Mormons: Not necessarily who you think they are

A substantial accumulation of polling data over the years has given us a pretty clear picture of current public perceptions … Continued

A substantial accumulation of polling data over the years has given us a pretty clear picture of current public perceptions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Among the most consistent, top-of-mind impressions is that of a Utah church with a heavily Caucasian membership.

Naturally, Utah will always be associated with the church, as its global headquarters and the place which provided refuge way back in the mid-1800s when a less friendly America forced the fledgling faith to uproot from Illinois and Missouri and move West. Today, Utah and the surrounding states of the intermountain West still claim the heaviest concentrations of Latter-day Saints, and provide substantial support to the church’s missionary efforts and other church programs.

But the popular picture of a predominantly Utah faith with mostly Caucasian members no longer holds up. The church’s demographics are changing rapidly, especially throughout the western hemisphere. What was once, by and large, an American church is now a genuinely international faith. Today there are more Mormons outside the U.S. than in it. Today, Mormons are Bolivians, Ghanaians, Koreans and Russians, all an integral part of the church family.

Membership is measured on the basis of a member baptized into the faith, for whom we have a formal membership record. So if we took the church’s 14 million people and statistically represented that whole body as a single congregation of 100, what would it look like?

A snapshot of the church’s membership in the 1980 shows a heavy concentration of members in the United States, a largely homogenous group showing 73 of our 100 statistical members in the U.S. and Canada. Sixteen were Latin Americans, three were Asians, three were from Oceania, five were from Europe, and Africans comprised less than one.

By 2010 we see a quite different picture as the church grew from a membership of just over four and a half million to more than fourteen million over that period. In our hypothetical worldwide congregation of 100, only 48 now live throughout the U.S. and Canada; three are Africans and seven are from Asia. Three still are Oceanians. But a remarkable thirty-six of the hundred now hail from Latin America.

With global expansion have come associated challenges of diverse languages. Missionary training centers around the world now prepare missionaries to teach Christ-centered principles of the church in a bewildering array of tongues. The Book of Mormon, which members use as a companion to the Bible, has been fully translated into 82 languages and partially into 25 more, and more translations are underway. Sri Lankans can read it in their native Sinhala, and it’s also available in Twi, so Ghanaians can too. Again, a glance at a graphic illustration is the easiest way to grasp its significance.

It’s fun to play with graphics, but behind the numbers are real people of incredible cultural and ethnic diversity. Many of their stories are told in person on It all seems a long way from 1830 when the church was organized from a tiny and obscure group of believers in a New York hamlet.

Mike Otterson is head of public affairs for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

More On Faith and Mormonism:

Outlook: Five Myths about Mormonism

Under God: Video profile; Mormon missionaries in D.C. area

Under God: Mormon Mitt Romney not ‘Christian,’ says Fox News host

Otterson: Why I won’t see the Book of Mormon musical

Otterson: Who says Christians can’t vote for Mormon?

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