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Ralphie Jacobs films her daughter, Sybil, as she builds a block tower inside their home near Austin, Texas, Tuesday, Nov 24, 2020. Jacobs regularly features her children on her Instagram page where she teaches positive parenting.
Ralphie Jacobs films her daughter, Sybil, as she builds a block tower inside their home near Austin, Texas, Tuesday, Nov 24, 2020. Jacobs regularly features her children on her Instagram page where she teaches positive parenting.
Patrick Meredith, for the Deseret News

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The rise of the Latter-day Saint influencer

They belong to an ecosystem of Christian influencers using social media to amass followers for themselves and, they hope, for God

Holly and Brad Lauritzen never planned on becoming famous on Instagram. Even now, the couple seems unsure what attracted their hundreds of thousands of followers.

“It absolutely blew my mind that anybody else would care about these simple projects we were doing on our house,” Holly said, emphasizing that neither of them are professionals when it comes to home remodeling. In fact, it was mostly on a whim that she created the account @OurFauxFarmhouse in 2016 to share the results of years spent transforming their “very, very basic builder grade” house in Austin, Texas, into their dream home.

Four years later, the couple is preparing to blow past 870,000 followers. And while engineered hardwood floors and vaulted ceilings are the core of their posts, woven throughout their Instagram feed are expressions of their faith. The couple are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and this, they said, more than chunky knit throws or camel-leather chairs, sparks their greatest joy.

“I’ve been able to talk to a lot of people and just tell them about why we are the way we are, why we seem to have this life, and it’s because of the Gospel,” Holly said, explaining her followers will often initiate conversations over direct message or email.

Ralphie Jacobs checks her phone inside their home near Austin, Texas, Tuesday, Nov 24, 2020. Jacobs regularly posts on her Instagram page where she teaches positive parenting.
Ralphie Jacobs checks her phone inside their home near Austin, Texas, Tuesday, Nov 24, 2020. Jacobs regularly posts on her Instagram page where she teaches positive parenting.
Patrick Meredith, for the Deseret News

By working their lived religion into their online brand, the Lauritzens join an entire ecosystem of Christian influencers using social media to amass followers for themselves and, they hope, for God. Neither are they the only Latter-day Saints to do so.

The Internet, and in particular Instagram, is sprinkled with Latter-day Saint influencers promoting their faith alongside products. They are clothes designers, bedding pioneers, and elite crafters, who, by amassing diverse armies of followers numbering in the tens and hundreds of thousands, have come to constitute a grassroots vanguard of Latter-day Saint evangelists.

Exactly how they incorporate their faith into their brands ranges from the occasional quote from church leaders to detailed stories of God’s hand at work in their lives. What they choose to emphasize, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly the same, with each influencer presenting a faith focused on the home. But while few will quarrel with the benefits of close knit families, some argue there are inherent drawbacks when these platforms — often curated at least in part with the goal of turning a profit — shape the story of what it means to be a faithful Latter-day Saint.

Faith embodied

Jamielyn Nye is the mastermind behind I Heart Naptime, a recipe blog and cookbook designed for chefs in a hurry. In addition to posts on lemon brownies and taco bowls, the mother of four treats her 102,000 Instagram followers to images of her children helping her ice cookies and operate the mixer.

“The core of my faith is centered around family, and my main message is about bringing families together,” Nye, a Latter-day Saint, said. Food just happens to be a powerful tool for doing so. “People get so busy,” she lamented. “Mealtime is a chance to sit down and talk with each other, ask questions.”

In this light, Nye sees her kitchen as a house of worship and every dinner, every cake concocted with the help of a child, a sermon on slowing down.

Ralphie Jacobs is even more explicit in her focus on the family. The parenting specialist started using social media to share “positive parenting” techniques after hearing a 2017 sermon by Elder Todd Christofferson, a member of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In it he quoted Deseret News’ Hal Boyd to call on “strong families to stop feigning neutrality.”

Ralphie Jacobs poses for a portrait in her home near Austin, Texas, Tuesday, Nov 24, 2020. Jacobs regularly posts photos and videos on her Instagram page with various children’s books as a background.
Ralphie Jacobs poses for a portrait in her home near Austin, Texas, Tuesday, Nov 24, 2020. Jacobs regularly posts photos and videos on her Instagram page with various children’s books as a background.
Patrick Meredith, for the Deseret News

Jacobs, whose business includes online and in-person parenting classes, said she felt inspired to launch her account @SimplyOnPurpose. Three years later, nearly 300,000 followers turn to her for advice on, as she puts it, creating “a refuge” for families — a work she deems inherently spiritual.

Jacobs and the other influencers explain that when in-depth conversations about faith occur with their followers, the personal messages generally start with something like: “Why do you and your family look so happy?”

“They email and say ‘It seems like you have some great kids. What are you doing?’” Holly said. When this happens, the mother of five is quick to point to her faith. “I’ve been able to have some really sincere, deep conversations about the gospel.”

Some influencers mention giving away copies of the Book of Mormon to followers. In the case of @MintArrow’s Corrine Stokoe, doing so resulted in one recipient — a woman named Natalie Flaherty — choosing to get baptized a member of the faith.

As the Illinois native put it, Flaherty and her husband were feeling spiritually adrift and in search of a “church we could call home” when Stokoe began to open up about her own beliefs on Instagram, including her love for the Book of Mormon.

“I became intrigued so I messaged her directly to ask if she would send me one,” Flaherty said. When she and her husband were baptized a few months later, Stokoe flew out to be there. A year later, she returned, this time to see the family “sealed,” a ceremony Latter-day Saints believe cements family bonds for eternity.

“She’s one of my dearest friends,” Stokoe, who hosts the podcast Mint Arrow Messages, said.

Much more common are the comments from individuals of other faiths expressing their thanks for breaking what some feel is a taboo on talk about God and religion, or bucking the stereotypes they’d had of Latter-day Saints.

After Nye took a break from social media, citing encouragement from Church leaders to do so, she returned to both fewer followers and encouraging messages from a number of those who had stuck around. “They were like, ‘I’m so grateful to know your faith is that important to you.’”

Regarding her Instagram account and interfaith outreach, Jacobs said, “I consider it a place of building bridges.” The others echoed this sentiment, and while none had a way of knowing the exact religious makeup of their followers, all agreed the number identifying as Latter-day Saints were the minority.

A religious tradition

Far from pioneering a new style of evangelism, these women are following a pattern set by other Christian — in particular white evangelical — women using multimedia platforms to promote their faith alongside products.

Jordan Lee Dooley provides her nearly 400,000 Instagram followers with a mix of mini devotionals and a behind-the-scenes look at her brand Soulscripts, which she calls “a product line and support community designed to help women overcome their hardships — divorce, miscarriage, etc.”

Valerie Woerner markets her prayer journals to 40,000 followers alongside posts calling for a spiritual awakening. And Sadie Robertson Huff of Duck Dynasty fame offers her 4 million followers verses from the New Testament next to alerts regarding her clothing line.

Even these entrepreneurs are arguably mere derivations, however, of the ultimate Christian influencers: Chip and Joanna Gaines. With nearly 20 million Instagram followers between them, a now-retired HGTV super hit, their own magazine, and a partnership with Target, this home renovator duo are in many ways the original template for blending evangelism with their brand Magnolia.

Case in point: when their daughter Emmie used a purple Sharpie to scrawl “Hi God what are you doing?” on her tastefully styled marble vanity, Joanna took a picture and shared it on Instagram with the words “God is...always near.”

Promoting perfection

For some, the revenue that comes with building an army of followers — be it through product or ad sales — represents their primary source of income. Among them are the Lauritzens, who decided to invest fully in their “side hustles” after Brad lost his job last December as a result of corporate cutbacks.

“We felt like that was a giant nudge from Heavenly Father to really invest 100% in ourselves instead of just dabbling in our side businesses,” Holly said.

For others, online fame has translated instead into a healthy stream of supplemental income, as in the case of Nye whose husband works as a physician.

Few take issue with the practice of drawing a salary from a loyal fanbase in exchange for recipes or parenting hacks. However, some critics argue there are pitfalls to integrating the expression of faith with the influencer industry and its fixation on wealth and beauty.

Writing about the “Mormon mommy blogger” craze of the 2010s, LDS scholar and Kristine Haglund observed that while the women she studied may view their platforms “as part of a performance of a religious commitment, what they display is sometimes hardly distinguishable from an embrace of American consumer culture and commitment writer to self-expression.”

Mommy blogs are out, replaced by cross-platform social media influencers like the ones in this article. But Haglund says the argument still stands. For while the women in this article did not all grow up upper-middle class, that is overwhelmingly the backdrop for their messages about family unity. Post after post portrays spacious homes, where sunlight bounces off gleaming tile and children dressed in the latest fashion roam. The influencers themselves trend toward the waif-like with long, thick hair, fake lashes, and smiles as reflective as their egg-white walls.

Whether this blending of conspicuous consumption and faith represents a problem, however, ultimately depends on who you ask.

For Stokoe, who promotes discounts for products like bronzer and pumpkin face masks on her account, the choice to do so is a conscious one.

“I feel like when we help people find deals on things they already wanted it feels good to me that we’re providing true value to them,” she said. “And at the same time, ‘value’ is a central word for us because teaching people values and bringing values and principles that will help them lead a happier life is such a central theme to who we are as a brand and what I try to put out in the world.”

Tamarra Kemsley is a freelance journalist covering religion and politics from her home in Los Angeles.

Under the glow of a strobe light, the Jacobs family participates in a dance party in their kitchen inside their home near Austin, Texas, Tuesday, Nov 24, 2020. The family dances together everyday to help boost energy and morale.
Under the glow of a strobe light, the Jacobs family participates in a dance party in their kitchen inside their home near Austin, Texas, Tuesday, Nov 24, 2020. The family dances together everyday to help boost energy and morale.
Patrick Meredith,
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