Utah sees Latter-day Saint slowdown and membership numbers drop in Salt Lake County

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) People file in and wait for the afternoon session of the 183rd LDS General Conference, Saturday, October 5, 2013. Utah's Latter-day Saint population continues to grow, but the growth rate has slowed suddenly in 2018 and 2019 and the number of members actually fell in 14 of the 29 counties.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recorded its smallest membership growth in Utah in at least three decades this past year. And, in 2019, 14 of the state’s 29 counties saw the actual number of members decline.

The most significant drop came in Salt Lake County, which saw the roster of Latter-day Saints fall by 6,710 even as the state’s largest county grew by 10,000 people.

What’s happening in the heart of Mormondom? Why would Utah, a state with a vibrant economy and strong, consistent population growth, experience a sudden slowdown in the membership of its predominant faith?

That’s a hard question to answer because the organization with the most insight — the church itself — declined to offer any context.

But a review by The Salt Lake Tribune, relying on the insights of demographers and close observers of the church, indicates that the membership stagnation is likely due to a rise in resignations among disaffected and largely inactive members and major demographic trends seen in Utah, such as families having fewer children and more people, many of whom are not Latter-day Saints, moving here for jobs.

“I would likely argue that 2019 represents a statistical anomaly in which a variety of factors combined to create a ‘bad’ year for membership growth,” said Matt Martinich, a Latter-day Saint and independent demographer based in Colorado, who reviewed the data for The Tribune.

The church has been handing over county-by-county membership numbers to Utah officials for decades. The Tribune has access to this data from 1989 forward. Demographers use this information to help craft population estimates, combining it with insights taken from IRS data, school enrollment and other sources.

These Latter-day Saint numbers include members for whom the church has a definitive address and does not take into consideration a person’s activity level.

The church provided the 2019 data, which goes from Oct. 1, 2018, to Sept. 30, 2019, to The Tribune, but through a spokesman declined a request for an interview with a church demographer or any other official to help explain these surprising figures.

Here are some numbers that stand out:

  • The church added 4,909 members in Utah in 2019, while the state estimates Utah’s population grew by 53,000. That’s a church growth rate of 0.25%, the lowest since The Tribune has tracked this data. This marks only the second time that church rolls grew by less than 10,000. The first was 2018, when membership rose by 9,067.

  • Salt Lake County saw its Latter-day Saint membership decline by 6,710. The second-biggest drop was in Davis County, where membership decreased by 838. Utah County, home to church-owned Brigham Young University, saw the biggest numerical increase in members at 8,487, followed by Washington County at 2,441.

  • Utah is now 60.68% Latter-day Saint. This stat relies on state population estimates and could change after the official 2020 Census count.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

To assess what might be driving this erosion, let’s start by identifying the ways members might be dropped from a county’s tally. They could move to another area. They could die. They could be excommunicated. They could have been added as a baby but dropped when they were never baptized. Or they could have requested that the church remove their names from the membership rolls.

Some long-term demographic trends are clearly at play in Utah that would result in a slowing of growth among Latter-day Saints, but they don’t fully explain the quick drop-off in 2018 and 2019, according to demographers such as Pam Perlich, with the University of Utah’s Gardner Policy Institute.

Members moving

Perlich, who leads the committee that creates the state’s population estimates, has tracked moving patterns in the state. Generally, they show new residents flocking to Salt Lake County who tend to be younger and are less likely to be Latter-day Saints, with families, and presumably many Latter-day Saint families, moving from Salt Lake County to suburban areas, including fast-growing Utah County.

“This is the internal migration pattern in Utah,” she said.

But Salt Lake County’s reduction in Latter-day Saints hasn’t coincided with any unexplained rise in members in any other county. Instead, it has coincided with an overall slowdown in growth. Davis and Weber counties also saw member declines. Utah County’s growth rate among members even dipped. It had held relatively steady at 2% or more for the whole decade, until 2018, when it slumped to 1.7%. In 2019, it was 1.6%.

So, while it is true that some members are likely moving out of Salt Lake County, this doesn’t fully explain the 2019 numbers.

Members dying

During this decade, every county witnessed another big shift. Births continued to decline, a sign of the state’s shrinking fertility rate, while deaths went up.

When you combine births and deaths, you get what demographers call the “natural increase.” In 2010, Utah’s natural increase was roughly 38,600 people. In 2019, it was 28,600.

Fewer births and more funerals likely impact Latter-day Saint membership in the state, Perlich said.

“As we get older, the probability of death goes up,” she said. And those older generations are more likely to resemble old Utah — white, from bigger families and more likely to be Mormon.

Utah’s dropping fertility rate also likely means that Latter-day Saint families that once had four, five or six kids, may have two or three — though how pronounced an impact this has is hard to gauge.

“We don’t have fertility rates by religion,” Perlich points out.

In either case, this is a slow decadelong trend, which clearly plays a part in these numbers but by themselves doesn’t fully explain the slide in member growth.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Members being excommunicated

It happens, of course. Church leaders force out members for a variety of reasons from criminal convictions to adultery to protesting too aggressively against church decisions. But is it possible that excommunications in Utah, and in Salt Lake County in particular, have risen significantly in the past few years? Probably not.

“Given the cultural politics in the state of Utah, if there were a spike in excommunications, we would have heard about it,” said Patrick Mason, head of Mormon studies at Utah State University.

Members blessed but not baptized

It is possible that some of the slowdown could be from people who were blessed as a baby but never baptized. This is generally an indication of activity level within the faith, particularly among those who are in their child-rearing years. Without numbers from the church, however, that’s a hard one to track. And Martinich argues that Utah’s activity level hasn’t fallen suddenly.

“Interestingly, there is a lot of data that suggests that things are improving perhaps with member activity and participation,” the independent demographer said in mid-December. “For example, there has been a net increase of over 100 wards and branches in Utah during 2019 thus far. The last time we saw such a large net increase in wards and branches in a single year in Utah was in 2006.”

Mason, though, says it is possible that part of Utah’s slowdown has come from people in their 20s and 30s stepping away from the church, which means their children may never have been baptized.

“I could see that as some factor,” he said.

This is based on the reaction to the 2015 policy that labeled members in same-sex relationships “apostates” and blocked their children from being baptized. That policy has since been rescinded, but at the time it sparked a significant backlash and that has had a lingering impact, Mason says.

Members resigning

One impact from that now-discarded policy was a spike in member resignations. And there is some data to back this up.

Mark Naugle, a Salt Lake City-based immigration attorney, had offered through Reddit to help people resign their membership. He’d write the letter and act as their attorney, blocking any contact from a bishop or other church leader. He got a few hundred takers through the years. Then the 2015 policy was announced.

“And it just exploded,” he said.

He says he’s now processed about 35,000 resignations through his website — QuitMormon.com. At The Tribune’s request, he narrowed the list to confirmed resignations — times when the church sent a letter saying the person’s name has been removed — in Salt Lake County. In 2016, that number was about 360. In 2018, it surpassed 1,500 and, in 2019, it was 1,300.

It may have dipped in 2019, because the church added a new requirement to resignation requests submitted through QuitMormon. They now have to come with a notarized letter to combat potential fraud.

Mason noted that it is unclear what percentage of people seeking to drop their membership used Naugle’s service. Other options would be resigning through a bishop, sending a letter to the church’s governing First Presidency or hiring another attorney.

“It is not at all unreasonable to me,” Mason said, “that we’ve seen a significant increase in resignations, largely over LGBT issues.”

The Utah State professor does say there are two other possibilities, though there’s not enough information available to determine if they are factors in Utah’s slowing Latter-day Saint growth rate. First, it is possible that missionaries are finding it more difficult to convert people in Utah, and there is data showing that missionaries in many parts of the world are finding it harder to baptize new members. Second, it is possible some of the member reductions are due to lay membership clerks cleaning up outdated lists for their congregations, called wards.

But, generally, Mason believes a combination of rising resignations and a changing population are at play.

Martinich counsels caution. He sees that the 2019 data may be eye-catching but suggests it is probably worth getting a look at the numbers in 2020 and beyond before drawing strong conclusions about Utah’s changing population and Latter-day Saints’ place in it.