I knew there are more Mormons and more Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Netherlands than Seventh-day Adventists. However, I was surprised to learn that the difference was that significant. I acquired this information this past week when reading the most recent issue of Spectrum—the independent quarterly journal of an Adventists organization in the United States. In a very solid article, three experts compare a few aspects of the three important religious movements that originated in nineteenth century North America and have since spread around the globe.
I learned quite a bit from the article. The Adventists, with about 17 million baptized members, are the largest of the three movements. According to the statistics provided by the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (as the Mormon church is officially called) there are about 14 million Mormons in the world, while the Watchtower Society reports its membership at close to 7.3 million. In comparing these figures a few things need to be kept in mind. Jehovah’s Witnesses only report active ‘publishers’, while Mormons keep those who have strayed from the faith in their books, and also count youth from Mormon families, who have not yet made the choice to become a member. Adventists, on the other hand, only count baptized members, and those who leave the church are supposed to be taken off the membership list, but, admittedly, the Adventist membership registration is far from perfect.
The distribution of the three communities over the world differs a great deal. Half of all Mormons live in the United States. They have been reasonably successful in South-America, but not so in Asia and Africa. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are spread a little more evenly, but they have, by comparison, a good-sized membership in Europe (about 1.6 million). Only around 7 percent of all Adventists live in North-America. They are more numerous in South- and Inter-America, Africa and some parts of Asia.
I was surprised to read that, of the three movements, the Adventists have thus far been least successful in Europe. This also applies to the Netherlands. According to the authors of article there are almost 9,000 Mormons in the Netherlands, almost 30,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, but only around 5,000 Adventists. Why have the Adventists not done any better? I can hardly suppose that Adventist theology calls for so much more resistance with people who consider changing their religious affiliation, than the teachings of the Mormons and the Witnesses.
How can the success of the Mormons be explained? Their theology, I think, is quite bizarre in many respects. I once talked about my faith with a lady, who at a given point said: ‘I have just become a Mormon. If you had come a bit earlier, I may well have become a member of your church. I was looking more than anything else for a warm church, where people are nice to me.’ The Mormons are well known for the cordial way in which they accept people into their midst and for the many social activities that strengthen the ties between the members.
The Mormons are also known for being very meticulous with their contacts. Wherever in the world you enter a Mormon center, you will be asked for your name and address. Soon after you get home you can be sure to have a Mormon missionary at your door.
And why do the Jehovah’s Witnesses have more success than Adventists? Years ago I had a talk with dr. Anne van der Meiden, a theologian and a specialist in the area of religious communication. His PhD dissertation dealt with the manner in which Jehovah’s Witnesses ‘win’ their converts. He believes their success is largely due to the absoluteness of their message. If you have heard the message of the Watchtower Society, you have no choice but to accept it, if you do not want to risk damnation. I asked him what he thought would be the best mission strategy for Adventists. He told me Adventists will have a problem if they are too reluctant to tell the people they will definitely be lost if they do not accept the Adventist message. Why, after all, would they want to take this awkward detour via Adventism, if the Lord is willing to accept them anyway?
It would seem to me that Adventists can learn more from the Mormons than from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Not, as far as their theology is concerned. Adventists, I believe, have a far more coherent and convincing theology than the two other movements. But dealing very carefully with all contacts and ensuring that every Adventist church is a good place to be, are absolute priorities. On both counts, in many places, there is still a lot of improvements to be made.
 Ronald Lawson, Ryan T. Cragun, Fritz Guy, ‘Mormons, Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses: Three “American Originals” and How They’ve Grown’, Spectrum, Summer 2013, pp. 59-73.