This week in Mormon Land: ‘First Vision’ art, the Trump slump, and the latter-day love affair with middle initials

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) The Salt Lake Second Ward at 704 S. 500 E. features this stained-glass window of Joseph Smith's First Vision.

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.

Picturing the First Vision

Joseph Smith offered various versions of his “First Vision,” and artists have drawn, painted and sculpted even more depictions of the church founder’s reported encounter with deity.

Scholar Richard Bushman, author of the acclaimed Smith biography “Rough Stone Rolling,” will discuss those works in a virtual speech Sunday, July 26, at 7 p.m. MDT.

Sponsored by the Center for Latter-day Saint Arts, Bushman’s Zoom speech, titled “Art and Vision,” will provide “visual and cultural analyses of various works, including those that may be lesser-known by LDS audiences and the larger public,” spokesperson Emily Larsen Doxford writes in an email. “…Bushman [the center’s co-executive director] will follow his address with a Q&A for those who have questions about his research.”

Click here to sign up.

The Trump slump

(Evan Vucci | AP file photo)President Donald Trump points to his shopping cart during a tour of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints' Welfare Square food distribution center, Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, in Salt Lake City.

Signs of sinking Latter-day Saint support for President Donald Trump continue to surface.

The latest: A report from Brigham Young University sociology professor Jacob Rugh, who surveyed nearly 400 of his former students (ages 18 to 39) and found that most of them (52%) plan to vote for Democrat Joe Biden this fall, while barely a fifth (22%) back the Republican incumbent’s reelection.

In his online sampling, Rugh discovered that Trump captured a majority — barely, at 51% — only among self-identified GOP voters ages 25 to 39.

Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess reported last month about the president’s waning popularity in Utah, especially among Latter-day Saint women.

Stuck in the middle

So what’s with all the middle initials for top church leaders?

Russell M. Nelson, Dallin H. Oaks, Henry B. Eyring, Jeffrey R. Holland, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Gerrit W. Gong and so on and so on and so on.

It wasn’t always that way. Remember church founder Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff? (And how does apostle Ulisses Soares fit in the current mix?)

Latter-day Saint scholar Dan Peterson — OK, make that Daniel C. Peterson — writes in a recent Patheos post that some church critics see this current love affair with middle initials as a “sign of pomposity.”

Peterson then sarcastically rattles off a list of prominent “Latter-day Saints” who famously went by middle initials: Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald R. Ford, Nelson A. Rockefeller, Walter F. Mondale, Edward M. Kennedy and plenty more.

“Pompous and self-important Latter-day Saints,” Peterson writes, “every single one of them.” (Of course, none of them was a Latter-day Saint.)

Concludes the scholar: “This has to be one of the very silliest complaints against the church, the restoration, and saints that I’ve ever encountered.”

Hearing is believing

(AP Photo/Mike Stewart) In this Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018, photo a child holds his Amazon Echo Dot in Kennesaw, Ga.

Ask, and ye shall hear.

Want to listen to chapters from the Book or Mormon or Bible, a favorite hymn or children’s song, a conference sermon from church President Russell M. Nelson or late apostle Neal A. Maxwell, this week’s Sunday school or Primary lesson, or even a chapter from “Saints” Volume 1 or 2?

Just ask your Amazon or Google smart speaker to call up “Gospel Voice.”

This new technological tool “can infuse additional power into the gospel-centered home,” general authority Seventy Randy D. Funk said in a news release. “We are especially mindful of those with limited vision and all others of different ages and abilities who will benefit from greater access to core gospel materials in this new channel.”

To hear about Nephi building a ship, for instance, just say:

“Alexa, ask Gospel Voice to read First Nephi Chapter 17.”


“Hey, Google, ask Gospel Voice to read First Nephi Chapter 17.”

You can even request a female or male voice.

Pioneers past and present

Three top Latter-day Saint leaders recently offered 21st-century tributes to help mark the 19th-century arrival of the pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley.

M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a direct descendant of Joseph Smith’s brother Hyrum, said not everyone can trace their roots to this epic exodus.

“But all of us have forefathers,” he said in a news release, “and regardless of our nation, culture, and where we come from … we all have pioneer heritage.”

The 91-year-old apostle paid special homage to the women in that westward trek.

“You get reading and studying that history, and you start to study greatness. You study faith, love of the Lord, connection to the Lord,” he said. “Without that, they never would have been able to do what they did. Thank you, Lord, for the great women of the world.”

The pioneers weren’t perfect, Ballard said, but they learned “great lessons” from their mistakes. “That’s the quest that all of us have. We’re trying to become better people.”

General Primary President Joy D. Jones, who oversees the faith’s children’s program, urged parents to learn from the past so they can teach their kids.

“We can live the characteristics that we so honor and respect in our early saints: courage and faith, love, resilience and that strength that they exuded every day of their lives, one day at a time,” Jones said in the release. “As we live those characteristics, we are sharing those things with our children, we’re exemplifying them.”

Apostle Ulisses Soares, a native of Brazil, said today’s Latter-day Saints are trailblazers in their own right.

“Every member of this church is a pioneer,” he said. “No matter if they’re here in the United States or in Brazil or in Asia or Africa. Each new convert is a pioneer because he’s paving the way for their future.”

Gad on ‘The Book of Mormon’ musical: Get me rewrite

(Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File) In this May 7, 2017, file photo, actor Josh Gad arrives at the MTV Movie and TV Awards in Los Angeles.

Josh Gad, aka the original Elder Arnold Cunningham from “The Book of Mormon” musical, recently revealed that there is a videotape out there “somewhere” of the Tony-winning stage play.

But if the raunchy and irreverent — some say irresistible — satire ever comes out in film, Gad says, it would need to be reworked.

“You have to adjust with the times,” he recently told People TV

“I don’t know that that show could open today and have the same sort of open-armed response that it did then.”

Change is simply the nature of art, Gad says. “I would certainly hope that, with a future adaptation, there would be that growth, because I think it’s a cool opportunity for growth.”

So, would such a movie makeover tone down the merciless mocking of Latter-day Saints (the core of the production) or soften up (in this awakened era of Black Lives Matter) what some critics have called the racist depictions of Africans?

Stay tuned.

This week’s podcast: Stepping away from the faith

(Courtesy photo) Utah novelist Mette Ivie Harrison.

Utah author Mette Ivie Harrison has been writing about her transition away from the church.

Besides opposing some of the faith’s policies, practices and doctrines, Harrison also has cited the restrictive views held by some members.

In a recent column, however, she notes that she again finds herself bumping into rigid thinking — this time coming from former members.

On this week’s podcast, Harrison discusses her spiritual journey and the “five doctrines of ex-Mormonism.”

Listen here.

Endowment is changing

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The garden room in the Idaho Falls Idaho Temple.

The next time members attend an endowment session — and that may be a while amid the COVID-19 pandemic — they can expect something different.

What that difference will be remains a mystery, but the governing First Presidency announced Monday that “recent changes have been authorized to the temple endowment ceremony.”

The move comes as the faith prepares to allow a dozen temples to resume “all temple ordinances for living individuals” starting Monday, July 27.Most temples have reopened under Phase 1 during the coronavirus by offering marriage “sealings” to previously endowed couples. Shifting into Phase 2, though, apparently has required some changes to the endowment itself.

Temple ceremonies involve the “making of sacred covenants, or promises, to God,” the leaders wrote, and resemble religious experiences such as “prayer, immersion of an individual at baptism, or holding hands during a marriage ceremony.”

Similar “simple, symbolic actions accompany the making of temple covenants,” they wrote. In other words, the rituals include some physical elements.

So “with a concern for all” amid the pandemic “and a desire to enhance the temple learning experience,” changes have been made.

Revisions to Latter-day Saint temple ceremonies are hardly unprecedented. Last year, the church altered wording of the scripted rites to bring more inclusive language and gender equity to the temple experience.

“Given the sacredness of the temple ceremonies,” the First Presidency said of the latest adjustments, “we ask our members and friends not to engage in speculation or public discussions about these changes. Rather, we invite church members to continue to look forward to the day when they may return and fully participate in sacred temple work prayerfully and gratefully.”

In short, wait and see the changes for yourself.

Parenting plus

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has launched a resource page to help parents in rearing their children.

Hey, moms and dads, do you need help teaching your kids to pray, set goals, read the scriptures, and use technology wisely?

Well, the church has a new resource page to help you with those topics and a range of other parenting challenges.

It’s called “Supporting Your Child’s Growth” and is part of the new global Children and Youth program.

“Whether your question is about improving your relationship with your more independent teen, or learning how to guide rather than direct young children’s efforts towards self-improvement, or how to create a comfortable environment for heart-to-heart communication,” Relief Society General President Jean B. Bingham said in a Church News release, “these parenting resources have wonderful suggestions and ideas to try.”

Celebrating the years with timeless tunes

It’s still looking (and sounding) great for its age.

Even at 90.

“Music and the Spoken Word” with The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square celebrated more than nine decades of broadcasting with a special prerecorded program this past weekend, featuring favorite songs, cherished moments (such as Kristin Chenoweth’s 2018 performance of “Angels Among Us” and Bryn Terfel’s 2013 rendition of “What a Wonderful World”), five Tabernacle organists playing a virtual quintet of the “William Tell” Overture, and remarks by church President Russell M. Nelson.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The choir's five Tabernacle and Temple Square organists were featured with a virtual quintet of in a show commemorating 90 years of broadcasting.

“In any tradition like this, one has to reflect on many who have come before, starting in July of 1929,” Mack Wilberg, the choir’s music director, said in a news release. “…As I approach the broadcast from week to week, the many who have come before us are always [at] the forefront of my mind.”

“Music and the Spoken Word” stands alone as the longest continuously running network broadcast in radio history.

The world sings

Speaking of music, Latter-day Saint youths across the globe will take part in a virtual music festival next week.

The 40-minute concert, a news release states, will feature prerecorded “inspiring music” in various languages, testimonies from young people and church leaders as well as photos, videos and performances from around the world.

The event’s theme, “Hear the Voice of the Lord,” is based on church President Russell M. Nelson’s invitation to hear and heed Jesus Christ.

Catch the show Wednesday, July 29, at 6 p.m. MDT on YouTube.com/StrivetoBe or on the church's Live Broadcasts or Facebook Live pages.

The name debate deepens at BYU

(Photo courtesy of BYU Police) Pictured is sign to the Abraham O. Smoot Administration Building on the campus at Brigham Young University that was painted with an "X" on June 14 or 15, 2020.

The push to rename BYU’s administration building — named after slave owner Abraham O. Smoot — doesn’t go far enough, according to members of the school’s Black Student Union.

They want the names of individuals removed from all the buildings on the Provo campus.

After all, they argue, the J. Reuben Clark Law School is named after a man who opposed mixing Black and white blood. The George Albert Smith Fieldhouse salutes a church president who balked at interracial marriages, and the Ezra Taft Benson Science Building laud a Latter-day Saint leader who labeled the civil rights movement a “communist conspiracy.”

“We are honoring these people and creating this narrative that they’re perfect and untouchable. They’re not,” Déborah Aléxis, president of the Black Student Union told The Salt Lake Tribune. “...Asking for this change is an opportunity to invite the church and BYU to look into its past and do that interrogation that it really hasn’t done.”

It may be a big ask, of course, given that many of these buildings bear the names of top church leaders.

BYU has formed a committee to examine concerns of racial inequality on campus.

Street cred

(Photo courtesy of Utah State Historical Society) Amanda Leggroan Chambers and Samuel D. Chambers.

The road to freedom and faith took Samuel and Amanda Chambers from the slave fields of Mississippi to the farm fields of early Utah.

And now, more than a century later, a street in the Salt Lake Valley honors the memory of this pioneering Black Mormon couple. Millcreek has renamed 3205 South, in the heart of the city, “Chambers Avenue.”

Samuel, born in Alabama in 1831 and enslaved in Mississippi, joined the church as a young teenager in 1844, historian Ronald Coleman writes on the BlackPast website. After his first wife died, he married Amanda, who also was enslaved in Mississippi, in 1858.

The couple traveled to the Utah Territory in 1870, five years after gaining their freedom and five years before Amanda converted to Mormonism.

Relocating to the Millcreek area, they began farming. “By World War I,” Coleman writes, “they had acquired a 30-acre plot of land” and won praise and prizes throughout the region for their grapes, currants and other produce.

Although denied full privileges in the church at the time because of his skin, Samuel defended the religion throughout his life.

“[The gospel] is not only to the Gentiles but also to the Africans, for I am one of that race,” a biography on the faith’s website quotes him as saying. “The knowledge I received is from my God. It is a high and holy calling. Without the testimony of God we are nothing.”

The Chambers couple became so prominent in the community that the celebration for their 66th wedding anniversary in 1924 drew a large crowd, including Latter-day Saint general authorities.

Amanda died a year later at age 85. Samuel died in 1929 at age 98. The two are buried in Millcreek’s Elysian Gardens cemetery.

MormonLeaks pays up

The nonprofit group behind the website that leaked newsy nuggets about the church’s wealth, general authority pay and sexual abuse allegations against a former Missionary Training Center president has settled a copyright lawsuit with another faith.

The Truth & Transparency Foundation has agreed to pay $15,000 in damages and remove some material from its website to settle a copyright lawsuit with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The foundation (the force behind the MormonLeaks and FaithLeaks sites) had hoped to fight the suit, which sprang from its publication of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ educational videos, but said it couldn’t afford to continue the legal battle.

“The result is absolutely agonizing and has been emotionally, mentally, and physically taxing on us, as it goes against our core values,” foundation co-founders Ryan McKnight and Ethan Gregory Dodge wrote on the nonprofit’s website. “Additionally, the irony that we have not been able to say anything publicly until now, causing tremendous frustration for our supporters, is not lost on us.”

Temple updates

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The newly renovated Frankfurt Germany Temple.

• Come Monday, 125 temples will be back in service.

Under a Phase 1 reopening plan, the church announced that three more temples will provide marriage “sealings” by appointment for previously endowed couples.

Perhaps more significantly, a dozen temples — including two in Germany and ones in Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Ohio — will become the first to move to Phase 2, offering all living ordinances, complete with a freshly altered endowment.

For the status of each temple amid the coronavirus, click here.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Latter-day Saints participate in the groundbreaking for the Feather River Temple in Yuba, Calif., on July 18, 2020.

• Church officials held a small-scale groundbreaking Saturday for what will be California’s eighth temple.

The 38,000-square-foot Feather River Temple will rise on the spot in Yuba City where a stake center once stood.

“As the temple foundation is poured, and the walls are placed, and the roof is formed,” area Seventy Paul H. Watkins prayed, “let us all revitalize our foundational faith in apostles and prophets with Jesus Christ being our chief cornerstone.”

Quote of the week

“For all the times I have heard church members cite modern scientific findings as evidence of the Word of Wisdom’s inspired teachings, it is disappointing and appalling to see so many of them now disregard scientific research that proves wearing a mask is currently the most effective thing we can do to stop the spread of a virus which is especially lethal to the most vulnerable members of our society. … Refusing to wear a mask and flaunting an unwillingness to protect oneself or others from a virus which has taken the lives of over half a million people worldwide and continues to ravage the most vulnerable is not only a betrayal of the Word of Wisdom, but makes a mockery of it. For ‘the weak and the weakest of all saints,’ wear the darn mask!”

Aimee Hickman in an Exponent II blog post.

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