Latest from Mormon Land: COVID led to slowest church growth in 160 years; new group seeks to elect LDS women.

Also: ‘Surprise’ temples; the life of Dallin Oaks; and a pitch for paid child care at Sunday services.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

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 pandemic plunge

All church statistics for 2020 should carry a COVID-19 asterisk. While everyone expected the pandemic to shrink growth, we now know the extent: Convert baptisms cut in half, for instance, and new children of record down by nearly a third.

Independent researcher Matt Martinich, who religiously tracks these demographics at ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com, sheds more light with some eye-popping observations:

Total membership • 16,663,663, up 98,627 (0.6%) from 16,565,036 in 2019.

“The last time the church reported an annual membership growth rate that was slower than 2020 was in 1857, when negative membership growth occurred (this was during the time of the reformation movement when church leaders advocated rebaptism to recommit to their covenants and to church teachings),” Martinich writes. “...The last time there was an increase of less than 100,000 for total church membership was in 1973, when there was a net increase of 87,750 members.”

He notes, however, that the pandemic “did not appear to significantly change trends with deaths, excommunications [membership withdrawals], resignations, or removal of unbaptized children of record over age 8.”

Convert baptisms • 125,930, down from 248,835 (49.4%) from the previous year.

“This is the lowest number of convert baptisms reported by the church since 1975, when there were 95,412 converts baptized,” Martinich states. “...Most missions in the church reported a large decrease in the number of convert baptisms during 2020, albeit in late 2020, there were also reports of some missions where the number of mostly convert baptisms surpassed the number of baptisms for the same month in 2019.”

(File photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A pre-pandemic Latter-day Saint baptism in Africa.

A Salt Lake Tribune review shows the high-water mark for convert baptisms this decade came in 2014, when 296,803 proselytes joined the faith. The average annual convert tally since 2010: nearly 250,000.

Children of record • 65,440, down from 94,266 (30.6%) in 2019.

The last time this number was that low came in 2001, when 69,522 children were added to the church rolls, Martinich says. The peak occurred in 1982 with 124,000 kids blessed into the church.

“Many members have chosen to postpone blessing their infant children and adding them to church records during the pandemic,” Martinich writes, “until gathering restrictions are relaxed to permit extended family to visit for this ordinance.”

While experts foresee the ranks of children of record to rebound as coronavirus conditions ease, this statistic has been steadily declining for years. In 2019, the number slipped below 100,000 for the first time in 13 years.

A Tribune review shows that number has dropped every year since 2014, when 116,409 children of record were reported. The high point this decade took place in 2012, when 122,273 were added to the rolls.

The main reason for the sliding trajectory in children of record: a falling birthrate.

“What we will see is that there’s going to be a nice little surge as people [return to bless their children after the pandemic],” researcher-writer Jana Riess said on last week’s “Mormon Land” podcast, “but then that downward trend is probably going to continue unless fertility rates rise significantly.”

Martinich also points to other factors, including “married members constituting smaller percentages of overall church membership and difficulties with establishing full-member families outside the United States.”

Congregational growth • 31,136, up 196 (0.6%) from 30,940 the previous year.

“This is a significant development, given that the last time congregational growth rates surpassed membership growth rates was in 1998,” Martinich explains. “...Nevertheless, congregational growth rates have become more commensurate with membership growth rates for most recent years, which suggests improvements in convert retention and member activity in the countries with the most congregations.”

‘Surprise’ temples

Matt Martinich also examined the General Conference announcement of 20 new temples. Two of the proposed European edifices “surprised” the researcher.

Plans for the Brussels Temple came as a “total shock,” he says, given Belgium’s proximity to The Hague Temple in the neighboring Netherlands, along with Belgium’s relatively small membership (7,000) and slow growth.

However, a temple site may already be in the works, Martinich notes, and Brussels, headquarters to the European Union, plays a prominent role in international affairs.

The Vienna Temple surprised him as well and for many of the same reasons. Hungary’s Budapest Temple, announced two years ago, would be relatively close, and Austria’s membership gains (5,000) and congregational growth have virtually stalled.

On the other hand, the planned Kumasi Temple, Ghana’s second, will bolster a booming membership of nearly 90,000.

“Kumasi has experienced some of the most rapid growth in the church in West Africa during the past decade,” Martinich writes. “The number of stakes [clusters of congregations] in Kumasi has increased from one in 2010 to four.”

What about the temples coming to Oslo, Norway; Beira, Mozambique; Singapore; 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.; Yorba Linda, Calif.; and Smithfield, Utah?

Read Martinich’s full analysis here.

See Jane run — for office

A woman’s place is in … politics.

That’s the message from Project Elect: Women in Public Service, a newly launched nonpartisan, nonprofit group that aims to help female Latter-day Saints pursue political office.

“Most women members of the church already know about their communities’ problems and have ideas on how to solve them,” Audrey Perry Martin, founder and CEO of Project Elect, said in a release on the group’s website. “Women Latter-day Saints have deep networks and the experience and skills they need to be incredible elected officials. They really are ideal candidates; they just might need a push to recognize that fact.”

The organization plans to educate women about the need for their voices in the public arena, encourage and recruit them to run for elected office, and then support female candidates when they do.

Why the new movement?

For starters, Project Elect noted, the “experiences and perspectives of women of faith” are underrepresented at all levels of politics. In addition, the group argues, Latter-day Saint women can help “solve our nation’s most intransigent problems.”

The independent grassroots effort, which is not affiliated with the church, vows to be truly nonpartisan.

“We do not consider a woman’s partisan status or the fact that her platform may align with a particular political party,” the website states, “when we invite her to gather with us or benefit from Project Elect resources.”

This week’s podcast: Laying down the law

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency speaks during General Conference on Saturday, April 3, 2021.

His father died when he was 7 years old. Raised by his mother and his maternal grandparents, he committed himself to hard work and diligent scholarship. He became a star student, earned a degree at one of the nation’s most prestigious law schools and launched a legal career that would see him rise to the Utah Supreme Court with whispers that he someday could land a seat on the country’s highest court.

Then, virtually overnight, Dallin H. Oaks changed his life’s trajectory, trading his career in the law for a commitment to his Lord. He accepted a call to be an apostle, a lifetime appointment in which he now stands as the top counselor to President Russell M. Nelson and next in line to assume leadership of the global faith.

On this week’s show, historian Richard Turley talks about his recently released biography, “In the Hands of the Lord: The Life of Dallin H. Oaks,” which documents the personal journey of a church leader known for his devotion to religious liberty, his doctrinal dissections and his pointed preaching from the pulpit.

Listen here.

Professional child care at church

Mindy Farmer has an idea that will make Sunday services more pleasant for parents and youngsters: Replace the volunteer nursery with paid child care.

The Exponent II blogger relays the story of attending an interfaith meeting for mothers that provided professional child care.

“Women felt comfortable leaving their children in the church nursery across the hall,” she writes, “because the caregivers passed background checks, earned a fair wage, and had a well-managed sign-in system.”

Farmer sees a host advantages in this model for Latter-day Saints because paid child care could:

• Welcome infants, not just toddlers 18 months to 3 years old.

• Function during sacrament services — as well as other Sunday meetings — and offer age-appropriate activities for the young and the restless.

• Provide trained, experienced staffers who have cleared “consistent background checks.”

• Operate during weekday church meetings as well.

• Offer a safer, more trustworthy option for parents.

• Relieve members of the often exhausting, isolating and “spiritually draining” responsibility of overseeing the nursery.

“I recognize that part of the Mormon work ethic is to volunteer time and energy to the church,” Farmer concedes. “I also recognize that parents need the opportunity to worship and commune as couples and individuals. Unfortunately, sometimes those two goals are in conflict.”

How would the faith pay for this service? Easy, Farmer says. Tap those church reserve funds that have been grabbing so many headlines lately.

“Providing child care,” she concludes, “would be a meaningful way for LDS Church leaders to demonstrate that women are seen and cared for and that the safety and well-being of children are prioritized.”

Marching for Minerva

Grassroots forces continue to make noise over the church’s plans to remove Minerva Teichert’s mural from the Manti Temple.

This week, they made bread, too.

Nearly 130 people gathered Sunday in downtown Provo to share homemade bread, prayers and hopes for preserving Teichert’s masterpiece wall painting, reports Andi Pitcher Davis, an Orem artist and art editor for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. The assemblage then marched to the Provo City Center Temple, where a Teichert original was lost in 2010′s Provo Tabernacle fire.

The Walking With Minerva event drew “many of Teichert’s relatives,” she says, “as well as two LDS women painters who, alongside their father, James Christensen, painted the murals for the Provo City Temple.”

BYU Women’s Conference is set

(File photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Ronald A. Rasband and his wife, Melanie, participate in a worldwide Face to Face event for Latter-day Saint young adults on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Goshen, Utah. The couple will speak this month in the all-virtual BYU Women's Conference.

The 45th Annual BYU Women’s Conference will be online again this year.

Running April 29 and 30, free and paid sessions will be available.

Apostle Ronald A. Rasband and his wife, Melanie Rasband, will speak at one of the seven free sessions, according to a news release. Other sessions will feature the general presidencies of the Relief Society, Young Women and Primary.

Register or find more information at womensconference.byu.edu/registration.

Relief efforts

• After sleeping for 42 years, the La Soufrière volcano has roared back to life — and so have relief efforts in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Some 44 members have taken refuge in the church’s Kingston meetinghouse, according to a news release, where water and food are available.

• UNICEF’s executive director has expressed her gratitude to Latter-day Saint Charities, the faith’s humanitarian arm, for contributing $20 million toward the agency’s worldwide COVID-19 vaccination effort.

“Your support will help ensure that the COVID-19 vaccine is distributed equitably to countries around the world. Because no one is safe until everyone is safe,” Henrietta H. Fore said in a video thank-you. “...UNICEF values the unique role that our faith-based partners play in reaching communities around the world. When we join forces around our shared commitment to children’s well-being, the power of our collective impact creates truly transformational change.”

Temple updates

(Rendering courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Tallahassee Florida Temple.

• A June groundbreaking will be held for the Tallahassee Temple, the church said this week.

Announced a year ago, the single-story, 29,000-square-foot building will be the third temple in Florida, home to more than 160,000 members.

• Latter-day Saints returned this week to Utah temples to be baptized for their deceased ancestors.

On Monday, a news release noted, the Bountiful, Brigham City, Draper, Jordan River (in South Jordan), Logan, Monticello, Ogden and Oquirrh Mountain (in South Jordan) temples resumed 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, 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.

Quote of the week

“There is a well-known story, among the Buddhists, of the Buddha pointing to the moon. His disciples end up focusing more on the Buddha’s finger than they did on the moon itself. Of course, they need to look at the finger to see the moon, but the finger is a mere pointer, it is not the moon. A person who mistakes the finger for the moon sees neither the real moon nor the finger. So it is with our journey back home. Covenants point us where to go, but they are not themselves where we are going. Where they point to ... is an utter transformation of our natures into Christlike beings.”

Buddhist Bishop in a Wheat & Tares blog post.

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