A very different General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints got underway Saturday.
With no public attendance amid the coronavirus pandemic, the downtown Salt Lake City Conference Center, usually packed with tens of thousands of people, was eerily quiet. Instead, the sessions can be viewed only online and on TV.
Speakers and the faith’s governing First Presidency, led by 95-year-old church President Russell M. Nelson, are delivering their addresses from a “small auditorium” in the Church Office Building. No choir is even present. The music has been prerecorded.
Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, conducted the opening session. Nelson and his second counselor, Henry B. Eyring, were seated behind him, appropriately socially distanced from each other.
In opening remarks, Nelson pointed out that “today’s restrictions relate to a virulent virus” but reminded Latter-day Saints that “personal trials stretch far beyond this pandemic.” He urged members to prepare not only physically but also spiritually for future challenges.
Oaks reaffirmed that this conference will celebrate the bicentennial of church founder Joseph Smith’s “First Vision,” in which he reported seeing God the Father and Jesus Christ, giving birth to the Mormon movement.
6:45 p..m.: Men, women should work together in unity, says Relief Society president
President Jean B. Bingham, head of the women’s Relief Society, discussed the complementary nature of men’s and women’s roles.
In Mormonism’s early days, Joseph Smith helped create a new organization for women that was, Bingham said, “unlike other women’s societies of the day because it was established by a prophet who acted with priesthood authority to give women authority, sacred responsibilities, and official positions within the structure of the church, not apart from it.”
That was the Relief Society.
Recently, members have been taught “that women who are set apart under the direction of one holding priesthood keys operate with priesthood authority in their callings,” Bingham said. “ … Although women are not ordained to a priesthood office, as noted previously, women are blessed with priesthood power as they keep their covenants and they operate with priesthood authority when they are set apart to a calling.”
Becoming more in tune with “the divine pattern of working together in unity is critical in this day of ‘me-first’ messages that surround us,” she said. “Women do possess distinctive, divine gifts and are given unique responsibilities, but those are not more — or less — important than men’s gifts and responsibilities. All are designed and needed to bring about Heavenly Father’s divine plan to give each of his children the best opportunity to fulfill his or her divine potential.”
6:30 p.m.: Provo teens focus on blessings of priesthood
Laudy Ruth Kaouk, a 17-year-old member of a Spanish congregation in Provo, talked about receiving priesthood blessings.
“God is cheering for us. He wants us to return to him. He knows us personally. He knows you. He loves us,” Laudy said. “He is always aware of us and blesses us even when we feel we don’t deserve it. He knows what we need and when we need it.”
Enzo Serge Petelo, also of Provo, spoke about the faith’s understanding of priesthood power as well.
“Our service in and with his priesthood brings together those who are dedicated to following and living the Lord’s teachings with exactness, which I personally know can be difficult as we face the challenges of youth,” the 15-year-old Enzo said. “…You can be a beacon of light to all those who are unsure of themselves. The light within you will shine so bright that everyone you interact with will be blessed by just being in your company. It may be hard at times to acknowledge the presence of our spiritual companions, but I am grateful to know that I am a member of a faithful priesthood quorum, with whom I can work to grow closer to Christ.”
Young people have spoken before in General Conference, in, for example, 1982, 1983 and 1997.
6:15 p.m.: Apostle Gong discusses the twin events of Holy Week
In special evening session, apostle Gerrit W. Gong discussed twin events through the use of “hosanna” and “hallelujah” in the Easter story — Palm Sunday, which celebrates Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and Easter, which commemorates Jesus’ triumph over death.
“The sacred events between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday are the story of hosanna and hallelujah,” Gong said. “Hosanna is our plea for God to save. Hallelujah expresses our praise to the Lord for the hope of salvation and exaltation. In hosanna and hallelujah we recognize the living Jesus Christ as the heart of Easter and latter-day restoration.”
The apostle then moved on to discuss Joseph Smith’s theophany, known as the First Vision, which members believe occurred in the spring of 1820. Gong then mentioned that on Easter Sunday, April 3, 1836, six years after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized, “the living Jesus Christ appeared when the Kirtland Temple was dedicated.”
Gong discussed “two restorations.”
Resurrection includes “physical restoration.” Gong said. “… This promise gives hope to those who have lost limbs, who have lost ability to see, hear, or walk, or those thought lost to relentless disease, mental illness, or other diminished capacity. He finds us. He makes us whole.”
The second restoration is spiritual, he said, quoting scripture that promises “all things shall be restored to their proper order.”
This spiritual restoration, the apostle added, “reflects our works and desires.”
3:40 p.m.: Build your life on a foundation of faith, apostle Stevenson advises
Apostle Gary E. Stevenson described the building of the iconic Salt Lake Temple, Brigham Young’s prophetic pronouncements about its longevity, and the current renovation of the sacred structure that is expected to take four years.
That is a metaphor for faith, he said, asking listeners, “How could this extensive renewal of the Salt Lake Temple inspire us to undergo our own spiritual renewal, reconstruction, rebirth, revitalization or restoration?”
Believers might discover that their faith needs “some maintenance and renovation work,” Stevenson said, “even a seismic upgrade.”(The Salt Lake Temple was rocked last month, along with much of northern Utah, by a magnitude 5.7 earthquake that knocked the trumpet out of the Angel Moroni statue’s hand and displaced some spire stones.)
They should examine their own foundation, the apostle said, asking themselves, “What comprises the thick-walled, stable, strong cornerstones that are part of my personal foundation, upon which my testimony rests?”
Church leaders hope that “the significant renovations to the Salt Lake Temple will contribute to the fulfillment of Brigham Young’s desire to see ‘the temple built in a manner that it will endure through the millennium,’” Stevenson said. “During the coming years, may we allow these improvements made to the Salt Lake Temple to move and inspire us, as individuals and families, so that we too — metaphorically — will be built in a manner that will endure the millennium.”
3:25 p.m.: Book of Mormon makes us better, Asian Seventy says
The Book of Mormon offers prescriptions to improve our lives from the master physician, Jesus Christ, said general authority Seventy Benjamin M. Z. Tai.
“Through his Atonement, he binds up our wounds, takes upon himself our infirmities and heals our broken hearts,” said Tai, who was born in Hong Kong. “ … He has promised to help us in this lifelong process of conversion, which transforms us and brings everlasting joy.”
Tai added that studying the Book of Mormon helps that process by teaching and reminding about steps needed to draw closer to God.
“The Book of Mormon is the word of God, and we will draw nearer to him if we study it,” he said. “As we experiment upon its words, we will obtain a witness of its truthfulness. As we consistently live according to its teachings, we will have no more desire to do evil. Our heart, countenance and nature will be transformed to become more like the Savior.”
3:10 p.m.: Be grateful for the givers, apostle Renlund says
Apostle Dale G. Renlund, a former cardiologist, told the compelling story of Thomas Nielson, a 63-year-old Logan man who needed a heart transplant.
Nielsen was particularly close with his eldest grandson, Jonathan, as he waited for a donor heart. One fateful day, a heart became available after a horrible accident. It was from his grandson, who was killed when the car he was riding in was hit by a train.
At first, Tom and his wife “refused to consider the proffered heart from Jonathan’s grieving parents, their daughter and son-in-law,” Renlund said. They knew, though, that “Jonathan was brain dead, and came to understand that their prayers for a donor heart for Tom had not caused Jonathan’s accident.
Jonathan’s heart was “a gift that could bless Tom in his time of need,” the apostle said. “They recognized that something good might come out of this tragedy and decided to proceed.”
Like Tom, all people have received gifts “that we could not provide for ourselves, gifts from our Heavenly Father and his beloved son, including redemption through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ,” Renlund said. “We have received life in this world; we will receive physical life in the hereafter, and eternal salvation and exaltation — if we choose it — all because of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.”
He urged his virtual audience to “consider the sacrifice, generosity and compassion of the givers,” whenever they “use, benefit from, or even think of these gifts.”
Reverence for the givers “does more than just make us grateful,” Renlund said. “Reflecting on their gifts can and should transform us.”
2:50 p.m.: Book of Mormon is a witness of a living Christ, says church’s top moneyman
The Book of Mormon is a witness of the living Jesus Christ, said Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé.
The church, he noted, often places in its visitor centers copies of a statue of Christ by Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen because it “presents the living Christ, who gained victory over death and, with open arms, invites all to come unto him.”
The Book of Mormon has the same central message, he said, which “is to restore the true knowledge of the essential role of Jesus Christ in the salvation of mankind.”
Caussé pointed out the book teaches that Christ’s Atonement is a gift available to all.
“In addition to bearing the burden of our sins, Christ took upon himself our sorrows, infirmities, sufferings, sicknesses and all the afflictions inherent in the mortal condition of man,” he said. “There is no anguish, pain or sadness that he did not suffer for us.”
He did not address those financial issues.
2:30 p.m.: Book of Mormon will bring miracles to your life, apostle Soares says
The Book of Mormon, the church’s foundational text, was produced by a series of miracles, apostle Ulisses Soares said, and another personal miracle awaits for those who read it and pray to know whether its teachings are true.
“The historical facts and the special witnesses of the Book of Mormon testify that its coming forth was indeed miraculous,” the Brazilian native said. “Nevertheless, the power of this book is not based only on its magnificent history but on its powerful, unparalleled message that has changed countless lives — including mine!”
Soares said Smith was led by an angel to buried ancient gold plates that contained a history of followers of Christ in America. By another miracle, he said, the young man was able to translate them. By another miracle, 11 witnesses where shown the plates, three of them by an angel.
Even though some of those witnesses later faltered in their faith, Soares said, “these 11 chosen Book of Mormon witnesses never denied their testimonies that they had seen the plates.”
The apostle promised to those who read and ponder the book and pray about its truthfulness that God “will give you the answer in a very personal way as he has done for me and many others around the world. Your experience will be as glorious and sacred for you as Joseph Smith’s experiences were for him.”
2:35 p.m.: Christ’s disciples not immune to life’s struggles, leader says
Christ’s followers will not be “spared challenges and trials,” said general authority Seventy John A. McCune. “We are often required to do difficult things that if attempted alone would be overwhelming and maybe impossible.”
But the Savior, he said, will “provide the support, comfort, and peace that is comfort.”
McCune told the story of a life-threatening injury to his son, due to a longboarding accident. At the hospital, the distraught parents offered a heartfelt prayer, asking for help and healing for their son.
“We did not know what the future held or if we would see our son alive again,” McCune said. “We did know very clearly that his life was in God’s hands and the results, from an eternal perspective, would work out for his and our good. Through the gift of the Spirit, we were fully prepared to accept any outcome.”
The young man survived but had an arduous journey back to health.
“Challenges remain, but over time we have witnessed a miracle,” the Seventy said. “We understand clearly that not every trial we face will have a result we wish for. However, as we remain focused on Christ, we will feel peace and see God’s miracles, whatever they may be, in his time and in his way.”
2:20 p.m.: Former UVU president named general authority
Several well-known figures were named Saturday as new church leaders.
Former Utah Valley University President Matthew Holland, son of apostle Jeffrey R. Holland, joined the Quorum of Seventy as a full-time general authority.
Two Africans — Thierry Kasuangi Mutombo and Adeyinka Ayodeji Ojediran — were appointed as well, along with two Latin Americans — Ciro Schmeil, who was born in Brazil, and Moisés Villanueva, a native of Mexico.
The church named a new Young Men presidency. Steven J. Lund, a NuSkin executive who also serves as a regent for the Utah System of Education, is the president, with Ahmad S. Corbitt, who works for the faith’s missionary department, and Bradley R. Wilcox, a religion professor at Brigham Young University and a popular author and speaker, as counselors.
Corbitt is the first African American to serve in the Young Men presidency.
The 58 new area Seventies named Saturday included Clark G. Gilbert, currently president of BYU-Pathway Worldwide and former president and CEO of the Deseret News, and David H. Huntsman, president and chief operating officer of the Huntsman Foundation, a former mission president, and a brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board.
2:10 a.m.: A virtual vote for church leaders
The afternoon session began with traditional sustaining of church leaders — but only about 10 people were present in the auditorium. So members were asked to raise their hands in support at home in a sort-of virtual sustaining.
In recent conferences, several people have dissented loudly in the Conference Center. Obviously, with only a few top leaders present, that did not happen this time. However, Oaks said that people who do wish to dissent could contact their local stake president, a regional lay leader, to discuss their concerns.
Church statistics at end of 2019
• Total membership: 16,565,036.
• New converts in 2019: 248,835.
• New children of record: 94,266.
• Full-time missionaries: 67,021.
• Service missionaries: 31,333.
• Congregations: 30,940.
• Temples: 167.
Source: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
11:40 a.m.: Prayer will be vital to endure upcoming challenges, Eyring says
Faithful and powerful prayer is needed to help guide through upcoming challenging times, said President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the church’s First Presidency.
Christ “will lift each of us,” he said, “so we may rise to spiritual challenges and opportunities unlike any seen in the history of the world” with the help of such prayer.
Eyring said Joseph Smith gave an example when he prayed in faith believing that God would answer him, despite what he described as a powerful attempt by the devil to stop him.
“Joseph had faith in Christ to go into the grove and also to pray for release from the powers of Satan. He had not yet seen the Father and the Son, but he prayed in faith with all the energy of his heart,” Eyring said. “ … Such prayer, offered in faith in Jesus Christ, ushered in this last dispensation. And it will be at the heart of the part each of us will play in its continuing unfolding.”
Members’ ability to build the church and help spread the Latter-day Saint gospel worldwide will grow as their faith and prayers in Christ increase, Eyring said. “As we pray in faith, we become a vital part of the Lord’s work as he prepares the world for his Second Coming.”
11:20 a.m.: Relationships are key, Young Men leader says
Douglas Dee Holmes, first counselor in the Young Men general presidency, emphasized principles that the church’s new program, Children and Youth, is trying to teach: the value of relationships, revelation, agency, repentance and sacrifice.
These principles apply to all members, Holmes said, not just young people.
Relationships are key in the journey to Christ, he said. “We are not expected to find or walk the covenant path alone. We need love and support from parents, other family members, friends and leaders who are also walking the path.”
Seeing others as God does “is a gift,” Holmes said. “I invite each of us to seek for this gift.”
He urged his listeners to be “engage” with the faith — “to give our time and talents to it, to sacrifice for it.” The rising generation desires “a cause,” Holmes said. “The gospel of Jesus Christ is the greatest cause in the world.”
11:05 a.m.: Write down spiritual experiences and they’ll help you later, apostle Andersen says
Recording and treasuring spiritual experiences will bring them to mind to help through troubling times, apostle Neil L. Andersen said.
“In our moments of difficulty,” he added, “the Savior brings these experiences into our mind.”
He taught that sometime spiritual feelings go down into the heart like fire illuminating the soul, and sometimes they are like sudden strokes of ideas and occasionally the pure flow of intelligence.
For example, he said church President Russell M. Nelson once, as a heart surgeon, saw in his mind how to heal a malady for which medicine had no cure — even seeing in his mind dotted lines on the heart as to where he should cut and stitch. He said all may receive such powerful impressions, and remembering them may bring more experiences.
“When personal difficulty, doubt or discouragement darken our path, or when world conditions beyond our control lead us to wonder about the future, the spiritually defining memories from our book of life are like luminous stones that might brighten the road ahead,” he said. “ … Embrace your sacred memories. Believe them. Write them down. Share them with your family. … I promise you that as you willingly acknowledge and carefully treasure the spiritually defining events in your life, more and more will come to you.”
10:50 a.m.: Primary president challenges women to make ‘unique contributions’
President Joy D. Jones, who oversees the church’s Primary organization for children, addressed the role of women in the church’s history.
She noted that in the faith’s early Relief Society, established 178 years ago, founder Smith urged the women to “live up to [their] privileges.”
Their example lives on today, said Jones, the first woman to speak at this conference.
“They unitedly followed a prophet’s voice and lived with steadfast faith in Jesus Christ as they helped lay the foundation we now stand upon.” Jones told the women. “Sisters, it is our turn. We have a divine errand from the Lord, and our faithful, unique contributions are vital.”
The role of women, she said, is to receive continuing revelation.
Jones acknowledged that when she was younger, she didn’t realize that, as a woman, she had access “to the power of the priesthood.” (Only men and male youths are ordained to priesthood offices in the faith.)
It comes, she said, “through covenants, made first in the waters of baptism and then within the walls of holy temples.”
Don’t try to do everything at once, she cautioned. That is impossible.
“The Spirit helps us determine,” she said, “which work to focus on today.”
A woman’s “preeminent role” is to “hear [God], to follow him, to trust him,” she said, “and to become an extension of his love.”
10:40 a.m.: Christ can forgive and heal, general authority says
The Book of Mormon, the faith’s signature scripture, gives especially powerful and authoritative understanding about the atonement of Jesus Christ to forgive and heal the effects of sin, general authority Seventy James R. Rasband said.
For example, it tells how an ancient prophet named Alma found peace even though in his younger years he led away many people from the gospel — and by himself could not undo that damage. But he found that Christ’s atonement could also make whole those who were damaged.
“As any parent can testify,” he said, “the pain associated with our mistakes is not simply the fear of our own punishment but the fear that we may have limited our children’s joy or in some way hindered them from seeing and understanding the truth.”
Rasband said the glorious promise of Christ’s atoning sacrifice is that “as far as our mistakes as parents are concerned, he holds our children blameless and promises healing for them. And even when they have sinned against the light — as we all do — his arm of mercy is outstretched and he will redeem them if they will but look to him and live.”
10:30 a.m.: Ballard talks of various ‘First Vision’ accounts
M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the faith’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, reviewed details of Smith’s prayer to God.
Weaving together four accounts of the First Vision, the 91-year-old senior apostle described Smith seeing God the Father and Jesus Christ and of being told not to join any of the current churches.
“Joseph came to realize that the Bible did not contain all the answers to life’s questions; rather, it taught men and women how they could find answers to their questions by communicating directly with God through prayer,” Ballard said. “…Joseph also began to learn what ancient prophets experienced — rejection, opposition and persecution.”
Smith engaged his family, especially his brother Hyrum, in launching the church. They faced opposition together and were killed by a mob in Carthage, Ill.. in 1844.
At their deaths, the church declared in a public document: “Joseph founded a great city, and left a fame and name that cannot be slain. … [A]nd like most of the Lord’s anointed in ancient times, [Joseph] has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood; and so has his brother Hyrum. In life they were not divided, and in death they were not separated.”
Ballard has wondered, he said Saturday, why Joseph and Hyrum and their families had to suffer so much.
“It may be that they came to know God through their suffering in ways that could not have happened without it,” the apostle said. “Through it, they reflected on Gethsemane and the cross of the Savior.”
10:20 a.m.: Nelson announces special global ‘solemn assembly’
As COVID-19 forced an all-digital General Conference, church President Russell M. Nelson urged members to prepare spiritually for the trials of life.
“Though today’s restrictions relate to a virulent virus, life’s personal trials stretch far beyond this pandemic. Future trials could result from an accident, a natural disaster or an unexpected heartache,” he said in a nearly empty auditorium. “How can we endure such trials? … Of course, we can store our own reserves of food, water and savings. But equally crucial is our need to fill our spiritual storehouses with faith, truth and testimony.”
Nelson said that when the Father and Son first appeared to Joseph Smith 200 years ago, he said the Father pointed to Jesus and said, “Hear him.”
Nelson said this conference is designed to help people hear Christ with “messages that will bring peace to your soul, messages that will heal your broken heart … messages that will help you know what to do as you move ahead through times of turmoil and trial.”
The 95-year-old leader, whom members view as a “prophet, seer and revelator,” also said that the ultimate quest in life is for people to prepare to meet their maker.
“We do this by striving to become more live our Savior, Jesus Christ,” he said. As people do that “we can feel enduring peace and joy, even during turbulent times.”
Nelson, who has posted two recent videos on social media addressing the coronavirus, also joked that when he promised last October that this conference would be “memorable and unforgettable,“ that little did he know “speaking to a visible congregation of fewer than 10 people would make this conference so memorable and unforgettable for me!”
The leader also announced that at the end of the Sunday morning session, “we will convene a worldwide solemn assembly when I will lead you in the sacred “Hosanna Shout.” We pray that this will be a spiritual highlight for you as we express in global unison our profound gratitude to God the Father and his beloved son by praising them in this unique way.”
Solemn assemblies are special, sacred meetings held for a variety of holy purposes, such as dedicating new Latter-day Saint temples. This time, it will honor deity as an important symbol as the church’s celebrates the 200h anniversary of Smith’s First Vision.
Participants in the Hosanna Shout typically wave a white handkerchief — “if you do not have one,” Nelson said, “you may simply wave your hand” — while reciting three times the phrase: “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna to God and the Lamb; Amen, Amen and Amen!”
10:10 a.m.: Oaks thankful for technology
Oaks welcomed listeners to the church’s first all-digital conference, giving thanks for technology that allowed it, and for Smith’s First Vision 200 years ago that led to the formation of the church.
“We’re particularly grateful today for the technology,” he said, “which allows us to move forward with the conference.”
Then he spoke more about the First Vision.
“We acknowledge the blessings, goodness part of our lives today because of a heartfelt prayer offered by Joseph Smith in the spring of 1820 from Palmyra, N.Y.,” he said. “We pray that this conference will provide a way for all of us to reflect upon this unique event and that we will continue in our efforts to spread the message of the restoration throughout the world.”
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