Notes from the CESNUR Conference: Rick Phillips, “Mormon Religiousness and the Enduring Significance of ‘Gathered’ Communities”

By June 15, 2009

Rick Phillips, “Mormon Religiousness and the Enduring Significance of ‘Gathered’ Communities.” Phillips argued that having a dense population of Mormons contributes to religiousness and church activity and sees statistical evidence for decreased religousness among LDS in the Mormon Culture Region (Utah, Idaho, etc.) as LDS population density has decreased. Don’t miss notes from Massimo Introvigne on Mormonism and Twilight in Italy, Michael Homer on Oriana Fallaci and Anti-Mormonism, and Elder Robert S. Wood, and Iain Irving on Mormonism and Postmodernism/Modernism.

Utah has been characterized as the Mormon homeland where it dominates politics, etc. In July 2005, a Salt Lake Tribune article presented statistics that said the proportion of Utah’s citizens that were Mormon began declining in the 1980s. In a series following, the Tribune took time to follow up on this trend.

The Church responded with a shrug. It commented that the Church was used to governing in areas where they have little influence, so why does it matter? My argument is that the vitality of Mormonism is boosted by clusters of tightly woven Mormons. There is a strong relationship between Mormons and their homeland.

Mormon pioneers crossed the plains…seeking to establish Zion in valley of Salt Lake, consolidated, church state fused, church and community units fused. The gathering. Joseph Smith encouraged the people to live in enclaves.  Throughout the 19th century, missionaries were urged to leave the world behind and migrate to Utah territory. New arrivals were encouraged to shed their culture and adopt the worldview of the Saints. Religion and homeland were intertwined. Social geographers hold that these enclaves crated a Mormon culture region. The gathering assembled the Mormons in one region.

Most arable plots were taken by 1890 and there was no more room for arriving converts. The gathering suspended. Instead of coming to Zion, converts were to stay and abide by principles where they were. This altered the conception of Zion. It transformed in the hearts and minds of the LDS from a place into an ideal. Not together physically but morally, set apart by lifestyle from the cultural mainstream rather than by geography.

Demographic shift threatened Mormon identity.

With growing numbers of Mormons in a pluralistic milieu, the Church consolidated authority, standardized programs. There were no regional differences in practices.

Imposed uniform structures to replace the gathering as a creation of uniform religious culture. This culminated in the correlation movement. Far reaching standardization, the church is the same wherever you go. English LDS wards are more uniform than those in Catholicism or evangelical Protestantism.

These days the typical church member is a first generation convert. The ward is the community, far cry from the Wasatch front. Rates of activity compared show that being gathered affects religiosity of LDS. Some have argued that Temples made gathering irrelevant. That the new gathering is around temples. If that is the case, then activity rates should not differ. Data on activity rates in the LDS Church is hard to come by. The data that is available is usually imprecise.

Church large enough that info can be gleaned from the GSS and other national science foundation surveys. The General Social Survey. The GSS does not gather data by states, but rather by region with 9 regions, Utah is included in the Mountain region. The Mountain region contains 6.3% of the nation’s population but …percent of the nation’s Mormon population. The GSS provides a suitable proxy for the Mormon culture region.

With respect to church attendance, in the Mormon Culture Region (MCR) 2/3 of Mormons reported that they attended weekly. Outside the MCR, ½ attend this often.

In the MCR it was less likely by ½ for respondents to say they never attend church.

Melchizedek priesthood ordination rate:


Outside MCR- 53%

Outside of US-30%

Members per stake:

Utah, 3486

Worldwide 4729

In the MCR there is higher activity. This runs counter to the idea that saints in the “mission field” are more committed and those inside the MCR take the church for granted. What is it about the MCR that sustains such robust activity?

1. Big families and dense kinship networks. More are born and raised in the faith, dense ties to the faith. Family ties promotes church activity. Rites of passage, baptisms, blessings, ordinations to the priesthood, temple ceremonies.

2. Cultural norms

Erosion of Mormon population seems to erode these norms.

If church activity boosted by dense population, then activity rates should be falling along with decreasing LDS population in the MCR also. Data suggests this is so.

In the past 10 years, those reporting weekly church attendance has fallen from 2/3 to half. The percentage that say they never attend has doubled. Outside the MCR, these changes are not apparent. No corresponding drop in the last 10 years. There is now no statistically significant difference in attendance either inside and outside the MCR.

The most significant trend in the MCR is not increasing rates of activity but higher rate of defection.

LDS Disaffiliation by region.


MCR 15%

Not MCR 23.1%


MCR 29.1%

Not MCR 31.1%

Levels of apostasy in MCR have risen to those traditionally outside MCR.

From 4.3 converts for every disaffiliate to .9, so apostates outnumber converts in the MCR.

For every person coming in, 2 leave in the MCR of 2008 (He mentioned that as he was wrapping up preparation for this conference that the numbers for 2008 came in and they showed this trend of disaffection growing).

Conclusion. Preliminary evidence that MCR promotes strong activity, insufficient evidenced, but the Salt Lake Tribune prediction may merit some scrutiny.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. This will do it for the CESNUR notes. Thanks all, and I hope they are useful to you.

    Comment by Jared T — June 15, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

  2. Thanks, Jared.

    Comment by David G. — June 15, 2009 @ 3:19 pm

  3. Interesting numbers… while I don’t live anywhere near Utah (nor do I ever plan to), I can see that for some it would be a benefit.

    The only problem I see with these numbers is that church activity is a bit more complicated than being counted present in sacrament meeting on Sunday. Things such as temple attendance, temple recommend holders, those who faithfully accept and fulfill callings, scripture reading, family and personal prayer, home teaching stats, etc. probably ought to be somehow figured into these. I understand, however, that these kinds of numbers would be almost impossible to collect. Would definitely be interesting to see those kinds of numbers.

    I considered going to BYU after my mission, but I’m glad I decided to stay down here in the South where I am needed and have been put to good use. We see too many of our faithful youth move away to Utah because they think thats the only place they’ll find a spouse, but forget that the Lord really needs the kingdom built up in all places. There are certainly benefits to living there, but for me this is home. I enjoy the challenge of being a small minority here, where being a member of the church is a big deal -its special- and is not so commonplace as it is out west.

    Comment by Joshua — June 15, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

  4. Joshua,

    I think your point about activity being more than just attendance is definitely correct. I myself don’t know much about the GSS and I would love to hear from someone more familiar with it if Phillips’ use of it is reasonable. It just seems much that for every convert in the Utah area two people become disaffected. Then again, if retention rates are as low as they’re supposed to be, maybe it should come as no surprise that only one in every three baptisms stays “active.” Unless I’m misinterpreting his findings.

    Comment by Jared T. — June 15, 2009 @ 4:19 pm


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