Look. At. The. Damn. Snake.

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. Available vaccines have proven to be both safe and effective. We can win this war if everyone will follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders.

—The First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, August 12, 2021

God must have known that the Latter-day Saints would be a stiff-necked people, as he gave the second half of the story only to us. In the Old Testament, we can read about Moses and the Brazen Serpent: the Children of Israel were tired of wandering, so they did what they do best: they complained about it. And they complained so much that God decided to send them fiery serpents. Poison Fiery serpents that could fly, even, as if regular old fiery serpents weren’t scary enough.

And the people repented and asked Moses if he could get rid of the flying, flaming murder snakes and take care of all the people who had been bitten. Moses made a serpent out of brass, and all the people had to do was look at it, and they were miraculously healed (Numbers 21: 9-6). This was, according to John, a type of Christ. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3: 14-15)

The Book of Mormon gives us the rest of the story because, as it turns out, not everybody looked at the brazen serpent:

And he did straiten them in the wilderness with his rod; for they hardened their hearts, even as ye have; and the Lord straitened them because of their iniquity. He sent fiery flying serpents among them; and after they were bitten he prepared a way that they might be healed; and the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished.

And they did harden their hearts from time to time, and they did revile against Moses, and also against God; nevertheless, ye know that they were led forth by his matchless power into the land of promise. (1 Nephi 17: 41-42)

Yeah, that’s right. Some people went out of their way to avert their gaze. They were “anti-brassers,” or “brazen-serpent hesitant.” And they died.

Now, the brazen serpent is not quite a perfect analog of the modern COVID-19 vaccine. There is one big difference: flaming murder serpent bites were not communicable. The people who averted their gaze only hurt themselves.

This is decidedly not the case with COVID-19. A fully vaccinated population protects everybody. A half-vaccinated population puts everybody in danger. Viruses are really good at evolution, and they constantly mutate to find ways around our defenses. A half-vaccinated population creates millions of human-sized Petri dishes to cook up new variants, some of which get good at breaking through the antibodies that the vaccine produces.

Vaccines are miracles too—but they are only miraculous when they are embraced by entire populations. During the 20th century, humanity wiped out diseases like polio and smallpox that killed and maimed millions of people over most of human history. We did this by being better at evolution than the viruses. And our primary evolutionary advantages are being able to invent stuff and being able to coordinate our responses with high degrees of organization. We live at the only time in human history when a vaccine for a newly dicovered virus could have been invented, tested, mass-produced, and distributed across the world a year after the virus first appeared. That is way better than a magic metal snake.

With Today’s announcement by the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, refusing to get the vaccine becomes as theologically untenable as it is scientifically illiterate. The First Presidency rarely takes positions on public and social issues. When they do, it means something. They speak the official, formal policy of the Church, and, if you honestly believe them to be prophets, seers, and revelators, they reveal the mind of God.

And this is exactly the kind of issue that prophets have always spoken to Our primary charge as the body of Christ is to build the Kingdom of God. Joseph Smith called it “Zion.” It is not something we have to wait for or die to inherit; it is something that we build on the ground we inhabit. Zion is what happens when an entire community of people love each other as they love themselves. It requires that we live up to our covenant at baptism to mourn with those who mourn, comfort those who stand in need of comfort, and share each other’s burdens. Zion happens when a large number of people care about each other’s needs as much as they care about their own.

So, look at the damn snake like the world depends on it. Because it very well might.


  1. Amen.

  2. 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼

  3. Second Choice says:

    Want to see some real angst? Check out the drama over at Millennial Star. More anti-masking and anti-vaccine posts have been promised!

  4. Great post; many thanks.

  5. Paul Wright says:

    Fascinating to see this issue open up a divide among conservatives (always the overwhelming majority) in the Church. Seems to be the first time so many endowed temple goers are expressing doubt in the leadership.

    I always felt that many of these people had more in common with, say, Islamic fundamentalists than with me.

  6. The overlap between people who were willing to deny same-sex couples the right to marry in 2008 but won’t stand for the inconvenience of wearing a mask in certain places for a period of time in 2021 is … significant.

    I know people who are literally planning anti-mask protests & inviting ward members. If you planned an anti-prop 8 protest in 2008 and invited ward members you’d be hauled into the bishop’s office.

  7. I have thought this so many times.

  8. Interesting when the “rebellious” sometimes turn out to be those presiding over stakes and wards. There will be fallout, I think.

  9. Reach out to your anti-vax friends, because they’re not doing well. That sounds facetious, but I’m serious. If you’re used to being on the losing end of First Presidency statements, think about how you would have wanted your conservative friends to respond back then, and do that now. There are people I dearly love who refuse to get vaccinated no matter what I tell them (and I’m in a position to be blunt about it). I still very much want them to feel welcome at church.

  10. There was another guy who wanted to force everyone to do what was right. There was a war fought in the pre-earth life where those who agreed with him were sent away, never to progress. Be careful what you wish for, you may extend some lives here, and cost yourself dearly in the world to come.

  11. C. Keen – I love your statement about reaching out and being kind. But I have to disagree – if someone is not willing to mask or vaccinate, I don’t want them to feel welcome at church. I want them to feel welcome to worship at home, away from the kids and immunocompromised.

  12. I have so many thoughts about this.

    1. For starters, as someone on the left-leaning side of things, I am very familiar with feeling troubled because the prophet is saying something that disagrees with my own sense of truth (2015 was not an easy year for me). But I never thought that I’d hear people talk about how their faith is shaken because the church isn’t *conservative* enough for them. Maybe this suggests that for many of us, both left and right, our politics override our religion. Or maybe worse, that for many members, our party affiliations *are* our religion now.

    But on the other hand, I refuse to draw an equivalency between “this policy of denying baptism to children feels illogical and wrong”—a subjective, moral judgment—and “the vaccines are untested and are killing and maiming so many people and the church is now the puppet of big pharma and the corrupt government that stole the election”—objectively, verifiably false conspiracies. I think we can have moral or philosophical differences about what is the most just, loving, Christlike way to treat people. But when enough of us have detached ourselves from objective reality and embraced conspiracies, that kind of terrifies me.

    2. I wish the leaders of the church were self-aware enough to realize that they helped create this mess. Decades of anti-communist and anti-government paranoia, distrust of “so-called” scientists and experts, and general enshrining of the GOP as God’s Party aren’t going to disappear overnight.

    The church: Trains people over the pulpit *for decades* to not listen to “so-called” experts and intellectuals, because that’s THE WORLD™, and they’re out to deceive and trick us as part of a satanic conspiracy to take away our freedom.

    A lot of members in 2021: We won’t listen to accepted science or public health experts! It’s a conspiracy to take away our freedom!

    The church: [insert Surprised Pikachu Face]

    3. This is probably much, much too unfair and simplistic—but given the responses I’m seeing to the First Presidency’s statement about masks and vaccines, I can’t help but wonder if all these years of chanting “follow the prophet” were for some people really more about just wanting to stick it to those gays and libs than actually about following the prophet.

  13. Rick Chandler says:

    @G, it really feels like you are extrapolating Mormon culture into church teaching. Mormon leadership has consistently shown a strong level of support for government and science, even if there are sometimes specific disagreements with a few specifics.

    Some regions of mormon culture has picked up an anti-scientific and anti-governmental strains, but I would argue that is as much “from the world” more than church leadership.

  14. I look to Christ.
    Please bear with my burdens as I’ve borne yours. If you must, weep inside and be saddened for the pathologies of your fellow man, as I do.

    This is not a time for contention. Try to keep the spirit of Christ with you by emulating him.

  15. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    For those who are concerned that the Church has now become a liberal institution, seemingly overnight, fear not! You can expect them to double down on some absurd conservative, discriminatory policy very soon, just to remind those who are clutching their pearls that leadership hasn’t abandoned you. I mean, it was going to happen, anyway. The hallmark of people swayed by conspiracies is the penchant to see patterns where none exist. Believe me, folks – this announcement is not part of a pattern.

  16. Look up and live is useful and important in this context. However, as noted, today we need to talk about communicable disease, free rider problems, network effects, and more. It no longer works to separate ourselves from the plagues of Egypt, and we’re not going to isolate ourselves for forty years, as in Mose’s storied time. Maybe we need new stories for new problems and maybe we’re making them in real time.

    Another flaw in the brass serpent analogy is that it is too often viewed as an example of a no-cost miracle. All you have to do is accept. This should seem limiting to a Mormon crowd that has spent many SS lesson hours decrying faith-only (sola fide) theologies, but it strikes me as analogous to the pushback on calling vaccines “miracles.”

    I like to also think about the blind man in John 9. Anointing with mud and washing at Siloam has the feel of something appropriately medicinal with a small but real cost, the sense that blindness is not related to sin and therefore sight is not related directly to righteousness or being of the chosen people, but of doing what the healer directed. And of course the wonderful lines that I don’t know by whom or how but i do know that I did what I was told and know I who was blind can see.

  17. This is well put. I can vaguely recall many discussions in years past about fiery serpents in institute or gospel doctrine. We all looked back in pity with a slight chuckle at the stiff-neckedness and hard-heartedness of Moses’s people in that story. “Can you imagine a people so stubborn,” we would say. Sigh…yes, now I can.

  18. Interesting comparison Michael. I don’t remember a time quite this when personal freedom was in such conflict with the public good. It’s like, look at the damn snake so you can live, we all can live, and we can all get out of this desert.

  19. Thank you christiankimball for this: “I like to also think about the blind man in John 9. Anointing with mud and washing at Siloam has the feel of something appropriately medicinal with a small but real cost, the sense that blindness is not related to sin and therefore sight is not related directly to righteousness or being of the chosen people, but of doing what the healer directed.”

    That really resonated.

  20. One of HL Mencken’s favorite (not to mention funniest) topics was the stupidity of Americans, particularly of the rural variety. He could not have envisioned Internet-fueled stupidity, especially the QAnon variety. I have worried for many years that we’re too stupid to sustain a democracy. It’s a darn good thing that in the Church we have men who do the thinking for us!

  21. It is fascinating to watch the hard right LDS community react. On LDS Freedom Forum, here are a few of the statements posted:

    “ They. Are. In. On. The. Scam. When my husband showed me the article, the words “I’m done” came out of my mouth.”

    “Not my prophet.”

    “Here’s the deep red pill: Church leadership wants the church to fall apart. They want us mad and to walk away. We can’t let them allow that. We must come back and defeat them. These are not prophets, they are infiltrators, there to rip the church apart, not to build it.”

    “ I am calling on the First Presidency to kiss my you-know-what”

    “I’ve gotta be honest. I kind of expected the voice of the Lord to sound a little different than Anthony Fauci”

    “Maybe we are on the cusp of seeing whatever it is that is hidden, perhaps evidence of Satanic Ritual Abuse involving children. What else could motivate them to do something this off-kilter?”

    “I sense anger and hate in this message. They are seething about members who haven’t participated in this nonsense. This is Satanic”

    “So, either RMN is a full blown dedicated disciple of satan, doing this on purpose, knowing full well that people will be killed and being amused by it, or he is an incredibly stupid man with incredibly stupid advisors. Not to mention a massive liar for impersonating a prophet.”

    The most interesting one was the guy claiming the Brethren have “pink eyes” which means they are drinking children’s blood.

  22. rickpowers says:

    “But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves…And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.”

    We are now in Year 5.

  23. Speaking of looking at the snake, here is what happened in a certain ward in Utah today.

    The bishopric, high councilman, and stake president showed up wearing masks. The others in the stand were not wearing masks. I can’t speak to whether the congregation had masks.

    After the opening prayer, the bishop read the recent email from the first presidency verbatim, he added the following commentary (this is not word for word but I’ll get as close as I can):

    “Now a few months ago we were excited to resume our normal behavior and activities in the hopes that we wouldn’t have to go back to where we were last year. So I’d encourage you to all go home and talk about this in your families and have a good discussion and prayer and make your own personal decision. But at the same time I don’t want you to go and talk about it with other people. We don’t want to go back to six months ago when we were divided into two sides right down the middle. So go home and think about it and discuss it, but when you come back we don’t want people thinking that those people wearing masks are virtue signaling, and we don’t want people who choose not to wear masks to feel judged. It’s a personal decision.”

    I’m not going to put my commentary here on what I think about that editorial, although I might add it in a comment later.

  24. Interesting, Rockwell. Thanks for the report. In our ward, the bishopric showed up in masks, which they had not done in long time. The letter was read with no commentary. The high counselor did not show in a mask and sat directly next to one of the bishopric members. Hard to tell what direction the Stake is giving here, especially considering the Stake President is a state representative (R), who supported restricting voting rights, etc., so not one whose judgement I particularly trust.

  25. When the POX was implemented and other difficult-to-understand policies/attitudes were introduced, I never felt like questioning the brethren or packing my bags to leave. All I could think of was: well, maybe they have an understanding or knowledge about this situation that I don’t know. It’s hard to swallow, but maybe, since they are prophets, they know something more about this issue than I do.

    Now, here we go. Steve’s quotes (above) from members are jaw dropping. I’ve read some mind-boggling anti-prophet sentiments as well on other forums, and I’m floored. I’m truly stuck between trying to be really Christ-like and loving, and wanting to tell them they are @^&%**¢ idiots and I hope they suffer. It’s a coin toss. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    I do not think it is blasphemous to equate looking at the snake with listening to the prophet. He is the mouthpiece for Christ upon the Earth. Look. At. The. Snake.

  26. In my word in Idaho is was pretty interesting. Last week just a few masks. This week, 90% plus. Everyone on the stand and all the deacons. A letter was read from the Stake President encouraging everyone to mask, social distance and get vaccinated. All meetings now should be masked and socially distanced. Every other bench was marked off and Sunday school was held in the chapel to preserve that. The bishop got up and told everyone that he thought the sight of all the masks was inspiring.

  27. Steve – That makes me very glad. I really do hope that things will turn around, even if it is late in the game.

  28. We got an email from the bishop yesterday saying masks were mandatory. Everyone wore a mask (previously maybe 5% were masked). At the end of sacrament we got a full on lecture by the bishop on how getting vaccinated was not about medicine but about our commitment to follow the prophet, etc. I found it cringy, and it made me think back to the Prop 8 days of ‘if you don’t campaign for against SSM, you don’t really believe the church is true.’ I’m all for vaccination but wish we were less into manipulation and more into self governance.

  29. About the happenings in our sacrament meeting that I described earlier, I said I might add my thoughts, so here goes.

    I’ll say I was non plussed. DW was livid. I can’t imagine a First Presidency letter on any other topic that would be followed by a speech about personal decisions and freedom, negating the thrust of the message.

    Look, I’m okay with telling people to be non judgmental. But why does that only apply to people who choose not to abide by public health measures?

    When the church wanted Idaho to vote against allowing the lottery, there was no talk about

    When the church sent a letter telling everyone to wear the temple garment when mowing the lawn, I didn’t hear any talk about not judging people who make a different decision.

    When they asked us to support prop eight in California, they didn’t give us an out to discuss in our families and make a personal decision.

    Look, I’m kind of okay with the personal decision thing in general; I want every one to make a personal decision about everything. But the church as an organization gets to decide who enters the building and what the public health measures look like for that building. That is the one thing that is NOT a personal decision.

    And what about this “don’t talk about it in church” thing? That is the strangest part. It’s probably just my ward, and maybe he wouldn’t have said it if he thought about it. But in what world is it not okay to talk about a first presidency letter in the halls of church? What are we not supposed to talk about? That our ward isn’t social distancing? That we weren’t and still aren’t following the instructions from the Stake Presidency with regard to masking for those at risk of spreading? That Utah ICUs are at 102% capacity based on patient-staff ratio? No, can’t talk about any of that.

  30. Wise Woman says:

    I have a large group of siblings, so I have heard of many different ways the First Presidency letter has been implemented in wards and stakes.

    In one sister’s ward, they immediately went to mask-wearing today, with full approval of bishop and stake president.

    In another sister’s ward, no priesthood leader on the stand wore a mask, and the high councilman who read the First Presidency letter didn’t wear one either. This sister’s stake has been decidedly against masking, distancing, and believing that Covid exists for the past 17 months. It’s pretty clear that priesthood leaders in this stake know better.

    In another sister’s ward, her husband, who is in the bishopric, quarreled with the other counselor in the bishopric about whether “urge” means you have to obey the counsel that is begin urged upon you. My BIL said it does; the other counselor said not. The other counselor won the argument, and their ward will not be masking.

    In my rural stake, the bishop announced that we will start distancing again next week, but not requiring masks. I gather that is the stake position.

    I work at the Manti Temple. Yesterday, all ordinance workers were required to wear a mask, but we were told patrons were advised it was recommended but not required to wear one. While serving two hours in the entryway of the temple, I counted fewer than 10 patrons who came with a mask–and this is after the email from the First Presidency went out. Some of the patrons were there to attend sealings in rooms of 40-50 guests. When patrons asked if they should wear a mask, a co-worker of mine blithely told them “no.”

    I’m wondering what verb other than “urge” might have signaled to readers that the First Presidency is pleading with us to do all we can to deter suffering and death.

  31. Pontius Python says:

    This morning, I attended a small Spanish ward in Salt Lake with a friend. Seating was every other row, the leadership and most members were wearing masks, the service was streamed on the internet, the sacrament was at the end of first hour, and the bread and water were passed by masked, gloved priesthood holders who administered it to each person individually. The leadership read the letter out loud.

    Later, I attended a larger English ward in Orem with my family. The leadership read the letter out loud, but none of the other precautions were followed.

    I also got an email from an English ward in Tucson. It said that ward was going back to masking and other pandemic precautions.

  32. I’m surprised more local leaders are not taking the chance to re-introduce the “every-other-bench” seating? It seems like the FP letter allows for ‘social distancing’ elements in meetings for those members who do not want to wear a mask.

  33. Our stake went back to masks yesterday, and at least in the stake center, seating was every other row. This was lightened somewhat by the fact someone had made up signs for the off-limits rows that had jingles on them like “Faith will grow in another row” and “Inspiration will flow in another row.” We got a letter from our stake president telling us to be prepared for this to last to – February, I think? Nobody seemed openly opposed, but then there weren’t many people there. I don’t know if that was due to people getting their vacations in before school opens, or not wanting to come to church under those requirements.

  34. As someone already immunized, I don’t intend to get the vaccine any time soon.

    However, to the people arguing with an “unsafe” vaccine, I think the FP statement is on solid ground:

    168 million fully vaxed adults in the USA – by the worst estimate there are 40k deaths somehow linked to complications of vaccination. That’s 0.023% of vaxed individuals dying shortly after vaccination. (of course pro covid vax will dispute the 40k, but let’s work on these terms).

    We have 36.7m covid infections in the USA with 621k deaths linked to complications with a covid infection. Let’s generously triple that number of infections, because many people (self included) who got covid were never tested and not in the stats.

    Thats 0.56%. If I did my math right, covid has killed 2400% more people than the covid vaccine, in the absolute worst case scenario for the vaccine. I realize that people will quibble with the 40k deaths and say its far less than that, closer to the 5k or less that vaers is reporting. But I know multiple individuals who went through over a year of covid and then died shortly after getting double vaxed. So it’s reasonable to at least assume that just as covid can exacerbate preexisting conditions, so too can the vax.

    So while I am someone who is not interested in getting a covid shot (I don’t even like to take advil for crying out loud) on account of my perfect recovery from a previous infection (in better shape now than precovid although not “because of” covid), I believe the FP has completely accurate in saying the vaccine is safer for the majority or the population than covid has proven to be. Much safer.

    That said, I do think there are risk profiles at play here that my analysis ignores as deaths and complications hit the preexisting chronic disease group harder and side effect data on the vaccine is unfortunately obfuscated intentionally.

    But I’m not upset with the FP announcement. A little sad they deemed it necessary, but they stand on the watch tower for a reason so I more than trust their judgement.

  35. My ward send a letter at 9:30 the night before 9 am church saying masks would be required. My spouse reported that in the chapel, most were masked (they were handing them out) but in the cultural hall / overflow I’d say less than 1/3 were. Maybe more next week but since I told my kids we’d leave if people weren’t masked, we left.

    My siblings reported little masking in their wards on Sunday. They claimed to be social distancing instead but that’s not actually possible in classrooms.

    Look, I’m not one to say “follow the prophet.” That would be hypocritical. But this is certainly interesting to watch unfold and to be on the other side of something like this for once.

    I can’t help but note the irony of how I wear a figurative mask to church every week, carefully phrasing and censoring what I say so that I don’t come across as disobedient or rebellious. (And our queer friends probably also feel like they always have on a mask.). And yet a very large portion of my ward is wearing their disobedience plain as day on their unmasked faces.

  36. Thank you, Elisa, for presenting the big picture.

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