Two young missionaries overlooking Taipei. Original photo by Benjamin Lee.
Living in Taiwan, it is a common sight to see a pair of clean-cut foreigners dressed in suits riding around in bicycles and approaching people in the street. They are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and their numbers are ever-rising in Taiwan, according to their official records at least.
Church statistics say that there are 54.529 members in Taiwan, or roughly 0.25% of the total population. While it isn’t a particularly big percentage, the number of adherents is still a bit surprising. Why the interest in a modern faith that should by logic be quite far off from the ages-old teachings of Buddhism and Taoism? One possible reason for the rising popularity of Mormonism in Taiwan could have something to do with one of its less widely publicised practices.
I am referring to the elaboration and maintenance of family histories, mainly for the purposes of baptisms of the dead. The belief of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereby LDS), states that in order to be accepted into the kingdom of God, one must have been baptised. What, then, are those unfortunate people who died before becoming members to do? The answer is to be baptised by those living. There was a large controversy about people baptizing historical figures or even members of other faiths to which they had no relation, so nowadays the practice is usually restricted to direct family members.
The motivations behind these baptisms are unclear, but it is obvious how the family history helps trace back ones descendants who might not have been baptized as Mormons, or even those who lived before the establishment of the LDS, in order to help them achieve entry into Heaven. The reason this seems like it would appeal to the Taiwanese psyche is that, by organizing and investigation one’s family history, one is participating in an activity which could certainly be classified as “ancestor worship”, one of the central tenets of classical Chinese Confucian culture, and still deeply rooted in society today. After all, what better way to show respect for ones elders than by tracing them back and documenting their lives?
View of the Taipei LDS temple. Photo by Witold Chudy.
A reason that is often offered by LDS adherents as to why their faith is popular in the island is the emphasis on family. Various promotional videos and documentaries stress this fact. One of the most common mormon practices is that of Family Home Evening, an evening one night a week where family members engage in study, prayer, or other wholesome activities. It is suggested in some of these promotional materials that the increased number of divorces and busy lifestyles of parents are causing a lot of stress to the Asian concept of family in general and Taiwanese families in particular. Thus, it therefore seems possible that one of the reasons parents are attracted to the church is as a way of salvaging an ailing family. Whether the attempts are effective or not is a different question.
Another theory is that the politeness and friendliness of many Taiwanese, who may not be accustomed to approaches by missionaries and might be either unsure how to react, or too polite to say no, leads to increased exposure and a larger chance of propagation of the message. In other countries, people might be more accustomed to attention from missionaries and therefore be more hostile or direct when dealing with them.
As an independent observer, I can’t see what all the fuss is about. I don’t see a distinct reason why the LDS church should be popular and steadily rising in Taiwan, other than perhaps the aforementioned similarities with Confucianism. I suppose their aggressive recruitment strategy with cold approaches in the street coupled with the friendly naivety of some Taiwanese people produce favourable conditions. It should also be said that when we went to take photos for this article, the Mormons we talked to were very polite and friendly, and their manners and attire certainly seem like they would appeal to the older generations or more conservative groups within Taiwanese society. All things considered, the LDS church and its members are now a regular feature of the Taiwanese religious landscape and are probably here to stay.
Written by Daniel Pagan Murphy
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