The theme of this month’s Nautilus is “Mutation.” Like Aeon Magazine, Nautilus consistently produces very high quality science inflected journalism. I highly recommend it. A piece in the current edition is titled How the Mormons Conquered America. It is a well written feature which plays with a common theme, the rise and mainstreaming of Mormons in America. One has to be cautious here of the hyperbole though which often underpins these articles. The American Religious Identification Survey reports no change in the proportion of Americans who were Mormon between 1990 and 2008. This isn’t that bad, as the United States became notably more secular in that period, with many groups suffering significant decline, but, it belies the idea that Mormonism is sweeping across America. Rather, these sorts of features in the press likely reflect further integration of Mormons into the American cultural scene, and to some extent prominence. Again, one has to be careful of not getting carried away, as Mormon demographics are not nearly as exceptional in terms of education and income in comparison to the American norm as is the case for Jews, or Episcopalians.
So why the focus on Mormons? Because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the only distinctively American sect which emerged from the Second Great Awakening to be a possible claimant to the label “world religion.” This was a period of incredible religious and cultural innovation, but even among the broader class of American Restorationist sects Mormons stand out as exceptional in their numbers and public profile. Naturally people are prompted to ask why this is so. If you read the article in Nautilus it is rather clear no one knows why the history of the Mormon church is at such variance with the vast majority of radical sects which were founded in 19th century America.
One of the most prominent commentators on the issue of Mormon demographic growth is Rodney Stark, who has projected exponential international growth into the 21st century, and worldwide numbers on the order of hundreds of millions. Such sensational claims naturally draw notice, and he’s quoted in the article. But Stark’s academic work also gives us a glimpse into why he thinks Mormons are successful. As outlined in A Theory of Religion what he proposes is that religions are “firms,” which provide “goods & services” to “consumers.” Competition between these firms results in a winnowing process where those which provide a better product flourish. The aggregate choice of individual consumers is ultimately what is determinative as to which religion rises and which falls. This model focuses on individual action, and is supply side. Stark applies the same model to historical events such as the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire (and in his telling the enforcement of Christian monopoly in the 4th and 5th centuries actually hampered the development of a vigorous religious culture by forestalling the competition between Christian sects). Additionally his method is deductive, as he makes predictions which have the virtue of being falsified.
For many reasons which I have outlined elsewhere I find this model not particularly persuasive as a general explanation for religious change (though in particular epochs and places, such as much of 19th century America, it does explain much). Rather, I would like to focus on one aspect of the rise of Mormonism which is not highlighted much: Mormons are just one of the many religious movements which arose out of Joseph Smith’s community. They just happen to be the most successful by a very wide margin. Though the different religious groups which derive from Smith’s community have diverged greatly over the years, their differences in theology and practice were initially not so stark, and even today they often share commonalities such as prophetic revelation. I think the key fact which is a necessary precondition for why the Mormons have been so successful is that the group which became the Mormons separated themselves physically from the rest of American society, and had decades of institutional development in the American West as a de facto theocracy. In this fashion the Mormon church became a folkway, which seamlessly integrated into the life of an ethnic group, as settlers in Utah tended to be from New England Yankee stock (later European converts often came from regions of Europe, such as Scandinavia, which were extremely assimilable into Yankee society). Firms and corporations rise and fall, but entire peoples can persist over thousands of years. Other American radical sects did not develop in the same fashion as Mormons because they often remained more physically in contact with broader society. The economics inspired model of Stark and his fellow travelers does not explain religious change because consumer choice alone is too protean, fickle, and evanescent, to give rise to the cultural features which make for a robust religion.