The holiday commemorates Mormons' arrival in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake on July 24, 1847, after an arduous journey from their previous home in Nauvoo, Illinois. The church's massive worldwide growth recently, Mormons' increased prominence in American public life, and this year's bicentennial of the birth of church founder Joseph Smith, add up to particularly heady days for a church whose members were once persecuted for their faith.
At Smith's centennial 100 years ago, "The Latter-day Saints were so feared and hated that their missionaries were still being tied to trees and horsewhipped in the American South, and some were being shot," said Kathleen Flake, a professor at Vanderbilt University and author of "The Politics of Religious Identity: the Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle."
What a difference a century makes.
Today, the leader of Senate Democrats, Harry Reid, is a Mormon. So are Mike Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Mitt Romney, governor of Massachusetts. And Mormons--along with plenty of non-Mormons--are abuzz about the possibility of the ultimate political prize: Romney is widely expected to run for president in 2008.
Joseph Smith's bicentennial is being marked in places like the Library of Congress, which co-sponsored with Brigham Young University a symposium on Smith's life and teachings. Several new academic biographies are being published, and the first volume of the Joseph Smith papers--a complete compilation of his writings--will be issued next year.
And with 5.5 million members in the United States, the LDS church has become the fourth-largest denomination in the country (up from fifth a year ago, having passed the Church of God in Christ), according to the National Council of Churches. Outside the U.S. and Canada, the church has grown more than fivefold to 6.3 million members since 1980--with nearly 10 percent of that in the past five years, according to figures provided by Mormon officials.
"The church has migrated from a provincial faith to a faith that can make itself at home in any space and every culture," said Jan Shipps, professor emeritus at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.
Growth is strongest today in Latin America and West Africa-- ironic since blacks were not allowed to join the Mormon priesthood (a term used for virtually all male church members) until 1978.
"In those places it is a period of rapid cultural and economic change, and when that happens, there's always an openness to new movements," said Armand Mauss, professor emeritus of sociology and religion at Washington State University.
But growth brings its own challenges, and during these boom times, Mormons are debating everything from the place of dissent in their community to the long-term prospects for success of the Church's international missionary efforts.
Appealing to and making room for a worldwide following has been one challenge facing this quintessentially American church.
"One of the problems that the church has been coping with for some time is how it can disassociate itself from American culture and the American way of life and American foreign policy without denouncing those things," Mauss said.
To ease internationalization, the church has worked to decentralize and diversify its leadership. It also follows a strategy known as "correlation," which helps ensure that the church remains unified--and uniform--in beliefs and practices throughout the world. Correlation stipulates that church curricula, practices, and customs be identical everywhere in the world; changes and innovations that church leaders deem appropriate are enforced everywhere. Because of correlation, not only is American Mormonism exported faithfully abroad, but changes dictated by worldwide needs are enforced back in America as well, Shipps said.