Converting to Mormonism

By September 14, 2008

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.”[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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?[5]


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.

[1] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996), 14.

[2] Ibid, 18.

[3] See Rodney Stark, “The Rise of a New World Faith,” Review of Religious Research 26 (1984): 18-27.

[4] Stark, Rise of Christianity, 19.

[5] 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.

Article filed under Methodology, Academic Issues


  1. Great post.
    I’m not sure the first element holds much water. Maybe it is different in America than other countries, but it seems to me that is often counterintuitive to join the church abroad, yet some people do it. I know on my own mission I saw people join and return to place where they had no support, and were the only members in their neck of the woods for many, many miles (and that’s an understatement). To say that they joined because of a sense of community in the sense that they were attached to those around them is absurd. I think they may have been attracted to the idea of belonging to something greater– a greater community of saints, although they could not be physically with them, and doubtful that they ever will be.
    Amongst my own Mormon ancestors, some abandoned–or were abandonded by their communities and families to join the church, so I think that although they joined a new community, they lost a lot of social capital in the process.
    I’m not even sure it’s fair to compare early converts to Mormonism since such a large number were foreign converts from the British Isles and Scandinavia.
    That being said, everyone needs a friend. Certainly people who find friends at church after having none will stick around better, and maybe become attached. But I think for the most part if they aren’t truly attached to the to only the people, but can’t relate to them in any meaningful way, will eventually find other friends over the years and become less active. If people find the church spiritually fulfulling, that fullfillment will become the basis of strong bond amongst other congregants–and then they will stay.

    Comment by mmiles — September 14, 2008 @ 11:33 pm

  2. I went to Brazil. I vote with Stark for “discontent.” Number-loving missionaries race to the poorest neighborhoods for good reason.

    On a less cynical note, I think faith in the teachings is what ultimately CONVERTS members (recently baptized or long ago baptized), and more importantly sustains them through the inevitable socially frustrating moments of church participation.

    But why do (many/not all) people let the missionaries in? In Brazil, I gained deep respect for Karl Marx’s critique (opiate of the masses). When your day is spent cutting sugar cane (a fate worse than sweatshop shoe sewing), and your next day is going to be spent cutting sugar cane, a jaunt to the meetinghouse to hear about the hereafter (accompanied by the smiley white boys in nice clothes) is awfully inviting.

    Missionaries call these people “humble” and “prepared.” I think Stark’s word – discontent – is suitable.

    Comment by MTN — September 15, 2008 @ 1:33 am

  3. Stark’s works were basic texts in my BYU Sociology of Religion class some two decades ago. There’s a little bit of the “chicken-and-egg” as far as current church policies are concerned, because IIRC, his research informed the missionary department of what is likely to work and what is likely not to work.

    That said, I do think that the relationship thesis holds for early LDS Church history, if you account for the very small handful of ‘early adopters’ who are actively seeking something, and who then provide a conduit of friendships to others. This explains, for example, Herefordshire and Kirtland: in both cases, an early seeker-adopter embraces the message, and then conversion spreads along that individual’s relationship connection lines. In a variation on this theme, Samuel Smith dropping off a copy of the Book of Mormon at a single household sets up a domino-effect that eventually brings in Brigham Young several years later.

    Comment by Coffinberry — September 15, 2008 @ 7:32 am

  4. Thanks for your comments, MTN and MMiles. Both great points.

    Coffinberry: I think you are really on to something. Maybe it isn’t so much that the early converts had relationships with people in the church, but that they had relationships with people going into the church.

    Comment by Ben — September 15, 2008 @ 10:33 am

  5. I think Flemmings article in Church History goes a long way to controvert several popular notions of discontent as a major factor, at least in early Mormonism.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 15, 2008 @ 11:18 am

  6. J: I was thinking Felmming’s article spoke to this subject, but I sadly haven’t read it yet. Could you give us a quick summary?

    Comment by Ben — September 15, 2008 @ 11:21 am

  7. Grant Wacker’s Heaven Below takes on old ideas about discontent and disposession as these concepts apply to Pentacostalism. Might be worth a look if you are thinking comparatively here.

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 15, 2008 @ 11:30 am

  8. I don’t think you can understand the “Mormon Coverts” of the 19th Century, without an understanding of the European migration to America at that time.
    “Homeward to Zion” (Wm. Mulder), gives a good accounting of why 30,000 came from Scandinavia.
    It like trying to understand the “Mormon Trek”, without a background knowledge of the Oregon Trail.

    Comment by Bob — September 15, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

  9. I’ve written an article arguing that Stark’s understanding of early Mormonism is way off (trying to get it published). In my Church History article I lay out data suggesting that the early converts tended to be churched at much higher rates than the general populace (twice as high). Take a look here. [Admin note: Link fixed]

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 15, 2008 @ 12:44 pm

  10. J.’s right about Fleming’s article. It’s a must-read for those interested in early Mormon conversion. Its greatest contribution, IMO, is that it seeks to understand the converts in order to understand Mormonism, instead of examining Mormonism to try and understand the converts.

    And thanks for stopping by, Steve. The PDF you linked to wasn’t working, so I fixed the link in your comment to link to the HTML version. Here’s hoping your other article that specifically takes on Stark gets published.

    Comment by Christopher — September 15, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

  11. Thanks for stopping by, Steve. I will repent and go read your article (as well as look forward to your forthcoming one).

    I was hoping people would comment who knew a lot more on this than I do (since that is not too difficult), and this has definitely taken place.

    Comment by Ben — September 15, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

  12. My first comment above was a contemporary (and anecdotal) outlook.

    If we’re looking primarily at early 19th century converts, it has to be tied to the culture/fashion of millennialism snd seeking for which the revival circuits followed the frontiers (from the burned-over district to Cane Ridge) and those whose lives were physically difficult.

    The concentration of American religiosity and fervor of the second awakening was not among the New England elite. Maybe “discontent” is too demeaning of a word; but “opiate” may still be useful to explain the conversions/seeking of those in the harsh frontier environment who were however literate, theologically interested and thoughtful, economically ambitious, etc. The millennialism seems especially compelling as a connection between temporal conditions and theological openness.

    I wonder about the English and Scandinavian converts: were they socio-economic strugglers and stragglers, or from all walks of European life?

    Comment by MTN — September 15, 2008 @ 2:04 pm

  13. In other words, “discontent” doesn’t allow for those who were excited about the possibilities of the frontier. But “opiate” or whatever other shorthand we might use recognizes the existential urgency of dire physical conditions that lead desperate people to seek relief in comforting metaphysical systems.

    I understand that seekers were not just religiously curious, but in need of relief, one reason the second awakening is characterized by an interest in personal salvation over communal experience, as with the Pentecostals and Barton-Stoners, but not really dominant in LDS discourse until 1905ish (according to Flake’s book about Reed Smoot).

    I would like to read both Fleming and Wacker in light of this conversation. When I get home tonight, I’ll see if the book by Catherine Albanese has anything to help us.

    Comment by MTN — September 15, 2008 @ 2:13 pm

  14. Ben,
    Take a look at Stark’s chapter on conversion in his and Finke’s Acts of Faith. That’s what I go after (thought I’m going to tone it down).

    Thanks for fixing the link Chris.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 15, 2008 @ 2:16 pm

  15. I overstated it when I said the Stark was “way off.” He has a number of accurate points but often overstates them (as the various contributors have noted).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 15, 2008 @ 2:34 pm

  16. I referred to Catherine Albanese – the book I was thinking of is in fact a collection of pieces edited by Thomas Tweed called “Retelling US Religious History.”

    It includes a Finke article called “Illusion of Shifting Demand: supply-side interpretations of religious history” that offers an interesting alternative thesis to “conversion to satisfy an economic or social need.”

    Finke suggests that the disestablishment of religion in the US is essentially a “deregulation” of religion (sects were neither subsidized nor suppressed). Preachers, then, become marketers, and seekers become customers. In this piece, supply creates its own demand. More to say about it, but I have to run. I think it’s useful to anyone pursuing this topic.

    Comment by MTN — September 15, 2008 @ 6:30 pm

  17. We’re not talking enough about imagined communities here, stories about the created connections that were made possible by certain types of religious messages. Stark is right that actual communities are important drivers of large-scale conversion, but in typical academic fashion he downplays the coexisting and robust relevance of imagined communities and the role of projected identity. A religious community that validates your beliefs about yourself and the world is more likely to have success than one that doesn’t.

    Comment by smb — September 15, 2008 @ 11:35 pm

  18. #17: I believe in imagined communities too. ( I live in a Blue State, how ’bout you?). Also, I think we act upon these imagined belongings.
    Where our thinking about communities goes wrong, is trying to limit our actions to a feeling we belong to only one. My Grandfather (age 16), came to America to: 1) be an American, 2) be a Mormon, 3) be a farmer in the Sanpete Valley, 4) a bother and son to those already here.
    I have no idea which of these ‘communities ‘ was most important to him.

    Comment by Bob — September 16, 2008 @ 10:38 am


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