By Brittanie Morris
Growing up on a farm in Montana, Michael Stott never imagined he would spend his two years serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in southern Sao Paulo, Brazil.
More than 6,000 miles from home, this 21-year-old missionary has seen the miracle of more than 25 conversions to the church in the past six months, and even more in the 21 months he has spent there.
But Stott’s success is not exclusive to his area.
In the past six years, church membership in South America has grown by nearly half a million members, going from roughly 2.5 million members in 2000 to over 3 million members as of 2006, according to church public affairs officials.
Brazil and Mexico account for over 1 million church members, according to The Economist Newspaper.
The LDS church announced it had 12,868,606 members in its recent General Conference, with 272,845 converts baptized in 2006.
With church membership continuing to grow rapidly, the ever-present question in the minds of religious scholars worldwide is whether this religion which has members across the globe is, in fact, a new “world religion.”
Religious scholars have differing opinions on definitions for the term “world religion,” which often includes Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Catholicism.
Some scholars, such as Douglas Davies, a professor at Britain’s Durham University, suggest that world religions can be classified as “a religion that becomes established in many different cultures and adapts itself to local patterns of ritual and of thought.”
Davies says Mormonism is more likely to become a “global religion,” where the presence of the religion is felt within hundreds of societies and yet, it retains its distinctive identity.
Other scholars, such as Rodney Stark, American sociologist, author and professor at Baylor University, suggest Mormonism is, in fact, a new and flourishing world religion.
“…They [members of the LDS church] stand on the threshold of becoming the first major faith to appear on earth since the Prophet Mohammed rode out of the desert…” Stark wrote in his book titled, “The Rise of Mormonism.”
Stark also points out that the LDS church has sustained the most rapid growth of any new religion in American history and attributes much of the church’s success to its large missionary force.
“The Mormons have nearly as many missionaries in the field as do all of the Protestant bodies of North America combined,” Stark wrote.
The Church Auditing Department announced in the April 2007 General Conference that it had 53,164 full-time missionaries as of 2006.
Membership is increasing worldwide at an incredible rate. Also noteworthy is that a majority of the church’s converts come from outside the United States, Starks said.
The Economist Newspaper, in an article about the spreading of the Mormon faith, noted, “Although the religion continues to be centrally directed from its headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, the faith has gained a foothold in virtually every country in the world – and the American share of church membership has fallen.”
The church has 124 temples, religious meetinghouses where sacred ordinances are performed, and only 60 of them are located in the United States.
Although it has been criticized in the past for its problems with retaining membership, the church has taken an active stance to improve this problem and has seen some success.
The church has refined its missionary program to aid in retention of converts and implemented a new program in 2004 using the “Preach My Gospel” handbook, which encourages a more comprehensive and personalized teaching for potential converts, according to a church press release.
Still, the question is whether this rapidly growing religion – recently listed as the fourth-largest religion in the United States in the Council of Churches’ “2007 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches” – will attract followers and retain converts on such a scale that it will be included among the company of Islam, Buddhism, Catholicism, Judaism and Hinduism.
In his book, Stark suggests this as a possibility.
“If growth during the next century is like that of the past, the Mormons will become a major world faith,” Stark said.
Assuming the religion grows by 30 percent per decade, in 2080 there will be more than 60 million Mormons, Stark said. However, he notes the church membership growth rate since World War II has been far greater than 30 percent, and points out that setting the rate at 50 percent, there will be 265 million Mormons by 2080.
Although Stark admits that straight-line projections are risky, he says no scholars would have ever predicted the church membership to increase this rapidly from its outset in the 1830’s.
So what is the immense draw to Mormonism? Some scholars speculate it is the draw to American prosperity.
However, Count Leo Tolstoi, Russian author, statesman and philosopher claims the attraction may be due to something else.
In a discussion with Andres D. White, former president of Cornell University and U.S. Ambassador to Germany, Tolstoi told White if Mormonism could endure unmodified through three or four generations, then it would be destined to become the greatest power the world has ever known.
“The Mormon people teach the American religion; their principles teach the people not only of Heaven and its attendant glories, but how to live so that their social and economic relations with each other are placed on a sound basis. If the people follow the teachings of this Church, nothing can stop their progress – it will be limitless,” Tolstoi said.