December 4, 2005


Religion: alone in the pews

A story published in the current issue of Time Magazine discusses how difficult it can be for someone who is single to participate in the Mormon church -- an organization which is so heavily invested in marriage.  Here is what the story has to say.

Mormons believe that God is married and that they can achieve divinity by marrying and having children. So couples in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), as the denomination is formally called, often marry young. Their vows, when sealed in a sacred temple ceremony, are pledged not just "until death do us part" but for eternity. Parents and children gather weekly for Family Home Evenings, to study Scripture, pray and bond over other activities. Even wards, or congregations, are organized around familial units. Which is why Michael Mohan, a lifelong Mormon, says, "Sometimes I feel a little bit out of place." At 40, Mohan is single. "The church," he says, "is kind of set up for people who are married."

But that setup is beginning to pose a challenge for the leaders of the church. Like other Americans, Mormon men and women are marrying later. "This tendency to postpone adult responsibilities ... is surely visible among our LDS young adults," said Dallin Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, one of the highest levels in the LDS hierarchy, in a speech earlier this year. "The average age at marriage has increased in the last few decades, and the number of children born to LDS married couples has decreased." While the church says it does not keep age statistics for marriage, in Utah--which is more than 60% Mormon--the median age at the first wedding, though still the lowest nationally, went up by about a year in the period from 2000 to 2003, to 21.9 years for women and 23.9 for men, after remaining flat since 1985. Today, more than 30% of Latter-day Saints are singles over 22 (including those widowed or divorced), a figure explained in part by the rising number of adult converts and a generation of the more culturally assimilated offspring of Mormon baby boomers.

The church has tried to do some adjusting itself. Since the 1970s, it has ministered to single members through singles wards, congregations specifically for unmarried 18-to-30-year-olds. In the past five years the number of those congregations has jumped to more than 500, from 300. But there are only around a dozen singles wards nationwide for those over 30, so most who haven't wed by then move into family-oriented wards. Jody Morrison was a mainstay of her singles ward outside Milwaukee, Wis., running the women's group and organizing substitute Family Home Evenings. But after she turned 31 in October 2004, she transferred to her area family ward, where she is the only unmarried person her age. "I did go through a kind of mourning period," she says. In the past year, Morrison has integrated into her new ward by teaching Sunday school and making new friends. Still, she now spends Family Home Evenings home alone.

Some family wards sponsor programs for their single members, but those can be small groups filled with older divorced and widowed people, particularly in areas where the Mormon population is low. Marie Wilson, who converted to the LDS faith 10 years ago, is the only never married member of the singles group in her Winston-Salem, N.C., ward and, at 35, the youngest by at least a decade. Her church friends, she says, "can't relate because most of them have been married since they were in their early 20s. I've lived alone my entire life."

Finding a spouse remains the priority. Internet dating sites, like are popular. But the church prefers to encourage more traditional courtship. When Oaks, the Mormon leader who fretted about the rise of singles, declared in May, "It's marriage time," imploring young people to lay off group activities and date more, single Saints across the country took heed. Even in Manhattan--with a vast support network of unmarried Mormons--Jeffrey Jackson, 27, says he and friends in his singles ward immediately put "more focus on one-on-one relationships," proposing more dates and trying to consider their female friends as potential wives. Many wards hold dances regularly. Wilson sometimes travels two hours to attend them in Raleigh, N.C. Michael Mohan went to one in Denver on a recent Friday and another in Colorado Springs, Colo., the following night. He was excited to see how well members encouraged one another to connect at the Saturday affair. He did his part too, securing phone numbers from four women that night. "I'm not going to stay single forever," he vows.