The Cost of Making Women Ecclesiastically Superfluous

It first dawned on me that women weren’t necessary in church when I went to BYU Education Week as  a teenager and heard what were meant to be faith-promoting stories about believing LDS women behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, who were unable to have an ecclesiastical organization because there wasn’t anyone with the priesthood to run it and who therefore didn’t get to take the sacrament for decades, but who nonetheless personally kept the faith. Rather than being inspired, I was somewhat taken aback when it occurred to me that for all the importance Latter-day Saints place on having an organized church, it is secondary to the importance of maintaining strict gender divisions. I realize that in the particular situation of the Cold War, there were added complications affecting what was possible. But a principle nonetheless became clear to me: if the choice was to ordain women, or to not have a church at all, Mormons would opt for the latter. (This led me to wonder: what if the only way to restore the church had been to work through a woman? Would the Mormon God simply decided to not have a Restoration rather than to allow a woman to act in his name and with his authority?) Read More

How to Get Those Darn Gay People to Stop Being So Obsessed With Their Gay Identities

One of the complaints I’ve heard numerous times from Latter-day Saints is that we gay people are way too obsessed with our gayness, that we get caught up in some outlandish homosexual identity (which might eventually lead to the dreaded “gay lifestyle”), and that we need to just stop thinking about sexual orientation as being that big of a part of who we are. We’re discouraged from even using the word “gay,” because it might swallow up our identities and make us think that there’s nothing else to us. Mormons who claim to be especially enlightened have informed me that they just don’t think about people in those terms, that they’ve transcended even being aware of such details about a person, and then complained about gay people who “force” their orientation on others by talking excessively about it, and thereby making everyone feel unnecessarily awkward and uncomfortable. Others have objected to an idea put forth by some church members that gay Mormons have a particularly challenging trial, pointing out that everyone has difficulties in life, and asking, when did we decide that gay people should get all this special attention? Read More

What fraction of missionaries are sisters?

It has been five years since President Monson announced the change in minimum ages at which missionaries can serve. It’s clear that much of the increase in the number of missionaries that followed that announcement came from an increase in how many women were choosing to serve. For example, a 2015 ABC News article on sister missionaries reports (I assume quoting a Church spokesperson) that there were 22,000 sister missionaries at the time, that they made up more than a quarter of all missionaries, and that their numbers had nearly tripled since the age change was announced. Along similar lines, a Deseret News article from one year after the age change reports that there had been increases of 10,000 elders and 11,000 sisters in the previous year. There’s also a Deseret News article from 2014 that gives actual percentage breakdowns: 64% single men, 28% single women, and 8% senior couples.

This increase matches my anecdotal experience. I haven’t tracked anything systematically, but just from following friends on Facebook, it seems like a lot more families who I would have thought were pretty conventionally Mormon have sent daughters on missions in the past few years than did before. I note that they’re conventional because my impression is that having women serve missions before the age change always seemed to me to be a little out of the norm. Like the thinking was that it was a nice thing to do and all, but really shouldn’t women be getting married instead?

It’s great that the news articles I mentioned give some point-in-time snapshots of how many women are serving missions, but what I’m really interested to know is what the trend over time is. For example, I wonder if the number of women serving increased suddenly right after the age change, but then leveled off. Or perhaps it increased at that time, and has continued to increase since then. Or maybe there was a temporary spike and then the number of women serving have decreased.

Like with so many other questions about Church-related data, I’m sure the numbers are available somewhere in the COB, but I’m never going to get to see them. So I did the next best thing and gathered a little data from what I could find. I considered possibilities like counting women and men in missionary alumni Facebook groups, or on a website like LDSMissions.com that allows returned missionaries to register and join a group of others who served in the same mission (although it doesn’t look like the site has been updated in a while). I ended up, though, choosing to gather data from MyMission.com, though, for a couple of reasons. First, it has lists of links to missionary blogs in a nice standard format that was relatively easy to grab. Second, it has missionaries listed as “Sister” or “Elder,” so I didn’t have to make any assumptions about whether someone with a particular first name was female or male.

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95 Theses

1. Taking the sacrament with your left hand is basically saying that you’re okay with being a goat on the left hand of Jesus.

2. When people who disagree with me share their political views in church, that’s inappropriate and should be discouraged. When people who agree with me do it, they’re just speaking common sense about moral issues.

3. Luther was a hero inspired by God. Also, people who criticize the church today should be swiftly excommunicated.

4. Before you doubt, doubt the doubt that leads you to doubt whether your doubts are actually doubts.

5. We don’t talk about Heavenly Mother much because she doesn’t matter for our salvation. It’s preferable to have sacrament meeting talks that focus on the essentials, like BYU football.

6. If you run into a show involving mummies and Egyptian papyri, do some comparison shopping before purchasing them as a potential source for new scripture. You might be able to get a better deal if you’re open to instead using the texts accompanying traveling zombie exhibits.

7. When you do your visiting or home teaching before the last week of the month, it feels really awkward for everyone involved. Better to play it safe and show up in the last 24 hours.

8. This high council talk is so good that I don’t mind that sacrament meeting is going twenty minutes over, said no one ever.

9. The most righteous people know that the church is true with every fiber of their being. The somewhat less righteous only know it with the finely woven threads of their existence.

10. Mormons don’t make a big deal out of Easter because they think about Jesus every week during the sacrament. (Churches that make a big production of Easter don’t actually think about Jesus during Communion, but instead about a different Messiah figure named Alfred.) Read More

Stepping Out of the Big Tent: The Possibility of Leaving Mormonism

I’ve been reading with interest the lively conversation taking place right now at Wheat and Tares about why people leave the church. This is of course a topic that has been extensively discussed over the years, and this thread has lots of classic elements, including a thoughtful original post that brings up a wide variety of factors, and people in the comments speculating about the extent to which those who end up leaving were ever truly converted. I’ve been reading these sorts of discussions for a long time now, but they’ve become interesting to me in a new way this past year, for reasons that are probably obvious to anyone familiar with my current religious situation.

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Chastity and Consent

CW: General discussion of sexual assault 

When I was a teenager, my Utah County ward had a “morality talk” for the youth about every six months. (It was only years later that I learned that in other contexts, “morality” had a much broader meaning, and wasn’t just code for “chastity.”) Often they wouldn’t tell us the topic in advance, guessing (probably correctly) that pretty much no one had a great desire to hear yet another morality talk. We would asks our leaders suspiciously, is this going to be about morality again, and they would dodge the question. The talks, usually given by the bishop, tried to emphasize to us the seriousness of engaging in “immorality.” We heard a lot about the sin next to murder, and why sex outside of marriage was so terrible (not, of course, that the word “sex” was ever uttered). Often we would be allowed to submit anonymous questions, most of which turned out to be variants of “how far is too far?” and “how do I know when I need to confess?” There were no clear answers given to these questions, though we did get to hear about the dangers of “necking” and “petting,” terms which no one seemed able to quite define. We watched what we called the river movie a lot (the one in which a bunch of teens go river rafting, and one reckless young man neglects to wear a life jacket, while the voice of Spencer W. Kimball warns about evil.) At the end we would hear about the atonement and the possibility of repentance, with encouragement to come talk to the bishop if necessary. To my leaders’ credit, I don’t recall hearing analogies suggesting that engaging in sexual behavior would cause irreversible spiritual damage that even the atonement couldn’t fix (e.g., leaving you as chewed-up gum or a board with scars from nails). On the other hand, I wasn’t paying all that much attention. One of my friends in a different stake told me that her YW leader had bought them all crystal temples, which, if they remained pure, they were to present to their husbands on their wedding nights. If they slipped, they were supposed to smash the temple. I wasn’t overly aware of the problems in this discourse at that point in my life, but even I thought that was a little weird. Read More

Remembering Katie

 I don’t actually remember the first time I met Katie. I know what time period it would have been, probably sometime in the fall of 1999. But I’d heard about her long before I met her, because her older sister (who blogs here as Seraphine) and I were roommates at the University of Illinois, where I was a grad student. Seraphine and I were in the habit of talking late into the night, and in the course of our many conversations, we traded a lot of information about our respective families. When Katie showed up, then, it just meant putting a face with a person with whom I already felt somewhat familiar. Our time at that university and in the small singles branch connected to it overlapped by a year, but I can’t say I got to know her very well.

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Heartbreaking News

As many of you have heard, one of our bloggers was killed by a drunk driver last night. We are stunned and heartsick to have lost Vada. Not all of you may have known her well from just here. But in addition to her thoughtful public posts, she was an active member of our backlist, and contributed immeasurably to our small ZD community. She was also very involved in the online Mormon feminist world in various other places, and we know many people were positively impacted by her. She will be terribly missed.

Vada leaves behind a husband and six children, including preemie twin girls who are still in the NICU. A YouCaring account has been set up for her family; if you’d like to donate, please go here.

Book of Mormon people’s names my parents give to me!

In my last post, I looked at how often children in Utah, Idaho, and Arizona are named after the current Church President. I thought it also might be interesting to look at how often children are named after people in the Book of Mormon. One advantage of looking at Book of Mormon names is that it doesn’t require me to limit myself to states with lots of Mormons. If you’re naming your child Nephi, you’re probably Mormon, regardless of where you live. The downside, of course, is that this rules out names that are not unique to the Book of Mormon. For example, someone naming their child Benjamin may be thinking of the Book of Mormon king, but there are many other Benjamins out there that their choice was more likely inspired by.

Because using a Book of Mormon name is a clear marker of Mormonness, there’s even good reason to have a hypothesis beforehand about what the data will look like. In The Angel and the Beehive, Armand Mauss talks about the Church’s shift between the 1960s and 1990s from leaning toward assimilation with the broader world, toward more retrenchment. I think it would make sense to expect that Mormons would use more distinctly Mormon names during a period of retrenchment, when drawing bright lines between the Church and the world is an important practice, than during a period of assimilation. Therefore, I expected to see increasing usage of Book of Mormon names between the 1960s and 1990s.

I got data from the same sources as I did for my last post: the Social Security Administration (SSA) name database for counts of how often names are used by state and year from 1960 to 2014, and CDC Vital Statistics reports for counts of total births by state and year for the same time period. Here is an alphabetical list of the Book of Mormon names I checked:

Abinadi, Abish, Helaman, Jarom, Lehi, Limhi, Mahonri, Mormon, Moroni, Mosiah, Nephi, Omni, Sariah, Teancum, Zeniff

I looked at the girls’ names first: Abish and Sariah. Unfortunately, Abish only shows up in three of the years (1999, 2000, and 2003). The SSA database doesn’t report counts of less than five (for either a state or the entire country), so it’s likely that the name was used in other years, but just fewer than five times. For Sariah, I ran into a different problem. I thought it was a uniquely Book of Mormon name, but while the SSA data shows elevated levels of usage in Utah, Idaho, and Arizona, the name also appears in lots of other states. Overall, Utah, Idaho, and Arizona account for only 11% of uses of the name. I wonder if it isn’t being used by people not referring to the Book of Mormon as an alternative spelling of Saria or another takeoff on Sara(h). In any case, given that the name doesn’t appear to be an indicator of Mormonness, I put it in the non-unique bin with names like Benjamin.

For three of the boys’ names, I found no hits at all: Limhi, Mormon, and Zeniff. Because of the reporting threshold of five, this doesn’t mean these names are never used, but if they are, it’s clearly very rare.

The remainder of my analysis looks at just the remaining ten names. Here’s a graph showing how often they are used in the full US data.

To me, the big surprise here is Jarom. I would never have guessed that it would be used most among the list of names I started with. I included it kind of as an afterthought, since he’s such a minor character.

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New Gospel Topics Essay

ZD is pleased to share this post from Moss.

In theology and practice, BYU Dining Services embraces the universal beverage spectrum. Latter-day Saint scripture and teachings affirm that God loves all of His children and makes refreshment available to all. God created the many diverse drinks and libations and esteems them all equally. As the Book of Mormon puts it, “all are alike unto God.”

The structure and organization of BYU encourage a variety of beverages. Latter-day Saints attend eateries according to the geographical boundaries of their local ward, or congregation. By definition, this means that the culinary composition of Mormon diets generally mirrors that of the wider local community. The Church’s lay ministry also tends to facilitate integration: a Pepsi-drinking bishop may preside over a mostly Sprite congregation; a woman with a Dr Pepper in each hand may be paired with another woman who enjoys Coke Zero to visit the homes of a thirsty membership. Church members of different levels of caffeination regularly minister in one another’s homes and serve alongside one another as teachers, as youth leaders, and in myriad other assignments in their local congregations. Such practices make The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a thoroughly hydrated faith.

Despite this modern reality, for much of its history—from the mid-1950s until 2017—BYU did not serve caffeinated beverages anywhere on its campus.

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15 Observations from a Compulsive Church-Hopper

As some of you know, I’ve recently found myself engaged in the project of visiting as many churches and other religious groups in my local community as I can. I have a spreadsheet which currently has 143 entries; thus far, I’ve visited 41 of them. (My hope is to see another 60 or so in the coming year, but I’ll have to see how long my energy holds up.) I’ve seen Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Church of Christ, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Lutherans, Jews, Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Eastern Orthodox, Muslims, Christian Scientists, Unitarians, Pagans, Buddhists, and lots of nondenominational Protestants. These are some random observations arising from my experiences thus far. Read More

Follow the Prophet(‘s Name)

Do Mormons name our kids after the current Church President? I’ve known some people who have (or at least I’m assuming that was their inspiration–Hinckley seems like an unusual name to use for any other reason), but I wondered if it was a more general phenomenon.

Unfortunately, I don’t have Mormon-specific naming data, nor do I have data from outside the US. What I do have is the Social Security name database, which gives yearly counts of names used by state. So I thought it might be interesting to at least look at whether states with lots of Mormons use names of Church Presidents more often than other US states, especially starting around the time a Church President is called. I assembled the name data and the yearly birth count data from the CDC’s Vital Statistics reports as described in this post from last year. As in that post, I got data for the years 1960 through 2014.

I checked the first and last names of all Church Presidents since David O. McKay, although as he became Church President in 1951, I couldn’t check whether there was a change at that time. I compared the percentage of babies given those names in Utah, Idaho, and Arizona, and also the percentage in the rest of the US. The Social Security data reports counts separately for girls and boys, so I checked each name for both.  For nearly all the Presidents’ names, I couldn’t see any evidence of the pattern I was looking for. Either the states with lots of Mormons used the name less than the rest of the country, or they hardly used the name at all, or there was no change around the time the President having the name was called.

There are three exceptions, where there is at least a hint that something is going on. All (not surprisingly) are for boys. The names are Spencer (W. Kimball), (Howard W.) Hunter, and Thomas (S. Monson). Here is the graph for Spencer.

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A Correlated Excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount

It has come to the attention of the Church Correlation Department that many parts of the Bible have not passed Correlation review prior to being included in the scriptural canon. Rather than go through a lengthy and complex process of decanonization, the Correlation Department has undertaken to simply rewrite the unreviewed parts to smooth off the rough edges. The resulting updated scriptures will preserve the gospel truths present in the original, but will remove the false philosophies of men that have been inserted by evil and conspiring scribes. The resulting version, when completed, will be called the Sacred Holy Inspired Translation.

Today’s updated scripture comes from Matthew 5.

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:

But I say unto you, That whatsoever woman causeth a man to look on her to lust after her by any means hath forced him to commit adultery already with her in his heart. And the blame for this adultery shall be on the woman for not covering herself: the man is blameless.

And if the right shoulder of a woman thou seest causeth thee to lust, cover it up: for it is profitable for thee that thy women should be covered, that thou lust not, that thou should not be cast into hell.

And if the right knee of a woman thou seest causeth thee to lust, cover it up also: for it is profitable for thee that thy women should be covered, that thou lust not, that thou should not be cast into hell.

(Previous entry in this series: The Correlated Story of Zelophehad’s Daughters)

 

Sacrament Hymns, Ranked (by length)

I have a priest-aged son, and seeing him administer the sacrament has made me pay more attention to the process than I had since I was a priest myself. One issue that I noticed last week was that the sacrament hymn seemed really short, and my son and the other priest hadn’t finished breaking the bread by the time it was over. Of course this isn’t all that unusual. The organist just played through the hymn again while they finished. It was only a matter of a few seconds, but it brought to mind that when I was a priest, I always worried about this happening, because I could feel the pressure of everyone in the congregation waiting for me to just hurry up and finish.

This got me to wondering, though, about how long the sacrament hymns actually are. I looked up the 30 hymns listed under the topic “sacrament” in the back of the hymnbook. (They are all grouped together between hymn numbers 169 and 197, except for #146, “Gently Raise the Sacred Strain.”) I calculated the length of each hymn given its time signature, number of measures and verses, and suggested tempo (I used the midpoint of the lengths implied by taking the fastest and slowest of the suggested tempos.) I included only the verses actually printed in the music because, at least in my experience, it’s typically only those verses that are sung. I didn’t make any adjustment for fermatas.

Here’s the result. It looks like most sacrament hymns are between 1:30 and 3:00 long. A few are shorter. A few are quite a bit longer.

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Madness in Charlottesville

I imagine I’m not the only one to find myself suffering from what I might call outrage fatigue this year. Every week seems to bring some new preposterous happening, whether just the White House administration and our clown-in-chief doing or saying something else ludicrous, or scarier things coming from so many places. Nuclear threats. Cover-ups in high places of collusion with foreign powers. The health care of millions on a precipice. People being shot by police officers for the color of their skin. Official resistance to combating climate change. The list goes and on and on. And I feel like with every week, my ability to be horrified by something completely awful gets deadened a little more. Read More

A Thought about Faith-promoting Stories

Every faith-promoting story is also a faith-destroying story. I don’t mean just stories that are passed off as faith promoting but that are more about something else (like over-controlling parents) or stories that turn out to have been embellished. I mean all of them. A faith-promoting story has a conflict to it–someone is stuck in some difficult situation–and that conflict is resolved miraculously. The level of drama involved in the miracle varies a lot, of course. Some miracles are definitely showier than others. Some are quieter, perhaps boiling down to the person realizing that what they thought was a conflict actually wasn’t when they approached it a different way. The reason that faith-promoting stories are also faith-destroying is that for any particular conflict a person faces in such a story, multitudes of other people have faced the same conflict and have not gotten the same miraculous resolution. (It’s the fact that most people don’t get the miracle that makes it a miracle; if it were commonplace, it wouldn’t be miraculous.) This raises the obvious question of why the miracle comes to the one person and not to the others. And there typically isn’t a good answer to this question. God can seem awfully fickle when doling out miracles.

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Credit, Blame, and the Influence of the Church

Think about these scenarios.

—A man expresses gratitude that his experience serving in various callings in the church has given him leadership skills that have helped him in many areas of his life.

—A teenager navigates high school without trying drugs and alcohol, and credits church teachings.

—Two young adults marry in the temple, after years of hearing how important that is.

—An LDS woman is asked how she survived a very difficult situation. She says that the teachings of her faith were what sustained her.

—A couple is recognized for their humanitarian efforts. They explain that this came from the values they got from a church which emphasizes service. Read More