Mormonism, Growth and Decline

Mormonism – or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) – exploded onto the scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the United States of America, and has courted controversy ever since. From the recent upsurge in worldwide visibility of Mormonism due to the widespread attention given to the religious identity of Mitt Romney (the Republican Candidate in the 2012 US Presidential elections), to the huge success of the Southpark creators’ hit musical The Book of Mormon, there is no shortage of ill-informed opinion surrounding this group. Unsurprisingly, the academic study of religion has its own questions about Mormonism: can it be described as a New Religious Movement? Is there a unified phenomenon which can be classified as Mormonism? Is Mormonism to be considered as a form of Christianity? This week, Chris is joined by Ryan Cragun – Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida – to discuss not only these conceptual issues, but issues relating specifically to quantitative research, Mormon demographics, and the worldwide growth and decline of the LDS Church.

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What numbers should a quantitative scholar use when ‘counting’ Mormonism? Who does the categorization? Is Mormonism outside of the US different? In what ways? And what about Mormonism in the ‘heartland’ of Utah? These are just some of the questions which come up in the interview, and Professor Cragun provides a great introduction not only to Mormonism and quantitative research, but also to Mormon growth and decline in the context of the secularization thesis, and to the intricate relationships and correlations which can be observed between LDS membership and factors such as gender, employment, education, and ethnicity.

A number of papers are referred to in this interview, including Comparing the Geographic Distributions and Growth of Mormons, Adventists, and Witnesses, The Secular Transition: The Worldwide Growth of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists, and The Price of Free Inquiry in Mormonism, all of which can be accessed on Ryan’s personal website. Ryan Cragun is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida. He is author and co-author of many peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of Contemporary Relgiion, Sociology of Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and more, and is the co-author (with Rick Phillips) of Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election Year Guide to Mitt Romney’s Religion (2012), and author of the forthcoming What You Don’t Know About Religion (but Should).

This interview was recorded in the business centre at the Lord Elgin Hotel, Ottawa during the Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts Conference. We are grateful to everyone who facilitated the recording in any way.

7 replies
  1. Avatar
    Michael Peterson says:

    I certainly agree with your introduction that there is “no shortage of ill-informed opinion surrounding this group” and feel that I am a little better-informed after listening to your interview with Ryan. Coincidentally I am also reading Kathleen Flake’s book The Politics of American Religious Identity (UNC 2004) on the LDS’ fight for political legitimacy and protection as an denomination in the early 1900s. I find it interesting that whereas then the questions were polygamy and political loyalty, the question about this semi-secretive group for Cragun seems to be numbers. Why is it important to know how many Mormons there are, and whether the LDS fudges their numbers as compared to, say, Adventists of Jehovah’s Witnesses? I know that Cragun protests his innocence as a seeker of truth, but I can’t help but wonder if his focus on numbers is linked to some suspicion of LDS motives and honesty. It’s curious that the LDS still inspires doubt and concern in ways that other “set apart” groups, like Hutterites who aren’t known for trumpeting their growth rates, do not inspire suspicion.

    • Avatar
      Christopher Cotter says:

      I think, in this case, our focus on numbers was dictated by Ryan’s previous publications on the matter. Why he wrote about them in the first place is, of course, another issue…

  2. Avatar
    Ruth-Anne Avruskin says:

    I found value in examining Mormonism, as a religion often thought of as out of the mainstream of society. These podcasts so far seem to be just long enough to give me something to grasp on to and run with it. For example: I looked through more articles on Mormonism by the author, which made me pose more possible research questions, related to all aspec ts of Mormonism (ex. history, belief, modern dilemmas.

  3. Avatar
    Shatabdi Datta says:

    Rayan ragen’s study on Mormonism is very impressive. Brought up and Belong in the Mormon community it is very challenging to talk about weakness or imitations of Mormon religion. The podcast and the other article by the author helps me a lot to know about Mormonism. In the podcast Rayan have argued about the total number of Mormon in the whole world. According to him the estimated number is not acceptable and he also explained the logic of his argument. But I think the Mormon missionaries want to establish the religion as a prominent one so they just want to focus on adding the number of converted people in Mormon religion in state of verifying the accurate number.

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    Christine Pugh says:

    I would agree with Pavol Kosnak in his questioning of whether social conservatism is as primary reason people leave the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints soon after they become involved with it. Many North Americans seem to leave both Catholic and Mainline Protestant denominations because of these concerns, but Evangelical Conservative groups, which are just as strict if not stricter in their social conservatism, are growing. My own experience with people who have chosen not to convert after extensive contact with Mormon missionaries suggests that people often question the authority of Mormon scriptures. For example, the discrepancies between Egyptologists translation of the papyri that inspired The Book of Abraham and Smiths’ translation were cited by an acquaintance of mine as the final straw that severed his connection with the missionaries he was formerly in contact with.

    Christine, Wilfrid Laurier University

  5. Avatar
    GordonDueck says:

    The growth pattern outlined with the Mormon church is interesting, although it raises many follow up questions. It would be interesting to see not only how the numbers have changed, as indicated with the decline in America and growth showing in modernizing countries, but also the dynamic of the religion itself. Do the needs supplied by the religion in the declining areas, and perhaps its organization or content, adjust to the shift? Is this where we see a traditional religion develop sects, either learning to conform to a more secularized viewpoint or segregating itself to a strict conservative branch? Maybe these are characteristics of a religious movement that reaches its carrying capacity.

    Gordon (Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo)


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