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.

Historic view of the ‘First Vision’

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Joseph Smith's "First Vision."

While they won’t be the last word on the “First Vision” this bicentennial year, newly released podcasts certainly offer ample words on the event that gave birth to the Mormon movement.

Editors of “The Joseph Smith Papers” project have posted six episodes — totaling more than two hours — of discussions with historians about the church founder’s reported 1820 encounter with deity.

Hosted by historian Spencer McBride, the podcasts — ranging from 9 minutes to 44 minutes apiece — explore, among other topics, the religious soil that helped sprout the boy-prophet’s search, the New York woods where the questioning Smith prayed, the differing accounts he offered (the episode titles are taken from the most quoted, 1838 version), the aftermath of his experience, and why the story still resonates 200 years later.

“Something special happens when you view the First Vision through the eyes of historians,” McBride explains. “You find a story that is simultaneously familiar and new.”

From white robes to neon vests

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crews prepare the grounds for the four-year renovation of the Salt Lake Temple and Temple Square on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020.
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Temple robes are out. Hard hats are in.

The faith’s iconic Salt Lake Temple, undergoing a four-year renovation, has been “decommissioned.”

“Each time we renovate a temple ... decommissioning occurs to remove sacred items and turn the building into a construction site,” Rich Sutton, temple area director, said in a news release. “We have been preparing for months for this process, which began almost immediately after the temple closed to patrons on Dec. 29.”

So sacred elements — including temple clothing, records and more — have been removed so that a temple recommend is no longer required and construction crews can enter the edifice. Historic items also have been safeguarded.

“The Salt Lake Temple is somewhat unique due to its size and the years of history dating back to 1893,” Emily Utt, curator in the Church History Department, said in the release. “This building has been carefully cared for and preserved for a long time, and it’s a sacred experience to be involved in preparing it for this next important step.”

Several temple artifacts will be on display in the nearby Conference Center at various times throughout the renovation.

“Even as this temple becomes a construction site, we never lose sight of its sacred purpose and history,” said Andy Kirby, director of historic temple renovations. “The decommissioning process allows us to carefully take care of what is inside the temple so we can then focus on our job of fortifying and protecting this house of the Lord.”

The state of the faith

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) People file in and wait for the afternoon session of the 183rd Semiannual General Conference, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013.

Utah remains predominantly Mormon, but it’s becoming less and less so.

The latest membership statistics — handed over to the state for planning purposes and obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune — show the church had its smallest membership growth in at least three decades this past year. In fact, nearly half of Utah’s 29 counties saw the actual number of Latter-day Saints drop.

Salt Lake County, home to the church’s world headquarters, has more than 6,700 fewer members than a year ago. It now is 47.87% Mormon, while Utah is 60.68% Latter-day Saint.

Potential reasons for this shift in the religious landscape range from families having fewer children to more job-seeking nonmembers moving in and more disaffected members getting out — by resigning from the faith.

This week’s podcast: The church’s balance sheet

(Tribune file photo) D. Michael Quinn at the LDS Church History Library on Aug. 9, 2013.

Questions persist inside and outside the church about the $100 billion reserve it has stockpiled in an investment account.

In this week’s “Mormon Land” podcast, historian D. Michael Quinn argues the church’s reserves are actually much steeper than has been reported. But, he adds, so are its expenses, especially in supporting a global faith.

Quinn, a scholar who has done the deepest dive to date into the history of Latter-day Saint finances — his 2017 book, “Mormon Hierarchy: Wealth & Corporate Power,” remains the definitive volume on the subject — discusses the issue.

Listen here.

Confession is good for the … law

A Utah lawmaker wants to force clergy to report child abuse to law enforcement even if the information comes from a penitent abuser. Right now, state law exempts bishops, priests, pastors and other clerics from reporting child abuse or neglect when a perpetrator confesses to a faith leader.

“My first obligation is to children and vulnerable populations being exploited by people who hide behind the fact they have confessed to a religious leader,” Rep. Angela Romero told The Tribune. “ ... Some of these individuals have gone on to perpetrate and harm other children.”

Such mandatory reporting is seen as a bridge too far for many religious leaders, who insist these measures violate their First Amendment rights.

LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said “the church would need to review the bill and its implications before taking a position.”

An Oregon woman, meanwhile, is suing the church for more than $9 million because Latter-day Saint leaders reported her husband to law enforcement after he confessed to sexually abusing a girl under age 16 to his lay leaders.

The confession was meant to be confidential, the family’s lawyer told The Associated Press. The suit seeks $5.5 million for his wife for loss of his income and for extreme emotional distress and $1 million for each of his four children.

Quick hits

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Sister missionaries teach a young man in Lyon, France.

• Female missionaries gain valuable experiences during their 18 months of church service. They give speeches, teach in public and private, manage their time and money, set and reach goals, train companions and fellow missionaries, and help resolve conflicts with close associates and others. But do these women recognize that these skills can make them effective leaders when they get home? Not always, according to new research by Utah Valley University’s Utah Women and Leadership Project.

The study recommends that church officials and others “be more intentional and explicit in framing what missionaries learn as the leadership skills they are” and offer more formal and informal leadership positions for sister missionaries.

When the church lowered the minimum mission age in 2012 from 21 to 19 for women, a surge in female proselytizers ensued. It created mission leadership councils in 2013 with women and men serving together. Women took on the role of sister training leaders, responsible for the training and welfare of female missionaries assigned to them.

Orem resident Maggie Scribner told The Tribune that she learned to “problem-solve” and “create relationships with really different types of people from different cultures, different backgrounds” during her mission to the Philippines.

• Australian Latter-day Saints united in fasting and prayer Sunday for relief from the raging wildfires and devastating drought scorching the nation.

“The church has already responded to the two emergencies by donating thousands of dollars in humanitarian aid and stands ready to donate further funds,” the faith’s Pacific Area Presidency wrote in a news release. “Local members have also responded by donating hundreds of hours of service to their fellow citizens.”

By Common Consent’s Jonathan Stapley examines how the church’s advice on unwed pregnancy has evolved since two decades ago, noting a “remarkable shift towards a focus on the agency of [the] mother.”

“First, remember that your Heavenly Father loves you and wants to help you as you move forward,” the church’s counsel states. “… When you experience unwed pregnancy, you will have to choose one of four options: marriage, adoption, single parenting, or abortion (see Handbook 2, 21.4.1, “Abortion,” for an explanation of why the church does not support abortions except in rare circumstances). What you choose will depend on your unique circumstances.

“Remember that whatever you decide for you and your child,” it adds, “some people will agree with your decisions and others will not.”

• Answer: 10%. Question: How much has Ken Jennings pledged to donate to the church?

So says TMZ of the “Jeopardy!” whiz who has amassed $3.5 million in winnings from the game show.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The staff of The Alternate Universe, a website that makes fun of Provo and BYU culture, in Provo on Wednesday Oct. 30, 2019. From left, Michaela Rappleyea, Adam Fletcher, Stephen Fortuna, Josh Newman, Dorian Baldwin-Bott, Thomas Richins and Mickey Randle.

• Green Jell-O, funeral potatoes and gold plates — they’re the stuff dreams are made of when you’re shooting for satire.

Just ask the staff of The Alternate Universe, an Onion-like website published by students at Brigham Young University that is winning laughs and gaining fans by taking good-natured jabs at the “world” that is the school’s campus.

“Provo — and Utah, too, for that matter — they’re just so weird,” site founder Stephen Fortuna told The Tribune. “Actually, I don’t know if weird really captures it. It has its own culture, which gives us a lot of material to play with.”

Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds calls himself a “unique Mormon” in a recent interview with Yahoo Entertainment.

“I’m more a spiritual person than I think aligned with anything specifically, but anyone who grew up Mormon knows that Mormonism is kind of like a culture. It's part of my identity. It's part of who I am,” he explains. “Do I abide by all of it or follow every single thing or believe every single thing? No. Do I believe that there's a God? No, some days not. Some days I do. My spirituality is moving. It's always changing.”

Quote of the week

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo)The Book of Mormon.

“I discovered in the Book of Mormon a profoundly human record of people struggling with their relationship to God and to each other. It has all the messiness one would expect of a record compiled over a thousand years, with multiple narrative perspectives, biases, agendas, and blind spots — as the authors and narrators groped towards an understanding of the Kingdom of God. It is a book that can bear multiple readings from multiple perspectives without exhausting its treasures. And it is a book that Latter-day Saints should never be ashamed to place alongside the great books of the world’s traditions, both religious and secular. That, at least, is my story, and I will be sticking to it for the rest of my life.”

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