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.
Black, white and Gray
Margaret Blair Young wrote this week for Patheos about a disagreement she once had with co-author — and Genesis Group co-founder — Darius Gray when the two were working on their “Standing on the Promises” trilogy about Black pioneers.
In the first volume, the publisher wanted to rewrite Gray’s preface, which included a story about the racism the Black Latter-day Saint’s son had encountered, and Young, who is white, gave the green light.
Gray was none too pleased.
“I hadn’t seen how problematic the rewrite ... was,” Young explained in the Patheos piece. “...In many ways, it was a silencing of his voice — something he had experienced many times during his life.”
Young was ready to bolt from the rest of the project but was persuaded to try to make things right with her co-writer. She went looking for Gray and eventually found him in a cemetery at the grave of famed Black pioneer Green Flake.
Gray “often went there,” Young said, “to ‘talk’ to Green about the challenges of being Black in Utah.”
As soon as the two collaborators saw each other, she added, Gray told her, “You don’t need to say anything. I told the Lord that if we were really supposed to work together, to bring you here.”
The two then finished their series and a documentary.
“That fight was my first introduction to the idea of [white] appropriation, a subject which occupies my thoughts frequently,” Young wrote. " … The big fight — not that little one which almost broke up our little team — is the fight for a Zion society, where all are of ‘one heart and one mind.’ Darius wrote to me recently, ‘In case you’re wondering, I’m still in the fight.’”
At the urging of her mother, she converted to Mormonism at 14 and was baptized in a frozen stream in Massachusetts. She married three times, was abandoned by her first husband and became a plural wife — and eventually widowed — to two others. She had five daughters and lost an infant son. She met presidents and prophets. She served as a secretary to three general Relief Society presidents and later led the women’s organization herself. She edited a leading Latter-day Saint women’s magazine and became a key state and national player in the suffrage movement.
She was Emmeline B. Wells, one of the most influential Latter-day Saint women of her time, and six additional volumes of her diaries are now freely available online. Church Historian’s Press initially published six annotated transcripts of her diaries, covering 1844 through 1879, and plans call for all 47 of her diaries to be posted.
The latest installment, from journals covering 1892 to 1896, comes as the nation marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women voting rights, and the 150th anniversary of Utah becoming the first state to see women cast ballots under a suffrage law.
“I have desired with all my heart to do those things that would advance women in moral and spiritual as well as educational work,” Wells wrote in August 1895, “and tend to the rolling on of the work of God upon the earth.”
Women’s rights emerged as the cause she pushed — and one that pushed her.
“If at any time in her life, Emmeline Wells needed to go to work with a will to advance the cause of women, the mid-1890s were that,” project co-editor Cherry Bushman Silver said in a news release.
Another co-editor, Sheree Maxwell Bench, said the writings show that Wells’ “growth as a leader came in stages, made possible by a burning desire to elevate women.”
Readers will notice, the online publication says, that Wells’ “handwriting is legible for the most part, and as a schoolteacher turned newspaper editor, she was a good speller” — although she treated end punctuation as optional.
• She writes about Latter-day Saint women providing blessings of healing and comfort through the laying on of hands and sometimes anointing with oil — a practice no longer sanctioned in the faith.
• Wells mentions wine, champagne and beer being offered as gifts and at social occasions and of many church members drinking coffee and tea. Here, again, the faith’s Word of Wisdom health code — which teaches members to abstain from all those substances — wasn’t what it is today.
Wells died in 1921 at age 93.
The diaries come just weeks after the church published the sermons of Eliza R. Snow. Wells certainly was lesser known, but she was no less influential.
• On this week’s podcast, Cherry Silver, a co-editor of the online publication, and Kate Holbrook, the managing historian for the church’s History Department, discussed the project, Wells’ life and her writings.
Handbook leaves many decision in your hands
A childless wife and husband are thinking about in vitro fertilization. A woman is weighing whether to be a surrogate mother for an infertile couple. A man is ready to try medical marijuana for relief against his epileptic seizures.
If they’re faithful Latter-day Saints, they may wonder where their church stands on these questions.
The answers can be found in the latest update to the church’s General Handbook, which tackles “moral issues” ranging from fertility treatments to birth control, suicide to sex education.
The church “discourages” members from engaging in a number of these practices, but says it’s up to them to decide and reminds them that they “are ultimately accountable to God for their decisions.”
Jonathan Stapley, a scientist and historian who has studied handbook changes through the years, told The Salt Lake Tribune the new language harks back to the philosophy of “early leaders’ impulse to teach correct principles while letting individuals govern themselves.”
The guidelines state, for instance, that “reproductive technology can assist a married woman and man in their righteous desire to have children.”
“The church discourages artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization using sperm from anyone but the husband or an egg from anyone but the wife,” it adds. “However, this is a personal matter that is ultimately left to the judgment and prayerful consideration of a lawfully married man and woman.”
While discouraging “procedures such as vasectomies and tubal ligations” as elective forms of birth control, the church says the “decision is a personal matter that is ultimately left to the judgment and prayerful consideration of the husband and wife.”
“After having five children, my husband and I understood that our family was complete. Surgical sterilization was the most cost-effective and effective method, and I appreciated that our church insurance covered [the procedure] 10 years ago,” Emily Jensen, web editor for the online journal Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, told The Tribune. “I understood then that it was a spiritual decision we could make. I’m glad to see the wording changed in the handbook to reflect that.”
Look who’s talking
Quentin Spencer’s analysis of General Conference sermons speaks volumes about, well, speaking volumes.
For instance, the data analyst discovered that Presidents Gordon B. Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson have been the most prolific conference speakers since 1942, followed by predecessors David O. McKay and Spencer W. Kimball.
Spencer also found that New Testament passages were quoted the most from 1942 until the late 1980s, when the Book of Mormon seized the lead. The most frequently quoted verse, however, came from the Pearl of Great Price, namely Moses 1:39, which says: “For behold, this is my work and my glory — to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”
Spencer revealed those findings and more at the recent 2020 virtual Sunstone Symposium.
Death of a scholarly giant
The world of Mormon studies is mourning the loss of a scholar’s scholar.
Sociologist Armand Mauss, whose professional work set the standard for Latter-day Saint research and whose personal dynamism nurtured generations of academics, died Saturday.
He was 92.
“Better than any scholar I know, Armand was able to balance church and scholarship,” Matt Harris, a history professor at Colorado State University-Pueblo, told The Tribune. “He wasn’t an apologist, but he loved the church dearly and felt inclined to defend it when it needed to be defended. On the other hand, Armand knew the value of writing good, honest scholarship. He wasn’t afraid of the truth, and he didn’t think that writing the truth would harm the church in any way.”
Mauss’ seminal work, “The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation,” stands as “the best comprehensive work on 20th-century Mormon history we have,” said Matthew Bowman, who directs Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University. “It managed to both be among the first thorough works on the topic, but also to set the parameters and narrative arc that have structured nearly all work on 20th-century Mormon history since.”
• Latter-day Saint Charities continued its coronavirus relief efforts, a news release noted, by delivering thousands of gloves and face shields to clinics in Albania, donating new smart TVs and other computer equipment to a Philippine high school, giving food to The Salvation Army in Barbados, providing masks and other personal protective equipment in Cambodia, and supplying medical and hygiene items for inmates in Peru and Chile.
• Members of a Utah County stake pitched in to help xeriscape a Jewish synagogue in Salt Lake City.
“With all the volunteer hours and items that were donated or purchased at a reduced price,” said Congregation Kol Ami Rabbi Sam Spector, overcome with gratitude, “we probably saved hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Quote of the week
“When the day comes for us to attend the temple again, our hearts and our spirits will be hungry for the experiences of the temple. And it’s that desire, that hunger, that will result in a powerful temple experience.”
Apostle Dale G. Renlund
Mormon Land is a weekly newsletter written by David Noyce and Peggy Fletcher Stack. Subscribe here.