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.
Joseph Smith’s last campaign
When Latter-day Saints talk about the 1844 martyrdom of church founder Joseph Smith, they sometimes forget that he was running for the White House at the time.
He was, in fact, the first U.S presidential candidate to be assassinated, a point historian Spencer McBride makes in his new book, “Joseph Smith for President: The Prophet, the Assassins, and the Fight for American Religious Freedom.”
In his 296-page volume, McBride, associate managing historian of the landmark Joseph Smith Papers project, explores the first Mormon’s unconventional, quixotic quest for the presidency.
Smith dispatched hundreds of electioneering missionaries to spread his political message. He advocated for the abolition of slavery, the closure of prisons and the reestablishment of a national bank.
His main aim, however, was to secure religious freedom for Latter-day Saints and other faith minorities by empowering the federal government to protect these groups when states failed to do so, the book’s publisher, Oxford University Press, explains in a news release. “McBride illustrates that the states’ rights strategy was as effective at impeding efforts to establish the full citizenship rights of religious minorities as it was at establishing the personhood of men and women of African descent.
“...So was Smith correct in his belief that a stronger federal government and easier access to federal intervention would be required for religious minorities to enjoy all their rights as American citizens?” the release asks. “His dream was never fully realized, but it’s still a conversation worth having today.”
A play for GameStop
The church bet big on GameStop — and won.
In its latest public filings, Ensign Peak Advisors, the faith’s investment arm, reported that its shares in the video game retailer swelled in value by 907%, jumping from $867,000 to $8.7 million, in a matter of months.
The overall fund, meanwhile, grew by $2.4 billion in early 2021, upping its total value to $46.5 billion. This portfolio appears to represent a sizable chunk of the total value of Ensign Peak, which was reported by a whistleblower at the end of 2019 to be worth at least $100 billion.
The largest holdings are in a handful of dominant technology firms: Apple, at $2.09 billion in shares, and Microsoft, $2.07 billion. Next up are immense stakes in Google and its parent, Alphabet, together worth $1.5 billion; Amazon, $1.4 billion; and Facebook, $883 million.
MWEG speaks out
Utah lawmakers adopted nonbinding resolutions Wednesday on two hot-button topics: race and gun rights.
Republican-led legislators took these moves in an “extraordinary session” — despite calls from Mormon Women for Ethical Government, Gov. Spencer Cox and others urging them to hold off until the issues could be more fully debated in a regular session.
“Issues pertaining to our broader community and the standards we embrace should be thoughtfully researched and discussed, then publicly weighed,” the group wrote on its website. “In a healthy democratic government, process should matter to us as much as outcome.”
MWEG worried that quick passage of such resolutions would divide Utahns and amplify “civic cynicism.”
A vote for the word ‘Mormon’
A prominent religious scholar has some advice for Latter-day Saint leaders: Embrace the “Mormon” moniker.
Peter Johannes Thuesen, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, says he understands President Russell M. Nelson’s push to dump the nickname and emphasize the faith’s full title — partly to cement the church’s Christian identity.
“While I have no problem with ‘Latter-day Saint Christianity’ and have tried, in deference to the church’s guidance, to use it more often, we still need a handy ‘-ism’ comparable to Catholicism or Protestantism,” Thuesen writes on his blog. “That’s why I’m not alone among historians (including Latter-day Saint ones) in continuing to refer to ‘Mormonism’ and ‘Mormon’ in scholarly writing.”
The religion professor notes that the “church’s directive to use ‘the Church of Jesus Christ’ or ‘the restored Church of Jesus Christ’ as shortened references is unworkable outside of LDS contexts.”
Thuesen points out that “the Church of Jesus Christ is the whole Christian world — Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Mormon.” As for the “restored Church of Jesus Christ,” well, that term requires the user to validate the faith’s truth claims — something scholars, journalists and other independent voices ethically cannot do.
“I hope the hierarchy will reconsider the benefits of ‘Mormon’ and ‘Mormonism,’” Thuesen concludes. “There’s so much to admire about the tradition — from temple rites such as baptism for the dead, to the exuberant open-endedness of the LDS scriptures, to the warmhearted generosity of Latter-day Saints themselves — that ‘Mormon’ should be a term of honor, not embarrassment.”
Jane Manning James’ unique sealing
For decades, James, who had worked in the Nauvoo home of Joseph and Emma Smith, had pleaded to receive her endowment and sealing — despite the priesthood-temple ban then imposed on Black members. After all, she was a pious, faithful member who had performed baptisms for the dead in temples.
Finally, on May 18, 1894, church leaders relented and permitted her to be sealed to Joseph Smith — not as an adopted child, as she had requested, but rather as a “servitor.”
“James was not allowed to be present at the ceremony, which was performed in the Salt Lake Temple,” historian Quincy D. Newell writes on the Century of Black Mormons website. “Instead, Zina D.H. Young and Joseph F. Smith served as proxies.”
It never happened.
James received her endowment and family sealings by proxy in 1979, seven decades after her death on April 16, 1908.
Monuments sought for Black pioneers
Filmmaker and music promoter Mauli Junior Bonner wants two monuments erected to Green Flake and other early Black Latter-day Saints — one on downtown Salt Lake City’s Temple Square and the other at This Is the Place Heritage Park, in the foothills to the east.
“There needs to be a monument honoring those Black pioneers, enslaved and free,” Bonner told The Salt Lake Tribune, “who helped with the restoration of the gospel.”
Bonner’s new film, “His Name Is Green Flake,” will premiere virtually June 8, the 43rd anniversary of the end of the faith’s centurylong ban on Black members holding the priesthood and entering temples.
“A monument to Black pioneers would be a fantastic addition to Temple Square,” said University of Utah historian W. Paul Reeve, author of “Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness.” Monuments are “physical reminders of public memory.”
Latter-day Saints also mourned the loss of a modern-day Black pioneer.
“When he reached his hand out to shake yours, you knew you were part of that community and immediately at ease,” friend Cathy Stokes, a retired public health professional, told The Tribune. “No one was a stranger.”
This week’s podcast: Ever-evolving missions
Proselytizing has been a hallmark of Mormonism since its founding. It has become a common sight to see pairs of young “elders” and “sisters,” sporting black nametags and talking to people about the church.
In recent years, however, the faith’s global evangelizing program has shifted in tactics, especially during the pandemic, with less emphasis on so-called tracting (spreading the word from door to door) and more on technology (seeking and teaching converts online).
On this week’s show, David and Kathleen Cook of Rochester, N.Y., discuss innovations they enacted while overseeing a mission in Chile from 2013 to 2016, their work today as service missionary leaders, and the ever-evolving nature of proselytizing and humanitarian service.
The church is expanding at the North Pole.
No, not the one in fa-la-la-la-la land. The one in Alaska.
Independent researcher Matt Martinich reports at ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com that the church recently created the North Pole Alaska Stake, near Fairbanks.
There are now nine stakes in “The Last Frontier” and nearly 34,000 members.
Martinich’s growth tracker website also states that new stakes were formed recently in Ghana (27 total stakes) Indiana (12), Pennsylvania (13), the Philippines (118), Portugal (seven), Ukraine (two) and Zimbabwe (eight), while two were added in Utah (617).
‘Korihor’ comment draws ire
When an assistant teaching professor in the religion department at Brigham Young University called a gay student “Korihor” on social media, it raised a number of issues:
• Though the faculty member later apologized for his Twitter comment, why hadn’t the church-owned school publicly condemned this name-calling?
• Could LGBTQ students feel safe on the Provo campus?
• Should the school adopt social media guidelines for professors?
Korihor, as well-versed Latter-day Saints know, was a Book of Mormon character who preached against God and became known as an anti-Christ. He eventually endured an ignominious death.
“It’s a really terrible, hateful thing to call someone,” Latter-day Saint commentator Rosemary Card told The Tribune, “and it’s an even worse thing for a professor in the church to call a student who is LGBTQ, who is already vulnerable.”
A novel’s — and a novelist’s — faith journey
Mystery writer Mette Ivie Harrison latest novel, “The Prodigal Daughter,” follows suburban sleuth Linda Wallheim, the wife of a Latter-day Saint bishop, as she investigates the disappearance of her granddaughter’s teenage babysitter.
It also chronicles Linda’s continuing disaffection with the faith and her journey away from it.
In that sense, the novel, the fifth installment in a seven-part series, mirrors the author’s own exit from the church.
Harrison tells The Tribune that she wrote the books because she ‘wanted to write about a Mormon woman who was kind of the Mormon that maybe I could be.”
She recalled that when she was a nursery leader in her ward and the kids sang “A Child’s Prayer” — which includes the lyrics “Heavenly Father, are you really there?” — “we sang, ‘Heavenly Mother, are you really there?’ Sometimes the 3-year-olds would say, ‘Those are the wrong words.’ I’d say, ‘Those are my words.’”
“People do ask sometimes if my journey away from the church is what I have written year by year into Linda,” Harrison added. But from the start, “I made it really clear that Linda’s arc was headed out of the church. That’s the dramatic, interesting arc. Her staying in the church was not the interesting arc for the audience I was writing for.”
Two missionaries killed
Two missionaries were killed this week in a head-on collision in Denton, Texas.
Luke Masakazu Carter, 18, of Springville, Utah, and Eli Jon Fowler, 20, of Pueblo West, Colo., died in the crash.
Carter and Fowler had been serving in the Fort Worth Mission since November and January 2020, respectively.
The accident, which happened during a heavy rainstorm, is being investigated by law enforcement, according to a church news release. The driver of the other vehicle was hospitalized. Both missionaries were wearing seat belts.
“We express our love and deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Elder Carter and Elder Fowler and to the missionaries in the Texas Fort Worth Mission,” spokesperson Sam Penrod said in the release. “We pray that all will be uplifted by the Savior’s love and feel comfort during this difficult and trying time.”
Seven Latter-day Saints have lost their lives while serving full-time missions this year.
• The church’s Indian Society teamed up with government and humanitarian organizations to provide $4.5 million worth of oxygen concentrators, ventilators and other medical equipment to help the world’s second most-populous nation battle a staggering spike in COVID-19 cases.
“Our hearts reach out to all those who are suffering and to the front-line medical workers who are dedicating their lives to fight this battle with everyone,” John Gutty, the area Seventy for India, said in a news release. “We hope the church’s contribution can provide some relief to them during this critical time.”
• To help Brazil battle the pandemic, the church supplied $5.8 million worth of oxygen to hospitals in the Amazon area, medal goods to hospitals across the nation, and food for about 1 million Brazilians, according to a news release.
“It is undoubtedly a very welcome help,” Salvadoran Mayor Bruno Reis said after the church sent 60,000 food baskets to his region. “We have done everything to bring food to the table of people who are in need, and such help is very significant.”
“It’s like a dream come true, because the temple means everything to me,” a local bishop, Robb Smith, said in a news release. “We’ve just been waiting for this, talking about it, and now it has started. It’s a big day.”
The single-spired, three-story, 70,000-square-foot structure is one of 27 existing or planned temples in Utah.
• The church released the locations and renderings of two temples in the Pacific.
The Port Vila Vanuatu and the Tarawa Kiribati temples will be the first in their respective island nations.
The similar-looking, single-spired buildings will be about 10,000 square feet.
Kiribati has nearly 21,000 members, according to a news release, and Vanuatu has more than 10,000.
Quote of the week
“Remember the saying that …temples will dot the earth someday? It’s someday.”
— Merna J. Dalton, at the groundbreaking for the Deseret Peak Temple
Mormon Land is a weekly newsletter written by David Noyce and Peggy Fletcher Stack. Subscribe here.