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!