How the Mormons brought Salt Lake City to East Anglia
The country's fastest-growing religion and one of our biggest landowners, the Mormon church is building a second spiritual home in Norfolk and Suffolk
Saturday 02 January 1999
Welcome to Manor Farm, 15 minutes from Huntingdon, and an area that's rapidly resembling the Mormon's second Utah. Their chapels crop up around here more frequently than Tesco superstores or McDonald's drive-ins. They even look uncannily similar, assuming the same post-modern, toytown style. Like McDonald's, they seem to want to open as many branches as possible without people really noticing what's inside, hence the benign, jolly- looking, red brick and wood facades.
In one of these jolly-looking buildings on Manor Farm, prayer has just begun. It's 8.30am and Marie, one of Clive's administrators, leads the service. They gather around the boardroom table in a sparse-looking business suite. There are some flip charts and an impressive-looking mission statement pinned on the wall, just next to a picture of Jesus. Typed out in big bold letters, it says: "Our business is farmland. Profit motivated: No Excuses. Managed for profits. Increased productivity. For investment; for strategic and welfare resource, world-wide based."
Marie is dressed smartly in navy and cream, and her business colleagues all wear suits. Clive manages to look smartest of all, in a crisp white shirt and tweed jacket. It could be a Marks & Spencer's personnel meeting until Marie starts reading: "Our Father, we are grateful that we are here in this area. We especially pray for farmworkers and hope that they work with machines and chemicals in safety..." One or two of them nod reverently, heads lowered and hands clasped.
The Mormons own some 14,000 acres in Britain, making them one of Britain's biggest landowners, along with the Queen and Railtrack. But they've chosen the fertile farmland of Norfolk and Suffolk to really make their spiritual home outside Salt Lake City. Over the last three years, with the least fuss or publicity, they've been buying up farms throughout the area. In a close farming community not known for its openness to strangers, you can see why they wouldn't want to shout about their recent and rapid land acquisitions. They already have their critics - political and religious.
A few weeks ago, the Daily Mail claimed that as one of the biggest landowners in the area, the Mormon church is also one of the biggest beneficiaries of the EU farming subsidy - around pounds 1m. There are rumours, which the Mormons vehemently deny, that 10 per cent of their profits go straight back to the church in Utah. This news didn't go down too well in some quarters. Bill Cash, the Conservative Eurosceptic, described it as "regrettable". Tony Juniper, the Friends of the Earth director, fulminated about farming techniques, telling one paper: "Brussels is paying a million pounds to a foreign-owned multinational to squirt chemicals over what's left of our countryside and wildlife."
Rather than lying low after so much controversy, the Mormons have raised their head above the parapet with a national advertising campaign in the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard. "It's a sophisticated operation," says their spokesman, Bryan Grant. "We're sending off literature and a free video to 40,000 homes. We're just putting our toe in the water. We'll possibly come back and try television."
In East Anglia, though, it may take more than a free video to put a gloss on Mormon operations. Some of the local farmers want to know why their lucrative land is passing into strange hands; residents are beginning to notice a marked increase in unusual young men dressed in black suits with American accents, standing outside Tesco and trying to collar them to talk about "God's intention for mankind". They don't exactly blend in with the locals. Reverend Walter King, team rector in the rural dean of Huntingdon, recalls: "Once, a few of them came and sat in the back of the church while I was giving a service - it was all a bit spooky." He also worries about the young men in dark suits. "You see them walking down the high street and they stick out a mile. They're from another planet and they'll stay there. The sad thing is that they seem very detached."
Still, it is essential that the Mormons, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as they prefer to be known, do integrate with their East Anglian neighbours. However covert their financial activities may be, their religious motivations are anything but. The Mormons' raison d'etre is to convert the non-believers, and the real riches they have their eye on in East Anglia, above and beyond the land, is the sheer volume of potential converts.
An unbelievably exciting prospect for Elder Marchant and Elder Tuft, 20-year-old Nathan and 19-year-old Jason respectively. Both are on the streets knocking on people's doors, 12 hours a day, five days a week. They return each evening to a cramped flat in Huntingdon to study the Bible and do whatever else Mormons do to relax.
Elder Marchant, a Sylvester Stallone lookalike in a Tarantino suit, has never tasted alcohol (caffeine is also prohibited), smoked or dated girls. "I don't fool around with that stuff. It's far too distracting," he laughs. Like all Mormons, he believes in Armageddon and is encouraged to keep food reserves for a year at least. The Mormons appear to spend a lot of time hoarding food - maybe this explains why their churches look like Tescos. Elder Marchant may be well-prepared, but he still lives in fear of Judgement Day. "Yes, I am scared," he laughs. "And I do worry for others." Thus, his desire to convert the non-believers before the big day, whenever that may be. "It could be any time," he says vaguely.
Watching the two of them in action is a daunting sight - one that could easily put you off ever answering your door again. Perhaps it is their fanatical enthusiasm; the way Elder Marchant desperately clutches his copy of the Bible (with certain pages highlighted) while standing a little too close to some poor victim who has just opened the door. Maybe it is the unappealing prospect of his offer - "Could we just step inside and watch a six-minute video of the Nativity with you so we can talk about the birth of Christ?" - delivered in a booming American drawl. Somebody should tell them that if they have 60 seconds to tempt a stranger, this particular appeal is unlikely to do the trick. Exactly how they present their message, and who to, isn't under consideration. There is no sense of refining their style or their target group. They will rant at anyone in their path: impatient neighbours who slam doors in their faces; vagrants; clearly uninterested teenage girls; a stray dog - well, almost.
Half an hour of door-knocking with these two and you feel impelled to warn residents in advance - shout through their letterboxes and tell them what's about to land on their doorstep. Yet the locals seem impressively well-prepared - "Sorry, love. We don't have a video recorder." "No, sorry, I'm converted to another faith" - and so on. Marchant and Tuft remain dizzyingly enthusiastic, their fanaticism undented. "I've converted three this year and I could do better," he admits. "It's better in South America - they do three a week. It's on fire out there. But rejection is the spice of life."
They do seem curiously untouched by other people's reactions. "They smile and speak a lot, but I don't think they really listen to what you say," says Reverend King rather gloomily. "I suppose they're growing quickly because they're terribly energetic. Saying that, they're marginal and certainly not regarded by any recognisable Christian faith."
These people also have such an insatiable appetite to convert, they don't limit themselves to living non-believers either. One quirk of their faith is to baptise posthumously - consequently, they have the largest genealogical database in the world. A few years ago, reporters discovered that church leaders removed the names of 380,000 Jewish Holocaust victims from their list of the posthumously baptised after protests from Jewish groups.
That's barely a blip for the fastest- growing religion in Britain. According to spokesman Bryan Grant, the Mormons create a new congregation every two weeks, and build a new chapel every month. In the mid-Sixties, he says, there were 6,500 British members. Now, there are nearly 190,000, their average age between 18 and 35. "Place that against a backcloth of declining church figures with a much more geriatric age profile, and it proves we must be doing something right."
Finance and efficient organisation may play their part, but the real reason for their success, which they're not all that keen to stress, is the less than radical nature of their values. In a culture where New Labour likes to dominate the moral high ground, the Mormon faith is happy to take that one step further; a great deal further than, say, the Church of England. In many ways, it is a religion that builds on the value system of Middle England's Daily Mail readers, minus the affluent lifestyles - it is no surprise that that is where they placed their recent press ads.
Scratch the surface of their spokespeople and it doesn't take long for the reactionary responses to surface. "We put so much of our money into welfare operations. We've given a hundred million to aid in Third World countries." Before adding: "We won't help anybody who won't help themselves. We've got no sympathy for someone who sits and wallows in self-pity." Nor have they got time for homosexuality: "It's sinful." Abortion: "A sinful and revolting practice." Drug addicts: "Some people need to be locked in a room to do cold turkey until you can reason with them." Single mothers are none too popular, either.
The more Grant allows his views to flow freely, the more the Mormons begin to sound like a political machine operating with military-style precision. It's not an original observation, according to Grant. "Do you know what Tolstoy once said about us? - `The two most organised institutions are the Prussian army and the Mormon church.' And where's the Prussian army now, I'd like to know?" he asks triumphantly.
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