CINCINNATI - Lisa Hedge had been looking for the right church her whole life.
She didn't expect to find it on a Monday last April when she was busy cleaning up after a garage sale.
But that's just what happened when a couple of clean-cut missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints knocked on her front door in West Chester to talk with her about Mormonism.
"They were, as they always are, so nice," Hedge said. "They talked about Joseph Smith, which no one had talked about previously, and about how Joseph Smith had searched for a church. And I just felt I could really relate to that. I agreed to meet with them again."
Hedge was baptized as a Mormon June 9, 2012, less than six weeks later.
"I laughed and said I've always been Mormon," said Hedge, 56. "I just didn't know it."
Growth in Mormon Church Here Mirrors the Nation
As many marked the National Day of Prayer this week, when people of all faiths are urged to offer prayer for the nation, its leaders and institutions, WCPO Digital looked at shifting trends in religion in the Tri-State. Much has been written about the number of adults nationwide who consider themselves unaffiliated with any religion at all.
But there are faiths that are growing. And here in Greater Cincinnati, Mormonism is among the fastest growing. It has grown at nearly six times the rate of Christian churches or Churches of Christ. Both the Evangelical Covenant Church and Evangelical Free Church of America and a few others grew at a faster rate here, but none added nearly as many members over that time.
And while the presence of the Mormon church remains small here compared with other religions, Mormonism has grown steadily and quietly for decades in Greater Cincinnati – mirroring national trends.
Consider this data for the Greater Cincinnati region from the Pennsylvania-based Association of Religion Data Archives, or ARDA:
• The number of adherents to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints grew by more than 8,000 people between 1980 and 2010, an increase of nearly 197 percent.
• That beats the national growth rate of roughly 129 percent over that same time period.
• The church grew here by 4,600 people between 2000 and 2010, representing an increase of more than 61 percent.
• The national growth rate was nearly 46 percent over that decade. The 2010 data is the most recent available.
The geographic divisions used by ARDA don't match perfectly with the church's own congregation boundaries.
Based on the church's own numbers, it has grown locally from 4,259 members and nine local congregations in 1980 to 8,318 members and 21 local congregations in 2012. Those figures only cover Hamilton, Butler, Clermont and Warren counties in Ohio and Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties in Kentucky.
Mormons Still a Minority
The church's presence still pales in comparison to the Catholic Church, which had nearly 402,000 Greater Cincinnati members in 2010, according to ARDA. But the Mormon church is without question one of the fastest growing religions locally and across the U.S.
"There are only two ways to grow a religion – conception and conversion," said Peter Huff, who holds the Besl Family Chair for Ethics/Religion and Society at Xavier University. "The Mormons are very strong on both. They encourage large families, and they also have a very well established system for proselytizing."
Think of the clean-cut young men in dark trousers, white shirts and ties, like the ones who visited Hedge.
The church has roughly 58,000 missionaries around the world, a number that's expected to nearly double by August because the church recently announced younger men and women would be allowed to volunteer, said Tim Guffey, a lay leader for the church on the north side of Cincinnati.
The church will reopen a mission headquarters in Western Hills in the coming weeks, meaning the region should expect to see more volunteer missionaries based here soon, he said, just as there will be more missionaries for the church all over the world.
"We've had kind of a steady increase in terms of converts," said Guffey, an executive with the Procter & Gamble Co. who converted to the religion as a college student at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "We also have a number of people who move into the area – either families or students who graduate from college and come to work for P&G or GE or other places."
What Mormons Believe
Part of the reason the Mormon church has been so successful at converting people is because of its high standards, said Xavier's Huff.
"You'd think if you want to attract the maximum number of followers, you'd lower standards," Huff said. "In the U.S., it's the opposite. The religions with the more rigorous standards attract the greater numbers."
Mormons believe that only men and women who are legally married are permitted by God to have sex, for example. And the religion has a health code that prohibits the consumption of alcoholic beverages, tobacco, coffee,
tea or other substances that can be addictive.
Like other Christian religions, Mormons believe Jesus Christ is the son of God. They also believe in a book of scripture called the Book of Mormon and that all people are spiritual children of God, or Heavenly Father, who can return to him by following the example of Jesus.
"It's not easy to believe what Mormons believe because so much of it goes against the grain of what you might find in Protestant or Catholic churches," Huff said.
Mormons find themselves having to defend their beliefs, he said, and answering questions about Joseph Smith, the 19 th-century American religious leader who founded the church, and The Book of Mormon, viewed by believers as a modern-day Book of Revelation.
"Strangely enough, there's a certain attractive quality to that, though," Huff said. "Even potential Mormons wonder if there might be something true there because the beliefs are so different."
The 'Mormon Moment'
There are plenty of misperceptions about the church and plenty of detractors. Guffey said he encounters people who don't think of Mormons as Christians. And Hedge said she hears from others who describe the church as "secretive."
Hedge counters that Mormons are quiet and humble.
The church doesn't talk much about its vast charitable work, both for those who are members and those who aren't.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's run for president gave the church some time in the spotlight to dispel some of those myths, Guffey said. And the church has even seized on the educational opportunities presented by publicity surrounding the musical "The Book of Mormon," a bawdy spoof of the religion's beliefs that will be playing in Cincinnati in January.
In other markets, the church has bought full-page ads in the musical's playbill with the message, "You've seen the play. Now read the book."
It's all part of the so-called "Mormon moment," this time when the general public is more curious about the religion.
And the church's members are happy to answer questions in hopes that maybe they can win converts like Hedge.
After nearly a year as a Mormon, Hedge pauses to think when asked if there was anything about the church that she worried would be hard for her to accept when deciding whether to convert.
"I thought it would be hard for me to give up coffee," she said with a quick laugh.
As it turns out, though, Hedge said that hasn't been a problem at all.