Well, it’s 2022. Happy new year — or crappy new year, depending on how the wheel turns for you, the country, and the Church. I’m inclined to think 2022 might be as bad or worse than 2021 or 2020. Convince me I’m wrong.
It Has Happened Before
The Church has had good decades and bad decades. It can be outside events that make it so (say the 1940s, when WW2 more or less terminated worldwide missionary work for the Church) or internal events (say the 1960s, when social pressure mounted on the Church to change its racial
doctrine policy). The 19th century offers even more glaring examples. Before looking forward to the rest of the terrible ’20s, let’s look back on Brigham Young’s time of troubles.
I’ll pull my comments from Thomas G. Alexander’s Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith (Oklahoma Univ. Press, 2018), which I just finished. Consider the first fifteen years of Brigham’s tenure as President of the Church, starting with the death of Joseph Smith in 1844, Nauvoo under seige in 1845-46, a monumentally challenging relocation of some LDS (those who chose to follow Brigham as leader) to the Salt Lake Valley, a difficult first ten years when there was often just not enough food to feed the people, the public announcement of LDS polygamy in 1852 which turned public and government opinion firmly against the Church for two generations, right up to the Utah War in 1857-58 and the attendant Mountain Meadows Massacre in September 1857. Things didn’t get a lot better for the balance of the 19th century. It’s a wonder the Church survived. It wasn’t until the two decades on either side of the turn of the century that good things really started to happen: cessation of official polygamy, completion of the Salt Lake Temple, statehood for Utah, normalization of political life in Utah (adoption of two-party system), and so forth.
If the Church made it through that difficult time from 1844 to 1858, it will make it through the 2020s. Still, it’s worth it to talk about what is coming and why things will likely get worse before they get better.
It Will Happen Again
Here are some things that are going to trouble the Church and its membership in the coming decade, first the external things, then the internal things. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t. I’m just going to list some bullet points.
- Everyone gets Covid. After struggling with shutdowns, masks, social distancing, and vaccines, the Omicron Variant is going to steamroll its way through the world. It looks like everyone, LDS and otherwise, will get it within a few months. Strangely, most people aren’t too concerned. In the future, most will get it again, and maybe again. Covid will be like the flu with a much wider range of outcomes (you might be asymptomatic, you might die).
- Lose an apostle or two. If everyone gets Covid and older persons are particularly at risk, that means LDS apostles are particularly at risk. We’ll probably lose an apostle or two. Recall that Joseph F. Smith passed away from the Spanish Flu in 1918. In his weakened condition leading up to his death, he had the vision (dream?) of the redemption of the dead (dying people think about death a lot), now canonized as D&C 138.
- War in Ukraine? Flip a coin. If it’s heads, there will be a shooting war in Ukraine this year. Well, there’s already a shooting war there, but it will get worse. Tails, maybe it just simmers for another year. A danger of small wars is they can sometimes turn into big wars. Read The Guns of August if you haven’t already.
- War over Taiwan? If it’s tails, maybe China decides to take a shot at Taiwan, but they’ll at least wait until after the Olympics. Who knew the Olympics were actually good for something?
- Trump. What’s worse for America, Covid or Trump? Neither are going away soon, it seems. In the long run, Trump and the social/political mayhem he has caused, is causing, and will continue to cause seems like the larger disruption. Read 1984 if you haven’t already.
Those are just the external events that will affect the Church, and I haven’t even thrown in inflation or a collapsing stock market or another unemployment crisis, which are all possibilities. What about internal events?
- Nobody likes us. It was Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy in 2012 that really brought it home to most LDS: We’re not very popular. Lots of people don’t like us. The continued LDS opposition to gay marriage and LGBT issues is a convenient focal point for continued resentment, and I don’t think LDS leadership is going to entertain substantial change to that set of doctrines and practices for at least another generation. Increasingly, being a Mormon is a topic of conversation you and others will try to avoid when possible.
- The Internet is still there. And still making all kinds of unwelcome information on LDS doctrine, history, and practice available to anyone with a cell phone or a laptop. Death of a thousand cuts. The Gospel Topics Essays were supposed to be an effective response to all this. I don’t think they worked.
- If ye are not one, ye are not mine. The Covid/Trump tandem has split LDS congregations like nothing we have ever seen. There are people at both ends of the political spectrum who are saying, “Enough! I’ve had it!” Maybe they cease in-person attendance. Maybe they step away completely. It is just a complete surprise how many LDS people there are who, five years ago, would not have remotely considered that sort of response, but who now find it a quite reasonable course of action.
Maybe you can add additional items to the “internally caused” list. It seems like we’re good at causing ourselves problems. But on the bright side, if the Church made it through the 1840s/1850s debacle, it will make it through the 2020s/30s.
Imagine sitting around with LDS friends twenty or thirty years from now and looking back. If one of the group says, “Wow, it was sure a good thing the Church had a hundred billion dollars in the bank,” the rest of the group might very well agree. What else might you or someone else say a generation from now, looking back?
In the comments, you can agree or disagree, add items or dispute my list. Remember, my framing here is “the Church has seen worse, so it will probably do okay in the long run even if it’s a bumpy ride for a few years.” Who knows, maybe things won’t be so bad and the US and the Church will just muddle through. Maybe the 2020s won’t go down in history like the 1860s (Civil War) or the 1930s (Great Depression, etc.) or the 1960s (riots, assassinations). You may be right. I may be crazy. But it’s a jungle out there. Disorder and confusion everywhere. No one seems to care. I could be wrong now, but I don’t think so.