This post will be a different flavor than most of my previous ones, and addresses a specific audience. I am a practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (sometimes called Mormons), and would like to address this post primarily to fellow members of the church.
On August 12, 2021, the global leadership of the church (The First Presidency) released a statement by email to the entire church membership urging members to fight the pandemic by wearing masks or social distancing in public meetings, and to be vaccinated against COVID-19. This statement is in full congruence with previous conference teachings during the pandemic urging compliance with health recommendations, existing church policies on vaccinations (1978 Immunization statement, church handbook section on vaccinations- see 38.7.13), and the example set by church leaders who very publicly received their own COVID vaccinations as soon as they were able. The church voluntarily shut down all regular in-person meetings on March 12 2020, going above and beyond local regulations at the time in many areas. To date, all general conference meetings since the onset of the pandemic have been broadcast remotely, with those in attendance wearing masks. The church is now “following the lead of government and healthcare professionals around the world as it considers a measured return to normal operating procedures.” (reference) While it did not introduce any new doctrine or policy, this most recent statement has been the most direct to date in “urging” members to take these specific steps in response to the ongoing pandemic.
As the pandemic has evolved, many measures to manage it have unfortunately evolved into political issues, fueled by torrents of medical commentary, blatant misinformation, media sensationalism, conspiracy theories, protests, and ideological politicking for popular support. This has caused a great deal of confusion and division within all parts of our world, including within the church. Many church members hold political views (on both sides of the spectrum) that sometimes conflict with the teachings and direction of the church. This is not new, but perhaps for many members, this pandemic and the church’s moderate and medically informed response to it has for the first time generated a significant, and unavoidable collision between deeply held concerns and beliefs. I have witnessed a great deal of consternation by church members convinced their political or personal opinions on the pandemic are steeped in truth, who are now seeing those they revere as modern prophets increasingly contradicting some of those beliefs.
The most natural human instinct in such situations is to minimize the conflict and the resulting internal discomfort it creates: “this is not a commandment,” “they said urge, not must,” “vaccines aren’t required to hold a temple recommend,” “we have our agency to choose about vaccinations, as it says in the church handbook.” This is all true, and I seriously doubt anyone is going to face church discipline for their views on masks or vaccines. However, rather than looking for reasons to discount their strong advice, might this be an opportunity better served by pausing and asking why the First Presidency made this statement? We know church leaders are not infallible, and each is free to hold their own opinions, but when it comes to official statements from the First Presidency or the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, our doctrine of a church based on revelation from heaven holds such declarations to a much higher standard. Much has been taught on this matter since the restoration of the church. Perhaps one of the most pertinent summaries was given by Ezra Taft Benson at a BYU devotional on Feb 26 1980, full text here. A few excerpts include:
- “The living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet.“
- “The prophet will never lead the Church astray.“
- “The prophet is not required to have any particular earthly training or credentials to speak on any subject or act on any matter at any time.“
- “The prophet does not have to say “Thus saith the Lord” to give us scripture.“
- “The prophet tells us what we need to know, not always what we want to know.“
- “The prophet can receive revelation on any matter—temporal or spiritual.“
- “Said President Harold B. Lee: You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church. It may contradict your political views. It may contradict your social views. It may interfere with some of your social life. . . . Your safety and ours depends upon whether or not we follow. . . . Let’s keep our eye on the President of the Church. [In Conference Report, October 1970, p. 152-153]”
- “President Wilford Woodruff stated: “I say to Israel, The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of the Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God.” (The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, selected by G. Homer Durham [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1946], pp. 212-213.)”
While acknowledging that we mortals do not know the mind and will of God, the fact that this statement came as an official communication from the First Presidency (and that it was not the first endorsement of COVID precautions and vaccination they have given), can teach us some important lessons. Consider these words of President Nelson from April 2021 general conference:
“We live in a time prophesied long ago, when “all things shall be in commotion; and surely, men’s hearts shall fail them; for fear shall come upon all people.” That was true before the pandemic, and it will be true after. Commotion in the world will continue to increase. In contrast, the voice of the Lord is not “a voice of a great tumultuous noise, but … it [is] a still voice of perfect mildness, [like] a whisper, and it [pierces] even to the very soul.”
A look at official church communication during the pandemic indeed shows a steady and calming voice delivering a consistent message that can be seen in multiple talks from the past three general conferences: Protect yourself and others by following the recommendations of governments and public health officials, and use the opportunities presented by such unusual times to find ways to continue to progress spiritually and further the work of the Lord. Let’s breakdown what we are taught by the most recent statement. If we acknowledge it as an inspired communication to the entire world in troubled times from a God that loves all his children, and who will specifically not allow His church to be led astray, we can see in what ways it cuts through the “commotion in the world” that currently surrounds us.
“Dear Brothers and Sisters: We find ourselves fighting a war against the ravages of COVID-19 and its variants, an unrelenting pandemic. We want to do all we can to limit the spread of these viruses.”
This simple statement reveals the deception behind the numerous circulating conspiracies that discount COVID-19 as either a hoax, or a harmless everyday virus that has been blown out of proportion. If this was a perpetuated distraction designed to either limit freedom or in some other way distract from other vital spiritual and social matters, it would have been identified as such and resisted or ignored. Instead, the language of war is invoked- a collective struggle in which the cooperation of all is required to defeat a common enemy. COVID-19 is not an us vs them battle between conservatives and liberals, or politicians and free people- it is humanity against the virus. Mainstream and social media are replete with the personal witnesses of countless health care professionals and affected patients and their families warning everyone they can about the dangers of both the virus, and of allowing it to overwhelm health care systems. They are the frontline soldiers in this war, and the First Presidency is not discounting their testimony as “fake news.”
“We know that protection from the diseases they cause can only be achieved by immunizing a very high percentage of the population.”
Again the First Presidency endorses the advances in science and medicine that have blessed us with the relatively healthy society in which we live. We are not a church that eschews god-inspired scientific advancement in favor of faith healing alone. As stated in the church handbook, section 38.7.8: “Seeking competent medical help, exercising faith, and receiving priesthood blessings work together for healing, according to the will of the Lord. Members should not use or promote medical or health practices that are ethically, spiritually, or legally questionable. Those who have health problems should consult with competent medical professionals who are licensed in the areas where they practice.” I imagine the first presidency was very careful in being sure any official worldwide statement on an issue of health was in compliance with these guidelines.
“To limit exposure to these viruses, we urge the use of face masks in public meetings whenever social distancing is not possible. “
Immediately after stating very clearly that COVID-19 is a REAL health threat, and an unrelenting pandemic, the living prophet has just declared two ways to limit exposure to a potentially deadly virus: social distancing, and masking in close proximity. Is that not why we have a living prophet in the Latter Days? To cut through the confusing rhetoric of those who claim you must “do your own research” in order to prove or disprove for yourself the conclusions and recommendations of multiple worldwide experts and scientists? Including in areas in which the experts sometimes disagree? Does the Lord expect everyone to become an infectious disease expert through a year of internet searches in order to learn the truth about PCR testing, viral loads and epidemiological principles? Or to slog through the endless online theories of men to find the real truth? Perhaps amidst such confusion with the world facing a common life and death issue, the Lord might have his prophet make a simple and clear declaration, capable of being followed by “the least among you.” This simple declaration continues:
“To provide personal protection from such severe infections, we urge individuals to be vaccinated. Available vaccines have proven to be both safe and effective.”
Again, this clear statement of truth should cut through the torrent of false claims and deceptions widely circulating about COVID-19 vaccinations. If these vaccinations were a government tracking program, or a form of forced sterility/population control, secretly responsible for thousands of covered up deaths, or likely to be responsible for future large scale death or suffering by those who received them, then the Lord would never allow the prophet of the church to globally “urge” every member of the church to receive them. It would be difficult to believe that, and still believe in a church governed by revelation from a loving Father in Heaven. As with all commandments, exact obedience is never a guarantee of freedom from mortal injury or even death, but it is reliably the pathway to qualify for the most divine protection both in mortality and in eternity. One purpose of a latter-day prophet is to preserve the Lord’s people. Is it possible, that in the midst of a deadly pandemic, with the truth clouded by conflict, controversy and falsehoods, that the Lord might have his prophet make a clear declaration that would help his people make the correct choices to preserve their lives and personal safety?
“And the day shall come that the earth shall arest, but before that day the heavens shall be bdarkened, and a cveil of darkness shall cover the earth; and the heavens shall shake, and also the earth; and great tribulations shall be among the children of men, but my people will I dpreserve;” (Pearl of Great Price, Moses 7:61)
This is not the first such statement on the pandemic either. At the time the First Presidency and eligible Apostles publicly received their vaccinations, they released a similar statement:
“Now, COVID-19 vaccines that many have worked, prayed, and fasted for are being developed, and some are being provided. Under the guidelines issued by local health officials, vaccinations were first offered to health care workers, first responders, and other high-priority recipients. Because of their age, Senior Church leaders over 70 now welcome the opportunity to be vaccinated. As appropriate opportunities become available, the Church urges its members, employees and missionaries to be good global citizens and help quell the pandemic by safeguarding themselves and others through immunization. Individuals are responsible to make their own decisions about vaccination. In making that determination, we recommend that, where possible, they counsel with a competent medical professional about their personal circumstances and needs.”
Those resisting vaccination advice point to the last two sentences as justification to decline the strong recommendation of the prophet. There are medically legitimate reasons the vaccine might not be the right choice for some people, and it is also clear that the Lord is going to allow everyone their agency in this matter. But agency has always been a principle of choice linked to consequence. This statement, and the more insistent latest repetition clearly reinforces that being vaccinated is in most situations the right thing to do to serve your community, protect those around you, and also to protect yourself. If you are the exception to that general recommendation, then there must be some very specific and personal reasons that are not generalizable to others around you. Does it need to be a commandment to be good advice? If you or a loved one are going to turn out to be one of the unlucky ones susceptible to a severe case of the delta variant of COVID-19, then not heeding the voice of the prophet in this matter may have significant life-long temporal consequences. The new statement continues:
“We can win this war if everyone will follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders. Please know of our sincere love and great concern for all of God’s children.”
Again a call for unity on this crisis that affects us all, and clear, understandable instruction on how to end the pandemic and the disruption it has brought upon us. We are a church of agency, and it is not surprising that many members have deep objections to mandates, rules and other government imposed restrictions. Unfortunately, when a nation is loosing a war, sometimes involuntary conscription is turned to as a last resort. It is always better to have the people choose to do what is needed, and that is what we are being invited to do. You can choose to wear a mask and be vaccinated because you trust the advice of medical experts, or the word of the prophet while still objecting to compulsory methods of enforcement. The justification or not for collectively enforced measures to protect the greater community from the action or inaction of others is an entirely different discussion, and does not change the value of the measure.
The closing sentence can be seen as a reflection of the First Presidency’s motivation for making this statement. The church does not lightly speak out on non-doctrinal matters of the world. Instead of seeing this statement as a challenge to their political beliefs, or weak health advice that can be rationalized away as men speaking outside their lane, perhaps those members struggling with it can reframe their questions. Why would the living prophet speak up several times to encourage public health measures and vaccination when he knows it is a divisive issue for many members of the church, and it is not directly linked to church doctrine? If it comes from a place of “sincere love and great concern” from those tasked by the Lord to be the watchmen on the tower during the last days, then perhaps there is an important truth and warning behind these words.
What if the world was in the grip of a deadly pandemic that threatened to get worse, but the loud and false philosophes of men were creating such great clouds of darkness and confusion that many good people both inside and outside of the church were deceived, and refused to partake in the simple and almost miraculously provided protection that was available, because they were unable to discern truth from error? What if there were thousands of preventable deaths looming in our near future, and we could save ourselves or someone around us by a few small and simple things? Would the Lord allow His people to be deceived in large numbers because they lacked the scientific background to recognize the errors of men, resulting in the preventable death and suffering of many? What would the Lord direct His prophet to do in such a situation?
I will finish with another quote from Ezra Taft Benson’s address:
‘There will be times when you will have to choose between the revelations of God and the reasoning of men—between the prophet and the politician or professor. Said the Prophet Joseph Smith, “Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof until long after the events transpire” ‘
We will all face challenges to our faith and to our fallible mortal opinions and understanding- that is a part of the test and the growth of mortality. How we choose to respond and reconcile ourselves to God when faced with such a challenge can be a threat to our physical and/or spiritual health, or it can be an opportunity to exercise our faith to trust the Lord when we cannot see the reason, and experience the growth that comes when we look back and understand the wisdom in following the counsel of His inspired prophet. As always, the choice is ours.