Mormon Trek Now Has a Global Reach

In the late afternoons, Osamu Sekiguchi could usually be found under a shady tree writing about his day's journey on his solar-powered, lap-top computer. Mr. Sekiguchi, his wife, and two children - converts to Mormonism from Japan - walked 1,100 miles the past three months across the American plains with the Mormon Trail wagon train, a partial reenactment of the trek made 150 years ago from Illinois to the Salt Lake Valley.

They have no Mormon pioneer relatives to remember. Their trek is a connection to faith, not family. "This is my heritage, too," Sekiguchi says.

Mormons from countries like Japan, Great Britain, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand joined Americans in steering wagons or pulling handcarts on the journey, which ended in Salt Lake City on July 22. The wagon train's international character reflects efforts of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to become a global religion.

Winning converts abroad and cultural acceptance at home are key goals of the Mormon Church as it moves toward the 21st century.

With 10 million members worldwide, Mormonism is one of the world's fastest growing faiths.

The church is now the seventh-largest organized religion in the United States, gaining an average 1,000 members a day, according to the church.

"What was once a local, inter-mountain church in Utah is now a vast organization with a huge number of international operations," says Jan Shipps, a scholar of Mormon history at Indiana University.

The church teaches that it is both Christian and Hebraic and is the restored church of Jesus Christ on Earth. It is led by a living prophet that receives divine revelation.

In recent meetings with Mormon Church leaders, church president and church prophet Gordon Hinckley said that the greatest challenge facing the church today is its rapid international growth, according to Coke Newell, a church spokesman. In particular, the church has had to focus more attention on training leaders for its lay clergy and producing materials to help assimilate new members.

With 23,200 congregations in 160 countries, the church predicts in its literature that its global reach could soon make it the first "world religion."

That's a claim the world's 990 million Muslims might question, especially since the vast majority of church members aren't overseas, but in North and South America.

"Mormons like to think of themselves as a world religion. But in reality they're a Western religion," says Armand Mauss, professor of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University, and a Mormon. "Eighty-five percent of the church's members are in the Western Hemisphere."

Role of missionaries

During the church's first century, the ranks of its membership grew through families who reared their children with the Book of Mormon and teachings of church founder Joseph Smith, as well as through the effectiveness of a growing force of missionaries. But following World War II, new members increasingly came from contact through the missionaries.

These missionaries now number 55,000, with half working in the US and half in the rest of the world. Most are college-age men or women, traveling in pairs, who serve at their own expense for 18 months to two years. At the church's Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, instruction is offered in 44 languages.

But knowing the mother tongue of potential converts is no guarantee of spiritual persuasion. Like missionaries of other faiths, the church has run head-first into both cultural and political barriers. Services in Lagos, Nigeria, for example, are conducted with piano and organ music, an approach Mr. Mauss finds "parochial." A culture that has for generations swayed to the rhythms of drums "isn't inspired by stringed instruments," he says. "Besides, there's no scriptural basis for Western music to be a foundation for reaching God. So why should it be?"

In Asia, many families are offended by two missionaries showing up uninvited on their doorstep, Mauss adds.

That's particularly true when such visitors show up wearing name tags and church-mandated formal attire such as white shirts and ties for men and skirts for women. The outfit is worn even in the South Pacific, although missionaries can sometimes wear a pareu, a wraparound kilt, instead of pants.

Church spokesman Newell says the mission of church missionaries is often misunderstood. "We don't want to impose an American lifestyle, but a Christian lifestyle."

Newell says the church has made efforts to connect with potential converts on their own cultural terms, such as allowing local members in Latin America to write their own hymns.

"We realize that the Gospel is not the culture," he says, "but we also believe that the two can assimilate each other." He agrees, however, that the church needs to be more culture-friendly.

"Mormonism is new at world expansion," Mauss says. "It hasn't yet learned to avoid the pitfalls of intruding on other cultures."

Diversity at home

As the church looks abroad to expand and diversify its membership, it has also struggled with diversity at home.

It wasn't until 1978 that a revelation by the church's then prophet allowed black men to become priests. Women, who make up 53 percent of members, are not allowed into the priesthood.

Although many Mormon women have their own careers, diverting time away from the family is discouraged by church teachings. The church's 1995 Leadership Proclamation on the Family states that women should not work outside the home unless children are well cared for.

"Motherhood is glorified by the church and mothers are encouraged to stay home if at all possible," says Ms. Shipps, a Methodist who has studied Mormon culture for 35 years. "But it costs a lot to raise kids, and some couples can't get by without two incomes."

Jennette Herbert, a Mormon who manages a day-care center in Olem, Utah, believes the burden of child-rearing falls naturally to the mother.

"The church has got it right," she says. "Women have a God-given responsibility to put family and children before anything else." A mother with a full-time career is likely to be a parent who neglects her kids, Ms. Herbert says.

Apart from parenthood, the most visible role for women in the church is the Relief Society, one of the oldest and largest women's organizations in the world. The Society was organized in 1842 to to make clothing for the workers of the temple.

Today, its 4 million members serve Mormon women, help the sick and poor, and develop literacy programs.

Recasting its image

The church is entering a new era of visibility, says spokeswoman Darlene Hutchison. Mr. Hinckley, the church's 15th president, is "media savvy and a powerful communicator" who will help raise the church's profile.

And more than 160 news organizations spent time on this summer's Mormon Trail reenactment. "Without a doubt, [the event] generated more press attention than anything we've ever taken part in," she adds.

Church elder M. Russell Ballard says the trek will benefit the church in many ways.

"The international participants on the wagon train offer a model of cooperation that will inspire the church's work in the future."

Mormons Around the World

United States 5,000,000

South America 2,100,000

Mexico 760,000

Asia 610,000

Europe 380,000

Central America 370,000

Africa 110,000

Source: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

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