A peculiar people. -Gordon B. Hinckle
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, founded in rural New York in 1830 by Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805-1844), is arguably the most successful of the American religions begun in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Church counted 2.9 million members in 1970. In April 2005, the Church officially listed 12,275,822 members. This fast-growing denomination increased its membership by 19.3 percent during the 1990s and rose to be the sixth largest religious body in the United States. By 2005, according to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, the Church was the fourth largest denomination in the United States.
Because many of these numbers, gathered by the Glenmary Research Center, come from the institutions themselves and represent baptized rather than active members, the figures are suggestive rather than definitive. Still, these and other figures reflect a general pattern: the growth of conservative churches such as the Latter-day Saints, while the moderate and liberal churches decline. Based on past growth figures, sociologist Rodney Stark, not a Mormon, has predicted that by 2080 LDS membership will be somewhere between 60,000,000 and 265,000,000, making it a major world religion. Stark notes that for the Mormons in the United States to have overtaken in numbers such prominent faiths as the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and even the Lutherans must be "one of the most unremarked cultural watersheds in American history." Stark also notes that Mormonism's growth does not come from high fertility, but from baptisms. In 1991, 75,000 member children were baptized; by contrast, 297,770 converts were baptized, a ratio of almost one to four. This means the majority of Mormons are first-generation members. Convert baptisms remained fairly steady during the nineties, near 300,000 a year, sinking to about 250,000 in 2004, still a substantial number. Sociologists have long predicted the death of religion because of modernization and secularization. But these forces have not blunted Mormon growth. Stark dramatically noted that "after a hiatus of fourteen hundred years, in our time a new world faith seems to be stirring."
Mormonism, less than 200 years old, has had many dramatic chapters, some of which have more contemporary relevance than others. The early political battles of the Church, for instance, have receded into the past. The nineteenth-century clashes with neighbors in New York, Missouri, Ohio, and Illinois do not impinge directly on the present. On the other hand, the Book of Mormon, the controversial Scripture Joseph Smith claimed to have received from an angel and to have translated from golden plates, is still very important, as is the temple building that has characterized the Latter-day Saints from the beginning. The recent proliferation of temples and the massive genealogy program the temples spawned have tremendous meaning for Church members. The pioneer trek with its covered wagons, with babies born and buried at the side of the trail, is now the stuff of myth and commemoration, but the city that rose at the end of the trail beside the Great Salt Lake is of considerable current interest. Salt Lake City's hosting of the 2002 Winter Olympics brought national media attention to Mormondom. Distinguishing between issues of contemporary importance and those that have receded governs the story told in this book. Each chapter focuses on a segment of LDS life, offering background narrative when called for but emphasizing the experience of being a Mormon today.
History is still important, but because of the long-standing belief in current and ongoing revelation from God to modern-day prophets, Mormons are less fettered by their past than other groups. They dwell on the heroism of the founders and remain loyal to their prophet Joseph Smith, but their beliefs allow for sharp departures from past practices. The reversals on polygamy and the bestowal of the priesthood to a wider group are examples of practices not so much foresworn as revised or reinterpreted as God's will for His people at the current time. The history of the Church may seem to be an accumulation of past precedents, but sudden changes show that Church history is really the unfolding present. Different aspects of a broad range of teachings are introduced or emphasized at different times.
Even as Mormons cling to their fundamental doctrines, the expanding of the Church into new languages and countries has forced the creation of a new Christ-centered simplicity. Joseph Smith always moved forward with new ideas and conceptions, elaborating or expanding on them. Had he lived longer, he would probably have introduced more new doctrines. For now, many of his complex doctrines such as eternal progression, the Great Apostasy, the "only true church," and the Gathering of Israel, which have been debated over the years, have receded in importance in Church teachings. They either do not appear in lesson manuals or are toned down. The Church presents a simple, unified message taught simultaneously in many countries.
Mormons believe that God communicates His will through prophets, that Joseph Smith got direct instruction from heaven, and that succeeding prophets receive divine counsel. They believe in the perfection of man to a Godlike state through ages of afterlife. These claims are too much for other Christians to accept. Many Protestants have defined Mormons as separate from Christianity, citing a failure to assent to traditional Christian creeds and other accepted criteria. Yet Mormons pray to God through Jesus Christ, believe in the Atonement and the Resurrection, and partake of sacraments in His name. Mormons, who see themselves as neither Catholic nor Protestant, do not understand how other churches can deny their Christianity. Seeing themselves as the restored Christian church, they believe that their church is the current embodiment of the Church that Jesus Christ organized on earth.