Christianity Today’s current online Books & Culture (January/February 2006) features an article written by Gerald R. McDermott, Saints Rising. Dr. McDermott takes a look at The Rise of Mormonism, a new book by sociologist Rodney Stark and addresses the question, “Is Mormonism the first new world religion since the birth of Islam?”
One of the many segments in the article that I find interesting is a comparison of the LDS Church with The Watchtower (Jehovah’s Witnesses). Dr. McDermott’s purpose in making the comparison is to see if the LDS Church is indeed the newest world religion—or, taking it down a notch, the newest “new religious tradition.”
Using the number of adherents as the primary measure of what is or is not a world religion, as Dr. Stark suggests; and using doctrinal departure from historic Christianity as a measure of a new religious tradition, as historian Jan Shipps suggests; Dr. McDermott writes:
[Jan Shipps] proposes that every other [non-Mormon] new American religion was sectarian, which means that none of them changed the mainstream Christian story in fundamental ways. Since Mormonism changed the story fundamentally by opening the canon with a new prophet and new revelation (and recapitulating key events in both Hebrew and early Christian histories in such singular ways that its history itself became a new text), it is a new religious tradition.
But what about Jehovah’s Witnesses? Did they not change the dominant religious story in fundamental ways? The Mormons added new incarnations to the story, but the Witnesses denied the concept of incarnation entirely! The Mormons rejected traditional understandings of the origins of God the Son, but the Witnesses denied the existence of God the Son! Mormons disavow the Trinity but retain three “personages” of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each fully divine. Witnesses, on the other hand, don’t even come close: Jesus is ontologically inferior to the Father, and the Spirit is an impersonal force.
If Mormons qualify as a new tradition because of their changes to the dominant religious story, Jehovah’s Witnesses also deserve the label. In terms of numbers, Witnesses are doing even better. Despite starting later (1879 vs. 1830), they have more adherents and are in more countries. [David B.] Barrett reports that in 2000, there were 11 million Mormons in 116 countries, but 13 million Witnesses in 219 countries.
I’m glad that Dr. McDermott has provided some perspective to the oft-repeated myth that Mormonism is the fastest-growing religion around. But I suspect that Mormons will keep the myth alive as the news media quotes—unchallenged—statements like this:
“We are now the fastest growing church in the United States with 12.5 million members and we are growing faster outside the U.S.”
— Gainesville Georgia’s LDS Mayor George Wangemann, Gainesville Times, December 17, 2005