The Early Church, Social Networks, and Conversion

One of the core tenets of modern Latter-day Saint missionary strategy is that missionary work through members’ friends and family is much more efficient than cold-calling approaches like knocking on doors. This approach has its roots in the Rodney Stark hypothesis that religious movements largely grow through networks, and that even apparent cases of mass conversions through teaching such as the early Latter-day Saint British missions or the Day of Pentecost were probably more network-driven than they appear at first glance. 

(A non-sequitur sidebar about Stark; I had the privilege of being maybe the last postdoc or graduate student who had the chance to work with Stark, although it ended up being limited to a few meetings. Also, one of the ironies of Stark’s theory is that, if I’m remembering correctly, according to Armand Mauss’ intellectual autobiography Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport, Stark’s own parents converted to the Church through tracting, but I read the book a while ago, don’t have a copy on hand, and Google Books doesn’t appear to be allowing the search option for that book, so somebody will have to confirm). 

The Church’s in-house numbers do indeed show that a discussion through a member is much more effective than a discussion from cold-calling (source, my Mission President), and for the most part I agree with the Stark hypothesis. However, all of the work on this has looked at measures of single ties, nobody has made a complete graph of network ties of an early New Religious Movement, so for a paper I wrote years ago (and will eventually get around to publishing when kids are older, etc.) I mapped out the networks of who knew who before conversion in the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (I also mapped out the the Koresh Branch Davidians, which involved interviewing one of the survivors of Waco, as well as US Unificationists, the Seekers, and the Process; I also tried to contact every 1st generation, new, small religious movement in Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions, and realized there aren’t as many “cults” out in the desert as popular imagination would have us believe, but here I will limit the discussion to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Additionally,  I got access to a very helpful database kept by the Kirtland missionaries (with due thanks to Karl Anderson) that connected early membership records to primary source documents about conversion stories.  

The listing of early members is from Platt’s 1989 articleThe graph is too big to fit as an image in the body of the post, so the hyperlink is here, although the version without names is pasted above. 

If I got any particulars wrong let me know, but for the most part this does provide support for the Stark hypothesis: often people come into religion in clusters. In this case, the early Church essentially consisted of the Smith/Rockwell cluster, the Whitmer cluster, the Knight cluster, and the Polly cluster, with a few isolated individuals. 

However, cold-calling isn’t completely useless (long afternoons knocking doors in the hot Spanish sun notwithstanding), as it occasionally allows the establishment of beachhead nodes in other networks, which are useful when current networks have already been proselytized. For example, the Church went from being essentially a collection of a few families to a more established religious organization because Sidney Rigdon’s conversion brought in his congregation, and Sidney Rigdon was connected to the Church through Parley P. Pratt, who was an “isolated node,” a convert not previously connected to any members. (Also, of the 166 Kirtland members for which there was enough information to know whether they were introduced to the Church via cold-calling/materials or networks, about half [47%] indicated in the primary sources that they had heard about the Church through Church missionaries or materials, although in some cases the record is unclear whether they may have known other members beforehand.) So knocking on random doors does occasionally pay off in ways that working through networks doesn’t. 

Organizational behavior research has suggested that with membership there’s often a recruitment/retention tradeoff. Having a lot of non-member friends allows for more missionary opportunities, but it also makes it more likely that people leave the Church (although, in the Mormon corridor context, I wonder if the fact that people who know a lot of members also know a lot of ex-members, who are forming their own particular cultures and communities in Latter-day Saint heavy areas, might obviate that retention advantage)

As much as we’d like to think the one member in their family and community can keep the faith in the middle of Timbuktu, it’s hard and community matters. On the other extreme end of this continuum are groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Amish who have very intense in-group cohesion, but it comes at a cost of being able to reach into other networks because all their friends are members of the faith. With the Church we have a good mix. Some people thrive in circumstances where they’re the only member in their non-Church networks, and some people enjoy being in the Mormon Corridor, to each their own, and there are benefits to the institutional Church for both. 



16 comments for “The Early Church, Social Networks, and Conversion

  1. Paste this into the front cover of “Preach My Gospel.” There are real implications here for missionaries today. Like:

    – They visit new and less active members and part-member families because they’re the people whose networks include lots of nonmembers.
    – They sometimes contact people in ways with low percentages of success in order to establish a new beachhead.
    – Visits to established member families are somewhere in between, but more likely to result in a nice meal and a spiritual thought than in contact with a potentially interested person to teach.

    And it seems like in each of these cases, the optimal approach would be somewhat different.

  2. There will likely be opportunities to continue this kind of network analysis in the future. FamilySearch announced this week that it has brought together “nine collections of early Church records into one discovery experience,” which is being called “Journey of Faith.” These include missionary, migrant, pioneer, and Nauvoo databases. Currently the platform is designed to reveal genealogical relationships, but perhaps with some tweaking the social ties between individuals could also be traced.

  3. In reading your post, It came to mind that Bart D. Ehrman in his book “the Triumph of Christianity” also quotes Rodney Stark’s work to show how Christianity was able to grow to the large percentage that it had become at the time of Constantine and Dr. Ehrman also used the LDS churches growth as a modern example.

  4. The current missionary program is a disaster. There are few successes in the developed world. Part of this is the fault of the PR dep’t, the lawyers (KM in particular), and the BYUs. The constant barrage of bad news concerning the Church is a serious problem. Continually bugging the same members trying to get referrals is often annoying, and frequently counterproductive.

    In the developing world, there have been successes. But retention rates are very low. More needs to be done to help the members.

    I would suggest that the Church missionary program short-term and probably long-term look to service (humanitarian type) with no strings attached. The Church needs to improve it’s seriously ailing image. And do a complete review of the missionary program.

    Trying to put bandaids on a seriously wounded program is not a great idea.

  5. In my undergrad sociology of religion courses, depending upon the professor, Rod Stark was either lauded for his objectivity or derided as having an ax to grind as a result of his childhood exposure to Mormonism. Those early strong, intense, networks were vital to the growth of a new religious movement. But they can burn out quickly (although, those networks have persisted in having an outsized influence in producing leadership). There’s a middle ground between leveraging close-knit networks and knocking on doors. Networks with weak ties allow for easily breaching religious overtures without the high cost of damaging close relationships (although most of the research from this perspective draws on job searching). This seems to be where much missionary work is focused now, through social networks. The jury is still out on the retention of converts who join as a result of these networks.

  6. rogerdhansen,

    Going strictly by the scriptures missionary programs, with rare exceptions, have been “disasters” in every age–that is, if we judge them strictly by conversion and retention rates.

  7. @Jonathan: I like that trichotomy. 

    @Sterling: Thanks for the heads up! That could be quite useful. The key here  is enough primary source documentation that we can get information on their conversion story. (One project I’ve eventually wanted to get to is to do is a primary source compilation of early Latter-day Saint conversion stories–a lot of the work has already been done). There’s a Nauvoo Project at BYU that’s trying to document every Nauvoo member, but I was told a few years back that it’ll be a while before it’s comprehensive. In terms of networks, when I did this research it seemed that once Sidney Rigdon came into the picture the networks exploded far beyond the ability to document them; just looking at the first hundred or so members made the network documentation much more tractable, but with the resource you note maybe scholars can push it to, say, the first 150-200 or so. 

    Raymond Dunn: I wouldn’t have thought that Ehrman would be a Stark quoter (as noted, Stark tends to be controversial in some circles, and I think some biblical studies folks may have taken umbrage at this coming in and making sweeping social claims about the early Christian Church with nary a Greek class under his belt, but if the hypothesis makes sense it makes sense). 

    rogerdhansen: If somebody can show me a religious organization that is thriving in a developed world context I think there’s a case to be made that we should compare/contrast to see if there’s a way we can improve (within the parameters of orthodoxy, but same may disagree), but in general I think religion, whether liberal or conservative, is hosed in the developed world (which didn’t exactly make me optimistic ollie on my mission in Spain). But demographically the developed world is in turn hosed, so in terms of souls saved this isn’t as big of a problem as it seems (but it will affect our $100 billion fund!)

    A Turtle Named Mack: Interesting, I didn’t consider how the “strength of weak ties” research might play into this, but it seems relevant. I know for myself broaching religious topics is much more nerve-wracking for closer associates than the local librarian I have to pay a lot of money to every couple of months for books my kids destroyed. 

  8. Is it worth looking at new member networks in the developed world? e.g. I was tracted out in 1981 in Australia, contacted my onagain/offagain girlfriend at the time, she joined and later married in the temple (not to me) and had a heap of kids, many of whom went on missions. Her best friend joined and went on a mission and later married in the Temple and also gave birth to a tribe of her own. Oh, and one of her brothers joined, and repeated the Temple/tribe scenario. So quite a big cluster and sub-clusters have developed. At least one of the brothers daughters has also served a mission, and is now engaged to the son of a family who live in the area that my wife and I are currently serving in. And then there are no doubt clusters that have developed from all these kids who have served missions. Not forgetting my own daughter who served a mission too and maybe has some clusters of her own growing somewhere.

  9. @seniorhalf: That’s the tracting dream! Contemporary networks would be interesting to analyze; it would be hard to delimit where one begins and end, but also hard because bridges between clusters have passed away or otherwise gone missing and all that information is list, but it seems like it’d be doable on a small scale. I do wonder if, in today’s more individualized, fragmented world (an assumption of mine, but no numbers to support), our networks are just smaller.

  10. If conversions are “hosed” in the developed world, let’s letup on the proselytizing. We are wasting the “best-2-years” of our youth. The leaders should consider a bigger emphasis on service. The Church could use some good publicity.

    In the developing world, the Church is padding it’s membership records by converting Africans and South Americans. But retention is abysmal. The missionary program needs a complete reevaluation. So we have a Church membership growth rate that is stagnating. Anyone for change? Milking the members for referrals has been around forever. Yawn.

  11. Proposal:
    1. Send 18yr olds on service missions. They should be taught how to preach the gospel as well, as any service opportunity can be connected to the teachings of Jesus, and they should take the opportunity to testify and teach of Jesus with their service.
    2. Call high council members to proselytizing missions. They have more experience with life, sin, regret, repentance, true testimony (knowledge) of the gospel. It’s easier than ever to get on a plane, be gone for 6 months, and back to have it not be such a major life and family disruption.

    If a high council member can’t leave his job and family, then we really have squandered the inheritance that the early saints of the restoration sacrificed for. Somehow they could do it when they had less — is our excuse that we really can’t afford to do it when we have more?

  12. @sute
    It’s not really the subject of Stephen C’s post so I’ll be brief. My wife and I are currently serving as a senior couple away from home for 18 months. The whole process is very difficult – from being able to arrange affairs at home so you can get away, to having things happen back home (like my only sibling having stage 4 cancer), to trying to work with a companion that you have never really “worked” with before (and no chance of getting a new companion next transfer :) It’s hard! But you are right. Our “more experience with life, sin, regret, repentance, true testimony (knowledge) of the gospel” has helped in our first 4 months to bring at least one person back to Church and one “friend” who was not progressing being taught by the young Elders, to now wanting to be baptized and confirmed. And a lot more good works besides that.

  13. Following on sute’s and seniorhalf’s comments, sute’s idea is to send out only the husband, leaving the wife at home dealing with all the work there. That would be hard too, in all the ways that we’ve read about in the stories from 111 years ago, but if wards and quorums can’t help the spouse at home manage for a year, what of substance can they do?

    My current case, similar to what many deal with from time to time, is that I have spent 5 days with my wife out of the last 31. First was time helping a daughter with her first baby, which stretched out when the son-in-law contracted COVID-19 a couple days before my wife would have returned home, and he went to a friend’s house to quarantine and keep infectious disease away from his new-born daughter. Days after my wife’s return she was off for round-the-clock care of a dying aunt. I don’t think I will see her before September 7. In the meantime, the two youngest have school starting up soon, and I am here for that. I was talking Sunday with another member of my quorum whose wife has similarly been gone a month, and he is planning an anniversary get-away for her soon. Many have these situations at some point.

    Care of our families is a complication to sute’s idea, though not all that much more complicated than it is for the lives we are living already. Devotion to careers and financial security is our real hang-up keeping 35- or 50-year-old fathers from preaching the gospel abroad for a year as our predecessors did a dozen decades ago.

    Serving as a missionary used to be a mature undertaking, and the youth called to do it were laboring alongside grown men. It is hard to hold to that idea now that the young missionaries have been separated from older ones for a few generations.

  14. Yes, I hope the tangent isn’t minded too much. The issue of missionary results ought to be considered. And I agree that clearly this modern world is in need of some drastically different. Obviously times have changed, but the restoration was built on the backs of fathers leaving the home, and mothers holding down the resulting vacuum at home, shouldering a more difficult and silent burden on their own. Do we believe the faith they possessed was not a direct result of said sacrifices?

    Where needed, pay the bills with stock sales. Send 10,000+ out into the field from all across the world. There WILL be sacrifices and ramifications in the family. We can have faith about what the old hymn says about sacrifice brings forth the…litany of reasons why it’s not fair or the blessings of heaven?

    Or we can say it’s a cost too great shoulder, and avert our eyes from ever making contact with the prior generation that lost parents, children, siblings, and appendages alike when they answered the call.

    I’m not saying we ought to institute the law of sacrifice just to make hardship (by sometimes it seems like that’s what God exactly wanted to do with mortality), but that clearly we have some stagnation in the church and a real ever increasing need for the gospel of repentance in the world.

  15. I agree that we should be willing to make those kinds of sacrifices for the Kingdom. Even so, the world is different today–and the challenges we’re faced with are very different than they were 150 years ago. IMO, we need fathers and mothers at home more than ever before–both of them protecting and raising their children together. Without more solidarity in our homes and families the Kingdom cannot prevail and the establishment of Zion will be forever beyond the horizon–even if the church’s growth rate were to improve by a few points.

  16. If the church wanted more converts and a better experience for missionaries they should have all the missionaries do service 40 hr per week. Plenty of time to teach some discussions after that. The goal for my mission in Nicaragua was to teach 20 discussions a week. And to baptize every week. That’s like 10-25 hours of teaching. All that wasted time finding and we almost never taught that many discussions. The best areas I had were where we had significant service activities or other roles in the church – I was an auditor for a while, in a musical quartet for 3-4 months, and in branch and district presidencies. I think that would strength the networks of the church better too.

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