by Ronald Lawson  |  7 May 2020  |

This article compares the growth of three religious groups, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. All originated in America during the nineteenth century and have since globalized. It begins by using their official membership data to contrast their aggregate growth over time. It then questions the reliability of those official statistics. Noting that each group employs different criteria in selecting who it counts, it employs census data from 54 countries in all regions of the world and five surveys of US adult religious affiliation with adjustments for children as a proxy for an American census to provide a common basis for comparison. It finds consistent patterns, where membership data greatly overstate the number of Mormons, understate the number of Adventists, and also understate the number of Witnesses to an even greater extent. The article then calculates a weighted ratio between official and census data for each group and uses those ratios to estimate their aggregate adherents. This method results in a dramatic reordering of their sizes. Finally, the article accounts for the variations found between the three groups.


This study has compared official memberships of Mormons, Adventists, and Witnesses with estimates based on self-identification in census data from 54 different countries and a census proxy estimate for the United States. Official data show that the Adventist membership is the largest of the three groups, followed by Mormons, and then Witnesses. However, while the census data also show Adventists as the largest, Witnesses are second and Mormons trail as a distant third. The US census proxy for Mormons is the only category where the official data and the census proxy show reasonable agreement. For other countries, Mormon self-identification is less than a third of official statistics. Self-identification for Adventists exceeds their official data by almost a third, while those identifying as Witnesses are more than twice the official numbers. These data demonstrate that official membership statistics do not necessarily provide a reliable way of quantifying size: close attention must be paid to what categories are counted as members, and how accurately membership turnover is acknowledged.

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Ronald Lawson was Professor in the Department of Urban Studies at ­Queens College, the City University of New York, where he taught courses focusing on the sociology of religion and political ­sociology. He is also the President of the Metro New York ­Adventist Forum, a position he held for 41 years. He is ­completing a book, Apocalypse Postponed, that will give a­ sociological account of international Adventism, the first major ­study of a global church.

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