If you've walked through Free Speech Alley this semester, you've probably noticed the distinctly dressed group smiling cheerfully at passersby and offering religious pamphlets. They're members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly known as Mormons, whose religion believes among other things that Jesus visited America.
Mormonism was founded in New York in the early 1800s, and is mostly concentrated in the western half of the US. About two-thirds of Utah's population belongs to the LDS church. The religion is based on both the Bible and its own holy scripture called the Book of Mormon, which members of the faith believe was given directly to their first prophet, Joseph Smith. The prophethood has been passed down since then, usually given to the most senior member of a council of twelve "apostles". The current prophet is Thomas Spencer Monson, who leads the world's 14.8 million Mormons from the church's headquarters in Salt Lake City.
The members you see on campus are on a two-year mission trip from their home states. Elder Schow, one of the missionaries I spoke to, told me that they do not get a say in what location they will go to: their paperwork is sent to church leaders, who fast and pray to determine where they should be sent. The 20 year old Utah resident said that he has been in Louisiana for 16 months, and will begin college when he returns home.
The Mormon church is best known for its strict moral code, which preaches abstinence and strongly discourages caffeine, alcohol, and smoking. However, missionary Sister Brown explained to me that the guidelines are more in place to encourage healthy habits than control behavior. She explained that while Mormons have a reputation for being uptight, their lifestyle is not much different from non-Mormons, and they wish not to be seen as unfamiliar outsiders. In her words, "we're just like you."
The LDS church is not very familiar to most Louisianians. In a state that is 84% Christian, members of the LDS church make up less than 0.6% of the population. However, it is currently the fastest growing religion in the US, so even if it seems unfamiliar to our state now it may not stay that way for long.