The decline of the LDS Church in Great Britain

The United Kingdom holds a special position in the spirituality and mythology of Mormonism. Britain was the first country to hear the so-called “restored” gospel. Beginning in the city of Preston, where its oldest continuous ward continues to operate, and where the Temple stands in neighbouring Chorley, the UK represents a sense of “heritage” for members of the Church, with many of the earliest converts having committed themselves to the often deadly and self-defeating journey of migration to Utah as Pioneers. It is little wonder that this history is repeatedly reflected upon in LDS literature and propaganda. Like in real life between the US and UK international politics, the church has a “special relationship” with the UK.

However, this heritage cannot save the reality that the church is at the end of its heyday in Great Britain, and Mormonism is in fact declining in the UK at a faster rate than America itself. Unlike the US, Britain is a much more secular society and does not have the sectarian “heartlands” of large scale Mormon communities such as in Utah and Idaho to fall back on. This has made Mormon life in Britain much more difficult, whether it be in baptizing converts, retaining them, or even keeping existing members active. As a British person who is formerly LDS, this is my personal insight.

When I first joined my ward (in the decade of 2000 to 2010), which I will not say where it is, or what region it was, it had about 150 attending members. It is a Stake Centre ward, and there were many large families in attendance. However, one very clear ticking timebomb always observable is that the bulk of the ward’s strongest and most faithful leaders were of an older generation. These people joined during a period of “boom” during the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. We might call these decades the “golden age” of Mormonism in Britain, when converts came in large numbers and successfully transitioned into a leadership infrastructure.

However, change was afoot in Britain. By the turn of the 21st century, changes in social attitudes towards religion had stemmed the flow of converts into the church, and around the year 2000, the LDS church peaked in the UK. Of course, Missionaries were still bringing people in, but there was one key difference. These people were no longer being retained. In my former ward, convert retention was practically zero. Almost everyone who was baptized, fell away quite quickly. And the reason for this was not only changes in the way people live, but also because unlike those prior decades, the LDS community had became increasingly “inwards”.

By the 21st century, a whole generation of Mormons had been brought up who, unlike their parents and grandparents, had never lived outside of the church. The church’s hardline standards and control over their social lives meant they had grown up inside a Mormon “bubble” and most of their friends were other Mormons who they grew up with. This LDS cultural isolation in Britain also created many very self-righteous, “Molly” Mormons who in fact looked down on the people from the outside world, despite the fact the church mandates them to spread the gospel, fellowship people and bring new people in.

In coming into the church as a convert, it was my experience that certain members would not bother befriending or associating with me until I passed a certain threshold of faith and commitment. True Jesus Church, despite its cultural differences due to its largely British-Chinese base, was a lot more welcoming and sincere. In Mormonism, there was a lot of superficiality, even afterwards. I of course even as a young man, seen how this culture clearly inhibited the growth of the church, and I was passionate enough even to be angry about the perceived lack of commitment or indifference from some members. I did not of course understand them then, I do now, and it’s no surprise some of these people have since left the church, their hearts were not in it.

Through the years, I also noticed that the ward I was in started to slowly shrink and its community fragmented. The reasons were manifold. Firstly, many families started to move away for economic reasons, although that is more down to the area itself. Secondly, as noted from above, the younger generation of leaders, the first “brought up” in the church (born in the 1970s and 80s) were weaker and less motivated. Thirdly and still in progress, the older generation of much more steadfast Mormons have been dying off, but fourthly and more drastically, more and more active members have simply quit and stopped attending over the years, as faith has dwindled, leadership has weakened, and yes the dreaded CES letter led some families to invoke it as an excuse to quit outright.

Now, the ward I once attended, has perhaps 50 or so active members. It has no future. By 2023, the only people the missionaries can get are people who are extremely vulnerable or challenged in some way, or are from cultural backgrounds so diverse that it is impossible for them to integrate with the inwards Molly Mormon core of the church. Although the situation may differ in various parts of the UK, according to demographics and economic realities, the truth is nonetheless set in stone that the church is in clear decline. The number of wards and branches has been continuously dropping since they peaked at the end of the 1990s. It is not a “collapse” as such, but it is a death by slow attrition.

While some Molly Mormon families remain, many of their children quit and as such each new generation subsequently gets smaller and smaller. While easily accessible information on the church’s history is clearly having an impact, my take on it from my experience is that the commitment to be a “Mormon” in 21st century Britain, no drinking, tea or coffee, and a set of beliefs so outlandish that you are alienated from ordinary people and mainstream Christianity at large, is just too much.

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