Recent publicity surrounding the LDS Church from "The Book of Mormon" musical to proxy baptisms to the former ban on blacks holding the priesthood has made it difficult for some to distinguish core Mormon doctrines from various personal interpretations or idiosyncratic teachings, a Mormon leader said Sunday.
The key to understanding LDS beliefs, apostle D. Todd Christofferson said Sunday morning, is simple: "Establishing the doctrine of Christ or correcting doctrinal deviations is a matter of divine revelation to those the Lord endows with apostolic authority."
However, Mormon leaders even prophets are not infallible, Christofferson said on the second day of the church's 182nd Annual General Conference, in an address to more than 20,000 people gathered in the giant Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City along with millions more watching via satellite in Mormon chapels across the globe, as well as on the Internet.
"Not every statement made by a church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine," the apostle said. "A statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, [and is] not meant to be official or binding for the whole church."
This distinction was especially salient in recent weeks when a Brigham Young University religion professor was quoted in The Washington Post, describing some allegedly Mormon beliefs about black skin being "the curse of Cain" or blacks as so-called "fence-sitters" in premortal life, to explain the Utah-based faith's exclusion of black men from its all-male priesthood until 1978.
The church immediately condemned the professor's statements, saying they did not represent Mormon teachings.
Christofferson shared an example of Brigham Young offering a particular perspective in a morning conference speech and then reversing himself by the afternoon.
The apostle quoted the 19th-century Mormon leader as saying, "Brigham Young had been talking in the morning, but the Lord was going to talk now."
Divine instructions could come directly to the church president or through the combined deliberations of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles with the governing First Presidency, Christofferson said. "The objective is not simply consensus among council members, but revelation from God. It is a process involving both reason and faith for obtaining the mind and will of the Lord."
Other speakers Sunday discussed forgiveness, sacrifice, learning to choose and the ineffectiveness of religious coercion.
Apostle L. Tom Perry described secularism's attack on biblical teachings.
These writings "have given us guidance through these many centuries in defining the eternal values and standards for our conduct through life," Perry said, yet secularists "declare teachings in the Bible are false and the teachings of the Master out of date. Their voices cry that each man must have the freedom to set his own standards; they attempt to alter the rights of the believers, contrary to that which is taught in the scriptures."
M. Russell Ballard, another apostle, also laid out some of the damage done to society by unbelievers.
In an increasingly materialistic world, about half of babies are born to unmarried women, more than half of marriages end in divorce, and fewer families embrace traditional values.
"Equally worrisome is the ever-growing gap between rich and poor," the apostle said. "Statistically, those who have less education and consequently lower incomes are less likely to marry and to go to church, and much more likely to be involved in crime and to have children outside of marriage."
Values come first, he said, and better situations follow.
"When children are born in wedlock and have both a mom and a dad, their opportunities and their likelihood of occupational success skyrocket," Ballard said. "And when families work and play together, neighborhoods and communities flourish, economies improve, and less government and fewer costly 'safety nets' are required."
Julie B. Beck, outgoing president of the LDS women's organization, described the powerful partnership between the male priesthood and the female Relief Society.
"Since the days of [LDS Church founder] Joseph Smith â¦ prophets have spoken of the essential need for sisters to be full participants in the Lord's work. They have shared their vision of strong, faithful, purposeful women who understand their eternal value and purpose," Beck said. "Relief Society is meant to be a way of life for Latter-day Saint women, following the pattern of female disciples who served with the Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles in his ancient church."
Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a member of the governing First Presidency, had just two words for church members who harshly judge one another: Stop it.
The world is awash in the "destructive spirit of contention, resentment, and revenge," Uchtdorf said. "We too often justify our anger as righteous, and our judgment as reliable and only appropriate. We make exceptions when it comes to our own bitterness because we feel that we have all the information we need to hold someone else in contempt."
Uchtdorf suggested members analyze their own behavior: "Do you harbor a grudge against someone else? Do you gossip even when what you say may be true? Do you exclude, push away, or punish others because of something they have done? Do you secretly envy another? Do you wish to cause harm to someone?"
If the answer to any of these questions is, "yes," he said, members should simply "stop it."
The morning session ended with a sermon on the purpose of life by President Thomas S. Monson.
"Death comes to all mankind. It comes to the aged as they walk on faltering feet. Its summons is heard by those who have scarcely reached midway in life's journey. At times it hushes the laughter of little children," said the 84-year-old leader, considered a "prophet, seer and revelator" by the 14 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "But we know that death is not the end."
Monson ended his speech with thoughts about Holy Week.
"In one week we will celebrate Easter. Our thoughts will turn to the Savior's life, his death and his resurrection," he said. "I testify to you that he lives and that he awaits our triumphant return."
He closed the two-day meeting with an exhortation for members to cease arguing.
"If there are disagreements or contentions among you, I urge you to settle them," Monson said. "May your homes be filled with love and courtesy and with the Spirit of the Lord."