Faithful Latter-day Saints should be cautious of secular and scientific thinking, a top Mormon leader said Saturday, and oppose abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and transgender rights, which conflict with eternal truths.
Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the governing First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offered that counsel during the Utah-based faith’s 188th Semiannual General Conference. He emphasized that “gender is eternal,” and that maleness, femaleness and the bearing of children are essential to God’s plan of happiness.
“Our knowledge of God’s revealed plan of salvation requires us to oppose many of the current social and legal pressures to retreat from traditional marriage,” Oaks said, “or to make changes that confuse or alter gender or homogenize the differences between men and women.”
The political and topical relevance of Oaks' remarks stood out from a day of teachings by Latter-day Saint leaders that otherwise focused on procedural changes to the faith’s weekly worship services and more traditional sermons on faith, repentance, perseverance and charity.
Early on in the proceedings Saturday, LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson, presiding over his second General Conference as the faith’s top leader, announced a new “home-centered” focus for the 16 million-member global church. That focus was then spelled out by members of the LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to include a reduction of the Mormon Sunday service schedule from three hours to two hours.
“We gratefully acknowledge the inspiration from the Lord," Nelson said, “that has influenced the development" of this shift in the so-called meeting “block.”
The long-rumored change had been tested in select wards, or congregations, after an awareness “for many years” that three hours of weekly attendance can be challenging for the elderly, new converts to the faith and members with small children, apostle Quentin L. Cook said.
“We are confident that members will be blessed in extraordinary ways,” Cook said. “Sunday can be a day of gospel learning and teaching at church and in the home.”
The “home-centered” theme was also touched on by Steven R. Bangerter, a general authority Seventy. He emphasized the power of family traditions to inspire a passion and commitment for the gospel in children.
“Lessons taught through the traditions we establish in our homes, though small and simple," he said, “are increasingly important in today’s world.”
Apostle David A. Bednar emphasized that there is a spiritual, more than a procedural, motivation behind the shortened Sunday meeting block and other recent structural changes.
“Please do not focus primarily upon the logistical aspects of what has been announced,” Bednar said. “We must not allow procedural details to obscure the overarching spiritual reasons these changes now are being made.”
Members can sometimes spend too much energy on checklists of topics to study and tasks to complete, he said. But that “pharisaical focus" can divert the faithful away from the Lord.
Counter to MormonLeaks?
The Saturday morning session also marked the first performance by the formerly titled Mormon Tabernacle Choir under its new name, “The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.”
The change in moniker comes after instruction by Nelson to move away from common nicknames like “Mormon” and the acronym “LDS” in favor of the church’s formal title.
Saturday’s morning and afternoon general sessions also did not include any sermons by women, a detail noted by many conference watchers on social media.
Sharon Eubank, director of LDS Charities and first counselor in the faith’s female Relief Society, offered the invocation in the afternoon and was the first woman to speak from the pulpit Saturday, although a general women’s session was conducted later that night.
That type of internet-age analysis was also critiqued by Oaks, who urged caution and skepticism toward online and anonymous sources of information.
“When we seek the truth about religion,” he said, "we should use spiritual methods appropriate for that search.”
Oaks warned that scientific truths are “not the whole of life,” and that celebrities, athletes and experts in secular fields should not be relied upon for the basis of personal decisions.
The church has faced significant criticism about its history and current operations from online forums like Reddit — where a discussion group for former Mormons boasts roughly 94,000 subscribers — and from the transparency organization MormonLeaks, which regularly publishes internal documents and records reportedly obtained from sources within church institutions.
“If the source is anonymous or unknown," Oaks said, “the information may also be suspect.”
Oaks' remarks centered on a number of eternal truths fundamental to Mormonism, including the existence of a loving God, the eternal nature of an individual’s gender and a divine plan for humanity.
The application of those truths, Oaks said, informs the church’s focus on and support of marriage between one man and one woman, and its sacred respect for life, which requires opposition to abortion and euthanasia.
Those truths also mean that Satan seeks to destroy God’s work confusing gender, distorting marriage and discourage childbearing.
“Our positions on these fundamentals frequently provoke opposition to the church,” he said. “We consider that inevitable. Opposition is part of the plan.”
‘Painfully imperfect’ members
Afternoon speakers focused on traditional themes such as the power of faith in times of trial and the need to be welcoming and inclusive to new and returning members.
The faith’s newest apostle, Brazilian Ulisses Soares, compared the blending of longtime and new Latter-day Saints to the Amazon River, which is largely formed by the combination of the Solimoes and Negro rivers.
“Our new friends bring God-given talents, excitement, and goodness within them,” he said. “Their enthusiasm for the gospel can be contagious, thereby helping us revitalize our own testimonies.”
The apostle urged Latter-day Saints to be “more embracing, accepting and helpful to [new members], starting this very next Sunday.”
“Be careful to not let your church assignments get in the way of welcoming new friends at church meetings and activities," he pleaded. "After all, these souls are precious before the eyes of God and are much more important than programs and activities.”
The afternoon’s final speaker, apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf beckoned Latter-day Saints who no longer participate in the faith to “come back."
“We need you. Come, add your strengths to ours. Because of your unique talents, abilities and personality, you will help us become better and happier,” said the popular apostle, a former member of the governing First Presidency. “In return, we will help you become better and happier as well.”
Uchtdorf, the church’s chief point person in Europe, said newcomers and inactive members who return to the fold will “find that this church is filled with some of the finest people this world has to offer.”
“They are welcoming, loving, kind and sincere. They are sacrificing, hardworking and even heroic at times,” he added. “And they are also painfully imperfect. They make mistakes. From time to time, they say things they shouldn’t. They do things they wish they hadn’t.”
Uchtdorf’s remarks, given at the close of the Saturday afternoon session, doubled as an invitation to faithful Mormons to help build and strengthen a culture of healing, kindness and mercy. The church should be a place where people forgive one another, he said, where the temptation to gossip and find fault is resisted and where people are lifted up and helped to become the best versions of themselves.
“Let us all work together to become the people God intended for us to become,” Uchtdorf said. “This is the kind of gospel culture we desire to cultivate.”
He also touched on the church’s new ministering program, a reconfiguration of the former home teaching and visiting programs that see members assigned to look after individuals and families in their congregations.
Uchtdorf, who was born in Czechoslovakia and grew up in Germany, said another name considered for the program was “shepherding,” which led to a joke about his personal heritage.
“Using that term would make me a German shepherd,” he said. “Consequently, I am quite content with the term ministering.”
Uchtdorf spoke of the dissonance of living in imperfect times, using the German word “Weltschmerz," which he defined as meaning “a sadness that comes from brooding about how the world is inferior to how we think it ought to be.”
That sadness lives in all of us, he said, but there is hope and a solution in the transformative power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and in serving others.
Editor David Noyce contributed to this story.