This week in Mormon Land: Court rules on the ‘Christian’ question; BYU prof paints women giving healing blessings

Also: A look back at the year of the pandemic, and New York pays tribute to the beginnings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) New church symbol.

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.

Are Latter-day Saints Christian?

That’s a question the church and its members frequently face.

But it’s one judges need not — and, indeed, should not — attempt to answer, Arizona’s Court of Appeals declared.

The issue came up, the Arizona Daily Star reported recently, in a custody dispute when a divorced couple dickered over whether the father, who had converted to Mormonism, had violated an agreement to have their children “instructed in the Christian faith” by taking the kids to Latter-day Saint services.

In reversing a lower court judge’s ruling — which had deemed that “Mormonism does not fall within the confines of Christian faith” — the appellate court unanimously proclaimed that the U.S. Constitution “precludes civil courts from inquiring into ecclesiastical matters,” the Daily Star noted.

“A secular court must avoid ruling on such issues to prevent the appearance that government favors one religious view over another,” appellate Judge Paul McMurdie wrote. “...Courts are not the appropriate forum to assess whether someone who self-identifies as ‘Christian’ qualifies to use that term.”

An unforgettable year

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A masked President Russell M. Nelson waves to a handful of attendees in the Conference Center Theater at the 2020 First Presidency Christmas Devotional on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020. President Dallin H. Oaks (right), first counselor in the First Presidency, conducted.

Looking back at 2020 may be the last thing many people will want to do in a year that saw the coronavirus bring historic headlines and heartache to the world.

Certainly the pandemic — and the church’s response to it — was the story of 2020 for Latter-day Saints. Sunday services halted. Missionaries left. Temples shuttered. And while those operations are slowly returning, life remains nowhere near normal.

Still, the church’s Newsroom this week noted other memorable moments in a most memorable year, including:

• The Utah-based faith’s largest-ever humanitarian outreach to assist people across the globe against COVID-19.

• President Russell M. Nelson sharing messages of hope and healing, including calls for worldwide fasts, racial justice, prayers of gratitude.

• The dedication of South Africa’s second temple, in Durban, groundbreakings for 21 temples (including the first such Latter-day Saint edifice in India), and announcements of 14 others, including the first temple planned for mainland China, in Shanghai, and the first in the Middle East, in the United Arab Emirates.

• Nelson also unveiled a new “Restoration” proclamation, commemorating the bicentennial of founder Joseph Smith’s “First Vision,” and a new church symbol, incorporating the Christus statue into a logo showing the faith’s full name.

See these and other Newsroom “Year in Review” highlights here.

Art imitating real Latter-day Saint life

Picture this: Pioneer women gathered around a bedside, pouring oil on an ailing sister Saint in preparation of offering a healing blessing.

Anthony Sweat, an associate professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, did just that for his painting “Relief Society Healing.”

The history books make it clear. Latter-day Saint women routinely gave healing blessings — complete with anointings and sealings from the days of Joseph Smith to well into the 20th century.

Nowadays, of course, only male Melchizedek Priesthood holders administer to the sick.

“I am not advocating any particular position about women and priesthood or laying on of hands with this image,” Sweat writes on his website. “This is a historical painting. What I am advocating is women coming together in love and faith to comfort, care for, strengthen, heal, and minister to each other through the power of God that is available to them through their covenants and the Holy Ghost. What I am celebrating in this painting is women who know their divine potential and how to call upon the powers of heaven to help accomplish the work of salvation. This is what Relief Society is all about, then and now.”

There’s nary a male priesthood holder in sight in Sweat’s piece, which is also available on the website of church-owned Deseret Book, though a small boy is depicted at the foot of the bed, gazing admirably at the women.

Earlier this year, Mindy May Farmer praised the artwork in an Exponent II blog post but wondered “what kind of reception a female painter would receive for the same work.”

“What if the artist’s name read ‘Antonia Sweat’; a woman with no priesthood pedigree? Would BYU sanction her work, which questions modern definitions of priesthood authority?”

Sweat’s painting also appears in his newly released book, “Repicturing the Restoration: New Art to Expand Our Understanding.”

“While existing artwork that portrays the Restoration is rich and beautiful, until now many key events in Latter-day Saint history have surprisingly never been depicted to accurately represent the historical record,” states the explanation on Amazon. “The purpose of this volume is to produce paintings of some of the underrepresented events in order to expand our understanding of the Restoration.”

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) This citation from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo honors the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith's "First Vision."

New York’s salute

Start spreading the news: The state of New York has officially honored the church.

In a citation issued earlier this month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo paid tribute to the bicentennial of Joseph Smith’s “First Vision” and the birth of Mormonism.

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is based upon a renewal of Christian values and principles as conveyed in the gospels and this longstanding tradition of guidance continues to serve as a source of inspiration for a church where fellowship, respect, and service to others are held in the highest regard,” the citation states. Members “can be deservedly proud as they gather in joyful commemoration of two centuries of history, a bright future ... and their ongoing commitment to giving of oneself for the betterment of all humankind.”

The six-paragraph document also lauds the church’s “firm foundation and extraordinary longevity,” which “demonstrate a devoted unity of faith reflected in the prayers, charitable endeavors, and good works of Latter-day Saint congregations.”

Apostle D. Todd Christofferson, who led the church delegation in accepting the citation, pointed out in an Instagram post that the declaration mentions the First Vision, the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon, and the church’s official organization in 1830.

“Given [New York’s] unique role as the site for the beginnings of the Restoration,” Christofferson wrote, “we are grateful in this bicentennial year for the goodwill and recognition conferred by the state.”

Warnings against prejudice, misinformation

(Screengrab from BYUtv) Apostle Dallin H. Oaks addressed racism and Black lives matter at a Brigham Young University address on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.

Church authorities are tripling down on their recent rebukes of racism.

After President Russell M. Nelson and his top counselor, Dallin H. Oaks, gave major speeches denouncing discrimination, the church added a section to its digital handbook warning members against the perils of prejudice.

The new entry urges Latter-day Saints to reject prejudice “of any kind. This includes prejudice based on race, ethnicity, nationality, tribe, gender, age, disability, socioeconomic status, religious belief or nonbelief, and sexual orientation.”

Another addition says to beware of misinformation, reminding members that many sources “are unreliable and do not edify,” or even “seek to promote anger, contention, fear, or baseless conspiracy theories.”

Stick with “only credible, reliable, and factual sources of information,” it advises, and avoid those that are “speculative or founded on rumor.”

The latest handbook updates also reflect shifts in wording on a host of social issues — from sexual abuse to conversion therapy, health care to medical marijuana, therapy to HIV infection, cremation to stillborn and miscarried babies.

Temple lights bring traffic jams

(File photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Washington, D.C., Temple with Christmas lights surrounding it in December 2016.

The first-ever drive-thru to view the 400,000-plus Christmas lights at the church’s Washington, D.C., Temple has proved popular — perhaps too popular.

The Yuletide display, drawing 1,300 to 1,400 automobiles full of pandemic-weary folks eager for safe ways to celebrate the holiday season, has created traffic snarls for surrounding neighborhoods, WJLA reported. So the church hired extra off-duty officers, added volunteers and altered the path to smooth the flow and ease the residents’ concerns.

“I just hope that people feel loved,” church spokeswoman Jan Chappell told the TV station. “And this is a celebration of happiness and joy; there are so many hard things going on.”

This week’s podcast: Answering critics with satire

(Screenshot via YouTube) This screenshot shows Kwaku El, left, Cardon Ellis and Brad Witbeck in a skit from a FairMormon video series called "This Is the Show."

The group FairMormon is dedicated to defending the church from critics and rebutting falsehoods about the faith’s history and theology.

The nonprofit organization has held conferences and produced scholarly volumes, but it doesn’t view these efforts as effective in reaching millennials and Gen Zers.

FairMormon is particularly concerned about the influence of a 2013 volume called the “CES Letter,” which provides a long list of what it sees as problems with the church’s descriptions of its past, including Joseph Smith, his “First Vision,” translation of the Book of Mormon and polygamy.

So FairMormon enlisted a handful of BYU actors and writers to produce satirical videos with essentially a twofold mission: Tear down the “CES Letter” and build up these younger members.

Will the mocking nature of these videos work? What is the best way to tackle controversial aspects of church history? Is there more Latter-day Saint leaders can do to counter critics?

On this week’s shows, Michael Austin, a Latter-day Saint writer and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Evansville, where he works with college students, addresses those questions and more.

Listen here.

Anniversaries aplenty

(Tribune file photo) Early Latter-day Saint black convert Elijah Able, sometimes spelled Abel.

• Wednesday marked the 215th anniversary of church founder Joseph Smith’s birth in Sharon, Vt., on Dec. 23, 1805.

• Sunday was the 184th anniversary of Black Latter-day Saint Elijah Able’s ordination to the Third Quorum of the Seventy on Dec. 20, 1836. Earlier that year, on Jan. 25, Able (sometimes spelled Abel) had been ordained an elder.

• Tuesday represented the 102nd anniversary of a churchwide fast on Dec. 22, 1918, seeking an end to a global flu pandemic that had killed tens of millions.

Relief efforts

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A volunteer helps pack food for people in need at the Salvation Army in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. The Utah-based church has partnered with the Salvation Army since 1988. Over those 32 years, the church has made some 350 cash or commodity donations to various Salvation Army locations across the United States

• The church donated $1 million in cash to the Salvation Army to help feed people at Christmastime in more than 150 places across the United States.

“We know what James says [in the New Testament], that a religion that is accepted is characterized by taking care of the widows and orphans, those who are hungry, those who are suffering in this world,” Col. Kenneth Johnson, national chief secretary of the Salvation Army in the United States, said in a news release. “And what the Latter-day Saints do to come alongside the Salvation Army and impact in a positive way those lives that are suffering — we cannot say thank you enough.”

The latest contribution comes after the church gave cash and commodities to the Salvation Army in April.

Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé, who oversees the church’s charitable, financial, real estate and investment operations, praised the Salvation Army’s dedication to those in need.

“It’s a great honor for any member of the church that gives of their resources to this cause because they know there is a trust there,” Caussé said in the release. “It’s not only trust — it’s also something with the right spirit because we are all Christians.”

• The church celebrated the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s “First Vision” in western New York by making more than 200 deliveries this year to food pantries across the Empire State.

Some 35 truckloads containing 800 tons of food and commodities were sent to Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, Buffalo and dozens of other cities in the state.

The final deliveries went to more than 135 food pantries in the New York City metro area, according to a news release, all of which proved especially beneficial during the pandemic.

“We’ve been blessed by the Lord,” apostle D. Todd Christofferson said in the release. “We’ve been blessed by the generosity of the members of the church and been able to, in this way, help in a great humanitarian cause in a crucial year and situation that none of us anticipated fully, and yet we were ready. … The Lord had prepared us, I think, for what was to come, and we were able to help.”

• The church contributed over 33,000 medical supplies in Panama, according to a news release, while missionaries and members teamed up to tidy up a key park in La Paz, Bolivia. Latter-day Saints also helped collect more than 200,000 pounds of food for the Idaho Food Bank as part of a Scouting drive.

Temple updates

(Rendering courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A rendering of the Mendoza Argentina Temple.

• With the Andes Mountains towering in the distance, officials broke ground last week on the Mendoza Temple.

The single-spire, 21,000-square-foot building will be Argentina’s fifth operating or planned temple.

“Knowing that there will be a temple in Mendoza, just miles from our homes, is such a huge blessing for which I am grateful,” Abril Manzur, a member from Maipú de Cuyo, said in a news release.

Argentina, home to more than 470,000 Latter-day Saints, has existing temples in Buenos Aires and Córdoba, along with planned ones in Bahía Blanca, Mendoza and Salta (the latter held a groundbreaking in November).

• The church announced this week where it will build the Lindon Temple in Utah.

No exterior rendering was released, but early plans call for a three-story, 81,000-square-foot temple to go up near 800 East and Center Street, according to a news release.

This will be the seventh existing or planned temple in Utah County and the 25th in the Beehive State.

Utah currently has 15 operating Latter-day Saint temples. Two more, the historic Salt Lake and St. George structures, are undergoing renovation. Eight others have been announced or are under construction in Layton, Orem, Saratoga Springs, St. George (Red Cliffs), Taylorsville, Syracuse, Tooele Valley and Lindon.

• On Monday, Taiwan’s Taipei Temple became the first Latter-day Saint temple to resume vicarious ordinances for the dead during the coronavirus pandemic.

Next week, the temple in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, is scheduled to become the second to do so, a news release reported.

Two more temples — in Apia, Samoa; and Brisbane, Australia — also are expected to shift into Phase 3 in coming weeks, allowing “all living and limited proxy ordinances.”

Come Monday, 121 temples will be in Phase 2, offering “all temple ordinances for living individuals.” Some 25 will be in Phase 1, providing only marriage “sealings.” Meanwhile, 11 temples have “paused” operations due to “local COVID-19 restrictions.”

Quote of the week

“Sometimes the greatest gift we can give is to honor others’ feelings, letting them sit with their feelings without our judgment, even if what they emote makes us uncomfortable. We can practice this kind of empathy with ourselves, allowing ourselves to be human and feel the way we feel. May this holiday season bring peace, love and joy; and if it doesn’t, that’s OK, too.”

April Young Bennett in an Exponent II blog post.

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