LDS leaders will urge the world's Mormons now topping 14 million to break out their rakes, shovels, vacuums, paintbrushes and all manner of tools in the coming months for a "day of service."
The day is meant to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the church's welfare program, launched at the height of the Great Depression, President Henry B. Eyring said Saturday during the opening session of the Utah-based faith's 181st Annual General Conference.
"Great temporal needs of the children of Heavenly Father have come again in our time," Eyring said, "as they have and as they will in all times."
Eyring, first counselor to church President Thomas S. Monson, and other LDS authorities addressed tens of thousands of people seated in the giant Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City, as well as millions more watching via satellite in Mormon chapels, on television or via the Internet.
At the outset, the 83-year-old Monson, considered a "prophet, seer and revelator" by Mormon faithful, announced plans to build three temples in Meridian, Idaho; Fort Collins, Colo.; and Winnipeg, Canada.
Church leaders also spoke about the centrality of Jesus Christ to their faith, the need to maintain the holiness of the sabbath, the innocence and spirituality of children, the role of suffering in LDS theology, the dangers of sexual immorality and the eternal nature of the family.
Boyd K. Packer, senior member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles and next in line for the church presidency, reminded the faithful that God's "standard of morality commands that the sacred powers to beget life be protected and employed only between man and woman, husband and wife."
"To misuse this power is exceeded in seriousness only by the shedding of innocent blood and denying the Holy Ghost," Packer said, in his first conference speech since October, when his remarks suggesting that gays could overcome their attractions touched off a firestorm of protest. He changed the controversial passage in the printed edition of his talk.
The 86-year-old Packer who delivered his sermon while sitting down, as he has during other conferences in recent years assured the faithful that they can "erase the effects of this transgression" through repentance and that they are not alone.
"One might think it is unfair to be singled out and subject to a particular temptation, but this is the purpose of mortal life to be tested," he said. "And the answer is the same for everyone: We must, and we can, resist temptations of any kind."
Happiness, he said, is centered in the family, where "the husband is the head of the home and the wife the heart of the home, with marriage an equal partnership."
Apostle Quentin L. Cook enlarged the theme of the equality between men and women.
"It is a beautiful thing to see the [all-male] priesthood and the [all-women] Relief Society work in perfect harmony," Cook said. "Such a relationship is like a well-tuned orchestra and the resulting symphony inspires all of us. ... From our earliest history both men and women pray, perform the music, give the sermons, and sing in the choir, even in sacrament meeting, our most sacred meeting."
Cook said family decisions are emotional and personal, and best left to a couple.
"No woman should ever feel the need to apologize or to feel that her contribution is less significant because she is devoting her primary efforts to raising and nurturing children," he said. "Second, we should all be careful not to be judgmental or assume that sisters are less valiant if the decision is made to work outside the home. We rarely understand or fully appreciate peoples' circumstances."
Several attendees found Cook's comments about not judging others to be reassuring.
Amber Hochstetler, of Washington state, said in the past she sometimes looked down on women who chose to work. Now that she is married she said, "If I decided to [work], which I might, I know now I don't have to feel bad about it."
Albert Mensah, who is currently attending Brigham Young University, said his parents travel to conference every year from Ghana. His father, Freebody A. Mensah, is an area authority for the church in Africa.
Mensah said some outsiders may think LDS women get few opportunities for leadership, but he disagrees, mentioning the Relief Society.
"They have the greatest leadership," he said, adding that men could learn a lot from women and mothers. "They [women] are more naturally prone to sacrifice for anything to relieve the pain of others."
In a wide-ranging speech about desire, apostle Dallin H. Oaks cautioned members against "that worldly quartet of property, prominence, pride and power," which would help them avoid the "trap of materialism."
Oaks said members' greatest desire should be to "seriously work to secure a marriage for eternity."
Those who already have a temple marriage "should do all they can to preserve it," Oaks said. "Those who are single should desire a temple marriage and exert priority efforts to obtain it. Youth and young singles should resist the politically correct but eternally false concept that discredits the importance of marrying and having children."
Oaks read a letter from a single Mormon woman who complained about LDS men who seem "happy to go out and have fun, and date and hang out, but have absolutely no desire to ever make any kind of commitment to a woman." He said both sexes should be eager to make commitments "that will lead them to eternal life."
Apostle L. Tom Perry urged members to "dress appropriately" on the sabbath as a way of setting the day apart, though he said it wasn't necessary "for children to wear formal Sunday attire until the sun goes down."
He also noted that the mandate not to work isn't just about staying away from the office.
"In today's world, labors include the everyday work of our lives," Perry said. "This could mean business activities we may accomplish from home, athletic competitions and other pursuits that take us away from Sabbath Day worship and the opportunity to minister to others."
In the day's first speech, Monson highlighted the church's humanitarian efforts, especially in the wake of Japan's devastating earthquake.
"We have distributed over 70 tons of supplies, including food, water, blankets, bedding, hygiene items, clothing and fuel," he said. "Our young single adults have volunteered their time to locate missing members using the Internet, social media and other modern means of communication. Members are delivering aid, via scooters provided by the church, to areas that are difficult to reach by car."
Monson said more than 4,000 Mormon volunteers have donated more than 40,000 hours of service in Japan.
The faith's 16th president made a pitch for the church's proselytizing program, including its 52,225 missionaries serving in 340 missions around the globe.
"Missionary work is the lifeblood of the kingdom," Monson said. "May I suggest that if you are able, you might consider making a contribution to the general missionary fund of the church."
Apostle M. Russell Ballard linked the ideas of service and proselytizing.
"The future growth of the church will not happen through just knocking on strangers' doors," Ballard said. "It will happen when the members, along with our missionaries, filled with the love of God and Christ, discern needs and respond to those needs in the spirit of charitable service."
The most important attribute of God and Jesus, Ballard said, is the gift of charity.
"From this gift springs our capacity to love and to serve others," he said, "as the Savior did."
Tribune reporter Cimaron Neugebauer contributed to this story.
LDS Church by the numbers
Total membership • 14,131,467
Full-time missionaries • 52,225
Converts (2010) • 272,814
Church-service missionaries • 20,813
Wards and branches • 28,660
Stakes • 2,896
Missions • 340
Operating temples • 134
Source: LDS Church (statistics as of Dec. 31, 2010)
New LDS authorities
First Quorum of the Seventy • Jose L. Alonso, 52, Mexico City; Ian S. Ardern, 57, Hamilton, New Zealand; Don R. Clarke, 65, Rexburg, Idaho; Carl B. Cook, 53, Liberty, Utah; LeGrand R. Curtis Jr., 58, Salt Lake City; W. Christopher Waddell, 51, San Diego; Kazuhiko Yamashita, 57, Fukuoka, Japan
Second Quorum of the Seventy • Randall K. Bennett, 55, North Salt Lake; J. Devn Cornish, 59, Atlanta; O. Vincent Haleck, 62, Pago, Pago, American Samoa; Larry Y. Wilson, 61, Alamo, Calif.