Church members respond to urging from the First Presidency to get the COVID-19 vaccine

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Editor’s Note: This story was part Universe Live’s October magazine show for The Daily Universe Magazine.

During the past year and a half, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has issued statements and policies about COVID-19. One of their most controversial statements was urging members to get vaccinated and many members interpreted that message differently.

Since March 2020, the Church has done what they can to protect members of the Church during the pandemic. Temples temporarily closed, missionaries sent home, Church meetings went virtual and leaders spoke to empty audiences during General Conference.

At the beginning of the vaccine rollout in the U.S., President Russell M. Nelson and other leaders posted photos of themselves getting the COVID-19 vaccine with their personal testimony of its safety written in the captions.

But it wasn’t until months later that the leaders didn’t just speak on behalf of the Church as an institution or on their personal conviction, they spoke to members directly.

On August 12, the First Presidency released a statement saying “we urge individuals to be vaccinated,” and “we can win this war if everyone will follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders.”

While some welcomed the message, others recoiled. But in a faith where the prophet is a mouthpiece of God, how does one grapple with disagreement?

Hannah Colby grew up avoiding vaccines and decided against getting vaccinated for COVID-19. In her perspective, she values and acknowledges the guidance of the First Presidency, but this is one she struggles with.

“I am kind of like at odds with the First Presidency, but I know President Nelson is a prophet of God,” she said.

When the Church released their statement, she considered their words through prayer and scripture study. She wants to maintain the health of herself and others while also “not putting myself in a position where I don’t feel comfortable,” she said.

Madeline Nichols was also vaccine hesitant. She got COVID-19 in December and felt her antibodies were enough protection. But when she and her husband read the statement, they had a different response.

“I remember my husband was like ‘dang we need to get the vaccine and follow the prophet,’ and I was like, ‘you know, you’re right. We do,’” she said.

Though she wanted to make sure getting the vaccine was her choice and not made through social media pressures, her worries subsided when the First Presidency emphasized its safety.

“I do firmly believe the prophet can receive revelation,” she said.

David Kim, a martial arts professor and MMA fighter, was most influenced to get the vaccine by his mom who works at Lakeview Hospital.

Though personally okay with the vaccine, he understands why Church members may feel weary trusting recommendations of medical experts and government leaders. Faith in the Church depends on personal revelation, not necessarily historical fact.

“I do think we need to be cautious about talking about conspiracy in a sense of ‘well you believe things you can’t prove,’” he said.

His thoughts are if you believe in a prophet, your personal prayer, study and revelation about an issue will align with his. But that’s not always the case.

“As we ponder and pray thoroughly and come to our conclusion, hopefully that would be the answer that we get, but that might not be for everyone,” he said.

In the state of Utah, over half of the population is fully vaccinated and more than 58 percent received their first dose. Since August 12, first dose rates increased five percent.

Though no data can pinpoint if that increase was related to the urging of the First Presidency, pharmacist and vaccine administer Jeremy Hawks says he recognized a difference in people’s motivation.

“I definitely did talk to a lot of people that were saying, ‘well I hadn’t planned on getting it,’ or were otherwise neutral and I think that did push them to get the vaccine,” he said.

He appreciates the prophet, a former heart surgeon, asking people to rely on credible medical information when researching the vaccine’s effectiveness and is confident members of the Church make well-educated decisions.

“A lot of people have been fine getting it and are ready to move on,” Hawks said.

For some like Colby, the question of getting the vaccine is still open ended.

“Maybe at some future time I might feel that God wants me to get the vaccine, but not right now,” she said.

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