Andy Larsen: Breaking down the latest LDS Church membership data

As for Utah, the non-LDS population is growing faster than the LDS population.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, center, Russell M. Nelson, waving, Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring arrive for the spring General Conference Saturday, April 1, 2023.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has released its state-by-state membership numbers again this month — which it has done on an annual basis since 1999, save for the breakdown from the pandemic year of 2020.

On this week’s “Mormon Land” podcast, The Salt Lake Tribune’s David Noyce and Peggy Fletcher Stack talked with independent researcher Matt Martinich of the websites cumorah.com and ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com about these new 2022 numbers. Martinich also emailed me the spreadsheet he uses to track the data — a useful compilation of all of the data available on the church’s website.

Just like last year’s article at this time, we’ll break down where there are more Latter-day Saints and where there are fewer than last year on a state-by-state basis. As always, the caveat with these numbers is that they’re self-reported by the church. We’ve noted previously how sometimes there are some anomalies in the self-reported data that have raised red flags on a county-by-county basis. I didn’t see any obvious red flags in my look at the state-by-state data, though.

How much might the self-reported data be off by? One hint might be in the percentage of people who say they’re Latter-day Saints vs. the number who the church says are Latter-day Saints. The Public Religion Research Institute surveyed Utahns for its 2020 Census of American Religion and found that 55% of its statistically representative sample of respondents considered themselves Latter-day Saints.

Meanwhile, during the survey period, between 64% and 68% of Utahns were on the church’s membership lists. That might give us an approximate idea of how much to mentally edit these numbers by if we want to consider the number of members who claim their Latter-day Saint status.

First, we’ll look at the overall membership numbers in each state over time. Overall, the church said there are 6,804,028 Latter-day Saints in the United States as of 2022, of which 2,173,560 are in Utah. In the graph below, you can drop down and see the membership numbers change in all 50 U.S. states, along with the District of Columbia.

We can also look at how that membership has changed on a percentage basis over time. This membership report for the church indicated that membership growth had rebounded to where it was at the end of the 2010s decade, somewhat higher than the smaller growth we saw during the pandemic.

As a side note, I’m pretty skeptical of those nearly 8% annual growth rates reported between 1983 and 1987 reflected in the last two graphs. It’s just such an outlier from the years afterward that it’s hard to imagine that level of explosive growth in the U.S. Even putting that aside, the past two decades have seen slowing growth, but the 2022 report is a step in the other direction.

Let’s zoom in on this year’s report. How did church membership change from 2021 to 2022 in each of the 50 U.S. states?

Overall, the church saw growth in membership in 42 of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia.

Just like last year, I’m struck by the political correlations: In the 2022 Senate election, zero of the top 15 states in Latter-day Saint membership growth elected a Democrat in the end. They all either elected a Republican or didn’t have a Senate race. Meanwhile, the 11 bottom states in church growth all elected Democratic senators.

Of course, population changes also play a role here. There had been some overall population movement toward some rural areas during the pandemic, but those migrations either have slowed or reversed completely in many locations in the past year or so, according to the U.S. census. To dig in deeper, let’s look at how church growth compared to population change in each state.

In last year’s report, 34 of the 51 states had seen their Latter-day Saint membership as a percentage of population decline. This year, only 11 states saw declines compared to population. This is a much stronger report for the church — especially in the South, where Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky all made the top five.

Utah remains a state where the non-Latter-day Saint ranks are growing faster than the Latter-day Saint population — a bit of a surprise, considering differences in birthrates between Latter-day Saints and everyone else. Migration would be the logical next reason, but it’s difficult to tell whether it’s because of Latter-day Saints moving out of Utah to other states or big numbers of non-Latter-day Saints moving in. I asked the church’s public relations team for more insight, but it didn’t have more information for me by press time.

Here’s the chart of how church membership has changed as a percentage of the state’s overall population over time. Once again, click on each graph’s drop down to look at the state most interesting to you.

In Utah, we’ve seen a fairly steady decline in the number of Latter-day Saints the church reports, most notably since the 2015 report. The nation’s upward trend of the 2000s and 2010s seems to have relatively flatlined, with Latter-day Saints representing about 2.04% of the U.S. population every year since 2018.

I’m fascinated how the growth trend varies across the country, though. West Virginia, for example, has seen pretty steady growth, but in Virginia, the percentage of Latter-day Saints is declining. North Dakota and South Dakota have had pretty different trends over the past 10 years, too. Clearly, though, the shift in membership is regional, with the Northwest struggling with Latter-day Saint membership and the church having more success in states like Arkansas and Missouri.

Overall, this is certainly a better report for Latter-day Saints than last year’s. Still, it reflects dampening growth and even stagnation overall in the United States, as well as here in Utah. The “Mormon Land” podcast also discusses more of the overseas data, where growth tended to occur more rapidly, especially in Africa.

Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at alarsen@sltrib.com.

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