This week in Mormon Land: A historic history book. Emailed mission calls. Is socialism satanic? Is the internet chasing away members?

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The Mormon Land newsletter is a weekly highlight reel of developments in and about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whether heralded in headlines, preached from the pulpit or buzzed about on the back benches. Want Mormon Land in your inbox? Subscribe here.

This week’s podcast: ‘Saints’ alive

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Matthew J. Grow, director of publications for the LDS Church History Department, speaks at a news conference regarding the LDS Church publishing the first volume of new history, "Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days.: Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018.

The church made history this week — with its own history.

For the first time since 1930, it released an authorized, in-depth book that explores the faith’s past. “Saints: The Standard of Truth" is part of a four-volume set that will explore Mormonism from its humble birth to its current global presence.

On this week’s podcast, Benjamin Park, who is a Latter-day Saint and a history professor at Sam Houston State University, discusses this first installment, its strengths, its weaknesses and its potential to shape members’ views about their own religion.

Listen here.

Three reasons to read ‘Saints’

Religion News Service senior columnist Jana Riess says every member should read “Saints.”


First, she says, because it’s a rich read, with a wealth of engaging stories. “‘Saints’ is a history that reads at times like a novel,” she writes, “with dialogue and glimpses of distinct characters.”

Second, it’s a more honest telling of the church’s past, coming courtesy of the church’s present. “The overall message of faith outweighs the human flaws in this narrative,” she says, “but the flaws are there, real and necessary.”

Finally, women make more than token appearances in its pages.

“Overall,” Riess writes, “there’s far greater diversity here than we’ve seen in any previously correlated history from the church.”

You are hereby called to serve via email

(Courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Billy Elliott, at right, a 17-year-old in Fruit Heights, Utah, gathers family and friends as he reads on an iPad his mission call — to Peru — for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The LDS Church is moving all such mission assignments to email, ending a tradition of mailed announcements.

Hey, prospective missionary, you’ve got mail — and a mission call.

Yes, from now on proselytizing assignments for all elders, sisters and senior couples in Utah and Idaho — and, by year’s end, virtually everywhere — will arrive in internet inboxes instead of traditional mailboxes.

“Technology is there, and it’s so easy to do,” general authority Brent H. Nielson, executive director of the Missionary Department, said in a news release. “We just put it online, and they can read it in a matter of minutes.”

The call still counts. Whether to Tokyo or Tampa, Lima or London, Johannesburg or Jakarta — it will come not in a big white envelope with the church president’s autopen autograph but rather in a nondescript email with the prophet’s digital signature.

The real upside, missionaries-in-waiting, is that the wait won’t be as long, and the packing can start sooner.

Socialism: the devil’s workshop?

Socialism is Satan’s plan.

It’s an old saying in Latter-day Saint circles and, argues Sam Brunson, a blogger for By Common Consent, an incorrect one.

It’s “not the stupidest assertion based on Mormon theology ever,” he writes in a recent post. “But it may well be in the top 10.”

The argument seems to be rooted in Latter-day Saint scriptures, which record that Satan “sought to destroy the agency of man.” But Brunson wonders “what that has to do with socialism.”

He also points out, among other things, that former church President Ezra Taft Benson’s 1979 General Conference speech “A Witness and a Warning” — often cited by anti-socialists — was a caution against Soviet communism. “And he’s not talking about Soviet communism as Satan’s plan from Moses: he’s talking about it as Satan’s ‘counterfeit’ of true religion.”

In the end, Brunson adds, “It’s really hard to say that socialism, communism, or Soviet communism somehow destroyed moral agency. ... If you’re not a fan of socialism, by all means, make substantive arguments against it. ... But let’s cut it out already with the stupid truisms.”

Besides, don’t large portions of the church’s faithful membership live — and worship and pray and serve — under socialist governments?

Members getting caught in the Net

Another popular notion, especially among critics of the LDS Church, is that the spread of the internet — where reams of disturbing facts about Mormon history are only a click away — is chasing away Latter-day Saints from the fold in droves.

While that is certainly true of many members, Clark Goble, a blogger for Times and Seasons, is skeptical that the premise holds up for across-the-board church retention.

In a recent post, he does a deeper dive into studies about internet use and religious affiliation.

“While Christian numbers have shrunk relative to the U.S. population,” Goble writes, “Latter-day Saint numbers have remained surprisingly consistent the past several decades. … So, if anything, Mormons seem to have been less affected” — even as missionary effectiveness has waned.

“I don’t want to deny there being an effect from the internet on Mormon retention,” Goble concludes. “I just really dispute the size and underlying causation.”

Nelson goes to the Caribbean

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson speaks to members at a devotional held at the Coliseo de Puerto Rico José Miguel Agrelot in San Juan on Sunday, Sept. 2, 2018.

Church President Russell M. Nelson, continuing his globe-trotting ministry, visited hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic this past weekend.

“I plead with you to keep your families united and strong in the faith,” he urged Latter-day Saints. “You can know for yourself that better days are ahead.”

A former bishop’s date with discipline

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People, including Latter-day Saints, held a rally, led by Sam Young, and marched to the LDS Church Office Building in Salt Lake City to request that the faith's leaders put an end to bishops meeting one on one with children for interviews. Friday, March 30, 2018.

Sam Young protested bishops’ one-on-one interviews with youths and the sometimes sexually explicit grillings they face. He formed Protect LDS Children, launched an online petition and led a rally to deliver tens of thousands of signatures. He even staged a three-week hunger strike.

Now the former bishop is being summoned by his Houston stake president, a regional lay leader, to a Sept. 9 disciplinary council, where he could be excommunicated from the church.

Young says he wants to keep his standing but has no plans to change his stance.

‘Jane & Emma’ film wins pre-premiere recognition

(Courtesy of Excel Entertainment) Danielle Deadwyler and Emily Goss portray Jane Manning and Emma Smith, respectively, in the upcoming feature film "Jane & Emma."

What do the films “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Jane & Emma” have in common?

Not much, except that both movies have been awarded spots on a Hollywood list that honors films for their gender and racial diversity — both in front of and behind the camera.

ReFrame, a coalition of industry leaders founded by Women in Film and the Utah-based Sundance Institute, added 22 titles to its tally recently, including the breakout blockbuster about Asian culture and the yet-to-be-released movie about the relationship between black Latter-day Saint convert Jane Manning James and Emma Smith, wife of church founder Joseph Smith.

Jane & Emma” is scheduled to debut in Utah on Oct. 12.

A thumbs up for tackling prejudice

Matthew Faraci, founder of the entertainment marketing firm Inspire Buzz, credits “Jane & Emma” with confronting head-on the prickly issues of racism and violence.

In a post for Medium.com, he writes that the “stereotype-smashing, no-sacred-cows film … is bold, honest, even shocking” and suggests that wider society should follow its example in tackling the tough topics of the day.

“By putting this piece out there,” Faraci says, “Mormons are demonstrating a willingness to have an open, uncomfortable conversation that some churches in America’s Christian community have been meticulously avoiding.”

The writer, who notes he is not a Mormon, laments the bigotry and segregation that still exist in the country’s faith groups and sees a film like “Jane & Emma” — and the dialogue it is sure to engender — as a vehicle for change.

“Dealing with this uncomfortable conversation is the only way we can get past it,” Faraci adds. “Only when we confront its stark, awful reality can we begin to heal as religious communities, as nonreligious communities, as a nation.”

Accuser confronts the accused in church

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) McKenna Denson, the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the LDS Church, talks with the media to address the lawsuit, which alleges a former Missionary Training Center president raped her. Thursday, April 5, 2018.

McKenna Denson is taking to the pulpit her legal fight against the church — and the former Missionary Training Center president she says raped her.

In a recent fast and testimony meeting in Arizona, she is videotaped repeating her allegations before the congregation where the accused lives.

“The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are covering a sexual predator that lives in your ward,” she says. “ … In order to keep the church safe, we need to hold sexual predators accountable.”

Two men try to intervene and force her from the podium.

“You know that this is assault, right? And you know that we’re filming this,” she says. “Call the police. Don’t touch me.”

Denson’s lawsuit against former MTC leader Joseph L. Bishop was thrown out because the statute of limitations has expired, but the ruling allowed a claim against the church for fraud — for presenting him as a safe and trustworthy leader — to continue.

Church attorneys have requested a jury trial in Salt Lake City’s federal court in March 2020, stating that the “potential for resolution before trial is poor.”

Denson noted on Facebook that Bishop was in the congregation during her speech. “I looked him in the eye.”

Quote of the week

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Church Historian and Recorder Steven Snow at a news conference regarding the LDS Church publishing the first volume of new history, "Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days." Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018.

“I have looked forward to this day for almost six years. … The ‘Saints’ project has been a labor of love for many, and it’s really gratifying to present this volume to members of the church around the world. … ‘Saints’ draws on the power of narrative, but it is not fiction. It is a true story based on the records left behind by the early Saints and by others. Every detail and every line of dialogue is supported by historical references.”

Elder Steven E. Snow, church historian and recorder

Mormon Land is a weekly newsletter written by David Noyce and Peggy Fletcher Stack. Subscribe here.