This week in Mormon Land: One apostle’s ‘miraculous’ recovery; another’s mask message; and a First Presidency’s Noel

Jeffrey R. Holland recalls his healing, Dale G. Renlund, diagnosed with COVID-19, endorses face coverings, and Russell M. Nelson leads a Christmas Devotional.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Patricia, talk to media at the groundbreaking of the Red Cliffs Utah Temple on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020.

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.

Holland’s ‘miracle’

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles speaks at the First Presidency Christmas Devotional on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020.

Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland celebrated his 80th birthday last week. And, despite the pandemic, he did have reason to celebrate.

After all, back in June, he found himself in a hospital undergoing tests and treatments for ailments unrelated to COVID-19.

Now, the popular speaker is back on the job and at the pulpit, delivering sermons in regional meetings, General Conference and, most recently, the First Presidency Christmas Devotional.

All of this was made possible, Holland says, thanks to a “miraculous” recovery.

“All at once ... I had a number of health issues, but I’m doing fine,” Holland told Church News Editor Sarah Jane Weaver in a recent podcast reported at LDS Living. “And (for) some of these, the recovery has been really miraculous. I don’t use that word lightly. I don’t use it lightly at all. But that’s the only word I could use for the recovery I’ve had from some of these issues.”

The apostle said one of the doctors told him of a healing of one issue that “medically and scientifically, there was no explanation for the rather dramatic results.”

The physician said, “It doesn’t hurt to have several million people praying for you.”

“That was tender for me then, and it’s tender for me now,” Holland said in the podcast. “I know people pray for the Brethren. I hope they will all know that that’s appreciated and reciprocated, that we pray for the church.”

Second apostle gets COVID-19

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Dale G. Renlund and his wife, Ruth Lybbert Renlund.

Dale G. Renlund, a former cardiologist, has become the second Latter-day Saint apostle to be diagnosed with the coronavirus.

Renlund and his wife, Ruth L. Renlund, “have tested positive for COVID-19,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins announced Saturday in a news release, “despite carefully following recommended public health practices.”

Hawkins said Renlund, an apostle since 2015 who turned 68 last month, has “mild symptoms” at this time and that his wife is asymptomatic.

“Other church leaders are being tested,” he added, “and taking precautions because of this potential exposure.”

In early October, apostle Gerrit W. Gong and his wife, Susan L. Gong, contracted COVID-19. They, too, experienced mild symptoms and later were cleared. The couple oversaw the groundbreaking for Utah’s Taylorsville Temple on Halloween.

After Gong’s illness, the three members of the governing First Presidency, including 96-year-old President Russell M. Nelson, and the other apostles were tested. Those results came back negative.

Now, top church leaders will be tested again.

Another mask appeal

What would Jesus do during the pandemic?

Well, his healing powers, recorded in the Bible, spring to mind.

Short of that, though, apostle Dale G. Renlund said people can exhibit “Christlike love” by putting on masks and putting off large gatherings.

Before his COVID-19 diagnosis, Renlund recorded a three-minute video in which he made a strong appeal for masks and social distancing.

“I speak to you not as a former physician. I speak to you as an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ,” Renlund said in the YouTube video, setting the stage for the church to begin allowing members to resume vicarious temple ordinances for their dead ancestors. “...The Savior taught that the second great commandment, after loving God, was ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ As it relates to this pandemic, especially in temples, that means social distancing, wearing a mask and not gathering in large groups. These steps demonstrate our love for others and provide us a measure of protection. Wearing a face covering is a sign of Christlike love for our brothers and sisters.”

The apostle lamented that “responses to the pandemic have become politicized and contentious,” and told fellow Latter-day Saints that “ours need not be.”

On Tuesday, another apostle — Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency and next in line to lead the church — chimed in on the need to safeguard against the coronavirus.

He posted a photo of him and his wife, Kristen Oaks, sharing a Thanksgiving meal. Their only other family members at the table were represented in a photograph that rested between the couple.

“As we look forward to possible Christmas gatherings of our families, we need to remember the cautions we have been given to reduce the exposure to COVID-19,” he wrote on Facebook. “The Oaks family takes those cautions very seriously. For example, here is how Kristen and I had Thanksgiving dinner ‘with our family.’”

These were hardly the only times top church leaders have called for social distancing and mask-wearing. Virtually from day one of the coronavirus, they have urged members to be “good citizens” and heed public health guidelines, including the donning of face coverings.

In July, for instance, area leaders in Utah amped up their support for masks. Participants also wore masks and socially distanced during October’s General Conference and Sunday’s First Presidency Christmas Devotional.

This week’s podcast: Are anti-maskers bucking the prophet?

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Top Latter-day Saint leaders, including church President Russell M. Nelson, seated in the middle on the front row, await for General Conference to start Oct. 3, 2020, from the Conference Center theater in downtown Salt Lake City.

Apostle Dale G. Renlund’s video triggered a strong debate between Latter-day Saints who support mask-wearing and those who don’t.

A key question: Are so-called anti-maskers guilty of not following their prophet?

The short answer is yes, according to Latter-day Saint writer Emily Jensen, the web editor for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. She discusses that question and the wider implications for the church on this week’s podcast.

Listen here.

Gray’s day

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo)This June 5, 2013, photo shows Darius Gray, who will turn 75 on Dec. 12, 2020.

Another prominent Latter-day Saint will celebrate a birthday this week.

Author Darius Gray, co-founder of the Genesis Group and a leading voice among Black Latter-day Saints, will turn 75 on Saturday.

He joined the church in 1964, when the priesthood-temple ban was in place, and quickly became a pioneering force in the faith’s evolution on racial relations and issues.

When he was ordained after the 1978 end to the ban, Gray has said, it made him “whole.” Not whole with the heavens — “I had always been whole in my relationship with God,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2018 — but with fellow Latter-day Saints.

“I was born Black and ... I was privileged to become a Latter-day Saint,” he said. “When the time comes, I will die as a Latter-day Saint.”

A new ‘manifesto’

The 1890 Manifesto ushering in the beginning of the end of the church’s practice of polygamy spurred divisions within the faith. Now, a new manifesto has emerged, and it, too, is drawing its share of defenders and detractors.

In trying to stake out a middle ground in Mormon intellectualism, “Radical Orthodoxy: A Manifesto” is exposing a chasm that exists between the right and the left.

“Radical orthodox” believers want to be defined “by what we are for, not what we are against,” Nathaniel Givens, one of the manifesto’s authors, told The Tribune. “We see ourselves as kind of ‘third-way centrists’ — faithful to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, while interested in theological exploration.”

But By Common Consent blogger J. Daniel Crawford said the document amounts to little more than “question whatever you want, so long as you agree with the Brethren in the end.”

Read The Tribune story. View more responses at By Common Consent, Exponent II and Wheat & Tares.

The First Presidency’s Noel

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Participants all wear masks for the First Presidency Christmas Devotional broadcast on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, held in the Conference Center Theater on Temple Square. The annual event was held virtually because of COVID-19.

The sermons took listeners from the cozy comforts of home to the lonely battlefronts of war and the dusty streets of Bethlehem, but they all centered around one person: Jesus Christ.

“During this unprecedented year, when virtually every person in the world has suffered the effects of a global pandemic, there is nothing more important we can do this Christmas than to rivet our focus on the Savior and on the gift of what his life really means to each of us,” President Russell M. Nelson said Sunday during the First Presidency Christmas Devotional. “Our loving Heavenly Father ‘so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’”

Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland, who celebrated his 80th birthday on Dec. 3, spoke of another birthday, that of Jesus’ Nativity at night — “that period when muscles relax and fatigue is laid to rest, when prayers are said, revelation anticipated, and divine beings most likely to be near.”

“Once a year, night is when children can scarcely close their eyes for the delight that is bubbling within them, knowing tomorrow it will be Christmas,” Holland said. “Yes, however difficult our day has been, the sweet dreams of the night can make everything right.”

Becky Craven, second counselor in the Young Women general presidency, talked about a nurse giving her daughter a warm blanket while her husband underwent surgery and saying “‘I feel like you need a heavenly hug.’”

“In our moments of need, [Christ] often sends earthly angels, like the compassionate nurse to our daughter, to wrap and encircle us in the arms of his love,” Craven said. “...In a world so much in need of peace, our gentle words, our acts of compassion and kindness can be the means of wrapping another in a warm, swaddling blanket.”

Brent H. Nielson, a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, harked to a dreary Christmas his father spent in the Pacific during World War II, with no presents and far from family.

“My hope during this Christmas season is that no matter our circumstances, no matter where we are, and no matter how we may be separated from family or friends, we will remember that he, the Savior Jesus Christ, is the gift,” Nielson said. “[And] that as we come unto him, he will make our burdens light and that we might discover him.”

New magazines are coming

A reminder that next month, church magazines will go global, entering a new era without the New Era and the Ensign.

The Liahona will cater to adults; For the Strength of Youth will be for teenagers; and the Friend will target children ages 3 to 11. All three will go to members in about 150 countries.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A mother and her son in Ghana read the Liahona. Starting in January 2021, there will be three global magazines: the Liahona for adults, For the Strength of Youth for teenagers and the Friend for children.

The Liahona, with the tag line “Pointing us all to Jesus Christ,” will feature 32 to 48 pages of teachings from church leaders, according to a news release, along with parenting tips, uplifting stories about applying gospel principles, and articles that tackle modern-day topics such as incarceration, disabilities and mental health. Most subscribers also will get an insert with information geared to the country where they live.

“The guidance from our prophets and leaders is so critical in these challenging times,” Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, said in the release. “I am pleased every member of the church has the opportunity to receive prophetic insight and counsel, which the Liahona magazine will provide.”

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Two teenage girls read in the New Era, a magazine that will be replaced by a global young adult magazine, For the Strength of Youth, starting in January 2021. (Note: This picture was taken before social distancing measures had been established.)

For the Strength of Youth will carry the tag line “Finding joy in Christ.”

“Satan does a pretty good job of painting religion as a drudgery of some kind when, in fact, our religion is the greatest show on Earth,” Young Men general President Steven J. Lund said in a separate news release. “...The promise of this magazine is that it will be able to demonstrate that there is a promised connection between the joy and happiness of our lives and our faithfulness to the gospel.”

The magazine will include articles by and about church leaders along with stories by and about the intended audience: teens.

“Youth will be able to see teenagers, just like them, actively engaging with the gospel,” the release stated, “and finding resolutions to their problems with the teachings of Jesus Christ.”

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A mother and her daughter read an article in the Friend together at home. The Friend is going global and now children around the world will be able to read messages specifically meant for them.

The Friend has been just that, a friend, to Latter-day Saint children for five decades.

In 2021, its 50th year, more kids than ever will be able to buddy up to it. The editions, with the tag line “Following Jesus Together,” will be translated into 48 languages.

“Many children throughout the world who have not had regular access to the Friend will now be able to enjoy it in their own language,” Primary general President Joy D. Jones said in a news release. “What a blessing it will be for them to see and read about other children from around the world who share their same faith and values.”

Many of the magazine’s favorite features will remain along with new highlights, such as a new cartoon in which Margo and Paolo, a dynamic Brazilian duo, will teach fun facts about various countries.

Temple updates

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The Apia Samoa Temple soon will move into Phase 3 of the reopening plan during the pandemic.

• By year’s end, members will again be in the business of performing vicarious ordinances for their dead ancestors.

Four temples — in Nuku’alofa, Tonga; Apia, Samoa; Brisbane, Australia; and Taipei, Taiwan — will be the first to shift into Phase 3 of the church’s reopening plan during the pandemic, a news release reported, allowing “all living and limited proxy ordinances” available by appointment.

Come Monday, 122 temples will be in Phase 2, offering “all temple ordinances for living individuals.” Another 26 will be in Phase 1, providing only marriage “sealings.” Meanwhile, 11 temples have “paused” operations due to “local COVID-19 restrictions.”

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President NithyaKumar Sunderraj, president of the Bengaluru India Stake (a group of congregations), speaks Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, at the groundbreaking for the Bengaluru Temple.

• Latter-day Saints make up barely 0.001% of India’s population, but that minuscule minority has reason to rejoice.

That’s because a ceremonial groundbreaking officially has begun construction on their faith’s first temple in the South Asian nation.

Once the nearly 40,000-square-foot Bengaluru Temple is completed, India’s members no longer will have to make long journeys to temples in the Philippines, Hong Kong or Taiwan.

“Today marks history for the Saints in India,” NithyaKumar Sunderraj, president of the faith’s Bengaluru India Stake, said in a news release. “... As we turn the soil today and make preparation for the construction, may we all in unity turn our hearts towards our Savior Jesus Christ and commit ourselves to prepare individually and as families to offer our service in the coming years.”

India, the world’s largest Hindu nation and second most-populous country with more than 1.3 billion people, is home to nearly 15,000 Latter-day Saints in 46 congregations.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Elder Takashi Wada, Asia North Area president, presided and offered the dedicatory prayer at the temple groundbreaking event in Okinawa, Japan, on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020.

• A socially distanced groundbreaking Saturday also moved Japan closer to getting its fourth temple.

The two-story, 10,000-square-foot Okinawa Temple will join those in Fukuoka, Sapporo and Tokyo serving the Asian nation’s more than 130,000 Latter-day Saints.

“Please watch over the people on this island; may all be inspired by thy spirit and recognize the eternal significance of this sacred project,” general authority Seventy Takashi Wada prayed in dedicating the site, according to a news release. “...May the inspiring vista bless the entire community, including those not of our faith, and become a cherished landmark for all who live or visit here.”

• The Columbus Dispatch offered an update on the renovation of the Ohio city’s Latter-day Saint temple, complete with photos of the removed Angel Moroni statue.

The revamp, project manager Craig Homer told the newspaper, will include upgraded heating and air conditioning systems, along with stone and marble enhancements to the exterior.

Work on the 12,000-square-foot, 21-year-old building is expected to wrap up in mid-2022.

Quote of the week

“If God stamps each person with a uniqueness that signals his love, then those who follow God have a responsibility, not merely to tolerate what makes people unique, but to glory in its divinity. This means outward shape, size and color, but God’s stamp goes deeper than that. It includes personality traits, beliefs, values, life experiences, and, yes, even sexualities, gender experiences, and ways of understanding the gospel. … All of these things come ultimately from God. ...We are all misfit toys — because that is what beautiful looks like to God.”

Michael Austin in a By Common Consent blog post

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