14.1 Million

In the comments to Dave’s post discussing Joanna Brooks’s discussion of myths about Mormonism, the conversation is getting hung up on whether her citation of 14.1 million members is disingenuous[fn1] or not.

That discussion, I believe, misses the point.[fn2] Why?

Baseline. First, because 14.1 million is as good a number as any. Sure, in a real discussion of how many Mormons there are, you need to do a whole lot more work to define what you mean by “Mormon.”[fn3] There are some areas that are clear: for example, it’s hard to argue that a person who has been baptize in the LDS church, attends church every Sunday, and self-identifies as Mormon should not be counted as a Mormon. It’s also easy to say that a person who grew up in a devout Catholic home, who has never met a Mormon, been to a Mormon church, or heard of Stone and Parker’s Book of Mormon musical, and who, moreover, self-identifies as Catholic, shouldn’t be counted among Mormons.

But somewhere in between, whom to count becomes murky. What about the person who was baptized, doesn’t go to any church, but self-identifies as Mormon? What about the person who has never been baptized, but goes to church every week and mans the barbecue at the the ward’s annual picnic? Figuring out the grey area certainly belongs in a discussion of how many Mormons there are, but it didn’t really fit in Brooks’s post.

Common Journalistic Practice. It’s not just Brooks citing the 14 million number. A quick Google News search[fn4] finds that the 14-million number is used by a wide array of journalists, many of whom don’t appear to have much to do with the Church, and some of whom appear not to be really big fans.

Moreover, the use of a more inclusive number seems to be common among religions. News coverage I can find of the Catholic church mentions something over a billion Catholics. I don’t know the baseline that they’re using, but I suspect that not all of those billion+ Catholics are practicing.[fn5]

It Doesn’t Matter. I assume that Mormons who boast about the 14.1 million number do so in order to show how big we are.[fn6] And I assume that detractors of the Church want to knock the number down in order to show that we’re not so big.[fn7]

But really, what’s the difference between 14.1 million and, say, 2.82 million?[fn8] There are, as of my writing, just under 7 billion people alive. That means that, if we believe that there are 14.1 million Mormons, Mormons make up about 0.2% of the world’s population. If, instead, we go with 2.82 million, Mormons make up about 0.03% of the world’s population, a difference of 0.17 percentage points. That is, while 14.1 million sounds like a lot (and, frankly, 2.82 million still sounds like a lot), neither is a large number in comparison with the set of living people and, in relative terms, there is a very small difference between the two.

This Discussion Would Have Totally Gotten in the Way of What Brooks Was Discussing. Look, we’re talking a blog post here. My discussion of the 14.1 million number is probably about as long as her entire post.[fn9] All this for a tangential point that very few people are interested in. We all know that not every person who belongs to a church participates. Not every person who belongs to a political party is truly interested in politics. Heck, not everybody who registers for my class attends on a regular basis.

Like I said, there’s a place for this discussion. It’s interesting as a matter of resource allocation, and as a matter of determining how well we do bringing people to Christ (or drawing them away from Him, if you’re not a fan of my belief system). And we all want to feel like we’re part of a larger group. But, at the same time, we need to be able to use shorthand to communicate some ideas. And 14.1 million seems like as good a shorthand as any.

[fn1] “Dishonest” would probably better reflect the discussion, but I enjoy any chance I get to use the word “disingenuous,” so I’ll stick with that.

[fn2] Note that I am not arguing that this isn’t a conversation worth having; I’m merely arguing that it was not the conversation Ms. Brooks was having and, moreover, that it would have been clunky, unnecessary, and distracting in the context she was making the argument. 14.1 million is a perfectly acceptable baseline count and, based on the context and thrust of her post, and on what appears to be general journalistic practice, was not distracting or dishonest.

[fn3] I don’t really mean the debate over whether fundamentalist Mormons should be considered Mormon, either. That’s a whole different issue.

[fn4] My search results are here, but I assume that the results will change over time. I also have to say, I don’t think the search is necessarily representative, because Brooks’s post has been reprinted a number of places, so I searched for “14 million Mormons” rather than 14.1 million to try to cut down the number of times I got a reprint of her post.

[fn5] In fact, it would appear that the same discussion happens in Catholic circles.

[fn6] Brooks, on the other hand, was using it for entirely different purposes.

[fn7] I realize that the assumptions may not be accurate, at least as respects you personally, so I’m perfectly willing to concede that I’m wrong about these assumptions. But I’ll bet that both are true for some not-insignificant portion people who care about the number of Mormons.

[fn8] Remember, I said, in order to figure out how many Mormons there are, we have to figure out what counts as a Mormon and how many people fit in that category. But I don’t want to do that work, so I’m going to assume that, once we’ve agreed on our definitions, we discover that 20% of the 14.1 million people qualify.

[fn9] Probably longer, if you include footnotes.

107 comments for “14.1 Million

  1. Walking into McDonalds this morning (to return a Redbox, not eat the food) I noticed the sign with “99 Billion Served.” As Mark Twain once said, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.

  2. The hard part is that most Mormons don’t get how minor a player the Church is on both the national and World scene.

    I used to live on the East Coast and I was struck by how few knew much or really cared about the LDS Church.

    As a people, I think we don’t get how irrelevant we really are to most (despite the recent press),

  3. If the Church uses 14.1 million, then they have defined for themselves what a Mormon is. If their number is goes under 2 million, I don’t make the cut. So yes, the numbers matters to some.
    For me, the number those who put their time and money into the Church, and feels it’s the best place for them and their family to be, would be more like 5-7 millon.

  4. If their number is goes under 2 million, I don’t make the cut. So yes, the numbers matters to some.

    Interesting point, Bob. So the Church has at least some incentive to be as broadly inclusive as it can in laying out its numbers; moreover, there’s not a lot of downside to the inclusivity.

  5. I think the way the Church counts the number of members is to combine the number of baptismal records with children of record under 9 or so, remove those who they know have died, and compute a total. That’s not a dishonest reckoning, and it’s probably accurate out to four significant digits. Brooks and the Church independently use a figure with three digits.

    Years ago it was a surprise to me to learn that a friend of mine had never heard of Mormons at all before he met me. The Church had had a presence in Cincinnati since Joseph Smith Jr, but there he was, completely ignorant of us.

    My thinking has long been to recognize that there are some superficially dissonant ideas out there about what the size of the Church should be. This is especially evident if one combines Mormon sensibility about the rolling stone prophecy from the Book of Daniel with the statements in the New Testament about “few [being those] that find it”, and the reckoning implicit in going “into all the world”. I reconcile them by figuring that any number which is accurately described as “few” compared to the population of “all the world”, combined with “growing until everyone indisputably knows about us with some accuracy” means that the world is just about the way God thinks about it and things aren’t quite wrapped up yet.

    That, and the planet is much bigger than most anyone can really comprehend.

  6. Thanks for this, Sam.

    I’ve always thought it’s a stupid thing to argue about – except if someone claims that all 14+ million are actively practicing. In that case, it’s a simple, “Activity rates world-wide probably average somewhere in the range of 30 percent (give or take a bit) – so there probably are around 4.2 million active members (give or take a half million or so).”

    Fwiw, I’ve done some research on Protestant activity rates, and when everything is normalized to use the same basic definition (attending regular Sunday worship service at least once a month), the rates essentially are the same (within an acceptable statistical range) as the Protestant average. (I have no idea what the Catholic average is, but I suspect it’s MUCH lower.) Iow, we are doing just as well as the rest of Christianity in that regard – which gets lost totally in the discussion most of the time. (I’m not saying I’m happy about or satisfied with that, but it’s not as “bad” as most critics claim when compared to everyone else.)

    In the end, I think that re-enforces what you say – that it’s a silly thing to cause an argument when cited simply as a general statement about membership of record.

  7. I think the important question is why half the Church is inactive. Now that’s a conversation!

    I believe it has to do with issues regarding singles. For anyone who cares, please read the latest entry on the ” Celibate in the City” page. I’d love for that letter to make it to this blog….

  8. if anyone would like to take to and run with it, please, please do. I wrote it…you have my grateful permission. Thanks. :)

    The numbers of inactivity for singles over age 30 appear to be at least 80%, probably more like 90+%.

    (I don’t mean to be a thread-jacker. I just feel very strongly about this.)

  9. Rob Perkins,

    Are you still in Cincinnati? What ward? I was the first Mormon most of my non-member friends in Cincinnati met. It doesn’t help that Cincinnati is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. without a temple (and unlikely to get one in the near future). I even overheard a classmate in Cincinnati, who didn’t know I was Mormon, say, “So-and-so’s a Mormon? I thought they were a myth.” He was only half-joking. A handful of other bloggernacle types are in Cincinnati, or have lived there recently.

    As far as the singles threadjack goes, a lot of people who the church believes are single are not, in fact, single. They’ve been less active for a long time, cut off contact with the church, and got married (or a variation thereof). Others are the unstable types that tend to gravitate towards missionaries, are baptized, and then quickly become less active–these types are less likely to possess the skills necessary to remain in relationships (and unlikely to remain active for the same reasons). Of the remainder, many are still active. Activity rates are higher than just 10-20%. Not as high as they should be, but single people can and do stay active past the age of 30, despite the difficulties. Many of my friends fit into that category (early 30s, still active, still single).

  10. Tim,

    I have talked to 4 Bishops in Denver that say that the inactivity of singles over age 30 were around 90%.

  11. The 14.1 should be “baptized members”. The number would be higher if you counted all of the unbaptized children attending primary every sunday. Also visitors/investigators don’t get counted.

  12. glass ceiling,

    Please re-read my comment. Just because the ward or stake thinks they’re single doesn’t mean they actually are…

    I was assigned to hometeach a single woman in my previous BYU singles ward–her live-in-boyfriend slammed the door in my face. Not single. (And my bishop was pretty mad at the family ward that had sent her records to us). In my Cincinnati ward quite a few of the so-called singles I tracked down were married, but their status hadn’t been changed by the church. The bishop had no clue they were actually married. In addition, I imagine quite a few “singles” are old widows and widowers who can’t make it to church,are in nursing homes, etc.

  13. glass ceiling: You likely know more than I do that the Church offers little to older singles, or childless couples. There is not much in the Mormon community or it’s Heaven for those without a family. I don’t think all religions end up this way. Some do provide ways to fully worship as an individual.

  14. Tim,

    I get what you are saying, and I don’t doubt that you are right. But don’t you think that many who left and got married out of the Church might have stayed and got a temple marriage if the program had been less disfunctional?

    I mean, single or not, we lost them. Single or not, the Church suffers . We gain anti-Mormons all the time to this problem.

    Shouldn’t that be important enough to want to try to fix for future generations? After all, its not like the situation could not be improved …vastly.

  15. Thank you, Bob. I agree with you. We are indeed unique in this way as far as religions go. In the US, we constitute about 2% of the populace. Half of that number are active. And we are the only Christian religion that believes that marriage in a certain way us directly tied to salvation. You would think we could fund a way to get singles together iq a way

  16. glass ceiling, retaining young single adults is a huge issue for the LDS Church – just like it is for every church in existence. As I said in my last comment, I’ve researched activity rates a bit (for a post I wrote quite a while ago on another blog), and the activity rate of YSA Mormons is not worse than that of the Protestant denominations. It’s a brutal time to be religious (especially as teenagers leave home to be on their own away from the influences of their youth), and every religion struggles with how to change that.

    Yes, it’s a serious issue in the Church – but context is important.

  17. “Shouldn’t that be important enough to want to try to fix for future generations?”

    Absolutely – which is why the Church tries so hard to find changes that will work.

  18. Ray,

    Singles over age 30 in the Church is the far bigger problem. I was not even discussing YSA. They have only a fraction of the problems that age 30+ singles have.

  19. Ray: Yet we see thousands of young single adults giving their lives for their Religion in the Middle East. I don’t have an answer.

  20. glass ceiling,

    We are indeed unique in this way as far as religions go. In the US, we constitute about 2% of the populace. . . . And we are the only Christian religion that believes that marriage in a certain way us directly tied to salvation.

    This will be the only time I leap into the single adult fray, at least on this thread. While I’m sympathetic to the cultural disconnect that singles feel in a church that focuses so strongly on marriage, and while I believe that we need to do better, I’m suspicious of claims of Mormon exceptionalism.

    We’re far from the only culture to place enormous emphasis on marriage. If you ever lived in Morningside Heights and walked across the Columbia campus just after sundown on a Saturday, you probably saw large crowds of Orthodox Jewish 20-somethings. My understanding was that a/the local synagogue organized post-Sabbath dinner groups for them, in hopes of their not-so-eventual marriage.

    Similarly, based on discussions with some Indian friends, and some interviews with Silicon Valley Indians, Indian culture places huge emphasis on marriage. In either group, singles at some point begin to feel like outsiders. And I’m not suggesting that this is good, or that such pressure in other groups excuses our failings. I am, however, suggesting that these challenges are not unique to Mormon singles.


    Yet we see thousands of young single adults giving their lives for their Religion in the Middle East.

    I’m not entirely sure what you’re referring to. I’ve seen plenty of Middle Eastern young adults (single and married) willing to give their lives for political reform, but pro-democracy protests are far different than religious martyrdom.

    But, in any event, doing justice to the struggles of unmarried adults in the Church requires a different set of tools and assumptions than does arguing about the number of Mormons in the world.

  21. Interesting post.

    Re Baseline, here’s another what-about: What about after several countries publish census results that make it clear that LDS membership stats are inflated? I took a class with Ted Lyon at BYU. Would it hurt the LDS church to be as honest as Dr. Lyon regarding the results of the missionary efforts in Chile?

    Re Common Journalistic Practice, here’s the deal: It is the LDS church itself that provides that 14 million number to the most widely-referenced almanac for this kind of statistic. Turning around and pointing out that reporters are parroting that number merely confirms that US “news” media are mostly selling PR, not journalism.

    Re It Doesn’t Matter, this argument is just another version of “In the long run we are all dead” and just as useful (i.e., not at all). The only thing that matters is what active members think, and what they think *does* matter. Looking at the officially reported LDS stats from the past few decades, it’s no mystery what the church would like its followers to think about church growth.

    The OP’s last argument is the strongest. Five Myths is a WaPo series and so contributors must choose which five to talk about. A piece about the broader attempt to sort fact from fiction where Mormonism is concerned would probably be titled The Neverending Story.

  22. Sam,

    Mormonism is unique in the idea that one must have a temple marriage in order to achieve salvation. Yes, the other major religions prefer that their members to marry others of the same faith. But the other Christian churches do not tie salvation to it, as we do. Furthermore, Catholics and Protestants enjoy very large numbers which makes probable the idea of meeting their beloved virtually anywhere….the grocery store, work, etc….

    So Mormons have a double disadvantage : low numbers with high expectations.

  23. Sam Brunson,
    I guess we see different things in the Middle East Wars. I see boys/men of the Taliban dying for religious martyrdom, you see them doing it for pro-democracy protest.
    But my point is__they have not lost their passion for, or their purpose in their religion.

  24. Chino,
    Thanks for commenting. A couple responses to your responses:

    1. Regarding the baseline, the fact that countries publish census results that disagree with official Church reports of the number of members likely means that the country and the Church are using different baselines. I would assume that the country is using self-reporting, while the Church is using baptisms. And each number has relevance, but neither is the One True Statistic. So stating that Chile and the Church use different baselines doesn’t help answer the question about what baseline(s) to use.

    2. Right. Journalists use the number that the Church provides. Which could mean one of a number of things. Maybe the journalists are so dumb that they believe whatever the Church foists on them. Maybe they’re lazy and don’t want to do any independent research. Maybe using the membership number a Church provides is common journalistic practice. Or maybe they really don’t care. (I suspect it’s a combination of the last two. Because, frankly, why would they care if there are 14 million Mormons or 4 million?)

    3. No, it’s not an eventually-we-all-die argument. It’s a scope argument. $10 million sounds like a very large number. (I’d love to have that as a net worth.) But if you’re a hedge fund manager and you advertise that you’ve got $10 million of assets under management, investors will laugh at you. I’ve seen funds where $10 million is the minimum buy-in. Likewise, the percentage of people who are members of the Church is, in the best case, way below 1%. And the difference between 4 million and 14 million members is probably less than a rounding error.

    glass ceiling,
    Right, we’ve got a unique salvific viewpoint (although I frankly think it is overstated). But that doesn’t mean that marriage is necessarily more central to our social and religious life than it is to a 20-something Orthodox Jew or an upper-caste Indian. There are stylistic differences between our focus on marriage and others’, but that doesn’t mean ours is somehow special. (And, fwiw, my Indian friends tell me that an Indian man had better marry and Indian woman—which can be hard to do when you’re in the U.S., honestly. Similarly, don’t think for a second that the pressure to marry a Mormon is more intense than the pressure for an Orthodox Jew to marry within the faith.) We’re special in some ways, but we’re not that special.

    (I need to repeat that I don’t want to downplay the problems encountered by single adults in the Church, or the isolation that they feel. I do want to suggest that such isolation and such problems aren’t unique to Mormonism, though. Frankly, being single is [edit: can be; some people probably enjoy being single] hard. I met several people in New York who were remarkably lonely for living in such a crowded city. And, like the majority of New Yorkers, most of them didn’t share my religion.)

  25. Bob,
    I’m talking about Arab Spring youth, not Taliban/al Qaeda suicide bombers. But, if you’re talking terrorists, I’d be hesitant (a) to praise their brand of violence, or (b) link it (principally, at least) to their religious convictions.

  26. Sam Brunson,
    I am not praising anyone’s violence. But I am linking some violence to religious passions. Most of the Taliban fighters are not suicide bombers.
    I will wait 5 or 10 years to discuss the Arab Spring.

  27. Here’s the deal: You could come up with about a thousand ways to count attendance at a baseball game. You could count ticket sales. You could count turnstile attendance. You could include only the people who arrived before the first pitch. You could include only the people who stayed for the final out. You could count only those who were there for both the first pitch and the final out. You could count only those who stayed for at least 9 innings of an extra-inning game. You could take an aerial photograph and count the number of people in their seats at a specified time. You could average the number of people in the seats over the duration of the game. You could try to calculate the average number of spectators in the park over the course of the game. You could count everyone who was in the ballpark at some time during the game. You could only count tickets sold before the 7th inning stretch. You could count only those who stayed at least x innings. You could count only those who self-identify as fans. You could include or exclude employees, players, umpires, or journalists.

    As it happens, baseball officially reports “paid attendance.” It’s a nice straightforward number. It doesen’t require you to find out who is a real fan or exactly when each person came or left. It doesn’t require you to make arbitrary determinations of how long you have to stay in the ballpark or in your seat to be counted. The team tells us that paid attendance is what’s being reported. Everybody knows that paid attendance is what’s being reported. Everybody knows that every ticket sale does not equal a butt in the seat. Everybody knows that every ticket sale does not equal a self-identified baseball fan. The number of fans in the seats and the number of tickets sold might both be of interest. We might want to know, given a variety of criteria, how many fans were in attendance. But it gets a little wearisome if every time official attendance is reported, the same crowd of people show up to complain about how dishonest it is to report ticket sales as official attendance, and reminding us (as if we didn’t know) that every ticket sale is not a self-identified fan in a seat.

  28. Wearisome? Really? Anyway, the situation seems more analogous to a pricing bubble and particularly the pressure that builds to avoid reporting a downturn. That baseball game analogy would work better if the official figures were still in the ballpark.

  29. I just don’t understand what’s so hard about this. If you want to know the membership of the Junior High School chess club, what is so dishonest about counting the names on the actual membership roster? If you signed up for the club and you haven’t died, graduated, resigned, or been kicked out, then you are a member.

    If you want to know the *active* membership of the chess club, then obviously that’s a subset of those on the roster. But if you count the number of members on the roster and report that as the number of members on the roster, why, pray tell, is that not a good honest count of the number of members on the roster?

    Presumably, 14.1 million people have been blessed or baptized, and the church membership office has not been notified of their death, resignation, or excommunication. They count all the people who became members of the church, deduct the people who they know are no longer living members of the church, and report this as the current number on the membership rolls. How is this not an honest reporting of the number of people on the current roster? Apparently 14.1 million people have a current membership record. If you want to discuss how many of those are active according to a given standard, then that’s fine and dandy. But the fact remains that there are 14.1 million on the roster. This isn’t rocket science.

  30. Left Field,

    I imagine that you lecture your children only in baseball terms, that you motivate tour employees only in baseball terms, and that you give talks in church in baseball terms. And if not, you should. It’s working well for you; winning friends and influencing people, and whatnot.

    So deep, penetrating, and wizened…

  31. Oh boy! More game metaphors! Do you provoke people to anger for a living, or just a hobby?
    Can you possibly imagine that others might actually be concerned about the fluidity of the numbers for other reasons than criticizing Church leadership?

    Or does it just not fit your sports mentality ….

  32. Maybe the concern lies in the fact that nonmembers accuse Church Leadership of lieing about the numbers. Maybe we are just looking for a way to answer the question. Which, painfully, you may have provided on a certain level. Maybe.

    But why you cynically shut everyone down in order to do so is beyond me.

  33. Apparently, members of your Junior High School chess club enjoy markedly lower mortality rates compared to the general population. Please understand, I’m not angry or bitter, I’m just keen to confirm a few statistics before I set aside my philosophical differences and force our kids to join up. I mean, when Dorothy Dunnett quipped that “If it weren’t for chess, I might not be here” … how was I to know the actuarial tables backed her up?

  34. Maybe the concern lies in the fact that nonmembers accuse Church Leadership of lieing about the numbers.

    That’s the thing: nonmembers don’t accuse Church leadership of lying. Why not? Principally because they don’t care. (Remember, most people who aren’t members of the Church have actual important stuff to care about.)

    But if you do care—and there certainly are reasons to care—present a better baseline and argue for it. You clearly seem to believe that members of record isn’t the appropriate number. Fair enough. I argue (pretty well, if I do say so myself) that, for several reasons, it is an appropriate number for Ms. Brooks and other journalists to cite, at least in the context of an article about the Church.

    So in what context do you object, and what would be a better measure? And, for that matter, how would one calculate the better measure? And why would one even care, other that to demonstrate that the Church is as big or small as one wants it to be?

    See, basically, if you’re arguing about numbers, but you don’t define how you determine your numbers, your argument is pointless. So take the plunge: present a better baseline and argue for it. (Note that, to effectively do so, you’re going to need to provide the context, too—like I said earlier, there is no One True Number.)

  35. Chino: come on. I assume that you’re a smart person, capable of reading in context. (Of course, if you decide to prove me wrong, that’s your prerogative.) Look at what I’m responding to.

    That is all.

  36. Yeah, I know, but I’m swamped with more important stuff at the moment, and I figured y’all could make do with a near hit. Apparently not.

    I’ll return and report. In the meantime…

    “We misdirect our energy when we respond defensively to legitimate questions and criticisms of controversial church positions. We can’t be part of civil society unless we respond candidly. The price of admission is forthrightness.” — Joanna Brooks

  37. Chino, how’s this: I will grant you that there are probably a handful of non-Mormons who care about the number of Mormons in the world, and accuse the Church of lying about that number, though I’ve never met such people, and haven’t read them, either.

    But I hold that most of such people have some sort of interest in discrediting the Church. In my personal experience, I have never encountered one person who wasn’t Mormon who cared about how many people are in the Church or who cared how many people the Church claimed were members.

    In any event, though, whether or not the non-Mormons you’re aware of have a vested interest, have any such non-Mormons who care laid out the criteria for what should count and defended it? Or have they said something to the effect of, The Mormon church is lying because 14.1 million people aren’t attending every Sunday? Because if it’s the latter, I don’t consider their criticism valid, interesting, or productive.

    In any event, good luck with your more important stuff.

  38. The price of admission is forthrightness.

    Right. And the 14.1 million number is forthright. It provides the exact information that most people expect. There is, in common usage, no apparent overlap between membership size and activity rates, or between membership size and self-identification. I get the impression that you want a different statistic. Which is fine. But don’t accuse someone of lying when the information they give you is different than the information you want and where they haven’t mislabeled it. (That is, if the Church said, We 13.5 million active members, that would likely be incorrect, and possibly a lie. But I’ve never seen the Church say—or even imply—such a thing.)

  39. Chino, it may be sometimes. But there’s an easy way out of having one’s motives questioned: one can explain his or her criteria, rather than accusing the Church of lying when it provides information.[fn1] Maybe you’ve explained your criteria for determining membership numbers elsewhere, but you certainly haven’t pointed to it or reiterated it here. So your motives certainly look like you’re trying to find a way to criticize the Church, not come to some sort of understanding.

    But please prove me wrong: I very much prefer to believe that people are interested in honest discussion rather than in ideological posturing.[fn2]

    [fn1} Yes, you’re accusing the Church of lying: viz “A piece about the broader attempt to sort fact from fiction where Mormonism is concerned would probably be titled The Neverending Story.”

    [fn2] And I hate it when I’m proven wrong about people’s not being ideologues. I was actually a sunny idealist about government until the whole debt ceiling thing, where politicians—on every side—clearly demonstrated that they were interested, not in the welfare of the country, but in their own political success. And it bugs me to give up my belief that they were in it for the greater good. Likewise, it will bug me to discover that you’re not really interested in figuring out how many Mormons there are, but rather you want to find a way to accuse the Church of lying. I’ll get over it, of course, but I’d much rather believe that you’re not just an ideologue.

  40. I’ll work something up, Sam. In the meantime, as an aside, my 20-year Brazil Campinas mission reunion is happening today and I’m feeling a bit nostalgic and testy. I won’t be there, but if I’d been in the area, it would’ve been a hoot. For what it’s worth, my participation here at T&S (and other LDS online venues) has less to do with my disaffection and mostly relates to a decades-long management dispute. I was blessed to take over a moribund branch in the middle of nowhere (aka the Brazil-Paraguay border) and we built it into something I was very proud of and it got me called to the mission office. That I found myself arguing alone in favor of real community building (that we’d proven could work in Ponta Porã) as opposed to the Potemkin village charade that was proving self-defeating in other areas, well, it convinced me that my problem was that I actually cared about outcomes rather than appearances. Frankly speaking, our exchange here reminds me of several that I had with the Area Authorities. They couldn’t accept criticism as anything other than antagonistic and I couldn’t see how the larger project of building the church could possibly succeed if we just kept making the same mistakes over and over again and refused to accept objective performance metrics.

  41. Sam,

    I have personally found myself in more than one or two conversations where the other party made such accusations about our church leadership.

    Personally, I care about the statistics because I feel that the majority of the inactive people are singles over the age of 30. And if so, I know why; and that problem seems so fixable to me. And being single myself, that is a bit maddening.

    Another reason I care is because the most common group to convert are young single mothers. They are also the first to leave as soon as they figure out that finding a spouse in the Church is far more difficult than it seemingly aught to be. Then they leave, and many become anti-Mormons…anti-missionaries. This frustrates missionary work as well as our reputation. It also makes it hard for single members to want to share the Gospel to their single non-member friends.

    I guess the numbers matter so that the active members might feel a sense of responsibility toward them. Maybe if we knew the rate of inactivity, we might begin to so something to repair it.

    Do I feel that it needs to be brought up in Conference? No. Do I feel that members should be aware through local channels? Yes.

  42. glass ceiling,
    Thank you. If I’m understanding you right, you’re not so much interested in Church membership numbers as you are in activity rates (and, more specifically, the subset of activity rates that relates to a specific subset of Church membership). Which is fair, important, and even laudable. But it is something different than Church membership numbers. (And, honestly, Church membership numbers wouldn’t help in your project.[fn1] What you need is some count of Church members who are single and older than 30. And there may be a few other criteria in there, too—for purposes of helping singles feel a valuable part of the Church, an unmarried person who quit going to Church when she was 9 probably doesn’t give us a whole lot of information about inactivity rates of singles who leave the Church because they don’t feel comfortable being single in a marriage-oriented Church.)

    [fn1] I don’t mean to use “project” disparagingly; it seemed like the most appropriate word.

  43. glass ceiling: your ‘pitch’ to Left Field, in baseball, is called ‘Chin Music’. It’s a pitch thrown high and tight to send a message to the batter__”back off!”

  44. “…my problem was that I cared about outcomes rather than appearances.”


    I share your frustration and sorrow here. The Church should not always be a “one size fits all” organization, IMO. Geography and demographic matter. And people are more complicated than a rule-book. That is what prayer and personal revelation are for.

  45. Sam, FWIW, There are problems with the reported numbers, as I’m sure you know. As was mentioned above somewhere, journalists and others get membership numbers from sources like the “The Encyclopedia of American Religions” and the “Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches.” As I understand it, both of these rely on self-reported numbers from individual churches and religious organizations — so the baselines used by each church differ substantially.

    As I understand it, the baseline that the LDS Church uses is remarkably different than most other Churches in the U.S. Where the LDS Church counts living baptized or blessed and not removed members, most other protestants count more like number of people attending on an average Sunday. Apparently they don’t keep membership records on each individual (which has its positive and negative factors) like the LDS Church does, so they are not able to count “baptized members” or its equivalent.

    As a result of different baselines, I do agree that the LDS Church’s membership claim seems overstated in comparison. We may not be the 4th or th largest in the U.S., as news reports have often stated. And I have to admit that the Church does use these comparative positions for promotion.

    Does that make these numbers a “lie”? Like Sam, I don’t think so, at least not completely. I believe the LDS Church has a scriptural obligation to focus on the numbers the way we do. When the obligation is to baptize all the world, you need to know how many you have already baptized. When the obligation is to care for members who have been baptized, you need to know who is a member so that the Church can try to look out for their spiritual welfare.

    But, given all this, I am not comfortable using the LDS Church membership numbers to compare the Church to other Churches. I don’t think it is wise to brag about which Church is larger. However, I believe that the Church PR folks do this in an attempt to get more respect in the media and in the minds of people. Perhaps that is a “lie.” But, in the religious marketplace, its a rather small lie, as these things go. It arises mainly from different baselines–different definitions of who is a member. It certainly pales in comparison to the obfuscation that Mormons are not Christian.

  46. Are there any of these points that we can agreee to?

    (1) that the number who self identify or actively participate is less than the number the church reports on its books by at least several million, depending on the criteria used?

    (2) that the church does (to the best of its knowledge) have 14.1 million members on the books?

    (3) that the number who self identify or who participate is important information in understanding church membership?

    (4) that the number of members on the books is also valid information to consider?

    (5) that the church does not claim that all 14.1 million that are on the books participate or self-identify?

    I’m happy with all of these. If there’s something we disagree on, then which is it?

  47. Chino (51), have you written somewhere about your mission experiences? Since I speak A Língua de Deus and focus some of my study on the Church in Brazil, I’d love to know more about what you experienced.

  48. Sam,

    I agree with you. The numbers need specification in order for them to be useful foe any specific demographic… which is indeed a tall order. The best I have been able to do with regard to singles over age 30 is to ask local leaders and single members across the country. The numbers that keep coming up is 80-90% inactivity in that group. Those are very sobering numbers.

  49. I suppose that my biggest concern with the 14.1 million number is that it may perpetuate an “all is well in Zion” perspective for some active members. If the number of inactives (and their demographics ) were known, the numbers would hold greater utility for us.

  50. No, Kent, I’ve never really talked with anyone about my mission experience except as an occasional aside in discussions like this. My father served in Chile, honorably and humbly, like everything else he’s ever done. I did the same in Brazil (minus the humility). I don’t want to jump into it here, but I will say that the foundational truth claims of Mormonism never really mattered much to me before I signed on and even less after I saw the good we could accomplish with or without them. In that sense, I suppose it’s ironic that I’m here arguing about statistics that I’d tend to agree don’t really matter one way or the other, except that it’s the repetition that grates. Not to go all Adorno and Benjamin on you guys, but it’s the repetition that blocks our access to any kind of meaningful redemption, which is never the revolution the true believers fear, but rather a very subtle shift in how we arrange this world of ours.

  51. Chino,
    I really wanna know what you mean in the last half of your last one. Would you be willing to re-explain it? (Thanks)

  52. Sam Brunson : I think the number 14.1 million is a number the Church needs to define__not people outside the Church. I believe it is a number the Church uses to speak both to it’s members and those outside the Church. The Church feels it is very important to state such numbers to people and is very, very good at counting.
    I don’t believe Brooks uses this number in her writing (?) She said “14 million-strong “. Which I take to mean 14 million strong Mormons. But maybe I mis-read her.

  53. In LDS terms it would probably be something like what Bushman tried to get at in a UVU panel a few years back, in response to a question about whether the Church is big or small. It might seem like a weird question (big? small? huh?) but, as Bushman noted, it’s an interesting one. How does a small church redeem this world? Sadly, I suspect it’s a question that barely makes sense to a generation that likes its triumphalism served straight up, no chaser.

  54. Chino,

    That is an excellent point, deserving of a thread of its own. Especially your last sentence. I’d hate to think of it as part of the “pride cycle.” But I tend to see it as such.

  55. The 14 million number matters because the COB’s PR department has been touting membership numbers for decades together with the claim that we are the fastest growing church in America. The press releases cite the National Council of Churches.

    The problem is that every transparent source of demographics counts many less Mormons than our organization claims members. From foreign census counts to opinion surveys in America, it is clear that a substantial number of people claimed as Mormons do no longer identify as such.

  56. Tim, my friend was from northern Kentucky, Covington to be precise. At the time we lived about 1/2 mile from the Lakeside Park, KY building and had still never heard of Mormons until I met him, not even any of the falsehoods we think are circulating. At the time we were in the Cincinnati area I attended the Lakeside Park 2nd Ward. I don’t know how or if things have changed around there, but I did hear that the mission was closed.

  57. it is clear that a substantial number of people claimed as Mormons do no longer identify as such.

    Yes, fewer people self-identify as Mormon than 14.1 million. That point has been made. And made. And made. But why is self-identification a better metric than members on the rolls? (Or, maybe better, when is self-identification a better metric than members on the rolls?) To me, that’s the interesting question. I sincerely doubt that anybody hears 14.1 million and says to herself, Wow, that’s a lot of active, practicing Mormons.

    Moreover, anybody who’s boasting about the Church’s size at 14.1 million has no sense of scope. By way of comparison, there are, as I said in the OP, over 1 billion Catholics. Wikipedia estimates that there are between 350 million and 1 billion Buddhists. Heck, there appear to be over 80 million Anglicans. So we are not big, either as a percentage of people living or in comparison with many other religions.

    So let’s acknowledge that there are fewer than 14 million people who self-identify as Mormons and fewer than 14 million who actively participate and move the discussion forward. Because the “fewer than 14 million” thing has been done and is boring and intuitive.

  58. Plus, Joanna’s point doesn’t rely on a precise number (14 million). Rather, she’s saying that a substantial number of church members live outside of the U.S. Quibbling about the 14 million number is beside the point.

  59. Rob,

    I was in the same stake, on the other side of the river. The mission has been closed down, and missionary numbers are low enough that they pulled two of the four elders from our ward, and then spread our two remaining elders out over two wards. The church there actually seems to be shrinking, as members who would otherwise move there end up moving to somewhere with a temple close by instead. Our ward’s sacrament meeting attendance dropped about 40% in three years due to lots of move-outs and very few move-ins. The other wards in the area aren’t losing nearly as many, but I’m guessing the overall number of active members is dropping.

  60. Two points:

    1. Joanna Brooks is akin to the notion that Mormons should be counted based on their cultural attachment, and that factor alone. People who claim Mormon roots whether they behave and believe or not, she argues, should be counted as Mormon.

    2. I have been hearing the assumption in comments that most LDS are, or at least should be, aware that 14.1 million is not an accurate statistic of active people. I’m not sure that is actually the case. While LDS do acknowledge the existence of an activity rate, I’m not sure that members are aware that it is as big as it really is.

    Many LDS like to relish in the belief that their church is growing and spreading so fast and through almost every country (like me 7-8 years ago). People are sometimes shocked to find that the number of self-identifying Mormons in much of Latin America (Brazil, Chile, Mexico, etc.) is only about 20-25% of the actual church baptismal record.

    Furthermore, the LDS church operates somewhat as a business, thus it likes to convey the notion that it is growing and prospering, in the hope of attracting more converts. Hence it reports, somewhat triumphantly, its statistics each year in conference.

  61. Regarding “disingenuous”: I agree it’s a useful word. However, you seem to be implying that someone (me? in my MSP article?) accused JB of disingenuity.

    It’s important to remember that when writing for a major newspaper, JB has to keep her piece concise. That means picking some details to leave out. I argued that in some of her points, her particular choices of what to say and what not to say may actually create more confusion than they resolve. However, I don’t presume to know why she made the choices she made, and, in particular, I’m not claiming any malicious intent on her part.

  62. Here’s a great Joanna Brooks quote:

    My own view is that everyone who is or has been Mormon remains a part of the Mormon story.

    I think that’s great. So cool, in fact, that Chino put it in the top of our sidebar at Main Street Plaza. I’m not sure that it would be clear to her WaPo audience that that’s what she meant by the 14.1 million figure, but I’m going to stop digging myself deeper right now because I think, in general, Joanna Brooks does a good job of public commentary on Mormonism.

  63. The linguistic construction “14 million-strong” is common in other contexts and has nothing to do with the quality of the members. It’s like skosh or ish or approximately.

  64. Maybe I’m beating a dead horse, but even one thing I don’t really see represented fully… The difference that makes the difference… Is not ACTIVITY RATES. I’m more concerned with self-identification. The two are not equivalent. I don’t care if someone never goes to church… If they consider themselves Mormon, I’m fine with their being counted that way.

    But if someone does not self-identify as Mormon, I don’t see why it’s controversial to suggest that they shouldn’t be counted among Mormons.

    Maybe we can then peripheral ask whether people who go inactive tend to stop identifying as Mormon (and in what instances do they do so?) but that’s not my concern.

    So my issue with 14.1 million is not activities. My problem with 1 bn Catholics is not activity. It’s that either church is counting –whether deliberately or not–people who definitely would not self-identify as that religion just because they have been baptized some point in their lives and haven’t subsequently formally resigned/excommunicated.

    While I am willing to grant at most people would figure out that any number for religious statistics is bound to include inactive or less active members… But I’m not sure that people would assume that reported figures also include people who no longer self-identify… Unless, of course, they are critical like me or aware of the methodological flaws like many of the people who have engaged in this conversation. If I didn’t know to suspect better, I would assume that whenever I saw current membership records, then I could at the very least count on every one in those records at least being willing to say they would identify as a member of that organization.

    In any case that I feel I can’t make this assumption, it’s usually because I feel their records are outdated or their recordkeeping function is inferior to begin with.

  65. chanson (79), I like Johanna’s quote as you listed it, and I was surprised when you said “Chino put it in the top of our sidebar at Main Street Plaza.” I assume you both realize that this definition basically puts Mormons at something close to the 14 million mark, right? Since it doesn’t require self-identification, and even includes those who once were LDS but have had their names removed from Church records, the number could theoretically even be higher than 14.1 million!!

    Clearly a lot depends on what you are using the number to say. IMO, the only problem comes when the 14.1 million is compared to the membership of other religious organizations who count members differently. It then becomes a comparison of apples and oranges.

  66. I agree that the number who self-identify would be important information. But it would be a difficult number for the church to get hard numbers on. People don’t typically fire off a letter to 50 East North Temple to keep the membership department appraised of their status. And self-identification itself can be rather nebulous. I presume that quite a few people consider themselves as “kindasorta Mormons” and may self-identify in some circumstances but not others. Keeping track of the fluctuating status of the 14 million on the records would be a difficult task. We have trouble just keeping their addresses current.

  67. 84,

    It would be less of a number for the church to get and more of a number for a general census to get.

    …unfortunately, national censuses don’t necessarily track religious identification and there are other problems with using those statistics, I guess.

    I am absolutely unconcerned about the fluctuating identity status of people, however. It’s not like real-time data is a priority even if you’re just keeping track of baptisms.

  68. Kent #83: Being a part of the Mormon story is quite different than being a member of record. Harold Bloom, for example, is part of the Mormon story, but I don’t believe there is anyway that he would like to be counted among the 14 M.

  69. Oh, I agree, Parker. As I said above (83), “Clearly a lot depends on what you are using the number to say.”

    Johanna’s definition that chanson (79) quoted is clearly NOT members of record.

  70. Kent- I’m all for using the loosest, most expansive definition of “Mormon” or “LDS” except when it comes to insisting on counting bogus baptisms. It makes the church look either conniving or feeble (“oh, but it’s just too hard to estimate, whine, whine…” *eyeroll*). Fix the South American numbers. They’re ridiculously inflated. And with the attention being paid to all things Mormon these days, I’d suggest fixing them before Nate Silver gets asked to look into them for a special report for the NYT. Otterson and others are setting themselves up to have their candor questioned. It’s what happens when a church with leadership that is 99% rich, white and American sings the Internationale a little too loudly.

  71. Apologies to the other Brad. Sorry my being born made it such a popular name. I’ll go by Bradley.

  72. Chino,

    I’m all for using the loosest, most expansive definition of “Mormon” or “LDS” except when it comes to insisting on counting bogus baptisms.

    There’s nothing here I can disagree with. I do have two questions, though: first, what is the scale of these baseball baptisms? (They weren’t happening—at least not in the part of Brazil I served my mission in—when I was a missionary.) Second, as a practical matter, how would the Church go about determining which baptisms were bogus?

    I mean these questions sincerely: I have no idea if we’re talking hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands, and, given that our retention rate isn’t terribly good, I don’t know how one at the institutional level would figure out which were real baptisms where the person just stopped coming and which were bogus baptisms where the person never knew she was coming in the first place.

  73. I had a friend ask me if he could join the Church. I told him we were full but I would call him as soon as a member died.

  74. Sam- As a practical matter, how hard would it be to survey temple, mission and stake presidents in South America to get their view? Any determination is gonna be a rough estimate, but somehow LDS congregations still manage to get tithing wired to the right place each Sunday, and I’m guessing somebody could figure out a way to find out if all those missing Mormons are really living until 110.

    As far as Chile is concerned, I’ve mentioned Dr. Ted Lyon (BYU Professor, Mission President, MTC President, Santiago Temple president) and his view can be found online.

    As far as Brazil is concerned, apparently we all served there, and if what we care about is “getting it right” rather than gamesmanship, how about dropping the feigned helplessness? It’s unfair to the Brazilian membership that we treat them like chits in our little game and undeserving of the same blessings the Utah saints enjoy.

    Google “Cities in Latin America with the most inhabitants without an LDS temple” … I’ll post the top three:

    Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – 10 stakes – no temple
    Belo Horizonte, Brazil – 5 stakes – no temple
    Brasília, Brazil – 5 stakes – no temple

    This is what used to drive me nuts. We don’t do our job right and then we explain away our accountability by shifting blame onto the locals when we’re not even close to affording them the same opportunities as North American members.

    Do you know what retention would be in North American units if we were baptizing 5-10 new folks per month in each unit? After a few years of that, the local leadership would be so burned out and jaded by the influx, it’d be a miracle if the mishies ever got fed. If you’re going to operate at that level of intake, you’ve got to face the constraints that the all-volunteer model places on local leadership and innovate.

    Instead, what I heard was a lot of blame gaming while Assembléia de Deus and other crente outfits ate our lunch.

  75. Chino,

    As a practical matter, how hard would it be to survey temple, mission and stake presidents in South America to get their view?

    Assuming the bogus baptisms are largely a thing of the past (which, based on anecdotal information from my own mission, I’d say is generally true), I’m not sure how helpful that would be. Mission presidents turn over every three years, so they’d have very little knowledge of what happened several mission presidents earlier. Ditto temple presidents. I actually had little or no contact with stake presidents on my mission, but I think I only had one bishop who’d been a member of the Church for more than, say, 10 years, so bishops probably wouldn’t have a lot of first-hand knowledge, either.

    That’s not to say that such a survey would be a bad thing, but I don’t know that it would take us much closer to an accurate number than what we use now. (And getting tithing to the bank isn’t perhaps the best comparison: that requires very little work, frankly, and no estimation at all.)

    It’s a total tangent but, since there are only about 7 comments left before we reach the magic 100, I’ll also say that I’m not sure what you mean by “feigned helplessness.”

  76. “Feigned helplessness” is probably harsh but it’s what I felt the reaction was from the North American leadership I spoke with during my mission whenever real problems were mentioned. Retention no good? Must be a lack of stick-to-it-iveness on the part of the locals. Local congregations run on a caste system? Must be a lack of egalitarian spirit on the part of the locals. Wash rinse repeat.

    This discussion to me is symptomatic of the problem. We all know the 14.1M figure is worthless. Why even spend time defending its use? It’s not the number, it’s the American and Mormon exceptionalism that defends the number that’s really the problem.

  77. Good luck with that, Rob. Sam, somebody else is gonna have to get you to 100. This is why I don’t talk about Brazil, it’s no good for my blood pressure. If you can’t measure it, how the heck are you gonna manage it? But apparently it’s just all too unfathomable. Or something. If you’ve created a culture in which failure is unthinkable (or at least, unspeakable), your long-term success is unlikely.

    C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute. * É pior que um crime; é um erro.

  78. One thing is clear:

    As the world gets worse, the more identifiable these 14.1 million will be.

  79. I suspect that it’s social media that will ultimately settle this. The official LDS Facebook page has 500K “likes” and the official LDS (Brazil) Facebook page has 4K. Whether it’s Facebook or YouTube or Reddit or wherever, eventually we’ll be able to look at the level of online interest and make useful guesses about how far off the official stats really are.

  80. Glass ceiling,

    Please tell me the two ways you think it could be taken.

    The way I intended it is: if non-negligible portion of the 14.1m doesn’t self-identify as Mormon, then who’s to say that they wouldn’t be functionally indistinguishable from the general population? If you want to show the special nature of Mormons, then overcounting becomes quite a problem because it dilutes that distinction.

  81. Andrew,

    What I meant was that people who do not value their baptism may suddenly reverse their stance if things get worse in the world.

    Your response could mean 1) their response would be less than genuine, or 2) that it would not matter whether they were or not because them returning would have no claim on the official number we have today.

  82. re 104/105,

    yeah, I totally did not get either of those interpretations. I’m not even sure what you just said there.

    I don’t get how you would say, “people who do not value their baptism may suddenly reverse their stance if things get worse in the world.” But maybe that’s because I think that many of the people “who do not value their baptism” are in such a state for reasons that are completely independent of the state of the world.

  83. Okay, everyone, thanks for the conversation and, in general, for staying civil in spite of disagreements. I’m closing the comments now, not because the thread has degenerated into a hopeless mess, but in order for it not to do so.

Comments are closed.