Making Mormons in the 21st Century

Jan Shipps always has something interesting to say about Mormonism. An essay you might not have run across is “Making Saints: In the Early Days and the Latter Days,” in Contemporary Mormonism: Social Science Perspectives (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1994). It turns out that becoming a Latter-day Saint (or acquiring the characteristics of Mormon ethnicity) involves more than just conversion or joining the Church.

Shipps describes three different processes that, at different times, made someone a Latter-day Saint “both ecclesiastically and culturally” in the 19th and 20th centuries:

  1. The initial process (from the 1830s through the last part of the 19th century) involved first conversion (to LDS beliefs in a restored church and priesthood, new scripture, and continuing revelation) then obedience to the ongoing revelations delivered through Joseph Smith. This meant a physical gathering to where the young church was located, first to Kirtland, then later to Missouri, Nauvoo, and eventually Salt Lake. This also meant accepting the expanded covenant, sealing, and kinship doctrines of the Nauvoo period, which Shipps summarizes with the interesting phrase rhetorical construction of blood descent. The majority of Church growth during this period was by conversion.
  2. A revised process better describes the saintmaking process of the later 19th century and early 20th century, one centered on migration. Unlike earlier gathering, this migration brought LDS converts to a flourishing Mormon culture region. As direct conflict with outsiders declined, dedication to LDS doctrine and steadfastness in the face of persecution became less important for Mormon identity. Instead, just being in Utah and absorbing its Mormon culture by fitting in with the community was enough to make one a Latter-day Saint.
  3. A third process describes LDS socialization for those who were Mormon by birth rather than by conversion. It more or less emerged alongside the second process that relied on migration. Once the Church became established and settled in the Great Basin, a stage to stage development ending in “full participatory membership in the community” became the defined path for those born into a Mormon family. You know the steps. While spiritual conversion (or “gaining a testimony”) was often part of the process at some point, one could be lacking in conviction and skip later steps, yet still be part of the LDS community.

What Went Wrong

The two processes of migration (#2 above) and socialization (#3 above) worked for the first half of the 20th century. But everything changed with the Mormon diaspora that followed World War II. First, wards and stakes sprouted up in urban areas around the United States to accommodate Mormons from the Intermountain West who relocated for educational or employment opportunities. Then proselyting success outside the Great Basin area — in the United States and abroad — brought increasing numbers of new converts into these new wards and stakes. But it was no longer feasible for converts to relocate to Utah (so migration withered away) and the socialization process for BIC Mormons did not work as well outside Utah. Together, this created a late-20th-century crisis we are still dealing with: how to make converts into full Latter-day Saints. The terms used to describe the problem have changed over two generations (inactivity, retention, and most recently “the rescue”) but the problem is still with us. In the terms Shipps uses in her essay, we can restate the problem as: We can still get people to join the Church, but we’re having difficulty making them Mormons.

Ironically, the consolidated meeting schedule adopted in the early 1980s (aka “the three-hour block”) has perhaps added to the problem: “Whereas, historically, [LDS communal] activities were were spread throughout the week, making Mormonism’s community dimension paramount, the consolidated meeting schedule weakened the impact of being Mormon in a corporate context.” So the two-hour block you’ve been praying for won’t solve this problem.

Now It Gets Interesting

Shipps reminds us that the three-hour block wasn’t implemented just to save you gas money and give you extra time for naps on Sunday afternoon. It was part of … Correlation (cue sinister music). The original purpose of the correlation program was to pare back activities of the institutional church in order to give families more time together. Family Home Evening was a big part of the new initiative: a family-centered activity or gospel lesson held in the home under the direction of the priesthood-holding father. Add daily family scripture study — also held in the home, under the direction of the priesthood-holding father — and you see more clearly the twin themes of priesthood and family that Correlation moved to the center of LDS doctrine and practice.

But we’re not the only church that preaches the family. Most denominations support families and encourage members to enjoy family activities and read the Bible. What is different about the LDS view of the family? Shipps points out how LDS doctrine elevates and intensifies both the family and traditional gender differentiation:

Gender differentiation for time and eternity is a necessary prerequisite for celestial marriage, a concept crucial to LDS soteriology. … [T]he continuing emphasis that all Saints place on the eternal nature of families composed of fathers, mothers, and children who never lose their identities as males and females provides a basis for understanding Mormonism as an ongoing community of peculiar people.

That’s your money quote. In simple terms, the assertion is this: The expanding LDS doctrine of the family has become the primary basis of Mormon identity. And you can see why this nexus of family doctrine and family-centered gospel practice earns big points on the Correlation globalization scorecard: family-based activity can (theoretically) be replicated anywhere in the world. In contrast, the migration and socialization processes discussed earlier only worked if there was a strong LDS community (either social or institutional) to support the process. It is easy to wonder whether the LDS family doctrine is driving the move to family-centered worship or whether family centering is driving the development of LDS family doctrine. If the latter, it would seem like a public doctrine of Heavenly Mother is just around the corner — a new trinity of Father, Mother, and Son certainly fits well with the LDS exaltation of the family — but I don’t have any sense LDS leadership is moving in this direction.

What Has Happened Since 1994?

The essay was published in 1994. Events in the interim have certainly strengthened the points made in the essay. The Family: A Proclamation to the World was issued in 1995, which elevated to pseudo-canonical status the LDS doctrine of the family: “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” In 2000, LDS leaders supported low-key local LDS involvement in passing California’s Prop 22. In 2008, LDS leaders again urged local LDS involvement in passing California’s Prop 8, but this time LDS participation was very public and very controversial, even within the the California LDS community. These post-1994 events make a lot more sense in light of the Correlation push, starting in the 1960s, to place family and priesthood at the center of Mormon doctrine and practice.

Where has fifty years of LDS family doctrine left Mormon identity today? I see one big problem. (If you don’t like the word “problem,” substitute “challenge.”) Public LDS support for Prop 8 has had the unintended effect of redefining public perception of Mormons, who are now seen as extreme political conservatives. An argument can be made it has even redefined internal perception of LDS identity in the same way, despite the oft-repeated LDS policy of political neutrality vis-a-vis candidates and parties. This development has alienated thousands of Latter-day Saints who have different political views and probably damaged LDS missionary efforts in North America and Europe as well. So the logic of vigorously pursuing the agenda set by LDS family doctrine has resulted in external and possibly internal redefinition of Mormon identity. Instead of being known as “the family church” (think of those cute and successful family-oriented TV spots that ran for so many years) we are now more likely to be pegged as “the ultraconservative church.” (Note that the problem is not political conservatism per se, it is that Mormonism and the LDS Church is being redefined as a species of political conservatism rather than as a family-centered religion.)

It’s only fair to add one big success: at least Mormonism still has an identity. Unlike many Protestant denominations, the LDS Church still has a distinct set of doctrines and practices. The Church is also doing a great job (relative to most Protestant denominations) teaching those doctrines and practices to LDS youth and keeping them active as young adults. Activity and retention may be concerns, but socialization (the third process in the list above) is still working. We still send out 25,000 missionaries a year. The youth of Zion haven’t faltered yet.

So how would you define present Mormon identity? Who are we in 2011? Who will we be in 2031 or 2051?

24 comments for “Making Mormons in the 21st Century

  1. Interesting post. Perhaps the recent announcements re immigration have given the Church an opportunity to stake out a moderate/liberal political position that is also pro-family. Elder Cook said in his last GC that LDS should be working for family-friendly work places (something that I would think seems more politically liberal than conservative, perhaps). So perhaps we’ll see a trend toward moderate/liberal political positions that are pro-family. That would make me happy, anyway!

  2. While the Prop 8 subject made the Church look ultra-conservative I think public perception of us is driven more by entertainment media (Big Love, Sister Wives, Book of Mormon on Broadway) than by politics (Prop 8, Glenn Beck, Mitt Romney, Harry Reid).

    And I think some of those messages are contradictory. Are we seen as having family values or as sexually exploiting children (polygamists)? Are we seen as ultra-conservative capitalists(Prop 8, Glenn Beck), moderately conservative (Romney as MA Gov), or liberal socialists (Harry Reid)?

  3. In my opinion the focus on basic principles blurs our distinction from other faiths (but without such distinction what does Mormonism have left to offer?), and the warm and fuzzy focus on family may seem nice but doesn’t itself seem to win many converts or keep many members from what I’ve seen.

    Ultimately – unless there is substantial change – we’ll have to face up to the fact we aren’t really the fasted growing faith (and haven’t been for quite some time), and only have about 2 million ‘real’ members. Once the tithing takes a substantial hit maybe things will change, but it will take a new generation of leaders or new revelation.

  4. Erastus, I don’t think it will take new revelation, just a new commitment to old revelation regarding our covenant and obligation to live in equality, to build zion. If we did that they differences would be highlighted, we would lose members and numbers of converts would decrease, but we would get meaningful faithful converts and greater blessings from heaven.

  5. I don’t think all LDS want to become “Mormon.” Growing up outside the intermountain west “Mormon” was only used in the pejorative (Molly/Marty Mormon) as very few people wanted all of the cultural/political aspects of the stereotypical Utah Mormon culture.

  6. I think the error here is thinking/teaching that non-Mormons are not “Family Centered”. I just don’t find this to be true. I live among working class Latinos that are just as family centered, or even more so than Mormons. A lot of Mormons put their job above their family even when they say they don’t.

  7. Good article. The “money” quote is right on; and interesting in that a knowledgeable non-member was able to distinguish a very important, yet often overlooked point of LDS doctrine that wasn’t (to my knowledge) pounded home and given prominence until the Proclamation on the Family.

    Its much clear if you take out the academic speak though:
    What is different about the LDS view of the family?
    “Mormons believe that families existed ‘before’ this mortal life, and will continue to exist ‘after’ this mortal life, in the same form that they currently exist now, i.e. a male father married to a female mother, and their children.”

    p.s. psuedo-canonical? Perhaps this is another post, or one that has long since been argued (more likely, if so, feel free to ignore), but I think Brigham Young’s (apocryphal?) quote re: wheelbarrows full of scriptures applies in spades here. Every living prophet/apostle signed it, including “the” keyholder. What’s psuedo about that?

  8. Intriguing post, Dave (as usual).

    I’d ask a question first:

    But it was no longer feasible for converts to relocate to Utah (so migration withered away) and the socialization process for BIC Mormons did not work as well outside Utah.

    Why do you think the socialization process didn’t work well outside Utah? Is this a matter of numbers/percentages (e.g., percentage of Mormons in Utah vs. out)? Do you think the socialization process still works well within Utah? What does it mean for it to work well (e.g., what does it mean to “make someone a Latter-day Saint” through socialization)? As someone who has never lived in Utah but grew up in the church, I feel the socialization process was still effective (and I’m a bit confused because in your penultimate paragraph you seem to agree that socialization still works). But then again, maybe I have a very different idea than you of what it means to make someone Mormon or make someone a Latter-day Saint.

    I think the statement, “We can still get people to join the Church, but we’re having difficulties making them Mormon” applies to a certain extent (e.g., converts who drift away very shortly after baptism…however many of those there are who fit that description), but for people raised in the church, the issue is, “We can make people Mormon, but increasingly, people don’t see “being Mormon” as meaning they must espouse specific beliefs and doctrines.”

    With respect to being seen as “the family church” or “the ultraconservative church,” then I think these come out to be related. If people see the church as “the ultraconservative church,” then it seems to me it’s because they see the church as advocating for *particular* kinds of families, *particular* roles for men and women, etc., I think the only issues that the church would ring up as “ultraconservative” for are those directly relating to family and gender (prop 8, position on ERA, etc.,) So, I think there are still problems with politically alienating members who are not “ultraconservative,” but I don’t think it’s because of a trend of being redefined in general as “the ultraconservative church” — but because of its specific issues re: family and gender.

    For example, contrast with the church’s position on immigration. But these don’t seem to be as much of a driver as its position re: family.

  9. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I hadn’t thought of those liberal responses by LDS leaders, Julie.

    Lyle, in Conference six months ago, Elder Packer verbally referred to the Proclamation as scripture, but in the written transcripts posted at the reference was downgraded to “helpful guidance” or similar wording. So my impression is that senior LDS leaders view the Proclamation as authoritative guidance but not as scripture. “Pseudo-canonical” was my compromise term.

  10. I think that there are significant differences between the mores and perspectives of BIC Mormons in Utah and the “convert communities” outside of Utah. There are expectations you find along the Wasatch Front that would bewilder an outsider, even if they were active LDS.

  11. @ Suleiman: Your idea is mostly right. But a little off (IMO) in using BIC vs “convert communities” outside of Utah. I grew up in the 50s and 60s as a Mormon in California. Then, this was the second big population center of the Church. But NOT convert Mormons! They were mainly Utah Mormons who saw thing differently to a point they got out of the big cities of Utah and moved to California.

  12. For example, contrast with the church’s position on immigration. But these don’t seem to be as much of a driver as its position re: family.

    Several statements from Church leaders actually seem to place the family at the center, or at least prominently, in the discussion about immigration.

  13. re 12:


    I meant to contrast the idea of the church as been “the ultraconservative church” with the church’s position on immigration, not necessarily family vs. immigration. My final sentence was more of a reference to the fact that when people are considering the “politics” of the church (e.g., “The ultraconservative church”), they don’t consider its position on immigration [even as it is influenced by its position on the family] as much as they do consider its position on marriage, gender and gender roles, etc.,

  14. “how to make converts into full Latter-day Saints.”

    I resent very much the notion that those of us who are converts living outside the intermountain west are somehow less than full Latter-day Saints.

    Sure, our wards may have may have beast feasts or shrimp boils or moon festivals with nary a bowl of jello in sight. But does that make us any less LDS? I think not. The cultural crap means diddley sqat. As long as we send out missionaries, produce an AA 70 every few years, and don’t have candles on the sacrament table, that’s good enough for visiting GAs and should be good enough for anyone else as well.

  15. Naismith,

    I just moved for Utah to the midwest. I don’t think the ‘less than full LDS’ comment was meant as an insult, but it takes some time to learn the doctrines and policies. The culture does mean ‘diddly sqat’ to me too since I think Utah LDS culture is quite contrary to LDS doctrines. But my new branch is almost entirely convert. One woman bears her testimony saying she aspires to be a righteous as the Pentacostals. Another wanted to be baptized frequently. Because gospel teaching is poor in SS and home teaching is rare they don’t pick up the gospel essentials very quickly. I think that is all that is meant by “less than full.”

  16. Ironically, the consolidated meeting schedule adopted in the early 1980s (aka “the three-hour block”) has perhaps added to the problem: “Whereas, historically, [LDS communal] activities were were spread throughout the week, making Mormonism’s community dimension paramount, the consolidated meeting schedule weakened the impact of being Mormon in a corporate context.” So the two-hour block you’ve been praying for won’t solve this problem.

    Yes. The issue has become if the Church is not the community, and if Mormons are not an ethnic group, then what relevance do we have in a post-Christian western world.

  17. The redefining LDS doctrine as you quite accurately describe in your post creates two primary challenges;

    1) There are many, many members who are either single or so far removed from the ideal family structure that they cannot relate to the doctrine in their daily lives and, subsequently, find little reason to remain active and,

    2) The emphasis on family has effectively replaced the worship of Christ in most of our meetings leading to a famine for many members who seek to gain spiritual nourishment in a true communal setting. Worship has been outsourced to the ideal family structure and is meant to be practiced in the home instead of within the community.

    Worship of leadership and of the family are becoming the identifying attributes of a Mormon identity. The outside world still does not view us as Christ-centered and Christ-worshipful because our words, our actions, and our services lack focus on Christ. Try to view LDS services from the eyes of a 50 year old single with no children or of a YSA from a broken and abusive upbringing.

  18. Very good point Michael! We aren’t Christ centered enough. One of our BIC young men who is planning on serving a mission stopped attending young men activities in order to go to the baptist church a few blocks away because they read from the Bible each Wednesday night and talk about the lessons Christ taught. He wanted a spiritual experience and was not finding it in our meetings or activities.

    I realize the problem is that too many think because we know this is the true church we don’t need to gain more knowledge and have spiritual moments, but how do we change that desire and reverse the trend? anyone have ideas?

  19. I don’t find that teachings on family replace Christ at all in any of the last 4 wards I’ve been in. Anyone who hasn’t read ‘family’ in the scripture guide should review it, it’s as inclusive as the definition of ‘prophet.’

  20. There are 3 kinds of Mormons in the world. Utah Mormons with their Idaho and Arizona subsets, California Mormons, and everybody else who claim to be Mormon. The migration still continues within and toward each of these areas.

  21. Opening post: “So how would you define present Mormon identity?”__ Inside or out?
    Hard to say. The ‘Church’ has it’s beliefs that it trys to teach. ( that can be very muddy). A large part of the members seem to have ” I will make it up myself.” way of thinking about doctrine.

  22. Dave: Thanks for that info re: the conference talk change. I didn’t know that. I don’t think it changes anything, but it is an interesting tea leaf.

  23. Michael, I completely agree! I play organ at another congregation (from the United Church of Christ) and always chuckle when I go to our church and the lone member speaks up and says that we are the only church who _really_ worship Christ. Oh, if only they stepped into another Christian religion for one service.

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