Ask An Expert: Is Mormonism a religious system according to Clifford Geertz?

Q: Is Mormonism a religious system according to Clifford Geertz?

A: Several members of the MSSA replied to this message.

David Knowlton, an anthropologist at Utah Valley University, wrote:

This is not a simple question, although it appears to be so.  A simple, answer, however, acknowledges the complexity while recognizing that Geertz’s focus on systems of symbols, “pervasive, long lasting moods and motivations” and “aura of facticity” were used by Douglas J. Davies in his the Mormon Culture of Salvation to great effect.

Yes, Geertz’s definition can fit Mormonism.

However, a more critical look at the definition, that takes into account problems with the notion of symbols and their formation, power, the difficulty of system, breaks in pervasiveness, and problems with perceptions of facticity as are also found in anthropological work, can also be used to make sense of Mormonism.

The question, however, asks if it is a religious system according to Geertz.  Well, that is more difficult because Geertz is focusing on system as defining religion and not religion as defining system.  Mormonism has system and it functions as a religion.  Despite the analytical concerns here, I would still argue that Geertz’s definition productively fits Mormonism.

Douglas J. Davies also wrote in to recommend that you read his book in which he engages this question at length:

Douglas J. Davies. 2000. The Mormon Culture of Salvation. New York: Routledge.

Ask An Expert: Are there mental health consequences to being LGBT in the LDS Church?

Q: “Does being LGBT in a non-affirming environment, such as the LDS Church, contribute to worse mental health outcomes and quality of life scores than an individual would have in an affirming environment?”

A: Luckily, there is a growing body of research that specifically addresses this question.  A number of articles have come out just in the last year that present the results of a survey of LGBTQ individuals who are or were members of the LDS Church.  Among the publications are a number of findings that directly address this question.

For instance, in Dehlin, Galliher, Bradshaw, and Crowell 2015, the authors note that LGB individuals fall into four categories when it comes to their relationship with religion (similar to other research on this topic):

  1. Individuals who reject their LGB identity (5.5% of their sample)
  2. Individuals who compartmentalize their sexual and religious identities (37.2% of their sample)
  3. Individuals who rejected their religious identity (53% of their sample)
  4. Individuals who integrated their religious and sexual identities (4.4% of their sample)

After categorizing the participants in their survey into these groups, they then compared these groups on a variety of measures, including some related to mental health and quality of life.  Individuals in the first two groups had the worst mental health outcomes.  Specifically, members of the first two groups had statistically significantly higher scores on internalized homophobia, identity confusion, and depression than did individuals in the other two groups.  Individuals in the last group, who were quite rare, actually fared well, but were unlikely to live in Utah and had lots of family support, allowing them to integrate their sexual and religious identities.

In another study drawing on the same data set, Crowell, Galliher, Dehlin, and Bradshaw 2015, found that more active LGB members of the LDS Church had statistically significantly higher levels of both minority stress indicators (i.e., higher levels of internalized homophobia, greater need for privacy or concealment, greater need for acceptance, greater identity confusion, greater difficulty in coming to terms with and disclosing sexual identity, and higher levels of prejudice against heterosexual individuals) as well higher levels of depression.  This research aligns with other research with similar findings outside the LDS Church (Herek, Gillis, and Cogan 2009).

In short, the existing research to date does indicate that participation in a non LGBTQ affirming, conservative, organization like the LDS Church does result in worse mental health and quality of life outcomes than does not affiliating with such an organization.


  • Crowell, K. A., Galliher, R. V., Dehlin, J., & Bradshaw, W. S. (2015). Specific Aspects of Minority Stress Associated With Depression Among LDS Affiliated Non-Heterosexual Adults. Journal of Homosexuality, 62(2), 242–267.
  • Dehlin, J. P., Galliher, R. V., Bradshaw, W. S., & Crowell, K. A. (2015). Navigating Sexual and Religious Identity Conflict: A Mormon Perspective. Identity, 15(1), 1–22.
  • Herek, G. M., Gillis, J. R., & Cogan, J. C. (2009). Internalized stigma among sexual minority adults: Insights from a social psychological perspective. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 56, 32–43.

Ask an Expert: What percentage of Mormons divorce when one spouse leaves the religion?

Q: Do you have any insight on how often a spouse leaving the church leads directly to divorce? I am most interested in the statistic for divorce attributed primarily to the spouse changing their beliefs and controlled for other behaviors that are independent of simply no longer believing or participating.

A: Arland Thornton provided a citation that had a statistic on this.  He found the statistic in a post by Bob McCue:

“And what of my relationship with my wife and children? My wife and I were on the brink of divorce because she could not respect and love me as I am now in the fashion she did the priesthood leader I used to be. I could feel a loss of intimacy – an emptiness and sorrow where her love for me used to be. Something had died between us. Thankfully, she now recognizes the legitimacy of my concerns respecting the Church’s influence in our lives and the importance of ensuring that our children are raised with an understanding that religious matters are not clear-cut. The world is full of shades of grey, and the Church is no different. And while she continues to be an active and faithful member, she respects what I have done and supports me. We made it over the precipice with nothing to spare. I recently became aware of an unpublished master’s degree thesis in anthropology at a Canadian university that surveyed LDS returned missionaries who had gone through something similar to what I have, and found an 80% divorce rate. That does not surprise me given my recent experience.”

Unfortunately, Bob McCue did not note what that unpublished Master’s thesis was, so we don’t have a specific reference on this.

I (Ryan Cragun) did a little more sleuthing on this topic as I was wondering if there might be a dataset that could provide some information on this.  What I found is far from perfect, but may be helpful to you.  The General Social Survey (GSS) asks participants their religious affiliation at the time of the survey (variable = “relig”) and when they were 16 (variable = “relig16”).  If respondents indicated “Mormon” as their religion, that gets coded into separate variables (Mormon at present = 64 in the variable “other”; Mormon at 16 = 64 in the variable “oth16”).  Combining these two variables, it’s possible to isolate individuals who were Mormon at 16 but have since left the religion (there are 186 such individuals in the combined 1972-2014 GSS data set).

Of those 186 individuals, 46 had never married, which means they were never at a risk of divorcing.  Of the remaining 140 who had married, 34 were currently divorced or separated at the time of their participation in the survey, for a divorce/separation percentage of 24%.  Compare that to individuals who were Mormon at 16 and still Mormon at the time of the survey: their divorce/separation percentage was 11%.  In other words, individuals who left the Mormon Church were more than twice as likely to divorce than did those who stayed.

This is somewhat problematic for several reasons.  First, the variable for marital status (“marital”) does not indicate whether the respondents have ever divorced (there is a variable that asks that, but it’s not included in every wave of the survey).  So, it is likely that the percentage of respondents indicating they are currently divorced is lower than the percentage who have ever divorced.  Second, the GSS does not include a variable indicating when people left a religion or switched their religious affiliation.  As a result, we can’t say that those who left the religion did so when they were married.  Third, we don’t know what the cause of divorce or separation was.  The higher rate of divorce among those who left the LDS Church could be due to a number of other factors and not exclusively the result of them having left the LDS Church.

Taking all of the above into account, data from the General Social Survey suggest that about 1 in 4 people who were Mormon at 16 but have since left the religion have divorced or separated from their spouse, versus about 1 in 10 who remained Mormon.

In the interest of looking just a little further into this, I also examined whether marital satisfaction was higher among Mormons married to Mormons (variable in the GSS is “spoth”) versus Mormons married to non-Mormons.  Turns out, marital satisfaction is significantly and substantially higher among Mormons married to other Mormons. Of the 315 Mormons who were married to other Mormons, 71% said their marriage was very happy, 28% said it was pretty happy, just 1.6% said it was not too happy.  Of the 69 Mormons married to non-Mormons, 54% said their marriage was very happy, 36% said it was pretty happy, and 10% said it was not too happy.  Admittedly, these numbers are rather small, but they are sufficient to find that the differences in marital satisfaction are statistically significant (Chi-Square = 17.169, p < .001).  Again, these numbers are not a direct answer to the question since it isn’t clear whether those who are married to non-Mormons are married to people who used to be Mormon or someone who never was Mormon.  Even so, they do indicate that Mormons who are not married to other Mormons have substantially lower marital satisfaction than do Mormons who are married to Mormons, which would likely increase the odds of divorce and separation.

Overall, it does not appear as though there is a readily available citation to answer your question.  However, evidence does seem to suggest that the odds of divorce increase when one member of a couple leaves the LDS Church.

Ask an Expert: Mormon concept of God?

Q: I am writing a paper on the concept and image of God in Mormonism (with a focus on the LDS Church). My question therefore is, if you can name any specific ‘must read’ articles that deal with this topic? Are there any scholars, Mormon or from other denominations, that have particularly dealt with this topic, it’s historical development and effect on the religious lives of Mormons?

A: We had two very helpful answers from the members of the MSSA.

First, David Knowlton provided the following reference:

Hale,Van. (1989) Defining the Contemporary Mormon Concept of God, in Gary James Bergera, ed. Line Upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine, SLC, UT: Signature Press.

In that chapter, Van Hale details the Mormon conception of God.  Also of note, the subsequent chapter, The Earliest Mormon Concept of God, by Dan Vogel, is also insightful.

Mary Lou McNamara also suggested that the person asking the question may be interested in Mormon conceptions of female deity, or Heavenly Mother.  A good essay on this is the following:

Wilcox, Linda P. 1992. “The Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven.” Pp. 64–77 in Sisters in spirit: Mormon women in historical and cultural perspective, edited by Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Ask An Expert: Where can I find the percentage of Mormons involved in STEM-related fields?

Q: Where could I find demographic information regarding both number and relative growth over time of American LDS members who were either educated in, or work within, STEM  (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields?

A: Andrew Miles provided a very helpful and succinct answer for this question:

I believe all of the following surveys have fairly extensive occupational information, as well as at least some LDS in the sample. It will be a bit of work, but perhaps by looking at several a person could get a sense for how members of the LDS church of different ages are related to STEM fields. Unfortunately, all have a limited number of LDS in their samples.

  1. The General Social Survey (repeated cross-section, so can possibly trace over time)

  2. The Health and Retirement Study (older)

  3. National Longitudinal Survey of Youth

Ryan Cragun also recommended the General Social Survey.

Pulling and classifying the relevant data will take some doing if you use the GSS.  First, you’ll need to use the variable “OTHER” to locate members of the LDS Church (codes are 59, 60, and 62).  You’d then need to choose between (or maybe use all three) of the following variables to determine participants’ occupations: “INDUSTRY” (pre 1980), “OCC80” (uses 1980 census occupation codes), or “OCC10” (uses 2010 census occupation codes).  You’ll then need to use Appendix F from the GSS to determine which census codes belong to the various STEM fields.  This will likely take the longest time (I considered doing it, but it looks like it’s going to take at least several hours).  Once you figure the codes out, you could probably recode the data into STEM versus non-STEM and then maybe look over time (probably by decade).  That’s how I’d do it.

Another possibility may be to use either Census data over time for the state of Utah (as a proxy for Mormons) or use the Utah Healthcare Access Survey or the Utah Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which have data on occupation and religious affiliation, though you may have to request access to the raw data.

Ask An Expert: What is a good starting place for studying the previous occupations of Mormon General Authorities?

Q: I’m thinking about doing a serious paper on the previous occupations of Mormons who  are called into senior leadership positions (Apostles, various Quorums of the Seventy, Area presidencies, mission presidents, stake presidencies, etc). I was wondering if anyone can give me some good pointers as to where to start?

A: Several members of the MSSA responded with helpful suggestions.

Robert Lively Jr. gave the following suggestion:

The magazine Church News (which comes together with my copy of the newspaper Deseret News) features pictures and short bios of new mission presidents and their wives. Their occupations are generally included in the write-ups. As you know, given the expectations of what is required of mission presidents — putting their lives and careers on hold for three years — means that they typically are well educated, have financial resources to see them through the period, and can expect to return and pick up where they left off (although I certainly have heard of mission presidents who returned to dire financial straits.) The magazine also features new temple presidents.

Armand Mauss offered the following:

I don’t think this information is compiled anywhere in a single place or reference book, though it would be worth asking someone in both Public Affairs and in Research Information. Usually a leader’s occupation at the time of his call is mentioned in the article announcing the call. Such articles usually mention also his date and place of birth, wife’s name, number of children, educational attainment, home stake, previous callings, etc. These articles usually appear in the Ensign and/or in the Church News, at least for the general and area authorities. I’m not sure that comparable information for mission presidents and stake presidents can be found in these periodicals, at least not systematically. As an example, see this account about Elder Robbins from the May Ensign  – plus comparable articles about other newly called leaders in the same issue.  Such a time-consuming study will be overwhelming if one attempts to cover totally a long chronological period. Perhaps a sample, starting with just 2013, would be enough for an initial paper on the subject. After that, if it goes well, one might attempt a larger sample based, let’s say, on every other year for a given decade, or even two decades. Especially noteworthy, in my recollection, is the proportion of area and general leaders from outside the US who have already had careers as employees of the Church in welfare, CES, etc.

Tim Heaton noted:

The Church Almanac published by the Deseret News has biographical information, including occupation, about General Authorities.

Mary Jane Woodger offered the following:

I use a packet in my Teachings of the Living Prophets called Know Them That Labor Among You.  That has at least the current 17s previous occupations available and you can get one at BYU bookstore.

Ryan Cragun also suggested:

This sounds like an interesting project.  Do you have some sort of theoretical framework that is guiding the project?  As some of the prior responses suggested, it’s likely many of these individuals are well-educated and successful.  But why is that the case and what does it mean for the church if that is true?  I would think about both the “why” and the implications of the “why” as you head into the project.  Considering those issues may result in a paper with an engaging and compelling conclusion.

Ask an Expert: Statistics on Mormon families

Q: Where can I find current statistics on the demographics of LDS family structures? Specifically, I am wanting figures on percentages of LDS families that fit the heteronormative nuclear family model prescribed in LDS texts such as “The Family: A Proclamation to the World”  1995.

A: Tim Heaton, the leading expert on the demographics of Mormons, suggested several of his publications:

Additionally, he recommended an article from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism that is available online: Vital Statistics.

Ryan T. Cragun provided a couple of figures from the General Social Survey to illustrate the current statistics (well, relatively current statistics; in order to have sufficient cases he aggregated data from 1990-2012).  The first figure shows the marital status of Mormons.  Using the Mormons in the GSS from 1990-2012, 60% were married, 16% were never married, 2% were separated, 12% were divorced, and 10% were widowed.

(click for larger size)

The second figure looks just at the married Mormons in the GSS and shows that 87% of those who are married have kids; 13% do not.

(click for larger size)


Ryan also recommended his co-authored report with Rick Phillips: Mormons in the United States 1990-2008:  Socio-demographic Trends and Regional Differences and the Pew survey and report: Mormons in America – Certain in Their Beliefs, Uncertain of Their Place in Society.  While the Pew survey may have some sampling issues, the data on the family may be helpful.

Ask An Expert: Research on Home Teaching?

Q: Are you aware of any studies or research relating to LDS home teaching, its history, relationship to similar home visitation that John Calvin instituted, or setting it in a sociological or anthropological background?

A: We received three responses from members of the MSSA.

Benjamin Pykles noted five publications in Mormon History on home teaching at the BYU library, including:

  •  Home Teaching–Attempts by the Latter-day Saints to Establish an Effective Program during the Nineteenth Century by Phelps, Gary L. 1975
  • Changes in the Numbers and the Priesthood Affiliation of the Men Used as Ward Teachers in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1908-1922 by Israelsen, Vernon L. 1975
  • A Documentary History of the Lord’s Way of Watching Over the Church by the Priesthood Through the Ages by Anderson, Rex A. 1974
  • Elijah F. Sheets : The Half-century Bishop by Pace, D. Gene 1985
  • Home Teaching by Hartley, William G. 2000

Jeffery Johnson recommended a book with important research on the history of home teaching (formerly called “Block Teaching”):

  • My Fellow Servants: Essays on the History of the Priesthood, by William G. Hartley, (Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 2010)

Armand Mauss suggested that you also contact Reid Neilson or another librarian at the LDS Library/Archives.  You can ask a librarian here.  He also suggested you consider contacting a member of the Church Research Information Division.

Ask An Expert: Relationships Between English Quakers and Mormons in 19th Century England?

Q: Having recently read Johnnie Glad’s study of the Latter Day Saints’ missions to Norway in the C19th I have become intrigued by the idea that the English Quakers who advised and supported the tiny number of Norwegian Friends in the C19th may have been aware of the LDS missions both in Norway and in England. I would therefore like to ask if there is evidence of LDS-Quaker interactions or indeed, of any LDS missions in North-east England in the C19th. There are several LDS churches in the North-east at present, but I have found it difficult to locate relevant archival material in order to date their congregations. I am trying to gain a sense of whether Quakers viewed the LDS as a rival both in Norway and in the NE (as they may have seen Methodists some decades earlier) or if they were unlikely to have known much about them (although I find this less likely, at least in the Norwegian context, as the LDS were in Stavanger, Norway at around the same time as the Quakers).


A: This was a tricky question for the MSSA as it is more historical than social scientific, but we had some excellent responses.

First, Benjamin Pykles noted that there is a very nice resource on the LDS Church’s website for historical queries: Ask a Librarian.  For individuals asking historical questions in the future, this is a good resource.

Second, Michael Nielsen contacted several individuals who are better connected on the historical side of things (Michael Van Wagenen and Matt Bowman) and here was the response from Matt Bowman:

Hey, folks – Mormon missiology is a sadly underdeveloped field. I don’t know this off the top of my head either, alas; the people it seems to me would be best to ask are David Whittaker (who just retired as manager of the Mormon collections in the BYU library’s special collections) or Ron Esplin (director of the Joseph Smith Papers documentary editing project). Whittaker’s done the most work on early Mormon missions of anybody I know, and he and Esplin co-wrote a history of the 1837-1841 mission of several Mormon leaders to the British Isles, which was both the first Mormon mission to the country and wildly successful. As I said, Whittaker just retired; the search to replace him is underway right now. His email at BYU was; I don’t know if he still checks it or not, alas. Esplin’s email, I believe, is

Finally, another MSSA member, Shawn Bennion, received a very helpful response from Michael Bennion, who provided a number of very useful links:

As well as a citation to a book that should be of help:

  • William Mulder, Homeward to Zion: The Mormon Migration from Scandinavia, (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1957).

While the MSSA may not have answered the question directly, hopefully this will provide some useful directions for finding out more information.

Ask an Expert: missionary markets and Mormon occupations

Q: In the 1973 missionary system The Uniform System for Teaching Families, Tracting approaches included “business contacting,” which included going to businesses and asking to speak with “managers, directors, and other executive and supervisory personnel,” to make appointments to give a family home evening to the families of these men in their homes. In addition, missionaries were challenged to “seek invitations to speak to men’s service and civic organizations.” Based on this information, I have two questions:

  1. Are there any studies that focus on the marketing targets of Mormon missionary work, including which segments of each market are most targeted?
  2. Does any data exist that breaks down the occupations of Mormons, both of converts and non-converts?

A: The answer to the first question is pretty straightforward: No.  Of course, that is only referring to published studies.  It is possible that the researchers working for the LDS Church have information on this question, but that information has not been made public and a request would have to be directed toward them to find out if they: (a) have that information, and (b) would share it.

There is some data available on the occupations of Mormons.  Two members of the MSSA wrote in with suggestions.

Andrew Miles noted, “Though it probably won’t be helpful given small sample sizes of Mormons, there are a few nationally representative data sets that have a few Mormons in them, as well as occupation information.  The Health and Retirement Study will get older/retired Mormons (about 100 or so), and the National Longitudinal Study of Youth (1979 cohort) has somewhere between 50-100 as well.  You might also look at the National Study of Youth and Religion, which has some Mormons in it and probably has occupation data as well.  None of these data have information about non-converts, nor, I think do they provide information about whether or not someone is a convert (though you might be able to deduce it from changing religious affiliation, since all are longitudinal).”

Matthew Butler suggested that IPUMS International would be a good source to identify Mormon occupations internationally (although you will not be able to identify convert status):

The detailed codes for RELIG are here (Mormons are 6015)

From a quick glance it appears that the following country-years have Mormon religious identification and occupation:

  • Argentina 2001
  • Brazil 1991, 2000
  • Chile 2002
  • Mexico 2000, 2010
  • Philippines 1990, 2000
  • South Africa 1996, 2001

Finally, there is some data in the General Social Survey on Mormons and occupational codes.  While it requires some data manipulation and familiarity with the data set, Mormons can be identified (found in variable “OTHER”, code is 64) and some degree of conversion can as well (use OTH16 and the same code 64).  The occupational codes aren’t included for every Mormon, but there are some.  Ryan Cragun ran the occupational codes from 1970 (OCC) on various categories of Mormons (lifetime, convert, former, and adult but convert status not known) and created a spreadsheet with the resulting information.  The spreadsheet doesn’t include all of the Mormons in the GSS, as not all of them have a code for the 1970 occupation categories; more have it for the 1980 occupational categories (OCC80).  You can see the spreadsheet here and a PDF version here.