Temple Square, the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, covers 10 acres on the northern edge of Salt Lake City. To the north stands a large Mormon conference center, and to the south a shopping mall that the LDS Church owns. In the center loom the 19th-century Gothic towers of the Mormon temple itself, oddly juxtaposed with the 1970s-era concrete anonymity of the Church Office Building across the square. Between the two are scattered other meeting halls and administration buildings, and constant crowds of people. Men in white shirts and ties and women in heels and hose hustle from doorway to doorway. At spots with more striking views of the temple there are always two or three young women in wedding gowns taking photos with their beaus.
Two groups in this tableau are particularly worth noticing. Female missionaries in skirts and sensible shoes stand near the gates of the square ready to greet visitors and offer tours. They wear small flags pinned above their name tags to signal their countries of origin. Depending on the time of year a visitor might also notice platoons of landscapers. The square hosts two reflecting pools, strategically positioned to catch images of the temple, as well as 250 immaculately tended flower beds. Every spring and fall, a small army of workers in T-shirts and dungarees sweep through the square, uprooting and replanting some 750 varieties of plants, leaving gardens redesigned for the season in their wake. In the fall, they hang several hundred thousand Christmas lights, and in January they take them down again.
The visual contrasts of Temple Square—the Church Office Building and the temple, the conference center and shopping mall, the missionaries and the groundskeepers—not only tell us a lot about Mormonism’s present, but also point toward a very possible future. Far from the ragged frontier faith it was in the 19th century, Mormonism long ago embraced the respectable, button-down values of the American middle class, and that sensibility has shaped the decorous sense of spirituality that fostered the carefully manicured lawns of Temple Square. That same middle class has largely funded those efforts.
But the church is growing most rapidly not in middle America, but in the homelands of those missionaries with the often unfamiliar-looking flag pins. Of the roughly 14 to 15 million Mormons in the world, fewer than half of those now live in the United States. Most of the rest live in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Around the world, the Church has been building meetinghouses that often resemble those back in the United States, using funds drawn largely from North American bank accounts. What will happen when the middle-class Americans who have long constituted the Mormon base dwindle to a fraction of the world’s Mormons? And what changes might that bring to Mormon culture?
To answer those questions, it helps to look at the religion’s past. The fiscal well-being—and the fiscal policies—of the LDS church have fluctuated enormously in the religion’s roughly two-century history. For the first 100 years, Mormonism foundered financially. Joseph Smith, the faith’s founding prophet, was focused on building Zion and cared little about balanced books. Under his leadership and that of his immediate successors, the private property of the church and of the church’s leaders sometimes became hopelessly intertwined. This casual approach to finance was mirrored in the informality of Mormon worship, which, back then, was often marked by impromptu preaching, prophesying, and even speaking in tongues.
In the 1880s, however, the federal government seized much of the church’s property—temples, meetinghouses, and businesses—as part of its effort to stamp out polygamy. Though some of this property was restored, the era of prosecutions left the faith near bankrupt.
The church leadership found a partial solution at the turn of the 20th century, when they began stressing that devout Mormons should contribute 10 percent of their income to the church. The practice of tithing revolutionized Mormon life. Some estimates peg the church’s annual tithing revenues today at around $7 billion a year. And as the church’s economics changed, so did its culture. The church began spending money on, for instance, Temple Square. In 1904, an information booth for tourists opened, followed by visitors’ centers on either end of the square—large, museum-like affairs with displays on Mormon history. In 1935, the flower beds were installed, and the 1960s brought seasonal landscaping with Christmas lights and perennials. And this evolution of Temple Square is a microcosm of broader trends within Mormonism.
Soon after World War II, the LDS Church began to invest heavily in Brigham Young University. The plan was both to make the university a nationally recognized institution—and to create greater social mobility for young Mormons. It was, in a sense, a Mormon version of the GI Bill. Even today, BYU stresses that it is an undergraduate, rather than a research, institution, and devotes outsized resources to professional training in law, business, and computer science. Tuition for a full-time LDS student at BYU today is $2,280 per semester, making BYU a respected private school that charges like a cheap public school. And as with Temple Square, a chunk of that tuition money goes to maintaining the military precision of the school’s manicured lawns, many of which have small signs commanding pedestrians to stay off.
That fixation on respectability and nice things gradually came to shape Mormonism’s spiritual ethos. In the 1950s, as the church began to attract converts around the world, Mormon leaders began to advise missionaries to don white shirts and ties, and the clothing became standard in Mormon worship services as well. The church’s recommended clothing for female missionaries reflects a similarly upscale American sensibility. At the same time, church leaders began to emphasize the spiritual virtues of “reverence,” which meant, essentially, the ability to sit still during long meetings. Mormon spirituality began to turn toward the formal, the sedate, and the contemplative. Older traditions—like speaking in tongues, playing music during the Lord’s Supper, and charismatic preaching—faded, and the Mormons became full-fledged members of the sober American middle class.