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.'

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.

    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 !