Jana Riess: From Joseph Smith to David Archuleta, tithing to temples — my top LDS stories of 2022

Also: Abuse, “Under the Banner of Heaven,” Respect for Marriage Act and the Tab Choir.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) David Archuleta performs at the LoveLoud Festival in Salt Lake City in May 2022. The singer has decided to step away from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The most-trafficked story at Religion News Service in 2022 was the July announcement that a Midwestern man had found a daguerreotype he believes is of the Mormon founder, his ancestor Joseph Smith Jr. This was just one of a number of high profile stories this year that involved The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Here are my picks for the top 10 Latter-day Saint news stories of 2022:

1. A descendant of Joseph Smith discovered a photo he says is of the Mormon prophet.

The image, housed inside a locket that had been passed down through the Smith family, was in excellent condition because no one had been able to open the locket for years. Early tests appeared to demonstrate its authenticity, based not only on the provenance of the object but also a professional comparison of the image against a famous oil painting of Smith and the “death mask” that was made of his face after his assassination.

But in the days after the announcement, controversy ensued, as various experts (as well as every random person on the Mormon internet) weighed in with their opinion about whether the daguerreotype was indeed of Smith.

2. ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ kicked off a spate of LDS-related television.

(Michelle Faye |FX) Andrew Garfield as Jeb Pyre in "Under the Banner of Heaven."

It was a “banner” year for television series dealing with the Utah-based church and other Mormon-heritage groups. “Under the Banner of Heaven” debuted in April with an all-star cast featuring Andrew Garfield, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Sam Worthington, but met with mixed reviews. Many Latter-day Saints were unhappy with the liberties the series took with Mormon and American history. But “Banner” was only one of several shows that dealt with Mormonism in a mostly critical way; others included the docuseries “LuLaRich” (Amazon Prime), “Keep Sweet” (Netflix) and the best of the bunch, “Mormon No More” (Hulu).

3. The church announced its 300th temple.

Although membership growth has leveled off at less than 1% a year, Latter-day Saint temple-building has increased significantly during the presidency of 98-year-old Russell Nelson. He has announced 118 new temples since he became the religion’s top leader four years ago. This expansion means there are now 300 temples either in operation, under construction or in the planning stages. Several have also been recently renovated and rededicated, including one in Washington, D.C. Temples are where members’ most sacred rituals occur, such as marriages for eternity.

4. The Associated Press investigated the church’s sexual abuse help line.

In August, The Associated Press released a long investigative report into how sex abuse cases have been handled in the church (short answer: not well).

The report focused on a case in Arizona in which a Latter-day Saint who was repeatedly raping his daughters confessed the abuse to his bishop, who in turn phoned the church’s help line for local lay leaders, which advised him not to report the abuse to the police. Since Arizona does not mandate clergy to report instances of abuse, this action was apparently legal.

An ensuing public outcry questioned whether it was ethical, especially since the lack of police involvement enabled the man to continue raping his daughters for years. In response to the AP allegations, the church issued strongly worded news releases that attempted to explain the purpose of the help line and declare that “the abuse of a child or any other individual is inexcusable.”

5. The church revised its guidelines for youths around the world.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf greets youths at a For the Strength of Youth conference in Thailand on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022, during his visit to Southeast Asia.

After decades of issuing explicit instructions to youths about what to wear (and, far more often, what not to), the church announced a more hands-off approach. The new edition of “For the Strength of Youth,” released in October at the denomination’s twice-yearly General Conference, sounded markedly different from previous rules about dress and personal grooming. Rather than focusing on the perils of short skirts or tattoos, the revised pamphlet focused on honoring their bodies as gifts from God — with the details left undefined.

6. Australians raised tough financial questions about the church’s charitable donations.

60 Minutes Australia” reported that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had exploited a loophole in Australia’s tax laws. Since donations to churches aren’t tax deductible but donations to charities are, the church created a “charitable trust fund” to which members were instructed to send their tithing rather than to the church itself. This rerouting enabled those members to claim a tax deduction they would not have otherwise received. The reports claimed this practice had deprived the government of $400AU million in tax revenue, and that it was unfair to other churches that followed the rules.

7. A Latter-day Saint shooter killed five people at an LGBTQ nightclub.

Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22, was accused of opening fire at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs on Nov. 19, killing five people and wounding many more. In the aftermath of the shooting, the church acknowledged Aldrich was an official member who “had not been active in some time.” A spokesperson went on to say it was “problematic” to blame Mormonism for the violence since Aldrich was only tangentially involved. Aldrich’s father gave an interview after the shooting in which he appeared to be more concerned that his child was found in a gay bar than he was that his child had allegedly murdered people there. “I said, ‘God, is he gay?’ I got scared, ‘Shit, is he gay?’ And he’s not gay, so I said, ‘Phew.’ … You know, Mormons don’t do gay. We don’t do gay. There’s no gays in the Mormon church.”

8. The church announced its support for legislation to protect same-sex marriage.

(Patrick Semansky | AP) President Joe Biden signs the Respect for Marriage Act on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington.

In an odd confluence of events, the Club Q shooting occurred just three days after the church’s unexpected announcement that it would support the Respect for Marriage Act then working its way through Congress. (The bill has since been signed into law.) Given the church’s long and controversial history of publicly working to defeat same-sex marriage in state legislatures and in the courts, most memorably with Proposition 8 in California in 2008, this appeared to be an about-face. But in reality it was a compromise that had been a long time coming. The church agreed to support the bill once it contained certain exemptions for religious groups: “nonprofit religious organizations will not be required to provide any services, facilities, or goods for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage.”

9. Pop star David Archuleta announced he’s stepping away from the church.

Singer and “American Idol” runner-up David Archuleta gave several interviews in which he explained his decision to “step away” from active membership in the church. Archuleta detailed a yearslong struggle with knowing he was gay but trying valiantly to make himself heterosexual — a battle that included suicidal ideation and getting engaged to three women.

After meeting with high-ranking church leaders and realizing they did not understand, he made the decision to remove himself from direct involvement in the church, which he told People magazine had been “liberating.”

“For my own mental health, I can’t keep putting myself in a place where it’s so conflicting — where they say, ‘We love you so much, but at the same time, you must change who you are.’”

10. The Tabernacle Choir went international.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square performs during General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Sunday, April 3, 2022.

In a nod to the global nature of the church, The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square announced it will be going on the road. From now on, it plans to take a trip every year instead of every other, in an effort to expand its reach outside the United States. In June 2023, it will travel to Mexico City. In a related effort, it plans to open up spots for singers from around the world — including Mexico, Central America, South America, West Africa, the Philippines and Asia — to perform with the choir during General Conference in April 2023. Finally, it plans to translate the long-running Sunday broadcast “Music and the Spoken Word” into Spanish and Portuguese, with native speakers performing the “spoken word” part of the program.

(The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)