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.
The $100B question
It has been 15 months since the public release of a “whistleblower” complaint accusing the church of amassing a $100 billion reserve fund intended for — but never spent on — charity in potential violation of tax laws.
Sam Brunson, a Latter-day Saint who teaches tax law at Loyola University in Chicago, wonders if the whistleblowers — David Nielsen, who used to work for the faith’s investment arm Ensign Peak Advisors, and his twin brother, Lars Nielsen — ever will receive a financial reward for bringing the issue to light.
“Whistleblowers are entitled to receive between 15% and 30% of the amount the IRS collects as a result of their complaint,” Brunson writes in a recent By Common Consent blog post.
Trouble is, whistleblowers cannot compel the IRS to take any action at all, a point reinforced this month in a federal court ruling.
“The courts have made it very clear that they cannot force the IRS to pursue an investigation it doesn’t want to,” Brunson writes, “and that the IRS has no obligation to pay a whistleblower claim unless it decides to follow through on the complaint.”
From the start, many tax experts doubted the IRS would go after the church.
“I don’t think David Nielsen will be able to retire on the reward from this case,” Forbes contributor Peter J. Reilly wrote days after the complaint surfaced. “That’s because there is not much of a case. … Ensign is not a private foundation. It is an integrated auxiliary of a church. And there is nothing in the tax law that prevents churches from accumulating wealth.”
The First Presidency has maintained that the Utah-based faith “complies with all applicable law governing our donations, investments, taxes and reserves.”
Even so, the sheer size of the “rainy day account” and the lack of transparency about it continue to trigger questions inside and outside the church.
‘Disappointed’ in members’ pandemic response
When church leaders urged members to wear masks and heed other safety guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic, they ran into some resistance.
And that reaction, according to Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, left them “disappointed.”
“They told me specifically they’ve been disappointed in some of the response that has come,” Cox said recently on the “Matt Lewis and the News” podcast. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints required masks before it was mandated by the state, and there was a tremendous amount of pushback for that.”
That became evident later in the pandemic as well after apostle Dale Renlund, a retired cardiologist who had his own bout with COVID-19, released a video in which he urged people to don face coverings as a “sign of Christlike love for our brothers and sisters.”
Cox echoed that sentiment. “I do think that generally, people in Utah would probably tell you that they were maybe a little underwhelmed by the kind of care we showed about our neighbors.”
The governor suggested that some of the resistance, at least among Latter-day Saints, may have sprung from a “distrust of government.”
That’s “understandable,” he added, “and that’s historic in our nature from a religion that was kicked out of Missouri and our houses were burned and people sent away.”
Even so, Cox said he’s “trying to have enough grace for those that disagree on both sides.”
New name, same mission
Add the 12-year-old Mormon Women Project to the tally of institutions, departments, organizations and websites inside and outside the church that have jettisoned the “Mormon” name.
Founded in 2009 by Neylan McBaine as a forum for women to share the “breadth and depth” of their experiences within the faith, it is now called the Latter-day Saints Women Project and titled The LDS Women Project on the internet.
“Though our name has changed, our mission remains the same,” the group’s website states, “to provide a platform that amplifies LDS women’s voices, demonstrates how there is no ‘right way’ to be an LDS woman, provides resources and empowerment for the creation of more egalitarian governance and worship within our spheres of influence.”
In August 2018, church President Russell M. Nelson issued a plea to scholars, media and members to stop using the Mormon moniker when referring to the church and its adherents. The faith’s style guide also prefers “Latter-day Saints” to the shorthanded “LDS.”
The bipartisan measure would create a pathway to legal status for up to 4.4 million “Dreamers,” whose undocumented parents brought them to the United States as children.
“Dreamers are an integral part of our communities. They are friends, neighbors, business owners and family members,” MWEG writes on its website. “... We have a moral obligation to work together to bring about ethical legislation to support the Dreamers in our communities.”
In January 2018, the church, in its first public policy position under then-newly installed President Russell M. Nelson, urged Congress — without endorsing any specific legislation — to protect these immigrants from deportation.
“They have built lives, pursued educational opportunities and been employed for years based on the policies that were in place,” the church stated. “These individuals have demonstrated a capacity to serve and contribute positively in our society, and we believe they should be granted the opportunity to continue to do so.”
MWEG also has scheduled a March 26-27 virtual conference, featuring speeches by Elizabeth Neumann, director of the Republican Accountability Project; Astrid S. Tuminez, president of Utah Valley University; and LaShawn Williams, professor of social work at UVU and a licensed clinical social worker.
New female leadership roles
Latter-day Saint women will have more influence over church affairs in Europe.
Six women there have become the first to be appointed as “international area organization advisers.”
They will “mentor congregational officers and participate in leadership councils,” a news release noted, and “give instruction to church leaders and provide women’s perspectives at all levels of councils.”
Here are the trailblazing women and their assigned areas:
• Ann-Mari Lindberg, of Denmark — Nordic nations.
• Sibylle Fingerle, of Germany — German- and Dutch-speaking countries.
• Ghislaine Simonet, of France — Italy and France.
• Julia Wondra, of Austria — Eastern Europe.
• Traci De Marco, of the United Kingdom — Ireland and the U.K.
• Letícia dos Santos Rudloff, of Spain — Cape Verde, Portugal and Spain.
Dos Santos Rudloff called women “the guardians of the family institution, the backbone of society and also of the church.”
The new positions, approved by the governing First Presidency for areas outside the United States and Canada, “opens the door to women being able to participate and have their voices heard at much broader levels of church governance,” Neylan McBaine, founder of the LDS Women Project, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “...This is the most important change the church could make to ensure that our global community continues growing and to maintain healthy stewardship over all our members.”
This week also marks the 179th anniversary of the Relief Society. Church founder Joseph Smith formed the women’s organization March 17, 1842, in Nauvoo with wife Emma Smith as its first president.
Today’s president, Jean B. Bingham, praised Latter-day Saint women for “working together and supporting one another and their communities with such grace and strength.”
“There is an inherent promise of belonging among us,” she wrote in her anniversary day message on Instagram, “and I pray you each feel that you belong — because you do!”
Uchtdorf family gave money to Biden, Dems
The 2020 presidential election may be history, but it’s still making headlines.
New federal election reports indicate that Latter-day Saint apostle Dieter Uchtdorf made 13 donations, totaling nearly $2,300, to Democratic Party funds and candidates, including Joe Biden’s White House campaign.
The popular German apostle, a naturalized U.S. citizen, confirmed in an emailed statement that the contributions were made by his family “using an online account, which is shared by our family and associated with my name.”
Any Uchtdorf donation would violate the faith’s political neutrality policy, which declares that general authorities and their spouses should not make such contributions.
“I regret such an oversight on my part,” the 80-year-old apostle said. “I fully support the church’s policy related to political donations from church leaders.”
According to Federal Election Commission records, the Uchtdorf donations went to Biden’s campaign and those of two Democratic hopefuls pursuing Senate seats in Georgia: Raphael Warnock, pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and Jon Ossoff, seeking to become the Peach State’s first Jewish senator. All three candidates won.
For his part, Rob Taber, national director of Latter-day Saints for Biden-Harris, was delighted by the family’s contributions.
“The First Presidency has long maintained that principles of the gospel can be found in the platforms of all of the major political parties,” Taber wrote in an email. “I find the political diversity of the church beautiful as we each exercise our agency to lift up our fellow humans and create a better society for all families.”
When members return to a newly renovated Salt Lake Temple in three years, they’ll notice not only additions (more sealing rooms and a second basement baptistry) but also significant deletions:
• The historic murals — some painted by artists sent to study in Paris in the 1890s — will be gone from the walls.
• And the “live endowment” performances — in which templegoers shuffle from room to room in a symbolic-rich reenactment on humankind’s eternal journey — will be replaced by the films shown in other temples across the world.
“The addition of new instruction rooms, a new method of presentation, seismic strengthening, and changes to meet accessibility requirements meant that the murals in the temple would need to be moved and/or repainted,” the First Presidency explained in a message. “It was impossible to know whether the murals could be preserved during such a move.”
So the wall paintings were “carefully photographed and documented before removal, and some of the original portions are being preserved in the church’s archives.”
Work on the Manti Temple will begin later this year.
Patrick Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, said his “heart dropped” when he heard that the murals would be removed.
“These are priceless cultural artifacts that can never be replaced if destroyed,” Mason said. “The murals in the Manti Temple by Minerva Teichert, one of the few prominent female LDS artists of the 20th century, are particularly stunning, even if some of the artistic elements no longer conform to current cultural sensibilities.”
“While perhaps not as devastatingly irreversible as the loss of the artwork, this is also immense,” Kristine Haglund, former editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, told The Tribune. “So much of the symbolic significance of the endowment ritual is clearer when the actors are not merely the slick, glossy surface of a film image. The work of mental and spiritual imagination that has to occur in a live session is very different from the effect of the mass-produced and passively received photographic version. In the long run, the loss of that intangible connection to something spiritually vital, preserved at great cost and passed down throughout the church’s history, may prove even more destructive than the loss of Minerva Teichert’s incomparable imagery.”
This week’s podcast: Changes through the tearful eyes of a temple worker
Jody England Hansen, who served as a volunteer ordinance worker in the Salt Lake Temple before it closed to undergo a four-year renovation, tearfully discusses the changes planned for the Salt Lake and Manti temples — how the live endowment and vivid murals enhanced the religious experience and what will be lost without them.
Last week’s podcast: Filmmaker Jared Hess on ‘Murder Among the Mormons’
A new Netflix documentary, “Murder Among the Mormons,” has become a megahit.
It recounts the 1980s story of document forger Mark Hofmann, who tried to upset the traditional narrative regarding the church’s roots by producing fake artifacts.
When he got entangled by his own financial double-dealing, Hofmann attempted to cover up his counterfeiting by setting off separate deadly bombs. He then injured himself in a third blast.
The three-part series offers not only a riveting whodunit dissection of the bloody crimes but also a fascinating exploration of Mormon history.
On this week’s podcast, co-director Jared Hess, of “Napoleon Dynamite” fame, discusses the documentary, the haunting footage the filmmakers found, the phony discoveries Hofmann perpetrated, including the big one he was plotting regarding the lost 116 pages from the original Book of Mormon manuscript. Hess also talks about the callous calculations revealed in the mind of this killer, and the lessons Latter-day Saints and their leaders can take away from the whole sad saga.
You also can read senior religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack’s firsthand telling of her early encounter with Hofmann and why friends suggested bomb-sniffing dogs search her wedding gifts.
Storms deliver a Hawaiian punch
Recent rains swamped the church’s Polynesian Cultural Center and Brigham Young University–Hawaii campus.
“We have some wet carpets and other cleanup we need to do,” BYU–Hawaii spokesperson Laura Tevaga said in a news release. “Our campus drainage system worked as best as it could, given the unusual amount of rain we received in such a short period of time.”
Floodwaters also forced the Polynesian Cultural Center to shut down for a day.
The Laie Temple, sitting on higher ground, dodged any damage.
Looking to the ‘Messiah’
As the holiest of holy seasons approaches, the church has launched an Easter initiative inviting all to find new hope and new life in the resurrection of Christ.
“Starting today we can restart, reboot, relook at our lives, at our world,” a new video proclaims. “Starting today we can repair, repent, reconcile. … We can reevaluate, reassess, reexamine everything in life starting today because of how one day started 2,000 years ago. He left the tomb behind. We can leave our past behind if we hear him, love him, follow him.”
In keeping with the spirit of the season, the church will stream a 2018 recording of Handel’s “Messiah” by The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square.
This performance features world-class soprano Amanda Woodbury, mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, tenor Tyler Nelson and bass-baritone Tyler Simpson.
• Crews placed a 12-foot-tall Angel Moroni statue last week atop the temple under construction in Pocatello, Idaho.
“This is another milestone toward the eventual completion of the temple,” Larry Fisher, a regional director of church communications, told the Idaho State Journal.
The three-story, 67,696-square-foot Pocatello Temple, announced in 2017, will be Idaho’s sixth. A completion date has yet to be released.
• Groundbreakings have been set for two planned temples in Utah.
A by-invitation-only ceremony in May will launch work on the three-story, 70,000-square-foot Deseret Peak Temple in Tooele City.
Announced in April 2019 as the Tooele Valley Temple, the structure was to be built in nearby Erda. But faced with local opposition to a proposed housing development, the church relocated and renamed the temple.
A June event will kick off construction of the three-story, 89,000-square-foot Syracuse Temple.
• Starting next week, 19 temples will be in Phase 3 of the church’s reopening plan, offering limited vicarious ordinances for the dead, along with all living ordinances, during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a news release.
Most other temples are in Phase 2, providing “all temple ordinances for living individuals.”
In a newly added phase, some temples will allow the baptistry to open for small groups to perform baptisms for the dead. As soon as March 29, 14 temples will enter what is being called Phase 2-B.
“We are grateful for this opportunity for more members to participate in temple ordinances,” church President Russell M. Nelson said in a news release announcing the addition.
“We encourage small groups — including new members, families, Aaronic Priesthood quorums, Young Women classes, and young adult groups — to schedule a time to be in the temple,” apostle David A. Bednar said. “We are thrilled at the ability to provide these sacred ordinances to our deceased ancestors again.”
Meanwhile, 10 temples are in Phase 1, allowing only marriage “sealings,” and eight have “paused” operations due to “local COVID-19 restrictions.”
See this list for the status of all temples.
Quote of the week
“These donations were made by our family using an online account, which is shared by our family and associated with my name. I regret such an oversight on my part. I fully support the church’s policy related to political donations from church leaders.”
— Apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf
Mormon Land is a weekly newsletter written by David Noyce and Peggy Fletcher Stack. Subscribe here.