Reaching the Nations International Church Growth Almanac

Country reports on the LDS Church around the world from a landmark almanac. Includes detailed analysis of history, context, culture, needs, challenges and opportunities for church growth.

United States Virgin Islands

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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Geography

Area: 1,910 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 temperature. A rainy season occurs from September to November. Hurricanes, flooding, droughts, and earthquakes are natural hazards. Fresh water scarcity and pollution are an environmental issue.

Peoples

Black: 76.0%

White: 15.6%

Asian: 1.4%

Other: 4.9%

Mixed: 2.1%

The black population originates from descendants of African slaves brought to the Caribbean during the European colonial period. Approximately 17% of the population identifies as Latino.

Population: 109,977 (July 2018)

Annual Growth Rate: –0.3% (2018)

Fertility Rate: 2.06 children born per woman (2018)

Life Expectancy: 76.3 male, 83.0 female (2018)

Languages: English (71.6%), Spanish/Spanish Creole (17.2%), French/French Creole (8.6%), other (2.6%). 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 exploration 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: $37,000 (2016) [62.8% of U.S.]

Human Development Index: N/A

Corruption Index: N/A

Tourism drives the economy. There are approximately 2.5-3.0 million tourists who visit the islands annually. Recent hurricanes have severely damaged the economy and infrastructure. Estimates for the cost to repair these damages are approximately twice the total GDP for the islands. Four-fifths of the workforce is employed in services – the sector of the economy that produces 78% of the GDP. Saint Croix used to boast one of the largest oil refineries in the world until it closed in the mid-2010s. Tourism, 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: 94.8%

Other: 5.2%

Christians

Denominations – Members – Congregations

Baptist – 46,000

Catholic – 30,000

Episcopalian – 18,700

Seventh Day Adventists – 9,092 – 15

Jehovah’s Witnesses – 607 – 10

Latter-day Saints – 576 – 2

Religion

The population is homogenously Christian. The largest Christian denominations are Baptists (42%), Catholics (34%), and Episcopalians (17%). Approximately 5% of the population consists of non-Christians.

Religious Freedom

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: 95.7% (2018)

Charlotte Amalie, Anna’s Retreat, Charlotte Amalie West, Cruz Bay, Charlotte Amalie East, Christiansted, Frederiksted Southeast, Frederiksted, Coral Bay Red Hook, Grove Place.

Towns listed in bold have no congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Two of the ten largest towns have a Church congregation. Thirty-three percent (33%) of the islands’ population resides in the ten 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.

Church 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. Many members were significantly affected by hurricanes in 2017.[4]

Membership Growth

Church Membership: 576 (2017)

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%. However, in the 2010s stagnant membership growth occurred as church-reported membership vacillated between 570 and 600. In 2017, local members in St. Thomas reported that the branch was 80% White from the mainland United States, and 20% local Black Virgin Islander. There were slightly more than one hundred members in the St. Thomas Branch in early 2018,[5] suggesting that there were approximately 450 members in the St. Croix Branch.

In 2017, one in 182 (0.55% of the population) was a Latter-day Saint.

Congregational Growth

Wards: 0 Branches: 2 (2018)

The first branch was organized in 1978 on St. Thomas followed by a second branch organized on St. Croix in 1981.[6] The St. Croix Branch was assigned to the Guayama Puerto Rico District in the early 2000s.[7] Since 2011, both branches have reported directly to the Puerto Rico San Juan Mission. The St. Thomas Branch also services St. John and other nearby islands within the territory.

Activity and Retention

There were approximately sixty active members on St. Thomas in the early 1990s. 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 St. Croix, whereas three were enrolled on Saint Thomas. In 2012, there were approximately ninety active members in St. Croix and seventy active members in St. Thomas.[8] The St. Thomas Branch averaged forty-eight members and twenty-four visitors in attendance for church prior to hurricanes in 2017. However, church attendance decreased to twenty-five members and two visitors in early 2018 as many members left the islands for the mainland United States.[9] Prior to the hurricanes, local members estimated that 35% of members in the St. Thomas Branch were active. In the St. Thomas Branch, one convert baptism appeared to occur every-other month prior to the hurricanes and about one-third of new converts remained active one-year after baptism. Total active membership is estimated at no greater than 150, or 25% of nominal church membership.

Language Materials

Languages with Latter-day Saint Scripture: English, Spanish, French.

All Latter-day Saint 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.[10] The St. Thomas Branch meetinghouse was refurbished in the late 2010s.[11] The St. Croix Branch meets in church-build meetinghouse. The St. Thomas Branch meetinghouse closed after hurricanes in 2017 due to significant roof damage. As a result, meetings for the branch temporarily occurred at the branch president’s home.[12]

Humanitarian and Development Work

The Church’s humanitarian and development work in the US Virgin Islands since 1985 has been limited to one instances of emergency response initiative.[13]

 

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

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, low-to-moderate levels of receptivity for Latter-day Saints, inadequate numbers of active priesthood holders, the transient nature of many White North American members and families who live in the islands, 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 Church in a casual setting.

There is no Internet website for the Church in the Virgin Islands. An ample supply of English, Spanish, and French materials in addition to the complete Latter-day Saint 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 thirty years, but the number of 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 that travel or temporarily reside in the continental United States may have contributed to member activity and convert retention issues. Local members also note that island culture also appears to affect activity rates due to casual church attendance. 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

Latter-day Saint demographics do not reflect the population demographics for the islands in regards to ethnicity. The ethnic makeup of the St. Thomas Branch prior to hurricanes in 2017 was approximately 80% White and 20% Black, whereas the population of the islands is approximately 80% Black and 20% White. Some ethnic integration issues are likely to arise from whites and blacks attending the same congregations due to cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic differences especially given that demographics are not representative of the demographics of the Virgin Islands. However, full-time missionaries have not historically 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 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. The Church generally assigns one senior missionary couple to each branch to assist in member and leadership support. 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. Immigration 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. However, the islands will likely be assigned to the San Juan Puerto Rico Temple once it is completed, which will decrease travel times and costs for members to attend the temple. Temple trips appear to occur on an individual or small group basis as there are few active members that hold temple recommends.

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 slightly lower than the region. The Church in most other island nations and dependencies with fewer than 600 members has reported stagnant membership and congregational growth rates. The percentage of members enrolled in seminary or institute previously ranked among the lowest in the world at less than 2%.

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. Adventists have reported slow, steady membership growth in the past decade. Jehovah’s Witnesses perform wide-reaching mission outreach with ten congregations administering the population of 110,000. However, Witnesses gain few new converts year-to-year and have reported no increase in the number of active members in the past decade. 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, the departure of many members from the islands due to recent hurricanes, and low member activity and convert retention rates create an unfavorable outlook for future Church growth. The establishment of an indigenous Latter-day Saint community that is self-sufficient in its leadership and missionary needs will be required for the organization of additional congregations and a district one day. However, given recent growth trends, such prospects appear dim for the foreseeable future.


[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] Swensen, Jason. “Thanksgiving has deepened meaning for Mormons in St. Thomas who survived Hurricane Irma,” LDS Church News. 22 November 2017. https://www.thechurchnews.com/archive/2017-11-22/thanksgiving-has-deepened-meaning-for-mormons-in-st-thomas-who-survived-hurricane-irma-46778

[5] Taylor, Scott. “Six hours on St. Thomas: A microcosm of hurricane recovery in the Caribbean,” LDS Church News. 15 March 2018. https://www.thechurchnews.com/archive/2018-03-15/six-hours-on-st-thomas-a-microcosm-of-hurricane-recovery-in-the-caribbean-33483

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

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

[8] “Faith Matters: Mormons on a Mission,” The St. Croix Source, 23 July 2012. https://stcroixsource.com/2012/07/23/faith-matters-mormons-mission/

[9] Taylor, Scott. “Six hours on St. Thomas: A microcosm of hurricane recovery in the Caribbean,” LDS Church News. 15 March 2018. https://www.thechurchnews.com/archive/2018-03-15/six-hours-on-st-thomas-a-microcosm-of-hurricane-recovery-in-the-caribbean-33483

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

[11] Taylor, Scott. “Six hours on St. Thomas: A microcosm of hurricane recovery in the Caribbean,” LDS Church News. 15 March 2018. https://www.thechurchnews.com/archive/2018-03-15/six-hours-on-st-thomas-a-microcosm-of-hurricane-recovery-in-the-caribbean-33483

[12] Swensen, Jason. “Thanksgiving has deepened meaning for Mormons in St. Thomas who survived Hurricane Irma,” LDS Church News. 22 November 2017. https://www.thechurchnews.com/archive/2017-11-22/thanksgiving-has-deepened-meaning-for-mormons-in-st-thomas-who-survived-hurricane-irma-46778

[13] “Where We Work,” LDS Charities. Accessed 21 February 2019. https://www.ldscharities.org/where-we-work