(The Conversation) In an era where traditional church attendance has declined and the fastest-growing religious affiliation in America is the “nones” – those who claim no affiliation with an organized faith – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has continued to expand.
This growth in the LDS Church, commonly called the Mormons, is largely a result of the increasing numbers in the predominantly white congregations, as well as a large number of new Latino converts. Elsewhere, Mormon conversion rates have noticeably declined.
From my perspective as a scholar of American religious and political history, these two streams for growth signify a crucial tension at the heart of the Mormon experience: The Mormon community is struggling to keep its cultural identity while embracing multiple racial, ethnic and national backgrounds.
The diversity of the Mormon past
Cultural diversity has long been a part of the American experience. In the early 1850s, Brigham Young, the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, found that an increasing number of converts to the LDS faith, mostly European immigrants, were having a hard time grasping the English language.
It was a dilemma indicative of an age of globalization. Of the total Utah population in 1880, around 60 percent came from immigrant families. The question before Young was, how could the Mormon people retain cultural solidarity as they became more diverse?
Young’s solution was to reform the written language, so as to make the path of assimilation easier. In 1854, he announced that church leaders had “formed a new Alphabet,” which they believed would “prove highly beneficial” to foreign converts.
The resulting 38-character phonetic scheme, which they called the Deseret Alphabet, was an attempt to accommodate the faith’s European reach. But there were substantial costs for translating and reprinting necessary texts. And further, the language was never fully embraced outside the Church’s leadership. Eventually, the alphabet was discarded within a decade.
Nonetheless, it remains a testament to 19th-century Mormonism’s inclusive vision. Young and the other leaders genuinely sought to assimilate foreign converts. And the Mormons were not alone during this period: Their expansive growth took place at the same time as America’s largest immigration period, between 1870 and 1910.
Diversity in Mormon Church
But like many religions, Mormonism’s second century reversed many of the more radical impulses of its first.
Shortly after 1900, the practice of gathering converts to “Zion,” where members of the faith were expected to relocate to Utah, was discarded in favor of building individual “zions” throughout the globe. In other words, rather than immigrating to Utah,…