From the valleys of the arid state of Utah, the Mormon Church has reached far beyond the shores of the United States. Now it has its eye on the world's largest continent.
In the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, there exists an anomaly. In the city centre, flanked on all sides by gilded Buddhist temples, sits a small New England-style church. Its white clapboard siding of the mid-1800s may have been replaced by modern concrete blocks, but its iconic North-eastern American steeple remains. Settled on a large and meticulously manicured parcel of prime real estate, this orderly place of worship is not identified with a cross, a crescent moon or a many-deity façade, but a tall white spire reaching into the sky.
Inside is a modest, office-like setting. There is none of the intricate and ancient dedications as would be found in any of the scores of temples that fill this predominantly Buddhist city. Instead, one comes across only a small number of pictures of Jesus Christ, supporting a lamb or crucified, and various pictures of the local congregation, dotted on the plain white walls along the hallway leading past simple rooms built for study, or business or community assembly.
This is a local branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormon Church, as it is more commonly known. Here, I meet two young missionary men. One is a 22-year-old Caucasian from Chicago, while the other is a 20-year-old localfrom a village outside Chiang Mai. Both are dressed identically in neat white shirts and black ties and trousers, looking busy with books, scripture and mobile phones. Mormon missionaries are constantly paired, spending every moment within voice range.
“It’s difficult being a missionary here,” says the American, who has been in Thailand for nearly two years and speaks good Thai.
It is much easier in East Asia where it is really happening, referring to the Philippines as the hotspot of Mormon missionary work in Asia, and Taiwan.
“Buddhism is deeply rooted in the culture here and the fabric of families is very strong… [Also] we can’t go door to door in Thailand as we normally do in other parts of the world. Door-to-door missionary work is against Thai law.”
“It is much easier in East Asia where it is really happening,” he adds, referring to the Philippines, the “hotspot” of Mormon missionary work in Asia, and Taiwan.
Still he maintains: “We do get converts and have many churches in the north and north-east of Thailand, though few in the Muslim south.
I next arrive in Bangkok, where I am to meet the mission president. The address is a nondescript, four-storey office building behind a guarded wall, unrecognisable as a church or a place of worship of any sort. Once inside, I am received by an elderly American gentleman from Utahand am told there is a Thai woman being baptized into the Mormon Church today.
Completely dressed in white, the young woman is submerged in a pool of water by a handsome American missionary. The performance is rehearsed and effectively dramatic, with cries and applause from the surrounding members. The newly baptized emerges from the water, beaming in apparent illumination. One thing that seems out of place is that at the end of the ceremony, the young woman reappears, dressed in black.
As the congregation begins to disperse, I sit down with the mission president to ask why the Mormon Church is in Asia.
“Everybody, no matter whom or where you are in the world, deserves the opportunity for salvation,” says the church elder. “The Latter-days Saints are…set to free not only the living souls, but also believe that salvation can come to those who have already passed and are still searching for salvation.”
The mission president continues to elucidate this fact.
“The Mormon faith extends to the dead as well as the living, believing that the ancestors of the living can receive the grace of God from beyond the grave,” he says. “The living can atone for the past deeds of their ancestors and free them from the cycle of life and death granting them salvation and passage to heavenly paradise.”
This – a clear departure from mainstream Christian doctrine – could indeed be a very attractive conviction in Asia, where ancestral reverence is steeped in tradition.
As the interview continues, the conservatively dressed and polite wife of the mission president joins us. They begin to explain a number of other reasons why, besides spiritual guidance, the Church is in Asia and how it is participating in the continent’s development through education and health care.
One of the principal foundations of the Mormon Church is teaching its members simple, practical economics. The Church believes in the self-sufficiency of its members that is tied in with a community-based welfare system. It believes that by teaching practical family-based skills such as avoiding debt, preparingfor food and water emergencies, as well as financial planning and savings, church members become secure in their local community by not having to rely on governments or loans for support in difficult times. Instead, members can look to the church community for support in times of need. This benefits not only members of the church, but also the non-members within the local community, as it frees up the resources of local and national government agencies for those not prepared for such emergencies.
In health care, the Mormon Church is working with local providers to train practitioners in neo-natal care. In the last 10 years, the project has produced 8,000 such practitioners in Thailand alone, helping to lower infant mortality rates and increase nutrition awareness amongst young mothers. In addition, I’m told, the Church has donated thousands of wheelchairs to the Thai national health system, as well as begun a series of vision clinics and a clean toilet programme at the Burmese border. Still, one can’t help but note that all this remains a far cry from the work of other religious organisations such as the Red Cross, the Red Crescent and the Seventh Day Adventists, who are setting up modern, well-equipped hospitals and providing scholarships to train physicians and nurses in the local communities.
The Mormon Church is growing at an unprecedented rate for any contemporary religion. The Church’s membership is over 12 million, with 56,000 active missionaries throughout the world based in every continent. The Mormon missionary programme has an average conversion rate of five converts for every missionary on a two-year mission. The numbers are astounding.
With such a prolific record, the future of the Church and its spread across the continents looks set to be a successful venture. In particular, increased prosperity in the two largest and most powerful countries in Asia – China and India – is expected to fuel its continued growth. China appears to be the most viable market, offering the Church a huge population that is in search of new answers to age-old questions in a rapidly modernising society. As globalisation and the liberalisation of many traditionally conservative countries continues to shape the world, the 21st century will most likely see the Mormon Church play a bigger role in Asia and beyond.