The Salt Lake Tribune published a look back at the first five years of Pres. Nelson’s tenure as President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints last week. Let’s go through and hit the main points of the article and see if we can understand what’s going on.

Gathering of Israel

The article quotes Nelson as saying in 2018 “these surely are the latter days, and the Lord is hastening his work to gather Israel. That gathering is the most important thing taking place on earth today. Nothing else compares in magnitude, nothing else compares in importance, nothing else compares in majesty.

This is a little puzzling. Who exactly is “Israel” in this phrase? Is it baptized members of the Church? That doesn’t make sense, already “gathered” in the sense of joining the Church. Is it living people out there who might accept the gospel and be baptized if the missionaries or a friendly member strike up a Mormonish conversation and they eventually convert? That doesn’t make sense. We already have a very usable phrase for that sort of activity: “missionary work.” Is it doing temple work for those who have passed on? Same thing: we call that “temple work” or “baptisms for the dead.” Unless he’s talking about seeking out the Lost Ten Tribes hiding somewhere under the North or South Pole and transporting them to Utah, it is not really clear what and who he has in mind with this phrase.

Maybe, like so many LDS motivational phrases that come and go, it’s just a shorthand phrase for “pay your tithing, go to church, and accept every calling.” I simply have no idea what the phrase is actually referring to. Imagine you and your faithful spouse knocking on the bishop’s door and saying, “Bishop, here we are, ready to gather Israel as Pres. Nelson has directed. We’re full of energy and determination. What exactly should we do?” I doubt any bishop would be able to give a specific answer.

Personal Responsibility and Revelation

This goes back to the “home-centered, church supported” theme from a couple of years ago, tied to the new Come Follow Me manuals. The most zealous of members seem to have replaced Home Evening (and the Home Evening manual) with doing mini-Sunday School lessons based on CFM once a week with the family. If that’s the ideal, if that’s what was intended, why didn’t they just eliminate Sunday School from the two-hour block and have PH/RS every week? The alternating schedule doesn’t really seem to be working for either Sunday School or PH/RS. Trying to keep half of one and half of the other is hoping for too much. Just jettison Sunday School and just have a “Sunday School enrichment meeting” on the fifth Sunday once every three months instead of whatever random topic usually gets thrown into fifth Sundays.

This might also reflect what might be termed “revelatory inflation.” A lot of things that used to be called decisions are now described as “inspired decisions” or flat out “revelation.” Maybe it empowers and edifies members to have them think “God is telling me to read the New Testament” rather than “I feel like I should read the New Testament this year.” There are zealous members out there who think they get five revelations a day. My sense is that recent overuse and broadening of the term “revelation” has blurred some distinctions and probably removed some of the aura from what were referred to as “revelations” in previous LDS discourse: documents in the D&C and other events or visions presented as or claimed as bona fide revelations.

More Temples

Is there such a thing as too many LDS temples? As an economist might say, there is an optimal number of LDS temples and it is considerably less than infinity. Has anyone at the COB actually had a meeting to discuss criteria that would allow a determination that a given geographical locality has too many temples, just the right number of temples, or not enough LDS temples? I propose the Goldilocks Initiative, a push within LDS leadership to think hard about what that “just right” number of temples per state or LDS area or foreign country is. That’s in contrast to the current “if we build it, they will come” approach which seems to have no upper bound. You might also think of it as the Oprah approach: A temple for you! And a temple for you! Everybody gets a temple!

Now let’s be fair. Many Latter-day Saints have had deeply personal spiritual experiences in an LDS temple. The goal and symbol of an LDS temple marriage (paired with serving and LDS mission) guides and focuses many LDS youth in a positive way. If you think “get married to someone who loves you and start a family” is a little too traditional in terms of advice for youth in 2023, what’s your alternative plan? Stay single while delivering pizza four nights a week and playing video games in Mom’s basement until you’re 35? A lot of younger guys don’t need a plan and a symbol for that. They’re already living the dream. (And I can guess which regular commenter is going to take this critique and run with it.)

So the role of temples in the whole LDS program isn’t by itself a real negative. We’re talking here about the push to build more and more and more temples, which puts more and more and more pressure on a shrinking pool of active LDS to staff and attend temple services and activities.

Who Are You?

Well, you’re not a “Mormon” anymore, if Pres. Nelson gets his wish. You can boldly proclaim to non-LDS friends or colleagues, “I’m a Saint” or maybe “I’m a Christian.” Like that won’t confuse them. Even “I’m a member of the LDS Church” is too casual or demeaning for the LDS leadership. It’s supposed to be “I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Tell that to the average non-LDS and they’ll either reply “which church is that?” or, if they’re in the know, “so you’re a Mormon, right?”

The SL Trib article has some discussion highlighting the difficulties this has created. The most annoying thing is probably the twelve thousand times some lady at church has wagged her finger at some other church-attending member and said, “You know you’re not supposed to use the M-word anymore!” The whole effort has had little or no impact on people outside the Church, most of whom don’t even know about it. Journalists are probably all aware by now, but they work under the constraint that non-LDS readers actually have to understand what the journalist is talking about in a published story. So they pretty much have to use the term “Mormon” to describe the Church or its members in a news story, otherwise many readers just won’t know who they are talking about. Again, like the “gathering of Israel” theme, this one is kind of a head scratcher. It’s not clear what the leadership thinks this is supposed to accomplish or whether it has, in fact, achieved to any degree that secret goal. If this is a solution, what was the problem?

Rooting Out Racism

This seems like the only serious topic on the list, which means I suppose that it’s the only serious thing that has been attempted by the leadership under Pres. Nelson’s tenure. I could say that with more confidence if, say, there were a Conference talk on this topic directed to the membership every six months. You hear a comment or two, and maybe you hear some references to the problem if you’re already tuned in to it, but honestly I’m not sure the leadership has made this a priority to the extent that the average member would recognize it as such.

I mean yes, it would be nice if the leadership did put more emphasis on this. But if they really are trying to put an emphasis on rooting out racism in the Church, I’m not sure the message is getting through to the membership, certainly not as a priority. If you went to church next week and asked ten random members to name three things Pres. Nelson has emphasized in his five years as President of the Church, I doubt a single one of them would list “rooting out racism from the Church” as one of their three. Maybe because to give that answer, you have to acknowledge that racism exists among the membership and is a problem, which few members are willing to do. Racism is always someone else’s problem. The way right-leaning politics is moving lately (and most active LDS are definitely right-leaning and get their news from right-leaning sources) the whole idea that racism is a problem or even a factor in current society or in American history is being contested and, if possible, erased from school and university courses.

So those are the five main themes the article identifies for Pres. Nelson’s first five years.

  • Any themes they missed?
  • Do any of them strike you as terribly positive or negative? Got a favorite?
  • Have you had a conversation with someone where the use or non-use of the term “Mormon” created confusion or offense?
  • Look in your crystal ball and guess a theme or two that might emerge over the next couple of years of the Nelson-Oaks presidency.