Commentary: Don’t call Latter-day Saints ‘Mormons,' Nelson takes on past presidents and other conference takeaways

(Keith Johnson | Special to The Tribune) President Russell M. Nelson speaks during the concluding session of the 188th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Oct. 7, 2018, in Salt Lake City.

It was an exciting General Conference for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints this past weekend, with several major announcements as well as undercurrents of larger themes. Here are nine highlights.

“Mormon” has become a four-letter word.

In the Sunday morning session, President Russell M. Nelson hammered hard on the church’s name, urging members to stop using the nickname “Mormon” and stating the reason behind the recent campaign to use the faith’s full name.

It’s not a rebranding effort, he emphasized, nor is it a trivial matter. It’s the Lord’s will that the entire name be used, since it places focus on Jesus Christ. Nelson stated that “if we allow nicknames to be used and adopt or even sponsor those nicknames ourselves, he [the Lord] is offended.”

Nelson also noted that “responsible” members of the media would be quick to honor his request about the change. For my part, I should note that Religion News Service has no immediate plans to deviate from The Associated Press stylebook we follow, which stipulates that the full name of any religious institution be used upon first reference, followed by shortened references thereafter (“the Roman Catholic Church” on first reference can be followed by “Catholic,” or “the African Methodist Episcopal Church” by “AME”). Here is the Religion News Association’s supplement to the AP stylebook regarding Mormonism. If the AP style should change, I will be sure to blog about it and let you know.

The church president is not afraid to tip sacred cows.

What’s particularly interesting about Nelson’s focus on the church’s name is that it was the church itself that, starting around 2010, began a full-court-press rally around that very word “Mormon.” In endeavors like the successful “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign and the “Meet the Mormons” movie, the church introduced a curious public to individual Latter-day Saints, showcasing their faith and their contributions to the world.

Now Nelson is not only moving in a different direction but also saying that the old direction may have been a “major victory for Satan.” That’s a 180-degree turn the likes of which is almost unheard of in modern Mormonism, where change happens glacially and current church leaders simply don’t overturn the legacy of deceased ones.

What usually happens is that a teaching is de-emphasized while a new one gains momentum to take its place, but the old one is still “on the books,” sometimes for decades. For example, the manual for adults who are preparing for eternal marriage contains a 1976 quote from then-President Spencer W. Kimball that discourages interracial marriage — a notion that has not been taught at the pulpit in conference for decades. The quote seems to have been removed from the online version of the lesson, thank heavens, though it is still in the print version on Page 169. I’m sure the print version will be updated next. This kind of quiet, unheralded updating is typical of the slow-moving church.

Nelson is doing something altogether different and decisive. He seems unafraid to say that the previous way of doing things was wrong — and it should be remembered that the 94-year-old leader would have been part of the decision-making on the use of “Mormon” personally as he’s been a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles since the Reagan administration. He’s rebuking himself too here.

This raises the question: if a Latter-day Saint president is unafraid to boldly (and publicly) challenge a policy of previous church leaders, what other changes may be coming?

Two-hour church will be a reality.

Members around the world whooped for joy on social media at the unexpected-but-expected announcement that Sunday meetings would be shortened to two hours from three, which is the schedule that’s been in place worldwide since 1980.

Elder Quentin Cook got to announce the news, and I can imagine that the jubilant reaction where I was watching conference with friends was echoed in many other places. Also, I got to eat cake. You may remember that my skepticism about two-hour church was so entrenched that I promised to eat my hat — or at least a hat-shaped cake — if I was wrong. Glad to be wrong. The cake was delicious.

In all of the Twitter reactions I was monitoring, I didn’t see any that were negative, though many wondered how the change, which will be implemented in January, will affect Sunday meetings.

Cut from the new schedule: Primary “sharing time” (the 50 minutes of Primary will now be divided between singing time and class time), “Gospel Principles” classes for new members and investigators, and first Sunday “council meetings” in Relief Society and priesthood.

Members’ faith should be home-centered and church-supported, rather than the other way around.

Several speakers seemed keen to reiterate that having one less hour of church on Sunday does not mean that memebers get to simply hang out and chill. Rather, they are to take the initiative in their families to study the gospel at home, aided by a new “Come, Follow Me” curriculum that will be given to all adult members by year’s end. For next year, the focus will be on the New Testament.

The door also seems open for gospel study groups that aren’t just restricted to family, which would be a change. In the 1990s, Latter-day Saint leaders discouraged the formation of such groups, but given the growing number of single members and nontraditional families, they would fill a real need in terms of fellowship and spiritual growth.

There were very few women speakers.

Many observers noticed that only one woman, President Bonnie Cordon of the Young Women, addressed the entire mixed audience over the course of the weekend. This is in contrast to 26 talks given by male leaders during the daytime general sessions.

In the Saturday evening women’s session — included as a session of General Conference during the main conference weekend for the first time — three women spoke and three men. I believe it is the first time that all three members of the First Presidency have spoken in the women’s meeting, which some conservative members would see as an honor for women and some liberals would view as a hostile takeover of what used to be primarily female space.

It didn’t help matters that the male leaders’ talks were very much about defining for women what their roles should be — marriage and motherhood being paramount — while the women’s talks were more far-reaching, focusing on women’s spiritual development and the many ways they can serve others.

President Dallin H. Oaks issued hard-hitting words about one-man, one-woman marriage and transgender issues.

Oaks’ Saturday talk proved controversial in its firm denunciation of same-sex marriage, a topic avoided by most other speakers. “Under the great plan of our loving Creator, the mission of his restored church is to help the children of God achieve the supernal blessing of exaltation in the celestial kingdom, which can only be attained through an eternal marriage between a man and a woman,” he said.

Oaks, a member of the governing First Presidency and next in line to take the faith’s helm, also reiterated the teaching in the 1995 document “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” that gender is an eternal characteristic of human beings. He warned that no society should “make changes that confuse or alter gender or homogenize the differences between men and women.” He indicated that opposition to the teaching that gender is eternal and unchangeable is satanically generated.

Interestingly, in his point about how members need to oppose abortion and uphold the sanctity of life, he also mentioned opposing euthanasia. The church has an official policy opposing euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide (see here), but it’s not something you often hear mentioned in General Conference.

There was an outpouring of love for apostle.

On Sunday, M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, gave what many considered to be the most emotionally heartfelt talk of the conference, focusing on the redeeming work that Latter-day Saints do for the dead in their temples.

It was personal and poignant for two reasons. First, Ballard’s wife, Barbara, died just days ago at age 86, and he shared anecdotes and photos from their life together. The couple married in 1951 and had seven children. In his talk, Ballard testified of his belief in eternal families, and his abiding love for his wife.

Second, it’s been almost exactly 100 years since the October 1918 vision President Joseph F. Smith reported receiving about how the dead will be redeemed through temple ordinances (a teaching that is canonized in Latter-day Saint scripture as D&C 138). Joseph F. knew about the loss of loved ones, having lost his father, the founding prophet’s brother Hyrum Smith, to assassination when he was a young child. And loss stalked Joseph F. as an adult as well, as he lost 13 children (“O that I could have saved her,” he wrote after the death of his first child), two wives, and several siblings. The October 1918 revelation also occurred as World War I and the Spanish influenza had claimed millions of lives.

Joseph F. was Ballard’s great-grandfather, linking the chain of church history in a tangible way to contemporary Latter-day Saints.

Nelson called for a 10-day social media fast for women.

Although details are unclear, Nelson invited the women of the church to abstain from social media for 10 days to refocus their priorities on the savior. He also asked them to read the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, before year’s end, attend the temple regularly, and to be part of Relief Society.

The social media fast is similar to (but longer than) a charge given to the youths earlier this year.

Members got glimpses of new apostles Soares and Gong.

Finally, Saturday conference talks from new apostles Ulisses Soares and Gerrit W. Gong gave members a chance to get to know these leaders, who joined the Quorum of the Twelve in April.

Soares drew on a metaphor of rivers in his native South America blending together and becoming powerful to encourage Latter-day Saints who were born into the church to welcome new converts and allow their strength to make them mighty. And, in my favorite talk of the conference, Gong called upon members to stretch their creativity in engaging a life of faith.