Latest from Mormon Land: Dallin Oaks’ ‘supreme’ sacrifice, and General Conference highs and lows

20 new temples coming, church growth plunges, and only two women spoke.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) President Dallin H. Oaks speaks during the morning session of the189th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Sunday April 7, 2019.

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.

Oaks’ change of venue

Dallin H. Oaks may have given up his shot at sitting on the nation’s highest bench in 1984, when he left as a Utah Supreme Court justice to become an apostle.

“If he had wanted it, he could have been appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, a position seen as a steppingstone to becoming a member of the U.S. Supreme Court,” biographer Richard Turley, told interviewer Kurt Manwaring. “His name ended up on lists of potential Supreme Court appointees. He let his friend Antonin Scalia take one such opportunity that might have been his, and Scalia was later appointed to the Supreme Court.”

Oaks’ keen legal mind and intense interest in the law, on display again this past conference, has continued in his church service — even earning him the Canterbury Medal in 2013 for championing religious liberty.

Turley, author of the recently released, “In the Hands of the Lord: The Life of Dallin H. Oaks,” also gives his subject high marks for practicing what the church preaches in regards to journaling.

“He is one of the most documented church leaders in history. I used his personal history, his journals, his correspondence, his talks and a host of other materials ranging from newspaper articles to photographs,” Turley explained. “I would characterize his journals as being among the best ever kept by a church leader.”

The words on those pages may have read much differently had Oaks not traded the black robes of a courtroom for a red chair in the Conference Center.

Confront racism, BYU speaker urges

(Screenshot) Ryan Gabriel, an assistant professor at Brigham Young University, gives a devotional address online on Tuesday, April 6, 2021.

Six months ago, students and faculty at Brigham Young University heard Dallin H. Oaks speak on the evils of racism.

On Tuesday, they heard more on the topic. This time from a Black professor.

Ryan Gabriel, an assistant professor of sociology and the first Black faculty member to address a campus devotional in 14 years, said Latter-day Saints need to recognize racism exists in the church and at its flagship school, and do what they can to end it.

“To pretend that race is unimportant by saying, ‘I don’t see race’ — or to falsely diminish the impacts of racism on the lives of Heavenly Father’s children — does nothing to stop racism,” he said. “Christ does not ask us to ignore or wish away another’s pain but to know it and touch it.”

It is a sin to be racist, Gabriel added, but it may also be a sin to not try to address it and uproot it.

His talk comes in the wake of a report released by BYU showing deep issues with discrimination that led students of color to feel “isolated and unsafe” on the overwhelmingly white Provo campus.

Younger members went for Biden

(Andrew Harnik | AP file photo) Joe Biden declares victory in the presidential race Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. A new survey shows young Latter-day Saints favored the Democrat over Republican incumbent Donald Trump.

Although U.S. Latter-day Saints remain overwhelmingly Republican, nearly half the members under age 40 voted for Democrat Joe Biden last fall, according to the 2020 Cooperative Election Study.

“This continues a trend we’ve been seeing for at least five years now, in which younger Latter-day Saints are less likely to fall in line with the default Republican affiliation that has characterized Mormon voters since the 1950s,” writes Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess. “It remains to be seen whether this is a specific reaction against [Donald] Trump or will outlast him. It’s also unclear whether these voters will grow more conservative as they age.”

Riess also noted that 55% Latter-day Saints of color cast ballots for the eventual Democratic victor. But, she added, there was no gender gap among members. Latter-day Saint women, who had shown far less enthusiasm for Trump during the campaign season, wound up voting for the GOP incumbent at roughly the same rate as male members.

Conference recap

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Russell M. Nelson announces 20 new temples to be built as the close of General Conference on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021.

The 191st Annual General Conference featured strong denunciations of cyberbullying, abortion, racist attacks and political feuding among members — along with Christ-centered, resurrection-themed sermons and songs, especially on Easter Sunday.

Here are highlights from the all-virtual sessions:

• President Russell M. Nelson closed the conference by announcing 20 new temples.

Five nations will get their first Latter-day Saint temples: Norway (Oslo), Belgium (Brussels), Austria (Vienna), Mozambique (Beira), and Singapore.

Utah will get its 26th, this one in Smithfield.

The other 14 temples will be in Kumasi, Ghana; Cape Town, South Africa; Belo Horizonte, Brazil; Cali, Colombia; Querétaro, México; Torreón, México; Helena, Mont.; Casper, Wyo.; Grand Junction, Colo.; Farmington, N.M.; Burley, Idaho; Eugene, Ore.; Elko, Nev.; and Yorba Linda, Calif.

Nelson now has announced 69 new temples in his three years at the faith’s helm.

• At Nelson’s request, Sunday morning’s session showcased the church’s international footprint, with leaders native to the Philippines, Hong Kong, Fiji, Portugal, Zimbabwe, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Mexico and Brazil giving addresses. Choirs of all ages sang hymns from the four corners of the world.

(Photo courtesy of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The new Primary General Presidency: Susan Porter, left, first counselor, Camille Johnson, president, and Amy Wright, second counselor.

• A new Primary general presidency was installed, with Salt Lake City attorney Camille N. Johnson as president and Susan H. Porter and Amy Wright as counselors. Eight new general authority Seventies also were called. You may have noticed, though, that having a First Presidency member rattle off — or struggle through — a long list of sometimes-hard-to-pronounce names was missing from the sustaining portion of conference. That’s because the 77 new Area Seventies were announced beforehand at a leadership meeting. This marked the first time that such area leaders were presented for a sustaining vote in a pre-General Conference setting.

• Only two women — outgoing general Primary President Joy D. Jones and Relief Society second counselor Reyna I. Aburto — spoke during the two-day gathering. One woman, Sharon Eubank, Relief Society first counselor, offered a prayer. This was the thinnest female representation at a conference pulpit in recent history.

“The number of women speaking compared to men this conference was abysmal,” blogger Emily Jensen wrote on By Common Consent. “The number of times women will be included in the coming Sunday lessons and talks based on the conference texts will similarly be abysmal. It’s sad, frustrating, and terribly disappointing because it feels like the church wants to continue to be able to say that women are important without actually showing it.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

• Church growth, meanwhile, fell off a COVID cliff as convert baptisms plunged by nearly 50%. Last year saw 125,930 newcomers baptized, down from 248,835 in 2019. The church also reported 65,440 children of record in 2020, almost 31% below the 94,266 added to the membership tally the previous year. Overall membership stood at 16,663,663 at year’s end, up 98,627 from 2019, far below the type of six-figure gains the faith usually experiences.

Sermon snippets

Dallin H. Oaks expounded on the U.S. Constitution and reminded members to “refrain from judging one another in political matters.”

“We should never assert that a faithful Latter-day Saint cannot belong to a particular party or vote for a particular candidate,” said the former justice. “...There are many political issues, and no party, platform, or individual candidate can satisfy all personal preferences. Each citizen must therefore decide which issues are most important to him or her at any particular time. Then, members should seek inspiration on how to exercise their influence according to their individual priorities. This process will not be easy. It may require changing party support or candidate choices, even from election to election.”

Days later, Oaks’ remarks were still being discussed, debated and dissected in commentaries and news stories.

President Russell M. Nelson urged Latter-day Saints to build on their faith, not their doubts.

“It takes faith to follow prophets rather than pundits and popular opinion. It takes faith to serve a mission during a pandemic,” he said. “It takes faith to live a chaste life when the world shouts that God’s law of chastity is now outmoded. It takes faith to teach the gospel to children in a secular world. It takes faith to plead for the life of a loved one, and even more faith to accept a disappointing answer.”

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Gary E. Stevenson speaks at General Conference on Saturday, April 3, 2021.

Apostle Gary E. Stevenson encouraged kindness in every aspect of life — from standing up against bullies to speaking out against racism.

“We have been heartbroken to hear of recent attacks on people who are Black, Asian, Latino or of any other group,” he said. “Prejudice, racial tension or violence should never have any place in our neighborhoods, communities or within the church.”

• Apostles Gerrit W. Gong and M. Russell Ballard noted that most adult Latter-day Saints are unmarried, widowed or divorced — a “demographic pattern that has been the case in the worldwide church since 1992,” Gong said, “and in the church in the United States and Canada since 2019.”

“Our standing before the Lord and in his church is not a matter of our marital status,” he added, “but of our becoming faithful and valiant disciples of Jesus Christ.”

In a leadership training session, Ballard noted that the latest General Handbook updates allow single men to serve as counselors in bishoprics and stake presidencies in young single adult wards and stakes.

“Don’t worry about their age,” Ballard said. “I am 92. I am glad I was not released from my calling ... because of my age or at the death of my wife.”

Reyna I. Aburto, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, recalled her brother’s death decades ago in an earthquake.

“I was heartbroken by sorrow,” she recalled. A few years later, “I would imagine him knocking on our door. I would open the door, he would be standing there, and he would tell me, ‘I am not dead. I am alive.’”

Decades later, while pondering Christ’s rise from the tomb, Aburto “realized that the Spirit had given me comfort in a difficult time. I had received a witness that my brother’s spirit is not dead; he is alive.”

(Photo courtesy of The Church Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Reyna I. Aburto, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, speaks at General Conference on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021.

Apostle Neil L. Andersen called on Latter-day Saints to avoid abortion and embrace adoption.

“Abortion is an evil, stark and real and repugnant,” he said. “...I plead with the women of this church to shun it, to stand above it, to stay away from those compromising situations which make it appear desirable.”

Apostle Dale G. Renlund tackled a tough topic: the “inexplicable unfairness” in life, inviting members to trust Jesus, who suffered the ultimate unfairness, and do all they can to ease it in others.

“As we develop faith in Jesus Christ, we should also strive to become like him. We then approach others with compassion and try to alleviate unfairness where we find it,” he said. “... We will be judged not so much by what we say but by how we treat the vulnerable and disadvantaged.”

This week’s podcast: Jana Riess revisits conference

Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess, author of “The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church,” looks back at the highlights, lowlights and memorable moments from General Conference and what some of them may portend for the church’s future.

Listen here.

Debut meeting of new women’s advisers

(Screenshot courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The first meeting took place viturally for the new international area organization advisers of the church Wednesday, March 31, 2021.

While female voices were lacking from the high-profile pulpit at General Conference, dozens were heard a few days before in a less-visible setting.

All 50 of the newly named international area organization advisers — women who help provide training and mentorship to local leaders outside the U.S. and Canada — met virtually Wednesday with the church’s general female officers, according to a news release.

Said general Relief Society President Jean B. Bingham: “It was so thrilling to have each of these sisters wave after hearing their name called and say, ‘Hello from Argentina,’ ‘Good morning to you from Ghana,’ ‘Hello and I love you from Spain,’ ‘Hi from Mongolia,’ ‘Konnichiwa from Japan,’ ‘Hello from your sister in the Philippines’ and ‘Bonjour, mes amis from Barbados.’ And so on from around the world.”

Handbook addresses timely topics

(File 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. The church handbook encourages members to be inoculated.

Latter-day Saint leaders have a message for you: Watch out for a fellow ward member who offers a can’t-miss investment, and don’t go overboard stocking up on food storage.

And, while you’re at it, get that COVID-19 vaccine.

The church’s latest updates to the online General Handbook contain warnings about affinity fraud and survivalism, while encouraging members to be vaccinated.

• “Affinity fraud occurs when a person exploits another’s trust or confidence to defraud him or her. This can happen when both people belong to the same group, such as the church,” reads the new section. “It can also happen by abusing a position of friendship or trust, such as a church calling or family relationship.”

Perpetrators of this “shameful betrayal of trust” could lose their church membership.

• Yes, leaders advise members to prepare for disasters and hard times but it counsels against “extreme or excessive preparation.”

“Such efforts are sometimes called survivalism,” the new handbook entry states. “Efforts to prepare should be motivated by faith, not fear.”

• Immunizations “protect health and preserve life,” the handbook reiterates. Latter-day Saints “are encouraged to safeguard themselves, their children, and their communities through vaccination.”

Church President Russell M. Nelson and other apostles set the example back in January, receiving their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Ultimately,” the handbook adds, “individuals are responsible to make their own decisions about vaccination.”

Church turns 191

• Tuesday, of course, marked the 191st anniversary of the faith’s founding in Fayette, N.Y., with six original members.

Another 40 women and men also attended this historic meeting.

Later, founder Joseph Smith saw his mom and dad baptized into the fledgling faith.

“As his father came out of the water,” states “Saints: Volume 1: The Standard of Truth,” “Joseph took him by the hand, helped him onto the bank, and embraced him. ‘My God,’ he cried, burying his face in his father’s chest, ‘I have lived to see my father baptized into the true church of Jesus Christ!’”

(Photo courtesy Ron Fox) Church President George Albert Smith, center, is seen with other local leaders in the lobby of The Salt Lake Tribune as the city celebrated Japan's surrender to end WWII in 1945. Smith died 70 years ago this week.

George Albert Smith, the church’s eighth prophet-president, died 70 years ago this week on April 4, 1951. It was his 81st birthday. He had served six years as president.

Smith was called as an apostle in 1903 at age 33 during General Conference, even though he could not attend the meeting and had no word beforehand of the appointment.

Who’s suing the church for fraud and why?

Before James Huntsman, there was Laura Gaddy. And Rodney Jay Vessels. And Lynnette Cook. And Julie Taggart. And many others.

They all have sued the church, at one time or another, accusing it of fraud.

Huntsman is a member of a prominent family, of course, so his recent federal lawsuit and quest to recover a $5 million-plus tithing refund gained worldwide publicity. But his is hardly the only suit of its kind.

Read here about the other legal actions, and why they may be more about sending a message than recovering money.

Art in the crossfire

The recent announcement that historic murals either have been, or will be, removed from the Salt Lake and Manti temples set off a debate about, among other things, art serving worship and worship serving art.

Recent point-counterpoint blog posts for Times & Seasons argue the question:

Writes Jonathan Green: “I’ve certainly enjoyed discovering murals in .... temples. If it were up to me, I’d put murals in all the temples…. But compared to the temple ordinances, the murals are unimportant. They’re just art.”

Chad Nielsen counters: “I recognize that the move to change the internal layout of the Salt Lake Temple has a purpose, and that there are good things that the people running the renovation intend to do….The murals were created to serve the temple, and they did that job well. The experience will have lost that added element of beauty and thoughtfulness for losing the murals.”

Temple updates

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

Next week, according to a news release, 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.

None of the temples is back at full capacity.

“You may be wondering when you will be able to return to the temple,” President Russell M. Nelson told members Sunday in his closing conference remarks. “Answer: Your temple will be open when local government regulations allow it.”

He then pleaded with Latter-day Saints to “do all you can to bring COVID numbers down in your area so that your temple opportunities can increase.”

See this list for the status of all temples.

Quote of the week

“Genuine hope — the theological virtue that sits next to faith and charity — requires more from us than cautious optimism and a leisurely stroll. It is a frantic running towards something that we have heard about — perhaps all of our lives — and desperately want to be true. The essence of Easter is not a passive hope, but an anxious and even a desperate hope. A longing to believe. Maybe our lives don’t end when we die. Maybe we can be reconciled to a perfect and loving God. Maybe we can find joy in our lives that endures for eternity. Even if we don’t know for sure, the news is something worth breaking a sweat for.”

— Michael Austin in a By Common Consent post

Mormon Land is a weekly newsletter written by David Noyce. Subscribe here.