Mormon Numbers Not Adding Up

The ascendancy of Mormonism as a world religion once seemed inevitable. The year was 1984, and sociologist named Rodney Stark made a startling projection: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would grow to 267 million members by 2080.

That’s the narrative drumbeat to which tens of thousands of young LDS men and women marched off to proselyting missions in Latin America and Asia during the 1980s and 1990s, as LDS Church membership shot up from 4.4 million to 11 million members. Mormons imbued this growth with theological significance as the fulfillment of a prophecy that the Church would one day “fill the earth”—a sense captured in this Church video.

But new data suggests that Mormonism may no longer be (as it is often described) among the fastest-growing faiths in the United States. Instead, American Mormons appear to be settling into the twenty-first century as a maturing minority having an increasingly hard time holding onto younger members.

Official LDS Church statistics for 2011 count 6,144,582 Mormons in the United States in 2011, comprising about 2% of the nation’s population. Church statistics also show a 30% membership increase between 1990 and 2008—a rate double general US population growth.

But recent studies tell a different story—different because whereas LDS Church records count anyone who has ever been baptized, demographers and pollsters count only those who currently identify themselves as Mormon. Those are the parameters for the landmark Trinity College American Religious Identification Survey: a two-decade project that has produced the largest and most accurate database of self-reported religious identification ever compiled, with 100,000 randomly sampled participants. According to Rick Phillips and Ryan Cragun, the authors of a study of Mormons based on ARIS data, self-identified adult Mormons make up not 2% but rather 1.4% of the adult US population—that’s about 4.4 million LDS adults.

Phillips and Cragun also place LDS growth rates not at 30% but at 16%—a rate on par with general US population growth. “Despite a large missionary force and a persistent emphasis on growth,” Phillips and Cragun write, “Mormons are actually treading water with respect to their per capita presence in the U.S.” In fact, additional studies by Cragun and Phillips show that retention rates of young people (young men especially) raised Mormon have dropped substantially in the last decade: from 92.6% in the 1970s–2000s to 64.4% from 2000–2010. Rising rates of disaffiliation go a long way towards explaining the gap between LDS Church records and the ARIS population estimates.

Those who do continue to identify as Mormon, according to data released by the Pew Forum in January, form a confident, cohesive core that is deeply invested in LDS institutional life. The Pew Forum found that 77% of self-identified Mormons reported attending church weekly, and 65% reported regular participation in temple worship, a benchmark of highly observant Mormonism. Those are eye-popping numbers that don’t quite match up to what most Mormons experience week-to-week in their congregations. (The problem may be sample bias: the Pew located many of its Mormon respondents through oversampling in core areas of the Mormon culture region, where attendance rates trend higher.) The Mormons surveyed by Pew also indicate high levels of life satisfaction, as well as a sense that Mormons are misunderstood in the U.S.: 46% said Mormons experience discrimination. Insularity is also strong among Pew-sampled LDS people, with 57% reporting that all or most of their friends are also LDS.

Social insularity as well as familial and kinship ties and feelings of religious certainty contribute to the cohesiveness of the self-identified Mormon core. But taken together the Pew and ARIS numbers suggest that while the highly active LDS core is highly self-assured, it may also be shrinking—a fact not immediately evident in Church membership statistics.

The numbers also suggest that cultural or heritage identity sense of Mormonism may be weakening, especially at the margins of the core and among those who disaffiliate. That may be bad news for twenty-first century Mormonism: other stable American minority faiths like Judaism rely on cultural identity to draw individuals back into religious life throughout the life cycle and across changes in belief and practice. Today, after decades of institutional emphasis on orthodox belief and behavior, it may be difficult for some in the highly observant Mormon core to imagine a cultural Mormonism that enfranchises the less observant. But as the 2012 presidential contest brings increased scrutiny and self-awareness of Mormonism as a culture (complete with its own foodways), perhaps the time is right for Mormons to explore how to nourish and strengthen Mormon identity, even if our twenty-first century numbers don’t live up to the projections.

askmormongirl@gmail.com'

Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.

  • john zimmerman

    The numbers in this article are not what’s adding up. And the conclusions are based on the bad math: “6,144,582 Mormons in the United States in 2011, comprising about 2% of the nation’s population” “According to Rick Phillips and Ryan Cragun, the authors of a study of Mormons based on ARIS data, self-identified adult Mormons make up not 2% but rather 1.4% of the adult US population—that’s about 4.4 million LDS adults.” This is comparison of 6,144,582 total Mormons in the 1st study versus 4,400,000 Mormon adults in the 2nd study. Of course they are not equal thus the number-based conclusions such as the following are erroneous: “while the highly active LDS core is highly self-assured, it may also be shrinking—a fact not immediately evident in Church membership statistics.” As shown, the reason the “fact” isn’t immediately evident is that the numbers it’s based on don’t add up.

  • Jim Platt

    The mormon church is counting those baptized and since they baptize for the dead, their claimed numbers will keep climbing until they run out of dead people to baptize…only problem dead aren’t blackmailed into pay a tithe…*S*

  • Robynn Peterson

    I know that the proxy baptisms (baptisms for the dead) are NOT counted as “Members” or “New Members” That is a weird notion that has been floating around for decades. But it is untrue! I have a lot of other critisims of the LDS Church but that is not one of them.

  • 2/3 of Mormons are inactive

    A key prob w/ mormon #s is that many conversions/baptisms just don’t stick. Only about 1/3 of members are actually retained. A recent investigation for *worldwide* #s, places active members at 4.5 million. http://www.religionnews.com/2014/01/13/new-almanac-offers-look-world-mormon-membership/

    There’s tremendous social pressure for adherents (esp. males) to go on proselytizing missions and to come home w/ tales of conversions. Often this imperative fails to inform the newly recruited of the high demands the religion actually require – and they bail w/o officially removing themselves from the records. The boastful ‘fastest growing religion’ doesn’t account for true attrition rates and at that record – they really suck.

    IOW – for every member they actually gain, they lose two more. If this were to receive a letter grade, it’s a solid F. Not something you’ll likely see touted by the Mormon PR reps, that’s for sure. And if there’s anything the religion excels at and invests heavily in — it’s PR. Great at ‘spin’ and superficial misleading appearances across the board.

    If missionaries were upfront about the religion’s true expectations and what it takes to go to Mormon Heaven and to be an acceptable church member — both wrt doctrine *and* social responsibilities – BEFORE dipping the converts underwater — many young men’s status and reputation w/n the church would be sullied upon their return. Good Mormons make more Mormons, it’s just the deeply seated Mormon way.

    Oh and female Mormons can’t get into Mormon Heaven, unless they are married to a *Good* Mormon man. Men, OTOH, not only can get to heaven w/o a Mormon wife — they can pick up extra celestial wives there too. Official doctrine is inherently sexist, hierarchical, repressive and authoritarian. A woman’s husband can become a God and she is relegated to serve him in heaven. It’s outmoded and bigoted. And simply can’t keep pace w/ the more civilized world.

    But then again, just several decades ago the Mormon Prophet claimed Native Americans that were stripped away from their families and placed into Mormon hands were becoming more ‘pure’ by evidence of their skin color becoming lighter (!!!) *and* Mormons were actively encouraged to uproot Native American children and replace their culture with ‘true teachings’. See, dark skin is a doctrinal curse of perpetual wickedness. But dark skin (and impurities) can be cured w/ Mormon intervention. Nah, that’s not messed up at all.

    Course the practice of manipulating Native American parents to give up their children is now illegal & the accompanying claims so laughably ludicrous – that this is just one of many severe blemishes they try to desperately sweep under the rug. Still today though, they pitch hard for Latin Americans to join them by making claims that are known to be false. That is, that they are the Lost Tribe (they’re not – we *know* that genetically). Moreover, conversion efforts are *concentrated* in regions where people lack the proper education to know otherwise. It’s targeted & exploitative esp. considering that the converts are then expected to pay 10% of their *net* income to the church. It’s ultimately embezzlement for those that often times are the ones *least* able to afford it. And that’s not a stable way to keep converts. But it is a way to *speciously* boost enrollment records. And that matters, A LOT. Cuz there *are* appearances to keep up, after all…

  • Correction!

    Sorry! That should be *gross* income – not net!

  • Fed up with Mormons

    Mormons: Get out ! Get out of Arizona ! Go back to Utah, you’re not welcome, you are backwards and antiquated, every other growing population in this world values diversity, you do not. You value racism and are exclusionary. In 50 years you are going end up in the crappiest desert in Utah in internment camps like the Japanese during WWII. The USA is a melting pot, accept and embrace that or you are finished !

  • Joshua Blake Smith

    Oh my, this is hilarious.

    Haha…

    Did you know that the number of mormons WORLDWIDE is 15 million…

    NOT ONLY IN THE UNITED STATES YAH DINGBAT!

    I almost can not believe that Joanna Brooks wrote an article with an obviously incorrect thesis statement, but it speaks for itself and you have to believe it happened.

    SHARE THIS WITH FRIENDS TO SHOW THE HILARITY OF THE ARTICLE

  • Joshua Blake Smith

    I couldn’t have better said it myself.

  • john zimmerman

    Thank you.

  • TigranMetz

    Do you realize that Brooks was actually being pretty kind by only talking about US Mormons? Activity rates in the US are quite a bit higher than the rest of the world as a whole, with overall activity rates at well under 40%.

  • Joshua Blake Smith

    Oh yah? Show me an accurate source.

  • Joshua Blake Smith

    Nice broad statements you got there. With ideas that completely imply the opposite of all justifiable evidence. Give me one reliable source that completely proves your “ideas” and in no way is lacking logic, emotional advertisement, or logical fallicies.

  • TigranMetz

    As we all know the Church isn’t exactly forthcoming with exact data. I don’t think I can send links here, but check out the article “New Almanac Offers Look at the World of Mormon Membership” at religionnews dot com. The best available data can be found at cumorah dot com, an independent and incredibly well researched site run by a few LDS statisticians. A few highlights:

    - Active membership worldwide is about 30%.
    - Less than half of individuals claimed as members by the LDS Church worldwide identify the LDS Church as their faith of preference.

  • Joshua Blake Smith

    I read the article, and the only thing that was partially true is that 30% of the church attends 95% of the time. I also went to that church growth site. Neither of the sites said anything about:

    “Less than half of individuals claimed as members by the LDS Church worldwide identify the LDS Church as their faith of preference.”

    Let me clarify, everyone who is above 8, has been baptized, has chosen to become a member of the church by notifying their bishop, is alive, has not been ex-communicated from the church is counted in that number of 15 million.
    1. The article said that the church had problems with overall attendance (especially in latin america, which is true).
    2. It is often hard to convert new members in certain lands where culture, experience, and laws interfere.
    It said nothing about how the LDS church falsifies their count of members. All of this seems legitimate to me.

  • TigranMetz

    That’s interesting you dispute that quote, because I pulled it verbatim from the cumorah website. The easiest way to find it would be to search the sentence in quotes on Google. The first hit will take you to the proper page (Internet Research 101, bro). I also got the the 30% statistic from the same page. I guess the definition of “active” is semantic but even the most generous definitions don’t raise that global ratio past 40%.

    The information providing the impetus of my original reply to your first, somewhat childish, post is also on that page. Of the number of members claimed by the LDS church the ratio that self identifies as LDS “varies from the mid-sixties in the United States to 20-27% in Latin America”, (which is interesting considering that Latin America boasts the lion’s share of overall membership numbers outside the US).

    Lastly, where did I claim that “the LDS church falsifies their count of members”? I said that the LDS church isn’t forthcoming with exact data, which it’s not. I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to include any disheartening stats in the General Conference verbal report, but I do expect detailed data to be made available somewhere.

  • Joshua Blake Smith

    Oh, so in your mind it makes sense that the LDS church wouldn’t want to publish it’s data even if it does have that many members, and you weren’t implying at all that the church doesn’t disclose it’s information because it doesn’t want the world to find out it has as many members. Ok then.

    However worldwide, many out-of-church studies have been done to prove that the LDS faith (comparatively by ratio to other faiths) has one of the highest numbers of active members.

  • TigranMetz

    Look over your 1st paragraph and get back to me. It doesn’t make sense.

    As to your second paragraph, I’ll throw your initial reply to me right back at you, “Oh yah? Show me an accurate source.”

    A good apples to apples statistical comparison with the LDS church is with the 7th Day Adventist church. They come from the same cultural milieu and are both proselyting churches. The Adventists are 33 years younger than the LDS, yet they have about 3 million more members. Their retention rates are about double those of the LDS church (even using the most generous stats for the latter). They also publish very detailed membership and financial reports (again, unlike the latter).

  • Joshua Blake Smith

    I’m sorry you can’t read sarcasm.

    Source #1- “http://religions.pewforum.org/comparisons#”
    Look at beliefs and practices.

  • TigranMetz

    It’s not that I can’t read sarcasm. That paragraph just grammatically doesn’t make sense.

    I thought you would cite that 2008 Pew Research survey. First things first, I’m more inclined towards the numbers in the cumorah research because it’s significantly more recent and globally comprehensive. Second, the Pew survey is within America only, which doesn’t make it a “worldwide, out-of-church survey.” Yes, Mormons are above average when it comes to weekly attendance among denominations in the US, which isn’t saying much vis-a-vis converts because the overwhelming majority of active Mormons in the US grew up in the faith.

    At this point, we’re just arguing semantics. My overall point in engaging in dialogue with you was to demonstrate that Joanna Brooks was actually being generous by not including activity rates outside the US, which are not good. Case in point, the activity rate among members in my mission was less than 20%. The largest branch had about 450 members and around 40 were active.

    You’re right that culture and laws can sometimes interfere and make retention difficult. That being said, have you ever considered that convert retention rates might be so low (both inside and outside the US) because people aren’t getting anything spiritually significant out of their membership? How is it that the 7th Day Adventist church (a church originally based on a false prediction of Christ’s 2nd Coming) retains its converts at more than double the rate of the LDS?

  • Joshua Blake Smith

    It’s because being a Mormon at requires lots of work and time (ex: Jehovah’s Witnesses) as well as giving up many things which are often addictive. If a person’s been a member at least once in their life they know that if they’re not performing those things they aren’t really members. So when the surveys come around to those who know they are not participating as much as they should in the church, those people know to say that they are not Mormon. However most other churches don’t require nearly as much time and effort and most church don’t require a standard of living to be a member. So it’s easy to say that you’re a member of a church you don’t attend often, but just as much as the other person who says they’re not Mormon. This occurs frequently with Catholics and Jews. People aren’t religions at all who say they’re members of a church.

    Now because staying a mormon member requires so much effort, many people think it’s too hard to do all of the things which are required. Fellow members always try to keep people reminded of what the spiritual benefits are for being staying a member, but some don’t have the per-say “Spiritual Maturity/Experience” to see them clearly enough.

  • TigranMetz

    Are you serious? There is so much wrong with what you just said (from both the perspective of a member and a non-member). If those are the kinds of things you’re deluding yourself into thinking to explain these troubling statistics, no amount of fact or truth will help you realize just how much trouble the church is in right now.

    If you really want to know why so many people are leaving the church (most just go inactive without officially resigning, thus still being counted as members in General Conference), the results of this study are a real eye opener: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZQJc5SxnVs

    Two years ago, church historian Elder Marlin Jensen, acknowledged that members are leaving in droves, largely over historical problems, social issues, doctrinal contradictions, etc. He stated, “Maybe since Kirtland, we’ve never had a period of – I’ll call it apostasy, like we’re having now.” (If you need a quick refresher, the crisis in Kirtland he was referring to was a massive schism that came as a result of the collapse of Joseph Smith’s fradulent bank, the Kirtland Safety Society, due to an economic recession and the fact that Smith lied to the members about the amount of cash reserves the bank had in an attempt to get people to bank there.)

  • Joshua Blake Smith

    I’m just going to say it- your a sad case. You have a problem. Only someone with personal issues goes around the internet, trolling about Mormons in their spare time. Hey, the opposite same can be said for me, but you’re the aggressor and the law of “moral higher ground” gives me the advantage. I’m sorry that’s just the way it is. Every single time you give an arguement, it’s based off of some crap that some anti-mormon completely made up or twisted until it was no longer distinguishable. Lies, lies, lies. I don’t have anything against you personally, I’m just frustrated that you aren’t even thinking about my logical points, as I do for yours. I spend time trying to show you the truth and you just whine like an ignorant child who wants to stay up all night.

  • TigranMetz

    I can’t believe you’re really that obtuse.

    Which one of us is the troll? Well, which one of us was the OP of this thread, slinging around 6th grade insults in all caps?

    Can you point out to me which arguments or evidence I presented that are “anti-mormon crap”? If you respond, you better be able to back your assertions up. Make no mistake, I am very well read in LDS history.

    On second thought, don’t bother responding. It’s clear this isn’t going anywhere. Peace.

  • Joshua Blake Smith

    Thanks for that exit, now I don’t have to show you the door.

  • fiona64

    You wouldn’t know an accurate source if it bit you in the arse.

  • fiona64

    Aw, sweetie. Do you save this to your computer so you can just copy-pasta your grammatically incorrect nonsense at anyone who dares to question you and your priesthood authority? Because this is verbatim what you said to me when I proved you wrong, too.

    You’re laughable.

  • fiona64

    Ignore him; that’s the identical paragraph he flung at me in another thread when I proved him wrong with actual sources and he had an angry little Mormon hissy-fit.

  • fiona64

    Do you imagine that no one has met Mormons? Hell, if you were the first one I’d ever encountered (and you’re not), you would confirm FUWM’s assessment all on your own.

  • Zane

    Lots to respond to, but I’ll stick to the errors about “Mormon Heaven.” First, you cannot talk about “heaven” by comparing it to “a more civilized world.” Something spiritual/ethereal/whatever you think heaven may or may not be, cannot be scrutinized under the microscope of the temporal. That said, men cannot go to this “mormon heaven” without a wife. In fact, it is the opposite of what you said. It is men who will seemingly have trouble if they avoid marriage in this life. Furthermore, what is promised to men and women, as seen in the book of Revelations, is to become Kings and Queens, Priests and Priestesses. Notice: men are not elevated above women. The idea of men as Gods and women as servants is both nonsensical and straight odd. If godhood is what is to come under mormon doctrine (only a theory), then it will surely follow the same format as the royalty and priesthood taught in the scriptures. Gods and goddesses. I’m not saying there hasn’t been sexism in the church, or racism or prejudice, etc. But that is due to the imperfect nature of men, and surely as it is found in even the most “civilized world,” it will be found, sadly and unfortunately, in all religious groups. But for the mormons, it is not doctrinally founded, and you are wrong. If you want female empowerment and equality, you’ll find it in the mormon church. It is trumpeted by the leaders, seen in the oldest female organization in the world, taught as doctrine, and found in the women who make up the church.

  • fiona64

    If the cult keeps you too busy to question, that’s a good thing. If the cult keeps you too busy to talk to outsiders, that’s a good thing.

    For the cult.

  • Joshua Blake Smith

    Get a life

  • fiona64

    Oh, sweetie. I have an outstanding life. Why? Because I was smart enough not to get roped into your cult.

  • Marcus_Z

    If people would focus on living a good life today and helping others around them, rather than silly superstitions that have no evidence to back them up, how much better would the world be?