alone in wondering why we aren’t doing as well as they are over there?

  59. Rob
    June 25, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    Ray #53, not sure where you got that anyone was “surprised at ebbs and flows of activity”? I for one am not surprised, just a bit concerned that we may be in a down cycle. I also didn’t say anything about lack of vision from the leadership, but will agree with you that there may be a lack of vision among many of the members. We’ve got 175,000 people living in my ward boundaries, and the bulk of what passes for member missionary work here is one handicapped fellow passing out pass along cards. The bishop here can see a stake within our boundaries. But the members don’t see it, or better yet, feel it yet. As for the Second Coming, we’re supposed to have a Zion to flee to when this all comes down–and perhaps I’m just a bit worried that would happen right now should we actually have to flee to Zion. Again, not being critical of any general or local leaders here. Just reiterating that we’re in trouble if we think all is well in Zion. Maybe we should be losing a little more sleep over it.

  60. Adam Greenwood
    June 25, 2007 at 5:14 pm

    OK, Rob. I think we’re agreed.

  61. Ray
    June 25, 2007 at 5:15 pm

    Rob, words are funny things when left without the context of body language, aren’t they?

  62. DKL
    June 25, 2007 at 5:22 pm

    If Joseph Smith were still alive today, it would be a lot easier to attract and retain members, that’s for sure.

  63. Rob
    June 25, 2007 at 5:22 pm

    Yes Ray, that’s why usually I try to stay out of this part of the blogosphere. Not sure how I let myself get sucked in here again! It would all be much better if we could get together to discuss this stuff over some nice hot chocolate. If you’re ever near Philly I’ll take you out for some nice hot chocolate and scrapple! Ardis, you’re welcome along too!

  64. June 25, 2007 at 5:30 pm

    Man, it’s been too long since I’ve had some good scrapple…

    (Anyone interested in the other side of Rob’s life should check out his bird blog here.)

  65. Rob
    June 25, 2007 at 5:38 pm

    Russell, still waiting for you to come out here for some good scrapple…or if you can only make it to a conference downtown, a quick trip to Pat’s or Geno’s.

  66. June 25, 2007 at 5:57 pm

    Dave, I’ve long enjoyed your blog.

    I also want to take this opportunity to diss your spelling of ‘dis’

  67. Ray
    June 25, 2007 at 5:58 pm

    I’d love another authentic Philly cheese-steak, but my years in Boston (ducking now) turned me on to frappes and lime rickeys, not Scrapple. Penn Station is about the only decent option here in the MidWest, and while that’s ok, it certainly isn’t the same thing as having one in a dive in Philly.

  68. June 25, 2007 at 6:01 pm

    Rob, I’ve been, uh, fascinated by the idea of scrapple since I first read about it in Michener’s Centennial. I’m not sure how I’d react to it face to face, but I’d be game at least to try it. Count me in, the next (first, actually) time I’m near Philly.

    I know what you meant, and I hope you know what I meant, and I’d like to think we could have some give and take on T&S without being quite so personal. Please assume I’m speaking this in a friendly tone of voice, believing we’re both on the same side, ultimately, even if we see details somewhat differently.

    I’m not worried that any other sect is totting up the numbers faster than we are in any given neighborhood. What difference does it make, really, whether someone remains as Orthodox as he was born, or becomes a Jehovah’s Witness, or something else, or nothing else? If they don’t have the restored gospel and access to priesthood power, one is no better than another.

    Each Ukrainian who is eager for and worthy to go to the new temple is a success story, regardless of how many or how few of his neighbors are going along with him. That’s what I’m cheering.

    Yeah, we have a lot more to do and should be doing it faster and better. I’m not denying that at all. Still, I do find it nonsense that some participants in this thread are so pessimistic and see dismal failure in the church’s future. Frankly, I don’t believe a single word written by one of the gloomiest participants here, and I’m sure as nails not going to get worked up over his false prophecies of the imminent collapse of the church.

    I don’t often miss any of the thousands of books I disposed of prior to my move to Salt Lake. All of a sudden, though, I miss being able to read Centennial. I wonder if Benchmark Books would hunt up a copy for me, even if there’s little or no Mormon content. It really does have an intriguing description of scrapple … /saunters off, at peace with Rob and most of the rest of the world/

  69. Rob
    June 25, 2007 at 6:13 pm

    I’m afraid that we’ve drifted a bit from the topic here, but these latest thoughts lead me to wonder if it might be easier to identify a grand narrative, if we as a people had developed some sort of identifiable and enjoyable Mormon Cuisine. Since the Unification Church has cornered the sushi market, maybe we should focus our efforts elsewhere. My own vote, something with precedent here, is that we take over the world chocolate industry. Just think of the grand theme we could be proud of 100 years from now! And it could only help our missionary efforts. “What do you know about Mormon chocolate? Would you like to taste more?”

  70. Ray
    June 25, 2007 at 6:39 pm

    Actually, Rob, I think we have cornered the religious market on ice cream, jello and green bean casserole – and perhaps chili cook-off successes and disasters. Oh, you mean something good as a culinary identification!

  71. Bill MacKinnon
    June 25, 2007 at 6:55 pm

    Rob’s pushing (#71) for preeminence in the chocolate industry should be recognized for what it is…another subtle but chauvinistic thrust involving Pennsylvania food groupings (as in Hershey, PA) along with such other delectations as the Phillie cheesesteak and Philadelphia scrapple. Actually the best scrapple in the Commonwealth is to be found at the Lancaster Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings (third Mennonite lady from the left as you enter from the south side).

  72. Rob
    June 25, 2007 at 7:25 pm

    Hey Bill, its not just about PA. I served my mission in Ecuador, home of a rising bird-friendly chocolate industry. Since most of that part of the country that I love has been destroyed over the past two decades for African palm oil production, an alternative development path through bird-friendly chocolate is something else I can believe in! But back to PA, if Hershey could help orphans by making cheap milk chocolate, maybe we can save the world making world-class dark chocolates! Didn’t Joseph Smith say that truth tasted sweet to him? Now we know what he was talking about!

  73. Bob
    June 25, 2007 at 9:21 pm

    Let’s get Mayor Nagle to make Salt Lake a ‘Chocolate City”!!

  74. Bill MacKinnon
    June 26, 2007 at 12:02 am

    Chocolate…hmmm, isn’t there caffeine in that stuff? A WoW problem here?

  75. June 26, 2007 at 3:58 am

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. My vote is for the Philly cheesesteak (with a Pepsi, thank you) over the chocolate. As for the Church in the 21st century, here’s a shot at bringing together several of the outmigration comments in a way that fleshes out (in a mildly discouraging way) the “emerging world religion” theme: In the 20th century, outmigration from Utah and the Mormon Corridor helped establish solid LDS communities in many US cities. But the outmigration pattern does not hold as well for non-US cities because relatively few students or professionals seek overseas schools or posts. As a consequence, overseas LDS communities in the 20th and 21st century face a rather difficult time getting established and developing into “mature” LDS communities capable of developing their own local leadership.

  76. Bob
    June 26, 2007 at 10:20 am

    #75: sorry, that’s Mayor Nagin of NO. And sorry again SLC in already the Salt Water Taffy city.
    #77: I am not sure you meant it to be, but that’s a very elitist statement. The Church is not open or workable to/for the Common Man?

  77. Rob
    June 26, 2007 at 11:11 am

    Bob #78, perhaps this leads to another possible theme, “Professionalization of the Clergy”? Its still a (mostly) lay clergy, but the emphasis on professionalism has perhaps altered the way the Church is run and experienced by members everywhere. Not as many poor milkmen being called to be bishops, though in the case of Farmingdale, ME when they called a poor milkman to be branch president back in the 1960s, he started a member missionary program that brought in 650 new members over the next two years and led to splitting the branch 8 times. Then of course, when he was replaced by a bishop with a more traditional and professional background and Church experience, the area reverted back to the annual 2% growth that we are more familiar with. A recent Ensign article talked about the problems we have when we give the same types of people the same types of callings in the Church. No more green behind the ears Relief Society presidents, bishops, stake presidents, let alone Apostles. Sure you may be able to find one here and there (well, not Apostles), but the tendancy towards professionalism may be one factor driving a lot of what we see in changing Church governance, growth, retention, activity, etc. Again, not a criticism of the leaders, just an acknowledgement that there may be unintended consequences to certain trends.

  78. Bob
    June 26, 2007 at 11:41 am

    #79: I fully agree. But who started this Trend? In the 1950s, in CA, I can’t think of anyone who was in my Ward who was a Professional anything. Are we not told that ‘Correlation” is to make the Church simple, so the Milkman can still be a leader? Would JS or BY make the cut?

  79. Bob
    June 26, 2007 at 12:47 pm

    #80: Correction: The Osmonds were in my Ward..they were Professional somethings.

  80. June 26, 2007 at 1:06 pm

    Rob’s push to get all friendly and pro-choclatey is a bit disorienting to me. I always enjoy his visits here, but if he keeps going on like this I am going to have to think of him as a bird watching human being with a family and the facial muscles required for smiling, rather than the stern voice of progressive-retro-Mormon-apocalyptic jeremiads that I have come to know and love. The internet is a strange ‘ole place.

  81. Rob
    June 26, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    I think Russell can attest that when I was religion editor for The Student Review that we covered both the humor and the jeremiads–usually in the same piece. Book of Lemuel, Testimony Bingo, Sacrament Meeting Remote, Cureloms & Cumoms board game, Vanity Plates of the Nephites, and Top 10 (make that 6) Women in the Book of Mormon were some of my favorites from those days. Trouble with the internet is its too easy to forget to show that smiling side in the heat of the moment!

  82. June 26, 2007 at 2:06 pm

    Whoa–John Hamer! That’s a name I haven’t heard in years. How did you run across his website, Rob? I’d lost track of a lot of those folks years ago.

    I swear I’ve seen your old Testimony Bingo game posted on online somewhere, but I can’t Google it now. No doubt there have been a couple of hundred different versions created independently over the years.

  83. David
    June 26, 2007 at 7:20 pm

    (#78 and #79) I’m not sure if Dave (#77) has read the Wes Johnson article that I mentioned in #2, but the argument presented there is that during the 20th century rural Mormons left the Utah countryside to get university educations or find work. Johnson presents evidence that as these Saints moved into new areas they became leaders of congregations, due to their experience in Utah, missions, etc. Over time, strong communities began to form throughout the country with local leaders filling out the ranks. But this process is not being replicated in overseas LDS communities because Utah-born students or professionals aren’t going overseas. I don’t think that Dave is necessarily promoting elitism or professionalization of clergy.

  84. Bob
    June 26, 2007 at 10:14 pm

    # 85: I look forward to reading the Wes Johnson Book. I can only speak from what I have read and my personal life. Both of my parents and their families (1920s) moved from their failed Mormon Villages to Salt lake, to find work. They considered themselves the true Mormon Pioneers. Most could not handle the Salt Lake life, and moved on to California,in the 1930s to again try to farm. WWII turned them into Suburbans. But this was still a working class, by no means a University class. I know it is elitist to call someone else an elitist, but it just seems the common Mormon is being pushed into the back of the bus.
    “Over time, strong communities began to form throughout the country with local leaders filling out the ranks. But this process is not being replicated in overseas LDS communities because….”. Again, my childhood Ward was built on Pot Luck dinners, “not Utah born student and professionals” moving in. I am not buying the “idea” that overseas LDS communities need Utah-born professionals to make things work.

  85. David
    June 27, 2007 at 12:41 am

    #86: Johnson’s study is funded by the Marriott school, so he has to focus in on business leaders, not common LDS. While that is the subgroup that he focuses on, I think his primary point is that the first generation of leaders were Utahns, not locals. He concentrated his research on 20 U.S. cities, so research on outmigration is still in its infancy and as more work gets done, I’m sure that we’ll get a better picture.

    As for the overseas LDS communities, I don’t think we know enough about them to draw any strong conclusions at this point. From what I understand of Mexican development is that an American Apostle directed the church there for the first several decades. But now, at least in Chihuahua where the church has been since the 1880s, all the leadership is local.

  86. June 27, 2007 at 3:27 am

    Thanks for the info, David. As long as the study is being mentioned, I’d like to note the whole story: The first part of this lengthy data collection project was funded by the BYU “College of … Social Sciences” and conducted interviews fairly widely — it was not a project limited to business leaders. When the funding moved to the Business School and the second set of interviews was undertaken, that second set focused on business leaders and leadership skills. [I’m just repeating what’s stated in the article — I don’t have any independent knowledge of the project.]

    Of course outmigration is going to highlight “elites.” No one moves to New York to attend community college or teach junior high. I think a different story that probably tells more about long-term “success” of the Church in overseas areas is the first generation of youth that grow up in the Church, do missions, and marry LDS spouses.

  87. Bob
    June 27, 2007 at 10:59 am

    #87 & 88 ( David and Dave) Just to keep it fun, I am going to say Elitist again. Your Model is top-down and secular. Your Model is for a Marriott Hotel chain, a business Model. Yes, your ‘outmigration’ Model is still in its infancy. I am only saying MY OLDER ‘outmigration Model’ is California, and it was bottom-up….and successful.

  88. June 27, 2007 at 11:18 am

    Bob, another way to make that contrast would be that the 19th-century approach to settlement and growth (where Brigham Young would call 30 families to head north or south to establish a new settlement/town) was truly top-down or managed from the top. But that approach had run its course by the turn of the 20th century. The “outmigration” model of the 20th century (a different approach completely) is, to my way of thinking, bottom-up in the sense that individuals or families who relocate to another city or another country do so entirely on their own volition.

  89. Adam Greenwood
    June 27, 2007 at 11:48 am

    Top-down migration in the 21st century could be interesting. If Zion is now many places, then there’s no particular reason that my family and thirty other families couldn’t be called to live in India, say, with the assignment of trying to learn local language and culture and strengthening the local church.

  90. June 27, 2007 at 12:14 pm

    Re # 74, Russell, you might be interested to know that John Hamer is participating in panel discussion podcasts moderated by John Dehlin at Mormon Matters.

  91. June 27, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    In fact, John Hamer has contributed to the most recent Mormon Matters entry regarding the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

  92. Bob
    June 27, 2007 at 2:19 pm

    #90: I will give you a ‘B’ on your statement. You could have received an ‘A’, if you had added the Self-choose of the Scandinavian to the Sanpete and Cache Valleys, Southerns to ‘Dixie’ Utah, New Englander to Idaho, and English to Salt Lake. Plus those who picked their neighbors during the time spent with them on the Wagon Trains.

  93. Bob
    June 27, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    #91: Not going to happen: The English, a very strong Culture, spent what, 200 years trying to change India to their Culture, and failed, but the good news for you is the local language is English. I get calls from India, all the time, don’t you?

  94. Adam S.
    June 27, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    From my understanding the church is and always has been against ecumenical projects. Local leaders are not allowed to join ecumenical councils. They are, however, encouraged to participate in inter-faith dialogue.

  95. Mike
    June 29, 2007 at 6:57 pm

    Back on #70, Ardis:

    I do not predict “the imminent collapse of the church.” I fact I pray for success and I have often told our critics that “the Mormon church is not going to dry up and blow away any time soon.” But I do not think that fiddling while Rome burns is a good way to put out the fires. Maybe figuring out where the fires are located and getting some water on them would help. That is what I am trying to do. But it appears to me that not that many people on this blog can even smell the smoke. And if current trends continue it will be a slowly smoldering dwindle over a couple three generations that jeopardizes all the other good scenarios discussed above.

    Let me illustrate with some simple numbers:

    Assume a hypothetical population of 10 million modern cultural Nephites (MCN’s) all living the gospel.

    1. Assume 30% of the 10 million MCN’s never marry or have children and the number having children out of wedlock is small. Assume the other 70% have slightly less than 3 children per couple. (3.5 M X ~3 = ~10 M). That leads to a population with a stable size of 10 million, neither growing or shrinking much. I borrow the 30% from a recent talk by Elder Oaks and the less than 3 children from current American Mormon birth rates. (Actually it is about 2.4). No negative attitude here, just the facts.

    2. Of the 7 million who marry assume that 2 million experience divorce (28%). Now we get to some speculation that I think is reasonable but some might call negative in an area that is hard to define. Assume that 50% of the children of divorce do not “remain in the faith” while only 15% of the rest are lost. The next generation of MCN’s is made up of 1 million children of divorce and 6 million other children. Again we have a stable population of 7 million the next generation. You can raise the 15% and lower the 50%, I just picked those numbers because I can still do the math in my head and illustrate this point. I think they are probably close to a more complex reality with several important variables. (This assumes an enormous 85% success with the greater part of the population, which is quite a stretch). We see stable population growth again.

    But wait a minute, both things are happening at the same time. This is the key to my perception of dwindling. Multiple difficult problems at the same time! The population of MCN’s drops from 10 million to 7 million, then to 5 million and to 3.5 million in 3 generations, or about a century. This is not an “imminent collapse” but it is not progress either.That 10 million number is geneerous and may actually be closer to 2-5 million leaving us with 1-1.7 million active members in a century.

    What should we assume about the effectiveness of other non-traditional families that are becoming the majority in American society? Are they more or less effective in the retention of the next generation in the traditional Mormon faith? More falling numbers, with no room to spare. Are there any other factors that I have overlooked that result in huge increases in success?

    But wait another minute; the MCN’s send thousands of missionaries out into the world and they convert millions. The new members will save our bacon just like they did when most of the Kirtland Saints went sour and new British converts poured into Nauvoo to built it up. That is currently our best hope. What is the retention of our new members today? I don’t know, it is a difficult question with many variables to consider. But I see a common pattern: many years of struggle at low levels folllowed by a few years of better growth followed by stagnation. I look to Japan where I served my mission as sort of an average place and I pick a crude measuring stick of number of Stakes formed. It was less than 10 in the 1970’s after 3 decades of missionary work and peaked at around 30 Stakes several years after I was there and is not growing very much if any at all now. A Dialogue article by a Japanese member claims about 10% retention long term. We have not yet run out of new areas where we can hope for the rapid growth phase to drive overall church growth. But remaining new fields are in places like Africa, China and the Moslem world where the going will be rough.

    In other areas (like where I currently live) when retention falls to less than 10%, it is not enough to make much difference and most of the local growth is fueled by people moving in from out west.This is not growth, just moving around. And in yet other areas like Europe the growth is near zero except among immigrants to those areas.

    And guess what? After one generation the children of new members start to resemble the same original 10 million NCM’s. This is one of the miracles of Mormonism, the one generational rapid assimilation into the faith. The new member NCM’s numbers fall off in a similar fashion, delayed by one generation. That is if the problem is not understood and rectified.

    But you say that the activity rates have been low before and they went back up. Is it really 75% and 15 % above or something adding up to the same result? We have all these people in our lineage who were not very active. The response to this is the key to understanding the reason for the physical gathering in one place. When the parents go sour, the local leaders can still reach most of the youth. It is a built-in safety net. And it still functions to a significant degree in places where we are strong. But as the Mormon Diaspora procedes, we find more and more of our youth in schools and communities where they are

  96. Bob
    June 29, 2007 at 9:44 pm

    #97: Let me thank Mike for trying to put a face on a problem. But he can forget his cover shot on the Ensign. Nobody likes to be told their picnic is being eaten by both bears and ants. I hope someone has a better Number Model to show us……?

  97. Mike
    July 16, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    I recognize this discussion is long over. I will be surprised if anyone responds and do not mind if no one even reads this. The last third of my previous comment was cut off and it contained several other excellent points, but I didn’t even bother to correct it. However, I had another experience that shed further light on this.

    Last weekend I ran into an old friend and previous Priesthood leader. We had dinner together (at a church activity). Since that time he has been a Mission President, Stake President and spent 5 years as a member of one of the Quorums of Seventy. Mostly we talked about how to improve Scouting. But at one point the conversation drifted to the problem of large numbers of single people not getting married and I was reminded of the discussion on this blog. I thought it might be a good chance to either confirm or refute portions of the basic data that supports my gloomy perspective. I promised myself that regardless of the outcome, I would submit either a retraction/apology or a confirmation here.

    So I asked him what the highest church leaders know about the actual percent of singles not getting married and he seemed reluctant to give a number. I mention the 30% level. He frowned and pointed his thumb up to indicate it was higher than 30%. And the birth rate lower than 2.6 kids per Mormon woman. He related that the GA’s are deeply concerned about it. I asked about the divorce rate with a similar confirmation that temple divorce rates are higher than I assumed and children of divorced parents too often do not fare well staying active. I gradually ran past him over the course of the evening every other number I could remember using in the discussion above. The dinner hall was noisy and other people interrupted him from time to time. But he either agreed with my numbers or indicated things were worse than I suspected. He understood instantly the concept of the seriousness of multiple problems operating simultaneously.

    At one point I iterated something like this: So basically the internal growth of the church is flat at best and probably in a gradual decline even before we factor in loss of youth born in the church each generation. He agreed. And retention of new converts beyond 20 years, long enough for them to bring up another generation, is so poor in most places that they are not going to make up the difference. Therefore if current trends continue for 3 or 4 generations over the next century, the orthodox Mormon population will be, a ballpark guess, about 10-20% of the size that it is now in North America. Again agreement, if current trends are not reversed.

    I asked him why the church leaders were not sounding the alarm and doing something about it. He said they are doing everything about it they reasonably can. I replied it was obviously not enough. He comforted me with the thought that those at the top understand with even greater clarity than I the severity and nature of the demographic reality that I described. They are on their knees praying desperately about these problems.

    I don’t need my picture on the cover of the Ensign; those whose faces already grace that publication appear to agree with me. Or rather, I independently find myself in agreement with them. The main difference between my friend and I is that he has far more faith than I that we will find a way to turn this picture around. I do hope we will.

  98. danny
    July 27, 2007 at 6:22 pm

    well – what a load of negative drivel… numbers, numbers, numbers…

    i remember doing a zone conference basically on the topic of PEOPLE NOT NUMBERS…

    i can\’t believe the lack of faith i detect in some of the comments i\’ve just read – and although i only stumbled across this page while doing some research for a YW lesson – i HAD to comment.

    I do agree that times are quite hard – and that they won\’t get any easier any time soon, but i also firmly believe – that with God, ALL things are possible. Some of you sound like those of old, theorising that the sun MUST revolve around the earth, because of all the \’evidence\’.

    …have faith brethren (and sisters).

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