When asked how he managed to keep order among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, founder Joseph Smith reportedly once explained to an outsider that he taught them “correct principles,” and they then “govern themselves.”
For much of the faith’s history, though, that didn’t really apply to teens.
The American-born faith long has had do’s and don’ts for men’s hair lengths (beards or no beards) and women’s skirts (too long, too short), piercings and tattoos, what music to listen to (jazz or rap), dancing to enjoy (waltz or twist), what age to date, how to date, whom to date and what kind of physical intimacy was permissible.
With its updated version of the ubiquitous pamphlet (also found online) known as “For the Strength of Youth,” however, the Utah-based faith is addressing cultural diversity in its global membership and leaning in to the Smith saying.
Rather than providing a checklist for youths, the 2022 approach unveiled by apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf at last month’s General Conference, spells out principles on modesty, music, dating, sexuality, friendships, eternal relationships and more. It then urges kids to choose for themselves how best to implement them.
This is a significant evolution for the well-known pamphlet, which has been handed out to millions of young Latter-day Saints since the 1960s.
Beyond dating and dress, the former brochure prescribed rules for friends (those with shared values), language (no swearing), sexual purity (nothing premarital, including masturbation and “passionate kissing”), tithing, repentance and other behaviors.
By organizing the topics alphabetically, the 2011 edition, writes “Elisa” on the Wheat & Tares blog, leaves the impression that “dress and appearance” are among the top topics, while “repentance is buried in the last third.”
By contrast, she writes, the first several topics in the 2022 version “are much more inspiring and encouraging.” It doesn’t even use the word “modest.”
The new and shorter pamphlet still “dictates to readers ‘what’ their values should be instead of guiding them through a discovery process where they can determine their ‘own’ values, the principles that support those values, and the behaviors and choices that would follow from that (and that will necessarily differ, potentially significantly, person to person),” Elisa explains. “In addition, while the guide purports not to give youth answers to questions, some of them seem pretty implied with leading questions.
For Elisa, the line “your Heavenly Father trusts you” stands out.
“It’s a much more positive and encouraging message,” she writes, than “‘don’t screw up, or it’ll ruin your life.’”
Shaping the generations
Tayler Jolley, a Black teen in Salt Lake City, says her Young Women leaders constantly harped on dressing and dating.
“It was their favorite thing to talk about,” says the 17-year-old. “What is modest and comfortable for some isn’t for everyone.”
Her leaders imposed particularly strict rules about shorts and swimwear during the yearly summer girls camp, she says. Two-piece swimsuits were allowed, but only if they were “high-waisted.”
Shorts were forbidden altogether, allowing only capris or long pants in the sweltering heat.
Even after dating was allowed for 16-year-olds, the leaders taught the girls that “group dates” were preferred, Tayler says, and suggested a “fun activity” would be outings to the temple for proxy baptisms.
Being the adopted daughter of white parents and in an all-white congregation — save for her adopted Black siblings — Tayler says few of her leaders understood hairstyles, clothing and experience of Black youths.
Some guidelines in the pamphlet seemed outdated, she says. “Some didn’t feel right for me, but that doesn’t mean I am disrespecting the gospel. I just have a different way of expressing my identity.”
Tayler hasn’t seen the new guidelines but was pleased to learn of the new principle-based approach.
Indeed, that seems to be the majority response across Utah, around the nation as well as abroad.
Greg Sanchez, a 32-year-old dad in west Salt Lake City’s Rose Park neighborhood, grew up in central New Jersey, where his Latter-day Saint congregation was made up mostly of middle-class white families.
Back then, “For the Strength of Youth” guidelines seemed to connect with their lifestyle.
“This new one creates more of a chance for kids to connect to it globally,” says Sanchez, who attends a Spanish-language congregation. “It is removing things that may be culturally insensitive.”
Tattoos, for example, were seen as “trivial” and verboten in the old pamphlet, he says, but to “some Indigenous groups, they are very important and even sacred.”
Jesus taught principles, rather than rules (like counting steps on the Sabbath), Sanchez says. “Sometimes you miss out on the bigger picture if you are just given a set of rules.”
‘They feel trusted’
Amy Hoyt, a Young Women leader in southwest Missouri, is impressed by the sophisticated, nuanced thinking of the youths in her congregation about the new approach.
“They feel trusted,” she says. “They have an understanding of themselves as ‘strong spirits’ who have been saved for this particular time, and so it fits with their understanding of who they are spiritually. They believe they are being given greater …responsibility because they can handle it.”
The pamphlet “will play out well here in the Ozarks and probably keep some of the youth from walking out the door when they turn 18,” Hoyt says. “At the very least, I think the new pamphlet allows them to see a place for themselves within the church even when they don’t necessarily live out the principles exactly like their friends or classmates.”
One of those girls is high school senior Ruby George, who praises the brochure as more “modernized,” recognizing what teens face every day.
The previous one felt like telling kids “what to do and what not to do,” Ruby says. “When someone tells you what to do, you want to do it less.”
She and a few Latter-day Saint peers at her school stand out among fellow students “who are making opposite decisions than we are,” she says. “But it’s also a chance to show people we are just normal, ordinary people.”
Ruby has eight piercings and a nose ring, she says, and in the past got a lot of pushback from adults at church, including a seminary teacher who would call her out in front of class each time she got a new piercing.
The new perspective helps her feel better, she says. “It’s a moment to say, ‘Here’s where I stand, and I still have a strong testimony.’”
Auden Smith, a 16-year-old junior at Waterford School in Sandy, likes the pamphlet’s approach to seeking personal answers.
“I love the questions section of the pamphlet because it doesn’t make you feel bad for having complicated questions,” Auden says, “but instead makes you feel seen.”
It emphasizes that “choices should be partly based on your relationship with your Heavenly Parents,” she says. That provides “a scaffolding that you can build your testimony around.”
Auden’s younger sister, Dalloway Smith, echoes that sentiment.
“There is so much more love conveyed,” the 14-year-old says. “The old pamphlet was harsh and constricting. This one wants you to succeed. It is more open and focused on your relationship with God.”
A global approach
How will this new language be understood by non-Americans?
In India, for example, where a Latter-day Saint temple is being built, the former guidelines were bewildering to some converts, who still favor arranged marriages.
Dating in that populous nation, even in groups and especially before age 19, is discouraged, researchers say. But young women showing their midriffs is not considered sexually enticing.
Some Latter-day Saint couples in Ghana have to postpone their weddings while the men accumulate the “bride price,” or dowry.
In 2016, a Young Woman leader in South Africa, told researcher
Caroline Kline that cultural elements from mostly white Utah had crept into teachings about modesty.
“I see the pressures that they find themselves under. It’s so hard to be a young person today,” the leader told Kline. “And I look at these pictures in [church magazines], and I see these Mormon videos with these smiling beautiful, blond, white girls with perfect teeth, and how they are just so happy to defer to their parents and their husbands and their brothers in everything they are and they are so happy. It makes me feel sick. I look at them, and I say to the Young Women, ‘You are not those people. You are an African child. You have a different upbringing. You have different perspectives, and it’s OK…It’s OK to ask questions. You don’t have to be a white person to be a Mormon. You don’t have to speak like them. You don’t have to pray like them. You don’t have to dress like the sister missionaries.…You can find who you are and that’s perfectly acceptable to the Lord.’”
Putting forth principles instead of rules “allows leeway for people to make decisions that are culturally specific,” says scholar Laurie Maffly-Kipp, who is writing a book on global Mormonism and has interviewed Latter-day Saints from Africa to Asia and many places in between.
The question remains, she asks: How will these ideas be communicated and how will leaders in various regions imbibe or filter them?
Leaders in various countries, including senior missionaries, are from Utah, she says, and they will have their own spin on the guidelines and values.
This document is “premised on the primacy of individual choice,” Maffly-Kipp says, “but people in other places don’t have the same kind of choices most Americans do — like whether to work on the Sabbath.”
Mixed messages on sex
On the question of sexuality, the new pamphlet celebrates sexual intimacy in marriage, while condemning any premarital sexual feelings as “not in keeping with the spirit,” Maffly-Kipp says, “but if those feelings are natural and good, isn’t that in keeping with the spirit?”
Plus, what is perceived as sexual and what is not, she says, “varies so widely from culture to culture.”
In Europe, she notes, nudity is not sexualized the way it is in the United States.
Even so, the pamphlet continues to warn against the dangers of pornography, which it defines as “a representation, in pictures or words, that is designed to arouse sexual feelings.”
That definition is “imprecise and confusing,” Elisa writes on Wheat & Tares. “An attractive person in a perfectly appropriate photo or film, or chaste but romantic song lyrics, or any other number of things could ‘arouse sexual feelings.’”
Such a broad approach could cause “more harm than good,” she warns, “particularly in people who struggle with scrupulosity and shame around sexual feelings.”
The standard is conflicting, Elisa writes. “How we can say that we must avoid sexual feelings at all costs…while at the same time saying that sexual feelings are sacred and God-given.”
As long as the church continues to tell members “to suppress their sexual feelings,” she speculates, “the problems of sexual shame in the church are not going anywhere.”
The church’s position, as restated in the pamphlet, is that having same-sex attractions is not a sin, but acting on them is.
“If you have these feelings and do not pursue or act on them, you are living Heavenly Father’s sacred law of chastity,” the 2022 edition states. “You are a beloved child of God and a disciple of Jesus Christ. Remember that the Savior understands everything you experience….Trust him and his gospel.”
That doesn’t sit well with many young Latter-day Saints.
“Expecting people with homosexual feelings not to act on them is asking too much,” says Auden Smith. “Our faith celebrates families and the wonderful gift it is to be in a loving relationship with someone, so restricting someone of that is harmful. The pamphlet is contradictory when it says that sex is an important part of God’s plan, but then restricts it for a certain group of people. Knowing people in this circumstance, it is so hard for them to feel as though they belong in the church. This pamphlet validates their feelings, but feelings are meant to be acted upon.”
‘Nothing will change’
Jane Brunson, a 16-year-old in Chicago, likes the freedom the new guidelines allow but recognizes that there could be regional differences in how they are interpreted.
Could a checklist still dominate?
“Not in my ward,” Jane says. “Our leaders are young themselves and like all the changes.”
If that happens, adds the daughter of an attorney, “people can use the new pamphlet to argue, ‘It doesn’t say that.’”
She is troubled, though, that the church’s stance on homosexuality hasn’t changed.
Kids at her school say to her, “You are Mormon. Does that mean you hate gays?”
If the church altered its view of LGBTQ individuals, Jane says, “it would change how Mormonism is viewed.”
Call Ian McLaughlin, a Brigham Young University graduate student, a tad skeptical. He celebrates the new standards as “a push toward allowing genuine diversity and pluralism in the Latter-day Saint community,” he says. “However, I feel that nothing will change all that much, at least in the short term. As a current BYU student and former missionary, I feel that church schools and the missionary program play a massive role in promoting an ideal Latter-day Saint appearance. Beards weren’t against the FSOY standards … but they were still viewed with stigma because of BYU and missionary program policies.”
McLaughlin predicts that many members will treat the former standards as a kind of “higher law.” “The church may have relaxed the standards to accommodate a ‘weaker membership,’ they will say, ‘but we know what the Lord’s standards are.’”
To be frank, “members want more defined standards of dress and grooming,” he says. “They want to know how to look like a Latter-day Saint.”
This could be why, in 1998, when 10,000 Ghanaians waited for hours in suffocating heat for the arrival of then-President Gordon B. Hinckley, nearly every man in the crowd was wearing his Latter-day Saint “uniform”— a white shirt and tie.
Members may only know that Smith’s admonition has trumped cultural assumptions and American dominance, some say, when BYU lifts its beard ban.
Correction • Nov. 7, 2022, 2:20 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct when the first “For the Strength of Youth” edition appeared.
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