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(THE CONVERSATION) From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon church or LDS church, followed government guidelines to protect members of their religious community. On March 25, 2020, the church closed its temples and encouraged members to wear masks. Leaders praised vaccination, which church President Russell M. Nelson, a retired surgeon, called a “literal godsend.” He and other senior members received vaccinations, calling on church members to follow their example.
Fundamentalist branches of Mormonism, however – groups who began separating from the LDS church after it ended the institutionally sanctioned practice of polygamy in 1904 – took a different route. Many fundamentalists have refused to take the vaccine and have sought alternative therapies, including the controversial use of Ivermectin, a drug commonly prescribed to treat intestinal parasites.
Nationwide, about 30% of Americans have not received any vaccine dose against COVID-19. Many express skepticism about government intervention in their families’ health, opinions that are sometimes rooted in misinformation or conspiracy theories.
Wariness toward government and medical authorities can run especially deep in isolated or marginalized communities. As a scholar of Mormon fundamentalism, I’ve seen how, for fundamentalists, such fears are rooted in distrust. From the founding of the LDS church in 1830, its members often faced discrimination and persecution, but conflict decreased significantly after the end of institutionally sanctioned polygamous marriages. Fundamentalist groups, on the other hand, still view the government with suspicion. Many continue polygamy, and fear of being reported to law enforcement keeps them from accessing resources like health care.
Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS church, taught that God has a body and that people’s own bodies are sacred gifts to help them reach eternity.
Given the religious importance of human bodies, his followers believed they required great care – and many 19th-century church members were suspicious of medical authorities, amid rising anti-Mormon sentiment. During the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, for example, George B. Sanderson was appointed medical officer for the Mormon Battalion, a unit recruited from the Utah Territory. He frequently prescribed mercury chloride and arsenic, which were standard treatments at the time, but caused contention among the troops. Distrustful soldiers questioned whether he was poisoning them and remembered him as “Dr. Death.”
Early LDS leaders warned against “poisonous medicines.” Brigham Young, the church’s second president, counseled his community in alternative therapies to keep them away from medical professionals they did not trust.
An often-quoted adage – popularly attributed to Young – is that Latter-day Saints should have knowledge of several herbs “to withstand the scourges of the last days.” Comfrey in particular became a catch-all treatment and remains a staple in fundamentalist homes wary of medical …….