SALT LAKE CITY — A fledgling faith founded 175 years ago on 6 April 1830 by a handful of men in a log cabin in upstate New York has grown to a worldwide faith of more than 12 million members in 170 countries and territories. Observers of American religious history and culture have described Mormonism as “the rise of a new world faith.”
In a dramatic demonstration of the reach of this global religion, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gathered last weekend in Salt Lake City, Utah, and across the world in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and South America to participate in the Church’s 175th Annual General Conference.
Although the proceedings originated in English, they were translated into 75 languages through interpreters stationed in Salt Lake and in 17 overseas remote interpretation studios. Translation of these proceedings and other Church materials into both written and unwritten languages is vital for Church membership, which is now larger outside the United States than inside, a trend that is expected to continue.
But the faith also continues to grow domestically. The Washington Post recently reported, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the fastest-growing denomination in the United States and ranks No. 4 among the country’s churches, according to membership figures compiled by the National Council of Churches.”
Bruce Olsen, managing director of the Church Public Affairs Department, says, “The numbers don’t tell the real story. The real measure of Latter-day Saints is the depth of their faith and how it changes people’s lives.” He adds, “Becoming a Latter-day Saint is a transformation of lifestyle, not just a shift in philosophical belief.”
The combination of both the pragmatic and the spiritual is a powerful force in the lives of members of the Church, and results in hallmarks of the faith such as family prayer and scripture reading, family home evening, home and visiting teaching, missionary and humanitarian service, healthy living, temple worship and a youth seminary program.
These practices are credited by researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill, who conducted a groundbreaking study of American teenagers and religion, as the reason Mormon youths show a greater willingness to adhere to the requirements of their faith. Researcher Christian Smith told the Charlotte Observer, “These investments pay off in producing Mormon teenagers who are … more religiously serious and articulate than most other religious teenagers in the U.S.”
Olsen says although Mormons are often known for their clean-living lifestyles, “It’s important to understand that this is just the fruit of our doctrine, which changes the way a person thinks of himself and his relationship not only to Deity but to others. The doctrine is the reason the faith has relevance to people from disparate cultures and economic circumstances.”
Consider these examples from members throughout the world. (For the full text of selected articles go to www.newsroom.lds.org)
- Pierre Anthian, a classically trained musician, used his talents to create the Montreal Homeless Choir to help the homeless find dignity, respect and financial security. Five CDs later, the choir has taken the Canadian music industry by storm. Anthian looks to the example of Jesus Christ, who ministered among the poor, the homeless and the despondent. Anthian said: “If we walk in His footsteps, we will find happiness for ourselves and for the people we serve. We are His hands, His instruments.”
- Christopher Mugimu earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in education at Brigham Young University and returned with his family to his native Uganda. His purpose in gaining an education was not to escape the hardships of his country but to use his knowledge to help his people. He said: “Many people, once they find their way into the United States, you have to get a Caterpillar to take them out. … But our contribution is to be back home. That is where we can make a difference.”
- French fashion designer Cecile Pelous spends three months out of every year helping disadvantaged children in orphanages in India. Her many projects include teaching teenage orphan girls to print batik designs on material to earn income and making patterns to cut and sew clothing. These girls now make clothing for more than 800 children in eight orphanages. “Each of us has a mission on this earth and responsibilities toward our neighbors, close by or further away,” she said. “We cannot remain indifferent.”
- David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue Airways, told the Harvard Business Review that he was inspired to create a unique egalitarian culture in his company because of his experiences as a Mormon missionary in Brazil. He said he found great happiness serving the impoverished people of that country and when it came time for his return home, he received advice from a Church leader that changed his life. “David,” the leader said, “when you go back to your life in the U.S., everything you do will be for you. You’ll be in school for yourself, earning money for yourself, and so on. And you’re never going to be as content as you were here unless you feel like you’re serving — like you’re helping other people.”
- When 29-year-old Miki Itokazu realized the profound need to provide working mothers with child care assistance in the city of Naha, Japan, she founded the nonprofit organization Nurturing Helpers. This resulted in a self-sustaining family support center staffed by 50 volunteers. Miki says, “It’s my hope that we’ll be able to expand this kind of support to meet the needs of parents, families and the handicapped in our community.”
- A young bride, who left no name or address, dropped off a small wrapped package containing her two-carat diamond wedding ring at Church headquarters. Inside was a note saying she and her husband decided together to donate it to the Perpetual Education Fund, a fund that makes loans to help finance education for members of the Church in Third World counties.
- 115-year-old Floripes Luzia Damasio walks a half-hour to attend church on Sunday in Brazil. Because of her perseverance and willingness to serve she is affectionately known as the “oldest little lamb.” She was baptized when she was 103.
Olsen says, “It’s almost ironic that a faith with such a humble beginning, a faith which struggled to find a physical home amidst persecution and a 1,300-mile exodus to Salt Lake City, would ultimately find a home in the hearts and minds of peoples everywhere.”