The Next Mormons

How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church

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Jana Riess
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     2019.
     328 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780190885205.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Next Mormons: How Millennials are Changing the LDS Church, historian and religious news journalist Jana Riess produces an important and highly readable study of a conservative American religion which, since the middle of the last century, has gained increasing attention from both scholars and journalists alike. While apropos today, conservative is scarcely a suitable word for describing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or LDS Church) in its formative decades as a new religion on the expanding frontiers of 19th century America. Universally despised by Protestant clergy as a dangerous Christian heresy—and ultimately banished by force of arms from civil society—the “Mormons” chose corporate exile in the high desert mountains of the Utah Territory. From there they would send out missionaries worldwide to proclaim the restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ, gather the elect to Zion in obedience to the dictates of God’s latter-day prophet, and, in united theocratic discipline, build God’s Kingdom in preparation for the imminent second coming of the Messiah. 

That was then. Subjected to intense political and military pressure, Mormon leaders eventually forswore theocratic rule, abandoned their commitment to the practice of plural marriage, and, in the 20th century, embraced the electoral principles of American democracy and the values of corporate capitalism. While its founding narrative continues to frame its missionary message and the fundamental understanding of its members both socially and politically, the LDS Church today is widely recognized as a staunchly conservative denomination that strongly promotes patriotism, family values, wholesome living, and traditional gender role definitions—the latter articulated hand-in-hand with strict adherence to an outmoded theology of binary sexual identity which precludes acceptance of LGBTQ claims to God’s approving sanction. 

These are all pertinent religious aspects of Riess’s study of contemporary Mormonism. Even though the LDS Church has, for decades, been rapidly expanding worldwide—approximately 60% of the church’s official, current membership of over sixteen million live in countries outside the United States—Riess’s study limits itself to a consideration of the current views and concerns of American Mormons. This decision was made primarily for methodological reasons and the fact that the highest echelons of LDS Church leadership overwhelmingly continue to come from North America in general, and the Western United States in particular. 

Methodologically, The Next Mormons is predicated on findings obtained from a national, random sample survey of 1,156 self-identified Mormons and 540 former Mormons, producing margins of error for the purpose of statistical generalization of ±3 percent and ±4 percent, respectively. To obtain these samples, Riess employed Qualtrics, an online survey firm that specializes in attaining representative samples for relatively small subpopulations, drawn from the much larger populations in which they are embedded, with Mormons constituting approximately 2% of the US population. Obtaining an equally representative sample of the 9.4 million Mormons living in countries outside the US is simply not possible. This is an explicitly acknowledged limitation of Riess’s study. The fact that the LDS Church is increasingly a global religion, portending both seeable and unseen consequences for its future, is a reality that must be addressed in other studies, and in other ways.

In the meantime, however, there is no better assessment of contemporary Mormonism as a distinctive American religion—its current strengths, problems, and prospects—than the one expounded in Riess’s, The Next Mormons. The excellence of Riess’s work is due both to the care with which her survey questionnaire was constructed, and the clarity of her data analysis and writing. (Here, it should be noted that Riess was ably assisted in her survey design methodology and statistical data analysis by political scientist Ben Knoll, of Centre College, Kentucky.)

Riess frames her twelve data analysis chapters under two primary headings, which she labels Foundations and Changing Definitions of Family and Culture. The premise of her book is that modern Mormonism must be comprehended in terms of both its continuity and change; though it is the change part of the Mormon’s religious equation to which she directs the lion’s share of her attention. Under Mormon foundations she includes chapters on LDS belief in both Christian and Mormon teachings, the lay Mormon missionary experience, and distinctive LDS temple worship as rite-of-passage institutions. As part of the much longer section of the book on changing LDS definitions of family and culture, Reiss includes chapters on monogamous Mormon marriage patterns (with contemporary emphasis on the growing issue of single Mormons), shifting gender expectations and the exclusionary issue of an all-male priesthood, minority Mormons and conflicting racial attitudes, and the increasingly divisive issue over the status of LGBTQ Mormons. The remaining chapters of this section shine a spotlight on the book’s subtitle, How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church, featuring chapters on how Mormon Millennials are negotiating less stringent forms of adherence to traditional strictures on conformity to LDS standards, their moderating social and political views, their changing attitudes toward uncritical compliance with the dictates of upper echelon authority, and the increased number of younger Mormons who no longer remain actively committed to the lay requirements of their faith and/or are exiting from church membership entirely. 

In systematically addressing these contemporary concerns, Riess combines excerpts from a number of in-depth interviews she supplementaly conducted to humanize the statistical analysis of her survey questionnaire data. What emerges is a nuanced picture of a distinctively American religion in the throes of the same kinds of change that virtually every conservative faith tradition faces in 21st century America. Riess does not offer an overarching, theoretical framework for her study, but she does reference sociologist Armand Mauss’s tension-management model of LDS assimilation and retrenchment motifs over the course of its history, concluding that “the LDS Church has accommodated change before, and it can do it again. The issue is whether it will choose to.” 

The Next Mormons is a spot-on book that can be profitably read by both Mormon and non-Mormon readers interested in the prospects of contemporary religion in modern America.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gordon Shepherd is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Central Arkansas.

Date of Review: 
May 13, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jana Riess is a senior columnist for Religion News Service and the author or co-author of many books, including Mormonism and American PoliticsFlunking Sainthood, and The Prayer Wheel: Rediscovering Prayer with an Ancient Spiritual Practice. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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