President Russell Nelson, other top LDS leaders vaccinated against COVID

Church leaders urge their members to get shots, too.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Church President Russell M. Nelson receives the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Salt Lake City.

Eight top Latter-day Saint leaders over age 70 — including 96-year-old church President Russell M. Nelson — got their first dose of the “prayed and fasted for” COVID-19 vaccination Tuesday morning to show “in word and deed” their long-standing support for immunizations.

And they hope all others in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will follow their example.

The Utah-based faith “urges its members, employees and missionaries to be good global citizens and help quell the pandemic by safeguarding themselves and others through immunization,” Nelson, and his two First Presidency counselors, Dallin H. Oaks, 88, and Henry B. Eyring, 87, wrote in a news release.

The release acknowledged that all people will make their own decisions but said they hoped individuals would “counsel with a competent medical professional about their personal circumstances and needs.”

Nelson, Oaks and Eyring were immunized Tuesday as well as apostles M. Russell Ballard, 92; Jeffrey R. Holland, 80; Dieter F. Uchtdorf, 80; Quentin L. Cook, 80; and D. Todd Christofferson, 75. Most of their wives were also vaccinated at the same time.

Three other apostles, all younger than 70 — Gerrit W. Gong, 67; Dale G. Renlund, 68; and Ulisses Soares, 62 — previously contracted and recovered from COVID-19.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the church's First Presidency, receives the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Salt Lake City.

“I’m glad our turn has come to have this vaccination,” Oaks said in the release. “We’re very hopeful that the general vaccination of the population will help us get ahead of this awful pandemic. It’s hopeful, like the light at the end of the tunnel. There is relief and appreciation involved for those who have invented the vaccine and for those who have caused it to be generally available on a sensible priority system.”

The church “has recognized the importance of vaccinations and immunizations for decades,” according to the release. As far back as 1978, the denomination urged members to “protect their own children through immunization.”

Global push for vaccines

Since 2002, the 16.5 million-member faith also has helped fund 168 projects in 46 countries, including many that provide immunizations. Latter-day Saint Charities, the church’s humanitarian arm, has given financial support to “prominent global immunization partners to procure and deliver vaccinations, monitor diseases, respond to outbreaks, train health care workers, and develop elimination and eradication programming.”

These efforts have resulted, the release said, in “more immunized children and fewer lives lost to measles, rubella, maternal and neonatal tetanus, polio, diarrhea, pneumonia and yellow fever.”

In 2019 alone, Latter-day Saint Charities and partners such as UNICEF USA and Kiwanis International helped eliminate maternal and neonatal tetanus in Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the release said. With such partnerships, “Africa eradicated the wild poliovirus.”

(Photo courtesy of UNICEF and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A health worker vaccinates a baby as his mother holds him at the Centre de Sante le Rocher Maternity Hospital in Lubumbashi, Congo, November 2018.

Most commenters among the hundreds on the church’s Facebook page celebrated the news of Nelson’s vaccination, many saying it was an answer to prayers or that they believed the surgeon-turned-prophet was doing what God wanted.

A sizable minority, however, said they would not be following his lead, arguing that vaccines are unproven or even dangerous and that and getting immunized showed a lack of faith in divine healing power.

Some suggested that Nelson embraces vaccines because he is a former physician, not a prophet, on this issue, and said they wished the church would stay out of medical decisions.

One woman, who identified herself as K. Moore of West Jordan, said in a message she won’t be getting the vaccine because her son “is vaccine injured.” She would prefer the church to be “vaccine neutral.”

This is hardly the first time Latter-day Saints have been divided over vaccinations.

Yesteryear’s anti-vaxxers

After one was developed amid the 1899-1901 smallpox epidemic in the U.S., the more educated and urban members pushed for immunization, while the less educated, working class, and rural farmers “favored botanical and faith healing and dietary health ... [and] folk remedies,” according to a history of the debate by scholar Ben Cater.  Among the most ardent opponents was Charles Penrose, editor of the church-owned Deseret News and later a Latter-day Saint apostle.

Penrose estimated that 90% of “LDS churchgoers” at the time “strongly opposed ...vaccination and they were very vocal about it,” Cater, who teaches history at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, said last month on The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast.

Historian Matthew Bowman, who directs Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, believes opposition to the vaccination was caused in part by distrust of U.S. government involvement in public health.

After all, Bowman pointed out, this was just 10 years after the federal government had disenfranchised Mormons and demanded the church give up polygamy.

“That’s where a distinct LDS strain of Western libertarianism developed,” the historian said. “A lot of suspicion of government mandates was a hangover from that era.”

Tuesday’s announcement about leaders getting vaccinated, Bowman predicted, likely will change few minds among Latter-day Saints. Those who are already in favor of the vaccine will get it; those opposed will not.

“A camp in the middle are the only ones,” he said, “who could be swayed by LDS general authorities asking them to do it.”

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Church apostle Jeffrey R. Holland receives the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Salt Lake City.