- The Washington Times - Friday, February 10, 2006

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A steady winter breeze isn’t all that chills the streets for Mormon missionaries Jeremy Christensen and Cameron Johnson. The two 21-year-olds from Idaho get cool treatment from would-be converts as they approach, offering smiles and salvation.

More than 20 people brush them off without breaking stride over an hourlong walk on a recent weekday. Others pause to be rude.

“I’m going to hell, but it’s by choice,” said one man. “I don’t want to spend my eternity with people like you.”

Progress can be slow for emissaries of a culturally conservative faith in a liberal, heavily Roman Catholic state. But persistence has had rewards. Statewide, church numbers show Mormons gaining a foothold that local church leaders believe will grow much bigger.

Between 1994 and 2004, Massachusetts membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints increased 56 percent, from 14,840 to 23,161. That’s tiny, compared with the state’s 3 million-member Catholic Church. But it approaches the 33,400 state members of the Unitarian Universalist Association, whose roots in Massachusetts go back to the 18th century.

Mormons now have 39 congregations, or “wards,” in the state, compared with 15 in 1980. To the west of Boston, the only Mormon temple in New England has a granite grip on a hill in the suburb of Belmont, home to perhaps the church’s most prominent member: Gov. Mitt Romney. Others members include Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and several noted academics, including Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard history professor Laurel Ulrich.

Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen, a Mormon elder, points to the appeal of area universities on an increasingly wealthy and well-educated church population. Another draw, he said, is a fulfilling egalitarianism in which lay people, rather than clergymen, lead local congregations, and all take responsibility for their needy.

Massachusetts “is a perfect, fertile ground,” Mr. Christensen said.

Others aren’t as sure. Skepticism is significant about Mormonism, which departs from traditional Christian doctrines in several key beliefs, including concepts of God and a post-resurrection visit by Jesus to an ancient Israelite civilization in the Americas. The Southern Baptist Convention lists it among “Cults, Sects and other New Religious Movements.”

Alan Wolfe, head of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, said he can’t imagine Mormonism growing to a sizable faith in a state where Catholicism is dominant.

“Massachusetts is a relatively stable place in terms of religious composition, and I don’t think it’s really going to change that much,” he said.

In the mid-1800s, Boston was home to a 400-member Mormon congregation, at the time the largest in the Eastern United States. But it disbanded shortly after the slaying of founder Joseph Smith in 1844, when Mormons fled widespread persecution with a mass migration to the valley of the Great Salt Lake.

It took more than a century for Mormons to return in notable numbers to Massachusetts in the 1960s. Miss Ulrich said the church in recent decades has cultivated an “intellectual elite” at church-run Brigham Young University, which has been drawn to the Boston area’s renowned universities.

“We’re probably importing a lot of people,” she said.

Mormons have also pushed evangelization in immigrant communities. Four of the 22 wards in the Boston area speak a language other than English, including Spanish and Portuguese, Mr. Christensen said. About 140 Mormon missionaries work daily in Massachusetts, spreading the faith through street evangelism and door-to-door visits.

Former Harvard Business School Dean Kim Clark said he was confronted by “bizarre” misconceptions about his faith when he moved to New England in late 1960s, including that the belief that the church still practiced polygamy and rejected Christ.

Now, the church has broader acceptance as Mormons have become more visible, said Mr. Clark, who left the state last year to become president of Brigham Young University-Idaho. He said Mr. Romney, with his clean-cut manner and wholesome family life, has given the church a prominent ambassador.

While Mormon membership in Massachusetts has clearly grown, the rolls can be inflated by loose membership rules. Children are baptized into the church and become members at age 8. The only way for somebody to be taken out of the membership is by excommunication or to request removal. Other churches remove people from membership lists if they never attend.

The Mormon temple overlooks a primary highway into Boston and is, by far, the most visible sign of the church’s presence in Massachusetts. It was fiercely opposed by neighbors before its construction in 2000 because of its 139-foot spire, and yet that controversy awakened the general public to the church’s presence in the state, Mr. Christensen said.

In a brisk walk between the temple and a meetinghouse below, Mr. Christensen explained his certainty about the bright future of his faith in Massachusetts.

“The truth,” he said, “has strong legs.”

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