The Mormon Moment
The Church of Latter-day Saints grows by leaps and bounds
The gleaming white spire of luna pearl rises high above the tree line, topped by a golden angel that glitters in the hot Texas sun. Deep inside the air-conditioned chambers below, white-clothed Mormons pad about in luxuriously decorated rooms, performing secret rituals aimed at securing eternal rewards for themselves, their families, and their ancestors.
To the casual observer, this new temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may seem strangely out of place in a Texas bastion of Baptists and Big Oil. But the recent dedication of the massive $17 million edifice in a northwest Houston suburb, like the 31 other Mormon temples that have opened so far this year (bringing to 100 the number of Mormon temples worldwide), is a tangible sign of the rising fortunes of this unique American religious movement. Once an obscure and isolated sect, born and bred in controversy, the Salt Lake City-based church is finding a home in the least likely places, from Houston to Helsinki and from Tampa to Tokyo.
By almost any measure, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the world's richest and fastest-growing religious movements. In the 170 years since its founding in upstate New York, the LDS church has sustained the most rapid growth rate of any new faith group in American history. Since World War II, its ranks have expanded more than 10-fold, with a worldwide membership today of 11 million--more than half outside the United States. In North America, Mormons already outnumber Presbyterians and Episcopalians combined. If current trends hold, experts say Latter-day Saints could number 265 million worldwide by 2080, second only to Roman Catholics among Christian bodies. Mormonism, says Rodney Stark, professor of sociology and religion at the University of Washington, "stands on the threshold of becoming the first major faith to appear on Earth since the prophet Mohammed rode out of the desert."
Church leaders express little surprise. The LDS message "strikes a spiritual resonance in people," says Elder Neal Maxwell, one of the church's 12 Apostles, a body of lay leaders near the top of the LDS hierarchy. Indeed, say religion experts, Mormonism's unique doctrines along with its emphasis on family and wholesome living may help explain why so many spiritual seekers are drawn to the LDS church. But there are other, more mundane reasons. Among them, say the experts, are an aggressive missionary program that enlists more than 60 percent of all young Mormons; a powerful hierarchy of lay leaders who maintain organizational discipline and marshal the church's vast resources with a businesslike efficiency unrivaled in other religious movements; and a highly motivated membership that submits in overwhelming numbers to the church's strict moral code and to its taxing demands on their time, money, and allegiance. "We have a demanding religion," says Gordon B. Hinckley, the church's president, prophet, and chief spiritual leader, "and that's one of the things that attracts people to this church."
Being flush with cash doesn't hurt either. The church keeps a tight lid on its financial records, but bits and pieces of information extracted over the years by journalists and former church members offer a tantalizing glimpse into the depth and breadth of the Mormon financial empire. In their 1999 Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, journalists Richard N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling estimate the church's assets at $25 billion to $30 billion, and annual revenue approaching $6 billion, at least $5.3 billion of which comes from member contributions (officials say tithing--the giving of 10 percent of one's income--remains the primary source of church revenues). In recent years, the church has divested itself of some commercial assets, including banks, hospitals, and manufacturing plants. But it continues to amass farm and ranch land, is heavily invested in stocks and securities, and operates a far-flung media empire that includes two television stations, more than a dozen radio stations, and a newspaper. Besides its opulent temples, traditionally located in major Mormon population centers, the church owns and operates more than 12,000 local churches, or meetinghouses, throughout the world. Its real estate holdings are valued in the billions.