This week in Mormon Land: Can a woman ask the sacrament prayer? Did Joseph Smith illegally ‘stop the press'? What’s the latest on coronavirus impact?

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Young Latter-day Saint men administer the sacrament, or Communion.

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.

‘As now we await the sacrament’

(Courtesy photo of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A young Latter-day Saint boy passes the sacrament.

In this age of the coronavirus, many Latter-day Saints are stuck at home, craving companions, craving congregants, craving Communion — but without safe or immediate access to any of those.

Perhaps they can relate to the example of Nellie Bleak Finguar, whose story comes courtesy of crack Mormon research historian Ardis E. Parshall.

In 1904, Finguar, desperate for money to support her two young daughters, left her girls with her mother in Colorado and went to work at a Navajo boarding school in New Mexico.

There, she found herself without her children and her church.

Hungry for faith and family, the lonely widow yearned for the sacrament, Parshall writes at her keepapitchinin.org blog, but, alas, there were no priesthood members around.

So she inquired of then-church President Joseph F. Smith whether she could “ask” the blessing on the sacrament and partake of it?

Parshall says she doesn’t have the letter sent in reply but she has seen Smith’s notes telling his secretary how to respond:

“A nice kind letter, telling her that to bless the bread and the water is a function of the priesthood; but there could be no objection to her reading the prayer taught us in the Doc. & Cov. and on a Sunday meditate thereupon and make the covenants therein contained.”

“I don’t have a solution to offer to others,” Parshall writes, “but I — one of those affected by my isolation — feel good about following Joseph F. Smith’s counsel for the interim.”

Read the full post here.

Called to serve … and return … and hunker down

The “hits” to church operations, programs and plans from the coronavirus just keep on coming.

“Substantial numbers” of missionaries are returning home. Some may be reassigned in their home countries — after they self-isolate for 14 days — others will be released. Here is a graphic breaking down which missionaries will be released, reassigned and remain.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

All Missionary Training Centers, up from just the large one in Provo and a smaller one in England, have closed their doors. Instead, all prospective proselytizers will be trained through technology at home and sent to their assigned mission “as soon as possible.”

• First, no public attendance. Now, not even all the apostles will be at April’s General Conference at the same time. Because of prohibitions against mass gatherings, only the governing First Presidency and those who will be speaking and praying will be on hand at each session — and not in the 20,000-capacity Conference Center but rather in a “small auditorium on Temple Square.” Music will be prerecorded. Even so, leaders are promising a “remarkable conference” as the faith celebrates the bicentennial of church founder Joseph Smith’s “First Vision.” The present circumstances promise to make the conference memorable, but this couldn’t possibly be what the church initially had in mind for the occasion.

• All of the church’s 160-plus temples have shut down due to COVID-19. “After careful and prayerful consideration, and with a desire to be responsible global citizens, we have decided to suspend all temple activity churchwide,” the governing First Presidency wrote Wednesday in a letter to the faith’s 16.3 million members. “This is a temporary adjustment, and we look forward to the day when the temples will reopen.”

Expect to see couples who were poised to wed in temples in coming days or weeks to take advantage of a 2019 policy shift. Last May, the church ended the one-year waiting period between a civil marriage and a temple sealing, a requirement that had been in place for Latter-day Saints in the U.S. and Canada. (Such a delay did not apply in many other parts of the world.) So couples now can wed civilly and then be “sealed for eternity” when the temples reopen.

Airport no-nos

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Missionaries from the Philippines return the Salt Lake City International Airport, Sunday, March 22, 2020.

Hundreds of families and friends gathered at Salt Lake City International Airport to welcome home more than 1,600 missionaries returning from the Philippines.

Trouble is, the directives to maintain social distancing were, like the rules at some nasty church basketball games, widely ignored.

So the church reemphasized the protocol:

“Parents or guardians should go to the airport alone to meet a returning missionary and practice safe social distancing while there,” it said in a news release. “That way, the missionary is able to properly begin self-isolation.”

Latter-day Saint leaders for the Utah Area expressed “deep concern” about the mass airport greetings and urged local lay leaders to help members “understand the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic [and] the importance of practicing safe social distancing.”

How the church is helping

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Volunteers with Latter-day Saint Charities and Project HOPE partnered to distribute medical supplies Feb. 4, 2020, in Shanghai to combat coronavirus.

Latter-day Saint Charities, the faith’s humanitarian arm, has provided support, supplies and funding in more than a dozen countries — so far — in the battle against the coronavirus.

“Early on, the church donated its supply of N95 masks and some others and then we procured others as well. But there’s also surgical masks, made from what’s called ‘surgical wrap,’” Sharon Eubank, president of the organization and first counselor in the general presidency of the faith’s all-female Relief Society, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “And they’re almost as effective, but there’s also a shortage of those right now. We’re looking at ways that we could even manufacture some of those if we can get the raw materials.”

Eubank also encouraged members to help others by being “disciplined about social distancing; it’s the kindest thing you can do for your community.”

“Spend time talking/listening to kids and older people — this is an anxious time,” she added. “ … Volunteer when you can do it safely.”

Quake damage update

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The statue of Moroni atop the Salt Lake Temple lost its trumpet in an earthquake Wednesday, March 18, 2020.

Utah’s powerful earthquake did more than knock the trumpet out of Angel Moroni’s grasp atop the Salt Lake Temple. It did damage to chapels and church facilities west of Salt Lake City.

A dozen meetinghouses, along with the Humanitarian Center and Deseret Manufacturing, sustained structural damage.

Thankfully, though, contractors and consultants found no significant damage to the buildings in and around Temple Square.

“All buildings at church headquarters have reopened," the faith said in a news release Thursday, "although they remain closed to the public due to the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Oaks presses his case

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Carthage Jail, where Joseph Smith was murdered weeks after the Navuoo City Council destroyed the printing press of the dissident Nauvoo Expositor.

Many scholars, even faithful Mormon ones, see Joseph Smith’s move to “stop the press” — in this case, that of the dissident Nauvoo Expositor — by busting it and tossing the type as an extreme, even illegal, act.

But Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the governing First Presidency and a former Utah Supreme Court justice, says his research shows otherwise.

When Smith, then Nauvoo’s mayor, and the City Council declared the newspaper a “nuisance” and destroyed it, he argues, they did not violate any free press guarantees that existed at the time — though it did lead to the church founder’s arrest and murder weeks later.

“The lesson I drew from this ... has made me a lifelong opponent of the technique of presentism — relying on current perspectives and culture to criticize official or personal actions in the past,” Oaks said at a recent Church History Symposium. “Past actions should be judged by the laws and culture of their time.

178 candles

A church video paid tribute to the “strong and brave women” of the Relief Society in celebration of the organization’s 178th anniversary.

Rising from its birth on March 17, 1842, the Relief Society now boasts more than 7.1 million members in 170 countries.

By the way, March 1 also marked the 178th anniversary of the publication of the so-called Wentworth Letter in which Joseph Smith spelled out the Articles of Faith.

Those cans in the garage

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Canned goods like these can be found in the food storage kept by many members.

McKay Coppins was always a believer in — if not a devoted practitioner of — the church’s counsel to have food storage.

“There was never a moment,” he writes in The Atlantic, “when I consciously ruled out the idea of keeping around some extra water and rice.”

But now, given the coronavirus pandemic, you can count Coppins among the truly converted — not only to the practical wisdom of having extra supplies but also to some less-tangible benefits.

“The ritual,” the journalist explains, “of counting and stacking and sorting the cans [in the garage] — like so many rituals of faith — offered something more abstract than physical sustenance: peace of mind, a sense of hope, something to grip while the world is unraveling.”

‘Mormon Land’ podcast is returning

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The Salt Lake Tribune’s weekly “Mormon Land” podcast, which has faced some logistical hurdles during the coronavirus pandemic followed by an earthquake that rocked our studio, expects to return next week.

Until then, you can catch up on episodes you may have missed.

Listen here.

A timely test

Latter-day Saints — with their home-centered religion and their members-as-ministers approach — may be better positioned to weather this stretch without formal church services than some other believers.

“In a very real and practical sense, all Latter-day Saints are ministers,” Times and Seasons blogger Nathaniel Givens writes. “We might not be very good at it yet, but it would never occur to us that ministering to the Saints is a job for specialists we interact with only in the church.”

Givens says this pandemic offers members a chance to “more fully live up to the inspired design of the church” and learn lessons for the next crisis.

“For, no matter how bad the pandemic gets or doesn’t get in the coming weeks and months,” he warns, “such times will surely come again and again in the years and decades to come.”

Quote of the week

“Extraordinary times, it turns out, do not always call for extraordinary measures, or even extraordinary people. They often call for ordinary measures and ordinary people finding ways to do ordinary things when everything around them seems to make ordinariness impossible.”

Michael Austin, By Common Consent blog post

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