Latest from Mormon Land: How COVID may have slowed church growth; remembering Chieko Okazaki

Also: More on James Huntsman vs. the church; and President Russell M. Nelson’s Palm Sunday invitation.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) General Conference will be all-virtual again this Easter weekend, unlike this packed session in October 2019. The statistical report for 2020 from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is expected to show significant decreases in growth due to the pandemic.

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.

Church growth during COVID

The church reported significant growth gains for 2019, but that momentum likely hit a wall, a COVID-19 wall, last year.

Tens of thousands of missionaries were released or reassigned. Convert baptisms plunged. And as baby blessings were put off, fewer children of record were put on church rolls.

What will the 2020 statistical report say when it’s released this General Conference weekend? Independent researcher Matt Martinich, who tracks church demographics at ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com, took a stab at it:

• Total membership: 16.75 million (up 200,000 from 2019, a 1.2% increase).

• New converts: 200,000 (down by almost 50,000, a nearly 20% drop).

• New children of record: 60,000 (down more than 34,000, a 36.4% fall).

• Congregations: 31,140 (up 200, a 0.65% boost).

“It is likely some of these metrics will see a noticeable temporary bump in 2021,” Martinich writes, “as conditions begin to normalize in many of the countries where the church operates.”

He also anticipates rapid church expansion in the Republic of Congo, stating that 17 new wards and branches will be organized by June in the Brazzaville Mission, a 61% leap for the nation as a whole.

This week’s podcast: James Huntsman vs. the church

James Huntsman

James Huntsman, a member of a prominent Latter-day Saint family, recently accused the church of fraud and sued to recover millions of dollars in tithing.

Huntsman alleges that the global faith has “repeatedly and publicly lied” about its use of billions of dollars in member donations solicited to pay for missionary work, temple-building and other educational and charitable work.

Citing a whistleblower’s much-publicized IRS complaint about the church’s $100 billion “rainy day” fund, Huntsman’s federal lawsuit states that millions instead went toward commercial enterprises.

On this week’s podcast, Sam Brunson, a Latter-day Saint and a tax law professor at Loyola University in Chicago, talks about the lawsuit, the church’s investment reserves, its tax implications and the faith’s finances.

Listen here.

Remembering Chieko Okazaki’s historic call

(Tribune file photo) Chieko Okazaki served as first counselor in general Relief Society presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1990 to 1997.

Thirty-one years ago this week, Chieko Okazaki made history by becoming the first nonwhite member of the Relief Society’s general presidency.

But the beloved Japanese American convert made her mark with her master teaching, soulful sermons and powerful prose.

Sustained as the first counselor on March 31, 1990, Okazaki was one of the first speakers to address sexual abuse; homosexuality; balancing work and family; blended families; and racism.

“She took real and pressing problems and not only comforted,” friend and historian Kathleen Flake said at the time of Okazaki’s death in 2011 at age 84, “but led women in how to constructively engage those problems using the resources of the gospel.”

Conference special

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) The Y on Y Mountain east of Provo is lit in rainbow-flag colors to show support for the LGBTQ community on Thursday, March 4, 2021.

As Latter-day Saints prepare for their third straight all-virtual General Conference this Easter weekend, The Salt Lake Tribune published a special section that highlighted a range of topics, including:

• The rising debate among students, alumni and some orthodox members about whether the faith’s flagship — and famously conservative — school, Brigham Young University, is becoming “too liberal.”

• An extended Q&A with a leading architect about the church’s track record in preserving its historic buildings, especially in the wake of the recent removal of murals from the iconic Salt Lake Temple and plans to do the same at the pioneer-era Manti Temple.

• Speaking of temples, vicarious religious rites for dead ancestors have been virtually shut down during the coronavirus pandemic, but family history work has been booming nonetheless as millions of people, stuck at home, turn to their computers to connect with long-lost kin.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

• The pandemic also has blessed Latter-day Saint food bloggers with an expanded audience as more and more people turn — and return — to home-cooked meals.

• In addition, news columnist Robert Gehrke explores the political tightrope church higher-ups must walk to rein in political extremists in the pews, while sports commentator Gordon Monson poses the question: Will the faithful — in sports and religion — return to arenas and churches when the pandemic passes?

Nelson’s Palm Sunday message

In a Palm Sunday video, church President Russell M. Nelson recounted a close call he had when a small plane he was in caught fire, sending the aircraft into a perilous plunge.

During the frightening nosedive and before a successful emergency landing, Nelson explained, he was “surprisingly calm.”

“I was at peace,” he said, “and ready to meet my maker.”

The 96-year-old church leader then invited viewers to feel the “real peace that passes all understanding” through faith in Jesus Christ.

He urged people to spend Holy Week “remembering — not just the palms that were waved to honor the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem — but by remembering the palms of his hands,” and Christ’s promise that he would “never forget you.”

Nelson encouraged his audience to “do something this week to follow [Christ’s] teachings. You might make your prayers more earnest. You could forgive someone or help a friend in need.”

He gave a small, if unsurprising, preview of this weekend’s General Conference, stating that the Easter Sunday virtual sessions would be “filled with Christ-centered messages and music.”

Nelson’s YouTube video has amassed more than 15 million views.

Will missionaries throw away their shot?

(Rick Egan | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Latter-day Saint missionaries wear masks in April 2020 in downtown Salt Lake City. The church is encouraging but not requiring its missionaries in Utah to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Top church leaders, including physician-prophet Russell M. Nelson, are encouraging members and missionaries to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

But they’re not requiring it of their young proselytizers in Utah — even as the state opens up immunizations to those 16 and over.

“Under the direction of mission leaders, mission medical coordinators have been asked to monitor local availability of COVID-19 vaccines,” church spokesman Sam Penrod said, “and will inform missionaries when they may be eligible to receive a vaccine.”

Nelson and other apostles age 75 and over set the example, receiving their first doses in January.

“As appropriate opportunities become available, the church urges its members, employees and missionaries to be good global citizens,” the governing First Presidency said at the time, “and help quell the pandemic by safeguarding themselves and others through immunization.”

It added, however, that “individuals are responsible to make their own decisions about vaccination.”

Apparently, that includes the estimated 1,300 to 1,800 full-time missionaries serving in Utah.

Still, the latest version of the General Handbook, which spells out guidelines for members and leaders, encourages Latter-day Saints to “safeguard themselves, their children, and their communities through vaccination,” adding that “prospective missionaries who have not been vaccinated will likely be limited to assignments in their home country.”

The art of depicting church history

Anthony Sweat, whose painting of a female healing blessing captured the imagination and attention of members, has his artist’s eye on a number of other events in church history that have yet to be depicted, including:

• The calling of the faith’s original 12 apostles.

• The Council of Fifty.

• The angel who taught church founder Joseph Smith about the sacrament.

Sweat, an associate professor of church history and doctrine at BYU, rattles off seven other possible art subjects in a recent “10 questions” interview with Kurt Manwaring.

Sweat’s newly released book, “Repicturing the Restoration: New Art to Expand Our Understanding,” aims to bring to light and life underrepresented events in Latter-day Saint history.

“Art needs history to have meaningful events to portray, and history needs art to help carry those events into the minds and hearts of the people,” Sweat told Manwaring. “Visual art can communicate, illuminate and penetrate in ways that the written and spoken word simply cannot.”

It is important to remember, however, that art pieces “are merely interpretations,” the artist-academic said. “... The events may have looked and happened in very different ways than how we are seeing them translated on canvas or film.”

Record year for humanitarian aid

(/Ernest Randriarimalala | Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and WaterAid Toky, 7, and his friends wash their hands at the sanitation block in Madagascar. In 2020, Latter-day Saint Charities provided funding to help support 1.8 million refugees, internally displaced people and host community members in 39 countries with emergency water, shelter, water, sanitation and health support.

A pandemic year of record relief saw Latter-day Saint Charities undertake more than 3,600 total projects in 160 countries, according to the nonprofit agency’s 2020 report.

The church’s humanitarian arm provided:

• Clean water to 593,025 people in 23 countries and territories.

• Food to 357,378 people in 18 countries and territories.

• Maternal and newborn care to 16,473 people in nine countries and territories.

• Vision care to 401,548 people in 17 countries and territories.

• Wheelchairs to 17,381 people in 16 countries and territories.

The COVID-19 response alone — the largest humanitarian effort in the faith’s history — accounted for 1,031 projects in 151 countries and territories.

In addition to its global efforts in 2020, the Utah-based faith sent more than 800 truckloads of food to 380 food banks, homeless shelters and charitable agencies throughout the U.S.

It partnered, for instance, with the Black 14 Philanthropy, the report said, “to bring 180 tons of food to nine cities throughout the United States to help people in need.”

The Black 14 Philanthropy was founded in 2019 by 11 surviving former members of the 1969 University of Wyoming football team. Back then, these players were removed from the team for suggesting a peaceful protest against the church’s then-priesthood-temple ban on Blacks in advance of a game against BYU.

“Latter-day Saint Charities was pleased to partner with the Black 14 Philanthropy,” the report said, “not only to serve those in need but to join together in an effort to heal the hurts of the past.”

Sharon Eubank, head of the agency and first counselor in the general Relief Society presidency, thanked all those who had contributed.

“To anyone who has ever given a humanitarian aid donation, to the child who sealed some coins in an envelope, to the new widower who made a donation in memory of his wife, you are Latter-day Saint Charities,” she wrote in an email to members, “and you are helping others feel the love of God and the love of neighbors in the far reaches of the earth.”

Latter-day Saint Charities’ efforts — and other church happenings — are also spotlighted in the newly released biannual World Report, a pre-General Conference video compilation of Latter-day Saint news from across the globe.

Relief efforts

• Latter-day Saint Charities donated 210,000 masks and 28,000 gowns to the National Hospital in Abuja, Nigeria.

“Since the outbreak of the coronavirus disease,” Dr. Tayo Haastrup, the hospital’s director of communication, said in a news release, “... this is the largest donation we have received from a single organization.”

• The church has opened up meetinghouses in Chile as temporary COVID-19 vaccination centers.

• Church volunteers delivered thousands of pounds of food, thousands of gallons of water and hundreds of hygiene and cleaning kits to help flood victims in Kentucky.

Temple updates

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The baptistry in the Jordan River Temple.

• Utah’s Latter-day Saint youths soon will be able to return to their faith’s temples to be baptized for their deceased ancestors.

At various points in April, according to a news release this week, these proxy baptisms will again take place at all 15 operating temples in the Beehive State.

On April 12, the Bountiful, Brigham City, Draper, Jordan River (in South Jordan), Logan, Monticello, Ogden and Oquirrh Mountain (in South Jordan) temples will resume the religious rite in which members, particularly faithful teenagers, are baptized vicariously for their dead forebears.

On April 26, the Cedar City, Manti, Mount Timpanogos (in American Fork), Payson, Provo, Provo City Center and Vernal temples will join them.

By that date, some 53 Latter-day Saint temples across the globe will be offering baptisms for the dead as part of the faith’s phased reopening plan amid the coronavirus pandemic.

See this list for the status of all temples.

• While news of the removal of historic murals grabbed most of the attention, renovation of the Salt Lake Temple is proceeding on other fronts.

A tunnel beneath North Temple — which will connect the neighboring Conference Center parking lot to the underground temple entrance — is about halfway done.

Scaffolding will surround the temple, with bridges and a lift that will give crews access to the various floors.

See the latest photos and updates.

Quote of the week

“At this Easter season, we gratefully commemorate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We joyfully proclaim and solemnly testify that because of Jesus Christ, we will all live again.

“Central to God’s eternal plan is the mission of his son, Jesus Christ. He came to redeem God’s children. Through the Savior’s atonement, resurrection and immortality became a reality for all and eternal life became a possibility for all who would qualify. Jesus declared:

‘”I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die’ (John 11:25–26).

“Thanks be to God for the atonement of Jesus Christ and for his gift of resurrection!”

— First Presidency’s Easter message

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