Reaching the Nations

United States Virgin Islands

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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Geography

Area: 438,317 square km.  Located between the Caribbean Sea and North Atlantic Ocean, the United States Virgin Islands comprise four main islands (Saint Croix, Saint John, Saint Thomas, Water Island) east of Puerto Rico.  Hills and rugged mountains comprise most of the terrain.  Subtropical climatic conditions exist year round with little fluctuation in temperate.  A rainy season occurs from September to November.  Hurricanes, flooding, droughts, and earthquakes are natural hazards.  Fresh water scarcity is an environmental issue.

Population: 109,750 (July 2010)       

Annual Growth Rate: -0.072% (2010)    

Fertility Rate: 1.81 children born per woman (2010)   

Life Expectancy: 76.14 male, 82.41 female (2010)

Peoples

black: 76.2%

white: 13.1%

Asian: 1.1%

other: 6.1%

mixed: 3.5%

The black population originates from descendants of African slaves brought to the Caribbean during the European colonial period. 

Languages: English (74.7%), Spanish/Spanish Creole (16.8%), French/French Creole (6.6%), other (1.9%).  Over half the population speaks Virgin Islands Creole English.  

Literacy: 90-95% (2005)

History

Amerindian tribes such as the Ciboney, Carib, and Arawaks populated the Virgin Islands prior to European discovery and colonialism.  Various European powers controlled the Virgin Islands during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as Spain, Britain, the Netherlands, and France.  Denmark settled Saint Thomas and Saint John in the late seventeenth century and purchased Saint Croix from France in the early eighteenth century; the remaining Virgin Islands to the east were originally settled by the Dutch but came under British administration by the late seventeenth century.  The Danish relied on slavery to drive the sugar industry on the islands until its abolishment in 1848.  Economic decline occurred for the remainder of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, resulting in Denmark selling the islands to the United States in 1917.  Today the United States Virgin Islands are an organized, unincorporated United States territory.[1]  The British Virgin Islands remain an overseas, internal self-governing territory of the United Kingdom.

Culture 

American culture and Christianity are the primary influences on society in the Virgin Islands.  Primary foods include fungi - boiled cornmeal with okra - fish, fruit, and soup.  Basketball, American football, and baseball are the most popular sports.

Economy

GDP per capita: $14,500 (2004) [30.6% of US]

Human Development Index: N/A

Corruption Index: 

Tourism drives the economy, generating 80% of the GDP and employing 80% of the work force.  2.4 million visited the islands in 2008.  Industry employs 19% of the work force and generates 19% of the GDP.  Saint Croix boasts one of the largest oil refineries in the world.  Tourism, petroleum refining, watch assembly, rum distilling, construction, and pharmaceuticals are the primary industries.  Most food is imported as there is little agricultural activity; common crops include fruit, vegetables, and sorghum.  Damage from tropical weather and crime are challenges preventing greater economic sustainability. 

Faiths

Christian: 99%

other: 1%

Christians

Denominations  Members  Congregations

Baptist   46,095

Catholic  37,315 

Episcopalian  18,658

Seventh Day Adventists  7,631

Jehovah's Witnesses  645  9

Latter-day Saints   577  2

Religion

The population is homogenously Christian.  The largest Christian denominations are Baptists (42%), Catholics (34%), and Episcopalians (17%).  7% of the population consist of other Christian groups and non-Christians.    

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index:

The United States' constitution protects religious freedom and is upheld by national and local laws.  There have been no reported instances of societal abuse of religious freedom. 

Largest Towns

Urban: 95%

Charlotte Amalie, Anna's Retreat, Charlotte Amalie West, Frederiksted Southeast, Grove Place, Cruz Bay, Charlotte Amalie East, Christiansted.

Towns listed in bold have no LDS congregations.

Two of the ten largest towns have an LDS congregation.  35% of the islands' population resides in the eight most populous towns.  St. Croix and St. Thomas are each populated by approximately 50,000 whereas St. John has fewer than 5,000 inhabitants and Water Island supports a population of a couple hundred.

LDS History

Expatriate Latter-day Saint families were among the first members on the islands, arriving in small numbers in the late 1960s and early 1970s to St. Thomas.  Members on St. Thomas initially met as a group under the San Juan Branch in Puerto Rico.  The first convert baptism occurred in 1976.  Missionaries were assigned to St. Thomas in 1978 and St. Croix in 1981.[2]  Seminary began in 1982.  Some members from the Virgin Islands traveled to Puerto Rico to meet with President Hinckley in 2000.[3]  In early 2011, the Virgin Islands were assigned to the Puerto Rico San Juan Mission.

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: 577 (2009)

In 1983, there were 96 Latter-day Saints.  Membership stood at 200 in 1987 and 1993.  Membership totaled 300 in 1997 and 387 in 2000. 

Slow membership growth occurred during the 2000s as membership climbed to 395 in 2002, 431 in 2004, 491 in 2006, and 543 in 2008.  Annual membership growth rates generally ranged from 2% to 8% during the 2000s and averaged around 4%.  Church membership typically increases by between 10 and 30 a year.  In 2009, one in 190 was nominally LDS.  

Congregational Growth

Wards: 0 Branches: 2

The LDS first branch was organized in 1978 on St. Thomas followed by a second branch organized on St. Croix in 1981.[4]  The St. Croix Branch was assigned to the Guayama Puerto Rico District in the early 2000s.[5]  In early 2011, both branches reported directly to the Puerto Rico San Juan Mission.

Activity and Retention

The average number of members per congregation increased between 2000 and 2009 from 194 to 289.  Eight were enrolled in seminary or institute during the 2009-2010 school year on Saint Croix whereas three were enrolled on Saint Thomas.  Both branches appear to have between 50 and 100 active members.  Total active membership is estimated at 150, or 25% of nominal church membership.  

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: English, Spanish, French. 

All LDS scriptures and most church materials are available in Spanish and French.  The Liahona magazine has monthly issues in Spanish and French. 

Meetinghouses

A church-built meetinghouse services the St. Thomas Branch.[6]  The St. Croix Branch likely meets in a renovated building or a rented facility.

Humanitarian and Development Work

As of early 2011, there had been no major humanitarian or development projects in the Virgin Islands sponsored by the LDS Church.  Local members and full-time missionaries perform some local service. 

 

Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects

Religious Freedom

There are no restrictions on religious freedom.  Latter-day Saints proselyte, worship, and assemble freely.

Cultural Issues

Religious plurality among Christians has fostered church growth prospects for decades, but increasing materialism and wealth attributed to the growth of the tourist industry has decreased the devotion and activity of many Christians.  Most of the church-going population is socially entrenched into their respective congregations, creating societal challenges for full-time missionaries to address when finding, teaching, baptizing, and retaining new converts.  Greater emphasis on local member-missionary efforts will be needed for overcome these issues and maintain self-sufficiency.   

National Outreach

LDS congregations on St. Croix and St. Thomas provide limited mission outreach to 96% of the population of the Virgin Islands.  The establishment of three or four mission outreach centers on St. Croix and St. Thomas would efficiently reach the population of both islands, but the small population, moderate levels of receptivity for Latter-day Saints, inadequate numbers of active priesthood holders, and the small geographic size of the islands has delayed the establishment of additional congregations over the past three decades.  Missionary and member-led cottage meetings held in communities throughout the islands offers opportunities to explore church planting prospects, may lead to the establishment of dependent branches or groups, reduces the need for additional missionary resources to expand national outreach, and provides an opportunity for local members to invite nonmember friends and family to learn about the LDS Church in a casual setting.  

There is no LDS Internet website for the Virgin Islands.  An ample supply of English, Spanish, and French materials in addition to the complete LDS scriptures in each of these languages are available online.  Reference to church websites by local members and missionaries when proselytizing or answering questions about the Church can increase national outreach potential.

Member Activity and Convert Retention

The number of Latter-day Saints increased from fewer than 100 to nearly 600 in the past 30 years, but the number of LDS congregations has remained unchanged.  The organization of no new congregations indicates consistently low convert retention and member activity rates.  Convert baptisms among immigrant groups and among transient locals which travel or temporarily reside in the continental United States may have contributed to member activity and convert retention issues.  Stressing seminary and institute attendance on St. Croix and St. Thomas may increase convert retention and member activity rates through strengthening social connections among members and facilitating greater doctrinal understanding and testimony building.

Ethnic Issues and Integration

Some ethnic integration issues are likely to arise from whites and blacks attending the same congregations due to cultural, linguistic, and socio-economic differences especially if LDS congregation demographics are not representative of the demographics of the Virgin Islands.  Full-time missionaries have not reported that ethnic integration issues have manifested themselves at church. 

Language Issues

Widespread use of standard English as a first or second language simplifies mission outreach approaches by requiring fewer missionary resources and reducing the translation need for LDS materials in Virgin Islands Creole English.  Language-specific congregations may  be necessary to provide outreach to Spanish and French speakers.

Missionary Service

The mission relies on foreign full-time missionaries to staff the missionary force assigned to the islands.  Few local members have served full-time missions.  Mission preparation classes offered through institute may increase the number of native full-time missionaries serving. 

Leadership

Local members appear to serve as branch presidents for both branches.  Limited numbers of active priesthood holders has likely contributed to the lack of congregational growth.  Increasing the number of local members serving full-time missions and remaining in the islands may strengthen local church leadership over the long term.  Emigration of Latter-day Saint converts to the continental United States contributes to the small number of qualified local leaders in the islands today. 

Temple

The Virgin Islands are assigned to the Santo Domingo Dominican Republic Temple district.  Temple trips appear to occur on an individual or small group basis as there are few active members that hold temple recommends.  A prospective temple on neighboring Puerto Rico over the medium term would decrease travel times and costs for members to attend the temple.  

Comparative Growth

The Virgin Islands has one of the highest percentages of Latter-day Saints in the general population among Caribbean nations and exhibits member activity and convert retention rates representative for the region.  Membership growth rates have compared to LDS membership growth rates for most Caribbean nations with less than 1,000 nominal members.  The percentage of members enrolled in seminary or institute is among the lowest in the world at less than two percent.   

Most missionary-oriented Christian groups have a widespread presence in the Virgin Islands as indicated by multiple congregations operating on St. Croix and St. Thomas.  However, most groups report slow membership growth at present.  Seventh Day Adventists account for a larger percentage of the population in the Virgin Islands than on most Caribbean islands.  Jehovah's Witnesses perform wide-reaching mission outreach with nine congregations administering the population of 110,000.  Witnesses gain few new converts year-to-year.  The current size and strength of many denominations has originated from utilizing a church planting approach when the population was more receptive.  Other Christian groups utilize native members for mission outreach and have maintained a long-term presence.

Future Prospects

Increasing secularism, high competition for new converts among Christian denominations, and low member activity and convert retention rates create an unfavorable outlook for future LDS Church growth.  The establishment of an indigenous LDS community that is self-sufficient in its leadership and missionary needs will be required for the organization of additional congregations and a district.


[1]  "History of the United States Virgin Islands," Wikipedia.org, retrieved 10 February 2011.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_United_States_Virgin_Islands#Transfer_to_American_Rule

[2]  "Virgin Islands," LDS Church News, 8 October 2010.  http://newsroom.lds.org/country/virgin-islands

[3]  Fisher, Jerry D.  "Prophet's spirit, counsel bless Puerto Rico," LDS Church News, 23 December 2000.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/39080/Prophets-spirit-counsel-bless-Puerto-Rico.html

[4]  "Virgin Islands," LDS Church News, 8 October 2010.  http://newsroom.lds.org/country/virgin-islands

[5]  "LDS Olympian: Dinah Browne," LDS Church News, 23 February 2002.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/41361/LDS-Olympian-Dinah-Browne.html

[6]  "Virgin Islands," LDS Church News, 8 October 2010.  http://newsroom.lds.org/country/virgin-islands