This week in Mormon Land: LDS ranks shrinking at University of Utah, church dives into politics, hymnbook update

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah students make their way to class on Thursday, March 28, 2019.

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 this newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

This week’s podcast: The afterlife

As Salt Lake City prepares to host a June 6-9 Afterlife Awareness Conference — “where shamans break bread with scientists” — we focus on end-of-life care and research along with near-death experiences.

Our guests are Jeff O’Driscoll, an emergency room doctor, author and Latter-day Saint who talks about his observations and insights, and Terri Daniel, a hospice chaplain, ordained interfaith minister and grief adviser who founded the annual Afterlife Awareness Conference nearly a decade ago.

Listen here.

Mormonism and U.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah students make their way to class on Thursday, March 28, 2019.

Utah is getting less Mormon and its flagship university is even less so.

A recent survey by The Daily Utah Chronicle found that about 36% of University of Utah students identify themselves as Latter-day Saints, although more than half (54%) grew up in the faith.

By comparison, nearly 62% Utah’s overall population shows up on church membership rolls, a number that continues to slide and has slipped below half (49%) in Salt Lake County.

The next highest religious identification — after Latter-day Saints — at the U. is a sort of nonreligious identification: Agnostics and atheists account for about 14% apiece.

All this is quite a change for a school dubbed by some as the “School of Prophets,” because so many top Latter-day Saint leaders attended there.

The right move or a move to the right?

(Scott Sommerdorf/The Salt Lake Tribune) In this July 26, 2017, photo, the Angel Moroni statue sits atop the Salt Lake Temple at Temple Square with the Utah Capitol in the background in Salt Lake City.

If, as they say, “all politics is local,” then the church is adopting a smart strategy in its bid to increase community engagement among Utah’s Latter-day Saints.

Area authorities have asked stake presidents, who oversee a number of congregations, to “assign specialists who can assist church members to better understand and participate in the civic process,” according to church spokesman Doug Andersen.

This grassroots outreach can include helping members register to vote, request mail-in ballots, attend their party caucus meetings and find their polling places.

Some Utah political types like the idea as long as the effort is conducted — as the church insists it should be — in a politically neutral way.

“It doesn’t raise any red flags,” said Chase Thomas, executive director of the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah. “We would encourage people to be active in politics or their community and no matter what their religion.”

Others are wary.

Rep. Brian King, who leads Utah’s House Democrats, worries the undertaking will only tighten the GOP’s grip on power in the Beehive State, since polls repeatedly show most Latter-day Saints lean Republican.

In all fairness

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Volunteers set up the UVU LGBT student services booth across the street from the Provo LDS Temple, at the 5th annual Provo Pride Festival, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017.

The church came out this week squarely against the Equality Act, arguing the congressional measure seeks to boost LGBTQ safeguards at the expense of religious liberty.

“The Equality Act provides no protections for religious freedom,” the Utah-based faith said in a news release. “It would instead repeal long-standing religious rights under the [1993] federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, threaten religious employment standards, devastate religious education, defund numerous religious charities and impose secular standards on religious activities and properties.”

Latter-day Saint leaders pointed to 2015’s so-called Utah compromise as a better model, with its “fairness for all” approach in shielding LGBTQ individuals from housing and employment discrimination while providing protections for religious liberty.

Clifford Rosky, a member of Equality Utah’s Advisory Council, called the church’s statement “polarizing,” saying it perpetuates the “kind of overblown rhetoric that doesn’t represent the collaborative process, the historic collaboration that led to the passage of anti-discrimination laws in Utah and does not serve the American people especially well.”

NAACP honored

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) NAACP President Derrick Johnson and Vice Chairwoman Karen Boykin-Towns with apostle Gary E. Stevenson at event in Arlington, Va.

The budding alliance between the NAACP and the church continues to bloom.

The latest blossom sprang forth Saturday in Arlington, Va., where apostle Gary E. Stevenson honored the nation’s oldest civil rights organization for its commitment to equality and justice.

“Thank you for your friendship,” NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said after receiving an award during a gala sponsored by Brigham Young University’s Management Society. “When I’m asked, ‘Why would you attend or accept an award [from] or be present with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?’ I say, ‘Because that’s our neighbor.’”

The roots of the relationship were planted in May 2018, when Johnson huddled with church President Russell M. Nelson in Salt Lake City. The pair pledged to seek “greater civility” and pleaded for an end to “prejudice of all kinds.”

Within two months, the two institutions announced an education and employment initiative that is now deployed in Chicago, San Francisco, Houston and Charlotte, N.C.

For decades, the church’s centurylong ban barring black men and boys from its all-male priesthood and women and girls from its temples kept the Utah-based faith at odds with the NAACP.

Now, nearly 41 years after that prohibition was lifted, the civil rights group and the church are not only on speaking terms but also friendly and fruitful ones.

“It’s easy to call for civility, but it’s harder to do the work of making civility possible,” Stevenson said in a news release. “ … “We truly believe that your well-being is tied to your neighbor’s well-being.”

Higher ground

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Rendering of the Quito Temple in Ecuador.

They already live at nearly 10,000 feet, but these Latter-day Saints were lifted even higher Saturday with the groundbreaking ceremony for Ecuador’s second temple.

“The temple will be a refuge,” general authority Seventy Hugo Montoya said in a news release. “ … If we can be in a safe place, this place is the temple.”

The Quito Temple was announced by then-President Thomas S. Monson in April 2016. Ecuador, home to nearly 250,000 members, gained its first Latter-day Saint temple, in Guayaquil, in 1999.

New tunes

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Two girls sing from a Latter-day Saint hymnbook.

Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” has emerged as the front-runner for inclusion in the church’s new hymnbook, according to a recent news release.

Other contenders include traditional Christian works such as “Amazing Grace,” which the church has never published, and contemporary Latter-day Saint songs like “If the Savior Stood Beside Me.”

Members have until July 1 to offer submissions that:

• Increase faith in and worship of Heavenly Father and his son, Jesus Christ.

• Teach core doctrine with power and clarity.

• Invite joyful singing at home and at church.

• Comfort the weary and inspire people to endure in faith.

• Unify Latter-day Saints and others throughout the world.

The new hymnals for adults and children are still several years away.

Golden Spike moment

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offers a few words on Friday May 10, 2019, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, where the two rails met back on May 10, 1869.

President Russell M. Nelson joined national, state and religious dignitaries May 10 at northern Utah’s Promontory Summit to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

“Diverse people working as one had the ability to transform and unite a nation,” Nelson said. “These hardy laborers achieved a oneness that can guide us, as a people, to move forward to fulfill God’s plan for this nation, the world and all of his children.”

Nelson brought to the festivities a spike that pioneer-prophet Brigham Young had created for the completion of the rail line connecting Ogden to Salt Lake City.

“This iron spike is engraved with these words: ‘Holiness to the Lord.’ These words honor and thank our Lord, who watched over his people as they completed the link to the nation’s new train system,” he said.

Besides the thousands of Chinese and Irish immigrants who famously completed the herculean task, many Latter-day Saint laborers helped make the coast-to-coast rail system a reality.

Nauvoo rising

(Tribune file photo) Nauvoo House in Nauvoo, Illinois.

Church founder Joseph Smith’s charge to the apostles, his growing role as a city leader, and the cornerstone ceremonies for the Nauvoo Temple.

Details about all that and more can be found in the latest volume of “The Joseph Smith Papers.”

The “Documents, Volume 8” edition covers February through November 1841, according to a news release, and depicts a mushrooming city abuzz with activity near the mighty Mississippi.

“It is a time of relative calm, hope and optimism,” Brent M. Rogers, one of the volume’s co-editors, said in the release. “But the months covered in this volume are not without their difficulties. One can see an approachable and relatable Joseph Smith as he deals with debt repayment and the death of family members — life experiences that continue to resonate today.”

The volume, from Church Historian’s Press, contains 99 documents, including personal correspondence, revelations, discourses, financial documents and meeting minutes.

Quote of the week

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The Oakland Temple.

“This is a religion that loves The Jews. In my experience, [Latter-day Saints] don’t always have the most accurate notions of what a modern Jew is, but they always feel positively toward us, perhaps as an outgrowth of their preoccupation with ancient Israelites.”

David A.M. Wilensky, online editor, writing in The Jewish News of Northern California after a tour of the newly renovated Oakland Temple

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