SALT LAKE CITY — On a day the Mormon church announced its membership has hit 15 million — a threefold increase from three decades ago — the debate about the role of women within the faith raged on.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ president, Thomas Monson, kicked off the two-day conference that brings 100,000 members to Salt Lake City by announcing the latest membership milestone from one of the fastest-growing churches in the world.
“The church continues to grow steadily and to change the lives of more and more people every year,” Monson told about 20,000 members seated in a three-story auditorium in Salt Lake City. “It is spreading across the Earth as our missionary force seeks out those who are searching for the truth.”
More than half of all Latter-day Saints live outside of the U.S., church figures show.
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Mormons are still vastly outnumbered by other religious denominations, such as Roman Catholics, 1.2 billion worldwide, and Jews, 13.8 million, according to data from the Pew Research Center. But the Mormon faith is also much younger than those churches, having been founded in 1830, and is among the fastest-growing churches in the world.
Monson, considered the prophet of the church, said Saturday that there are 80,000 missionaries around the world, up from 58,500 a year ago. The growth was triggered by the church’s decision to lower the minimum age for missionaries, which Monson announced during this same conference a year ago. Men can now go at 18, instead of 19, and women at 19, instead of 21.
The biannual general conference brings members together to hear inspirational words from church leaders and to hear church announcements. In addition to the people in Salt Lake City, the conference is watched by millions more around the world on TV, radio and the Internet. The conference is widely followed and analyzed on social media, with many using the Twitter hash tag, “#LDSconf.”
Many of the speeches come from the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, which is the second-highest governing body of the church. Modeled after Jesus Christ’s apostles, the twelve men serve under the church president and his two counselors.
An afternoon speech by D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum put the spotlight on the role of women in the faith a few hours before a feminist women group, Ordain Women, asked to be let in to an all-male priesthood meeting to highlight what group members perceive as gender inequality.
Christofferson said having women at home remains an essential part of society and cautioned against blurring feminine and masculine differences. He encouraged women to dress modestly, and be good and virtuous. “We have enough women of fame and fortune; we need more women of faith,” he said.
“Some feminist thinkers view homemaking with outright contempt, arguing it demeans women, and that the relentless demands of raising children are a form of exploitation,” he said. “They ridicule what they call the ‘mommy track’ as a career. That is not fair or right.”
About 200 people joined the Ordain Women demonstration Saturday afternoon, marching from a nearby park to a standby line outside the all-male priesthood meeting only to be told again they wouldn’t be allowed in. Church spokeswoman Ruth Todd greeted the women and then delivered the bad news. She told them a similar meeting for women was held last weekend, and that the Saturday evening session was about “strengthening the men of our church.” The group had previously been denied its request for tickets.
The church issued a statement: “Millions of women in this church do not share the views of this small group who organized today’s protest, and most church members would see such efforts as divisive. Even so, these are our sisters and we want them among us, and hope they will find peace and joy we all seek in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Women can hold many leadership positions in the LDS church, but they can’t be bishops of congregations or presidents of stakes, which include a dozen congregations.