Is there precedent for the First Presidency’s involvement in encouraging members to be vaccinated? Church historian answers

On August 12, the First Presidency urged members of the Church to “use . . . face masks in public meetings whenever social distancing is not possible,” as well as for individuals to be vaccinated.

In light of that message and with COVID-19 cases on the rise, Church News editor Sarah Jane Weaver interviewed historian Richard E. Turley Jr. in a new episode of the Church News podcast. During the episode, Turley looks back at the lessons that can be learned from history and how they relate to the current pandemic.

Reviewing other epidemics the Church has faced, Turley discussed the typhoid outbreak between 1811 and 1814. He explained that seven of the Smith children caught typhoid, including Joseph, who had a particularly severe case.

“His parents did everything they could to save their children. They didn’t just pray for them, they didn’t just exercise faith in that way—they exercised faith with works, including having Joseph undergo an experimental surgery, for the time, that saved his leg, and because it saved his leg, it saved his life as well. He survived because of his parents’ actions in that regard.”

Speaking of Joseph and Emma’s twins that had measles, he emphasized how the Prophet and his wife did all they could to care for them. Turley then talked about the cholera pandemic in the late 1820s, which would ravage Church members for decades. He added that when the Saints were settling what would become Nauvoo, many suffered from malaria.

”Joseph and Emma had a log home—they could simply have stayed sheltered in it, focusing on themselves and their own problems, especially with Joseph’s escape from recent imprisonment, but instead, they turned it into a hospital for those who were ill [from malaria] and went around helping everybody that they could. Again, faith without works is dead. They demonstrated by their actions,” he said.

Turley goes on to recount other times in history in which the Church has faced widespread illness, including the flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919, polio in the mid-20th century, and the swine flu in 1976. He then read part of a 1956 letter issued by the First Presidency about the importance of vaccinating missionaries from polio. Later, he cited a 1976 letter from the First Presidency encouraging Church members to consider the benefits and risks of vaccination against the swine flu. Turley also read a portion of a 1978 directive from the First Presidency expressing concern that parents weren’t having children immunized against childhood diseases. The directive urged Latter-day Saints to protect their children through immunization.

Turley stated that he does not think it’s a coincidence that during the current pandemic, the Church’s prophet is a renowned medical doctor. And while the word “urge” was used in the First Presidency’s statement, he said that doesn’t mean it should be dismissed. There could be some instances, he added, where one can’t be immunized for different reasons such as being allergic to the vaccination serum.

At the end of the day, Turley believes that the First Presidency statement calls for unity. He also reflected on the modern blessings the world enjoys and how many diseases are not prevalent today due to vaccinations. At the conclusion of the podcast, he likewise encouraged listeners to learn from the past.

“History, like all subjects, has very little value unless it’s applied in a way that does some good, and I think that the survey I’ve done about the history of epidemics over time convinces me that the good we can do from this is to learn from history,” he said. “I think one of the great lessons that I have learned and that we can learn from all of this is that it is possible to take positive steps today to help protect people from disease and death, if we will simply work collectively together in unity to take the simple steps we’ve been asked to do by a prophet-leader who is a medical doctor.”

Read the full transcript at Church News.

Featured image: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.
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