January 30, 2013

Mormons demographics on the other side of the big puddle, by Pavol Kosnac

In Europe, Mormons are new religious movement par excellence – they are new to the area, their numbers are very small, they have no social respectability, their doctrines are considered strange and exotic [...], and all of these characteristics place them on the same level as other small groups that are trying to settle in the European area

Mormons demographics on the other side of the big puddle

By Pavol Kosnac, Oxford University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 30 January 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Ryan Cragun on Mormonism, Growth and Decline (28 January 2013).

As Professor Cragun suggests in his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Mormonism in USA has, from the viewpoint of sociology, undergone a process of socialization. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints are generally on the edge, and probably even within,  wider public acceptance. They are considered to be a truly American religion; they have been there for some 180 years, which is longer than many Christian evangelical groups, which nowadays consist  largely of Pentecostals (the youngest members of the evangelical family), and they are considered to be conservative, defenders of family values, and an important part of the Republican voting base. However, the same factors that may have granted Mormons respectability in USA, may prevent them from gaining it elsewhere any time soon. I will focus on Europe, since this is area in which I have most practical experience in general, and particularly with Latter-Day Saints.

In Europe, LDS members are still mostly well known for one characteristic, which has not been a valid stereotype for about 120 years – that is, that they engage in polygamy. People, especially in non-English speaking countries, do not yet recognise their typical uniform – white shirt, dark trousers, name badge –  and often mix them up with Jehovah´s Witnesses, mostly because they, same as Mormon missionaries, always move in pairs and want to talk about Jesus, and partially – especially in areas east  of Germany – because Jehovah´s Witnesses are generally the only contextually well-known religious movement that does this kind of mission (stopping people on street, house to house mission). This small mistake can damage their cause before they even speak to someone. Besides some anti-American sentiment in parts of European society, I would agree with some of the missionaries I have talked to, who said that the America-centric nature of their message is somehow damaging for their mission on several levels. Many people, who would possibly be interested in a new version of the Christian message, when told that Jesus will come to Salt Lake City, or that Lehi’s family (from the biblical tribe of  Manasseh) floated to America to build the true Christianity there, consider these details too much to bear, break contact and stop coming to the meetings.

The problem with applying terms like ‘new religious movements’ to movements that are approaching 200 years of existence is obvious, even if the term is not only descriptive of age. Yet, however disputable this may be in the Americas, it is not in Europe. In Europe, Mormons are new religious movement par excellence – they are new to the area, their numbers are very small, they have no social respectability, their doctrines are considered strange and exotic (for other Christians absolutely heretical), and all of these characteristics place them on the same level as other small groups that are trying to settle in the European area – from their American Pentecostal compatriots to new and ‘westernized’ types of far-east inspired spiritual groups

I would agree with Professor Cragun that most people in Europe, as in the US, who start to become more interested in Mormonism and consider entering it, are of lower socio-economic standing, especially in new Mormon mission areas. My personal experiences relate to Prague and Bratislava, where this is true for at least 70% of new members. Another constituency of members that you can meet at regular Sunday gatherings are students and foreigners, a large number of whom do not speak language of their country of residence very well and/or do not have another community there. In these cases, the Mormon community – traditionally very welcoming – may attract them as a friendly (if small) social group, where they can belong.

To disagree with Professor Cragun, however,  I would question some of the reasons which he considers important factors influencing the low membership retention rate: namely,  sexual conservatism, such as opposing pre-marital sex, cohabitation, and restricting pornography and practiced homosexuality. Mormons are not particularly special in these requirements; the same rules can be found in the most conservative of Protestant or Catholic groups, many of whom have very high retention rates.  If there is not another specific which makes conservative sexual ethics somehow more problematic for members of the LDS church, I would be quite sceptical of the influence of this factor upon membership retention.

On the other hand, I would certainly agree with the problems surrounding counting new members  by baptism. During my field research in Bratislava, it appear to me that becoming a member is not a very complicated process, with much less involved than I would have expected after having the official church regulations for membership explained to me by several ex-members. It seemed to me to be possible to be interested in the idea of converting, or to only enjoy the very nice and welcoming social atmosphere, yet leave after several months, having been baptised during that time. If what Professor Cragun said is true, which I have no reason to doubt, that “once a Mormon, until the age of 110 a Mormon“, then their membership numbers may be very highly inflated, and not only in USA, but also in Europe, where Mormon groups seem to have very small numbers indeed.

Success of LDS missionaries in converting Europeans is generally very small. The only large official numbers are in the United Kingdom – where, according to an LDS webpage, it has 188 000 members. Problems with these number will probably be same as problems with US numbers. Other states in Western Europe have several tens of thousands, in other parts of Europe it is from several thousand to several hundred. In some western European countries,  Mormon missionaries have been active for more than 150 years (in Britain, for example, they have been since1837). In terms of mere numbers, in comparison to younger groups who come from the USA, like Jehovah´s Witnesses or Assemblies of God, this has not been a  very successful mission.

Finally, there may be also other local specifics that inflate the numbers, for example, in Slovak case, the “phantom Mormons“. The phenomenon which I call ”phantom membership“ happened in Slovakia´s last national census in 2011, where 972 people identified themselves as Mormons. This was an unbelievable number, since I know the situation of Mormons in Slovakia very well. I have never seen more than 50 practicing Mormons in their biggest Slovak group, and when I talked to several Slovak missionaries and representatives, their estimates of the number of Mormons in Slovakia were never higher than 300, and they also suggested that the results from census were very surprising for them also. I think that a possible explanation might be that, because Mormons are little known in Slovak environment, and their official name is generally unknown, when they were listed in the census options (for first time in Slovak history), many non-denominational Christians who were not sure what box to tick, and may not have wanted to tick the “Other“ box, saw “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints“ and ticked the box with ”Church of Jesus Christ“, filtering out the rest of the name since they had no idea what it meant means, but it sounded about right (no other registered church in Slovakia has “Jesus Christ” in its name). It is possible that this hypothesis is incorrect, but if not it would explain those almost 700 invisible Mormons, which even the most optimistic church officials never knew they “had”.

In summary, we can conclude, that official LDS estimates of Mormon demography are strongly inflated in Europe , just as in the Americas. Many of the advantages that Mormons have in the USA because of their unique “American-ness” may become more of a burden in Europe, and because of this their retention rate may be worse in Europe than in the USA. One way or another, it is difficult to imagine how LDS Church officials could consider the Mormon mission to Europe a success.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Pavol Kosnac completed his B.A. and M.A. in Religious Studies at Comenius University in Bratislava, and studies of political philosophy, jurisprudence and ethics at Collegium of Anton Neuwirth. He is currently studying for a MSt. In the Study of Religion at Oxford University and applying for DPhil studies. His focus is mainly on the study of new religiosity, new religious movements and non-religiosity in (but not exclusively) central and eastern Europe, and the methodology of research in these categories in general.

 

References:

LDS official membership information by country:
http://www.ldschurchnews.com/almanac/1/Almanac.html, accessed 12.1.2013

Information on Slovak national poll from Slovak statistical Institute:
http://portal.statistics.sk/files/tab-14.pdf

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