The Mormon conquest

Their most famous son is trying to win the White House, and now an army of young Mormon missionaries is criss-crossing Britain on a march to convert the faithless. Jerome Taylor on the religion no one can ignore

Sandiso Hlilaphi is a perfect salesman. With his crisp white shirt and smart suit, he bounds up to strangers armed with enthusiasm and a bucket full of charm. Rejection slides off him.

He knows he'll soon meet a person who is happy to hear his pitch. But Sandiso Hlilaphi isn't selling goods. He's selling God.

"I know that someone out there will listen," he says with a grin. "Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but someone out there is prepared to receive this gospel."

Elder Hlilaphi, 26, is a missionary, who trawls east London for up to 10 hours a day with the aim of saving souls and finding new converts for his faith. He first came across the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – aka the Mormons – nine years ago when he was a teenager in Cape Town, South Africa.

Intrigued, he and some friends went to the nearby church where he was baptised and became Elder Hlilaphi.

In Britain, you are most likely to meet a Mormon on the streets. They are easily recognised, and most are unfailingly polite.

Elder Hlilaphi is in charge of missionary work in a wide section of East London and has taken his colleague Elder Nadir DouDou to Stratford for the day. Elder DouDou, the son of an Algerian father and a Catholic mother from Berlin, converted a few years ago when missionaries knocked on his door. He is less experienced in proselytising, and shy, but observes his colleague closely.

Elder Hlilaphi keeps a frenetic pace. He winds his way through market stores trying to make eye contact with potential converts. Most dismiss him with a shrug but his hit rate is still impressive. In half an hour he receives 13 rebuffs but speaks to six people, three of whom agree to meet him at a later date to hear more about what Mormonism has to offer. The others take a pamphlet or a copy of the Book of Mormon.

A place like Stratford, with multiple races and religions, is fertile recruiting ground. Most of those who stop are Christians from Africa or the Caribbean, where evangelism and religious competition thrives. An elderly Jamaican lady called Daisy is delighted to be accosted. "I can see you have the light of Jesus in your eyes," she says. She's a member of a nearby congregation but is intrigued, and agrees to meet the pair again.

Evangelism is a part of many religions, but the Mormons have turned proselytising into an art form. Their global network of 55,000 missionaries form the spear tip of an astonishingly well-oiled machine which nets hundreds of thousands of new followers every year. The London mission headquarters next to the Science Museum, a towering golden spired concrete structure built in the 1960s, boasts more than 130 full-time missionaries from more than 40 countries. In a religion where all adherents are expected to give 10 per cent of their wealth to the church, more followers means more money.

This week the Mormons lowered the age at which followers can become missionaries. It comes at a time when the faith is receiving unprecedented attention thanks to Mitt Romney's presidential bid.

Traditionally, men could become missionaries at 19, but that has been lowered to 18. More significantly, the minimum age for women has been lowered from 21 to 19.

In Mormon circles the announcement was hailed a major turning point for the church – some even likened it to the seminal moment in the late 1970s when the religion desegregated itself and welcomed black congregants.

When the announcement was made during an annual gathering of senior church leaders in Salt Lake City it was met on the nearby Brigham Young University campus with "shrieks, tears and disbelief" according to the local student newspaper The Universe.

It may not seem like much but by lowering the age at which women can do missionary work, the Mormon senior leadership has sent out a signal that it wants women in more prominent roles – a significant move in a faith that traditionally places huge emphasis on the role of women as mothers and home-makers.

As the Mormon blogger and author Joanna Brooks, put it: "Mormonism is a pragmatic faith tradition, and there is no higher honour than being useful to the work. And some Mormon women, we go our whole lives and never feel that we've really been useful in all the ways we could have been – might, mind, strength, and all that."

Currently, only 15 per cent of those who sign up to the church's missionary schools are women. They're not discouraged from joining but they're not encouraged in the same way men are.

The change in rules mean there will be more women like Sister Katie Ritchel, from Lebanon, Missouri, and Sister Jaimee Buckley, from Hamilton New Zealand. Both have recently arrived at the Mormon's London headquarters, and are the first people you meet when you enter.

"It's been such a great blessing to be here," gushes Sister Ritchel, a 21-year-old picture of modesty in a long floral dress, who has taken a break from her degree to do missionary work for 18 months.

Mormon missionary work is no picnic. Those who sign up must live far from their families for up to two years (Romney spent his missionary period in France). Contact is restricted to an email or letter once a week and two phone calls a year – usually on Christmas Day and Mothers' Day. Missionaries have no say in where they are sent, and the days are long. As with all Mormons, alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee is off limits but missionaries are also expected to avoid magazines, newspapers and pop music to concentrate their mind on the task in hand. Back in Stratford, Elder Hlilaphi continues to find people who are at least willing to sit do wn with him at a later date to discuss his faith. He meets a Romanian mother-of-two called Illana, and within minutes is involved in a deep theological discussion. Illana, a devout Christian, says she'll let her children choose their own faith, which is music to Elder Hlilaphi's ears.

As she makes to leave he asks her to meet them again. "It's been lovely to meet you," she says. "But we have such a busy life. I don't want to lie to you. I might give you a call." As she walks away Elder Hlilaphi beams. "That's good enough for me".

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
News
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £550 - £650

£550 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Traded Credit Risk - Investmen...

Data Insight Manager - Marketing

£32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux, Redhat, Solaris, SAN, Puppet

£55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL, MSMQ, SQL, GIT, SQ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf