Mormonism: Still a Decidedly American Religion

A great cloud of journalists and scholars have characterized Mormonism as an American religion. Leo Tolstoy reportedly called it the American religion.[1] Born and based in the United States, the LDS Church teaches that the Garden of Eden is in Missouri, the American Indians are Israelites, Jesus visited the Americas after his resurrection, and Utah is a place of refuge for God’s people in the Last Days. Besides baptizing the land itself, Mormons also embody the great American themes: progress, democracy, literacy, exodus, pioneering, and utopianism. In recent decades they’ve even embraced individualism, capitalism, and the nuclear family, American values arguably spurned by early Saints such as Brigham Young.


Chris Smith:

Recently, however, some scholars are arguing that Mormonism has transcended its historic Americanness to become a multi-racial, multi-cultural, and multi-national faith. “Baptisms have rapidly increased in Asia and Latin America, resulting in . . . what indeed may become a remarkable change in the complexion of Church membership,” says one author.[2] Another describes “tremendous growth in Latin America and elsewhere in the so-called Third World, a relatively sudden surge that has received little scholarly attention.”[3] We are witnessing “the rise of a new world religion,” said a particularly audacious sociologist. Mormonism “will soon achieve a worldwide following comparable to that of . . . [the] dominant world faiths.”[4] Mitt Romney’s candidacy for US President is no obstacle to the new narrative; did you know there’s also a black African Mormon running for President of Mali?[5] It’s with some justification, then, that many scholars are trumpeting global Mormonism’s coming-of-age.[6]

But not everyone invited to the bar mitzvah has RSVPed. A growing number of wet-blanket sociologists argue that the Church’s official membership figures considerably overstate LDS growth in Latin America and the Philippines, where convert retention is about 25%. The Church is diversifying, to be sure, but at a slower than expected pace.[7] This led one nay-sayer to conclude, as recently as 2010, that “calling Mormonism a nascent ‘world religion’ is premature”; Mormonism is still “best described as a North American church.”[8] Striking a slightly different note, another scholar concedes that Mormonism is likely to become a “global” religion that makes its influence felt around the world, but doubts it will become a “world” religion “that becomes established in many cultures and adapts itself to local patterns of ritual and of thought.” Because of its American headquarters and leadership, it will remain an exotic foreign import in other countries.[9]

Putting Things in Perspective: A New Study in the JSSR

The latest bucket of cold water comes from sociologists Ronald Lawson and Ryan Cragun, the authors of a new study comparing the growth and geographic dispersion of the great “American Originals”—Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Latter-day Saints. This comparative approach puts Mormon growth in perspective and provides a valuable glimpse of some “roads not taken.” While Lawson and Cragun find that all three groups are following the broader Christian trend of globalization—stagnation in the developed world offset by rapid growth in the developing world—they also identify important differences (and for Mormons, important limitations) in the geographic and demographic distribution of said growth in each tradition.[10] Mormons, in this analysis, emerge as almost a cautionary tale: an institutional and strategic recipe for mediocrity.

The first major finding was that, of the three groups, Mormons are by far the most concentrated in just a few countries. There are only eight countries with over 200,000 LDS members, and between them these countries account for 77% of the total membership. The US alone accounts for 44%. Contrast the Adventists, with twenty-nine countries over 200,000 members and only 9% of members in their largest country, which is not the US but India. Jehovah’s Witnesses fall between the other two groups in the extent of their dispersion. Mormon members, to be sure, are considerably more dispersed and considerably less white than they were fifty years ago, but they are still heavily concentrated in the Americas and Oceania, with the Philippines—a former US colony—being the only major exception. Thus while Mormonism has certainly broadened its “American” identity from the national to the continental sense of the term, talk of “globalization” might be a stretch. Two thirds of Asian Mormons are in the Philippines, and there are more Mormons in Argentina (their seventh largest country) than in Africa and the Middle East combined.[11]

A more surprising finding was that Mormons remain as skewed socioeconomically as geographically. In contrast to Adventists and Witnesses, Mormons are overwhelmingly upper and middle class. Nor is this just an artifact of their concentration in the developed world. Even within individual countries where all three groups have established a presence, Mormons are vastly wealthier, more urban, and better-educated than Adventists, with Witnesses falling between them. Data from developed countries such as Canada show a similar pattern, with Adventists having the greatest appeal to immigrants, while Mormons appeal most to the native-born.[12]

Mormonism’s relative homogeneity results partly from the distribution of missionary resources. For one thing, the geography of the Church was heavily constrained by its pre-1978 racial theology, which led missionaries to target “Israelites” from northern Europe, Native America, and Polynesia, while neglecting the “cursed” populations of Africa. International expansion was also inhibited by a strong emphasis on domestic “kingdom-building” and a corresponding mandate to “gather” to Utah, which crippled fledgling missions by siphoning away their most dedicated converts.[13] Missionary emphasis has also been constrained by the mandatory and bureaucratic nature of the modern missionary program, since the Church can’t ask adolescent draftees to violate laws against proselytism or risk their lives in conflict zones. This accounts for Mormonism’s late entry to the former Soviet bloc and its continued absence among the native peoples of China.[14] The socioeconomic imbalance, similarly, may result partly from locating mission centers in relatively affluent neighborhoods which are likely to be safer for the missionaries and more receptive to the message (i.e. literate and Christian). By contrast, the more decentralized structure of Adventist and Witness efforts has allowed entrepreneurial missionaries much more leeway to risk death or imprisonment in unreached areas of the world.

Other reasons for Mormon homogeneity lie on the demand-side of the economic equation—or rather, in the poor fit of Mormon outreach strategies to religious expectations in certain parts of the world. Both Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses teach converts from a “universal syllabus,” and their missionary training programs provide little or no preparation for connecting with local cultures.[15] By contrast, the more decentralized Adventists have experimented with methods ranging from holding public meetings, Bible Studies, classes, and radio broadcasts to founding schools, clinics, hospitals, and multinational relief agencies. Their educational and medical institutions have been a particular reason for missionary success and access, since their resources and services are eagerly coveted by impoverished people and governments. Adventists have also been far more willing to adapt and inculturate their message in different parts of the world, reaching Muslims, for instance, by promoting devotion to Jesus within an Islamic framework rather than as an alternative to Islam.[16] Where Mormons have struggled to retain the poorest converts and to find audiences in the “10-40 window,” Adventists have found innovative strategies that work.


Lawson and Cragun’s findings suggest that while the Church has certainly diversified its geographic profile in recent decades, it is not yet a truly global—much less “world”—religion. The American religion remains decidedly American, albeit in a broadly continental rather than narrowly national sense of the term. To return to an example from earlier in this post, the black African Mormon running for president of Mali is the exception that proves the rule. This highly successful, BYU-educated entrepreneur is doing most of his campaign fundraising among Mormons in the United States. As a candidate in a nation that’s 90% Islamic, his viability as a candidate says more about his countrymen’s open-mindedness and disillusionment with the current regime than about the globalization of Mormonism.

If Mormonism has globalized more slowly than the other “American Originals,” the reasons seem to lie in the Church’s highly institutionalized missionary model. Whether the Church becomes a world religion in the fullest sense may depend on the leaders’ willingness to fertilize the grassroots. Of course, it’s not at all my place as an outsider to lecture Latter-day Saints on how they should structure their missionary program. The Mormon mandate to grow and globalize, after all, is not the only consideration; Mormons also have strong theological reasons for correlation and centralization. Perhaps there are yet-unimagined ways to reconcile these competing impulses—to enable entrepreneurial, innovative, and inculturated mission work within a correlated institutional framework. On the other hand, the Church may have to make some hard choices about tradeoffs between its theological priorities—choices that are well above my pay grade. One thing seems certain: the fate of global Mormonism hangs in the balance.


[1] Stephen J. Fleming, “Becoming the American Religion: The Place of Mormonism in the Development of American Religious Historiography,” Mormon Historical Studies 4, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 3-22.

[2] F. LaMond Tullis, “Three Myths about Mormons in Latin America,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 7, no. 1 (Spring 1972): 79-87.

[3] David Knowlton, “Thoughts on Mormonism in Latin America,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Studies 25 (Summer 1992): 41-53.

[4] Rodney Stark, “The Rise of a New World Faith,” in Latter-day Saint Social Life: Social Research on the LDS Church and its Members (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1998), 1–8.

[5] Andrew Brown, “Mitt Romney’s Mormonism: A Truly American Faith,” October 9, 2011, Andrew Brown’s Blog at The Guardian; Max Mueller, “The Other Mormon Candidate: He’s Running for President of Mali,” February 21, 2012, Slate.

[6] E.g., Global Mormonism Project at BYU; Reid L. Neilsen, ed., Global Mormonism in the 21st Century (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2008).

[7] David G. Stewart, “Growth, Retention, and Internationalization,” and Henri Gooren, “The Mormons of the World: The Meaning of LDS Membership in Central America,” in Revisiting Thomas F. O’Dea’s The Mormons: Contemporary Perspectives, eds. Cardell K. Jacobson, John P. Hoffmann, and Tim B. Heaton (Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 2008), 328-61; 362-88; Rick Phillips, “Rethinking the International Expansion of Mormonism,” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 10, no. 1 (August 2006): 52-68.

[8] Ibid., 52-53.

[9] Douglas J. Davies, An Introduction to Mormonism (University of Cambridge Press, 2003), 248.

[10] Ronald Lawson and Ryan T. Cragun, “Comparing the Geographic Distributions and Growth of Mormons, Adventists, and Witnesses,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51, no. 2 (June 2012): 223.

[11] Ibid., 223; see pages 224-25 for the charts of membership by region and country.

[12] Ibid., 230-33; see page 232 for chart labeled “Table 6.”

[13] Ibid., 223, 27; see also Eric R. Dursteler, “One-Hundred Years of Solitude: Mormonism in Italy, 1867-1964,” International Journal of Mormon Studies 4 (2011): 119-48.

[14] Lawson and Cragun, “Comparing,” 227-28.

[15] Ibid., 233, 35.

[16] Ibid., 235-36.


Mormonism: Still a Decidedly American Religion — 22 Comments

  1. As always, Christopher Smith, you present a most interesting analysis related to Mormonism. I understand you consider yourself an outsider but I guarantee you many of us insiders enjoy your work.

  2. I recommend to anyone who is interested in church growth and missionary work. They have a ton of statistics and suggestions for improving the effectiveness of missionary work.

  3. Color me super skeptical that Tolstoy really ever said that stuff. It strikes me as Mormon mythology, and I have never heard a non-Mormon source corroborate it or anything like it.

  4. Mormons spend a lot of time keeping records, updating records, chasing records and centralizing records, ask any ward clerk. While I don’t doubt that LDS activity rates and rates of self identification are far below the membership numbers used by Salt Lake I also don’t doubt that those member records are reasonably accurate. At one time those now unaffiliated people did get baptized and it was recorded and sent to Salt Lake and that record still resides in the computers.

    But when I read accounts of comparisons between us and other groups I wonder how accurate *their* records are? Do they have the same dedication to record keeping as the LDS do? I see frequent criticism of the LDS church’s membership data but the accuracy of other groups numbers seems to be accepted at face value. What is the definition of an SDA or JW member? How is it counted? Are their numbers just as poor a reflection of reality as ours are?

  5. The best work on the cultural restraints the the Church is facing internationally is Philip Jenkins article, “Letting Go: Understanding Mormon Growth in Africa,” Journal of Mormon History (Spring 2009): 1-26.

  6. Lawson and Cragun don’t take Adventist and Witness numbers at face value, KLC. To measure each group’s retention rates, they compare the group’s official conversion numbers with people’s religious self-identification in polls and censuses. Adventists and Witnesses have retention problems in Latin America too, but not quite on the same level as Mormons.

    Adventists are actually quite conscientious about their records, and regularly purge inactives from the rolls. And Witnesses only count “publishers,” meaning people who report hours spent evangelizing each month.

  7. The Tolstoy story gets even more self-congratulating when retold by Elder David B. Haight in the May 1980 Ensign: “If the people follow the teachings of this church, nothing can stop their progress—it will be limitless.” (Attributed to Tolstoy; full story is near the end.)

    The account would best seem to be corroborated were it true by the book “Americans in Conversation with Tolstoy, 1887-1923” by Peter Sekerin, chapter 11: Walks and Talks with Tolstoy (Andrew Dickson White). On page 92, White, contrary to the Haight recounting, does appear to be familiar with aspects of Mormonism, which he discusses with Tolstoy, predicated on Tolstoy’s cautioned admiration of Mormonism in light that he believed , “…in every religion there are two main elements, one of deception and one of devotion, and he asked me of the Mormons, some of whose books had interested him. He thought two-thirds of their religion deception, but said that on the whole he preferred a religion which professed to have dug its sacred books out of earth to one which pretended that they were let down from Heaven. …” (see account at:

    Alas the Google preview of the Sekerin book ends at page 93 by which time White and Tolstoy have moved on to discussing the history of the condition of the women in the Christian church since its early days. It would be interesting to corroborate whether Tolstoy truly made such a prediction, but it is dubious considering his belief that there was significant deception in the LDS church. It is doubtful, however, that there is more to the conversation regarding Mormonism as what is cited by Sekerin also appears in White’s autobiography, chapter 37 at:

    As alluded above it is easy to Google and find the 1894 White-Tolstoy conversation mentioned in several LDS-published books, one of which is “The Young Women’s Journal” (1901) in which the famous LDS historian B.H. Roberts is cited, taking the full, limited account (compared to what David Haight quoted) — per the Sekerin book and White autobiography mentioned above — to grander editorial heights on pages 296-297, though not so far as Elder Haight. There is no mention, as Haight did, of Tolstoy predicting the “limitless” rise of Mormonism as a world-wide religion. Considering Robert’s use of the then-quite-recent White-Tolstoy conversation as a validation to LDS church members of their chaste moral code being noticed by worldly luminaries, but including no mention of such a grand prediction, Haight’s quotation of the conversation is specious. (See: Furthermore, in the same volume, on page 400, the article “Tolstoy” by Alice Louise Reynolds further mentions the White-Tolstoy conversation in the course of discussing the Count’s life, and there is no “limitless growth” prediction mentioned by Tolstoy as Haight so quoted.

  8. Interesting post, Christopher. Your distinction of Mormonism being continentally American rather than nationally is a very helpful one.

  9. Excellent post Chris. This is packed full of important information.

    As I was reading your post, I thought about the excellent work Grant Hardy has done on our continued and dated use of the KJV and the need for integration in others cultures.

    Glad to see you giving equally important ideas. Thanks.

  10. Thanks, ByranJensen for weighing in on the Tolstoy story. I have always wondered about it, but never enough to even do a quick Google. Now it interests me even more in two ways: 1) in terms of it as a commentary on Mormonism, ala Sir Richard Burton and 2) in terms of it as an anecdote by a “big name” dropped into LDS talks, ala the (mis)use of Lytton Strachey in “Standing For Something.”

  11. Great post, Chris.

    Aside from the excellent demographic and geographic points you make, there is also the cultural aspect. In the LDS periphery, such as in Latin America, there is considerable cultural pressure to conform to American administrative style and practices, which tends to “Americanize” the Church, regardless of geographical variations.

    It is strongly prevalent in the standardized curricula, including artistic and musical expressions, as well as unconsciously in the “promoting” of leadership that adapts to American values in lieu of local customs. This self-reinforcing feedback loop ensures that those converts who are ill at ease with the “Americanization” process of Mormonism leave it, further reinforcing it by rewarding those who embrace acculturation with the perception of being “righteous” for staying and assimilating.

  12. Before I start drawing conclusions about Mormonism’s success relative to Seventh Day Adventists, and other religions – I want to know a couple things:

    1. Is the membership status of people affiliated with those religions being scrutinized as heavily as the LDS Church’s claims? and

    2. Do the comparisons control for how demanding membership is in each religion and what is required to call someone an actual member?

  13. Seth R.,

    See comment #7, or:

    “Lawson and Cragun don’t take Adventist and Witness numbers at face value, KLC. To measure each group’s retention rates, they compare the group’s official conversion numbers with people’s religious self-identification in polls and censuses. Adventists and Witnesses have retention problems in Latin America too, but not quite on the same level as Mormons.

    Adventists are actually quite conscientious about their records, and regularly purge inactives from the rolls. And Witnesses only count “publishers,” meaning people who report hours spent evangelizing each month.” -Christopher Smith in comment #7.

  14. “and Utah is a place of refuge for God’s people in the Last Days” Sources for this one please? I have never heard this taught. I have heard it taught that the Mountainous regions of the U.S. will be where the base is located before spreading out.

  15. Great post. As I understand it, Mormonism suffers broadly from two things that don’t plague these the JW’s and SDA’s.

    First, we have very low requirements to get a person baptized. Both of these other religions demand more (such as more Church attendance as an investigator) before they bring them in. They weed out a lot of the people that would have gone straight inactive in their religions too.

    Second, missionary work may be a big deal theologically in our religion, but the missionary program is treated like another “department” in the ward. A bishop has to deal with RS problems, EQ problems, missionary work problems, youth problems, etc. etc. That’s just how the ward structure is set up. In these other religions, however, missionary work is a much bigger entity with many more members tasked to it. However, since it is just another obligation for us, and a hard one, and one that full time missionaries are dedicated to, it gets regulated to the standard “Did anyone have a missionary experience this week?” occasionally asked in some meetings. We could actually learn a lot from other religions.

  16. Jettboy, the idea of Utah as a place of refuge is not mutually exclusive with the idea of Utah as a base for the expansion of the millennial kingdom of God. It was both. When Joseph spoke before his death about the possibility of fleeing to the Rocky Mountains, he referred to both these purposes and saw them both as being organically related to each other. That is, the Saints traveled to Utah both to escape persecution and to have a place where they could build the kingdom without being disturbed by their enemies. See some of the quotes here, and notice how they seamlessly blend these two purposes.

    See also D&C 45:66-70; 115:6; Joseph Smith, letter to N. C. Saxton, January 4, 1833. These sources are talking about Missouri, but I think Utah largely replaced Missouri as Zion/the place of refuge and thus took on some of the same associations. Also notice how, in each of their migrations to a new “gathering place,” the Saints were acting out the Book of Mormon pattern of being led to a “promised land” which would serve as a refuge where they could build the kingdom.

  17. An outstanding post. I also completly agree with Marcello Jun’s comments in 12. We make it so hard for converts in many parts of the world. We expect members to adopt western clothing, play western music and adopt western standards of reverence beside accept all the gospel and the challenges that brings. All to help us feel comfortable that the church is the same everywhere, and by the same we normally mean things that emphasise american values and culture.

  18. I haven’t read Antonenko’s Russian book in years, but he did mention Tolstoy and the Mormons, as he did in articles published in Rodina.