Why are Mormons the American success story?

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I was skimming through a book on Scandinavian migration to Utah the other day, these Scandinavians being converts to Mormonism. The author noted that while most Scandinavian Americans settled in areas where farming was relatively easy, these converts went to Utah, which is a less than optimal territory when it comes to per unit productivity. Fair enough. But it got me thinking about why Mormons are so successful: perhaps it’s just a function of migration. There were lots of American sects which arose during the early 19th century. The Disciples of Christ and the Seventh Day Adventists derive from the same period of religious ferment during the Second Great Awakening. But the Mormons have been the most successful. Why?

Perhaps it was the Mormon theology, the awesomeness of Joseph Smith. Or perhaps Mormons really are the One True Faith and god is on their side. But then I remembered that the original Mormons were New Englanders, and that most of New England’s population in 1800 derived from the period between 1630-1640. The 20-30,000 who left England to establish a Puritan utopia in the New World. In the colonial period, and up to the Civil War, New Englanders were the most fertile group of Americans. Those Puritans who emigrated to New England in the 17th century, and remained (many went back to England during the period of Cromwell), have been extremely successful genetically in relation to their relatives in the home country. The reason is the simple Malthusian nature of biological increase; America had more room for growth (though England’s population did grow very fast in the two centuries after the Puritans left, it did not match America).

The Utah Mormons are not the only descendants of Joseph Smith’s religious idea. The Community of Christ, once the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints, and long under the stewardship of the Smith family, remained in the Midwest while Brigham Young led the migration west. Today the Community of Christ is in many ways a small mainline Protestant denomination, having lost or never developing the uniqueness of the Utah Mormons in terms of their theology. Numerically and socially it is relatively marginal, to the point where many Americans would be surprised as its existence (splinter Mormon sects which practice polygamy get a lot more press for obvious reasons).

The Community of Christ might illustrate the dynamic of attraction and absorption which occurs to splinter sects within a mature society. Over time minorities standardize their norms with that of the majority as they become respectable. This means they lose their distinctive cohesion. By contrast, the Utah Mormons were a people apart for several generations because of the nature of geographical distance in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Only with the rise of modern communication have they been assimilating, deemphasizing (at least in public) some of the more exotic aspects of their theology which might shock mainstream Christians. But because of the long incubation period in Utah the Church of Latter Day Saints remains fundamentally separate from what most Christians refer to as the “Great Tradition” of orthodox Christianity. By analogy to biology what occurred was an instance of allopatric religious speciation. In this model the great success of Mormons rests on their human geography during their formative period.

Some world historians point out that it has been nearly 1,500 since the last great distinctive world religion arose which challenged the status quo. Sikhism and Mormonism are instances of religious speciation, but they are small potatoes compared to Islam. Additionally, both of these traditions have shown some evidence of drifting back into their parent tradition (though Sikhs resist this, Hindus often claim Sikhs as simply a Hindu sect, while some Mormons have been slowly emphasizing their shared commonalities with other Christians). Perhaps modern communication technology and mobility will prevent future religious fissions on planet Earth? Perhaps subsequent to Islam the technological and communication gaps which new religions utilized to overturn older orders simply closed? In fact, if you read the travels of Ibn Battuta you might conclude that Islam itself served as a critical catalyst in closing up all the remaining gaps and discontinuities across the Old World oikoumene!



  1. When you say “succesful” do you mean in terms of their size, distinctiveness or what? 
    I’m not sure if I had heard of the Disciples of Christ before. The only Adventist (or at least former Adventist) I can name is Gary Chartier
    What do you all think this guys‘ background is? The plurality of commenters there think Jehovah’s Witness. Apparently a low-achieving group, though we did have a JW president before a Catholic!

  2. Speaking of Chartier, Luke Ford has a series of videos interviewing him about growing up Adventist.

  3. combination of size and distinctiveness. usually there’s a big trade off. mormons have avoided it. as for that guy, i don’t think JW, because they’re realy anti-higher ed. they think it corrupts and anyway they’re waiting for *the end*. i think a JW fam would have ostracized the kid, period.

  4. spike, good call! all sound plausible, the key is what you fixed on: implicit resistance to higher ed, as opposed to explicit as in the case of amish or JW (ok, amish don’t live in arizona!).

  5. Less than optimal territory? Hee. Some of the Tromsø/Balsfjord mini-migration apparently went to Mormon country, others to Minnesota, but it was probably a heck of a lot easier to farm in either place than from whence they came. 
    Though Balsfjord’s not too bad, really. Yes, it’s close to two degrees above the arctic circle and the sun doesn’t come up until mid-January, but on the other hand the winters don’t get below 0 F and you can grow enough grain and potatoes to make moonshine. You can only dream of winters that mild in Minnesota.

  6. Why do you presume successful?  Pew suggests that Mormons are less unequal than other groups–less poverty and less very wealthy–but nothing extraordinary.  Pew also suggests close half of all Jews have a household income in excess of 100K–that’s successful.

  7. thorfinn, do you read? i put my criteria below. thanks for being my OED btw.

  8. and just so i’m clear, i’m saying *american* success. i.e., they’re a religion which was developed in the united states. which got numerous. remained distinctive. and now has over half its members outside of the united states.

  9. Re: the idea that global communication might prevent future religious schisms, I think it is also possible that a religon whose adherents purposely remove themselves from modernity and codify natalism into their creed might eventually become a significant demographic force. Granted it is more difficult to grow a religion through natural increase than through natural increase plus prosteltyzing but it can be done. Hasidic Jews and certain anabaptist groups are doing it, though of course these groups splintered from the mainstream a long time ago and wouldn’t themselves rebut razib’s point even if they were to continue their rapid growth. 
    My apologies if someone has already made this point; Internet isn’t Llowing me to see all the comments for some reason. :(

  10. That and lacking a university of their own to go to. The Mennonites, Trinitarian Pentecostals and Baptist Conventions all have their own universities or affliated colleges. The ones I named don’t really have much beyond uncredentialed Bible Schools.

  11. First, I strenuously object to the new comment form and format.  
    Second, I was raised in what is now the Community of Christ Church in SW Colorado in a community dominated by Catholics and Mormons. However, my parents were just as happy for me to attend services with whichever friend I might have stayed with Saturday night. Thus I attended Latin Mass nearly as often as I attended any other service. 
    The only church services I have attended in the last 20 years or so have been those offered by the tiny Community of Christ church in my father’s tiny hometown. Two of his sisters serve as co-pastors. Two of my cousins serve as district pastors… or whatever their title is now. I do not keep up with that sort of thing. 
    From my childhood what stands out is the teaching (however wrong they might be) about South American religions and cultures. The curiosity about Mayans and Aztecs led me to a lifelong interest in anthropology rather than a lifelong interest in religion. 
    Growing up in this church with very lenient parents as far as religion, coupled with the region (SW Colorado and NW New Mexico) probably gave me a very skewed perspective as far as religion, culture, and race are concerned.  
    Beginning in the summer of ’67, I watched the rest of the world seemingly on fire on TV, while my only my mother — armed with a shotgun — was allowed to answer the front door due to threats from Reies Tijerina and his raid on the Tierra Amarilla courthouse. My father, a white sawmiller (though no friend of government timber agents) was seen as their ally merely because of his skin color and occupation.  
    My ‘sense of history’ has been warped from childhood. 
    My parents had two reasons to send me to boarding school rather than high school in Tierra Amarilla — one, the school was not accredited by the state of New Mexico and two, I was an outcast by both race and my father’s ‘social’ status. 
    Thus, I spent the next year living in a dormitory with scholarship students from various Indian tribes in northern New Mexico while attending classes with a majority of affluent white (and ‘white’ Hispanic) “day” students. At the end of that year, my parents moved to E Texas… and I was thrown into a newly integrated southern high school. 
    To top off my unusual experience, only two girls spoke to me my first day at school — a black girl and the most popular white girl. Both became my friends for the next two years, but my friendship with the black girl kept me out of the desirable social clubs… I learned the meaning of blackballed first hand.  
    It’s also strange that this black girl who spoke to me and became my friend was the 1st black person I’d ever met. Though she laughed at me because I was so naive, she was thoroughly honest with me about how black people felt about whites. And after inviting me to go to church with her family, I was honest about why I did not return the invitation… and it led to my (and my mother) permanently leaving the church that is now called the Community of Christ. Frankly, the local congregation would not have welcomed her. Whether the “church at large” would have, I don’t know.  
    It was at that point that I began to question. At first, it was the organization of church that I questioned… and how churches could so easily cover up evil done in the church’s name. Then I began to question the idea of belief itself. 
    I am still questioning.