"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
October 15, 2009
A history of Christian growth
by Orson Scott Card

We Latter-day Saints often look at our own history as unique. Yes, there are echoes of past history -- our westward migration to Salt Lake City is redolent of the migration of the Israelites, Jaredites, and family of Lehi into their lands of promise.

But these ancient events are known to us only through scripture. The world is free to doubt that those old stories mean anything at all.

(Though scholars who dismiss ancient records as fiction have been embarrassed time and again as we find that ancient tales that purport to be history usually have a foundation in real events.)

One story that parallels ours, however, has its feet firmly planted in history.

First, let's review one aspect of our past: When the Church was organized in 1830, there were a few dozen members.

(The famous "six" met a legal requirement; the Smith family alone provided more members than that).

Now, nearly 180 years later, we're at thirteen million.

Most of that growth has taken place in my lifetime. When I was born, David O. McKay had been Church President for less than five months. Church membership was at about 1.2 million members.

There are those who dispute the exact numbers, though they are honestly arrived at. Any tally of the total number of membership records is going to include quite a few people who haven't been to Church in years, including some who don't even remember having been baptized.

It would be wrong to exclude them. We all know stories of people who have not come to church for years and then are touched by the Spirit -- or befriended by a good neighbor -- and come into full activity.

A better measure of Church growth is the number of stakes. You can't form a stake until you pass a certain threshold of active members so that there'll be enough people to fill all the essential teaching, leadership, and clerical callings.

As the Church leadership long ago realized, "baseball baptisms" never lead to creation of a stake. Conversions must be real and the new members must be committed.

And let's remember that Church growth also comes through converting our children. It's our responsibility to have all the children we can decently raise and do our best to make the gospel an irreplaceable part of their lives.

To see a wonderful representation of the creation of stakes throughout our history, take a look at this short video.

Has such a thing happened before?

Yes. Almost exactly the same thing happened -- between 34 a.d. and 320 a.d., as the Christian Church grew.

As scholar Rodney Stark analyzed the growth of the early Christian Church for his book The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, he had to make estimates of Church membership over the decades and centuries.

All population figures for the Roman Empire are estimates, but they are checked against reality and have to make sense. Within the framework of the Empire, we can start forming estimates of the percentage of the population that was Christian.

Stark estimates that if by 40 a.d. there were a thousand Christians in the world, then a growth rate of 40 percent per decade would lead to Christians being a majority of the Roman Empire by 350 a.d. -- about 33 million out of 60 million.

Growth rates are never actually steady. Looking at a table of the membership of the LDS Church, we can see that from year to year the growth rate can fluctuate wildly -- doubling between 1835 and 1836, for instance, and shrinking from 1854 to 1857.

So Stark's figure of 40 percent per decade is only an estimate of long-term average growth. Still, it's a useful number, because it does coincide with a phenomenon observed by non-Christian Roman writers: the extraordinary growth between 250 and 350 a.d.

Year Christians

50 1,400

100 7,530

150 40,495

200 217,795

250 1,171,356

300 6,299,832

350 33,882,008

In reality, the growth rate must have differed from this in its specifics. What the independent sources confirm, however is that from 250 to 350 the growth of the Christian Church seemed nothing short of miraculous.

Yet the identical growth rate that had kept the Christians below one percent of the Roman Empire's population for the first 150 years can still account for Christians being a majority in another 150.

In his constant effort to keep his estimates of Christian Church growth in line with the real world, one of Stark's tests was to compare it directly with Mormon growth rates. So it's not exactly a surprise that Stark's 40 percent per decade figure coincides quite well with our first 150 years.

And yet ... are you thinking what I'm thinking? That's right: Historians agree with us that there was a radical change in Christian doctrine between 100 a.d. and that phenomenal growth that started after 250 a.d.

Of course, Christian historians don't consider it to be an apostasy -- the "falling away" that we recognize. They consider the doctrinal changes to have been a stage in the evolution of Christianity.

In fact, we are accused of not being Christians precisely because we rejected all those hellenizing, neo-platonizing doctrinal changes.

So does that mean that because we have not accommodated to the world's doctrine (check out the story of Korihor in Alma 30 to see what that would look like), we will not continue that growth rate to such exponential heights?

Or should it annoy us that the early Christians continued to convert people at the same rate we're converting them -- even after having lost the priesthood authority? After all, we convert by the Spirit of God.

As scholarship, Stark's book is quite remarkable and interesting, and I'm going to talk about it more in weeks to come; there's much we can learn from it about ourselves.


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More by Orson Scott Card

About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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