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This year their circumstances could not be more changed. Last Tuesday, 150 years to the week after their forefathers, 200 exultant and sunburned Latter-day Saints reached Salt Lake City, having re-enacted the grueling great trek. Their arrival at the spot where, according to legend, Brigham Young announced, "This is the right place" was cheered in person by a crowd of 50,000--and observed approvingly by millions. The copious and burnished national media attention merely ratified a long-standing truth: that although the Mormon faith remains unique, the land in which it was born has come to accept--no, to lionize--its adherents as paragons of the national spirit. It was in the 1950s, says historian Jan Shipps, that the Mormons went from being "vilified" to being "venerated," and their combination of family orientation, clean-cut optimism, honesty and pleasant aggressiveness seems increasingly in demand. Fifteen Mormon Senators and Representatives currently trek the halls of Congress. Mormon author and consultant Stephen R. Covey bottled parts of the ethos in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which has been on best-seller lists for five years. The FBI and CIA, drawn by a seemingly incorruptible rectitude, have instituted Mormon-recruitment plans.
The Mormon Church is by far the most numerically successful creed born on American soil and one of the fastest growing anywhere. Its U.S. membership of 4.8 million is the seventh largest in the country, while its hefty 4.7% annual American growth rate is nearly doubled abroad, where there are already 4.9 million adherents. Gordon B. Hinckley, the church's President--and its current Prophet--is engaged in massive foreign construction, spending billions to erect 350 church-size meetinghouses a year and adding 15 cathedral-size temples to the existing 50. University of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark projects that in about 83 years, worldwide Mormon membership should reach 260 million.
The church's material triumphs rival even its evangelical advances. With unusual cooperation from the Latter-day Saints hierarchy (which provided some financial figures and a rare look at church businesses), TIME has been able to quantify the church's extraordinary financial vibrancy. Its current assets total a minimum of $30 billion. If it were a corporation, its estimated $5.9 billion in annual gross income would place it midway through the FORTUNE 500, a little below Union Carbide and the Paine Webber Group but bigger than Nike and the Gap. And as long as corporate rankings are being bandied about, the church would make any list of the most admired: for straight dealing, company spirit, contributions to charity (even the non-Mormon kind) and a fiscal probity among its powerful leaders that would satisfy any shareholder group, if there were one.