This week in Mormon Land: The Capitol gang, ‘First Vision’ poems, youth theme songs

LDS numbers slide in Congress, and a legendary historian talks about how he became a believer.

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.

Latter-day Saints in Congress

(Erin Scott | Pool via AP) House Speaker Nancy Pelosi administers the oath to members of the 117th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021.

Yes, there are Latter-day Saints of every political stripe in the U.S.

There are Republicans (the dominant party among members) and Democrats and Socialists and Libertarians and Greens and on and on.

But that rainbow of political allegiance is not reflected in the newly seated 117th Congress. Instead, all nine Latter-day Saints are Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center, six in the House and three in the Senate (the most prominent being Utah Sen. Mitt Romney).

And the overall number of Latter-day Saint officeholders on Capitol Hill is the lowest in decades, down from 11 two years ago and 18 in 2003.

Oaks’ election speech

So is the church going to speak out about the mob of supporters of defeated President Donald Trump who stormed the U.S. Capitol this week in a siege that included a banner copying the “Title of Liberty” used by the Book of Mormon’s Captain Moroni?

In a sense, it already did.

In October’s General Conference, Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor to President Russell M. Nelson, denounced such post-election unrest.

“We peacefully accept the results of elections. We will not participate in the violence threatened by those disappointed with the outcome,” said Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice and next in line to assume the church’s reins. “In a democratic society, we always have the opportunity and the duty to persist peacefully until the next election.”

This week’s podcast: In-depth with Richard Bushman

(Photo courtesy of Richard Bushman) Latter-day Saint scholar Richard Bushman.

In a wide-ranging Salt Lake Tribune interview, revered Mormon historian Richard Bushman, author of the acclaimed Joseph Smith biography “Rough Stone Rolling,” talked at length about his childhood in Oregon, his mission in New England and his education at Harvard, where he wrestled with his faith in God.

He also discussed the mystery of the gold plates, from which the Book of Mormon sprang, his understanding of truth, and his perspectives on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — its past, present and future.

Bushman discusses those topics and more on this week’s podcast.

Listen here.

‘First Vision’ in verse

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

As Latter-day Saints prepare to study church founder Joseph Smith’s “First Vision” this month, Times and Seasons blogger Kent Larsen focused not so much on scriptural chapters but rather poetic verses.

He pointed, for instance, to an epic 1856 piece from Mormonism’s poet laureate Eliza R. Snow, who penned, in part, this of the boy prophet’s reported encounter with deity:

No sooner had

The glory from on high around him shone,

And the demoniac grasp disappear’d, than

He saw two glorious personages stand

Above him in the air; surrounded with

The light that had envelop’d him. With joy,

Wrapt in astonishment, he heard himself

Address’d. Address’d by whom? Address’d by what?

Was that indeed a voice he heard; or was

Imagination, with its frenzied harp,

Playing upon the organs of his mind?...

O no: the heavens had verily unfurl’d

The sable curtain which defines the bounds

‘Twixt earth and immortality; and he

Was gazing on celestials, and he heard

The voice of the Eternal.

Larsen also cited one of his favorite Mormon poems, a sonnet titled “Restoration” from William Mulder, a former University of Utah English professor, which concludes:

The glory of the grove still lights my way

As it once lighted Carthage, Liberty,

Nauvoo, the westward march — and constantly

The vision shines upon the church today.

The Restoration comes each spring again

To bring me close to God and to my fellow men.

Exponent II’s new editor

Exponent II is getting a new boss.

Rachel Rueckert will replace Margaret Olsen Hemming as editor-in-chief in time for the spring issue of the long-running Mormon feminist magazine.

A Utah native, Rueckert is a writer, editor, photographer and teacher who has lived in Salt Lake City, Manhattan and Cambridge, Mass., according to her website. She is scheduled to complete a Master of Fine Arts in nonfiction from Columbia University in May, the magazine reported.

She is the author of a forthcoming memoir, “East Winds: A Global Quest to Reckon With Marriage,” about her backpacking honeymoon around the world.

“Though happy to be with my husband,” Rueckert writes, “...I wasn’t sure I believed in marriage, let alone the lofty Mormon ideal of eternal marriage — taught as both essential for my salvation and what I was supposed to want.”

The couple’s adventures and misadventures in South America, Asia and Europe helped her “interrogate my inherited relationship models, confront failure, and embrace my restless nature within marriage — exchanging faith in certainty for faith in the day-to-day choice of partnership, accepting that there are no guarantees of forever.”

That day-to-day partnership will now include guiding Exponent II.

Theme songs

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) An album, lyrics, sheet music, artwork for posters, T-shirts and other resources promote the 2021 youth theme

While this year’s youth theme sets the tone, a new album delivers the tunes.

A Great Work,” featuring more than a dozen songs written and composed by Latter-day Saint musician Nik Day, is now available.

The soundtrack already hit No. 8 on the Christian music chart on iTunes, a news release noted, and can be streamed on the Sacred Music app, Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube under the artist “Strive to Be.” It’s also available on the Gospel Library under Music.”

The artists performing songs include Yahosh Bonner, Madilyn Paige, Isabella Hixson, Yaphet Bustos and Kimberly Knighton Zundel.

The title track “is so empowering and reminds me of the incredible trust Heavenly Father has in each one of us,” Zundel said in the release. “I’m grateful for the hope I felt as I sang the lyrics ‘this is a part of his grand design.’ It reminded me that, yes, the last days will be hard, but they are also going to be the greatest, and it was planned to be that way.”

The youth theme derives from church scripture, namely Doctrine and Covenants 64:33: “Wherefore, be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great.”

Remembering Green Flake

Green Flake, a member of the vanguard pioneer company to enter the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, was born into slavery 193 years ago this week on Jan. 6, 1828, in North Carolina.

He was baptized, according to the Century of Black Mormons website, on April 7, 1844, in Mississippi and later moved to Nauvoo, Ill., with his enslavers.

“He drove the first Latter-day Saint wagon into the valley,” the website reports, “and was already planting crops by the time Brigham Young arrived on July 24.”

Flake died Oct. 20, 1903, in Idaho at age 75.

Missionary dies in Nigeria

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Samuel Joseph Iseh Jr., a 20-year-old serving a mission in his native Nigeria, died Jan. 1, 2021.

A 20-year-old Nigerian serving a mission in his homeland died last week.

Samuel Joseph Iseh Jr. experienced a “sudden health episode (unrelated to COVID-19)” and was taken to a hospital, church spokesman Sam Penrod said in a news release.

Iseh, a native of Port Harcourt who had been serving in Nigeria’s Lagos Mission for the past 19 months, died in the hospital.

“We express our deepest sympathies to his family and friends,” Penrod said, “and pray they will be comforted during this difficult time.”

Nigeria is home to more than 192,000 Latter-day Saints, the most of any African country, and over 720 congregations. The church has one temple in Nigeria, in Aba, with plans for two more, in Benin City and Lagos.

Struggles in Ethiopia

Unlike Nigeria, the church’s imprint in Ethiopia remains minuscule. The East African nation has about 1,800 members and four congregations.

“There was a five-year period from the late 2000s to mid-2010s when the church experienced rapid membership growth and the organization of new congregations,” independent demographer Matt Martinich reports on his ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com website. “However, these efforts have since dramatically reversed due to problems with local leadership development and disruptions to the continuity of full-time missionary outreach.”

In his newly updated report on Ethiopia for cumorah.com, Martinich sees potential for the recently created Addis Ababa Mission to spur eventual growth after the missionaries strengthen the existing members and leaders.

Gongs to speak

Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Susan, participate in the groundbreaking of the Taylorsville Utah Temple on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020.

Trailblazing apostle Gerrit W. Gong and his wife, Susan Gong, will speak Sunday at a worldwide devotional for young adults.

“My friends, I recognize you face many challenges, and I know many of these challenges have been amplified during the pandemic,” Elder Gong wrote recently on Facebook. “However, I also know how I — and many others — have been able to gain strength through Jesus Christ in difficult times.”

The Gongs contracted COVID-19 in early October and later, after quarantining, were cleared to resume their church duties.

Sunday’s broadcast, which can be viewed on the church website, begins at 6 p.m. MST.

Temple updates

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apia Samoa Temple

• Four temples are now offering limited vicarious ordinances for the dead — along with all living ordinances — as part of the church’s Phase 3 reopening during the coronavirus pandemic.

Those temples, according to a news release, are in Taipei, Taiwan; Nuku’alofa, Tonga; Apia, Samoa; and Brisbane, Australia.

Come Monday, 122 temples will be in Phase 2, offering “all temple ordinances for living individuals.” Another 18 will be in Phase 1, providing only marriage “sealings.” Meanwhile, 15 temples have “paused” operations due to “local COVID-19 restrictions.”

Quote of the week

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) President Russell M. Nelson, with wife Wendy Nelson, waves at the General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Saturday Oct. 6, 2018.

“Something I’ve noticed: two words that I’ve not heard him use before the last three years — reduce and simplify. He loves those words. That’s how he is living his life these days. Reduce and simplify.”

Wendy Nelson, in a recent “Church News Podcast,” about her husband, President Russell M. Nelson

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