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.

The persistent problem of polygamy

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Emma Smith, wife of Mormon founder Joseph Smith.

A document crafted in 1843 by Joseph Smith to convert one person — wife Emma — to the practice of polygamy forces millions of Latter-day Saints to grapple with plural marriage nearly 177 years later.

The reason, argues Mormon historian Benjamin Park in a recent piece in Religion Dispatches, is that the document is classified as a “revelation” and has been canonized as Section 132 in the faith’s Doctrine and Covenants.

Although the Utah-based church touts the marriage of one man to one woman as the divinely directed standard — the faith tosses out any members found practicing polygamy today — the theology of polygamy lives on in its temples.

A faithful Latter-day Saint still can be sealed, or wedded for eternity, to multiple women, as long as he is married to only one living woman at a time. Indeed, church President Russell M. Nelson and his first counselor, Dallin H. Oaks, each married a second woman in the temple after their first wives died.

This practice — along with the church’s silence on Utah’s recent decriminalization of polygamy — leaves many Latter-day Saint women and men worried that the practice will be restored in the hereafter.

“The ghost of polygamy’s past, and the threat of polygamy’s future,” Park writes, “continues to haunt many Latter-day Saints who are otherwise conditioned to embrace monogamy.”

Park, author of the recently released “Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier,” says setting aside Smith’s 3,300-word revelation could ease, if not erase, the conflict.

“What happens when contemporary values, like gender equality and monogamous marriage, clash with canonized doctrines, like polygamy?” he asks in the article. “Can the faith ever revoke canonized teachings, or would such a move strip their leaders of necessary authority?”

How did Emma Smith greet her husband’s revelation — then and later? And what role did Joseph’s brother Hyrum play? Read Park’s full article here. Hear him discuss Nauvoo polygamy on a recent Salt Lake Tribune “Mormon Land” podcast here.

‘Till we meet again’

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) For demonstration purposes, a Utah congregation shows how family members could receive the sacrament tray while holding their face masks. The priesthood holder would follow COVID-19-recommended public guidelines by wearing a face mask and distributing the sacrament tray to each church member.

Latter-day Saints could be meeting again in their congregations as soon this Sunday for songs, sermons and the sacrament.

After more than two months without such worship services, the governing First Presidency announced plans for a phased approach to resuming Sunday meetings and other activities amid the coronavirus.

“Area Presidencies will work with the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the Presidency of the Seventy who supervise them in deciding when and where meetings can begin in their area,” they wrote in a letter Tuesday. “…We are grateful for the faith of our members as they have worshipped at home and are grateful for the blessings that will come as we gather.”

Phase 1, a news release noted, will allow for shortened meetings — probably lasting less than an hour — at the meetinghouse with up to 99 individuals, heeding local government regulations.

Phase 2 will permit such meetings with 100 or more people, again following local government rules.

Congregants, sitting as individuals or in family or household groups, will have to be at least 6 feet apart. Members also might be encouraged to wear face masks.

Male priesthood holders are told to take extra sanitary precautions in preparing and administering the sacrament. Bishops also might ask members to space apart so that priesthood holders can offer the trays to all attendees rather than having individuals pass trays down a row.

‘The angel of the Lord descended’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crews remove the Angel Moroni statue from the Salt Lake Temple on Monday, May 17, 2020.
Buy this image

Moroni is no fallen angel, but, for the first time in 128 years, he has lost his lofty station atop the Salt Lake Temple.

Temporarily.

A giant crane lowered the golden statue Monday so workers can repair it after a magnitude 5.7 earthquake knocked the trumpet from its hand.

“This has long been planned as part of the temple renovation, but the timeline to do so was accelerated following the earthquake in March,” church spokesman Daniel Woodruff said. “The statue and capstone will be preserved and refurbished before being reinstalled at a later date.”

“And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended ...”
Matthew 28:2

Representing the Prophet Moroni from the Book of Mormon, the faith’s signature scripture, the 12-foot-5-inch statue was placed at the peak of the 210-foot-high east spire on April 6, 1892, a full year before the iconic temple was dedicated. It was hammered out of copper and covered with 22-karat gold leaf.

Right now, the temple is undergoing a seismic retrofit and other upgrades, part of a four-year renovation of the six-spired building and its surroundings. Millions of tourists visit Temple Square in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City every year.

This week’s podcast: An artist’s take on church art

(Photo courtesy of the Springville Museum of Art) "Descent from the Cross" oil painting by Brian Kershisnik.

A week ago, the First Presidency directed that all displays in foyers and entryways in meetinghouses across the globe be reserved exclusively for artwork that depicts Jesus. The leaders even included a list of 22 paintings for such use. While the push to focus on Christ won wide praise, some observers questioned the approved artwork, suggesting the pieces lacked gender and cultural diversity while offering only a narrow, Eurocentric vision.

In this week’s show, Utah artist Brian Kershisnik, whose works have become increasingly popular in Latter-day Saint circles, discusses the church’s directive, the difficulties in depicting Jesus, and the role of art in sacred spaces.

Kershisnik says he would like to see the church draw from a wider palette of paintings from across the world and across generations, including pieces that challenge as much as comfort their viewers.

Listen here.

Missionary killed

(Courtesy of Bergeson family) McKay Bergeson, a 19-year-old Bountiful native who was serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was killed while riding his bicycle when he was struck by an automobile near LaFayette, Ga.

A 19-year-old missionary from Utah was killed Saturday night while riding his bicycle just outside of LaFayette, Ga.

McKay Bergeson had been serving in the Tennessee Knoxville Mission since December.

“He was a bright light,” Troy Anderson, his Bountiful stake president, told The Tribune. “He’s got a loud, wonderful and engaging laugh. He was very much a strength to those around him. He will be greatly missed.”

Bergeson was traveling in the outside lane of four-lane highway about 9:30 p.m. when an automobile struck his bike from behind.

“It was a hit-and-run,” said Sgt. First Class Chris Harris, a Georgia State Patrol spokesman.

Bergeson’s companion was uninjured.

Taking stock

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Ensign Peak Advisors, the church’s investment arm, reported that the value of its stock portfolio fell by $8.1 billion, about 21%, to finish at $29.7 billion in the first quarter.

The firm unloaded vast shares in Exxon Mobil, Caterpillar and Marriott International, for instance, while snatching up shares in Zoom, Humana and Grubhub as fund managers repositioned the account amid the slumping coronavirus economy.

“This is not throwing a dart in the dark,” Haran Segram, a clinical assistant professor of finance at New York University’s Stern School of Business, told The Tribune of the portfolio shifts. “This is based on solid fundamentals.”

This stock fund appears to represent a large chunk of the total value of Ensign Peak Advisors, which whistleblowing brothers Lars and David Nielsen said last year in a headline-making complaint to the IRS controlled assets worth at least $100 billion.

How the Relief Society president ‘hears him’

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Relief Society General President Jean B. Bingham speaks in 2017.

President Jean B. Bingham, who leads the women’s global Relief Society, recalled the first time she shared her testimony. She was 12 years old, sitting in a Minnesota ward.

“My heart started to pound and I knew I had to stand up. And I was just petrified, but I couldn’t stop it,” she said in a newly released video in the church’s “How I Hear Him” series. “I stood there and waited for the mic to come and my knees were just shaking.”

Bingham “stumbled” through a simple testimony but felt “so good, so warm, so affirmed” that God loved her.

“That,” she said, “was one of the first times I realized that ... one of the ways that I feel the Spirit and I hear his voice is that warm assurance that I am doing the right thing.”

More relief efforts

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) An employee at church-owned Beehive Clothing in Salt Lake City assembles a surgical gown, Friday, May 15, 2020.

Temple garments will have to wait.

Six Beehive Clothing plants instead are cranking out hundreds of thousands of cloth masks and medical-grade gowns for health care workers.

The facilities in Brazil, Paraguay, Mexico, the Philippines and Utah (in Salt Lake City and American Fork) have been authorized to turn their skills and attention to the fight against the coronavirus.

“We have about 1,000 employees [working in shifts at the sites to maintain social distancing], and we are donating our time, our labor and our sewing capacity for several months, diverting it from sewing sacred garments to sewing surgical gowns and reusable cloth masks for the community,” Peggy Cowherd, managing director of the church’s Materials Management Department, said in a news release. “...Our goals overall are by the end of June to sew 200,000 surgical gowns and about 1.5 million reusable cloth masks.”

• The church sent three truckloads of food to a New Jersey food bank.

“This support comes to us at a time when it’s needed most, especially as food donations have declined and the need for assistance has spiked,” Carlos Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, told TAPinto.net, an online news operation. “Without contributions like this, we could not do what we do to feed so many food insecure people throughout the state.”

The 120,000 pounds of food is expected to yield 100,000 meals.

“So many of our friends, neighbors and members in New Jersey have been impacted by this virus,” Diane Nelson, president of the Scotch Plains Stake Relief Society, told the news outlet. “There’s no greater work we could be focused on at this time than helping to provide critical nutrition to individuals and families.”

The church has reported that it sends 15 semitrailer loads of commodities to food banks and other charities in the U.S. every week.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Lorys Saavedra indexes FamilySearch records on her laptop in Centerville, Utah, on Thursday, May 14, 2020. FamilySearch matched virtual needs with individuals’ skills during the coronavirus outbreak to help provide remote work for displaced workers and church service missionaries until they can return to their original assignments.

• The coronavirus pandemic may have sidelined church workers but it hasn’t idled church work.

More than 1,500 service missionaries and church employees are still laboring — they’re just doing it via computer from home.

FamilySearch International, the faith’s genealogical arm, has reassigned these individuals.

“Some technical skills, language skills, some genealogical skills were all put into play,” Steve Rockwood, president and CEO of FamilySearch International, said in a news release. “FamilySearch has 15 years of experience engaging a globally distributed workforce online. We were thrilled we could help accommodate these displaced workers and missionaries from other areas, and they in turn could help us help others to discover their families and ancestors.”

Temple updates

• President Russell M. Nelson’s April announcement that the church would build its first temple in the Middle East marked an important milestone for the faith.

But for Latter-day Saints in the region, the news of a temple going up in the United Arab Emirates — with the government’s blessing — was far more personal.

“For many years, members of the church in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Kurdistan-Iraq have faithfully looked forward to the day they will be able to visit the temple and receive ordinances for themselves and their deceased ancestors,” Maroun Akiki, president of the Beirut Lebanon District, said in a news release. “The temple in Dubai will bless the lives of thousands of people.”

The nearly 8,000 Latter-day Saints in the region, including 1,700 in the United Arab Emirates, no longer will have to venture to Ukraine, Italy or Germany to attend a temple.

“I have dreamed of this day all my life,” said Sewar Tashman of Jordan, “for a temple in the Middle East.”

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The celestial room in the Jordan River Temple. This temple in South Jordan, Utah, has reopened for limited use amid the coronavirus pandemic.

• By Monday, 52 of the church’s 160-plus temples around the world will be open again for limited use.

These temples are offering only marriage “sealings” by appointment for couples who already have been endowed. A few family members may attend, and all government and public health directives must be observed, including “the use of safety equipment such as masks.”

For the status of all temples and which are part of these “Phase 1” reopenings, click here.

Quote of the week

“We are starting to see more representations of people of color painted by white LDS artists. While this movement is wonderful, it is only the beginning of inclusion. We have come to a place in history where people of color don’t just want their stories told, we want to tell our own stories, dreams and perspectives using our own voices. We do not want to be the background ‘color’ in someone else’s painting.”

Artist Michelle Franzoni Thorley, from a speech given at the Center for Latter-day Saint Arts in New York last year and recently posted on Exponent II.

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