History was made — times four — at Saturday’s LDS General Conference sessions.
First, Mormons around the world participated in a “solemn assembly” in the morning and sustained Russell M. Nelson as the 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At 93, the former heart surgeon and longtime apostle is the second oldest man to assume the reins of the Utah-based faith, which has now topped 16 million members.
Then, Gerrit W. Gong, an Asian-American, and Ulisses Soares, a Latin American, were named Mormon apostles.
And, finally, during the all-male priesthood session, Nelson announced a major change to the adult Melchizedek Priesthood: High priest groups will be dissolved and combined into elders quorums in LDS congregations around the world.
No doubt, Mormon heads are spinning with all the news.
Nelson took over leadership of the church in January after the death of President Thomas S. Monson — and is presiding at the twice-yearly General Conference for the first time.
In a “solemn assembly” ritual, dating back to the 1800s, adult male Mormons around the globe took turns standing according to their separate Melchizedek Priesthood offices to show support for their new leader, followed by adult women, male teens in their Aaronic Priesthood groups and girls ages 12 through 17 in the Young Women program. Finally, all members joined in together to sustain the LDS leaders.
Members were asked to stand — even if at home watching a TV or computer screen — to raise their hands to sustain Nelson and the other authorities.
Leaders not perfect, but are guided by God
The conference convened as the church is under criticism for how it handled sexual misconduct by a former president of its flagship Missionary Training Center in Provo, and a day after a large march and a petition signed by 55,000 people called on LDS leaders to stop one-on-one interviews with youths by lay bishops and the sometimes sexually explicit questions that occur during these closed-door conversations.
After the sustaining of new leaders Saturday, someone in the audience shouted “stop protecting sexual predators” three times. According to reports, that person was escorted out. The outburst may have been in response to the headline-grabbing MTC case.
Amid that backdrop, several sermons Saturday said that leaders are not perfect, but are guided by God. Others stressed forgiveness and the healing that may come from it.
Russell M. Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said Nelson has long been prepared by God to direct the church. At the same time, he said, church leaders are not perfect — and members need to exercise faith in Christ to sustain them.
“I am a witness that the hand of the Lord has been preparing him to become our presiding apostle and prophet to administer all the keys of the holy priesthood on the earth,” Ballard said. “May each one of us completely sustain him and his counselors and follow their direction.”
He added, however, “we should not be surprised to know that those individuals called to do the Lord’s work are not humanly perfect. Stories in the scriptures detail incidents about men and women who were called of God to accomplish a great work … striving to do their best but not of them yet perfect. The same is true of us.”
Ballard asked, “Given the reality of our human weaknesses and shortcomings, how do we move forward in supporting and sustaining each other? It begins with faith — real, sincere faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Apostle Neil L. Andersen said Mormons may learn for themselves that Nelson is a prophet and should not be surprised that his warnings may counter popular opinions of the day
“We have the privilege as Latter-day Saints to receive a personal witness that President Nelson’s call is from God,” he said. “ ... A prophet does not stand between you and the Savior. Rather, he stands beside you and points the way to the Savior.”
He cautioned, “Don’t be alarmed when the prophet’s warning voice counters popular opinions of the day” and also “don’t be surprised if at times your personal views are not initially in harmony with the teachings of the Lord’s prophet.”
“These are moments of learning, of humility, when we go to our knees in prayer,” Andersen said. “We walk forward in faith, trusting in God, knowing that with time we will receive more spiritual clarity.”
Nelson, for instance, took heat in January 2016, before he became church president, for declaring that the faith’s controversial policy on gays — deeming same-sex Mormon couples “apostates” and generally barring their children from baptism until they turn 18 — a “revelation” from God.
Andersen noted that members do not follow Nelson in blind faith, nor need they do so.
Apostle Gary E. Stevenson said Nelson — once a renowned cardiac surgeon, who was on the research team that supported the first open-heart operation in 1951 — is healing hearts in a different way now.
“As President Nelson’s call to the Twelve 34 years ago ended a professional medical career of strengthening and repairing hearts,” Stevenson said, “it began a ministry as an apostle devoted to strengthening and repairing hearts of countless tens of thousands around the world.”
It is culminating now as the church’s new prophet. “We can rejoice — even shout ‘Hosanna’ — that the Lord’s mouthpiece, a prophet of God, is in place and that the Lord is pleased that his work is being done in the way the he has divinely prescribed.”
Forgiveness a major theme
Larry J. Echo Hawk of the Seventy said forgiving others will bring healing to ourselves — and illustrated that by telling how he and his family struggled after a drunken driver killed his brother and his wife.
He said his parents and sister went to the sentencing for the young drunken driver.
“The drunk driver’s parents were also there, and after the hearing concluded, they sat on a bench and wept. My parents and sister were sitting nearby as they sought to gain control of their own emotions.” They then walked to the convict’s parents to offer words of comfort and forgiveness, and all wept and hugged together.
“That outreach of forgiveness in those moments caused my own heart to soften and opened a pathway to healing,” Echo Hawk said. “Only with the help of the Prince of Peace was my painful burden lifted.”
Echo Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation and former Idaho attorney general, said he was “not suggesting that we condone unlawful conduct.”
“We know full-well that individuals are to be held accountable for their criminal acts and civil wrongdoings. However, we also know that, as sons and daughters of God who follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, we are to be forgiving even when it seems others may not warrant our forgiveness.”
He added, “I witness this peace will come into our lives as we heed the teachings of Jesus Christ and follow his example by forgiving others.”
Elder Lynn G. Robbins of the Seventy said Jesus Christ gives countless second chances for forgiveness.
“The Savior paid an infinite price to give us as many chances as it would take to successfully pass our mortal probation,” he said. “... Repentance is God’s ever-accessible gift that allows and enables us to go from failure to failure without any loss of enthusiasm.”
Just like it is impossible to learn to skillfully play the piano without thousands or millions of mistakes, he said, the same is true about life in general.
Robbins said that becoming like Christ “will require countless second chances in our day-to-day struggles.”
Apostle David A. Bednar urged members to follow Christ’s example to become meeker — and said many in the world now misunderstand what that means.
“Meekness is a defining attribute of the redeemer and is distinguished by righteous responsiveness, willing submissiveness and strong self-restraint,” he said. “ ... The Christ-like quality of meekness often is misunderstood in our contemporary world. Meekness is strong, not weak; active, not passive; courageous, not timid; restrained, not excessive; modest, not self-aggrandizing; and gracious, not brash.”
Bonnie L. Oscarson, the just-released Young Women general president and Saturday’s only female speaker, said the church should give more responsibility to those youths ages 12 through 17.
“They are capable, eager and willing to do much more than merely attend church on Sundays,” she said. “As we consider the roles that our young women will be expected to assume in the near future, we might ask ourselves what kind of experiences we could provide for them now that will help with their preparation to be missionaries, gospel scholars, leaders in the church auxiliaries, temple workers, wives, mothers, mentors, examples and friends.”
Addressing the young women, she said, “We have noticed that many more of you are struggling with issues of self-worth, anxiety, high levels of stress and perhaps even depression. Turning your thoughts outward, instead of dwelling on your own problems, may not resolve all of these issues, but service can often lighten your burdens and make your challenges seem less hard.”
Elder Taylor G. Godoy of the Seventy urged Mormons to live today as if it were their last one on earth.
He told about a friend’s sick child who once uttered, “One more day” — and died the next day. He wondered how people would act if they knew they had just one more day.
“How would I treat my wife, my children and others? How patient and polite would I be? How would I take care of my body? How fervently would I pray and search the scriptures?“
Godoy said while we do not know how long our lives will be, “we all have a ‘today’ to live; and the key to making our day successful is to be willing to sacrifice” to bless others.
Apostle Dale G. Renlund said that researching family histories and performing vicarious ordinances for ancestors in LDS temples bless not only the dead but also the living.
He told of early Mormon apostles Parley and Orson Pratt, whose relationship was strained and broken. It was healed when they worked on a history of their first ancestor who came to America.
“Their love for their ancestors was the catalyst to heal a rift, mend a hurt and seek and extend forgiveness,” he said. “... Family history and temple work is not only for the dead but blesses the living as well.”