This is not so much an analytical post as it is an invitation for a forum of discussion.
My primary historical interest is nineteenth century, and if I wanted to narrow it down even more, the antebellum period. However, one of my classes this semester is exposing me to the fascinating world of early Christianity. A benefit of this is I get to read several important books that otherwise never would have topped my to-read lists. One of these books is Rodney Stark’s classic, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsider’s History.Perhaps one of the most important contributions of the book is the social scientific tools he introduces to a largely historical audience. And, besides the many fun comparisons he makes with Mormons concerning the growth of the Church, he also gives great insights on the theories and consequences of “conversion.” Several of the main points he makes, while they specifically engage early Christianity, are, or at least should be, very relevant to the discussion of early Mormonism. Stark argues that one of the of the crucial mistakes most religious historians make is “assum[ing] that doctrinal appeal lies at the heart of the conversion process–that people hear the message, find it attractive, and embrace the faith.” However, Stark argues that “modern social science relegates doctrinal appeal to a very secondary role, claiming that most people do not really become very attached to the doctrines of their new faith until after their conversion.” So, since theology is not the prime reason for converting, what is?
Well, Stark gives two key elements:
Conversion to new, deviant religious groups occurs when, other things being equal, people have or develop stronger attachments to members of the group than they have to nonmembers.
That is to say, conversion is more a social rather than theological result. We definitely hear this principle a lot in today’s church: as a missionary I always heard the ratio of investigators who don’t have a friend in the Church to investigators who did have a friend, were introduced by a friend, and taught in a friend’s home. In fact, a lot of Stark’s data for this principle is based on his research on twentieth century Mormonism.
The second key element Stark gives relates to the convert’s background:
New religious movements mainly draw their converts from the ranks of the religiously inactive and discontented, and those affiliated with the most accomodated (worldly) religious communities.
This idea makes sense to me; most of the people I saw join the Church on my mission came from either non-religious backgrounds or had been inactive in whatever faith they were a part of.
We can see how these principles fully apply to our day (on a non-scholarly side, I don’t know about the rest of you, but these elements are firmly in my mind as I consider my missionary opportunities), but how do these ideas relate to early Mormonism? And when I say early Mormonism, I mean nineteenth century when most of our conversions came from areas where there were hardly any, if not absolutely none, Mormon presence. To me, it seems difficult to see converts having a strong relationship with a faith tradition when their first exposure to it came from a missionary visiting their home town. It also seems that most of the conversion narratives of those who did convert talked about leaving a faith tradition, though Stark would counter that when converts look back on their conversion they always remember their pre-conversion life different than it really was in a (sometime subconscious) attempt to make their post-conversion life sound better.
It seems like the most common conversion stories (I’m thinking tales like the United Brethren in Herefordshire–though that is obviously a rare exception) go against elements like Stark points out. I guess the second point can be easily accepted–but what about the first? It seems conversion-by-relationships seem to only take effect in the Mormon experience once the Church became more integrated into Mainstream America, when we finally have a presence in most American–and now in some instances Universal–communities. While our Church has made wonderful gains implementing this method in the twentieth and twenty-first century, we did have some tremendous growth in the nineteenth century.
So, what think ye? Did community play a stronger role in early Mormon conversions than we normally give credit?
I should note that I am aware of the problems many historians have with Stark’s methods, specifically his placing modern concepts and understandings on ancient cultures. But, as I warned in the post, I am not well versed in ancient history, and therefore would rather avoid any discussions related to that. This post is designated primarily to see how these methods and hypotheses jive with 19th centurcy Mormonism.
 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996), 14.
 Ibid, 18.
 See Rodney Stark, “The Rise of a New World Faith,” Review of Religious Research 26 (1984): 18-27.
 Stark, Rise of Christianity, 19.
 Terryl Givens has made the argument that the early success of Mormonism was based on community relationships in his article “Lighting Out of Heaven: Joseph Smith and the Forging of Community,” which I am too lazy to get the rest of the reference information for.