A GEOGRAPHY OF FAITH
By Brittany Karford Rogers (BA ’07)
The original copy of this article is from BYU Magazine.
If you would like to purchase a copy of the book, Mapping Mormonism, that would be a great way to say thank you to the author.
The award-winning Mapping Mormonism will teach you something
new about Church history—past and present.
Take just about any topic—even something you’ve heard about thousands of
times. “Look at it on a map, and it makes you think about it differently,” says
geography professor Brandon S. Plewe (BS ’92).
His new work, the award-winning Mapping Mormonism: An Atlas of Latter-day
Saint History, is proof, bringing new light to familiar Church topics—and
uncovering new ones.
From the Restoration to modern day, the atlas covers much more than the
physical terrain of Latter-day Saint history. It dissects member demographics,
Church growth, missionary work, humanitarian aid—you name it. One can learn
about congregations in Afghanistan and when the Church had a stronghold in the
U.S. Bible Belt; one can see the relative footprint of every temple on the
planet and various meetinghouse plans. Even Church-history experts can learn
Part reference work, part coffee-table book, the atlas promptly sold out when
BYU Studies released it in fall 2012. Half of the second printing has now sold
The work also won the 2013 Best Book Award from the Mormon History
Association and was named best atlas of the year in the Cartography and
Geographic Information Society Map Design Competition—North America’s top
cartography competition, according to judge Daniel Cole, geographic information
systems coordinator of the Smithsonian Institution. “National Geographic didn’t
hog all the categories this year,” says Cole. “We were pretty impressed with the
In the following, explore the early Church, its membership, temples, and more
in a smattering of visuals lifted from the atlas—some of them updated with new
data since the atlas’s 2012 publication just for BYU Magazine.
The Early Church
Unusual ExcitementCritics and apologists have long debated the veracity of one facet or another
of Joseph Smith’s record. One is whether revivals really took place in Palmyra
or nearby villages around 1820. The atlas plots at least 30 revivals, large
conferences, and foundings of new churches between 1816 and 1821 within 20 miles
of the teenaged Joseph Smith. By his own account, Smith was drawn to the
Methodist revivals, as was Emma Hale, his future wife.
Surveying the Salt Lake ValleyLooking south into what would become Salt Lake City, this may have been the
Mormon pioneers’ view in 1847 of the valley, a land mostly covered in prairie
grass. The first scouts from the vanguard pioneer company were already plowing
fields when Brigham Young arrived and made his iconic statement: “This is the
right place; drive on.” The Saints surveyed the area with scientific implements
procured by John Taylor in England for the trek, tools that allowed Orson Pratt
to determine the longitude, latitude, and elevation of significant
Founding BranchesToday it’s easy to imagine the Saints moving as a block from one frontier
settlement to another during the Kirtland and Nauvoo periods, but records reveal
small but viable branches throughout the eastern United States. Fewer
missionaries served in the South, resulting in isolated branches built up by
dedicated long-term missionaries like Jedediah Grant and Wilford Woodruff.
Branches were instructed to hold quarterly regional conferences to strengthen
each other. Branch names and more can be found at mappingmormonism.byu.edu.
The Expanding Church
Membership and Annual Growth
The Philippines rival the entire continent of Africa in size in this
cartogram, a map distorted to convey a specific piece of information—in this
case, the number of Latter-day Saints in each country. Yet Africa and parts of
Asia also have the highest current annual growth in Church
The end of 2012 hinted at a surge in missionary numbers—a result of the
October 2012 announcement that changed the age for missionary service and
created a stir in wards everywhere. The change’s long-term effects remain to be
seen, but missionary numbers had previously slowed due to a demographic plateau
of mission-aged men and women in the Church and a raised bar for
Where Leaders Are Born
Think most General Authorities are from Utah? That may have been the case at
one time—and of course in the early Church most leaders were from the East—but
the distribution is changing, trending toward more and more
To Every Nation
The United States dominates no more; the country is now home to less than
half of Church members worldwide. The residence of Church membership through
time reveals many trends. Canada has somehow retained its share of the
membership pie, maintaining a growth rate mirroring that of the Church as a
whole. A surge of growth in Latin America fanned out beginning in the ’60s.
Africa may be next; though small now, it is growing faster than any other
How fast will Church membership grow in the years ahead? With no shortage of
guesses, the atlas outlines eight predictions, all somewhat close except the
highly optimistic trajectory from sociologist Rodney Stark that reaches 55
million members in 2040. Atlas editor Brandon Plewe and geography professor
Samuel M. Otterstrom (BS ’90, MS ’94) developed their own model (see the red
line) based on the percent of Latter-day Saints per region.
Putting Down Stakes
The presence of stakes in an area reflects the maturity of the Church in the
region. Before 1923 stakes existed only in the belt of Mormon settlements from
Canada to Mexico. But in the ensuing century, stakes cropped up beyond that
corridor—in Los Angeles in 1923, outside of North America (Hawaii) in 1935, and
outside of the United States (New Zealand) in 1958. The first
non-English-speaking stake: The Hague, Netherlands, in 1961. A record 146 stakes
were created in one year (1996). Today there are more than 2,900.
Dotting the Globe
With 171 temples operating or planned around the globe, the average distance
of members from temples, once more than 500 miles, is now down to 100 miles. See
the location and relative footprint of every temple—standing, proposed, or under
construction—in the world.
After nearly 200 years of temple building, the largest temple is in Salt Lake
City; the smallest is in Colonia Juárez, Mexico—the model for the surge of
small-temple construction worldwide. Several temples were designed for unique
purposes, like the temples in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., for maximum
visibility, or in Hong Kong and Manhattan for urban efficiency. The temples in
Provo and Ogden, Utah, were designed to accommodate numerous patrons—and are
still among the busiest.
United States and Canada in 2013
The five states with the largest Mormon populations account for almost 80
percent of total membership in the United States and Canada. In Utah, members
make up nearly 68 percent of the state population. California has the most
missions. Almost every state and Canadian province has a temple. Additional
pages in the atlas delve into history, growth, and stateside missionary work in
greater detail, comparing, for example, where growth is primarily from
outmigration from Utah versus homegrown conversion.
The Making of the Atlas
When BYU Studies asked geography professor Brandon S. Plewe (BS ’92) about
creating an atlas of Mormon history, there was no hesitation. “Do you think they
had to talk me into it?” says the cartographer, besieged in his office by his
maps—of Utah, of road congestion, of slot canyons, of every area he served in as
a missionary, and more.
Initially, Plewe’s task as editor was to update the landmark 1994 Historical
Atlas of Mormonism. But “update” hardly does the new volume justice.
The 1994 atlas featured 78 two-color maps on 169 pages. The new 272-page
Mapping Mormonism: An Atlas of Latter-day Saint History more than doubles the
visuals, with as many as 12 maps on a single spread. “We wanted the graphics to
tell the stories,” says Plewe, who was assisted by 13 students. “We also wanted
to tell the stories of different parts of the world.” Where the 1994 atlas
covered little beyond the 1880s North American Church, Mapping Mormonism forges
into the 20th and 21st centuries and into every nation.
Emeritus BYU professors S. Kent Brown, Richard H. Jackson, and Donald Q.
Cannon, editors of the 1994 atlas, are the associate editors of Mapping
Mormonism, which, says Cannon, “asks questions that weren’t asked before.” He
points to the atlas’ chronicling of Joseph Smith’s travels—a first—or the atlas’
membership comparisons among three American churches (the Latter-day Saints,
Seventh-Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses), one of which recently
surpassed the Church in growth.
Expert commentary from 60 contributors expands every topic. But Plewe’s
visuals, says Cannon, do the heavy lifting, some of them painstakingly produced,
like 3D maps showing the evolution of Salt Lake City, uncovering long-gone
structures few knew existed. Plewe is also proud of his map of Mormon
settlements in mid-1800s Missouri; in original research, he located more than
60. “Those are the places [readers] are tied to, the places their ancestors
stopped or lived.”
Says Cannon, “I don’t think anyone could pick the atlas up . . . and not learn something.”
—Brittany Karford Rogers (BA ’07)