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.
2020′s ups and downs
Independent demographer Matt Martinich spotlights the highs and lows in church growth in his newly released cumorah.com report of the 10 most encouraging and discouraging trends from a pandemic-plagued 2020.
The plus side includes:
• The announcement of 14 new Latter-day Saint temples, including the first such edifices in the United Arab Emirates (also the first in the Middle East), mainland China, Kiribati and Vanuatu. Utah, meanwhile, will be gaining a 24th and 25th temple, in Syracuse and Lindon. Church President Russell M. Nelson has announced 49 temples since taking the faith’s helm in January 2018.
• Major advances in the translation of scriptures and other materials, including plans in 2021 to publish churchwide magazines for adults (the Liahona), teens (For the Strength of Youth) and younger children (the Friend) in scores of languages.
• A net increase of 113 congregations in the United States — despite COVID-19 limitations. That 0.78% uptick may seem small, but it represents the second highest bump since 2015.
• Rapid growth in Africa’s two Congos. The Democratic Republic of Congo saw a net increase of 20 congregations, good for a 9.5% jump. The nation, with nearly 69,000 Latter-day Saints, boasts one of the highest activity and convert-retention rates in the world, Martinich noted, with an estimated 80% of members regularly attending services. The church also announced plans for a second temple in the country, in Lubumbashi. The Republic of Congo, with more than 8,500 members, doubled its tally of stakes from two to four.
On the downside:
• Children of record added to church rolls slumped to 94,266 in 2019 (the latest year for which such statistics have been reported), the lowest since 91,800 in 2007.
• The coronavirus upended missionary work as the number of full-time proselytizers tumbled from nearly 68,000 in February to 42,000 in late April before bouncing back to 52,000 in August. Even now, severe restrictions continue. “As of mid-2020, half of the church’s 407 missions have missionaries who mainly worked from their apartments through the use of technology,” Martinich wrote. “...Since the start of the pandemic, many cities, and even entire countries, remain without full-time missionaries.”
• The U.S. membership growth rate plunged to 0.59% in 2019, the lowest it has been in maybe a century. The reasons, he said, range from falling birthrates to rising secularism, along with declines in convert baptisms and young adult retention.
• The Golden State is seeing fewer golden contacts as the church dissolved two California stakes. The number of stakes in the most populous state has plummeted from a peak of 162 in 1995 to 151.
Read Martinich’s full report here.
Feeling the spirit in prison
With branch names like Lone Peak, Olympus, Oquirrh, Promontory, Timpanogos First and Second, Uinta, and Wasatch First and Second, the newly formed Great Salt Lake Utah District hardly stands out on paper.
But, in person, they do. That’s because the members of these congregations are all doing time in prison facilities.
And together, researcher Matt Martinich points out at ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com, they make up the first district strictly dedicated to Latter-day Saints in lockups.
Women’s group calls for Trump’s ouster
“He has fostered enmity among citizens and has replaced fidelity to the rule of law with fidelity to his own power and interests,” the 7,000-strong nonpartisan group wrote on its website. “...Though President Trump’s term is nearly over, a failure to apply constitutionally available consequences to his historically egregious acts would set a precedent for future administrations of both parties that any presidential act is beyond accountability. It would permanently weaken our governing system, and we call on our elected and sworn leaders to act.”
On Wednesday, the House voted to impeach Trump for a second time, but a Senate trial was not expected to take place before he leaves office.
MWEG, which has previously criticized Trump’s actions and policies, also urged Americans to look within themselves, “evaluating both our personal feelings toward our fellow citizens and the limits to our individual political loyalties.”
Helping the homeless
“He that oppresseth the poor reproacheth his Maker,” warns Proverbs, “but he that honoureth him hath mercy on the poor.”
In the vein, the church will provide $3.3 million in cash and in-kind donations to help those experiencing homelessness in Utah this year.
“We reach out to all of God’s children without exception,” Bishop W. Christopher Waddell, first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, said in a news release. “As a church, one of our priorities is caring for those in need, and we can’t do it on our own.”
Church aid will go to five nonprofit groups:
• The Road Home will get help to provide shelter and services to more than 1,700 homeless people.
• Shelter the Homeless will receive funding for transportation and security for a winter overflow shelter in Salt Lake County. “We are grateful for this partnership in serving the most vulnerable in our community,” Laurie G. Hopkins, the group’s executive director, said in the release.
• Friends of the Coalition will receive funds to help build 72 one-bedroom units as permanent supportive housing.
• Switchpoint will use the church’s contribution to help construct a 150-unit homeless resource center in Tooele and add a child care facility in St. George. “We’re building the 24/7 child care center,” said Carol Hollowell, executive director of the Switchpoint Community Resource Center in St. George, “so that these working families can have a safe, affordable spot for their children to be.”
• Utah Community Action will steer the donation toward helping low-income families cover rent. “These funds will be used to provide rental assistance to help stabilize our most vulnerable households — single-parent households with children,” Jennifer Godfrey, the group’s CEO, said in the release. “At the present time, we’re seeing a funding gap as we wait for federal and state dollars to be allocated to support eligible households in our community.”
Calls for ‘cosmopolitanism’
Latter-day Saints have a role in advancing heaven’s aims in this earthly drama, some members say, but they’re bit players.
“The work of God is not limited to Mormons,” writes Exponent II blogger Katie Rich. “...The work of God is primarily done by people who are not Mormon.”
“By cosmopolitanism, I mean that we’re suddenly able to see ourselves as others see us and we can picture ourselves as one religion among a number of religions and a number of viewpoints,” Bushman explained. “We can see how Mormonism looks from a global view. And as soon as we do that, then the way we treat women becomes problematic in terms of the way the educated world in general is looking upon women and race and LGBTQ issues and so on.”
Such an approach, Rich adds, allows members the “freedom to be wrong — to reevaluate, question, doubt, and get cozy with uncertainty.”
“A living, breathing Mormonism,” Rich writes, “does not insist that oxygen is the exclusive right of Mormons.”
Another scholar, Patrick Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, explores a similar theme in his newly released book, “Restoration: God’s Call to the 21st-Century World.”
“God has endowed various groups — including other religions — with particular gifts and callings that are designed to bless the world,” Mason writes. “...God has also called others around the world and throughout history to speak his words and do his will. Our community does not have a corner on holy men and women.”
A third apostle gets COVID
A quarter of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has come down with COVID-19 during the pandemic. Thankfully, the disease thus far has infected only the group’s younger members and all have recovered.
The latest was Ulisses Soares. The 62-year-old Brazilian, the quorum’s youngest and most junior member, joined fellow apostles Dale G. Renlund and Gerrit W. Gong as the only high-level Latter-day Saint authorities known to have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Soares and his wife, Rosana, “experienced mild cases” over the holidays.
“They were both at home, away from other church leaders,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins wrote Friday in a news release, “and were able to completely recover before returning to full activity.”
Soares made history in spring 2018, when he became the first Latin American apostle in the Utah-based faith.
“The apostles have different responsibilities than others who serve in the church,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune in June 2018, “but not because we are different or better than others. We all have our weaknesses; what we have in common is our faith.”
The 68-year-old Renlund, a retired cardiologist, and his wife, Ruth, tested positive in early December. In early October, the 67-year-old Gong and his wife, Susan, contracted COVID-19. Many of the church’s highest-ranking authorities, including 96-year-old President Russell M. Nelson, are in their 70s, 80s and even 90s, and would be considered at higher risk of complications from COVID-19.
Life in the slow lane
In a world that often rewards speed, being fast, being first — and even a church that talks about “hastening the work” — apostle Gerrit W. Gong has invited young Latter-day Saint adults to slow down.
In scriptural speech: “Be still, and know that God is God.”
“It takes conscious effort to slow down and ‘be still.’ It takes spiritual openness and humility to ‘know that [God is] God (Psalms 46:10)’” Gong said in a worldwide devotional Sunday. “Sometimes slowing down in things that matter less helps us find the things that matter most.”
The 67-year-old apostle, appearing with his wife, Susan, also urged young adults to “change the future now” by developing “multigenerational relationships,” and showing more love and less judgment.
“In divided societies, disciples of Jesus Christ can share a common divinity and humanity greater than any differences,” Gong said. “In darkening, sometimes claustrophobic times, believers radiate his light and liberating truth. Where there is spiritual famine in the land, we celebrate him as living water and the bread of life. … Today you help me. Tomorrow I help you. We are here for each other.”
He also appealed for greater charity, encouraging his young audience to “trust the Lord … to help you become a better you.” Gong pointed to the church’s largest-ever humanitarian outreach, including 1,031 COVID-19 projects in 151 nations, in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
In an Instagram post, he later reminded his followers to “be patient and understanding” as they undertake self-improvement.
“Too often we are too hard on ourselves,” Gong wrote. “The Lord invites us to come as we are, to do all things ‘in wisdom and order.’”
Hollands on memory lane
Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland will share memories and stories from his native St. George when he and his wife, Patricia, speak at Family Discovery Day during RootsTech Connect on Feb. 27, the church announced this week.
The couple’s appearance will be a click away, because RootsTech Connect, touted as the world’s largest family celebration event, will be a free online showcase this year.
The Feb. 25-27 conference will include training on temple and family history work for Latter-day Saint leaders from apostles David A. Bednar, Gary E. Stevenson and Dale G. Renlund.
Missionary dies in crash
A 19-year-old Utahn died last week after a car accident while serving a mission in Arkansas.Jake Smith, who had been in the Little Rock Mission since August 2019, was “a bright, happy, cheerful young man,” Bryan Atwood, the man’s LDS stake president in Lehi, said. “He was the life of the party and a great storyteller.”
Three other missionaries were injured in the accident near Rosebud, Ark. All were expected to recover, according to a church news release. McKay Jurges of West Jordan had the most serious injuries. Gavin Hatch of Cedar Hills and Eli Sutherland of San Diego suffered minor injuries.
Smith is the second Latter-day Saint missionary to die this month. A 20-year-old Nigerian serving a mission in his homeland died on New Year’s Day, the church reported, after a “sudden health episode (unrelated to COVID-19).”
• The eighth floor of downtown Salt Lake City’s Joseph Smith Memorial Building has been turned into a mini-temple of sorts, “prepared” and “dedicated” to host meetings of the governing First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles while the nearby Salt Lake Temple is closed for extensive renovation.
On Jan. 7, 2020, the city issued a “certificate of occupancy” to the church after the remodel, with an estimated cost of $2 million, according to building permit records.
“The Salt Lake Temple has always included a special space for church leaders to meet and carry on the work of the church,” spokesperson Doug Andersen wrote in an emailed statement. “During the time that the Salt Lake Temple is undergoing renovation, senior church leaders will meet in a dedicated space that has been prepared in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.”
• In 18 months, when brides and grooms venture to the Church Office Building plaza east of the iconic Salt Lake Temple for wedding photographs, they’ll notice something missing: the fountain.
Crews are removing the popular water feature and replacing it with a ring of world flags as part of a plaza makeover.
“Our design of the landscaping on this plaza and around the temple will open up access and views to the temple and make it more inviting for people to feel welcome here on the grounds,” Andy Kirby, director of historic temple renovations, said in a news release. “We’ll have a large circle of flags here from many nations of the world to celebrate the [church’s] international nature.”
Workers then will focus on revamping the Main Street Plaza, which sports its own reflecting pool.
• The Tallahassee Temple, Florida’s third, will be a single-story, center-spired, 29,000-square-foot building, the church announced this week.
The Sunshine State is home to more than 160,000 members.
• 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, 121 temples will be in Phase 2, offering “all temple ordinances for living individuals.” Another 17 will be in Phase 1, providing only marriage “sealings.” Meanwhile, 17 temples have “paused” operations due to “local COVID-19 restrictions.”
Quote of the week
“Despite the Lord’s consistent and stern warnings, we have largely been seduced by the gods of affluence and ease. Many of us orient our lives around this pursuit. At times we have even verged dangerously close to embracing a Latter-day Saint version of the ‘prosperity gospel.’ … That is not the gospel Jesus preached….The Restoration’s economic worldview should be shaped more by Joseph Smith than Adam Smith.”
— Patrick Mason, in his new book “Restoration: God’s Call to the 21st-Century World.”
Mormon Land is a weekly newsletter written by David Noyce and Peggy Fletcher Stack. Subscribe here.