This week in Mormon Land: Nigeria’s milestone, BYU’s queer evolution, and a warning about unholy smokes

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.

Unholy smokes

(Steve Helber | AP file photo) In this Jan. 18, 2019, photo, a customer blows a cloud of smoke from a vape shop in Richmond, Va. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has declared that vaping is against the faith's health code.

For anyone a bit hazy — especially young Latter-day Saints — about the church’s position on vaping, the latest New Era makes it clear:

It’s a no-no for those saying yes-yes to the Word of Wisdom, and commentator Jana Riess, for one, is fine with that.

“I’m glad to see the church taking a stand on this,” the Religion News Service senior columnist writes. “ … There is simply no health benefit to vaping, only a growing list of terrible possible outcomes.”

So, when all the smoke settles, members now know that, in the church’s words, “vaping is clearly against the Word of Wisdom.”

BYU’s queer evolution

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Matt Easton chants with protesters at Brigham Young University in April 2019. Easton came out as a gay in his commencement speech at the Provo school.

KUER’s third episode in its “Latter-day” series examines the growing LGBTQ community at Brigham Young University in Provo.

“When I started teaching at BYU in 2000, it was against the Honor Code to be gay,” Kerry Spencer, a gay Latter-day Saint who taught at BYU for 14 years, told reporter Lee Hale. “You couldn’t say it out loud. It was something that was unspeakable. You could be expelled, or if you were faculty, you could be fired.

“ ... In 2008, the Honor Code was updated and you were allowed to be gay, but you couldn’t do anything about it. And by anything, they meant anything. In some ways it got worse then because everybody was always looking to show that you were gay, to prove that you were gay.”

Spencer views the viral coming-out commencement speech last spring by BYU valedictorian Matt Easton as a “hopeful” sign of a more welcoming LGBTQ culture at the school.

“But all queer Mormons,” she said, “will tell you it’s very difficult to maintain hope.”

BYU slavery’s ties

(Photo courtesy of Utah State Historical Society) Abraham Smoot

Abraham O. Smoot’s legacy runs deep. He loomed large as a pioneer, politician, banker, builder, and benefactor, even savior, of Brigham Young Academy (the precursor to BYU).

The administration building at the faith’s flagship school even bears his name.

But Smoot’s past also packs echoes of an era of racial discrimination. Turns out, he owned at least one slave — and, historians say, probably more.

W. Paul Reeve, a professor of Mormon studies at the University of Utah and the brains behind the Century of Black Mormons database, points to one slave known only as “Tom, Brother Churches.”

The black convert died April 29, 1862, and is described on his death certificate as “Tom, a Negro, belong’ to Bhp Smoot.”

Had Tom lived just seven weeks longer, he would have been freed when Congress outlawed slavery in U.S. territories.

Learning that a fellow Latter-day Saint who died enslaved to his bishop has “haunted me,” Reeve told The Tribune. “Finding his records personalized it for me in a way that studying the law hasn’t.”

Snow’s legacy is one for the history books

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Church Historian and Recorder Steven Snow announcing the release of "Saints" at a news conference in 2018.

Steven E. Snow’s seven-year tenure as official church historian is, well, history. But the soon-to-be-emeritus general authority’s mark on Mormonism will last for generations to come.

Snow, a guest on last week’s “Mormon Land” podcast, oversaw, among other initiatives, the crafting of landmark essays that tackle the church’s dicier doctrines (from theosis to Mother in Heaven) and thornier historical issues (from polygamy and race to the Mountain Meadows Massacre).

He also shepherded “Saints,” a multivolume narrative that tells the history of the church, capitalizing on the latest scholarship, confronting some of the past’s pricklier episodes and covering faith’s 19th-century roots to, eventually, its present state.

“To assist with the publication of a series of four volumes that candidly and openly tells the church’s story with the benefit of all the current research and available documents,” Snow’s immediate predecessor, Marlin Jensen, told The Salt Lake Tribune, “and to navigate all the review and approval processes and to then have it all translated into [multiple] languages so that it can reach more than 90 percent of the members of the church worldwide — that is the work of a lifetime.”

Next up for Snow? More public service, including a return to environmental activism as a member of the Grand Canyon Trust board, and more time with his grandkids.

This exiting general authority will go down as a leader who truly helped rewrite history.

This week’s podcast: The ERA — it’s back

(Courtesy photo) Anissa Rasheta, a national organizer for Mormons for ERA, is pushing for ratification in her home state of Arizona.


Forty years ago, those three initials set off strong conversations and sparked national headlines.

The Equal Rights Amendment — the proposed constitutional measure guaranteeing equal legal rights regardless of sex — fell short of ratification among the states. Now, it’s back, and, by some counts, needs just one more state to reach ratification and become the law of the land.

So where does the church — which vehemently fought the ERA for years — stand on it today?

It isn’t saying. When asked earlier this year by The Tribune, the institution declined to comment. Some advocates say church leaders have told them the faith is now neutral on the issue, emboldening their push for ratification.

On this week’s podcast, Anissa Rasheta, a national organizer for Mormons for ERA who is pushing for ratification in her home state of Arizona, discusses the measure — the need for it, the status of the fight and the reception it is getting from today’s Latter-day Saints, young and old, male and female, leaders and laypersons.

Listen here.

Onstage and off

(Photo courtesy of Julieta Cervantes) "The Book of Mormon" in Washington, D.C., in 2017.

Elder Price is back, bellowing about getting his own planet and how “God changed his mind about black people.”

Elder Cunningham is there, too, lovingly lying his way to convert after convert in the jungles of Uganda with his own nerdy version of Book of Mormon stories.

Yes, the bawdy Broadway blockbuster has returned to Utah’s Zion, playing just a few blocks from the headquarters of the faith it so searingly — if sweetly — mocks and maligns.

But does “The Book of Mormon” musical still deliver? Do the zingers still sting? Does the raunchiness still register? Do the laugh lines still land?

After all, the church has produced essays that address some Latter-day Saint teachings lampooned in the play since its 2011 premiere. And some of the faith’s most successful proselytizing efforts have been in Africa.

“The show’s depiction of Africans as backwards, rural and naively accepting of a very American version of Christianity has not worn particularly well,” writer Jana Riess told The Tribune. “ … Increasing globalization has made it possible for people in the global south to tell their own stories, and not simply be objects in white hero myths, which is the case with this show.”

Matthew Bowman, head of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, says the Tony-winning production targets the church’s ability to deal with the “demands of pluralism.”

On that score, the historian says, the church’s “institutional tweaks” witness that it is moving toward becoming a truly global religion.

More out of Africa

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

As evidence of the mushrooming membership in Africa, the church recently reached a milestone in Nigeria: 700 congregations, with more than 50 being created just this year, according to a newsletter from the Cumorah Foundation, which tracks the faith’s global growth.

“Nigeria has the seventh most wards and branches of any country in the world after the United States, Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, Peru and Argentina,” the foundation reports. “ … Despite the large number of congregations, the church in

Nigeria has only one operating temple [in Aba] and one temple announced [in Lagos].”

Temple update

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

Nine years in the making, Portugal’s first Latter-day Saint temple will open its doors in Lisbon on Saturday for public tours that will run through Aug. 31.

The 49-foot-tall temple — with a 134-foot gold-leafed spire topped by an Angel Moroni statue — includes designs based on derivatives of indigenous azulejo tile star patterns that reflect the region’s Moorish heritage, according to a church news release. The temple’s exterior is covered with Portuguese Moleanos limestone from a nearby quarry.

More than 45,000 Latter-day Saints live in Portugal.

Quote of the week

“There is something timelessly hilarious about a life-sized Starbucks cup that dances in and out of the nightmares of a guilt-ridden Mormon missionary. Despite its crudeness and profanity, the show says that Mormons are good people who are willing to give up two years of their lives to go across the world in order to help other people.”

Religion News Service senior columnist Jana Riess on “The Book of Mormon” musical.

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