It was a big year for Mormonism; it started with Mitt Romney moving away from the pack toward getting the GOP nomination for U.S. president and ended with some women wearing pants to Sunday church services to draw attention to what they claim is institutional sexism within the LDS Church. For what it’s worth, here’s what I regard as the three most significant changes within the Mormon Church the past year.
1) The lowering of ages for missionary service (read). Not surprisingly, lowering the age of full-time missionary service to 18 for males and 19 for females caused a surge in mission announcements. The change, to me though, seems more an attempt by church leaders to maintain church activity among young adults and get more 20-something Mormons married in a church temple. Young adults who might have been active as high-schoolers are encountering a society, when they enter college or university, that is more secular and even hostile to the idea of organized religion. Having qualified young men and women starting a mission soon after high school can stem the tide of inactivity. Having young adults of both sexes returning from missions at relatively the same time (women serve 18-month missions) and near the same age may result in an increase of temple marriages at a younger age. To sum up, the policy can be seen as a defensive measure against young LDS adults entering a world either hostile or indifferent to faith.
2) The LDS Church’s increasing tolerance toward gays and lesbians has been slow, but steady. The emergence of a website that encourages love and compassion toward persons with same-sex attraction, (read) as well as the church’s support of legal rights for non-traditional couples, seems part of a serious effort to repair relations hurt by the Proposition 8 battle of a few years ago in California. Although I’m hesitant to say that the church may one day accept gays and lesbians as worthy of marriage and temple blessings, the slow movement toward toleration and acceptance may mirror the long movement toward acceptance of black members of the church.
3) The publication of serious, popular, peer-approved, scholarly, in-depth biographies of LDS historical figures, and these non-hagiographies being eagerly accepted by church leaders, who provide research material, offers strong evidence that the church is more comfortable with its past. There’s never been a shortage of quality LDS scholarship (Fawn Brodie, Leonard Arrington, Richard Bushman, Juanita Brooks, Signature Publishing, magazine such as Sunstone and Dialogue …) but the widespread interest in two recent biographies, of Brigham Young and Parley P. Pratt, indicates that interest in the church, its doctrines, history and leaders — bad traits as well as good traits — is moving well beyond Mormons and Mormon history enthusiasts.