The Mormon Moment
The Church of Latter-day Saints grows by leaps and bounds
Inspiration. Beyond a bountiful harvest of new recruits, the church's massive missionary program pays the Mormon church another important dividend. During a recent Sunday service at the LDS 7th Ward in Fruit Heights, Utah, a bedroom community of tract houses and neatly manicured lawns some 23 miles north of Salt Lake City, 21-year-old Brett Jones--just back from a two-year mission to France--told how he helped convert a Russian banker living in Paris. "I was fascinated to see someone so influential accept the Gospel," Jones said. "When I started out on my mission, I really believed that the church was true. I came back knowing it was true." Indeed, says Stark, the Mormon missionary program may well have "more impact on Latter-day Saint commitment than it does on LDS conversion."
At least part of the Mormons' international success is the result of the church's efforts to nurture good relations with government authorities. Unlike some religious groups that have been known to circumvent government resistance by smuggling Bibles or dispatching missionaries under cover, says LDS apostle Maxwell, "we go in the front door or we don't go in at all." But the church's expansion has not been without growing pains. At the end of World War II, a renewed and heightened emphasis on missionary work sparked a sudden growth spurt that the church's bureaucracy was not ready for. By the 1960s, the church was getting more members by conversion than by birth, creating a huge demand for new meetinghouses, more support services, and greater attention to training members unfamiliar with traditional Mormon ways. As local and national church leaders struggled, says Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis, church decision making often suffered from a lack of internal communication and coordination. The Mormon church faced the prospect of devolving into "little more than an institutional umbrella" over a family of diverse congregations.
Determined to prevent the "disintegration of Mormonism into a diversity of Mormonisms," says Shipps, the LDS in the 1970s installed a more centralized system that placed nearly absolute power over church life in the hands of the top LDS officers. The result of this "correlation" process, says Shipps, was not only a more efficient and coordinated church bureaucracy but "a more standardized and simplified brand of Mormonism" that emphasizes families, temple work, and the pre-eminence of the Book of Mormon. But the "cookie cutter" effect of correlation, notes Shipps, has meant less tolerance for diversity and dissent. A move among some LDS scholars in the mid-1980s, for example, to critically re-examine the church's history and origins drew a decisive crackdown from church headquarters, resulting in the termination of at least one Brigham Young University professor and the departure of several others. Members who publicly question church teachings or criticize church leaders risk excommunication. All of this has had "a chilling effect on academic inquiry" within the church, says Elbert Peck, editor of Sunstone, an independent Mormon journal. Scholars have become more circumspect in their historical pursuits. Their work goes on, says Peck, "but the joy and enthusiasm are no longer there."