By Eric Johnson
Note: The following was originally printed in the April 2021 Update sent every-other-month to financial supporters of MRM. To request a free subscription of the every-other-month Mormonism Researched, please visit here.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints keeps careful track of coverts to the church. Whereas the church was growing by more than 4% in the late 1980s, the rate has dropped to less than 1.5% from 2015-2019. In 2020, that figure dropped to under 1%.
Church leaders announce general membership numbers every April at general conference, with the main emphasis given to the convert number obtained by how many baptisms took place. In 2021, the 2020 numbers were the lowest number in decades as approximately 125,000 converts were added to the church. Of course, the restrictions on missionaries being able to proselytize most of the year due to COVID-19 caused the major decline.
We reported in the March 2021 Mormonism Researched about how the LDS Church baptismal convert numbers have continued to decline during the past three decades. In an article titled “A Closer Look at the Declining Growth of the LDS Church since 1990,” I explained the following:
Although the church does not provide the exact number, those children who are baptized at the age of 9 or older are counted as ‘convert baptisms’ for that year. Most people wrongly assume that “converts” refer to those who came into the church as adults, mainly through missionary activity, yet these children are mostly belonging to parents who are church members. Does it make sense that a pre-teen or teen from an LDS family should be considered a “convert”? Just how many “converts” each year come from these baptisms ages 9-17? And is this a convenient way to pad the “convert” numbers?
A returned missionary friend read this article and provided me with additional first-hand information:
I was on my mission in Utah during 1991–93. The Salt Lake City mission baptized around 300 converts a month. However, about half were 9 to 17-year-olds. Many of us missionaries would get a list from the ward clerk called the bishops’ action list. It provided the names of those in the ward boundaries who had been blessed but were not baptized. We wouldn’t touch them while they were eight but when they turned nine we knocked on their families’ doors. We were able to baptize many of these 9, 10, and 11 year olds. I’m sure to this day that missionaries in heavily populated LDS areas baptize children over eight, fluffing the convert baptisms for the church (Personal email to Eric Johnson, 2/17/2021).
According to this account, “about half” of the converts in this missionary’s Salt Lake City mission were between 9 to 17. To get preteens/teens into the LDS baptismal font when possibly pressured to do so by family members and friends is certainly not as difficult as recruiting adult converts. Multiplied by many different missions throughout highly Mormon states such as Utah, Idaho, Arizona, and California, how many tens of thousands of Mormon converts must have originated in this age group?
By increasing the convert numbers by 20, 30, or even 40 percent through such a questionable practice would seem to dull the luster of the church’s numbers over the years. After all, would we really believe a 9-, 10- or 13-year-old child who grew up in a Latter-day Saint home is really a “convert”?
I wonder if this practice (waiting until a child in an LDS family is past the age of 8) remains a regular practice in many missions today? Letting these children go unbaptized until a later time serves the purpose of increasing the convert numbers!
My friend also explained,
Though my mother was LDS and I was blessed in the church – I wasn’t baptized until I was 10. It wasn’t until my mission in the early 90s that I learned that I was identified as a convert. Unfortunately, there were times that my fellow missionaries or pioneer heritage members would make me feel that my family was less than theirs because they were baptized as children of record and I was a convert.
By not emphasizing baptisms for children who turn eight and possibly not having missionaries approach them until they are older than eight opens them to ridicule by their LDS peers. And what if the unbaptized 8-year-old child gets hit and killed by a car? What if a tragedy takes place in the life of this child who is 9 or 10 just two days before the baptism was scheduled? Having reached the age of accountability, where would this soul go? I highly doubt the celestial kingdom.
The child’s eternal destiny is put at risk merely to raise the church’s convert numbers. Does allowing numbers to take precedence over souls seem to be a loving policy?