The LDS Church is adding "to care for the poor and needy" to its longstanding "threefold mission," which is to preach the LDS gospel, purify members' lives and provide saving ordinances such as baptism to those who have died.
This mission first was coined by late LDS President Spencer W. Kimball in the 1980s and since then has been repeated as a mantra by the church's more than 13 million members.
The new group of phrases will be described as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' "purposes," rather than missions, and will be spelled out in the next edition of the LDS Church Handbook of Instructions , due out next year, church spokesman Scott Trotter confirmed this week.
"Caring for the poor and needy," Trotter said, "has always been a basic tenet of the [LDS] Church."
Elevating it to one of the faith's major purposes brings added emphasis.
"This is a dramatic move and very important message," said Jan Shipps, an Indiana-based American religion historian who has spent decades studying the LDS Church. "It's not that Mormons haven't already been caring for the poor and needy with its humanitarian program. It's just that this moves it to the top of their priorities, along with proselytizing and temple work."
It tells Mormons to be philanthropic in ways that go well beyond helping the faithful, Shipps said. "And it's a move that tells the world that Mormonism is Christian more effectively than changing the logo to make the words 'Jesus Christ' stand out."
The church unveiled a new logo in December 1995 to stress the faith's allegiance to Christ and to help answer critics who claimed Mormons were not Christians.
This latest move recognizes what people of faith already know -- that helping the poor should be a priority, said Glenn Bailey, executive director of Crossroads Urban Center in Salt Lake City, who was delighted by the change.
"This can only be positive," said Bailey, whose center focuses on the city's destitute population. "It does make a difference when the LDS hierarchy indicates the importance of reaching out and serving people in the larger community. When they've done that before, people responded and reached out to their neighbors even more."
It won't likely change minds of any LDS state legislators or influence public policy, Bailey said, but with average Mormons it is "very, very helpful."
The move was made public Saturday by Bishop Richard C. Edgley, a counselor in the LDS Presiding Bishopric, during an LDS stake conference in Holladay, according to David H. Sundwall, who was there and then blogged about it at asoftanswer.com.
"He said it was something they had been working on for a long time," Sundwall said in an interview. "They finally got it approved."
That could have something to do with the elevation of Monson in February 2008 as the LDS Church's 16th president.
Throughout his decades of service to the church, Monson has led his church's efforts to collaborate with the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City in providing food for the homeless.
"President Monson is a great humanitarian," said Pamela Atkinson, a Salt Lake City advocate for the homeless. "In some of his talks I've heard or read, he emphasizes again and again reaching out to others -- not just to members but to every single person in need."
She sees the LDS Church's new emphasis as a reflection of the way Monson has lived.
"Giving to and helping others is just a natural part of his life," Atkinson said. "He is saying to every single member: 'You, too, can do something to make a difference.' I am thrilled."
Proclaim the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to every nation, kindred, tongue and people.
Perfect the saints by preparing them to receive the ordinances of the gospel and by instruction and discipline to gain exaltation.
Redeem the dead by performing vicarious ordinances of the gospel for those who have lived on the Earth.
Source: Spencer W. Kimball, "Remember the Mission of the Church," Ensign, May 1982.