Historian: Membership Milestone Indicates Large, Stable Church
By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer
- Church membership has increased by 5 million since 1997.
- The continued expansion of the missionary force is a cause for optimism for continued growth.
- In the year prior to the October conference, the number of full-time missionaries increased from 58,500 to 80,333.
“The Church continues to grow steadily and to change the lives of more and more people every year. It is spreading across the earth as our missionary force seeks out those who are searching for the truth.”
—President Thomas S. Monson
As he opened general conference on October 5, President Thomas S. Monson said, “I am happy to announce that two weeks ago the membership of the Church reached 15 million.”
He added: “The Church continues to grow steadily and to change the lives of more and more people every year. It is spreading across the earth as our missionary force seeks out those who are searching for the truth” (“Welcome to Conference”).
In announcing the milestone, President Monson mentioned the organizing meeting of the Church on April 6, 1830, at which six members of the Church were present. (As indicated in a footnote to President Monson’s published address, as many as a few dozen people were present on that occasion, but six were officially listed as organizing members.)
The membership would stand at 280 at the end of that year and swell to 2,661 within two years (see Deseret News 2013 Church Almanac, p. 211).
Given the Church’s humble beginnings and the turbulent circumstances it endured in the early days, it can be gratifying to look back and observe the growth over time. In its first decade of existence, Church membership grew to 16,865.
By 1873 membership exceeded 100,000; the million mark was exceeded by 1947, 100 years after the coming of the Mormon pioneers to Utah.
Growth thereafter seemed exponential: 2 million by 1963, 5 million by 1982, and 10 million by the Mormon pioneer sesquicentennial in 1997.
With the reaching of the 15 million milestone, there is cause for optimism for continued growth with the past year’s significant expansion of the worldwide missionary force.
In his opening conference address, President Monson noted that it had been scarcely a year since he announced the lowering of the age of missionary service to 18 for men and 19 for women.
“Since that time the number of full-time missionaries serving has increased from 58,500 in October 2012 to 80,333 today,” he said. “What a tremendous and inspiring response we have witnessed!”
The 15 million milestone is an indication that the Church has reached a large and stable size, said Richard E. Turley Jr., assistant Church historian, in an interview with the Church News.
“When I was born in 1956, for example, by year’s end there were only about 1.4 million members,” he said. “So the Church has grown by more than 10 times during my lifetime.”
From a historical perspective, a stable size and growth is something to be appreciated, Brother Turley indicated.
“In the early days of the Church, the numbers were affected fairly dramatically by matters that were somewhat local or focused in their circumstances,” he said. “For example, in 1833 you have a significant drop in the rate of growth, but that’s also the year in which the Saints were driven from Jackson County, Missouri. You have a negative growth statistic in 1839, which is the year they fled to Illinois.”
Church growth dropped significantly in 1844 after the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith, he noted, and also in 1847 as the Latter-day Saints were beginning their westward exodus. The growth rate dropped to zero percent in 1857, during the so-called Utah War.
“So there were factors in the early days of the Church that had a significant impact on Church growth. But with the Church now being a global organization spread throughout the earth, the impact of events in any one place doesn’t have as large a proportionate effect on the growth of the Church as it once did. That’s why I say the Church has reached a point of great stability.”
Occasionally, on the subject of the growth of the Church, there is application of Daniel’s interpretation of the dream of King Nebuchadnezzar. As recounted in Daniel 2, the king saw in his dream an image with a head of fine gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of brass, legs of iron, and feet and toes of clay. He saw cut without hands from a mountain a stone that rolled forth until it crushed the image and eventually filled the whole earth.
As recounted in verses 44–45, Daniel’s interpretation was that the stone represented the kingdom of God on the earth, or the Church in latter days, that will eventually fill the whole earth.
While it can be amazing to reflect on the growth from six members in 1830 to 15 million today and one can anticipate that the kingdom of God eventually will indeed fill the earth, the reality is that the Church in numerical terms is relatively tiny right now when compared with the present-day world population of about 7 billion.
Perhaps a more immediate fulfillment of prophecy can be seen with reference to Nephi’s vision of the latter days: “And it came to pass that I beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few, because of the wickedness and abominations of the whore who sat upon many waters; nevertheless, I beheld that the church of the Lamb, who were the saints of God, were also upon all the face of the earth; and their dominions upon the face of the earth were small, because of the wickedness of the great whore whom I saw” (1 Nephi 14:12).
“Clearly, we now have a global presence,” Brother Turley said in reference to the phrasing in the scripture about the Saints of God being “upon the face of the earth” though “their dominions” would be small.
“The Church has spread throughout much of the earth, so I think that 15 million represents a global presence,” he said.
When Church membership figures are announced, some critics are wont to say that only a portion of the membership constitutes active Church members.
Brother Turley responds by pointing out that there are greater or lesser proportions of observant or dedicated members in most any organization, religions included.
“Studies show that members of our Church tend to be much more active in church attendance and in personal or home worship than in many other organizations,” he said. “And I also think the messages and direction of Church leaders in recent years have been to focus on retention and the rescuing of those who may not be fully active at present.”