In Sacrament Meeting today, I was struck by an idea. It’s always hard to measure the geographical spread and diversity of the LDS Church and its members. For example, membership numbers are understandably fraught with problems. Yes, the records of the Church show 14 million plus members in the world with over half outside the US; further, within the US, only one third of Mormons live in Utah. However, these basic calculations do not account for members who have been lost or who are entirely inactive. Further, it does not account for differences in attendance rates across geographical regions; Mormons in Provo, Utah tend to be much more active proportionally than do Mormons in Presidencia Roque Sáenz Peña, Chaco, Argentina, where at times the attendance hovered around 5%.
What I realized, though, is that there is a metric that could be evidence of Mormon activity rates in a curious fashion: square footage of LDS temples by region. In the temples, Mormons participate in the highest rites of their faith, and are encouraged to go often. Until the late 1990s, temples were typically large buildings that required significant resources to construct; however, since around 2000, many smaller temples have been built to facilitate attendance by members in far-flung regions of the globe. As a result, temple construction more closely reflects habits of temple attendance by members. Further, temple construction also reflects on the size of local populations and the proportion of those members that pay a full tithe.
With this in mind, I tabulated all the square footages of LDS temples by region throughout time, showing the geographic expansion of the Church*. What I found is very interesting: though the majority of LDS members live outside the US, 66% of temple square footage is found within the US – 27% in Utah alone, and 50% in the western states.
Of course, temple attendance and demand cannot be equated with LDS activity rates or practicing population, for it is certain that American affluence (more leisure time, more dispensable funds, and more readily available transportation) inflates American attendance rates. For many outside the US, a visit to the temple might be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence (though the prevalence of that is, hopefully, decreasing). Still, it’s very interesting to consider what this data might entail for the Church. What, for example, how would the worship of a highly active LDS population that cannot attend the temple regularly look like? Does the availability of temples affect LDS activity rates? What does this mean about different regions' cultural capital within the global LDS community?
* I included La'ie and Kona Hawai'i in the "Pacific and Oceania" region based on the populations they typically service, put the Philippines in "Asia," and included Santo Domingo in "Central America."