Column: Line upon line — How continuing revelation prepared the Church for the pandemic

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American flag blowing in the wind at the Rexburg Temple. Photo credit: Ashley Chilcutt

I’ve heard it said that hindsight is 20/20. This phrase took on a new meaning as puns and wordplay flooded social media regarding the outbreak of COVID-19 in March of 2020.

I remember reading these comedic takes with a light-hearted chuckle, while silently being terrified of the unknown. Yet, I scrolled through social media, wondering how I was going to cope as a young adult with loose social and financial footing.

One Sunday in May of last year, as I participated in a quaint church service in the green-carpeted living room of a small house, it hit me. The old woman who sat across from me on the brown, cushioned couch held a Come Follow Me manual and read from it throughout our little meeting. The manual in her hands had been essential in the at-home worship quarantine demanded that it almost forced me to recognize this simple reality — we had been prepared for the pandemic.

From this moment forward, I could not help but notice the other prophetic puzzle pieces set perfectly in place years before this worldwide calamity. Though at the time the following events seemed less significant, they set the stage of preparation for the Church.

Timeline of relevant Church events

Scared Grove painting featured in Come Follow Me Manual. Photo Credit: Greg K. Olsen
Scared Grove painting featured in Come Follow Me Manual. Photo Credit: Greg K. Olsen

 

October 2012, Missionary age change The lowering of the missionary age in 2012 by President Thomas S. Monson was one of the first major puzzle pieces in this great picture we now see.

According to Joseph Walker in an article for Deseret News, Elder David F. Evans of the First Quorum of the Seventy said, “We had 58,000 missionaries at the time of the announcement. We have just over 80,000 missionaries in the field now.”

President Monson’s prophetic announcement resulted in approximately a 38% increase of missionaries entering the mission field just one year after the age change was declared. This surge of missionaries lessened the first year after the announcement, but the lowered age for service continued to affect the decisions of young people to serve missions.

This was a preparation for COVID-19 in a more indirect way, but its impact is indisputable. Inviting people to accept the gospel means more people are thinking about God, praying for answers, learning how to recognize His voice and becoming more self-reliant spiritually and temporally. With an increased number of members and investigators seeking God, more people were likely prepared to hear the important, pandemic-related message President Russell M. Nelson would give eight years later.

President Nelson has repeatedly emphasized the need to understand the promptings of the Holy Spirit. In his talk, “Hear Him,” given in the April 2020 general conference, President Nelson made the following statement:

“It has never been more imperative to know how the Spirit speaks to you than right now…I renew my plea for you to do whatever it takes to increase your spiritual capacity to receive personal revelation. Doing so will help you know how to move ahead with your life, what to do during times of crisis, and how to discern and avoid the temptations and the deceptions of the adversary.”

I think the world could greatly benefit from knowing “what to do during times of crisis.” Developing a relationship with God is an essential way to fortify this blessing.

 

April 2018, Ministering The Church transitioned from visiting and home teaching to ministering. Although both visiting and home teaching had the same basic purpose as ministering, there are a few significant distinctions.

Ministering more greatly emphasized service by inviting young men, young women and families to actively participate. It also gave more flexibility to how the fellowshipping of members was recorded and completed.

According to the Ministering section in the Gospel Topics manual, “Ministering is Christlike caring for others. It is motivated by our desire to follow the commandment to love our neighbor and includes serving people out of concern for their spiritual and temporal well-being.”

Understanding the turmoil seen in 2020, it is no wonder that the Lord would inspire His prophet to encourage a greater sense of neighborly care before a time of political divide, social unrest and temporal uncertainty.

 

October 2018, Two-hour church — In 2018, President Nelson announced that church service would be shortened from three hours to two-hours. At first, most members likely saw this as a break from having to sit through three meetings on Sundays, but I believe it was a way to prepare members for having self-led church service in their living rooms as the pandemic would later require.

According to a church article titled Home Centered, Church Supported, “This new emphasis aligns with a statement from section 1.4 of Handbook 2: Administering the Church, which reads: ‘God has revealed a pattern of spiritual progress for individuals and families through ordinances, teaching, programs, and activities that are home centered and Church supported.'”

Essentially, the point of changing the duration of the church meeting was motivated by letting home learning lead to conversion.

Classes offered during the second hour now alternate week by week, allowing members to connect with others while still maximizing resources and time. Perhaps this adjustment was announced as a necessary practice to make quarantine worship more personal and situational.

January 2019, Come Follow Me By the time churches were closed, Latter-day Saint families had access to Come Follow Me, the at-home learning initiative put out by the Church in January 2019. By March of 2020, members had already been practicing this new style of gospel study and could easily conduct guided discussions with the manual.

Come Follow Me became an invaluable resource while formal church meetings were suspended. It conveniently organizes gospel lessons by date, making it simple to follow along and keep track of weekly topics. Families and friends could gather outside of church and read along with the manual to facilitate gospel discussion.

February 2019, Missionaries can call home on preparation days Traditionally, missionaries were only allowed to email their families once a week and call or video call home on Mother’s Day and Christmas. The February after Come Follow Me was released, the Church announced that missionaries can now call home weekly.

As a recently returned missionary, I was hurt and heartbroken when I first heard this announcement. I thought back to my mission days and how I longed to communicate directly with my family on holidays. I was jealous, even angry, that missionaries after me would likely take this blessing for granted. I held this bitter opinion until my friend Bryan Bridge gave me a new perspective about the topic.

He was still serving his mission when the pandemic hit. He was halfway across the world while his family remained in California when news of the virus circulated on TV and social media.

When I told him how much I struggled to feel happy about the rule change, he asked, “Can you imagine how my mother would have felt if I was not allowed to call home during COVID-19?”

I had never considered a mother’s perspective as their child served far away during the outbreak of a global pandemic. Despite my initial hesitation to acknowledge the necessity of this rule change, I know it blessed the lives of many missionaries and their families across the world. I believe it will also have a positive impact on the mental health of missionaries for years to come.

Elder Renlund presenting his talk "Unwavering Commitment to Jesus Christ." Screenshot by Ashley Chilcutt.
Elder Renlund presenting his talk “Unwavering Commitment to Jesus Christ.” Screenshot by Ashley Chilcutt.

October 2019, Spreading faith like a spiritual sneeze — During the October 2019 General Conference for the Church in his talk titled “Unwavering Commitment to Jesus Christ,” Elder Dale G. Renlund compared spreading faith to a spiritual sneeze.

“Now, it would be nice if increased faith were transmitted like the flu or the common cold,” Elder Renlund said. “Then a simple ‘spiritual sneeze’ would build faith in others. But it does not work that way … For our faith to grow, we must choose faith-building actions, such as praying, studying the scriptures, partaking of the sacrament, keeping the commandments, and serving others.”

There was no way of knowing how impactful this analogy would become. COVID-19 spread across the world just six months later.

October 2019, Historical conference President Russell M. Nelson also made an interesting statement during the closing remarks of the October 2019 Sunday session of general conference, alluding to an important event to come.

April 2020 marked the 200th anniversary of the First Vision. In preparation for this historical event, President Nelson encouraged members to prepare their hearts and minds through scripture study, promising it would be a unique conference.

“The year 2020 will be designated as a bicentennial year,” President Nelson said. “General conference next April will be different from any previous conference … Immerse yourself in the glorious light of the Restoration. As you do, general conference next April will be not only memorable; it will be unforgettable.”

Months later, in the April 2020 Saturday Morning session of general conference, President Nelson acknowledged how his October promise was fulfilled in an unexpected way.

“Little did I know, when I promised you at the October 2019 general conference that this April conference would be ‘memorable’ and ‘unforgettable,’ that speaking to a visible congregation of fewer than 10 people would make this conference so memorable and unforgettable for me!”

Tulips in the Ricks Garden—the beauty of the Earth testifies of God's wisdom and plan.
Tulips in the Ricks Garden—Because faith is like a see, the beauty of the Earth testifies of God’s wisdom and plan. Photo credit: Ashley Chilcutt

Envisioning the future

As cliché as it sounds, 2020 did offer new vision.

Truthfully, COVID-19 brought sickness, heartache, confusion and financial strain, but I find comfort in seeing how these events demonstrate that the Lord is mindful of us and our circumstances. The prophet himself did not know all that was to come, but that is what faith is for.

Faith takes what we do know and fills in the blanks. It gives us the strength to understand that God has a plan and that today is likely preparing for us for tomorrow.

The Lord’s plan is in place. It was God’s wisdom that brought forth the Book of Mormon in the United States in a time of “unusual excitement on the subject of religion” as described in Joseph Smith – History 1:5. Notably, advancements in technology such as the invention of the printing press were necessary precedents to the translation of the golden plates. Both of these events prepared Joseph Smith’s time to receive another testament of Jesus Christ. It is this same wisdom which guides us today.

When I fear the future, I like to think about premortal life. We knew the plan, the risks, the trials we might face and yet, we chose to come to Earth still. I like to trust that this decision was based on understanding some greater good in store for each of us as we pass through mortal life and gain our own experiences.

Believe Him. Believe in His plan.