Latest from Mormon Land: President Russell Nelson’s grave marker includes a temple surprise

Also: Latter-day Saints salute Muslim Ramadan, honor earthly mothers, debate about their Heavenly Mother, and unite with nation in prayer.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) This monument will mark the grave of church President Russell M. Nelson in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

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.

Nelson’s headstone gets assist from temple renovation

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) This notation appears on the monument that will mark church President Russell M. Nelson's grave in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. May 10, 2021.

It has become a common practice for a husband or wife to erect a headstone for the couple after only one has died — waiting to list the death date for the surviving spouse to be engraved later.

Still, mourners strolling through the northwest quadrant of the historic Salt Lake City Cemetery might be startled to see a tall granite shaft emblazoned with the name Russell M. Nelson and the words “Seventeenth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

His birth year is listed as “1924.” For the record, though, the 96-year-old Nelson is very much alive.

Beneath the church leader’s name, it says, “Dantzel White Nelson 1926-2005” (his first wife) and “Wendy Watson Nelson 1950-” (his current spouse).

On the back, there is a brass plaque which reads: “This monument was crafted of stone from the Salt Lake Temple 2020 renovation.”

The iconic temple is in the midst of a massive, four-year makeover and seismic upgrade. See the latest photos and video from that project.

Ramadan reflections

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Latter-day Saints and other interfaith communities in the United Arab Emirates attend the firing of the Ramadan cannon to mark the end of the daily fast, followed by an Iftar meal in 2019.

Islam and Mormonism share some religious traditions. Both have histories rooted in a prophet. Both tout modesty and family values. Both shun alcohol and embrace fasting.

During Ramadan — the Islamic holy month dedicated to dawn-to-dusk fasting and multiple daily prayers — Latter-day Saints feel an even closer kinship to their Muslim friends.

“It is a special time for me and for my family,” Linton Crockford-Moore, a Latter-day Saint who lives in the United Arab Emirates, says in a news release. “This is a time when the pace of the city where I live changes, a time when our Muslim brothers and sisters seek inward reflection and express an outward devotion to God.”

And those Islamic rituals can serve as helpful reminders to Latter-day Saints, explains Eva Georgieva, another Latter-day Saint in Dubai.

“Living in the Middle East and hearing the call to prayer five times a day,” Georgieva says, “I ask myself, ‘Have I prayed enough today? Have I remembered God today?’”

The church’s tiny UAE presence will take on bigger significance when the faith’s first temple in the Middle East is built there. Announced a year ago, the Dubai Temple came at the country’s “gracious invitation,” church President Russell M. Nelson has said. It will serve thousands of Latter-day Saints in the Gulf States and a number of other places in the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe and western Asia, the church has reported, though an exact location and rendering have yet to be released.

At the end of Ramadan, general authority Seventy Anthony D. Perkins, president of the church’s Middle East/Africa North Area, sent Eid al-Fitr greetings to Muslims.

“To all our Muslim friends throughout the world, we express our gratitude,” he said in a YouTube message. “Fasting is something we believe in, as you do, and believe that it brings us closer to God. … Your good example has strengthened my faith. Your collective devotion has made the world a better place.”

This week’s podcast: Left-learning Unitarian in Zion

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Rev. Tom Goldsmith talks to his staff Tuesday, May 11, 2021, at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City. Goldsmith is retiring after 34 years.

For 34 years, the Rev. Tom Goldsmith of Salt Lake City’s First Unitarian Church has been a prominent presence on Utah’s religious landscape.

At the helm of his left-leaning congregation, Goldsmith championed social justice causes like immigration reform and climate change.

He has shaped his congregation into a refuge for believers who do not feel at home in more conservative faiths, including the LDS Church.

Now he is retiring and will give his farewell sermon Sunday.

On this week’s show, he reflects on his ministry, including his dispute with Salt Lake City after it sold a chunk of Main Street to the LDS Church, congregant Tim DeChristopher’s monkey-wrenching of an oil and gas lease auction, and his church providing sanctuary to a Honduran immigrant.

Listen here.

The Mother of all debates

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) An art exhibit is on display at Writ & Vision in Provo titled "Visions of Heavenly Mother" on Tuesday, May 4, 2021.

She is the subject of more and more books. She is mentioned in more and more sermons. And she is the topic of more and more debates.

Even so, Heavenly Mother, though fully embraced by the faith, is hardly a settled theological notion.

Some Latter-day Saints crave for more information about her. Others prefer to keep her a God of mystery.

Though the existence of Mother in Heaven “has achieved legitimacy in Mormon theology and culture, she is still absent in worship and everyday practice,” scholar Margaret Toscano tells The Salt Lake Tribune, “and mostly referenced not as an individual deity but as one of the Heavenly Parents, a vague designation that subsumes her into a divine patriarchal family.”

Many Latter-day Saints hope to change that.

What if girls knew that Mother God had breasts and hips and curves? asks Bethany Brady Spalding, co-author of children’s books about the divine feminiine. And that she was part of the creative process and a powerhouse in the eternal realms?

Instead of a “heavenly hush” surrounding her, the writer wonders, what if there were a “heavenly hallelujah”?

Read more about this intensifying debate here.

Nelson’s Mother’s Day message

Church President Russell M. Nelson mentioned those Heavenly Parents in his Mother’s Day Facebook post, while also noting that the annual holiday can prove difficult for women.

“I love Mother’s Day, but I realize that many women don’t share my enthusiasm,” he wrote. “Some feel left out of this holiday because they haven’t borne children, and others dislike it because they have.”

Nelson remembered his mother, Edna, who instilled him with confidence. He lauded his late wife, Dantzel, with whom he had 10 children and who “brought out the best in me.” He praised his eighth grade teacher, Miss Collins, who consistently challenged him to “do better work.” He also saluted his current spouse, Wendy, who never bore children but “has mothered groups large and small.”

“Women not only bear children,” Nelson said, “they bear with all of humankind in life-changing ways. … So on this Mother’s Day, I pay tribute to the life-sustaining influence of all of God’s daughters. Our Heavenly Parents love you for your sheer courage and for the unequaled influence you have in this world of ours.”

Before the U.S. holiday, President Jean B. Bingham, who oversees the faith’s all-female Relief Society, called Mother’s Day a “unique time to reflect on the deep appreciation we have for the mothers in our lives.”

“Whether they are birth, adoptive or foster moms; a grandmother; an aunt; a Primary teacher; a sister; or a friend, the role of “mother” has a myriad of expressions,” she wrote on Instagram. “I give thanks for every woman who is filling that role for so many throughout the world.”

Let it go, says Wendy Nelson

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Graduates listen in their cars as commencement speaker Wendy Nelson speaks at Utah Valley University's graduation program in Orem on Friday, May 7, 2021.

Evict contention from your lives and let love move in, the faith’s first lady urged Utah Valley University graduates recently.

“We hear and see so much contention today. And contention is lethal,” Wendy Nelson counseled in her keynote address at the Orem school’s commencement. “It can ruin your physical health, ravage your relationships, and play havoc with your productivity, creativity and stamina.”

Pointing to cyberbullying, presidential campaigns, social media and “everything from masks to guns,” Nelson, wife of church President Russell M. Nelson, encouraged people to move past political disagreements.

“We don’t need to agree with another person’s ideas,” she said. “But when we open our ears and hearts to their ideas, love enters in.”

Her talk came after some students and faculty spoke out against her invitation to speak because of her past remarks about the LGBTQ community. She has published pieces in which she labels gay relationships a “distortion and perversion.”

Nelson began her remarks by noting that, as a college student, she hoped to fall in love in her 20s, marry and have 10 kids.

That didn’t happen. She continued her schooling, pursued her career as a family therapist, launched a private counseling practice and became a professor.

“And then surprise!” she said. “I married when I was in my 50s to a man with 10 children. … And now, after 15 years of marriage, my husband and I still fall in love with each other more every day.”

Russell Nelson, who attended the ceremony, wrote later on Facebook that he “couldn’t help but wonder how many were changed by her insights.”

Ousted therapist loses her spiritual ‘home’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Natasha Helfer, center left, a sex therapist who lost her membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is joined by supporters Friday, May 7, 2021, as they petition the First Presidency to repeal her removal from the faith.

Since losing her church membership, Natasha Helfer says she feels like she has been kicked out of her home.

She wants back in.

The sex therapist, who was disciplined for “conduct contrary to the law and order of the church” by publicly and repeatedly opposing the church’s doctrines, policies and leaders on sexuality issues, has appealed her removal.

Helfer tells The Tribune that she doubts the governing First Presidency will grant her request.

“I have been serving my faith community for a majority of my professional career, and I have also been active in my faith community for most of my life,” she says. “I have many spiritual, social and professional experiences that are very valuable to me and continue to be. To be, in essence, kicked out of your home, whether you agree with your leaders or all the people who belong to the home, it’s still obviously traumatic.”

Remembering Heber J. Grant and Parley P. Pratt

(Photo courtesy Utah State Historical Society/Tribune negative collection) President Heber J. Grant of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is greeted by a crowd at a train station in Salt Lake City in 1936.

This week marks the anniversary of two significant deaths in church history:

Heber J. Grant, the faith’s seventh president, died 76 years ago, on May 14, 1945. He was 88.

Grant was installed during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 and served for almost 27 years, the second longest tenure after Brigham Young’s nearly 30 years.

Parley P. Pratt, an early apostle and writer, was murdered 164 years ago, on May 13, 1857, in Arkansas. He was 50.

Pratt’s tract “A Voice of Warning” had been a proselytizing tour de force, helping to bring waves of converts into the church. He was killed by the estranged husband of his 12th wife.

Calling the shots

A PRRI survey reported last month that half of Latter-day Saints either have received — or plan to receive — a COVID-19 vaccination. What about the other half?

Well, 33% are “hesitant” about getting the shot, the study shows, while 17% say they won’t be getting one.

Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess finds those results fascinating, especially since the church hierarchy (starting at the top with President Russell M. Nelson) has preached, practiced and prayed for vaccinations and the study ranked members first in saying they trust in their religious leaders to do what is right.

“So, Latter-day Saints: What gives?” Riess asks. “My take from this is that, as a colleague reminded me recently, we’ve reached a point in the intersection of religion and American politics where politics trumps religion.”

That means, in the curiously politicized world of immunizations, some conservative members now find themselves at odds with the church on this issue.

Nelson gets the third degree

Russell M. Nelson has received his third degree from his alma mater.

The 96-year-old church president earned a bachelor’s from the University of Utah in 1945, followed by his medical degree two years later before going on to become a pioneering heart surgeon.

On Thursday, the Beehive State’s flagship school awarded Nelson an honorary doctorate at its virtual commencement ceremony.

“No matter what your field of endeavor, it’s well to excel,” Nelson advised U. graduates in a video, according to FOX 13. “...Do your work well, do it as well as anyone else can, and then it all equalizes out.”

More senior missionaries

Members age 26 and up anywhere in the world now can serve senior service missions.

Previously, these opportunities were limited to the U.S., Canada and a few other areas.

“We are deeply grateful for the faithful service of senior missionaries around the world and for the significant contributions they make in building the kingdom of God,” the First Presidency wrote in announcing the expansion.

These missionaries — who live at home and serve for eight to 40 hours a week — may help out at mission offices, bishops’ storehouses, distribution centers and FamilySearch centers, a news release explained. They can also assist with self-reliance programs, BYU–Pathway, employment centers and other places.

There are more than 20,000 senior service missionaries, the release said, who serve from six months to two years..

A day to pray

Let U.S. pray.

That was the message across the country last Thursday on the congressionally mandated National Day of Prayer.

Top church leaders added their amens as well.

“Sometimes it may feel as though some of our most fervent prayers go unanswered,” church President Russell M. Nelson tweeted. “I know that feeling! But I also know that our prayers are heard. And our faith is strengthened by prayer.”

Senior apostle M. Russell Ballard struck an interreligious tone.

“No matter how you pray or to whom you pray, please exercise your faith — whatever your faith may be — and pray for your country and for your national leaders,” Ballard tweeted, echoing a sentiment he expressed in 2019. “There is nothing more important right now than the people of all nations praying for divine inspiration and guidance.”

Gains in Ghana, Ukraine

Ukraine has achieved a milestone: its second stake.

It wasn’t easy, The Cumorah Foundation reports in its latest newsletter, after the church discontinued some branches due to the war in eastern Ukraine.

The nation is home to more than 11,000 members, according to the church website, and one temple.

Meanwhile, the church has formed its third stake in the Cape Coast metropolitan area of Ghana, the foundation notes.

The African nation has nearly 90,000 Latter-day Saints, dozens of stakes, one dedicated temple, in Accra, and another announced last month, coming to Kumasi.

Ethiopian leader visits

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Secretary General Tiguhan Kesis Tagay Tadele points to boxed food donations while touring The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Bishops’ Central Storehouse, where food and supplies are stored, shipped, and distributed to people in need throughout the United States. Tuesday, May 4, 2021, in Salt Lake City.

The head of the Inter-Religious Council of Ethiopia toured Welfare Square, the Bishops’ Central Storehouse and the Humanitarian Center in Salt Lake City recently and walked away feeling thankful, impressed and resolved.

“I’m very happy from several things I have seen. This will teach Ethiopia and the world,” Secretary General Tiguhan Kesis Tagay Tadele said in a news release. “... I have seen the work that has been done here. I will educate the people in my country about self-reliance and humanitarian service so that those people can help each other and can also bring peace to others.”

Tadele met with the First Presidency and a handful of Utah religious leaders. He also viewed a video about the special fast Latter-day Saints held in 1985 that raised millions of dollars in one weekend to help Ethiopia’s famine victims.

“I have seen the [church] helping around the world,” Tadele said. “When asked for bread, they fed the hungry. We have learned many things from the church. I would like to encourage them to continue helping those in need.”

Let’s meet in ‘The Foyer’

There’s a new podcast on the Mormon dial.

The Foyer: Conversations About Mormon History and Culture” debuted in November and has featured emeritus general authorities, scholars, poets, feminists, even a rock star.

Hosted by Patrick Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, the show started as a substitute after the pandemic precluded having guest speakers and forums on the Logan campus.

The first guests were retired general authority Seventies Marlin K. Jensen and Steven E. Snow, who discussed their tenures as church historians.

Since then, the podcast has found its footing and will carry on even as COVID-19 restrictions drop off.

“We’re going to stick with it,” Mason tells The Herald Journal. “...It’s been successful enough and the feedback has been really good…. We’re going to continue it, probably on a once-per-month basis.”

So who was the guest rocker? Brandon Flowers, a Latter-day Saint and frontman for The Killers.

“That was by far our most popular episode, because they promoted it through the band’s social media channels,” Mason tells The Herald Journal. “It was terrific. He’s a really thoughtful guy. Very humble, very approachable and down-to-earth. This was by far the longest and most in-depth interview he’s ever given, I think, talking specifically about his faith and the way that it relates to his music and his lyrics.”

Quote of the week

“We sang ‘Oh, My Father’ as the closing hymn in sacrament meeting. This isn’t unusual, as it’s one of the very few places Heavenly Mother is mentioned explicitly and is thus a popular choice for Mother’s Day services. However, it struck me as frustrating that the hymn we most immediately jump to as being about mothers is literally named after a father. … Where is the song called ‘Oh, My Mother’ that actually talks about her (and her power and glory and ability to create) for all of the verses? That would be a real Mother’s Day song.”

Abby Hansen, in an Exponent II blog

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