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How Religious Movements Take Off

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October 27, 2012 by Steven Worden

Commentary on Religion and Society by Steven Worden. His column, “Fire On The Mountain” has appeared regularly in the WC Observer since 2010 and in the West Fork Zephyr. This article was originally published in the Washington County Observer September 8, 2011.

How Religious Movements Take Off

 Few topics fascinate sociologists more than the explosive growth of new religious movements. For example, how did a mere 1,000 Christians in the year 40 AD mushroom into more than 6,300,000 by 300 AD?

Much of it can be traced to the exponential growth that results from an increase of even only 3.4 percent per year.  And, as the numbers get greater, so does the impact of their doubling every 23 years.  Thus, slightly more than a million Christians in 250 AD can crest at over six million 50 years later, simply by the same rule that governs the growth of your savings account or the number of unspade cats that live out in your barn.

But does it involve only compound interest? Could an additional pattern be at play?

To find this out, Rodney Stark and his colleagues studied the growth of the early Mormon Church.  They concluded that not only was the wonder of exponential math at work, but also that nearly all the early conversions to the Latter Day Saints Church came about through family ties and a few close friendship ties. Recall that it was back in 1823, outside of Palmyra, New York, that the Angel Moroni first revealed to Joseph Smith, Jr. the existence of a record of events that became the Book of Mormon.  As Smith undertook the translation of the book, his entire family became enthusiastic participants in the enterprise.  Martin Harris, Smith’s close friend, and Oliver Cowdry, a lodger with the Smith family, also became fascinated by the work.  Later, after Cowdry went to live with the Whitmer family, they too, became excited about Smith’s project.

So in 1830, the first 23 Mormons involved 11 Smiths, 10 Whitmers, Harris, and Cowdry. By the end of the year, there were 280 Mormons; by the end of the next year 680, and by the end of 1832, Smith had 2,661 believers. According to Stark’s analysis, the new church was spread almost exclusively through networks of kinship and sometimes, friendship ties. One extended family alone, the Knights, accounted for 60 baptisms.  Even Brigham Young, Smith’s sucessor, was his distant cousin. Stark observed that the church today has over 13 million members, most of whom came through kinship ties and occasionally, carefully cultivated friendship ties.

For me personally, I was interested in the story of one George Bentley Teeples who had worked on the senior Smith’s farm and was a friend of the younger Smith. Consistent with Stark’s model, in 1833, George Teeples and his wife Hulda were later baptized into the LDS Church. Then, the Teeples, along with other Mormons, moved to Missouri and on into Illinois. When a mob in Nauvoo murdered Smith and his brother Hyram in January of 1846, George Teeples and his brother-in-law retrieved their bodies for burial. The next month, the Teeples family and other Saints moved westward, stopping occasionally. They eventually arrived in Salt Lake Valley in 1848. In 1852, Teebles’ only daughter Harriet  married Nathaniel Worden, my great grandfather.

Although two of their sons — one of them my grandfather — and his wife later distanced themselves from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, apparently over the issue of plural marriage, I still enjoy reading about the deeds of my family in the dawning of this religious movement.  I am also indebted to the Church for its meticulous records that enabled one of my cousins to track down the wanderings of our ancestors.  (Ties do count!)

Steven Worden, Ph.D is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Arkansas.

Steven Worden

PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Arkansas

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  1. ChicagoFriend says:

    Correction: Smith and his brother Hyrum were murdered in Carthage, Illinois 27 June 1844. The bodies were transported to Nauvoo, IL for burial about 20 miles north west of Carthage. ” When a mob in Nauvoo murdered Smith and his brother Hyram in January of 1846, George Teeples and his brother-in-law retrieved their bodies for burial.”

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