Coronavirus causes LDS Church to postpone pre-General Conference sessions, affects an ever-widening number of Asian missions

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The sun rises on the Salt Lake Temple Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019.

April’s General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is still on and missionary work is still taking place in Asia, but the global leadership sessions in Utah before the twice-yearly gatherings have been pushed back and proselytizing has been severely curtailed in nations stretching from Japan to Mongolia.

Concerns about the coronavirus have prompted the faith’s governing First Presidency to postpone the leadership meetings — which draw church authorities from around the world — until the fall General Conference in October.

The church also is discouraging leaders and members who live outside the United States from traveling to Salt Lake City for the April 4-5 General Conference.

“Out of an abundance of caution and with deep concern for global health considerations, as well as sympathy for all who have been or may be affected by the COVID-19 virus, we are postponing leadership meetings associated with the upcoming General Conference,” the First Presidency said in a news release Thursday. “We wish to be good global citizens and do what we can to limit the spread of this disease. We also want to relieve concerns of our leaders, members and their families related to the uncertainties of travel at this time.”

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Church President Russell M. Nelson promised last fall that this spring’s gathering “will be different from any previous conference" as the Utah-based faith celebrates the bicentennial of founder Joseph Smith’s “First Vision,” in which the then-14-year-old boy said he was visited by God the Father and Jesus Christ, giving birth to the Mormon movement.

Leaders already have announced that the Saturday evening session — which normally would be for male priesthood holders — will now include all female and male members ages 11 and up.

“We are grateful that all members who do not travel to Salt Lake City will be able to view the proceedings of April General Conference through technology,” Thursday’s release noted.

In 1919, a deadly Spanish flu epidemic forced cancellation of the April General Conference. In November 1918, Joseph F. Smith, the church’s sixth president, had died of pneumonia. Due to the flu outbreak, no public funeral took place and his successor, Heber J. Grant, had to wait to be installed because a ban on public meetings had pushed back the spring 2019 conference to June.

Fast forward a century and the spreading coronavirus is now hampering Latter-day Saint missionary and temple work — along with worship services — in multiple Asian nations.

Temples in Taipei, Taiwan; Seoul, South Korea; and Fukuoka and Sapporo, Japan, have shut down (the Hong Kong and Tokyo temples already were closed for renovation).

“A large number of temple workers and patrons are from an older demographic, which has a higher susceptibility to complications from the coronavirus,” the church said in a separate news release Thursday.

Proselytizing has been curtailed to varying degrees in Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, Mongolia, Singapore and South Korea. Missionaries in Hong Kong already were sent to new, temporary assignments.

In Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand and three Korean missions, the church said, “all prospective missionaries preparing to serve in these missions or who come from those countries will either postpone their start date or receive a temporary assignment.”

Some proselytizers serving in those countries who are nearing the end of their volunteer missions “will return home early.”

Those preparing to serve in six Japanese missions will either postpone their start dates or receive temporary assignments.

In Mongolia, missionaries who are not native to that East Asian nation will be temporarily transferred, while those nearing their scheduled release dates will leave early.

Missionaries who remain in the affected countries are told to stay in their apartments as much as possible and avoid personal interaction with other people, making it difficult to spread their message to prospective converts. Any teaching, the release said, is done through phone calls or other technology.

Those who return home are instructed to self-isolate for 14 days in line with guidelines from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It is important to note,” the release added, “that young missionaries are not generally considered to be at risk for serious complications from the coronavirus.”

Devout Latter-day Saints can volunteer for missionary assignments — young men, starting at age 18, go for two years, while young women, beginning at 19, serve for 18 months.

Matt Martinich, an independent researcher who tracks LDS Church growth, wrote at ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com Thursday that the affected countries “have experienced slow or stagnant church growth for many years.”

“Thus, the impact of these changes on church growth appear negligible in this area of the world at present,” he said. “In fact, these changes may serve as a catalyst to accelerate growth through greater member participation due to the reduction in the number of missionaries serving and use of options such as online proselytism to identify receptive individuals.”

That may depend, Martinich added, on how the virus plays out and the communal restrictions in place.

Latter-day Saint worship services, meanwhile, have been suspected or limited across a number of locales, including in Hong Kong, Mongolia, South Korea and Japan.

The church previously sent two planeloads of medical supplies — masks, goggles and gowns — to the Children’s Medical Center in Shanghai, China, to help combat the coronavirus outbreak and is now reviewing other requests for aid.

“Those requests are being evaluated and addressed as the church is able to do so,” the release stated, “though our ability to supply and deliver those products is limited by a global demand for such resources.”