Reproductive Trends in the Church and General Authority Family Size

Years ago I had fantasies of writing a book on the history of Latter-day Saint fertility. That dream has been put on hold, probably until after my kids are out of the house (and there’s more data), but before I realized it wasn’t going to happen in between a day job and a large young family I inputted the number of children each General Authority had in a spreadsheet to look at time trends in General Authority family size. Because of their prominence, General Authority families(whether they want to or not) serve as a sort of archetypal template for the lifecourse decisions of orthodox members, so I was curious about the extent to which their family sizes tracked the changes in society across time. 

Some caveats: I inputted this data about six years ago, plus the site I was using doesn’t appear super up-to-date, so there may have been recent changes in patterns that aren’t going to get picked up. At the time, there were 416 General Authorities on that website, with 14 missing number of children information (which I know I could dig up if I put in enough effort, but for now the 416 should be sufficient), so this provides a reasonably comprehensive sense of overall trends. 

The first graph shows overall trend across the whole history of the Church (excluding the pre-polygamy General Authorities).

Because of the highly fertile outliers, the Y-axis is stretched out and it is difficult to discern a trend in the post-polygamy General Authorities, so I included a second graph just with General Authorities born from 1880 on. 

While there is a clear decline in the average number of children per General Authority as polygamy declined, starting with about the 1880 birth cohort average General Authority family size bottomed out at a little more than five and a half children, and has basically remained the same ever since. Given the ages General Authorities are typically called, that means that from about 1920 on the people sitting up on the stands in General Conference have historically had about the same family sizes as their counterparts at any other time after 1920. This finding was surprising; I expected General Authorities to at least kind of track the massive declines in fertility that have happened in the US since then (including in the Church), but that doesn’t appear to be the case (again unless it has happened in the past ten years).  

Fun facts: two non-polygamous General Authorities had 14 children (Alonzo Hinckley and Rey L. Pratt). The General Authority with the most number of children was Heber C. Kimball (65). 

 

7 comments for “Reproductive Trends in the Church and General Authority Family Size

  1. @Anita: I totally missed that. Thank you! They do fun quant stuff over there at Zelophehad’s Daughters.

    He brought up an interesting point that I hadn’t realized: fertility rhetoric doesn’t show much of a correlation with fertility patterns with various Church leaders. However, and I think this segues into an issue I have with some of his framing, I suspect that it is likely that that variation has as much to do with medical issues as much as it does decision making about optimizing career paths. In such situations, one could be stridently pronatalist with a small family without feeling concious about it. For example, it is interesting to me that of the General Authorities with smaller families, many have been incredibly open about health issues that played into their childbearing decisions (here I’m specifically thinking about Elder Bednar, Elder Holland, and Elder Renlund). Elder Holland very much encouraged the early childbearing approach specifically because had he not taken it he very well might have been childless (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/broadcasts/article/evening-with-a-general-authority/2015/02/helping-with-the-real-issues?lang=eng). So I think precisely because childbearing and pronatalist rhetoric can be decoupled we’ll still hear the pronatalist rhetoric even if the particular speaker does not have as many children.

    Also, there are so few members of the Quorum of the 12 and First Presidency that the sample size is small, and the average family size is going to jump around a lot more; taking all the General Authorities provides a clearer pattern. However, because of their prominence looking at the Q12 and FP specifically is very useful in terms of getting a sense of what more implicit pronatalist messages are being conveyed because of their archetypal, template role in the Latter-day Saint consciousness.

  2. Why does it drop down from 1860? Why not stay up until 1890/1900?

    It would be interesting to see something similar for the wives?

    To whoever is responsible, the posting problem seems to have been sorted. Well done.

  3. @Geoff-Aus. The years are the year they were born, so the 1890-1900 birth cohort weren’t called as General Authorities until around World War II.

    Yes, the wives would be interesting. Generally speaking plural wives had fewer children than non-plural wives.

  4. Recognizing the small sample size, I still find it interesting to quantify family size of the Q-12 members from Elder McKay to the latest apostle Elder Soares (since Elder McKay is a nice turn of the century apostle and puts the confounding variable of plural marriage offspring off to the side for the most part).

    When you break these 56 apostles into two halves (David O. McKay to Howard W. Hunter) and (Gordon B. Hinckley to Ulisses Soares) you get the following simple measures of center: In the first group the mean is 5.8 children and the median is 6.0. In the more recent second group of apostles you get a mean of 4.8 children and a median of 4.0. Without doing an inferential test (knowing of course that apostles are not going to be a randomly selected sample of a much broader population of members in the first place), we still could note that both measures show a decline in family size for Q-12 members. Perhaps the 2 children drop in the median is more significant since the median enables the disregarding of statistical outliers such as the Alonzo Hinckley and Dale Renlund data.

    These kind of trends are always fascinating to me. Thanks for the very interesting post and commentary.

  5. @ Richard: That’s an excellent point. Looking at it that way, there does appear to be a downward trend during the past half century among the most visible Church leaders. I’m as interested in the effect of family sizes on Latter-day Saint expectations as I am the effect of expectations on General Authority family sizes, and smaller families among the Q12 may make the “ideal” Latter-day Saint family smaller. (Just anecdotally, it does seem like 4 is the standard stopping point now for what I would label the “moderately orthodox”).

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