Episode 44: Following the recent First Presidency message on masks, immunizations, Richard E. Turley Jr. reflects on the lessons of history

As numbers of COVID-19 cases continue to rise globally, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has urged members to use face masks and be vaccinated. In this episode of the Church News podcast, historian Richard E. Turley Jr. reflects on the lessons of the past and provides historical context to the invitation from President Russell M. Nelson and his counselors, President Dallin H. Oaks and President Henry B. Eyring.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first epidemic that the Church faced,” said Turley, adding “I think one of the most important lessons of history, when it comes to disease, is that we have learned over time how to prevent what before we could not prevent.”

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Transcription:

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with leaders, members and others on the Church News team. We end each Church News podcast by giving our guests the last word and the opportunity to answer the very important question, “What do you know now?” We hope each of you will also be able to answer the same question and say, “I have just been listening to the Church News podcast and this is what I know now.”

0:47  

Sarah Jane Weaver: As numbers of COVID-19 cases continue to rise globally, the First Presidency has urged members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to use face masks in public meetings and be vaccinated: “We find ourselves fighting a war against the ravages of COVID-19 and its variants, an unrelenting pandemic,” wrote President Russell M. Nelson and his counselors, President Dallin H. Oaks and President Henry B. Eyring in a message sent Thursday, Aug. 12, to Latter-day Saints around the world. “We want to do all we can to limit the spread of the viruses. We know that protection from diseases they cause can only be achieved by immunizing a very high percentage of the population. To limit exposure to these viruses, we urge the use of face masks in public meetings whenever social distancing is not possible. To provide personal protection from such severe infections, we urge individuals to be vaccinated.” 

Historian Richard E. Turley joins this episode of the Church News podcast to talk about the significance of First Presidency messages and statements, and the Church’s response to this and past epidemics. Rick received a bachelor’s degree in English and a law degree from BYU. He led the Church’s family history and Church history efforts for decades, a job that took him across the globe. Before his retirement, Rick served as both assistant Church historian and as managing director of the Church’s Public Affairs Department. Welcome to the Church News podcast, Rick. 

2:21

Richard E. Turley Jr.: Thank you very much for the invitation. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, it’s so nice of you to join us to talk about this important issue. The First Presidency has issued a message on vaccinations this week. Let’s talk about the historical precedent of such a move. 

2:34

Richard E. Turley Jr.: The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first epidemic that the Church faced. In fact, if you go back to the very earliest days of the Church, you’ll recognize that between 1811 and 1814, the Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith family faced a major typhoid outbreak that went along the Connecticut River Valley where they were living. All seven of the Smith children caught it. Joseph had a particularly severe case of it. He ended up with an affliction of his legs, what we call today osteomyelitis. 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. When Joseph and Emma had adopted twins in March of 1832, those twins caught measles. Joseph and Emma did everything they could to care for those measles-stricken twins. When a mob burst into the house, dragged out Joseph, stripped him of his clothing, severely beat him and covered him in tar and feathers. A few days later, the twin boy passed away — complications of measles, perhaps exacerbated by the stress of that attack. So there’s a measles epidemic on top of this typhoid epidemic. 

In the late 1820s, a cholera pandemic began that eventually swept the earth. In the Church’s very first newspaper, The Evening and Morning Star” the first issue devoted a substantial number of inches to talking about that pandemic. Church printer William W. Phelps declared: “If ever the pestilence walked in darkness or destruction wasted at noonday, now is the time.” In a subsequent issue, he declared: “Not since the flood, if we think right, has the Lord sent the same pestilence or destruction over the whole earth at once, but the cholera gives a solemn token to a wondering world that it will do so.” That disease would go on to ravage Church members for decades. During the Camp of Israel that we sometimes call Zion’s Camp today, Joseph Smith and others were stricken by the disease. Thirteen participants in Zion’s Camp died, as well as two Missouri Church members. Joseph did everything he could to exercise faith and healing others, but was struck by the disease himself and suffered terribly. 

4:54

Richard E. Turley Jr.: Malaria, a disease that has been with mankind from time immemorial, is called by the CDC today “one of the most severe public health problems worldwide.” After Joseph and his companions escaped from Liberty Jail and settled along the Mississippi in what would become Nauvoo, they were struck down by this dread disease. 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 and went around helping everybody that they could. Again, faith without works is dead. They demonstrated by their actions. 

In the late 1840s and much of the 1850s, cholera affected Church members, especially companies trying to reach Utah. To reduce or prevent outbreaks, Church President Brigham Young wrote to the leader supervising immigration and directed him to reroute companies away from New Orleans to Eastern ports, or have them travel during seasons of the year when cholera was not prevalent. Again, he followed the principle that faith without works is dead. Brigham Young probably stated that principle most emphatically two years later in the old tabernacle, when he became aware of a looming health crisis among the handcart pioneers stranded on the Plains, what he said I think can apply to pandemics generally. He called on the people to do everything they could to aid those people and then said, “Your faith, religion and profession of religion will never save one soul of you in the celestial kingdom of our God unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching you.”

6:34  

Wilford Woodruff was an eyewitness on the forefront of the Church's beginnings and migrations from Ohio to Missouri to Illinois to Utah, from 1833-1898.
Wilford Woodruff was an eyewitness on the forefront of the Church’s beginnings and migrations from Ohio to Missouri to Illinois to Utah, from 1833-1898. Credit: Courtesy Church Historical Department

Richard E. Turley Jr.: From the 1850s to the end of the 19th century, understanding of germ theory grew substantially and Church leaders and members began to understand better how to prevent disease. During this time, we began seeing even more clearly that some Church members exercise faith by taking positive steps to prevent the disease, and others did not. 

A pointed example of this comes in an 1891 letter to Church President Wilford Woodruff from Warren Johnson, who operated the Church ferry on the Colorado River. In May 1891, he wrote, “A family residing in Tuba City, Arizona, came here from Panguitch, Utah, where they spent the winter visiting friends. At Panguitch, they buried a child without disinfecting the wagon or themselves and not even stopping to wash the dead child’s clothes. They came to our house and remained overnight mingling with my little children. We knew nothing of the nature of this disease [which was diphtheria] but had faith in God as we were here on a very hard mission, had tried as hard as we knew how to obey the Word of Wisdom, attend to the other duties of our religion, such as paying tithing, family prayers, etc, that our children would be spared. But alas, in four and a half days, my oldest boy choked to death in my arms. Two more were taken down with the disease, and we fasted and prayed as much as we thought it wisdom — but to no avail, for both my little girls died also. About a week after their death, my 15-year-old daughter Melinda was also stricken down, and we did all we could for her, but she soon followed the others. Three of my dear girls and one boy had been taken from us and the end is not yet. My oldest girl, 19 years old, is now prostrate from the disease, and we are fasting and praying in her behalf today. I would ask for your faith and prayers in our behalf.”

To me, one of the most chilling aspects of this account is the portion in which Warren explains that the people who carried the disease did not do what they could to protect his family, and in the process killed several of his children. By this time in history, they should have known better.

8:29  

Richard E. Turley Jr.: Then, of course, there was the flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919. The Church took steps during this time to prevent the spread of disease, including canceling or altering meetings. The First Presidency directed families to take care of themselves where possible, leaving Red Cross workers to help others. Beginning earlier in 1912, Church leaders directed the changing from a common sacrament cup, which had been the tradition since the beginning of the Church, to individual sacrament cups, but local congregations had been somewhat slow in adhering to this direction. The flu pandemic accelerated that transition.

9:02  

Richard E. Turley Jr.: And now we can turn to more modern examples. The most dread disease of my mid-20th-century youth was polio. I remember experiencing great fear as a child of getting the disease. I also remember sitting by my father in Church and paging through the well-worn scriptures he still carried from his days as a young man in the Mexican Mission. In his scriptures, I found a telegram he received on his mission. It was from his parents, telling him that his younger brother had just died of polio.

In this 1918 photo made available by the Library of Congress, volunteer nurses from the American Red Cross tend to influenza patients in the Oakland Municipal Auditorium, used as a temporary hospital.
In this 1918 photo made available by the Library of Congress, volunteer nurses from the American Red Cross tend to influenza patients in the Oakland Municipal Auditorium, used as a temporary hospital. Credit: Edward A. "Doc" Rogers, Library of Congress via Associated PressP

9:30  

Richard E. Turley Jr.: A polio pandemic was sweeping the earth at the time, and it affected many people, including Boyd K. Packer, who later became President of the Quorum of the Twelve but suffered the effects of the illness throughout his life. I vividly remember being vaccinated against the disease and the other steps we took at the time to prevent its spread. 

Let me read you part of a letter issued by the First Presidency in the year of my birth, 1956, talking about the importance of vaccinating missionaries. It begins by talking about the availability of the (Jonas) Salk polio vaccine, and then advises that all missionaries receive that vaccine before they come into the mission home — getting at least the first shot. And then in those cases where missionaries come to the missionary home before they’re able to get the second shot from their local physicians, “we shall endeavor to make it possible for them.” And then the last paragraph, written by President David O. McKay, Steven L. Richards and J. Reuben Clark Jr. says, “In recent years, we have had a number of tragic cases of polio in the missions, and we are confident that missionaries and their parents will see the wisdom of taking every precaution to avoid tragedies of this kind.”

10:38  

Richard E. Turley Jr.: Then, in 1976, while I was on my mission, the swine flu was sweeping the world and particularly the United States, where the First Presidency issued another directive. This one encouraged Church members to carefully consider the potential benefits and risks of being vaccinated against this, and the letter also said in the final paragraph: “Because of the comprehensive nature of this immunization campaign and the great cost associated with it, volunteers are being sought in local areas to assist in carrying out the vaccination. Members of the Church who are technically qualified and who feel so inclined are encouraged to provide what community service they can to assist with this influenza immunization campaign.” 

Then, in 1978, the Church News paid particular attention to a First Presidency directive that expressed concern that parents weren’t having their children immunized against childhood diseases. The First Presidency said, “Reports that increasing numbers of children are not being immunized against preventable childhood diseases is deeply concerning to us.” And then they said a little later on in the statement: “Every parent who is agonized when these diseases have maimed or brought premature death to their children would join us, we are certain, in a play to mobilize against these deadly enemies. We urge members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to protect their own children through immunization.” So you can see there’s been a considerable amount of effort exerted in the past. The Church’s humanitarian efforts include millions and millions of dollars spent worldwide to immunize children against childhood diseases that otherwise can take many, many people. I remember as a child having measles, having mumps, having chickenpox. Gratefully, neither my children or my grandchildren have had to suffer those diseases because they’ve been immunized. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: I had no idea that the history of prevention of these diseases dated back to the very earliest days of the Church. 

12:31

Richard E. Turley Jr.: Again, I think what was important to the early Church members was doing all they knew how in order to prevent these diseases, or to cure them when they came. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: And so many people are asking right now, because this last First Presidency statement was issued a little different than we see First Presidency messages issued. It’s issued on the Church’s website, and it’s sent to individual families through their emails across the globe, and it’s called a message. How is that different than First Presidency statements or other ways the First Presidency communicates in official forms with the membership? 

13:08

Richard E. Turley Jr.: Well, first of all, I think sometimes people are being a little bit too technical when they try to parse the various statements on the basis of what they’re called. In this particular case, the First Presidency used the most direct and effective method they had at their disposal for communicating their letter. As you know, I was the managing director of the Church’s Public Affairs Department, and then Church Communication Department, and so I know that email is the single most effective method for reaching members of the Church. I think it’s highly significant in this case that we have a message signed by all three members of the First Presidency, and directed using the method that’s most effective in reaching Church members. So, if I were to receive, an individual member, a letter or a call from a member of the First Presidency, which I do from time to time, I would pay attention to it. Think of this in many ways as an individual letter to each member of the Church. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: Now, you were on the Church News podcast not so long ago when President Nelson issued a message to the world on gratitude, and at that time, you pointed out something that I had not contemplated before, but it was that at this time when the world is facing a pandemic, we have a Prophet who is also a medical doctor. 

14:20

Dr. Russell M. Nelson holds a model of the human heart.
Dr. Russell M. Nelson holds a model of the human heart. Credit: Nelson family

Richard E. Turley Jr.: The Lord knows all things from the beginning, and I think it no coincidence that the President of the Church during the COVID-19 pandemic is a renowned medical doctor. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: President Nelson is a prophet of invitations. We don’t often hear him use words like “must.” In this last statement, he actually uses the word “urge.” 

14:39

Richard E. Turley Jr.: That word “urge” was used in an earlier letter that I read to you as part of this podcast, but I think it’s very important to recognize that this invitation should not be dismissed just because it has the word “urged” and not “commanded” in it. Rarely are we going to hear that word “commanded” used in something like this. We’ll hear words like “urge” because, obviously, there are cases in which you might have someone who may be allergic to the vaccination serum or other cases like that, where it can’t just be universally applied. 

But at the same time, I think we need to recognize that the fact that there may be some exceptions to the rule, and people have their own agency, their own freedom to choose in situations like this, that freedom to choose does not include freedom from the consequences of making a poor decision. Here’s a case where the First Presidency of the Church, based on good medical advice, directed by a President who is a medical doctor, is encouraging Church members, strongly, to be vaccinated. To me, that’s something that I would wake up and pay attention to. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and some of the things we learned in the 1918 pandemic, including the sharing of sacrament cups. What are some of the other lessons that came from history that are now so much a part of what we do in the Church? 

15:39

Richard E. Turley Jr.: Well, during the period before people really understood germ theory, we did a lot of things as individual Church members and as communities that, we now know, were not good. For example: Cholera, we know, was often spread through water sources that were contaminated. Nowadays, the Church spends a lot of its humanitarian work directed toward solving water problems across the world and therefore helping to prevent that. 

We also have instructions that can come to us from instructional material on Church websites about a host of things. For example: Malaria. If you go to the Church’s website and just Google “malaria,” you might be surprised what you learn about the disease. One of my ancestors in Nauvoo had a serious case of malaria that followed him throughout much of his life. I have a cousin who is currently a missionary in Africa, who, in her earlier days, contracted malaria while a missionary. We had a missionary in 2019, a young missionary from Samoa serving in Africa, who died of the disease. So, we are doing all that we can nowadays to eliminate that, and you’ll find instructions on the Church’s website about malaria, not just COVID-19. So I think we’ve learned a great deal over time. 

One of the things that we’re learning about the COVID-19 disease is that there are some simple things that can be done, and I find it fascinating that the examples of the past show Church leaders who are sacrificing often their own convenience, and in some cases, their own health in order to assist others. Wearing masks, something that President Nelson and his counselors have counseled in this most recent letter and in previous instructions, is a simple exercise, something that we can all do in Church meetings and other locations where it can help to prevent the spread of the disease. I know that there are some who consider that to be a considerable inconvenience, but it’s nothing compared to the inconvenience experienced by Church leaders in the past who’ve done what they can to help others. In fact, I think in the final analysis, this boils down in many ways to the great commandment to have charity. As I was thinking about this topic, the words of Paul were echoing in my mind: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels and have not, charity I am nothing.” And charity, as defined by Paul and again in Moroni 7, requires that we “seek not our own,” which I think also means our own convenience or our own satisfaction in that regard and that we do what is intended to help others. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’ve been thinking a lot about a talk Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles gave in the last April general conference. And in that talk, he described the world in times of turmoil and conflict, and he actually wasn’t talking about this time. He was talking about his youth in Germany, after the Second World War. There has to be other times in history when the Church has faced the kind of divisiveness that we’re dealing with right now. 

Richard E. Turley Jr.: Yes. In fact, I’ve seen divisiveness erupt every few years, and of course, Church leaders call for unity. They call for living according to higher principles. The Book of Mormon states specifically that anger is inconsistent with gospel principles, and Church leaders have consistently taught that over time. If we begin to feel anger over a subject, then we need to sort of back off, ask ourselves why we feel anger, regroup and seek to have unity among the members of our congregations, the members of our faith. That unity — “if ye are not one, ye are not mine,” the Lord declares in the Doctrine and Covenants — and so I think it’s very important that we seek to be one in doing the Lord’s will, and we’ve had a letter issued to each Church member on Aug. 12 that calls for that kind of unity. It calls for doing what we can in order to avoid the spread of a dread disease that has killed millions across the world and is not over yet. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: So let’s talk about some of the things that are reflected that the Church has done to be good global citizens. 

18:48

Richard E. Turley Jr.: One of the things that it has done, of course, is it, for a time, shut down the operation of temples. It made changes in how we meet as congregations. I met with my wife via Zoom for church for many, many months without actually going into a church to attend a meeting with my congregation. In addition to that, when the vaccine became available for those 70 and older, the members of our senior Church leadership who met that age requirement all got vaccinated and made it a very public event. Subsequent to that, they have continued to encourage vaccination, and most recently have encouraged, once again, the wearing of masks, because a disease that many people thought was on its way out is rebounding. And so with that rebounding comes additional encouragement from Church leaders to go back to doing some of the things we were doing earlier that seemed to be effective. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: Yeah, I think a lot of people are weary right now. We thought we were sort of at the tail end of the pandemic, things were starting to appear a little normalized, we’re finally able to gather every Sunday with our congregations in many areas of the world — not in all, but in many — and we’re seeing missionaries who were all brought home returned to some of their original assignments. And then, suddenly things started to change again. And there has to be other times in history when people felt weary. 

Latter-day Saint Charities has supported global immunization initiatives led by UNICEF and the WHO. This woman receives a vaccination in Chad.
Latter-day Saint Charities has supported global immunization initiatives led by UNICEF and the WHO. This woman receives a vaccination in Chad. Credit: UNICEF

21:17

Richard E. Turley Jr.: There certainly were, and as I went through the list of some of the pandemics the Church has faced in the past — some of the epidemics, I mentioned, some diseases that were with us for a very long time, will remain with us. Malaria remains a major killer of people across the globe today, and so we have members of the Church in particularly tropical areas that still have to battle that on a regular basis. Cholera was with the Church from the 1830s through the 1850s in a very big way. COVID-19, as best I can determine from news reports, not being a doctor myself, is going to be with us for a very long time. Certainly the childhood diseases that we battled — measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria and so forth — those are continued to be with us. I am part of that generation that has the mark on my arm reflecting that I had a smallpox vaccination. I know that it’s rare to have smallpox vaccinations nowadays, but it is a disease that gratefully we’ve largely eradicated. Could it perhaps break out sometime in the future? Yes, potentially. But often, these diseases are not just sort of one and done. They remain with us for a very long period of time, and it looks like COVID-19, and its variants, is going to be with us for a while. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: And in the 18-19 months since the COVID-19 pandemic began accelerating across the globe, President Nelson has issued a lot of invitations to us. And some are spiritual, and some are more practical. Certainly, one that we talk about a lot is the invitation to engage in two worldwide fasts and prayers.

22:53

Richard E. Turley Jr.: And there’s no question in my mind that fasting and prayer work, but they work best when we’ve done all that we can do. My experience in six and a half decades of life is that faith without works truly is dead. If we want to fast and pray and then do nothing, the effect tends to be very, very small. I think it’s important that when we think about Joseph Smith’s First Vision and the scripture that got him to the First Vision — James 1:5 — that we go on to James 2, and see a verse, series of verses, that he and his family would have seen as well in which the writer says, “What doth it profit, … though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? … If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, ‘Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled;’ notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.“ So here’s a scripture that says it’s not enough just to do the prayer and think about people, you have to do something I think is very significant: “Those things which are needful to the body,” and there are things today we can do that are needful to the body that can supplement the fasting and prayer that we’ve also been asked to do. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: And President Nelson turned our thoughts to things that are also important during times of trial and tribulation, and that was gratitude. Talk about the impact of that message on a world during the pandemic. 

24:25

Richard E. Turley Jr.: We live in an affluent world compared to the past. As one who has spent his life studying the past, I will tell you, we’re far better off than most people in the history of the world. And being far better off, we sometimes take for granted simple things. We take for granted water, clean water, until it’s taken away from us. We take for granted electricity, until it’s taken away from us. We take for granted good health, until it’s taken away from us. And so there are plenty of simple things in life enjoyed by most people for which we can all be grateful and there are specific gifts given to us for which we can be grateful as well. 

And being grateful is also good for our mental health. One of the things we’re learning about COVID-19 and its impact, including on parents and youth, is that there’s a lingering mental health component to this, having to endure the stress of the disease and what is having us do, including requiring us to do things we hadn’t done in the past, including disrupting social circles. I have a granddaughter who looked forward very much to her senior prom, and then it never happened. I have a nephew who looked forward very much to an athletic competition that never occurred. I have grandchildren that look forward to things that never happened, because of COVID-19. And yet, if you look at someone such as our senior Church leaders, you recognize that they’ve been through multiple wars during their lifetimes, they’ve experienced previous outbreaks of disease, and yet they have endured those and gratitude has been a way of helping to keep their mental health during a time in which physical health has been threatened. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: And you mentioned this in the very beginning of this podcast, but I would like to talk about it in more detail. The Church has spent millions and millions of dollars in humanitarian efforts that involve immunizations and vaccinations. 

26:22

Richard E. Turley Jr.: That’s correct, and a book I recently read suggested that one of the main reasons for our dramatic improvement in public health has been immunizations, vaccinations, whatever words you want to use for it, over time, particularly in the last 200 years. If you look back historically, even within the history of the Church, what you’ll see is that often families would lose half their children to childhood diseases. Families would lose family members to diseases that today we hardly think about because we have vaccinations or we have vaccinated enough people that the diseases are no longer prevalent. And we forget about that — we forget about what a blessing it has been to humanity, particularly over the last 200 years, to have vaccinations, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. 

You know, we often talk about the interesting reality that such things as family history interest has boomed during the period of the history of the Church. That technology has boomed during the period of the history of the Church, allowing for the gospel to go to all parts of the earth. I think another one of those great miracles during the period of the history of the Church is that we have had vaccinations that have allowed the health of humanity to increase to such an extent that it is comparatively safe for us to send out missionaries and other representatives across the earth and to have Church members assembled in congregations worldwide in ways that would never have been possible previously. 

President Russell M. Nelson records a video message on the healing power of gratitude, which was shared on social media on Nov. 20, 2020.
President Russell M. Nelson records a video message on the healing power of gratitude, which was shared on social media on Nov. 20, 2020. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, let’s talk about President Nelson’s leadership at this time. We had a long list at the beginning of the podcast about the times that the First Presidency or the Church itself or Church leaders have weighed in and given statements about medical issues. What is it that would have compelled President Nelson to jump in and issue a statement at this time? 

28:15

Richard E. Turley Jr.: I think that there are several things that have occurred in recent memory that have gotten a lot of public attention that would collectively have created a need to do this. One, of course, is what’s happened with the disease itself. A disease that many people thought was going out is now coming back. In the state of Utah, for example, where you and I live, the ICUs are quickly filling up. And once that occurs, there’s a secondary impact on people. I was anticipating a surgery just before COVID-19. That surgery for me was delayed a year because of the disease, and I’ve talked to medical doctors who have said, “When the ICU is filled up and our hospitals are overwhelmed, people will die of other things. If you have a heart attack, you might not be able to get into an emergency room. If you have cancer, you might not be able to get a surgery.” So certainly, the bounce back of the disease is one thing. Another thing is the increasing divisiveness among people, particularly on social media, about these issues.

These issues have also been dramatically politicized in some circles, and I think it’s important for all of us to look at this as a medical matter and be able to divorce it from other things that may generate emotions in us. Think about it as a medical issue and what we can do to help solve this huge medical problem that’s facing all of humanity. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and certainly, social media would be the one thing that is distinctly different about this pandemic from other past medical issues or pandemics in the history of the world. 

29:45

Richard E. Turley Jr.: In the past, when people got news, they tended to get it from a limited number of news sources which were highly vetted and appealed to the masses. Nowadays, many people get all of their news from their social media feeds, which means that they generally are hearing only those things that are being sent to them by sources that they have preselected to agree with them, and that tends to reinforce. It creates a kind of reinforcement of bias or reinforcement of prejudice, which leads to increasing anger when people don’t agree with us and our particular points of view. I think it’s very important that we try to step out of that, to read widely enough to see the wide range of news reports that have been issued on the subject, to work through those that appear to be fake news and get to those that have a serious medical backing to them. I think if we do that, and then try to separate what we’re doing from our politics and from our own social tribalism, we can become one, the way the scripture requires that we do and focus on this as a medical issue and take simple steps to help prevent the disease from spreading. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and as you look back, what are some of the most important lessons of history that will help us as we look forward? 

31:02

Richard E. Turley Jr.: I think one of the most important lessons of history, when it comes to disease, is that we have learned over time how to prevent what before we could not prevent. In that long list of epidemics facing the Church that I mentioned — if I were to write a book on this subject, I’d talk about the pre-understanding of germ theory years and the post-understanding of germ theory. In the early years, people didn’t know what was causing the diseases. In today’s world, and beginning, particularly in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries, we began to understand what was causing diseases to spread, and therefore could take steps to prevent it. Living in an age in which we understand from medical experts what to do to prevent the spread of disease, I believe, obligates us to do all that we can. This basic principle of faith without works is dead has appeared to drive all of the Church’s efforts over time when it comes to disease, and we are far better able today to take steps that are effective to exercise works, that are effective to do those things which are needful to the body than we ever have been before. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: And we have a tradition at the Church News podcast, and that is that we always ask our guests to answer the same question, and we always give them the last word. And so, as we wind things down today, I’m hoping that you can look back and analyze all that you’ve learned from studying history your whole life, and serving and working with so many senior leaders of the Church, and tell us what you know now.

32:37

Richard E. Turley Jr.: What I know now that I didn’t know, at the age of 15, when I began a serious study of Church history — that’s 50 years ago — what I’ve learned over that half-century is that history, like all subjects — and I read very, very widely — but 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. You know the famous saying that those who did not learn the lessons from the past are condemned to repeat them. 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.

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Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News Editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen, and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on theChurchnews.com