Growth and Conversion

An overview of how Mormonism became an international, multicultural church and some of the inherent tensions that came with such growth.

Greg Prince
Greg Prince is the author of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and a book on the Mormon priesthood.

From its earliest days, there had been an injunctive to the church: Proselytize; spread the message. But in the years prior to David O. McKay, we had a succession of events that limited that goal. The Great Depression limited the financial capability of missionaries to go out. World War II had restrictions because everybody was in the draft. Just as it looked [like] we could ramp things up again, the Korean War broke out, and again we had restrictions on the number of missionaries that we could send out.

Finally by the mid-1950s those restrictions were lifted, and now you have David O. McKay saying: "Not only are we going to increase our missionary force in terms of full-time young missionaries; I want every member of the church to become a missionary. Where you are, spread the word." As a result the number of missionaries multiplied severalfold. The number of convert baptisms multiplied even more so because he injected that new spirit into what they were doing. He called younger, dynamic, successful businessmen to be mission presidents rather than retired men. ... And in some cases, the results were electrifying. It established the church as a worldwide presence where prior to that it had been a Great Basin institution. ...

We [now] have more Mormons outside of the United States than inside the United States. It took well over a century for that to happen. We will soon see a time when Spanish is the most prevalent language within the church, and yet the hierarchy particularly in the top levels is still essentially an Anglo hierarchy. ... Trying to make Mormonism work in, first of all, non-American cultures and then -- a further step -- non-Christian cultures has proved to be very difficult. One size does not fit all. It was a wrenching transition to take a Great Basin church and even make it an American church. Now to make it a multinational, multicultural church is taking the best efforts and best minds we've got, and it's still difficult, and we're still not there.

Kathleen Flake
Kathleen Flake is a religious historian and author of The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.

... The story has to be one of internationalization and how [Mormons] managed to take what had been considered a very American church abroad to places that had nothing in common with America besides a basic humanity, and to not only to find a foothold there, but to aggregate large numbers of believers.

... They conquered Latin America in the '70s; they went to Asia in the '80s; they went to Africa in the '90s. Thousands of people have joined this church in areas that one could never have imagined -- Mongolia, Nigeria. To me it appears to be a rather unimpeded march around the world. Maybe it hit some speed bumps, but you just don't see it slowing down, and you see it driving into neighborhoods you never imagined it reaching and appealing to.

It seems to me that increasingly calling Mormonism an American religion is a stereotype and that you have to add that to the list of American stereotypes about Mormonism.

What do you think of its reach?

I got a master's in liturgical studies from Catholic University, and as I studied 2,000 years of Catholicism's missionary efforts from the point of view of their liturgy, it was only then that I realized how lightly Mormonism travels, how little it takes to create a Mormon congregation and sustain it, because remember, it's lay leadership. Lay leadership is one of the untold stories of this church. If you want to know how it travels and how it roots to indigenous cultures, you have to look at the extent to which indigenous peoples are given control of local worship.

So all this talk about hierarchy and control and power and making people do things misses this point that leadership in Mongolia is Mongolian. And yes, Salt Lake City will say: "Tithings are 10 percent. You can't charge 5 percent; you can't charge 20 percent." But the other story of 20th-century Mormonism that doesn't get told is the extent to which they do not feel in control. They're perceived to be this juggernaut of organization, but internally, my guess is they have all their fingers in the dike. ...

[So growth is creating tensions?]

Growth creates a number of tensions within Mormonism, some of them obvious -- doctrinal clarity and purity of practice and a sacramental church. But there are certain values that get tested by growth; for example, economic values. One of their core values is if you can't be equal in temporal things, you cannot be equal in spiritual things, and so they're going into parts of the world where economic equality with North America faces them with an enormous challenge.

Ken Verdoia
Ken Verdoia is a Utah historian and has made several documentaries about the Mormons.

... When you look at how Mormons were perceived [when they gave up polygamy in 1890], and then you look 100 years later, it's almost dizzying to me. ...

How was that brought about? First they ended the process of gathering uniquely in one spot, and the church in the early 20th century takes on this global view: We will reach out to the world, and people that we bring to the church need not leave their homelands; they don't have to gather in Zion, in Utah. ... That's a profound change, because that starts establishing the Mormon Church as being global in its interests rather than isolated and very and uniquely North American-oriented.

The second thing [is that] the church in the early 20th century embraces the American experience. ... In the 1860s, not a single member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints enlisted to serve on the battlefronts of the Civil War. There was no Union volunteer group or Confederate volunteer group that was formed in the Utah Territory that marched off to the battlefields of the Civil War. In World War II the Latter-day Saint enlistment rate was extraordinarily high.

There is a barometer of the embracing of the American experience and putting yourself so wholly engaged in it that you're willing to send your young men in defense of the very principles of the nation. It shows you just how dramatic that change is over a relatively short period of time, less than 80 years. That's a complete evolution. ...