This week in Mormon Land: A pre-General Conference crush of stories; so long, ‘James the Mormon’; new debate about family proclamation

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 free newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

This week’s podcast: The Russell Nelson era

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) David Noyce, Peggy Fletcher Stack, Tamu Smith, Jana Riess and Patrick Mason record the 100th episode of the Mormon Land podcast on October 4, 2019.

To mark the 100th episode of the “Mormon Land” podcast, an expert panel — in a live taping at Salt Lake City’s downtown library — dissected how this “activist” prophet-president is reshaping the church.

The panelists were:

Patrick Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University.

Jana Riess, Religion News Service senior columnist and author of “The Next Mormons.”

Tamu Smith of “Sistas in Zion” fame and co-author of “Diary of Two Mad Black Mormons.”

Listen here.

Goodbye, ‘James the Mormon’

(Courtesy of FOX 13) James Curran, formerly James the Mormon.

Rap star James Curran is giving up his “James the Mormon” moniker — and not because the “Mormon” term is falling out of favor within the faith.

No, Curran tells FOX 13’s Bob Evans, he’s jettisoning it because it limits his audience appeal.

“I feel like the only people listening to me are members of the church,” he says. “I’m happy that they’re fans. But it was never intended [just] for them. ... I always wanted to connect with people who don’t believe what I believe.”

Besides, Curran adds, half the Latter-day Saint community doesn’t dig his music.

So, the next stage name for Curran, who’s going by JTM for now, “definitely won’t have religion attached to it.”

Note: The Salt Lake Tribune and FOX 13 are content-sharing partners.

Witnessing more changes

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A sealing room in the Fortaleza Brazil Temple.

In another stride toward gender equity in the church, several practices previously reserved exclusively for male priesthood holders have now been extended to girls and women.

President Russell M. Nelson announced to general officers meeting Wednesday before this weekend’s General Conference that women can act as witnesses to temple sealings and that any baptized member (starting as young as age 8) can serve as a “witness of the baptism of a living person."

In addition, any temple recommend holder (male or female) can act as a witness at a “proxy baptism for a deceased person” in a Latter-day Saint temple. This change also extends to holders of so-called limited-use recommends. These are often teenage girls and boys.

“We are joyful about these changes,” Nelson said in a church news release. “Imagine a beloved sister serving as a witness to the living baptism of her younger brother. Imagine a mature couple serving as witnesses in the temple baptistry as their grandson baptizes their granddaughter for and in behalf of a dear ancestor.”

Ariel Laughton, an independent Latter-day Saint scholar of religion and women’s studies in Houston, rejoiced at the changes.

“It is wonderful to see increasing evidence that the leaders of the church are actively seeking ways in which they can integrate women more fully into teaching, leading and worshipping in the church,” Laughton told The Tribune. “ … I am looking forward to a future of even more expansive opportunities for women to serve in the church and the temple.”

These latest moves come after the church unveiled sweeping rewrites to temple ceremonies earlier this year to include more inclusive language.

‘Binary creation is essential’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) President Dallin H. Oaks speaks during the afternoon session of the189th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Sunday, April 7, 2019.

The statement in the family proclamation that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose” has long been the subject of debate — and even hope — in the LGBTQ community.

Laurie Lee Hall, a transgender woman in Kentucky, for instance, agrees that gender is eternal but adds that she was born in the wrong body.

Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the governing First Presidency, threw a wrench in that view this week when he stated that the “intended meaning of ‘gender’ in the [1995] family proclamation and as used in church statements and publications since that time is biological sex at birth.”

Oaks acknowledged that church authorities “do not know why same-sex attraction and confusion about sexual identity occur,” according to a news release, but said “binary creation is essential to the plan of salvation.”

Hall, a former temple architect who was excommunicated for refusing to give up her female identity, told The Tribune that Oaks’ remarks represent “a dark day for transgender Latter-day Saints.”

Lehi’s lunar landing

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Astronaut John Young's signature on a Book of Mormon that went to the moon in 1972. Photographed in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019.

Lehi’s Liahona might have popped a gasket if it had tagged along on this trip.

It turns out, astronaut John Young took a Book of Mormon (in a triple combination with a Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price) to the moon in 1972 during his Apollo 16 voyage.

The space-traveling scriptures touched down in Utah this week before they go up for auction online Oct. 11-17.

Conference special

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Once again, The Tribune published a pre-General Conference special section that highlighted a range of topics within and about the faith, including:

• An in-depth look at how an “activist” prophet-president has an entire church trying to keep up with a 95-year-old.

• A peek at some of the rich and famous — from Lincoln to Elvis, Twain to Tolstoy — who received copies of the Book of Mormon.

• An exploration of the St. Louis museum that pays homage to the Mormon pioneers.

• A feature about the Washington, D.C., suburb that has earned the nickname “Little Provo.”

• A fun take on the outrageous, embarrassing and comic things that kids sometimes say at church.

• Columns by Ann Cannon, Robert Kirby and Gordon Monson.

Helping climate migrants

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The tour of the bishops' storehouse at Welfare Square in Salt Lake City includes showing how the church cleans donated clothes for purchase at the local Deseret Industries. Bishop W. Christopher Waddell, left, of the Presiding Bishopric is with David Beasley, center, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, and Sharon Eubank, center left, head of Latter-day Saints Charities, on Monday, Sept. 30, 2019.

For millennia, wars have displaced millions of civilians. Nowadays, innocent people face a new enemy: climate change. And Latter-day Saint Charities is teaming up with the United Nations to help those fleeing the floods and droughts spawned by a warming planet.

“The Relief Society pays attention to that because it’s mothers and fathers with the children that notice the effects of climate change first of all,” Sharon Eubank, head of Latter-day Saint Charities and first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, told The Tribune. “You lose that harvest … then it dominoes.”

W. Christopher Waddell, second counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, which oversees the church’s real estate, financial and humanitarian efforts, said Latter-day Saint relief officials see the areas that suffer from cataclysmic climate conditions and praised U.N. efforts “to gather the water from the floods to get you through the drought times.”

Eubank and Waddell met this week with David Beasley, executive director of the United Nations’ World Food Programme, about how to keep problems triggered by conflict and climate change from escalating into emergencies — and how to respond to them when they do.

“If you take the old approach of just handing out food, you would be there for 30 or 40 years” in suffering areas, Beasley said after touring the church’s Welfare Square and Bishops’ Central Storehouse in Salt Lake City. “Our goal is to have an exit strategy in every place that we go. In other words, how do we put the World Food Programme out of business?”

The name thing

The church’s social media accounts continue to morph as leaders strive to emphasize the faith’s correct name.

Breaking news now can be found on Facebook at Newsroom of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a news release explains. Instagram readers can go to @ChurchofJesusChrist.

The Twitter handle remains @ChurchNewsroom.

Temple update

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Rendering of the Feather River California Temple.

The temple coming to Yuba City, Calif., may win the prize for having the most poetic name — at least in the English-speaking sphere.

Feather River.

Named after a tributary of the Sacramento River, the 38,000-square-foot temple will be the eighth in the Golden State.

An exterior rendering of the temple, announced a year go by church President Russell M. Nelson, was released last week.

After Scouting

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Young men in Ohio learn to make a film together. The church’s new program for children and youths encourages personal development through gospel learning, service and activities, and personal development.

The entire church — save for the younger Primary kids — went to the movies during the second hour of worship services Sunday, viewing a video about the “Children and Youth” program.

The new endeavor emphasizes an individualized approach through gospel learning, service and activities, and personal development to help young people grow intellectually, socially, spiritually and physically.

“Personal goals will vary according to family and circumstance,” Relief Society general President Jean Bingham explained. “They can find inspired ways to adapt, while the principles remain the same.”

Gone are goal-setting methods called “Personal Progress” and “Faith in God” for Young Women, “Duty to God” and the all-consuming Boy Scouts of America for Young Men.

But there’s no need to sell the tent, scrap the sleeping bags or junk the canteens. Boys and girls still will go camping.

The church also is expanding its For the Strength of Youth conferences, modeled after the Especially for Youth gatherings at Brigham Young University.

On Nov. 17, apostle Gerrit W. Gong will lead a live face-to-face event — beamed to members everywhere — to answer more questions about the new undertaking.

Gone missing: LGBTQ members

Kevin Randall and his team had assembled 140 candidates for telling their personal LGBTQ stories on the church’s “Mormon and Gay” website.

“We had to contact the bishop of their ward and make sure they were worthy. And if they weren’t … they were taken out,” he said at a recent forum of the group Mormons Building Bridges, which aims to improve relations between the LDS and LGBTQ communities. “We whittled 140 stories down to 16.”

Today, only four of those stories remain on the site. One of the vanquished accounts is Randall’s own.

Working on the website “allowed me to hear their stories and realize they’re valid and real,” he said. “That started my own questioning of my testimony, to figure out what really is going to make me happy in this world.”

(Courtesy photo) Taylor Petrey, Dialogue's new editor.

As part of the Mormons Building Bridges conference, Taylor Petrey, chairman of Kalamazoo College’s religion department in Michigan, delivered a lecture on how the church’s views around gender and sexuality have evolved.

“In my lifetime, at least, we have already witnessed a major shift in LDS teachings on gender as the church has attempted to transition from the patriarchal order to the heterosexual order,” said Petrey, recently named the editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. “This transition from one to the other has never fully been complete, but the abandonment or abdication of certain kinds of patriarchy is clear.”

He discussed “kinship” relationships, pointing to the various types of marriages in church history, such as plural, proxy, convenience and successive sealings. Many of these kinships didn’t focus on reproduction, meaning it hasn’t always been seen as essential for a relationship.

“I don’t know what direction the church will go, but I have seen how it can reinvent itself,” he said. “And my prayer is that divine justice, fairness and love will be our guide.”

Quote of the week

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Book of Mormon that went to the moon in 1972. Photographed in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019.

“We want people to appreciate the fact that a little bit of LDS heritage is mixed into man’s flight to the moon.”

Phil Thomas, on the Book of Mormon that went to the moon on Apollo 16

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