Ignorant Mormon Church Growth Then and Now

Stability attracts Latin Americans to Mormonism

Fri Feb 6, 2009

By Kylie Stott

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Early on a summer morning in Buenos Aires, two beaming Mormon missionaries welcomed about 100 believers for a three-hour marathon of sermons, singing and discussion groups at the Belgrano Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints.

In Argentina and across traditionally Catholic Latin America, Latter-day Saints churches such as this one are multiplying, and the region boasts the largest Mormon membership outside the United States, at some 5.2 million people.

Globally the church claims 13.5 million members, a similar number to the world Jewish population. Since the 1950s Mormonism has spread rapidly in Latin America partly because of proximity to the United States, where the religion was born.

The perceived stability and status of the church is also a draw for many Latin Americans who have lived through economic and political turmoil.

"To begin with it wasn't easy, obviously it was a life-changing decision ... But now I have the faith and I have a shield to protect me from society, because today's world is a difficult one," Diego Lacho, a 28-year-old who is the most recent convert in the Belgrano congregation.

Lacho, a casino worker, married a Mormon woman three years ago and was baptized in August. He has learned to follow church rules against smoking, alcohol and coffee.

At the church he joins the cleanly shaved men in suits or collared shirts. The women wear skirts and dresses.

The Belgrano church's wood and velvet hall, which fills twice over each Sunday, is just one of the 692 Latter-day Saints chapels in Argentina. There are 5,500 chapels in all of Latin America, three times the number there were in 1970.

"I served as a young missionary in Chile over 30 years ago and at that time the church was just starting to grow in South America," said Elder Shane Brown, president of the Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay division of the church.

"There had been a prophecy that said the church would grow slowly but then that it would grow into an oak in South America, and I am really a witness of that."

Mormonism has also grown strongly in the Philippines. Expansion elsewhere in Asia has been much slower, and in Europe Latin American immigrants account for much of the growth.


Sociologist Cesar Ceriani, who recently published a book on Mormon missionary work in Argentina, says Latin Americans see the Latter-day Saints as pure, reliable and economically powerful in a region often plagued by instability and corruption.

The church has an estimated global annual revenue of $5 billion, and everywhere it is expanding it spends heavily on new temples and chapels and on aid projects like clean water wells, hospitals and educational kits.

"The church has a lot of visible power, and people notice that the missionaries are always so neat, and the mission presidents are always so busy and well-dressed," Ceriani said.

"They see the church as a tool, or a way of getting a better position or job, or belonging to a social group that gives one more stability and support," he said.

The church's regional leaders also say that in Latin America, most people are not aware of scandals that harm it elsewhere, such as media attention in the United States to polygamous practices by isolated fundamentalist Mormon groups.

Church leaders emphasize that these fundamentalists do not belong to the official church, which abolished polygamy more than a century ago and opened its priesthood to males of all races 30 years ago.

"These types of questions can come up. But for those that know the members of the church, they know that we have only one wife," said Claudio Zivic, first counselor of the South American-South division of the church.

Mormons believe that Joseph Smith, who founded the religion in 1830 in upstate New York, was a prophet who was told by God and the Angel Moroni to re-establish the Christian church.


Though growth has been more recent, the Mormons do have some history in Latin America.

In the late 19th century, facing mounting U.S. pressure to renounce the practice of polygamy, bands of Mormons moved to Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains to establish colonies.

In fact, the father of prominent U.S. Mormon Mitt Romney, a former Republican presidential hopeful, was born in a Mormon settlement in Mexico.

In 1920 the Mormon Bible was translated into Spanish, but it wasn't until after World War Two and the expansion of U.S. geopolitical power that the church really began expanding.

At that time, the church put emphasis on training centers to teach them exactly what to do, what to wear and what to say while they were away representing "the face of the church."

Today, 50,000 young men and women go forth each year to proselytize, and they can be away for up to two years.

"The life of a missionary is busy, busy, busy. We're working really hard all the time trying to find people that are interested in the gospel... from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. We're running the whole day. We get pretty tired," said Elder Fuller, a missionary from Idaho working in Argentina.

Elder Fuller, who is not allowed to use his first name while on mission, is half-way through his trip, and so far has helped convert six people, a fairly standard number for most Mormon missionaries.

Some scholars argue that the Latter-day Saints, which is still struggling to gain mainstream acceptance in the United States because of its past links to polygamy, are well on their way to becoming a major world religion.

In Argentina, a second temple is being planned in the provincial capital of Cordoba, adding to the current establishment situated some 15 minutes from Buenos Aires International Airport.

It will become one of the 33 temples in Latin America where Mormons with restricted entry permits can attend sacred rituals such as the baptism of dead relatives.


Musical play tells of journey by early Mormon migrants

Srianthi Perera
The Arizona Republic
Jun. 22, 2006

In 1856, Mormon converts were asked to move from the United Kingdom to Utah's Salt Lake Valley to be missionaries. Their journey was memorable: first via ship and train to Iowa City, where the rails stopped, and then pushing a handcart loaded with life's necessities on a 1,300-mile walk.

Now, a third-generation Mesa resident, Cory Ellsworth, is doing his part to ensure that the story of the pioneers lingers in the public's mind, as well.

In 1998, Ellsworth wrote first the poems and then a story line for a musical play. These modest beginnings belie his 140-member cast production titled 1856 The Musical, which opens at Mesa Arts Center on Friday.

The show was presented last year with a smaller cast. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the trek.

"I felt a sacred obligation to bring this to stage, to do it in honor of these pioneers," Ellsworth said at a weekend rehearsal.

His production used to fit snugly into the auditorium of the old Lehi School, now occupied by the Mesa Historical Society. A few miles down the road, Mormon pioneers from Salt Lake City arrived in 1877 and settled in a place they named Lehi.

"I think it's educative. There's something to hold on to," Ellsworth said of his musical. "There are some amazingly wonderful principles, faith in the face of difficulties."

The story is more poignant to Ellsworth because his great-great-grandfather, Edmund Lovell Ellsworth, was part of the migration. Ellsworth has pieced together information from a journal that his paternal relative was asked to lead the first handcart company back to Utah, that he left with 230 people, took four months for the journey, lost 10 people on the way and arrived to a celebration in the Salt Lake Valley.

The Ellsworth, MacArthur and Bunker handcart companies made it to Utah relatively safely, but the Willie and Martin companies that began their journey later experienced hardships that necessitated a rescue by a party sent by then-church head Brigham Young. The musical follows the stories of the Lee and the Parker families. The former made it safely while the latter experienced tragedy.

"Besides being history, it's such a touching story," said choreographer Kristin Adams, who has been building on the original choreography by Julie Moore.

To Adams, who runs a dance studio in Mesa called The Dance Barn, the challenge has been managing the young cast. About half of the 140 members are younger than 16.

"It's been a challenge to keep everybody quiet, to be able to learn the steps, but they've done a good job," Adams said.

Among them is 9-year-old Maryn Hooper, who said she liked the idea of "dying on stage."

A student at Entz Elementary, Maryn has sung and danced a lot on stage.

The cast also employs professionals, such as opera trained Joseph Paur. The music composition, in addition to Ellsworth, is by Randy Kartchner and Mildred West Wiseman Packard.

The non-profit show is at the 1,600-seat Tom and Janet Ikeda Theater for its seven-day run.


LDS church charting rapid growth in Mexico

El Universal
Martes 29 de noviembre de 2005
Miami Herald, página 1

Gabriel López González was 14 when the first group of missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the Mormons arrived in his Mixe Indian town of San Juan Guichicovi, Oaxaca. He was immediately impressed.

"The missionaries wore neckties, and I had never seen people wearing ties," he recalled.

Gabriel followed the missionaries as they knocked on doors in the community, and when they struggled to communicate with the Mixe-speaking locals, he stepped in as translator.

He continued in this capacity for four more years, and as he spent more time with the missionaries and listened to their message, Gabriel decided to convert. He wasn't alone. Today, the town of 28,000 inhabitants has a thriving community of some 200 Latter-Day Saints.

"I think at first, like me, people wanted to know the missionaries because they wore ties," Gabriel said, when asked to explain the church's appeal in his hometown. "But as they heard more, they became more interested in the teachings and began to realize that it was the truth."

Thanks to converts like Gabriel and his neighbors in San Juan Guichicovi, Mexico now has the second-largest Mormon population in the world, after the United States. And it continues to grow. In 1990, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS, counted 617,455 members here. Today, it reports a membership of 1,037,775: a 15year growth of 68 percent. In Mexico City alone, LDS officials say they are adding 1,000 new members each month.

Church leaders say that Mexico and Mormonism are a perfect match; their spiritual message connects well with Mexicans, as does their emphasis on the family, a healthy lifestyle and Jesus Christ.

"I think one of the reasons the church has grown so much in Mexico is that this a culture that has had a certain inclination towards the spiritual, ever since ancient times," said Tomás Hidalgo, LDS spokesman in Mexico. "That is a crucial factor that allows people to feel the influence of the Holy Spirit and receive the message brought to them by the missionaries."

Independent analysts point to the Mormons' tenacious recruiting efforts and suggest that they and other upcoming religions are benefiting from a growing dissatisfaction with the dominant Roman Catholic church.

Prof. Carlos Martínez Assad, a sociologist at the National Autonomous University (UNAM) Center for Social Research, cites studies which show that a growing number of citizens view the Catholic church as antiquated or lacking in spiritual dynamism.

"Apparently, what is happening is that people are finding more emotional motivation in other churches than in Catholicism," he said.

Along with the Mormons, evangelical Christian sects have blossomed to include more than 4 million members nationwide, and the Jehovah's Witnesses also count more than a million followers here. But while the Mormons and evangelicals have experienced growth, the proportion of Mexicans who identify themselves as Roman Catholic has declined in recent years, from 96 percent of the population in 1970 to 88 percent in 2000.

Martínez Assad said churches such as the Mormons, supported by a vigorous missionary corps, are doing a better job of reaching out to the nation's spiritually undecided.

"The Mormons are people who believe strongly in their faith and they go about it with a level of effort that I think the Catholic church would like to have," he said.


The first Mormon missionaries came to Mexico in 1875, and at first, had little luck in finding converts. But 10 years later, a group of nearly 400 colonists arrived from Utah, fleeing prosecution for polygamy (a practice that was banned by the church in 1890) and established a permanent settlement at the Casas Grandes River in Chihuahua state. Others joined them, and English-speaking Mormon colonies soon sprang up throughout Chihuahua and the neighboring state of Sonora.

Meanwhile, an LDS mission in Mexico City continued to plug away at the local population, and by the time revolution broke out in 1910 the number of converts in the south-central region had reached 1,000.

In the decades after the Revolution, the church showed slow but steady growth. By 1972, national membership had reached 100,000, and by the 1980s, the church entered its boom period. The nation's first Mormon temple opened in Mexico City in 1983, and ten years later, the government formally registered the church, allowing it to own property. LDS membership reached 500,000 in 1989 and passed the one million mark last year.

In response to its rapid growth, the church began building additional temples ceremonial centers where it holds weddings and "sealings," rituals that bind couples or families for eternity. From 1999 to 2002, 11 temples were opened, stretching from Nuevo Leon and Jalisco in the north to Chiapas and Yucatan in the south. Today, Mexico has more Mormon temples than the entire European continent.

Prof. Martínez Assad is only moderately impressed by the LDS's expanding membership. "In reality, the churches that have grown the most in Mexico are the various evangelical sects," he said. "All we know about the Mormons is that they have built the most temples, which could mean that they simply have more resources than other churches with which to grow."

Martínez Assad wonders if this construction boom may serve as a promotional tool as well as a reflection of growth.

"I think of people who look at these Mormon temples, built as the Bible describes the Temple of Solomon," he said. "These are very impressive structures, and naturally, we know that people are going to be drawn to them."


The Mexico City temple in the San Juan Aragón neighborhood is indeed an impressive structure. The massive monolith, constructed in a Maya architectural style, would not be out of place at one of the nation's ancient religious sites like Palenque or Teotihuacan. A pillar towers overhead, topped by a golden statute of Moroni, the angel who reportedly appeared to LDS prophet and founder Joseph Smith told him of scripture written on golden plates.

According to Smith, he unearthed those plates near his home in upstate New York and translated them into the Book of Mormon, which now serves as a companion document to the New Testament.

Next door to the temple, a large billboard beckons passersby into a state-of-the-art visitors' center, complete with interactive exhibits and gift shop. A 10foot-tall marble statue of Jesus adorns the lobby, looking out through a wall of windows to the busy thoroughfare in front.

"We get a lot of people who come in just from seeing the statue," said Ann Goulding, an LDS elder from Sandy, Utah, currently serving as a missionary here. "Mexicans love Jesus."

Those who venture into the center are greeted by guides who lead them on a tour of Mormon history and philosophy. They learn the story of Joseph Smith, born 200 years ago in Vermont, who received a vision in which God and Jesus themselves told him to form the church. They hear how a resurrected Jesus visited the Americas, and how Native Americans and their civilizations descended from the Lamanites, a lost tribe of Israelites who came to the New World in the sixth century B.C.

It's a message that connects directly with Mexicans, said Goulding.

"They have all these pyramids right in their backyards offering proof of what is talked about in the Book of Mormon," she said.


While some level of LDS recruiting goes on at the temples and associated visitors' centers, the bulk of the effort is carried out by volunteer missionaries, who spend two-year stints in the field. Nationwide, there are 3,488 Mormon missionaries 2,343 of them Mexican citizens knocking on doors, distributing copies of the Book of Mormon translated into Spanish, Tzotzil, and two dialects of Maya.

The temple complex in Mexico City also houses a training center where new missionaries receive a 19-day crash course. Most of the missionaries at the center are in their early 20s, and all are well-dressed, neatly groomed and exceedingly polite. Like all members of their faith, they do not smoke, drink alcohol or consume caffeine.

Hidalgo says the positive example set by LDS members is another factor that has drawn Mexican converts to the church.

It certainly aided in the conversion of Gabriel López González, back in San Juan Guichicovi, Oaxaca, who needed his parents' blessing before joining the church.

"As a minor, the missionaries couldn't teach me without the permission of my parents," he explained. "But at first, my parents said that I could join any church I wanted except for this one."

Eventually, however, his mother softened her stance.

"She saw that I had been tempted by alcohol and drugs, and I think she knew that the church would keep me away from that," he said.

Denise Calahorra, a 24-yearold missionary from Valle Hermoso, Tamaulipas, said that while her friends and family are impressed by her self-discipline, others occasionally misinterpret the Mormon lifestyle and its emphasis on clean living.

"People say, 'Oh, that's the religion where you can't dance and where the women have to wear long skirts,' " she said. "So I explain that, no, we are normal young people and ours is a normal life; we go out dancing, we have fun."

In addition to having fun, the LDS church also encourages its members to assume active roles in their community, via charitable activities or political participation. And while the Mormon church is socially conservative by tradition, Hidalgo says that Mexican LDS members are encouraged to join the political party of their choice. As evidence, he points to Jeffrey Max Jones, a senator from Chihuahua and a descendent of the early Mormon settlers in that state; and Lázaro Mazón Alonso, mayor of Iguala, Guerrero. Although both are Mormons, Jones belongs to the conservative National Action Party, while Mazón Alonso is a member of the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution.

Asked to name prominent popular culture figures who are Mormon, Hidalgo had more difficulty. But he predicted that there would be plenty in the future.

"The flourishing of our members in important positions of Mexican society is just starting," he said.

"The church in Mexico has reached a level of respect that it obviously didn't have during its beginnings here, and I feel that we are in a period when the harvest is going to be big."

Proselytizing amid the poverty

Written by Sebastian Strangio  
Wednesday, 03 September 2008

Cambodia's relative religious freedoms have encouraged Christian groups to set up shop in the Kingdom, but they risk creating ‘rice Christians' when they preach to the poor  

Elders Jones and Henderson cycle calmly through Phnom Penh's rush-hour traffic, Bible bags strapped to their backs, white cotton shirts snapping in the breeze. It is becoming a familiar sight in Cambodia: clean-cut young missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints - better known as the Mormon Church - taking to the streets to spread the Word of the Lord.

As missionaries, Jones and Henderson are awake at five and proselytise until eight in the evening, seven days a week. Both are nearing the end of their gruelling two-year stints in Phnom Penh, but look back on their time here with no regrets. "My purpose is to welcome others to come into the Word of Christ," Henderson said. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't love it."

He said their work is helped by the natural curiosity of the Cambodian people. "There's a lot of curiosity. There's a great number of people who are willing to hear the message that we are sharing," Henderson said.

Elder Jones, an Idaho native, agreed Cambodians' friendliness was an advantage for the church, which was founded in the US in 1830 and has since grown into a global religion with over 13 million adherents.

"We just go and talk to them," he said. "The Lord is in charge, and he's taking care of things."

With a local membership of over 8,000, Mormonism has led a significant demographic shift towards Christianity in Cambodia. According to the US State Department's 2007 International Religious Freedom Report, Christians make up around two percent of Cambodia's population (approximately 282,000 people), dispersed amongst 100 organisations.

Compared to more restrictive neighbouring countries like Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia has a relatively open climate for missionary work.

The law requires all religious groups to register with the Ministry of Cults and Religions if they wish to build places of worship or conduct religious activities. But according to the Religious Freedom report, "there is no penalty for failing to register, and in practice some groups do not." Only 900 of Cambodia's 2,400 churches are officially registered with the government.

Dok Narin, undersecretary of state at the ministry, said the constitution guaranteed freedom of religion and that there are few laws to regulating the day-to-day activities of missionaries. "We cannot control them, as we don't have any special laws," he said, adding that more regulation was desirable but difficult to balance with a commitment to religious freedom. "The ministry is planning laws to exercise more controls on religion, but we are afraid that it may affect the constitution," he said.

"Rice Christians"

In February 2003, the government imposed a ban on door-to-door proselytising, but the continuing lack of firm regulations has created fresh temptations. Cambodia has long been plagued by rumours that Christians were exploiting the nation's poverty to attract converts - a problem Christian leaders say goes to the heart of doing missionary work here.

"When a country like Cambodia opens up, you get greater freedoms to operate," said Vernon Elvish, a missionary with the Jehovah's Witnesses, who arrived here in 1992.

"In one way that's a good thing, but then you can also get the bad side of that freedom coming in," he said, adding that rumours of exploitation were hard to verify, but taken seriously.

"We're very conscious of making ‘rice Christians'," he said, referring to those who change religions on a material incentive. "Our organisation is purely a religious organisation.... We don't even teach English here, so if they want to become a Jehovah's Witness, it's because they want to become a Jehovah's Witness, not because they're getting any material benefit out of it."

David Manfred, a missionary with the Christian & Missionary Alliance (CAMA), founded in Cambodia in 1923, said the country's openness made it tempting for some missionaries and that "rice Christians" were a constant concern.

"My own sense is that some groups have probably come here and, out of zeal, have used methodologies that we wouldn't feel comfortable with," Manfred told the Post. "There has been a tendency ... to inflate [conversion] numbers, or to count them differently. It's actually something we work quite hard to try and avoid, because that would not be the kind of faith that we're looking for."

Mormon mission President Robert Winegar said the church spent between US$400,000 and $1 million per year on charity and development programs, but that such activities were tightly sealed off from its religious work.

"In all of these [projects] we never talk about the church," (True Christians will talk about Jesus Christ - Acts 1:8) he said, adding that the church asked more of its members than its members asked of the church. "Not only do we not use poverty as a lure to join the church; we invite members to donate [a] 10 percent [tithe] to help the church grow," he said.

Freelance missionaries
Some missionaries have gone further, distancing themselves from the large churches they say have made Christians dependent on foreign church money. Michael Freeze, a Baptist missionary who has worked in Cambodia since 2000, said that after four years of running a church in Phnom Penh, he became disillusioned and now focuses on small Bible study sessions.

"It became apparent to me that [Cambodians] were coming to church but not wanting to take part in building the church," he said. "That's why I no longer want to have a big structure and have them think that ‘this is the Western money train, I want to get on board'."

An independent Khmer-American pastor, who declined to be named because of his associations with several organisations in Cambodia, agreed that the massive economic gap between Westerners and most Cambodians turned proselytising into an ethical minefield.

While outright bribes were rare, he said that economic dependency was hard to avoid.

"It's good to give, but you have to be very careful how you give. You come to Cambodia with SUVs and tonnes of rice, and that's virtually bribery," he said.

The pastor said the financial concerns of some large churches had compromised their aims.

"If you build your foundation on money,  religion will crumble," he said, singling out the Mormons for criticism.

"I believe that churches have made a lot of mistakes in terms of their focus on finance and on getting their numbers up. That's where the church of Mormon comes in. They know how to work the system.... But all the money in the world can't buy God."

CAMA's Manfred said that in terms of building local capacity and avoiding the pitfalls of dependency, the principles of effective missionary activity were similar to the principles of effective aid work. "I think that the use of money is an area where we have to be hugely careful, so that these kinds of patron-client relationships are not established," he said.

Given the lack of government oversight, Manfred added, some Christian groups imposed a regime of regulation on themselves. CAMA has associated itself with the Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia, an umbrella organisation representing a large number of missions, which has a stringent code of conduct prohibiting the use of material "enticements".

"We limit the amount of money coming from the outside in terms of direct support [to churches]," he said.

"My problem with this is when they try to wean themselves off, there's already a bit of dependency, and they'll often just look for another patron."

But Freeze said these mistakes were often a result of a lack of understanding of the local context, something that could be overcome through in-country experience. "Most groups have genuine heart," he said. "But a lot of the problem here is a misunderstanding of culture."