Pentecostalism is often described as a wild fire because of its rapid growth around the world. As Philip Jenkins noted at MHA even Islam feels the heat of the Pentecostal fire. As a result Latter-day Saints, accustomed to calling their Church the fastest growing religion, are having to rethink their rhetorical strategies.
Mormonism holds a different model of growth from the Pentecostal model. Though much, much slower, it does produce results. While one can ask, with Jenkins, why not let it go to grow as quickly as it can, Latter-day Saint leaders instead ask the question of how to control growth so that it leads to a Church organization that functions with proper lines of authority.
While the growth of Christianity in Africa is stupendous, Latter-day Saints have eschewed joining that wildfire, it seems to me. They have opted for slower growth, as they have many times before in LDS history. I think of the description in Tullis of the first missionaries in Mexico who received instructions from Brigham Young not to baptize. They found a community, Guerrero, Chihuahua, that wanted to join, but were unable to do more than teach the gospel to them.
Tullis writes: “The town’s only priest was cooperative, the people were not devoted Catholics, and the chief political officer readily granted them permission to preach and even offered to protect them if necessary. The missionaries rented a house adjacent to a large hall and began arranging meetings. At the first one held in Guerrero, on Sunday, 23 April, Jones preached a sermon on the “United Order”, a term Mormons apply to their own unique though [subsequently] unsuccessful attempt at communitarian living. Francisco Rubio, a local man who had become acquainted with the missionaries and their message explained the Book of Mormon to those in attendance that day and related its account of Christ’s visit to the Americas. Jones later wrote “[Rubio] really understood and believed the Book of Mormon as once in the meeting he took it in his hand and explained it in a more lucid manner…than I had ever heard before…In the next three weeks [they] found many people who expressed profound faith in the Book of Mormon and also a strong desire for the Mormons to come and live among them” (F. LaMond Tullis, Mormons in Mexico. Utah State University Press,1987, pp 26-27/.
Guerrero did not become Mormon, but went on to become a Protestant stronghold, while Mormonism took a different path to growth. Is Guerrero, and Africa, a missed opportunity for growth if only the Church’s program operated differently? Perhaps, but it is also a telling example of the Church’s long history of choosing a slower form of growth that allows the building of its institution, rather than a quicker one of simple faith.
Slower growth may not afford Latter-day Saints the same, satisfying rhetorical forms, but it is truer to LDS history than the kinds of growth for which the term a wildfire is apt. That is Pentecostal terrain. Mormonism has simply chosen not to grow like Pentecostals.