By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Mormon leaders on Saturday lowered the age requirements for full-time missionaries in a change that could swell the ranks of the church's messengers around the world.
All 18-year-old men in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will now be allowed to serve missions and women can do so at the age of 19, Thomas Monson, the church's president, told members at a conference in Salt Lake City.
The previous age requirements for serving as Mormon missionaries was 19 for men and 21 for women.
Monson and other church leaders said the change, which is effective immediately, was a response to the needs of the growing church, which was established in the United States but has spread throughout the world.
"I am not suggesting that all young men will - or should - serve at this earlier age," Monson said. "Rather based on individuals' circumstances, as well as upon determination by priesthood leaders, this option is now available."
His words drew audible gasps of surprise and delight from those gathered in the 21,000-seat conference center near the church's worldwide headquarters.
Missionary service has been a part of the Mormon tradition since Joseph Smith Jr. founded the church in 1830, and the outreach is seen as a formative experience by many of its members.
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney served as a Mormon missionary in France.
Jeffrey R. Holland, who serves on the church's Missionary Executive Council, said the change was expected to significantly grow its missionary. More than 58,000 Mormons are serving as full-time missionaries in 347 locations worldwide, according to the church. Most are single young men who serve for two years.
Mormon men in 48 countries have been allowed to serve missions at age 18 for about a decade, said Russell Nelson, who serves with Holland on the council, but that was not the case in the United States, where the largest population of Mormons resides, an estimated 7 million members.
The policy of delaying missionary work had allowed individuals to time their missionary service around plans for school, marriage, careers and military service, Nelson said.
The church's beliefs center on the Book of Mormon, a text Smith proclaimed he had translated from a set of golden plates that he said contained a record of Jesus Christ's appearance in the ancient Americas.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Paul Simao)