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LDS seminary stretches beyond Utah to reach all-time enrollment high

SALT LAKE CITY — Born at Salt Lake City’s Granite High School 101 years ago and long a predominantly Utah Mormon experience, the religious education program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints known as seminary is now reaching more LDS teenagers than ever before — the vast majority of them outside the Beehive State.

Nearly half — or 186,996 — of LDS seminary's all-time record of 391,680 9th-12th grade students live outside the United States, according to statistical information released recently in the Seminaries and Institutes of Religion Annual Report for 2013.

While there continue to be more seminary students — 87,797 — in Utah than in any other state, the annual report shows that other states like California (18,176), Idaho (17,301) and Arizona (14,224) also feature sizable seminary populations.

Outside the United States, countries like Mexico (28,299), Brazil (22,655), Peru (17,969) and the Philippines (16,791) boast rapidly growing LDS populations — and, not coincidentally, growing numbers of seminary students.

Seminary also is taking hold in nations like Nigeria (3,115), Ghana (2,511) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1,943), where LDS influence is relatively new.

“Seminary continues to grow internationally,” said Randall Hall, associate administrator for the seminaries and institutes of religion of the church. He referred to enrollment numbers for the past 20 years, which show a previous high of 381,758 students in 1999-2000 and then a dip, with enrollment hovering around 363,000 students for several years, and then a gradual climb to the record number posted last year.

“For the most part these numbers, both the decline and the growth, are a product of the general demographic trends of seminary age youth,” Hall said.

“Internationally, things have continued to grow. We have made a concerted effort worldwide in the last couple of years to work with priesthood leaders to reach out to students who were not enrolled.”

Additionally, he said, “the youth of the church are phenomenal. They have a desire to learn and live the gospel and are willing to sacrifice.”

That willingness to sacrifice is evident in the fact that the vast majority of LDS seminary students — 240,227 — participate in early morning religious education programs held before school in local church buildings and, sometimes, in the homes of church members. The next biggest number of students — 126,176 — participate in released-time programs, during which they are allowed to take an hour during their regular school day and go to nearby seminary buildings for religious instruction. Released-time programs exist primarily in Utah and surrounding states, where high numbers of LDS students make such programs feasible.

The remaining 25,277 seminary students participate in home study programs in areas of the world in which daily meetings with other LDS students are not possible.

“I go to seminary because it’s kind of like a little paradise that you can get out of school and enjoy the environment and the atmosphere,” said Chris Chen, a high school senior whose family immigrated to Utah from Taiwan four years ago. “I go to seminary so I can escape from all the stress and problems for a little bit.”

Mark Beecher, a 27-year veteran seminary teacher and administrator and currently principal of the released time seminary program associated with Westlake High School in Saratoga Springs, uses the word “polarization” to describe what Chen and other Utah seminary students experience at seminary.

“More and more, these kids have to choose sides between what’s good and what’s bad in the world," Beecher said. "Seminary becomes a refuge for them. They are flocking to a place where they see a lot of good, and they feel safe.”

And this year more than any other year he can remember, Beecher said, they are coming with a single-minded focus following last October's announcement by church President Thomas S. Monson reducing the minimum age for full-time missionary service.

Hall said that while “the number of youth who enrolled in seminary because of the recent announcement would be quite small … what the announcement did do was create excitement and more focused study by our current students.”