The ascendency of Russell M. Nelson to the presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on January 14, 2018 was met in some corners with fear and trembling. In a post at the popular blog By Common Consent that was eventually deleted, one blogger flatly declared that “President Nelson is particularly unfit for the office of President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” This blogger was adamant that “President Nelson bears unique responsibility for the [November 5, 2015 policy on same-sex couples] and for the innocent blood that has been spilled as a direct result of its continued existence.” While still sustaining him as President of the Church and expressing desire to afford him some measure of patience and charity, this blogger questioned whether God “orchestrated President Nelson’s call to the First Presidency” and hopefully reminded his readers that the “chances are very very [sic] good that you will outlive President Nelson.”1
Similar sentiment was, to varying degrees, expressed in other parts of the Internet. President Nelson, it was widely assumed, would retrench the Church in old school fundamentalism, double down on “Mormon” racism and homophobia, and fossilize institutional practices and hierarchical structures.
It has now been one year, one month, and six days since Russell M. Nelson assumed leadership of the Church. Let’s review just some of what has transpired under his tenure as President of the Church during this time.
- 23 January 2018: The Church creates social media ads encouraging sensitivity to concerns of LGBT members.
- 26 January 2018: The Church signals apprehension of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.
- 20 February 2018: The Church works with Utah legislators to curb teen suicide in the state.
- 7 February 2018: The Church’s Family Services informs the Deseret News that it “do[es] not provide what is commonly referred to as ‘reparative therapy’ or ‘sexual orientation change efforts.'”
- 23 February 2018: President Nelson laments lax gun control laws which “allow guns to go to people who shouldn’t have them.”
- 2 March 2018: Bishop Gérald Caussé addresses Church finances.
- 31 March 2018: President Nelson announces restructuring of priesthood quorums.
- 31 March 2018: President Nelson appoints two new apostles to the Quorum of the Twelve, including the quorum’s first Asian-American and Brazilian members.
- 1 April 2018: Home and Visiting Teaching is replaced with “Ministering.”
- 24 April 2018: The Church donates money to Utah’s teen suicide prevention effort.
- 11 May 2018 (23 August 2018 / 4 October 2018): The Church initially opposes Utah’s medical marijuana initiative but then works out a “good faith” compromise.
- 17 May 2018: President Nelson meets with leaders of the NAACP in an effort to promote “greater civility, racial and ethnic harmony and mutual respect.”
- 1 June 2018: The Church holds a special commemoration of the 1978 revelation on priesthood. At the event President Nelson speaks of his “desire to build bridges of cooperation instead of walls of segregation.”
- 18 June 2018: Church leaders denounce President Trump’s immigration policies as “harmful.”
- 18 June 2018: Church announces plans for a new hymnal that will include “music of local interest in each language.”
- 20 June 2018: Church leaders implement “new guidelines for interviewing youth”
- 22 June 2018: Missionary curriculum revised to add more humanizing touch.
- 28 June 2018: The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square (formerly the Mormon Tabernacle Choir) holds rehearsal with San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.
- 10 July 2018: The Church makes a “historic” donation “to an LGBTQ support group to pay for suicide prevention training.”
- 15 July 2018: “LDS Church, NAACP to launch joint education, employment initiative”
- 4 September 2018: The Church publishes the first volume of “Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days.”
- 17 September 2018: New members are called to the Relief Society, Young Women and Primary general boards, including “two black women, [and] ‘Common Ground’ LGBT inclusion advocate”
- 6 October 2018: Church leaders meet with NAACP leaders once again to foster “greater civility and racial harmony.” On this occasion the two groups “announce efforts for expanded collaboration between the members of the two organizations.”
- 6 October 2018: President Nelson opens General Conference by announcing new Church-wide curriculum aimed at providing “new balance and connection between gospel instruction in the home and in the Church.” A new two-hour-long schedule for Church meetings on Sunday is announced.
- 10 October 2018: Elder Steven E. Snow encourages Church members “give high priority to how they treat all of God’s creations.”
- 29 October 2018: The Church condemns anti-Semitism and violence in response to the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting.
- 2 November 2018: Church leaders host NCAA leaders and “bring together LGBTQ advocates and athletic administrators, largely from faith-based institutions, to explore the issues of religious freedom and sexual orientation on college campuses in the United States.”
- 14 December 2018: The First Presidency announces age changes for youth progression and priesthood ordination.
- 20 December 2018: The Church announces new dress standards for sister missionaries.
- 1 January 2019: The First Presidency issues a statement on the nature of temple ordinances coinciding with new changes to said ordinances received warmly by many “faithful feminists.”
- 24 January 2019: The First Presidency states in a letter that deceased endowed Latter-day Saint women are not required to be veiled at the time of burial.
- 15 February 2019: The First Presidency announces that missionaries may call home weekly.
- 19 February 2019: President Nelson expresses concern with immigration policies that separate families at the border. “We are to keep families together and not separate families.”
- 20 February 2019: The Church announces it will not oppose proposed legislation in the Utah state legislature banning gay “conversion therapy” and “denounces any therapy including conversion or reparative therapies that subject individuals to abusive practices.”
Observing this trend prompted a friend and I to coin a meme we call “Retrograde Nelson” (also a hashtag). The meme ironically highlights what are rather progressive and, if you will, “woke” comments and policy actions by the supposed retrograde and regressive President Nelson. At several points my friend and I shared these headlines with each other with the comment “looks like Retrograde Nelson strikes again!” to punctuate our amusement with President Nelson’s incongruous and unexpected wokeness (so-perceived).
To be sure, the Church has not become some sort of Progressive bastion. And for many, nothing short of full LGBT and gender equality in the Church (in matters pertaining to, say, temple sealings and priesthood ordination) will be sufficient. Be that as it may, one cannot help but feel that some of the more dramatic caterwauling heard back at the time of President Nelson’s appointment as Church President was perhaps overblown. While the Church under President Nelson may not be as Progressive as a Portland vegan dinner party hosted by Hillary Clinton and Cecile Richards, it is nowhere close to being some kind of Handmaid’s Tale-esque dystopian nightmare. Not by any feasible stretch of the imagination.
Postscript: At the recommendation of a friend, I am going to continue updating the list of President Nelson’s regressive and retrograde policy actions.
- 27 February 2019: The Church “Donates $2 Million to the International African American Museum.”
- 1 March 2019: The Church “remove[s] the restrictions on mothers” serving as ordinance workers in temples.
- Since the blog post was taken down I felt it would be discourteous to give the author attribution. Nevertheless, this blogger publicly said the things they did, and I have no real reason to think they have backed down from their position. On the contrary, I have very good reason to think this particular blogger has the same opinion today as they did when they originally posted these comments. I may of course be mistaken, but I don’t think I am.