The Rise of Mormonism
Columbia University Press, 2005
192 pp., 65.00
Gerald R. McDermott
In 1984, sociologist Rodney Stark startled the academic world with a claim that has kept religion-watchers scratching their heads ever since. "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons," he predicted, "will soon achieve a worldwide following comparable to that of Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and the other dominant world faiths."1 Stark claimed that Mormonism had grown faster than any other new religion in American history. Between 1840 and 1980, it had averaged a growth rate of 44 percent per decade; in the four decades 1940 through 1980, growth zoomed to an astonishing 53 percent. If it maintained a 30 percent growth rate, Mormons would exceed 60 million by the year 2080; if 50 percent, then 265 million by 2080.2 "Today," he declared, "they stand on the threshold of becoming the first major faith to appear on earth since the Prophet Mohamed rode out of the desert."3
In 1996, twelve years later, Stark reported that his high estimate of projected growth was too low: by 1995, there were one million more Mormons than even a growth rate of 50 percent had predicted. Therefore he was still holding to his earlier projection of 265 million by 2080.4 In 2001 he was saying the same: "By late in the twenty-first century the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be a major world religion."5
Rodney Stark is one of America's pre-eminent sociologists of religions. A onetime journalist who writes with a breezy and provocative style ("For much of its existence, the social scientific study of religion has been nothing of the sort," he deadpans in his new book on the Latter-day Saints), he has made a career out of debunking his discipline's cherished assumptions.6
Now University Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University, Stark is unrepentant about his prediction of world-historical success for Mormonism. In The Rise of Mormonism, he continues to assert that the growth of this new American religion is "one of the great events in the history of religion," and, no less boldly, "the single most important case on the agenda of the social scientific study of religion." This volume updates his earlier articles, and also includes essays on conversion and secularization, arguing that Mormonism is proof positive that conversion is less about new beliefs than social connections (early Mormonism "spread mainly along family lines"), and that secularization is self-limiting because its spiritual emptiness stimulates the growth of new religions like Mormonism: "Empty Lutheran churches in Scandinavia are good news for LDS missionaries as well as for gurus."
Stark's book is the latest of a number of recent signs that Mormonism is becoming increasingly accepted as part of America's religious mainstream. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with 5.5 million members in 2003, is now the fifth largest American religious denomination, after Roman Catholicism, the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, and the Church of God in Christ.7 Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is a serious contender for the Republican nomination for president. And Eerdmans, a respected Christian press, has poured significant marketing energy into a new book by a Mormon theologian on the identity of Jesus.8 This is therefore a good time to assess Stark's remarkable claims.
Is It New?
In 1984, Stark insisted that, while Mormons "have retained cultural continuities with Christianity (just as Christianity retained continuities with Judaism and classical paganism)[,] the Mormons are a new religion."9
Mormons themselves disagree on this, as do Christian scholars engaged in dialogue with Mormons. Some Mormon scholars object that most Mormon distinctives can be found in earlier Christian thinkers and practices; some Mormon believers believe that the notion of Mormonism as new only feeds often-virulent prejudices that Mormonism is essentially unchristian and in fact a cult.
Nevertheless, among both Mormon and non-Mormon scholars, many would agree that while Mormonism retains significant and central features of mainstream Christian thought and practice, it nevertheless diverges in ways sufficient to merit its characterization as a "new religious tradition."10 Jan Shipps, who "has come to know the Saints better than any previous outside observer,"11 has famously argued that Mormonism is a departure from the existing Christian tradition as much as early Christianity was a departure from Judaism. It abandoned both Roman Catholic and Protestant beliefs about the finality of the New Testament, and particularly the Protestant principle of sola scriptura.12 Philip Barlow's recent study of LDS use of the Bible reinforces Shipps' contention. Like Shipps, he believes Mormonism departs from sola scriptura: the new tradition puts limits on biblical authority and rejects the Bible as a sufficient religious guide:13
Since the time of Joseph Smith, the Mormon use of scripture has combined a traditional faith in the Bible with more "conservative" elements (including a more than occasional extra dose of literalism), some liberal components (such as Joseph Smith's Bushnell-like insistence on the limitations of human language), andat least in the American contextsome radical ingredients (an open canon, an oral scripture, the subjugation of biblical assertions to experimental truth or the pronouncements of living authorities).14
According to Barlow, Mormon Apostle Bruce McConkie taught that while the Bible was inspired by God, it has since been corrupted and so now contains "only a shadow of the clearer, unmarred revelations Joseph Smith wrote and spoke"15: "[Our present Bible] contains a bucket, a small pail, a few draughts, no more than a small stream at most, out of the great ocean of revealed truth that has come to men in ages more spiritually enlightened than ours."16 McConkie's most enlightened age was apparently that of Joseph Smith, who, as Grant Underwood notes, has been given by Mormons the same canonical status as the Apostle Paul.17 Barlow points out that McConkie's views often dismayed some Mormon leaders, but over time came to be regarded as generally orthodox.18
There are other significant departures from mainstream Christian thought, such as "the possibility of people evolving into gods,"19 the bodily nature of God, and "Latter-day Saints' erasure of unassailable walls of separation between matter and spirit and humans and gods." For Eric Eliason, these are "doctrinal differences serious enough to make Mormonism ultimately irreconcilable with traditional Christianity."20
Some scholars beg to differ. Terryl Givens, for example, uses Stark's outline of seven marks of orthodox Christian belief, and finds that "in all seven cases, Mormon belief is in unambiguous accord with these core beliefs." Even Mormon deification is not new, he argues; it is no different from what can be found in Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Athanasius and Augustine. Givens cites Truman Madsen's assertion (but without accompanying argument) that Mormon beliefs anticipate thinking held by Bonhoeffer, Hartshorne, and Avery Dulles.21
Yet at the same time, Givens suggests that Mormonism rejects what Kierkegaard called the "infinite qualitative difference" between the human and the divine: "The [Mormon sense of the] divine, in other words, was not characterized by the radical otherness that [mainstream Christian] religious tradition equated with the sacred. For this reason, [Smith's] religious innovation was more the naturalizing of the supernatural than the other way around."22 For Givens, then, the Mormon sacred is not, after all, the traditional understanding of mysterium tremendum et fascinosum. Religion is not mystery; God in a sense has been reduced (at least in difference from humanity) and humanity exalted. As one scholar (whom Givens cites) puts it, Mormons teach an "anthropomorphic God and theomorphic man."23 On the ontological nature of humanity and deity, then, even Givens suggests significant departure.
Christie Davies is another scholar who says Mormonism is not a new religion. Instead, he argues, it "is best regarded as merely a forward position on a Protestant line of advance away from Roman Catholicism and back towards the traditions of the Old Testament."24 But Davies adds that if Mormonism maintains an ultra-Protestant concern for abstention from mild drugs of sociability (alcohol for fundamentalist Protestants, caffeine for Mormons), it nevertheless guards a Jewish, "and very non-Christian, mode of defining its boundaries and identity through dietary taboos and an obsession with genealogy and descent."25
If Givens claims too much for the Mormon doctrine of deification (the Fathers never broke down the wall of ontological separation between creature and Creator26), he is nonetheless right to emphasize continuities between Mormonism and traditional Christianity. After all, these have often been obscured by religious polemics. Evangelicals in particular need to hear that Mormons teach basically the same moral theology which John Paul II called the "gospel of life"; that they believe in the (original) Bible as the Word of God, Jesus as God the Son and not just the Son of God, Jesus as the only means of salvation, and the substitutionary atonement. They also need to know that Mormon scriptures assert that salvation is not earned by human effort but that Christ took our sins, we take his righteousness, and we are saved by grace through faith.27
At the same time, however, the newness of this religious tradition cannot be denied. There is, in Barlow's phrase, an "enduring difference."28 Mormons enlarge the biblical canon, accept new revelation, claim that God the Father had his own father, hold that eternal law is independent of and co-eternal with God, deny ontological difference between creature and Creator, and reject creatio ex nihilo. In addition, Mormons and traditional Christians differ on whether creatures can share God's "incommunicable" attributes, whether there are non-material beings, and whether there were pre-existent spirits co-equal with the Father of Jesus Christ. One must therefore conclude that Stark elides important distinctions when he claims in The Rise of Mormonism that the Christian convert to Mormonism "retains his or her entire Christian culture and simply adds to it."29
Is It a World Religion?
While Stark confidently proclaims that Mormonism is the newest world religion, scholars cannot agree on what the term "world religion" means. Some question, for example, the assumption that "world religion" means that there are devotees scattered across the world. This alone cannot count, they reason, because there are hundreds of widespread religious groups with insignificant numbers that no one would call world religions. Yet some religions, which have significant numbers located in many countries, are still inaccessible to most. Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism and Hinduism, for example, are mostly ethnic and endogamous. This is why Douglas Davies, among others, says they are great religions of the world but not world religions.30
What if we then say that "world religion" means a religious group in a variety of countries, accessible to newcomers, and of significant number? Even this last feature, which seems the most obvious, is suspect. For many religions cannot be counted easily. In East Asia, for example, millions would call themselves Buddhists. But most of these same people would also call themselves Confucianists and many, especially in China, also Daoists. Most estimates of religious demographics assume religious exclusivism for their surveys of world religions, but these Asian millions are clearly not exclusive in their religious attachments.31 These are some of the reasons historian of religions John Hinnells concludes that the label "world religion" is neither clear nor transparent. Hence more work needs to be done defining what is meant by the terms before we say with any certainty if Mormonism qualifies.
But if the number of adherents can be misleading, nevertheless it is the easiest way to measure the size of a religious group. And if it is not the only measure of a world religionwhatever that may beit is nevertheless an important and useful one. Since it is the leading criterion Stark uses, we will use it to help us answer the next question.
Is It the First Since Islam?
If we use the number of adherents as our primary measure of what we agree to call a world religion, it is impossible to say that the Church of Latter-day Saints is the first new world faith since the birth of Islam. Since the 7th century, a number of other new faiths have arisen of comparable or larger size. Each was sufficiently different from its parent religion to merit its moniker as a new tradition.
For example, True Pure Land Buddhism arose in the 13th century, inspired by Shinran's Protestant-like theological innovations. In the last edition of David Barrett's World Christian Encyclopedia (2001), which is one of the most reliable sources of comparative religious demographics, Mormons number 11 million while True Pure Land Buddhists total 14 million.32 The 20th-century Japanese new religion, Soka Gakkai, already outstrips the Mormon church, 18 million to 11 million. Baha'is, who originated in the 19th century, numbered 7.1 million in 2000.33
Jan Shipps seems to agree with Stark's claim, but she limits her comparison to new American religious traditions. She proposes that every other new American religion was sectarian, which means that none of them changed the mainstream Christian story in fundamental ways. Since Mormonism changed the story fundamentally by opening the canon with a new prophet and new revelation (and recapitulating key events in both Hebrew and early Christian histories in such singular ways that its history itself became a new text), it is a new religious tradition.34
But what about Jehovah's Witnesses? Did they not change the dominant religious story in fundamental ways? The Mormons added new incarnations to the story, but the Witnesses denied the concept of incarnation entirely! The Mormons rejected traditional understandings of the origins of God the Son, but the Witnesses denied the existence of God the Son! Mormons disavow the Trinity but retain three "personages" of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each fully divine. Witnesses, on the other hand, don't even come close: Jesus is ontologically inferior to the Father, and the Spirit is an impersonal force.35
If Mormons qualify as a new tradition because of their changes to the dominant religious story, Jehovah's Witnesses also deserve the label. In terms of numbers, Witnesses are doing even better. Despite starting later (1879 vs. 1830), they have more adherents and are in more countries. Barrett reports that in 2000, there were 11 million Mormons in 116 countries, but 13 million Witnesses in 219 countries.36
In The Rise of Mormonism, Stark suggests that only Mormons have what it takes to become the next major world faith, listing ten marks of such a community in an essay republished in his new book. Careful consideration, however, reveals that the Witnesses also fare well when judged by these same criteria.
"Cultural continuity with the conventional faith(s) of the societies in which they seek converts." Stark himself says that Witnesses will have an advantage over the Latter-day Saints in Christian societies because of novelties in LDS theology: an infinite number of universes, multiple gods and their wives, and the potential of today's humans to become gods. But the advantage may not be significant, given the Witnesses' discontinuity with modern culture on other scores: their pacifism, discouragement of higher education, and refusal to participate in civic groups or politics.
"Non-empirical" doctrines. Here Witnesses are at a disadvantage because of their long history of failed attempts to predict the end of the world.37 Mormons fare better on this score.
A modicum of tension with the surrounding environment: "strict but not too strict." Mormons and Witnesses are probably comparable here: Witnesses don't celebrate birthdays, but they can drink. Mormons drink neither coffee nor beer, but they are viewed by "Gentile" Americans as responsible citizens.
"Legitimate leaders with adequate authority to be effective." This also means opportunity for members to assume authority. Both churches use self-taught laity, not seminary-trained clergy, to lead. Hence every member, at least among males, has the chance to take a leadership position.
Volunteer labor, who also evangelize. Both churches are remarkable on this score, with Witnesses having a slight edge, since they enlist all ages to go door-to-door, not just the young for two years.
High fertility rates. Both churches emphasize the importance of large families, and fertility rates are higher than average in each.38
Weak competition in a political context of religious freedom. For both Witnesses and Mormons, there is greater growth in regions where there are higher numbers of the unchurched. Stark has shown that where there is a healthy percentage of those who list their religious affiliation as "none," new LDS membership is higher.39 The same can be said for Witnesses in Europe, which has been secularized by the Enlightenment and communism.
"Strong internal attachments, while able to maintain and form ties to outsiders." Both groups seem adept at networking friends on the inside. But Mormons are better at forming ties to outsiders. Witnesses are less connected to the outside world because they reject a larger number of cultural institutionsnot only politics, just war and higher education, but also blood transfusions and blood products, religious holidays, extracurricular school activities, saluting the flag, and working in hospitals.
They "remain sufficiently strict." Although Witnesses are even more rigorous in terms of lifestyle, both churches maintain more than minimal tension with their surrounding culturesespecially in nations outside the United States where Mormonism is perceived as an American religion.
Religious education that persuades the young not to defect or seek to eliminate the tension with their culture. Stark points out that since LDS members are well-connected to outsiders and mainstream American society, "the message to ambitious young Latter-day Saints [is that] successful people are religious people." Hence they are not unduly tempted to think they need defect in order to find worldly success. This will be more problematic for Witnesses, who discourage higher education.
All in all, the differences between these two churches on these criteria are not great. The two churches are fairly even for six of the criteria, while Latter-day Saints have the advantage in three and Witnesses in one. This rough parity is evidenced by worldwide growth: the two churches are remarkably close in numbers of adherents, with Witnesses having a slight edge. Because the Witnesses have planted communities in far more countries, and are not as associated theologically with America in this increasingly anti-American world, their prospects for further growth might be a little better.
Will It Become a World Religion?
Let's take stock of my argument so far. Mormonism is indeed a new religious tradition, but it cannot be said to be the first new tradition since Islam. Other religious traditions with broad appeal have arisen since the 7th century, not only among non-Christian religious families but even within the American Christian congeries of traditions. The term "world religion" is problematic; there is no scholarly consensus on its meaning. But if we stipulate that it refers to a religious movement of significant numbers and accessible to a broad number of peoples, then Mormonism takes its place not among the great world religions (all of which dwarf it in size40) but among a fair number which may someday reach that status.
Will Mormonism grow as Stark suggests? Perhaps we can learn from its parent, apostolic Christianity. According to Lamin Sanneh and Andrew Walls, the two most notable thinkers in the study of what has come to be called "world Christianity," the key to Christianity's growth has been its ability to transcend its Jewish-Palestinian culture: in a word, its "translatability."
Sanneh and Walls have argued that when Christian faith takes the word of Christ into a new culturewhich more often than not is animated by a religious visionit uses the language and almost invariably the concepts of the new culture. In the process, the faith is reshaped and sometimes even expanded by "translating" its message into the vocabulary and concepts of the new culture.
Scholars have noted that this process took place even during the biblical period. In the Old Testament, for example, God used previously-existing Mesopotamian religious rituals (sacred torches and censers in initiation and purification rites, and circumcision) to teach new religious concepts to Abraham and his progeny.41 God also seems to have used Persian religious traditions to teach his people in Babylonian exile new understandings of cosmic warfare and life after death.
In the New Testament we can see the influence of Hellenistic religion: the Hellenistic theos was often understood to be a single godhead behind many names and mythologies or an impersonal One behind all that is. New Testament authors used the word, already invested with the suggestion of the ground and force behind everything that exists, and added a new layer of meaning denoting the epitome and source of personhood. Such "translation" is always risky: while something may be gained, something may also be lost by importing foreign connotations that corrupt the original meaning. The use of the new term "Lord" for Messiah (Christ) in Antioch (Acts 11:20), by unnamed believers from Cyprus and Cyrene speaking to Greeks, ran the risk of reducing Jesus to one more cult divinity alongside Lord Serapis or Lord Osiris. But because the new community was saturated in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Greco-Roman kurios was reshaped into a new kind of kurios, recognizably Jewish.42
Sanneh has argued recently that translatability was therefore written into the fabric of the apostolic faith. It was not an accident that Christianity was the only world religion transmitted without the language or culture of its founder.43 Jesus' followers believed the gospel ought to be translated into other languages and cultures. "There was nothing God wanted to say that could not be said in simple everyday language," and therefore translated into other languages and cultures. All cultures were created equal; no language or culture had privileged access to the divine.44
The question for us, then, is whether, or to what degree, Mormonism is translatable. There are some positive indications. First, as Douglas Davies has contended repeatedly, Mormonism promises the transcendence of death.45 Indeed, Mormonism's transcendence comes "value-added." It goes beyond mainstream Christianity by not only offering some sort of salvation to nearly everyoneeven non-Mormonsbut also providing detailed descriptions of the afterlife. There is a variety of heavens available, and the assurance of being reunited with family and other loved ones. On top of all that, it promises godhood to faithful Mormons. This is attractive to people in some cultures, particularly those in religions such as Theravada or Zen Buddhism that have little or no hope of conscious life after death.
Second, the LDS Church can now tell residents of Latin America and the South Pacific that God did not neglect them. Recent interpretations of the Book of Mormon assert that Jesus' "other sheep" (John 10:16) were people in "ancient America," which is now said to include Central and South America, and perhaps Pacific islands as well.46 Stark has shown that many Latin American Saints believe they are direct descendants of Abraham through Lehi, and that the Book of Mormon is "the authentic history of pre-Colombian times."47 Hence Christie Davies confidently predicts, "Mormonism is set to become a new world religion because it reaches parts other religions cannot reach."48
Third, as Armand Mauss has pointed out, Mormonism has an enormous capacity for change. When the LDS gospel got a poor reception in various times and climes, it changed its doctrine about blacks, Jews, and the identity of the Lamanites. In the process, "a provincialeven tribalmovement was gradually transformed into a universal religion in which lineage of all kinds became essentially irrelevant."49 Similarly, as Mormons adopted a more Christocentric focus in the 20th century, and emphasized the apostle Paul's universalism, they dropped their 19th-century belief that Anglo-Saxon and German Mormons had an "inborn propensity, in their very blood, to recognize the teachings of Christ as delivered by LDS missionaries."50 This change bore "some apparent relationship to the results of church programs for proselyting and retention in various parts of the world."51
Similar pressures preceded the elimination of the ban on the priesthood for blacks. When the Nigerian government in the early 1960s refused Mormon missionaries because of the Church's ban on black priests, and growth in the Brazilian church necessitated a new temple (which would have been closed to black converts), "President [Spencer W.] Kimball, in an inspiring combination of political and spiritual acuteness, brought his colleagues in the leadership to an acceptance of his own understanding of God's will in the matter."52 The result was the elimination of the ban on black priesthood in 1978. Meanwhile, emphasis on Jewish conversion has diminished as Jews have shown themselves "impervious" to the same, and the identity of Lamanites gradually shifted from North to South America "as church growth has bogged down among the Indians of North America and (by contrast) mushroomed in Latin America."53
Since Mormon theology is still in process (Lawrence Young laments "its limited formal theology"54), one wonders what might happen if it continues recent trends toward mainstream Christian theology.55 There is some precedent here. In 1997, the Worldwide Church of God dropped both its objections to the doctrine of the Trinity and certain Pelagian tendencies, and was accepted as a member of the National Association of Evangelicals.56
Now, Mormon-evangelical differences are greater than WCOG-evangelical differences. Nevertheless, one guesses that if it were to affirm the incommensurability of the human and divine natures57 and the eternal deity of the godhead, Mormonism would be more translatable in regions (such as Africa and China) where there is increasing familiarity with historic Christian thought.
Obstacles to Translation
Despite these positive possibilities, Mormonism faces a number of obstacles as it seeks to become a world religion. Perhaps the most formidable is its close association with American history and culture. Mormons believe that God's new prophet was from New York, and the millennium will begin in Missouri. When America had a better public image internationally, this may have been a drawing card for Mormon missionaries working abroad. But in recent years, it has become a liability. Growing anti-Americanism will hinder the promotion of a religion that is American not only culturally but theologically. Therefore the question is whether, as Douglas Davies posed it, Mormonism will be able to transcend indigenous culture or remain essentially North American.
As we have already discussed, new understandings of Lamanites have helped Mormon missions in Latin America. But even here, resentment toward the northern superpower may hamper missionary efforts. In Asia and Africa, it will be more difficult. Lamin Sanneh has argued that mainstream Christian translatability has enabled African Christians to feel more African.58 Will Mormon theology enable them to do the same, when they learn that Christ came to North and South America but not Africa?
This theological and cultural connection to America may help explain the second obstacle, which is what seems to be a low retention rate outside the United States. In 1994, Lawrence Young observed that outside the South Pacific, Mormonism was numerically marginal. In all countries except Chile (2.5 percent of the population), the Mormon population was usually significantly under 1 percent. Weekly attendance rates in Latin America and Asia were half of the rates in the United States. Young predicted that most new members outside the States would not be integrated successfully, and that Mormonism would remain orginal in those societies.59 Mauss was similarly pessimistic, noting in 1991 that retention rates for the second generation outside North America ranged "from modest to abysmal."60 It is not clear that these problems have been resolved.61
Third, ironically, one of Mormonism's strengths is now a weakness: its lack of a formal theology.62 Without a clearly identified set of core beliefs, it is harder for Mormonism to compete in areas with religions that have clear doctrinemainstream Christianity and Islam, for example. In other words, if Mormonism's doctrinal fluidity were to work itself out of a job by clarifying its theological core, and particularly in the direction of mainstream Christian theology, it would become more competitive. But without those sorts of changes, it may be difficult to overcome its cultural embeddedness.
In summary, Mormonism is indeed a new religious tradition, with significant differences from mainstream Christianity. But it is not the first major faith to have arisen since Islam,63 and it has not grown faster than any other new American religion. True Pure Land Buddhism, Sokka Gakkai, Baha'i, and Sufism are all religious movements that are of comparable or greater size and have also arisen since the 7th century. Each is an important departure from its religious parent. The Jehovah's Witness tradition, another new American religion, has grown even faster than Mormonism, and boasts larger worldwide membership in many more countries. Mormons and Witnesses are comparable in their fulfilment of ten criteria which Stark proposes are necessary for religious growth.
Hence Mormonism is not among the great world religions (of course, Stark only claimed it is on its way), but it is one of a number of religious communities that are growing. Its potential to rank among the five or six largest religions depends on its translatabilitythat is, its ability to transcend its American provenance and theological character. It has the advantages of 1) teaching a near-universal salvation with an attractively-detailed afterlife, 2) a proven capacity for adaptation, and 3) theological appeal to those who live in the Americas.
But precisely because of this American history and theological structure, its recent growth may start to level off, as its poor retention rates outside the United States suggest is possible. This trend may continue in parts of the world where anti-Americanism is growing and where global Christianity's increasing prominence is heightening sensitivity to differences with historic Christian beliefs. Unless it can transcend these cultural barriers, and reduce theological dissonance between its doctrines and mainstream Christian understandings of creation and ontology, it may prove difficult to sustain its growth outside the Americas.64 This may be why the editor of Stark's Rise of Mormonism notes that Stark is more optimistic about Mormon growth than official LDS researchers.65 All predictions aside, Stark's book, along with some of the other recent books cited here, should prompt Christian readersand evangelicals in particularto reflect on what they share with Mormons and what divides them.
Gerald R. McDermott teaches religion at Roanoke College. His most recent book is Why Are There Different Religions? Answers from the Bible and the Early Church, forthcoming in 2006 from Baylor University Press.
1. Rodney Stark, "The Rise of a New World Faith," Review of Religious Research, Vol. 26, No. 1 (September 1984), p. 18.
2. Ibid., Table 2, p. 22.
3. Ibid., p. 19.
4. Stark, Review of Religious Research, Vol. 38, No. 2 (December 1996), pp. 175-78.
5. Stark, "The Basis of Mormon Success: A Theoretical Application," in Eric A. Eliason, ed., Mormons and Mormonism: An Introduction to an American World Religion (Univ. of Illinois Press, 2001), p. 239.
6. For example, in numerous articles and books he has argued that increasing secularization is neither inevitable nor threatening to religion in general, and that religious conversion is not irrational. In For the Glory of God (2003) he argues that the 16th-century flowering of science was not a sudden revolution opposed by religion but a "normal, gradual, and direct outgrowth of medieval theology."
7. Eileen Linder, Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches 2004 (Abingdon, 2004). Stark wrongly claims there are more Mormons than Lutherans: counting ELCA and Missouri Synod and other branches, Lutherans number more than 7 million. Nevertheless, the largest Mormon church is a larger denomination than the largest Lutheran one.
8. Robert Millet, A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-day Saints (Eerdmans, 2005).
9. Stark, "The Rise of a New World Faith," p. 23.
10. Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1985).
11. Philip Barlow, "Jan Shipps and the Mainstreaming of Mormon Studies," Church History, Vol. 73, No. 2 (June 2004), p. 412.
12. Jan Shipps, Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years among the Mormons (Univ. of Illinois Press, 2000), p. 331; "Is Mormonism Christian?: Reflections on a Complicated Question," in Eliason, ed., p. 83.
13. Philip Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), p. 220.
14. Ibid., pp. 227-28.
15. Ibid., p. 193.
16. McConkie, cited in Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, p. 193. Emphasis added.
17. Grant Underwood, "Mormons and the Millennial World-View," in Douglas J. Davies, ed., Mormon Identities in Transition (Cassell, 1996), p. 141.
18. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, p. 190.
19. Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang, "Modern Heaven and a Theology," in Eliason, ed., p. 145.
20. Eliason, "Introduction," in Eliason, ed., p. 10.
21. Terryl L. Givens, " 'This Great Modern Abomination,' Orthodoxy and Heresy in American Religion," in Eliason, ed., pp. 101-02. The seven points (the first four of which are regarded as essential) are "existence of a personal God, the divinity of Jesus Christ, the authenticity of biblical miracles the existence of the Devil life beyond death, the virgin birth, and Christ's walking on water."
22. Ibid., p. 116.
23. Terryl L. Givens, "The Book of Mormon and Religious Epistemology," Dialogue, Vol. 34, Nos. 3 and 4 (Fall-Winter 2001), p. 53n65.
24. Christie Davies, "Coffee, Tea, and the Boundaries of Mormonism," in Douglas Davies, ed., Mormon Identities, p. 43.
25. Ibid., p. 44.
26. Norman Russell's authoritative study of deification among the Greek Fathers shows that deification language was used "in one of three ways, nominally, analogically, or metaphorically." The first used the word "gods" for human beings simply as a term of honor. The second stretched the nominal by saying that humans can become "sons or gods 'by grace' in relation to Christ who is Son and God 'by nature.' " The metaphorical use takes two approaches, the ethical and realistic. In the ethical, humans attempt "likeness" to God by moral imitation. In the realistic, humans participate in God's being. But the relationship even here is "asymmetrical," bringing together beings of "diverse ontological type"the opposite of Mormon claims that God and humanity share the same ontology. Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (Oxford Univ. Press, 2004), pp. 1-2.
27. For Mormon understandings of grace, see 2 Nephi 2.5-8; 33.6; 2.3; Doctrines and Covenants 20.30-31. These understandings nevertheless differ from what one finds in most Protestant circles. For example, most Mormons seem to interpret 2 Nephi 25:23 ("It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do") in a semi-Pelagian manner, consistent with the Mormon third Article of Faith: "We believe that through the atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel." More charitably, this could be viewed as an Arminian position. For further discussion of evangelical-LDS differences on salvation, see Stephen E. Robinson and Craig L. Blomberg, How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and Evangelical in Conversation (InterVarsity, 1997), pp. 143-88.
LDS scholars at Brigham Young University have sought to minimize the disparity between Mormon and mainstream Christian soteriologies. Robert L. Millet, for example, has argued that the intent of the 2 Nephi 25 passage is that "above and beyond all we can do, it is by the grace of Christ that we are saved"; see Millet, After All We Can Do Grace Works (Deseret Books, 2003), p. 131; Millet, "Grace, Works, and Salvation," in Millet, The Mormon Faith: A New Look at Christianity (Shadow Mountain, 1998), pp. 69-79, pp. 168-69; Millet, By Grace We Are Saved (Bookcraft, 1989); Stephen E. Robinson, Are Mormons Christian? (Bookcraft, 1991), pp. 104-08, and Robinson in Robinson and Blomberg, How Wide the Divide?, esp. pp. 143-66.
28. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, p. 228.
29. Stark, The Rise of Mormonism, p. 68.
30. Douglas J. Davies, The Mormon Culture of Salvation: Force, Grace and Glory (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), pp. 258-59.
31. See, for example, Julia Ching, "East Asian Religions," in Willard G. Oxtoby, ed., World Religions: Eastern Traditions, 2nd ed. (Oxford Univ. Press, 2002), pp. 318-19.
32. David B. Barrett, George T. Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson, eds., World Christian Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (Oxford Univ. Press, 2001), pp. 7, 5. According to the Mormon 2005 Church Almanac, total membership in 2004 was 12,207,000; Almanac (Deseret News, 2004), p. 6.
33. Ibid., pp. 7, 5, 7. Each of these religious movements represented significant departures from previous traditions. Shinran's rejection of all "ways of effort" (jiriki) marked a radical divergence from the Gotama's endorsement of self-effort: "Be ye lamps unto yourselves" (Farewell Address, in Mahaparinibbana Suttanta). Soka Gakkai followed Nichiren in regarding other religions as false and other Buddhist sects as heretical. The Baha'is believe other divine messengers have come since Muhammad and will come in the future, implicitly rejecting traditional Islam's insistence that Muhammad was the "seal" (last) of the prophets. For this and other reasons Islamic authorities have persecuted Baha'is.
34. Shipps, Mormonism, pp. 42, 49.
35. For Witnesses' beliefs about the Trinity, Jesus, and the Spirit, see "Should You Believe in the Trinity?" (Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1989).
36. Barrett et al., eds., pp. 5, 6.
37. Joseph F. Zygmunt, "Prophetic Failure and Chiliastic Identity: The Case of Jehovah's Witnesses," American Journal of Sociology Vol. 75, No. 6 (May 1970), pp. 926-48; James M. Penton, Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah's Witnesses (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1985).
38. According to Stark, it has been "carefully documented many times" that LDS members have larger families.
39. This may not be true in Europe, however, where the LDS Church has not prospered, and is dominated by expatriates.
40. Barrett and Johnson refer to Christianity (2 billion), Islam (1.18 bill.), Hinduism (811 mill.), and Buddhism (359 mill.) as the great world religions, with the Sikhs (23 mill.) and Jews (14 mill.) as two notable but ethnic religions. Barrett et al., World Christian Encyclopedia, Table 7-1.
41. Gerald R. McDermott, Can Evangelicals Learn from the World Religions? Jesus, Revelation, and Religious Traditions (InterVarsity, 2000), pp. 80-2.
42. Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History (Orbis, 1996), pp. 34-5.
43. One might ask how Islam grew so quickly while insisting the Qur'an cannot be translated. Sanneh contends that Islam spread so quickly in its first century because, unlike Christianity in its first three centuries, it was able to harness the powers of the sword and the state. Sanneh, Whose Religion Is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Eerdmans, 2003), p. 120.
44. Sanneh, p. 98.
45. See, for example, Davies, The Mormon Culture of Salvation, p. 264.
46. "The Living Christ: The Testimony of the Apostles," 2005 Church Almanac (Deseret News, 2004), p. 20. Many Saints now believe that the central characters in the Book of Mormon lived in Central America; John Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996).
47. Stark, "The Basis of Mormon Success," pp. 218-19.
48. Christie Davies, "Place, Time, and Family in Mormonism," Dialogue, Vol. 34, Nos. 3 and 4 (Fall-Winter 2001), p. 18.
49. Armand L. Mauss, "Mormonism's Worldwide Aspirations and its Changing Conceptions of Race and Lineage," Dialogue, Vol. 34, Nos. 3 and 4 (Fall-Winter 2001), p. 103.
50. Ibid., p. 109.
51. Ibid., p. 105.
52. Ibid., p. 124.
53. Ibid., p. 125.
54. Lawrence A. Young, "Confronting Turbulent Environments: Issues in the Organizational Growth and Globalization of Mormonism," in Marie Cornwall, Tim B. Heaton, and Lawrence A. Young, eds., Contemporary Mormonism: Social Science Perspectives (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1994), p. 61. In 1996, Mauss noted that core Mormon doctrines had not been identified; Mauss, "International Prospects for Mormonism," in Davies, ed., Mormon Identities, p. 13.
55. For example, theologian Robert L. Millet's efforts to reorient Mormon soteriology toward grace and away from Pelagian conceptions. See note 27 above.
56. Mark A. Kellner, "Worldwide Church of God Joins NAE," in Christianity Today, June 16, 1997, p. 66
57. This need not conflict with Mormon deification, if the latter were to be redefined in accord with historic Christian understandings.
58. Sanneh, p. 43.
59. Young, pp. 56-60.
60. Mauss, "Identity and Boundary Maintenance: International Prospects for Mormonism at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century," in Davies, ed., Mormon Identities in Transition, p. 13.
61. Professor Tim Heaton at Brigham Young University, a leading scholar of Mormon demographics, told me he does not know of any study since that time (mid-1990s) that documents retention rates outside the United States. Phone conversation April 21, 2005.
62. Nor has there been delineation of "core Mormon doctrines." Mauss, "Identity and Boundary Maintenance," p. 13.
63. Stark's comparison of Mormonism to Islam suggests more similarity than actually exists. The apparent analogies at first appear remarkable: both traditions suggest the best evidence for their faith is their book of revelation; both claim the Christian Scriptures have been corrupted; both founders were prophet-statesmen who set up a religio-political order; both tout their theologies' simplicity as evidence of their superiority to the arcane complexities of traditional Christian theology; both founders taught and practiced polygamy.
But the differences are far more significant: Mormons proclaim Jesus as God in the flesh, the Savior of the human race, who was crucified and raised from the dead. Muslims deny each of these propositions.
64. This is particularly true as Christianity has become centered in the Southern hemisphere. See Sanneh, Whose Religion Is Christianity?; and Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford Univ. Press, 2003).
65. Reid L. Nelson, ed., in Rise of Mormonism, p. 10.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.
See all comments