Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

In praise of single Mormons

In last weekend’s General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, First Presidency member Dallin Oaks sounded an alarm about single Mormons delaying marriage and childbearing:

Children are our most precious gift from God—our eternal increase. Yet we live in a time when many women wish to have no part in the bearing and nurturing of children. Many young adults delay marriage until temporal needs are satisfied. The average age of our Church members’ marriages has increased by more than two years, and the number of births to Church members is falling.

Some of the 2016 Next Mormons Survey (NMS) results confirmed what President Oaks observed, particularly on Mormons’ declining birth rate. (As one social scientist put it upon seeing the stats on Mormons’ shrinking family size, “four is the new six, and two is the new four.”)

Most Mormons who marry do so early, at least by today’s standards—in their early 20s. But the NMS showed a clear drop in the percentage of Mormons who get married while still in their teens, as Oaks himself did. He and his first wife June were both just nineteen when they wed in 1952. They were not cultural outliers in getting married so young, since the median age at first marriage nationally for American men in the early 1950s was about 22, and for women about 20. The young Oakses were largely in step with what non-Mormon Americans were doing all around them back in the day.

Adolescent marriage is more rare in America now. Only 18 out of 1,000 young adults in the United States ages 18 and 19 are married, according to the Census Bureau. That’s less than 2%.

In the LDS community it’s higher, but falling. In the NMS, a quarter of Mormon respondents over age 52 were married by age 19, compared to just 13 percent of Millennials. That means that adolescent marriage has been cut nearly in half among Mormons.

We might think that is cause for celebration, particularly because early marriage is correlated with higher divorce rates and future poverty. The combination of social immaturity and being uneducated and on the edge financially can take a toll.

In fact, divorce is down in America as a whole. To the long list of institutions and products that Baby Boomers and their elders accuse Millennials of destroying—the automobile industry! the diamond business! chain restaurants!—we might add divorce, which dropped by 18% from 2008 to 2016. The trend is largely driven by young adults who are waiting longer to get married, when they have finished their educations and are more financially secure.

But President Oaks was not exactly focusing on the positive in Saturday’s talk. In it, he suggested that young adults who delay marriage do so not because they are intentional about making the right choice and avoiding outcomes like divorce, but because they are selfishly waiting “until temporal needs are satisfied.”

But selfishness is not what I heard when I interviewed people for the “single Mormons in a married church” chapter of The Next Mormons.

Instead, I heard over and over that they want to be responsible about this. All during their young lives, Millennials’ Mormon parents and teachers told them that choosing an eternal companion was the most important decision they would ever make, and Millennials believed them. Now those elders seem surprised and a bit betrayed that Millennials want to get it exactly right.

No backsies, people: temple marriage is supposed to be forever. Millennials want forever. So it’s not a decision they are taking lightly, with whirlwind BYU courtships that result in an engagement three weeks after first meeting. The “hanging out” that President Oaks has decried in the past as a poor substitute for one-on-one dating is not a mutually exclusive alternative to dating, as Oaks seems to portray it, but in the minds of many single Millennials a necessary prelude. People get to know each other in groups without the immediate pressure of a romantic relationship that may last forever, with each person sizing up the other and wondering: “Are you the one?”

In this context it’s not particularly helpful when Mormon leaders accuse young adults of delaying marriage because they are foolish or selfish. What would be more constructive is for us to recognize three things:

  • The broader culture is changing. As we’ve seen, when President Oaks got married at 19, his choice was entirely within the mainstream for an American young man. Is it fair to expect that today’s Mormon young adults, coming of age in a vastly different environment where women get married at 27 and men at nearly 30, should also marry so young? Particularly when we know what we now know about the dangers of early marriage in terms of future divorce and poverty?
  • We were the ones that taught Millennials that marriage was the most important decision of all. And our doing so was good and right; whom to marry is a decision that affects every other aspect of life (and for Mormons, of eternity). It is thus oddly whiplash-inducing for us to then turn around and chide young adults for taking longer to make this choice than we did.
  • Hammering the “get married!” message again and again may actually be driving singles out of the Church. How many people come to church to hear, over and over, that they are doing life wrong? That they are inadequate and possibly sinful? That’s how many single Mormons, particularly ones in their 30s, feel when they hear repeatedly from the pulpit that they should just get married already. As if it were that easy. Should it surprise us that single Mormons as a whole have a significantly lower church activity rate than married members of the same age? That some drop out in frustration or even in shame because the Church keeps making it clear they are deeply flawed?

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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

43 Comments

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  • ” Should it surprise us that single Mormons as a whole have a
    significantly lower church activity rate than married members of the
    same age? That some drop out in frustration or even in shame because the
    Church keeps making it clear they are deeply flawed? ”

    Hmm, ‘deeply flawed’ is a tad exaggerated as I can’t see any language delivered by an apostle or prophet that suggests that.

    The focus on families takes the emphasis of talks/hymns away from singles.

    If you look at the stat’s coming out of Japan now re marriage and even relationships, the perverted culture there is pushing people into celibacy and loneliness. One problem over there creates another and another and another… the isolated Japanese 42 year old virgin male who is a member of a masturbation club wishes he was dead while having no understanding AT ALL, that in a working hetrosexual relationship, he would work to please her and she would work to please him.

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is attempting to nudge single people into family lives where loneliness doesn’t cause an individual grief.

  • Shaming and shoving the young into family lives in order to address religious requirements is not exactly a cure for loneliness and grief. Why is there a time table? When Oats was getting married one income was enough to keep a family of three or four housed and fed. Today, housing alone can eat up 35% of a 19/20/21 year old’s wages/salary.

  • “God entrusts individuals with the responsibility of providing for their own temporal needs and the basic needs of their families. Parents have a sacred duty to provide their children with the temporal “necessities of life” (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2010, 129). In this lesson, students will learn how the principle of self-reliance can contribute to their temporal and spiritual stability now and in the future.”

    If they can’t provide for a family’s temporal needs, why start a family to make a church president happy?

  • The church needs Mormon women to keep pumping out the babies, because it is experiencing a mostly unprecedented exodus of members who are resigning. It used to be a near impossible thing to do. One of my general authority acquaintances used to tell a story about how a little old lady in Britain whapped him on the head with a broom because he would not accept her resignation. But thanks to Google, and r/exmormon, the cat is out of the bag about how easy it is to resign. Just go to quitmormon.org.

    Meanwhile, Oaks keeps doing what Mormon GAs traditionally are best at (I’m looking at you, Bednar, Ballard, Holland, Nelson), and that is guilting and shaming.

  • “Today, housing alone can eat up 35% of a 19/20/21 year old’s wages/salary.”

    Yep, and guess what else- when impending climate change doom is allowed to become the dominant voice in the media, government then listens to those voices and makes terrible decisions on power generation.
    Would you like to have your electricity prices climb by 117% in 8 years?

    Try buying an overpriced home when you can’t even afford to heat and cool it!

    I know how rotten satan is and how hard he is working to make young lives miserable in 2018.

    The point is that man and woman were made for each other. Selfishness is not a cure and it creates more problems down the road.

    I believe that hetrosexual couples who focus on loving each other will ultimately wind up happier in these troubled times because they focus on creating healthy love. You can attack me for believing that and not being able to substantiate that belief with facts but heck, I gotta say that I really admire the couple who are poor but happy because despite every misery going on, they iz in twu luv!

  • I’ve heard so many bad things about this talk. It keeps getting worse. And you know what? You’re absolutely right, I don’t want anything to do with bearing and nurturing children right now. Because I don’t want to enter that very expensive venture until I’M SURE I CAN AFFORD TO BEAR AND NUTURE THOSE CHILDREN. If Oaks took a half-second to look at the economic reasons for the waiting and LISTENED to people about why they made these choices (trying to get it right the first time, making sure they bring their child into a stable home, etc), he probably wouldn’t change his tune IN THE LEAST, but at least he would have seen and heard those truths. Maybe they’d penetrate that heart and head.

  • Dallin Oaks is not my hero. I was at BYU in the late 1970s when he was the Prez there. I have listened to him in regional “leadership” meetings where he extolled being a Mormon sheeple as “real” leadership. He’s just on the same loony page as Russell Nelson.

  • Good for you. Others get to live the way they want. Too bad that bigoted old men can’t just mind their own business but have to spread their nonsense to new generations.

  • As usual, you can always find fault with the words of the prophets and apostles. I don’t think that is the way it is supposed to work. I doubt that your wisdom is greater than the Lord’s and He has not called you to lead his church. But hey, maybe they are not really speaking for the Lord and it is just a social club that you joined for some unfathomable reason.

  • Look up the indications of a group being a “cult”.

    I don’t mean being a “theological cult” – LDS is considered a theological cult of Christianity – just as some regard Christianity as a theological cult of Judaism – but “social cult” where leadership is authoritarian, where control is exercised by exclusion and where members lives beyond their religious practice is interfered with by leaders.

  • “”God entrusts individuals with the responsibility of providing for their own temporal needs and the basic needs of their families.”

    God expects us to take your tithes and tell you how to live your lives but absolves us from taking any responsibility for the consequences of our behaviour.

    Standard right-wing religious cop-out. When the result is, or can be spun as, beneficial – give God and us the credit. When the result is harmful beat yourself up as being inadequate.

  • “I know how rotten satan is”

    No – you don’t know how rotten satan is – you don’t even know that there is a satan.

    Pretending, even to oneself, that belief equals knowledge is the sign of an inability (or unwillingness) to think rationally. Telling others that something you believe is true without being able to substantiate that is to abuse them.

    —————–

    “The point is that man and woman were made for each other”

    Utter nonsense.

    The point is that people are not binary male/female, even if we seek to simplify our world by pretending that they are/should be.

    Men and women are the consequence of an evolutionary procedure which gave rise to male and female many, many millennia before anything like men and women existed.

    Sexual reproduction wasn’t made, it was a naturally occurring aberration from the norm which worked and therefore became common.

    And like it or not – very few, if any, of us are “man” or “woman”. We are all on a spectrum which leads from the extreme of “man” to the other extreme of “woman”. Some people, through the natural process of sexual reproduction, are towards one end of the spectrum, others are nearer the other end. As with many other traits we inherit we are (almost?) all somewhere in the grey area – few are either black or white.

  • The cognitive dissonance is astounding, frustrating, and maddening.
    The degree of duck and cover after the fallacy of their concept is comical, and depressing.

  • Our 30+ kilo lurcher (<) came from a reputable rescue organisation after being picked up as a stray who was mistreated when young. He's now 5-6 years old and has been with us for more than four years.

    On a simple level he knows that we will not hurt him, he has four years experience which supports that absolutely. But still if I pick up a broom to sweep the front path/uncoil an extension cable, or my (UK) size 12 partner picks up a magazine he flees to another room and shakes uncontrollably.

    Sometimes the experiences which lead to (currently) irrational fear are so deeply inserted that they cannot be negated. I believe that religion depends upon such behaviour in humans for its survival.

    I'm not suggesting that everyone who rails against unbelievers, who threatens eternal suffering and excuses abuse as "loving correction" does so consciously – most are probably as much victims as those they damage – but some, perhaps those who gain most – I believe do know what they are doing – and don't/can't care.

    The few are truly evil.

  • How about letting teenagers actually become adults (21, 22?) before they make a life altering decision that affects them eternally? Even if they wait until 22 (horrors!!) to get married, they still have at least 15 – 20 good years of breeding in them. Waiting to get married at 21, 22 or 23 is not putting off marriage to obtain big houses and sports cars, it might just be you haven’t found the right one yet or you want to finish your education. And, waiting a year or two to have kids; again; not a real temporal gain trying to finish a college degree so that when you do have the requisite 4 children you can actually afford to feed them.

  • Brigham Young set the precedent for reorganizing the seniority of the Twelve after the Mormons got to Utah. Young apparently did not like the seniority established by Joseph Smith and reorganized the Twelve to suit himself. However, the current 15 old men are pretty homogeneous in their collective racism, sexism and homophobia, so shuffling the deck would not achieve much.

  • “Pretending, even to oneself, that belief equals knowledge is the sign of an inability (or unwillingness) to think rationally. Telling others that something you believe is true without being able to substantiate that is to abuse them.”

    This. As in every testimony ever born in the history of this church. It just occurred to me every Mormon testimony ever born is embedded with gaslighting, as in, “I know. Why don’t you?”

  • Did you know BY ordained three sons as a apostles with no public announcement and without their ever being in the Quorum of Apostles? BY, Jr., John Willard Young, and Joseph Angell Young. JWY was only 11 when he was ordained. Apparently BY was trying to create a dynastic succession. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Willard_Young, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Angell_Young

    “We thank thee o God for a prophet to guide us in these latter days…” LMAO

  • That sort of nepotism also included Joseph Fielding Smith and David O. McKay who were both ordained to the 12 after serving their full time missions as young men. They served their entire adult lives as members of the Church’s top 12.

  • Not everything is about money or comfort. It is about priorities and purpose of life, and what happens after this life. Oaks isn’t saying live on the street in poverty while popping out 20 children, now is he? In the past he has said that we should not judge each other on numbers of children, but heaven will judge your actions and motivations. Oaks can see that there is clearly a problem. Divorce rates are down primarily because family formation (marriage and children) are down. There are too many Peter Pans who don’t want to grow up. Instead of children and marriage being of the highest value, these are viewed as burdens to be postponed or avoided entirely. Oaks is only saying what nearly all the prophets before him have said. I, for one, don’t care if young, married couples have to struggle a bit to marry and have children. People sacrifice to obtain that which they find valuable. If they apply the rest of the doctrines, they will come through just fine. My wife and I married young, poor as could be, and struggled though undergrad and grad school with three children, having the fourth a month after I graduated from law school. I have long since passed by most who waited on marriage and children.

    Now, as far as economics, there are stark realities favoring marriage over the single life. Married couples are, on average, much better off financially than singles or couples just living together. Married people are also in better health, do less drinking, and are happier, in general. Children born to marriages, especially high-religion marriages, outperform peers in nearly every category–better off financially, better grades, better health, better social adjustment, less crime, less abuse, etc., etc. Further, fertility rates in nearly all countries, but for some African nations, are falling or have fallen far below replacement rates (less than 2.13 children per woman). The results in the next 50 to 100 years will be catastrophic economic and social upheaval in cities, states, and nations. There is a lengthy list of citations that could be provided, but before even getting to those, one probably should just start with basics like the documentary New Economic Reality: Demographic Winter which can be found archived on BYU TV. Oaks has nothing to apologize for. He is calling the doctrine what it is, and he is right on the actual social science (as opposed to pop myths that get recycled over and over again).

  • What do you think I am assuming that is false?

    That you don’t know there is a satan – OK prove there is
    – not give reasons why you believe it, give facts which lead only to the conclusion that there is a satan.
    (NB quoting the Bible is OK – provided you first prove that the Bible’s content is valid, relevant and authoritative, which you can probably only do once you have proven the existence of god(s) – and for that you cannot call on the Bible because that would be circular reasoning).

    Sexuality/Gender is not binary? – it isn’t. Your DNA is not the same as mine.
    Sexual reproduction’s strength is that it creates variation – in every possible way. The interesting thing is that variations which are harmful to the species tend to disappear. That a variation continues suggests strongly that the variation is beneficial to the survival of the species; and taking male homosexuality as an instance – there is strong evidence that the genetic variations, which pass through the maternal line, that are often present in such guys cause their similarly varied sisters to have some 20% more children than those without that variation – hence more babies, hence more adults, hence more babies – you get the drift.
    https://www.jsm.jsexmed.org/article/S1743-6095(15)32388-2/fulltext

    I’m happy to continue this discussion – if and when you produce something that backs up your previous comment.

  • I served my Mormon mission a bit later than most and got married in the temple at age 25, trying to reconcile all the LDS BS in my head from childhood with the real world around me. Eventually, reality won and Mormonism lost its hold on me. But the problem now, of course, is the fact that so many of my extended family are still under the influence. Reality can be a lonely place.

  • Ivie makes a good point, even if you disagree with the delivery. How is the decision of an 8 year old, surrounded by member family, maybe relatives, friends at church, lots of positive outcomes for agreeing to be baptised, etc etc, how is that truly a choice for the child, let alone knowing and voluntary?

    Just like when a person enters the temple in preparation for a temple wedding, or serving a mission, and without knowing what will occur in that ritual (my first endowment was back when you had agree to penalties mimicking slitting one’s throat and disembowelling oneself, symoblically of course), how can it be said that person really had the choice to leave rather than go forward with the ceremony? And anger all those who made the trip (for me it was to a temple several states away)? Yeah, right. Fat chance of that happening. And then later throwing it in the person’s face, “Hey, you had a choice”.

    Your statement about who’s wisdom is greater is a hugely question-begging response. Your prophets don’t prophesy. Your seers don’t see. Your revelators don’t reveal anything. A general conference occurring just days before Hurricane Michael devastated the Florida panhandle, we didnt’ hear a peep out of the so-called prophet warning people to flee. Instead we got 2-hour church and, oh yeah, don’t call us Mormons, cuz that’s a win for Satan. #Lord’sPriorities

    As a voluntarily resigned member, I can tell you now. You’re on weak ground trying to defend the pap coming out of the gerontacracy, errr, inspired leaders, of the Mornon church, errr, I meant Even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  • @Alexander Let me guess… you’re not single. Because you would hear every time being single is mentioned in a talk it’s usually followed by “but if you don’t get the chance in this life, you’ll get it in the next.” The message is pretty clear. We got nothing for ya until you’re dead. And as a woman, my single role is still regulated to children. Which I find ironic, because most people with children would rather trust the 20 year old married person than the older single woman. The women’s talks in that Session were so great, followed by the “you’re sole role as a woman is to have babies, nurtur babies, etc.”

  • Thank you for conceding to my points. And, in fact, I have improved. My life has improved. I love my Second Saturdays, formerly known as Sundays. I get up, have a leisurely breakfast, hit the golf course with friends, smoke a cigar, talk trash, drink a bloody mary or two, and play like I was again a boy dreading the moment the street lights turned on and I would have to go home.

    If you find peace in the Mormon church, that’s ok. But I won’t stop heckling what I believe to be a harmful and dishonest organization.

  • Knock, knock.
    Who’s there?
    Single Mormon.
    Single Mormon who?
    Single MormonChurch of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints-affiliated person

  • Nonsense. Nobody is going to take the risk of becoming financially responsible for another person if hey can barely support themselves, nor should they!.

    All your marriage statistics have it backwards. People who get married are already economically better off..so that is why married people have better social statistics. In our unequal society, marriage is for the rich and upper middle class…people less well off can’t afford marriage and kids…and wisely don’t get married, thus taking on more responsibility.

    Spare us the “back in my day I married poor” fallacy…that was a different social and economic time. Fraudulent prophets pushing 90 years or older can be safely ignored on this and all other issues. Thankfully they are being ignored by younger people — even younger Mormons.

  • Yes it can. Hopefully you have people in your life (friends and some family) who accept you and like you for who you are not because you walk their line. You allow them to walk theirs isn’t it a common courtesy to allow you to walk yours.

  • Shunning is part of the cult mindset. That’s part of why Nelson is pushing Mormon women to “fast” (take a 10 day break) from the media. If he can get them to shun the media for 10 days, he can get moms to turn their backs on their own kids.

  • Good grief!

    Millennials are living with their parents longer than ever and Oaks wants them to start cranking out babies? Maybe some of them can move in with him.

  • In case you missed it

    I’m happy to continue this discussion – if and when you produce something that backs up your previous comment.

  • That’s too bad about your family. Hopefully, over time, they will be more understanding.

    I, too, left the church but fortunately for me, my relationship with my family never changed because they put family before religious affiliations. I wasn’t any different. I was still their daughter/sister.

    They have since also left. The churches views on LGBTQ and conservative politics I think was what eventually caused them to finally leave.

  • People should only have kids if they want them. And no one should be berated for wanting or not wanting kids.

    Also, don’t fret over population. We have plenty of people on the planet. Probably too many.

  • Honestly, Hell no I’m not getting married. I ain’t taking up with no wife of whoredoms. I live in the Bay Area of California. I joined this Church because I was tired of the modern sexual economy, not because I wanted to get screwed in the courts. Marriage and birth rates among the LDS may be dropping, but divorce rates aren’t changing. I’m not fat, I’m not uneducated, I’m well endowed (not talking about the Temple) and I am not MGTOW but Nelson needs to understand that the institution of marriage is all but dead. It’s not that I don’t want a wife. It’s that there is nothing to marry in the first world that isn’t a “sexually liberated stronk woman.”

  • I’m a little baffled. Oaks suggested that young adults are putting off marriage “until temporal needs are satisfied.” Note that not once did he mention the world “selfish,” and as I review the talk he doesn’t appear to imply that waiting until temporal needs are satisfied is selfish. The inclusion of “selfish” is 100% Jana Riess’s editorializing. Ms. Jana has a PhD, so I suspect she didn’t act unintentionally, which says a lot more about her bias than it reveals about Mr. Oaks’s beliefs. Of course, then Ms. Jana knocks down her straw man by saying “But selfishness is not what I heard when I interviewed people for the [book plug]. I heard over an over again that people want to be responsible about this.”

    Now, “wanting to be responsible about this” could be selfish — delaying marriage and children until education is completed, job it obtained, and first home is purchased can be selfish. I don’t know that Mr. Oaks suggests that, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to do so. But what I get from the full context of Mr. Oaks’s speech is that there is another responsibility — that of having children — that is gravely important and that must be given tremendous weight when crafting a life plan. He seems concerned that the (good) need to meet temporal needs has taken precedence over the (very good) need to procreate.

    Finally, it’s difficult to celebrate or advocate for delayed marriage while lamenting diminished family size. If Mr. Oaks’s has a concern that people of his faith are have too few children, and if at the same time people of his faith are marrying later in life, it seems logical for him to preach the gospel of “marry early, reproduce often.”

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