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.
A big cure for the ‘big lie’
By Common Consent blogger Sam Brunson is casting his vote for having top church leaders do all they can to set members straight on the “big lie.”
“This is one of those cases where the church needs to make a formal statement. And not just a vague statement about how insurrection is bad,” Brunson writes. “The church — be it the First Presidency or the Quorum of the Twelve [Apostles] or both — needs to explicitly say that the United States election was fair, that Joe Biden won, and that, as members entitled to the Holy Ghost, we can read the evidence and come to that conclusion for ourselves.”
A recent PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) survey made headlines when it revealed that 46% of Latter-day Saints wrongly believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.
Brunson, a tax law professor at Loyola University in Chicago, worries that this startlingly high figure poses “an existential threat to the future of Mormonism.”
Why? Because, he says, “the idea of discernment is critical to Mormonism”
“If 46% of us believe something that is completely and obviously untrue, what does that say about us? It undercuts our claim to recognize and embrace truth,” Brunson explains. “It suggests that, collectively, we are as easily deceived as any other group. And if we can’t tell simple and obvious truth from lies, why should someone trust that we can differentiate religious truth from lies?”
The church did warn members against buying into “baseless conspiracy theories” in its updated General Handbook, and Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the governing First Presidency, counseled Americans in the latest General Conference to heed the Constitution above any political party or candidate.
But Brunson says another conference sermon may not be enough, suggesting instead that a letter be read over the pulpit at every sacrament meeting.
Otherwise, he cautions, this moment could mark “both the beginning of the end of democracy and the beginning of the end of our religious credibility.”
‘Get me rewrite’
The Tony-winning “Book of Mormon” musical will return to the Broadway stage in November — possibly with a tweaked script.
“The show’s writers will begin rehearsals with the cast in the fall, having agreed to discuss and possibly adjust elements of the show deemed racially problematic,” Deadline reports. “Several months ago, 20 actors from the original and most recent Broadway casts signed their names to a letter asking the writers and producers to reevaluate aspects of the show.”
In this awakened era of Black Lives Matter, the musical’s depictions of Africans have come under fire as racist.
Josh Gad, who played that nerdy but lovable liar, Elder Arnold Cunningham, in the original production, would welcome some changes.
“You have to adjust with the times,” he told People TV last year. “I don’t know that that show could open today and have the same sort of open-armed response that it did then.”
So, will any makeover tone down the merciless mocking of Latter-day Saints (the heart of the production)? Don’t hold your breath.
‘American Idol’ star David Archuleta comes out
From “American Idol” to LGBTQ idol.
Singer David Archuleta, who rocketed to fame in 2008 as a finalist on TV’s long-running talent show, is winning praise from members and allies of the LGTBQ community after revealing on social media that he is unsure about his own sexual identity.
“I came out in 2014 as gay to my family. But then I had similar feelings for both genders so maybe a spectrum of bisexual,” he wrote on Instagram. “Then I also have learned I don’t have too much sexual desires and urges as most people.”
Archuleta, who served a Latter-day Saint mission in Chile and has spoken publicly about how important his faith is to him, urged religious followers to be “more understanding and compassionate to those who are LGBTQIA+.”
“We can do better as people of faith and Christians, including Latter-day Saints, to listen more to the wrestle between being LGBTQIA+ and a person of faith,” he added. “...You can be part of the LGBTQIA+ community and still believe in God and his gospel plan.”
The 30-year-old pop star said he struggled with his sexual identity for decades before realizing he was created the way he is for a reason.
“I’ve tried for almost 20 years to try and change myself until I realized God made me how I am for a purpose,” he wrote. “And instead of hating what I have considered wrong I need to see why God loved me for who I am and that it’s not just sexuality.”
Other celebrities, religious people and members of the LGBTQ community have rallied behind Archuleta.
“I am so proud of you and proud to know you,” “American Idol” alum Jordin Sparks wrote on Instagram. “You are so loved, David.”
The church’s Rx for medical marijuana
When the church gave its blessing to a compromise legalizing medical marijuana in Utah — after voters approved its use — it provided a green light for other red states to do the same, according to a recent Politico story.
“Some of the legislators who are opposed to medical marijuana are opposed based on concerns that it somehow will lead to legalization,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policy at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Politico. “[Utah is] a good example of a state that has a medical program that’s limited, where there’s not any eye to adult-use legalization, and where there was actually active involvement from the medical society in working out the details of the program.”
So advocates could shop Utah’s approach, endorsed by the church, to other states in the Deep South and Great Plains, Politico reports.
For the record, the church’s General Handbook says “marijuana may be used for medicinal purposes” if prescribed by “a licensed physician or another legally approved medical provider.”
The faith adamantly opposes the use of marijuana for nonmedical purposes, a position that doesn’t always hold sway with voters.
Arizona, which legalized medical marijuana a decade ago, saw its voters sign off on recreational cannabis last November — despite official church objections.
This week’s podcast: History conference recap
The Mormon History Association’s just-completed annual conference offered the usual smorgasbord of delectable scholarly presentations relating to Mormonism.
The 2021 theme for the hybrid in-person and online meeting in Park City was “Restoration, Reunion and Resilience.”
There were sessions on polygamy and early Latter-day Saint experiences in Nauvoo, Ill., and Kirtland, Ohio, along with discussions of race, LGBTQ issues and the Mark Hofmann bombings. The historians also recognized that they were gathering in the ancestral lands of several northern bands of the Ute Indian Tribe.
On this week’s show Barbara Jones Brown, the association’s executive director, and Jenny Lund, this year’s president and director of the church’s historic sites, share highlights and insights from the conference and plans for the future.
And the winner of the first Ardis E. Parshall Public History Award is … Ardis E. Parshall.
The Mormon History Association established the prize to salute the best producers of public history projects and named it in honor of the independent historian and creative force behind the popular keepapitchinin.org blog.
“Not only did we name the award after her this year, we also gave her the inaugural award, which she did not know she was going to receive,” MHA Executive Director Barbara Jones Brown said on this week’s “Mormon Land” podcast. “It was a very emotional moment. Everyone jumped to their feet and gave her a standing ovation.”
The second recipient was Better Days 2020, a nonprofit dedicated to educating Utahns about women’s contributions to the suffrage movement and the state.
Nelson and U.
Russell M. Nelson is, as his alma mater’s fight song says, a Utah man.
That was reinforced this week, when the 96-year-old church president officially received his third degree from the University of Utah — this one an honorary doctorate to go with his bachelor’s and medical degrees.
U. representatives delivered the honorary citation and doctoral hood to Nelson for his “significant contributions to medical science” and his “vast accomplishments as a scholar, educator and religious leader.”
Dr. Michael Good, an anesthesiologist and the school’s interim president, singled out Nelson’s pioneering work on the artificial lung.
“Some of these very severe COVID cases so affect the lungs that we have to put the patient on an artificial lung for a period of days. And it can be lifesaving,” Good said in a news release. “So, as a humble anesthesiologist traces back your work to our methods, it’s really an honor to participate in this award.”
Forever Young, but not forever single
Single members are getting extra attention these days, especially after April’s General Conference noted that most adult Latter-day Saints are “unmarried, widowed or divorced.”
Of course, football Hall of Famer Steve Young remembers getting extra attention for years during his playing career because he was single.
The Sportscasting website recently recounted how the former Brigham Young University quarterback “felt haunted” by the cultural expectation that he marry.
“I used to be all uptight about it,” Young told Sports Illustrated in 1997. “Not anymore. I’ve been through so many relationships. I’m almost like the relationship guru. The easy thing would have been to get married in college, but I believe in meeting the right person. Obviously, fame and the Mormon faith aren’t that compatible, and it’s been tough. But I think it’ll happen. I have faith that it will.”
It did. Just three months before hanging up his helmet, he married Barbara Graham in March 2000 in the Kona Hawaii Temple. The couple marked their 21st anniversary this year. They have four kids.
Churchwide singles event makes history
Here is more evidence of the new focus on singles: The church staged its first Face to Face event for single adults Sunday.
With the pioneer-era Logan Temple as a backdrop, the global broadcast featured apostle Neil L. Andersen, general Relief Society President Jean B. Bingham and her top counselor, Sharon Eubank, perhaps the most visible single woman in today’s church leadership.
Together, a news release noted, the speakers encouraged single members to put their faith in Christ to overcome any metaphorical “mountains” they confront — no matter how large.
The event showed Eubank, head of Latter-day Saint Charities, helping Natasha Redhair chop wood and do other chores on the Navajo Nation in Arizona.
“With the whole pandemic thing ... there’s not much that I could do except for taking the time to go over to my grandmother’s house to see if they need anything,” Redhair explained. “...I put a lot of faith in our Heavenly Father and our Savior, and [I] turn to them, because I know that through them, and with them, I’m able to push through any obstacles.”
Said Eubank: “If you are just hanging on with one finger, if you just have a desire to believe, that’s enough. The Lord will help you move your mountain.”
Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign: a voice of warning?
Nowhere in his new book on Joseph Smith’s 1844 presidential campaign does historian Spencer McBride single out current politicians by name as he explores the church founder’s fight against religious discrimination.
But writer Tamarra Kemsley does in her take on “Joseph Smith for President: The Prophet, the Assassins, and the Fight for American Religious Freedom” in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
She points, for instance, to Republican Donald Trump’s 2015 call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States and the LDS Church’s condemnation of such a policy. Kemsley also notes the contrasting positions of Utah’s two GOP senators, both of them Latter-day Saints.
“Mike Lee compared Trump to a hero [Captain Moroni] straight out of the Book of Mormon come to rescue the nation from a tyrannical, secular left,” she writes. “Like the Mormon-hating mainstream Protestants before him, he interprets religious freedom to mean the ongoing dominance of mainstream Christianity, of which he views Mormonism to be a member.
“Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has repeatedly described Trump and Trumpism as a moral and existential threat to the nation, in part for his tendency to scapegoat minorities, including religious minorities.”
Thus, Kemsley concludes, there is much to be learned from McBride’s new volume beyond the conditions present during Smith’s long-shot bid for the White House. She wonders whether the church and its members have “fully embraced the tolerant views” of their first prophet. “In this context, ‘Joseph Smith for President’ reads as much as a warning as it does a history.”
Listen to McBride discuss his book on a recent Salt Lake Tribune “Mormon Land” podcast.
Renlunds highlight Smith’s 1844 campaign
Apostle Dale G. Renlund and his wife, Ruth Lybbert Renlund, pointed to Joseph Smith’s politicking as well in their keynote address to BYU’s 2021 Religious Freedom Annual Review.
“The history surrounding the founding of the United States is simultaneously inspiring and infuriating,” Ruth Renlund said, according to a news release. “The liberties claimed for all were not enforced for all. And the security promised to all was not protected for all.”
Early Latter-day Saints fell victim to those broken promises.
“Church members were prevented from physically gathering and establishing roots in a geographical location of their choosing due to repeated forced evacuations,” Elder Renlund said. “From New York to Ohio and from Missouri to Illinois, persecution and unlawful arrests followed Joseph Smith and other church leaders.”
To push the cause of religious freedom, Smith became a reluctant candidate for president on a platform advocating a number of progressive causes.
“It included several proposals for reform, including constitutional, economic and social measures,” Ruth Renlund said. “Specifically mentioned are minority rights, a national bank, the criminal justice system, the abolition of slavery and territorial expansion.”
His push to eliminate prisons, Elder Renlund said, may have been driven partly due to “his own experience of being [unfairly] arrested and jailed on various occasions.”
Smith’s quixotic campaign ended abruptly when he became the first U.S. presidential candidate to be murdered.
“Joseph’s assassination demonstrated the point of his campaign — that democratic rights for people to practice their religion had been completely ignored — and it cost him his life,” Ruth Renlund said. “His very approach to democracy is one that is still being debated and examined today.”
Also from The Tribune
• “Excommunication” is now a term from the past, but the pain, shame and anger of ousting members from the fold — no matter the nomenclature — remain very much present.
Some say church discipline provides a helpful tool for repentant sinners and needed protection for the faith’s integrity. Others argue the practice is anachronistic and should itself be X’ed.
The Tribune explores the issue here.
• The church has unveiled three “bold” new initiatives, totaling nearly $10 million, with the NAACP, including scholarships through the United Negro College Fund and targeted relief packages.
“On this week of Juneteenth — a time designated to remember the end of slavery in the United States,” church President Russell M. Nelson said, “we are honored to join with our dear friends from the NAACP and the UNCF to announce these goals and our shared vision.”
This is not just a financial arrangement, said UNCF President Michael L. Lomax, “but a transformational partnership.”
The Tribune provides more details here.
• See how the evolution of Latter-day Saint teachings and culture are having an effect on the falling birthrate.
Pressure from the pulpit on members to have more children, for instance, has receded as top Latter-day Saint leaders have emphasized that it’s up to married couples to decide how many kids to have and when to have them, even reminding the rank and file “not [to] judge one another in this matter.”
Read The Tribune’s deep dive on the topic here.
Reforesting the Hill Cumorah
With the Hill Cumorah Pageant exiting the stage, the church is raising the curtain on its next production: an environmental and historic restoration and rehabilitation of the New York hill itself.
Church Historian and Recorder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr. announced that crews will remove 21 buildings and 400,000 square feet of asphalt and gravel roads, parking areas and pageant walkways. They then will reforest the area with thousands of native tree seeds.
“It is important to recognize that it took 80 years for all the pageant infrastructure to accumulate on the hill, and it will similarly take many years ... for the hill to return to a forested environment,” said Curtis, who made this announcement at the 2021 Mormon History Association Conference in Park City. “This process of reforestation will require patience and a long-term commitment as this transformation occurs, but we are confident that the ultimate goal of reclaiming this sacred setting of the restoration will be worth the wait.”
The visitors’ center and Angel Moroni monument atop the hill, where Joseph Smith reported receiving the gold plates containing the Book of Mormon, will remain. In fact, a network of trails, with interpretive signs, will lead to a regilded statue.
“It is normal to feel a sense of loss when something as long-standing and beloved as the Hill Cumorah Pageant comes to an end,” Curtis said in a news release. “It is important, however, to remember that the discontinuation of the pageant and the subsequent project to rehabilitate the Hill Cumorah is only the latest of many changes this sacred site of the restoration has seen over the years. When one door closes, another one opens, leading to the unique opportunity to recapture and preserve the sacred setting of some of the foundational and spiritually significant events of the restoration.”
Return guests to the Hill Cumorah and other church historic sites may notice another difference on their next visit as well — namely, more history lessons and fewer missionary discussions.
Now under the umbrella of the church’s History Department instead of the Missionary Department, these attractions, which primarily draw Latter-day Saint tourists, have a new approach.
The focus is more on church history, Jenny Lund, director of the church’s historic sites, explained on this week’s “Mormon Land” podcast, “looking at building understanding — and building faith — and helping people connect with the past and with the place rather than on a goal of proselyting.”
FSY conferences will be back soon
FYI, FSY will BBS, so be ready to RSVP.
Yes, after a pandemic-induced two-year absence, For the Strength of Youth conferences will resume in the U.S. in Canada in the summers of 2022 and 2023.
Teens, beginning the year they turn 14, will be able to participate as assigned with their congregations every other year, according to a news release.
FSY conferences, which have been held outside of the U.S. and Canada for years, are modeled after BYU’s Especially For Youth gatherings.
• Another major change will be coming to downtown Salt Lake City’s Temple Square:
The North Visitors’ Center, a fixture at one of Utah’s most popular tourist attractions for nearly 60 years, will be torn down and replaced with open gardens.
“This area will become a peaceful, quiet space on Temple Square,” Andy Kirby, the church’s director of historic temple renovations, said in a news release. The gardens, which will be completed by 2023, “will also provide a more direct and clear view of the Salt Lake Temple from the northwest area of Temple Square, enhancing the prominence of the temple.”
It’s another step in the reshaping of the historic square during the ongoing renovation of the iconic Salt Lake Temple.
One of the best-known attractions of the visitors’ center — the 11-foot replica of Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Christus statue, an image of Jesus that has been incorporated into the church’s official symbol — will be moved to another location on the square near the end of the renovation project.
• Ground was broken Saturday for what will be a third Latter-day Saint temple in northern Utah’s Davis County.
General authority Seventy Kevin R. Duncan presided and offered a dedicatory prayer at a ceremony for the single-spired, three-story, 89,000-square-feet Syracuse Temple.
“I am very familiar with these fields where we stand, where we are gathered today. From this temple site, I can see the barn roof of my childhood home,” Duncan said in a news release. “Some of you are new to this area, but this is your home, too. Whether you are a longtime resident, or a ‘new pioneer,’ this temple will be your temple.”
Utah has 15 operating Latter-day Saint temples — though at reduced capacity due to the coronavirus — with two pioneer-era structures (Salt Lake and St. George) undergoing renovation. Another 10 are in the works.
• The church also announced the locations of three additional temples in the Intermountain West.
The Smithfield Temple, in northern Utah’s Cache County, will be built on a 13.3-acre site at the intersection of 800 West and 100 North. Plans call for a three-story temple of about 81,000 square feet.
The Casper Temple will be built on a 9.5-acre site at the intersection of southwest Wyoming Boulevard and Eagle Drive. The single-story, 10,000-square-foot structure will be Wyoming’s second temple, joining the one in Star Valley.
The Elko Temple will go up on a 5.2-acre site near the southeast corner of Ruby View Golf Course. The single-story, 10,000-square-foot building will be Nevada’s third temple, joining ones in Las Vegas and Reno.
Exterior renderings of these three temples have not been released.
• This month and next, 60 temples — including all the operating temples in Utah — are shifting to Phase 3 of the church’s reopening plan by offering limited vicarious ordinances for the dead, along with all living ordinances, to members who make online reservations, according to a news release.
Quote of the week
“[President Russell M. Nelson] is the reincarnation of Joseph Smith, who back in 1830 had a vision for a spiritual community. And that vision was not egocentric, self-centered or nationalistic. That vision was about love for all humankind. ...Joseph Smith ran for the presidency of the United States of America in 1844, and the major plank on his platform was the abolition of slavery.”
— The Rev. Amos C. Brown, president of the NAACP’s San Francisco branch.
Mormon Land is a weekly newsletter written by David Noyce. Subscribe here.