You’ve probably already seen them; small, smartly dressed groups congregating on George Square, Meadow Walk, or anywhere with high levels of foot-traffic. Distinguishable from the student population by their black and white name tags, these young missionaries tenaciously attempt to waylay passers-by with theological small-talk. They are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or as they are more succinctly known, Mormons. Less than a month into the first semester of the year, and they have already established a presence on campus.
The vast majority of us will have at least heard of them before, which is in itself an impressive feat for a group with only 14 million members worldwide. The LDS church has managed to carve a place for itself in the public consciousness, due in no small part to the visibility of such high-profile members as Mitt Romney and Stephanie Meyers. For many people though, this awareness of Mormonism rarely extends beyond a peripheral understanding of their ideologies.
Theologically speaking, LDS is an America-based denomination of Christianity. It was founded in 1830, and differs from the more mainstream Christian churches primarily through their having a corollary religious text, The Book of Mormon, alongside the Bible. Although some of the church’s more controversial practices (such as polygamy) have been abolished, LDS nonetheless remains highly conservative from a modern perspective. Tea and coffee are forbidden, tithes of up to 10% should be paid to the church, and a belief in the sanctity of the heteronormative, nuclear family unit forms one of the central tenets of the faith.
Missionary work is also held in high esteem, with missions of up to two years being undertaken as a rite of passage by young adults of the church. With these volunteers stationed in over 160 countries worldwide, it’s immediately obvious that we in Edinburgh are not the only ones encountering Mormons on our streets. Much of their work is undertaken in less economically developed countries, where proselytising and aid-work go hand in hand. Working alongside the Red Cross, these young men and women provide emergency response services, run clean water and social development projects, all the while attempting to convert more people to their flock.
In light of these activities, in may seem incongruous for them to target Edinburgh University students, whose only real need for emergency aid tends to come the morning after a long night of drinking. However, many missions are well established in even the most prosperous of the world’s countries, with the UK having played host for almost 180 years. After all, according to one of our local missionaries, their primary aim is to spread the happiness and comfort they have found in their own religion, and to help people explore and reaffirm their faith. Such an undertaking is as relevant in Scotland as anywhere else in the world.
Perhaps a little more cynically, it’s worth noting that many organisations, both religious and secular, see students as a key demographic for conversion. Often experiencing the liberty of independent living for the first time, students can be psychologically vulnerable to marketing campaigns. Furthermore, any belief system we adopt during our university years has a good chance of sticking with us for the rest of our adult lives.
For many at Edinburgh University, all this unsolicited sermonising can be both distasteful and bothersome. One such student, after several encounters with the Mormons, admitted to considering them “nothing more than a nuisance”. A quick search of social media will show that this unfavourable opinion, is not exactly uncommon. It has become such a problem that EUSA has made an agreement with them, restricting their numbers around the university to six and disallowing them to offer to “accompany” students anywhere.
However, for those interested in the church, missionaries can be a valuable, friendly resource. And for everyone else, a firm refusal is usually enough to convince even the most zealous among them to let you go about your day.
Image: Gage Skidmore; Wikimedia Commons