Imagine that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held a General Conference and no one came.
That’s about to happen.
The Utah-based faith announced Wednesday that, because of concerns about the coronavirus, the April 4-5 conference will be on TV and online only.
According to a letter from the governing First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, all five sessions will be conducted at the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City, but the only people in the 20,000-capacity building will be general authorities, general officers and their spouses, musicians, choirs, technicians and “others ... as assigned." Members of the public “will not be admitted.”
Plus, in “areas where the contagion is a concern,” conference will not be televised in church meetinghouses.
Church President Russell M. Nelson vowed in October that April’s General Conference “will be different from any previous conference.”
Latter-day Saints will celebrate the bicentennial of church 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.
In a November letter, the First Presidency wrote, “We look forward to commemorating with members of the church the 200th anniversary of the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ at this historic conference and throughout the year 2020.” M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, traveled to New York in November to make preparations for the bicentennial of the First Vision, which took place in upstate New York.
[Read more: Downtown Salt Lake City restaurants just lost a lot of money with ban on public LDS conference attendance]
Besides next month’s General Conference shake-up, pending stake conferences — regional meetings which gather members of multiple congregations that typically draw 500 or more people — have been canceled in Utah and across the United States and Canada. The “temporary adjustments" will take hold March 16.
Such meetings already had been discontinued in areas hardest hit by COVID-19, including Asia and Europe.
“Large gatherings in other areas of the world may continue as usual,” a Wednesday news release said, “unless directed otherwise by area presidencies, who counsel with their leaders.”
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and his lieutenant governor, Spencer Cox, who heads the state’s COVID-19 Community Task Force, praised the church’s “prudent” steps and urged other organizations to consider shifting their routines.
“These adaptations will vary greatly depending on the scale and scope of events and daily operations,” they wrote in a news release. "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has made wise decisions that will help minimize exposure to the virus, while simultaneously allowing church members to participate in meetings that are important to their worship.”
This will mark the first time in decades that the faith has held its twice-yearly General Conference without members of the public in attendance, but it won’t be the first time one has been affected by an epidemic.
In 1919, a deadly Spanish flu outbreak forced postponement of the April 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 1919 conference to June.
Four decades later, another flu scare canceled the October 1957 sessions.
“During World War II, General Conference was confined to church leaders only as wartime travel restrictions impacted members,” a church history notes. “The Tabernacle was actually closed during this time frame; the leadership meetings were held in the Assembly Hall, also on Temple Square.”
Granted, those limits were “not as restrictive as this,” Mormon historian Ardis E. Parshall said, "but try telling that to people who wanted to come even from walking distance, but who could not.”
For the vast majority of the world’s 16.3 million Latter-day Saints, General Conference — which typically draws about 100,000 people over two days to downtown Salt Lake City — "is already a virtual experience,” said historian Matt Bowman, head of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California.
The ritual of believers gathering on Temple Square to attend the meeting, or lying about on the grass, listening to the speeches on loudspeakers suggests “a Utah-centric, multigenerational, small-scale church,” Bowman, author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith,” said Wednesday. “That is fading.”
It would take a global pandemic like this one to indicate that era is over, he said. “Digital conferences will be more and more the reality for the church as a whole going forward.”
The closing of the faith’s iconic Salt Lake Temple for four years of major renovation work and next month’s virtual conference, Bowman said, point to the “decline of a church closely identified with the Mormon cultural region — Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada and Arizona.”
The spreading coronavirus is now hampering Latter-day Saint missionary and temple work — along with worship services — across the globe.
For instance, the church announced in a separate news release Wednesday that missionaries scheduled to enter the flagship Missionary Training Center in Provo and an MTC in Preston, England, won’t do so.
As of March 16, those new missionaries will be “trained remotely by videoconference.”
Other MTCs — there are 10 around the globe — will “continue to function as usual,” but missionaries from “regions where government officials are restricting activity” will also be trained via video.
"We believe this temporary virtual training program will help to prepare missionaries for the field while minimizing risks related to communicable disease,” the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote. Individual missionaries will receive “specific information” about their assignments as their starting dates approach. Once they complete online training, they will head directly to their missions.
Arwen Taylor, an assistant professor of English and world languages at Arkansas Tech University, is skeptical that online classes for missionaries will be very effective.
“You can do some online learning, like memorizing vocabulary,” said Taylor, who served a Latter-day Saint mission to Sweden, “but for language acquisition, you need engaged feedback and someone modeling the correct pronunciation for you.”
At the MTC, missionaries are in a structured environment, with small classes of young people learning the same language, and then studying together, dining together and living together, Taylor said. “You have immediate community support and people to practice with you.”
Learning online, she said, “will definitely be a loss.”
As for full-time proselytizing, cutbacks and curtailments already have been imposed in multiple nations, including South Korea, Japan, Italy, Mongolia, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore and Hong Kong.
Latter-day Saint temples have been closed in Rome; Seattle; Boston; Manhattan; Louisville, Ky; Fukuoka and Sapporo, Japan; Seoul, South Korea; Taipei, Taiwan; Copenhagen, Denmark; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Asunción, Paraguay. Temples in Hong Kong and Tokyo had previously been shut down for renovation.
Temples, often served by retired couples, include religious rituals that require hand touching. The Beehive State has 15 currently operating, with two closed for renovation and plans to build six more.
As to the General Conference change, church authorities wrote in a release that they are “deeply concerned about the global spreading of illness caused by COVID-19,” and made the decision about barring public attendance after consulting “worldwide governmental, ecclesiastical and medical leaders.”
“We want to be good global citizens and do what we can to control this contagious illness," they said. "We are most grateful for the many who are working tirelessly to address this health hazard. We pray for them and for all who may be suffering.”
Two weeks ago, Latter-day Saint leaders announced that global leadership sessions scheduled to take place in Utah in the days preceding the April conference had been postponed until October. And it discouraged leaders and members who live outside the United States from traveling to Salt Lake City for the meetings.
Regular worship services have been suspended in Seattle, Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia and parts of the United Kingdom.
Members in Utah and elsewhere are asking about the possible temporary discontinuation of other worship services, which include a sacrament (communion) ceremony in which pieces of bread are torn into small bites and then carried on trays from person to person down a pew. Water is dispersed the same way down pews in tiny plastic cups, with each person touching the tray handle.
While these Sunday services generally are still operating, there are ways to decrease the likelihood of spreading any germs, Latter-day Saint blogger Sam Brunson wrote on bycommonconsent.com.
“We should ensure that those dealing with the sacrament bread are not sick,” he wrote last month as the pandemic was beginning. “There’s nothing embarrassing about sitting it out when you’ve got a sniffle (or, even, staying home, both to recover and to protect your fellow saints from your illness).”
Church headquarters has sent out instructions that the male priesthood holders who bless and break the sacrament wash their hands before doing so, but, Brunson said, local lay leaders should assure that they do wash their hands “with soap and water.”
Or even, he said, wear food service gloves.
Of course, that does nothing to prevent children and adults from touching the bread.
Leaders could “emphasize that there’s no shame in not taking the sacrament every week,” Brunson argued. Or “make it even more symbolic, and participate in the sacrament without actually using bread and water.”
The Chicago tax law professor is “not a big fan” of a virtual sacrament but acknowledged “this solution would undoubtedly be the most sanitary and the least likely to transmit coronavirus, influenza, or any other disease through the sacrament.”
Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist and the Utah Department of Health’s point person on the coronavirus, said department officials discussed the church’s decision to close off General Conference, but did not give specific recommendations. When it comes to mass gatherings — be they religious organizations, business conferences or sporting events — Dunn said, “if they’re able to hold business as usual with minimal disruption, we definitely support them in their decision to alter the way they do business. Those decisions are based at the organizational level.”
Late Wednesday, the LDS Church Educational System, which oversees the faith’s colleges, seminaries and institutes, imposed a ban on “large events such as commencements, convocations, devotionals, conferences, public lectures, performances and concerts.”
“These events may be canceled, streamed or recorded and posted for on-demand use, as determined by leadership at each institution,” a news release said. Brigham Young University’s spring commencement has been canceled, for instance, and the school "will make decisions regarding athletic events.”
Daily seminary and institute classes, providing religious instruction for teenagers and college students, will follow the decisions of local congregations and those of local high schools or college campuses.
General conference will be on television:
• KSL-Channel 5 in Utah and parts of surrounding states, both over the air and on cable and satellite systems (in English).
• BYUtv, which is carried over the air in Utah and parts of surrounding states on Channel 11 and is available on many cable and satellite systems in Utah and across the country (in English).
• Latter-day Saints Channel is available on Roku, Apple TV, Fire TV and Android TV (in multiple languages).
General conference will be carried online at:
• BYUtv.org (in multiple languages).
• Church YouTube Channel (in English).
• ChurchofJesusChrist.org (in multiple languages).
• Latter-day Saints Channel (in multiple languages).
Tribune reporter Sean P. Means contributed to this story.