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.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A Latter-day Saint baptism in New Zealand.

The ups and downs of church growth

Independent demographer Matt Martinich finds the good, the bad and the interesting in his newly released annual report on church growth for cumorah.com.

The plus side includes:

• The announcement of 16 new temples in 2019, the fourth most in a single year after 1998 (27 new temples), 2018 (19) and 1999 (17).

• The expansion of the missionary force, with more than 68,000 full-time proselytizers out in the field, a 4% jump from the previous year.

• The addition of about 400 congregations throughout the world, about half coming in the U.S. The 1.27% bump is the highest in the United States since 2007.

• “Rapid” growth in West Africa along with “significant” expansion in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Africa.

• Growth in Cuba and the first converts in Timor-Leste in 2019, when at least nine people were baptized. Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland dedicated the country near Indonesia for missionary work in 2015.

On the downside:

• The lowest numerical net membership increase (195,566 in 2018, the latest year for which such statistics have been reported) in 40 years and the lowest percentage gain (1.2%) in 81 years.

• The number of converts in 2018 (234,322) was up slightly from the previous year but remained far below the 300,000-plus average in the 1990s.

• Children of record added to church rolls clocked in at 102,102, the lowest since 2007.

• Brazil had its lowest annual membership growth rate — a mere 0.78% in 2019 — in at least 80 years.

• No country gained its first stake in 2019.

See Martinich’s full report here.

‘I’m sorry, Dave’ — The brothers and the $100 billion

The Washington Post last week detailed the falling-out that has occurred between the twin brothers behind the whistleblower complaint that the church has amassed a $100 billion reserve fund.

Lars Nielsen wanted to go public immediately with the complaint to the IRS, the paper reports. David Nielsen, who used to work for the faith’s investment arm Ensign Peak Advisors, argued against such a move.

Lars, advocating for transparency, eventually shared the information with The Post.

The brothers haven’t spoken since.

In a text to the newspaper, Lars said both brothers were doing what they believe were “ethical and true according to our individual values and circumstances.”

“They say there is a good twin and a bad twin,” he wrote. “I disagree. But if I’m wrong, then I’m not the good twin. I’m sorry, Dave. I hope I can tell you soon.”

In a previous text to The Tribune, David Nielsen wrote that “no one has been authorized to speak for me, including my brother Lars Nielsen. Any public disclosure of information that has been in my possession was unauthorized by me. Repeated attempts to dissuade my brother, Lars Nielsen, from making public disclosures have been ignored.”

(Photo courtesy of BYU) "Agency — the freedom to choose — depends upon robust religious freedom," apostle Ronald A. Rasband, with his wife, Melanie, said during a student devotional at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.

Free to choose

The “erosion” of religious freedom threatens not only the soil for individual spiritual growth, a Latter-day Saint apostle warned this week, but also the roots for God’s earthly plan.

“Agency, the freedom to choose, depends upon robust religious freedom,” Ronald A. Rasband told Brigham Young University students, according to a news release. “...These include the freedom to believe, the freedom to live our religion, and the freedom to share our faith in Jesus Christ and the knowledge of his gospel with others.”

Without religious freedom, those fundamentals are in jeopardy.

“Because of freedom of religion, I can stand here today and tell you what I believe,” Rasband said. “...Freedom of religion means you can attend the temples, be sealed as a family, teach gospel principles as outlined by the Lord in your homes and pray to your Father in Heaven and receive personal revelation.”

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A look at season three of Book of Mormon Videos. Here, Alma the Younger records his testimony.

This week’s podcast: A Native American view of the ‘curse’

This year, Latter-day Saints are studying the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon.

A printed Sunday school manual accompanying the course caused a stir recently when The Salt Lake Tribune reported that it contained outdated teachings about “dark skin” referred to in the text as being a “curse” and a sign of divine disfavor.

The church corrected the reference in its digital manual and an apostle told a Martin Luther King Day gathering of the NAACP that he was “saddened” by the error. But the uproar has revived questions about race in the Book of Mormon and the Utah-based faith as a whole.

Discussing those issues on this week’s podcast is Michalyn Steele, who teaches at BYU’s law school and is a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians. She grew up in a small Latter-day Saint congregation on the Cattaraugus Reservation in New York.

Listen here.

(Photo courtesy of James Hosking) Pictured are Alex Tecza and Kato Lindholm, professional partners in ballroom dance.

It takes two to tango

If two male BYU students dance together, they could earn themselves a date with the Honor Code Office for violating the school’s rules against gay relationships.

But if two men (or two women, for that matter) pair up to tango, waltz or fox trot on the Provo campus in March, they might win a prize — provided they are competing at the U.S. National Amateur DanceSport Championships.

After some initial resistance, the church-owned school eased its rules to allow same-sex couples to dance at the event.

“It’s going to be a big shock for the people who are used to seeing classic ballroom,” Tyler Keith Wilson, a decorated dancer, told The Tribune. “I’m excited to see their reactions.”

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Demolition of the South Visitors' Center on Temple Square began on Friday, Jan. 17, 2020.

Square roots

It’s happening.

Demolition in and around Salt Lake City’s Temple Square is underway, with crews starting to tear down the South Visitors’ Center and parts of the square’s south wall.

“Workers removed the statues south of the temple and placed them in storage, including statues of Hyrum and Joseph Smith — each of which weighs 18,000 pounds,” a news release noted. “Trees and vegetation are also being removed.”

It’s all part of the four-year renovation of the iconic temple and its surroundings.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Crews remove a bronze statue of church founder Joseph Smith Jr. for safekeeping and restoration during the Temple Square renovation in Salt Lake City, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020.

Andy Kirby, director of historic temple renovations, says crews are laboring to "preserve some of the trees, transplant them and then replant them.”

New trees will go in as well. “When we finish the renovation,” Kirby said, “ … there will be more trees on Temple Square than there were when this project began.”

And that tall Cedar of Lebanon tree, brought to the square as a seedling more than 70 years ago, will stay.

“It’s a special tree,” Kirby said. “It’s beautiful, beloved by many, so we’ll go through great efforts to preserve this tree as we excavate around it.”

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Crews are removing furnishings from inside the Salt Lake Temple as a major renovation project gets underway.

Quick hits

• The church is asking a federal court to dismiss a class action lawsuit filed by a former member, who alleges the faith’s leaders misled her and others about Mormonism’s origins.

“It is not the province of judges or juries,” the church argues in its motion, “to determine whether Moses parted the Red Sea, whether Noah predicted and survived the flood ... whether Jesus walked on water, or whether Joseph Smith saw God and Jesus Christ.”

Plaintiff Laura Gaddy, a former Latter-day Saint who lives in North Carolina, Legal Newsline reports, counters that her assertions are based on the faith’s “misrepresentations of fact” and not faith. “What remains true is that [the church] has manipulated the factual history of early Mormonism and has lied about material facts concerning the creation of key scripture,” she responds. “ … Simply, this is a case of fraud.”

• Latter-day Saint leaders helped transform San Bernardino, Calif., into an agricultural powerhouse in the 1850s with help from enslaved African Americans and “coerced” Native American workers.

“Slaveholders occupied the upper echelons of the Mormon hierarchy in San Bernardino,” historians Sarah Barringer Gordon and Kevin Waite write in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. “...The colony’s co-founder and its bishop owned slaves. One of San Bernardino’s high counselors, Robert Mays Smith, did, too. In fact, Smith claimed 14 enslaved women and children, making him the largest slaveholder in the continent’s Far West.”

The authors argue that the “crucial” efforts of these laborers deserve recognition on the community’s Mormon Trail Monument.

• A columnist for the University of Utah’s student newspaper has found a use for the church’s reported $100 billion rainy day fund: Spend it in the battle against climate change.

“United Nations researchers estimate it would cost $300 billion to stop climate change from progressing,” Nain Christopherson writes in The Daily Utah Chronicle. “…Between Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and the LDS Church, the problem could be just about solved, at least in terms of the financing.”

Such a bold move also would line up with the faith’s environmental mission to care for God’s creations. In a 2017 speech, Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the church’s governing First Presidency, identified global warming as one the “big worries” facing the world.

Religion News Service guest columnist Mette Harrison writes that the $100 billion stash isn’t about building up a reserve of money in a church account but rather about building up a reservoir of faith in members’ lives.

“The repeated calls for tithing are about increasing loyalty in new members, especially when it would be easy for those new members to simply slide back out of the fold,” she writes. “Asking those in poverty to give pennies to the church does little to increase that $100 billion fund, but it does make those members more invested in the church’s future. … It’s not about the money, stupid. It’s about loyalty.”

• A poll by The Tribune and Suffolk University shows Utah women who see themselves as “very active” Latter-day Saints identify domestic violence as the biggest challenge confronting women, followed closely by cultural expectations about gender roles and low wages.

(Screenshot) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints posted a video and photos explaining these "robes of the holy priesthood," worn by faithful members inside temples. Temple clothes are being updated.

Temple updates

• The church is making temple clothes easier to wear, wash and afford. Among the changes: “A simpler design for the veil and robe, removing the plastic insert from the cap and the tie from the cap and veil, and using a more durable fabric for the robe, cap, and sash,” the First Presidency writes. The new clothing will be available churchwide March 31. For now, members can continue to don their current temple wear.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Temple in Durban, South Africa.

• Public tours of the new temple in Durban, South Africa, have begun and will run through Feb. 1. The dedication is set for Feb. 16.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Elder Gary E. Stevenson, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gives the keynote address during the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Luncheon at Little America Hotel on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, alongside Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Salt Lake Branch.
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Quote of the week

“[I was] deeply saddened and hurt by this error [in the printed ‘Come, Follow Me’ manual], and for any pain that it may have caused our members or others. … We disavow any theory that advances that black skin or dark skin is the sign of a curse.”

Apostle Gary E. Stevenson in an address to the NAACP’s Salt Lake Branch.

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