Mormons On the Move

Visitors to the Danish port of Esbjerg could have been forgiven their bemusement at the scene in the harbor last month. Several hundred people gathered to watch a flotilla of eight tall ships embark on a 59-day journey to the United States. Some in the crowd wore 19th century costumes and performed traditional dances; a few feigned tears and waved handkerchiefs as the voyagers set sail. Other dockside revelers also stood out, their neat white shirts and dark ties as incongruous in the throng of summer tourists as the colorful folk dresses.

The festivities were to mark the start of SeaTrek 2001, which commemorates the first wave of emigration to the U.S. 150 years ago of 85,000 European converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). The tidily attired, clean-cut youths were missionaries of the church, a few of the 60,000 young men and women currently serving two-year unpaid stints in 159 countries. More than 1,400 people, many of them descendants of those original seafarers, have signed on to participate in at least one leg of the journey, which includes stops in other Scandinavian ports, Germany and Britain.

Europe's first Mormons — as LDS members are commonly known — joined a fledgling movement that was still battling for survival in the U.S., where it originated in 1830. But even in those tenuous early years, church officials placed a priority on recruiting new adherents. Just seven years after the founding of the church by 24-year-old self-proclaimed prophet and former farmhand Joseph Smith, two of its leaders went to England as missionaries. The LDS branch they established in Preston is now the oldest Mormon congregation in the world in continuous operation, predating by a decade even one in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the church is headquartered. In England, as is increasingly the case in other parts of Europe, Mormons can boast ever-greater financial clout and strength in numbers. "There was a period in the '70s when we were opening more chapels here than Sainsbury's was opening supermarkets," says Bryan Grant, a British LDS spokesman and himself a convert of 31 years. "The biggest challenge we face is how to handle our phenomenal growth."

Where prior generations of converts departed en masse for the U.S. (by 1870, nearly half of the people in Utah were British immigrants), newly baptized Mormons have tended to stay put since church leaders began to discourage emigration in the 1950s. The current British Mormon population is roughly 180,000, and AgReserves, a church-owned farming company, is by some accounts the single largest foreign landowner in the country, with 6,500 choice hectares to its name. Income generated from these farms helps to fund humanitarian efforts such as food donations to needy countries. With 11 million members worldwide, 900 more recruited every day and a requirement that the faithful "tithe" — donate at least 10% of their income — the church is a spiritual and financial juggernaut.

Despite growing mainstream acceptance, however, European reaction to the church's earnest young missionaries is tinged with ignorance and suspicion. Like Scientology or Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormonism has been dismissed by some as cultlike, an American religious aberration that has little in common with mainstream Christianity. Although the church officially renounced polygamy in 1890, the stereotype of Mormons as teetotaling zealots with harem-like households has yet to be fully dispelled. Recent media coverage, especially in the U.K., of Tom Green, a self-proclaimed "fundamentalist Mormon" who lives in the Utah desert with his five wives and 26 children bolstered that image. Last month the Vatican saw fit to declare that it does not accept the validity of Mormon baptism. But even this apparent setback is little more than symbolic. Giuseppe Pasta, an lds spokesman in Italy, says the church there is close to signing an accord with the government that would confer on it the official status — and eligibility for tax deductible contributions — enjoyed by other denominations.

For all the resources the church pours into dispatching missionaries throughout the world, nothing presents quite as potent an opportunity for recruiting new members as the upcoming 2002 Winter Olympics, when the world's attention will focus on Salt Lake City. Despite LDS assurances that proselytizing will be restricted, critics worry that the church, which donated land and $5 million to the Olympic campaign, will use the Games to mount a giant p.r. drive. Mormon scholar Jan Shipps says these concerns have been overstated. "As Mormons point out, they are a part of the host city of the Games, just as when the Olympics go anywhere," she says. But, she concedes, "this is an opportunity for them to get across the message that they are a form of Christianity. And with church participation so low in much of Europe, perhaps this new form will be perceived as a way of invigorating Christianity in Europe." With its home base as host, the Mormon church could end up being one of the Games' biggest winners.