Aug 25, 2022 - World

The rise of Latino Latter-day Saints

Latin American countries with the most LDS members
Data: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

Latinos are one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints worldwide, experts and historians say.

Why it matters: Latinos are expected to play an immense role in diversifying the nearly 200-year-old church, which has grappled with claims of discrimination in the past.

Latino membership in the church started growing in the 1970s and 1980s due to missionary work in Latin America, immigration trends and the growth of Spanish-speaking wards (also known as local congregations), said Ignacio Garcia, a professor who teaches Latino history at Brigham Young University.

  • The church has recently embraced Latino-centric celebrations through its celebrations, including Day of the Dead.
  • In the last two years, the church announced it was building 17 new temples — buildings where sacred services and ceremonies are held — in Latin America, with the most in Mexico and Brazil.

Background: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, was established by founder Joseph Smith in 1830.

What they're saying: "[Latinos are] a very big element of the growth of the church," Garcia said.

  • He said Latinos who convert to the Mormon and Protestant faiths find what they felt was missing in the Catholic Church — a sense of belonging.
  • The church did not respond to a list of questions sent by Axios about its Latino membership but has said its "substantial Latino membership" was not a new phenomenon and that large portions of its members come from Latin America.

By the numbers: Between 2000 and 2010, the number of Spanish-speaking wards in the U.S. more than doubled, NBC News reported.

  • As of 2021, Mexico and Brazil contained the largest church membership in Latin America with a combined 3 million members — nearly one-fifth of the church's worldwide membership of 16.8 million.

Yes, but: Latinos' rise in the church has had its growing pains, according to Brittany Romanello, a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University who studies the experience of Latinas in the church.

  • Romanello interviewed Latina churchgoers in Arizona who reported instances in which white church leaders did not want to create new Spanish-speaking stakes, or groups of local church congregations that hold 3,000 to 5,000 members.
  • "Even though there's enough Spanish wards and branches that could have their own stake, there's been a lot of leadership choices that have effectively forced assimilation between wards," she said.
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