For months, church President Russell M. Nelson has been promising Latter-day Saints that the faith’s April General Conference would be different than anything they had experienced before.
Exciting and memorable.
Indeed, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ twice-yearly gathering that got underway Saturday in downtown Salt Lake City was unlike any previous conference in recent memory — but not for the reasons Nelson anticipated.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the man considered a “prophet, seer and revelator” to 16.5 million members worldwide addressed only a camera in a small auditorium rather than a crowded Conference Center audience.
Still, in the evening session, the 95-year-old Nelson made some dramatic announcements by introducing a new symbol of the faith, which includes an image of the Christus statue, and calling on the world to join in a pre-Easter fast on April 10 to seek relief from COVID-19.
By fasting together, he said, people would pray that the coronavirus pandemic “may be controlled, caregivers protected, the economy strengthened and life normalized.” Good Friday, Nelson said, “would be the perfect day” to have God hear those pleas.
During times of “deep distress,” he said, “the most natural thing for us to do is to call upon our Heavenly Father and his son — the master healer — to show forth their marvelous power to bless the people of the earth.”
This marks the second such fast that Nelson has led.
The Latter-day Saint authority also unveiled a new symbol for the worldwide church — in a continuation of his efforts to emphasize the faith’s full name and steer members, media, scholars and others away from using shortened terms such as “Mormon” and “LDS.”
“We have gone to these extraordinary efforts because when we remove the Lord’s name from the name of his church, we inadvertently remove him as the central focus of our worship and our lives,” Nelson said. “When we take the Savior’s name upon us at baptism, we commit to witness, by our words, thoughts and actions, that Jesus is the Christ.”
In the new symbol, or logo, the church’s name is contained within a rectangular shape that represents a cornerstone, alluding to the biblical notion, advanced by the Apostle Paul, that the faith is built upon the foundation of apostles and prophets with Jesus as the chief cornerstone.
The center of the symbol is a representation of Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen’s marble statue, the Christus. The resurrected Jesus stands under an arch as a reminder of his emergence from the tomb three days after his death.
“The symbol will now be used as a visual identifier for official literature, news and events of the church,” Nelson said. “It will remind all that this is the Savior’s church and that all we do, as members of his church, centers on Jesus Christ and his gospel.”
The conference was unusual in another way: Two teens were invited to speak during the evening session, which was for both genders ages 11 and up, unlike the traditional priesthood or women’s meetings.
Laudy Ruth Kaouk, a 17-year-old member of a Spanish congregation in Provo, talked about receiving priesthood blessings.
“God is cheering for us. He wants us to return to him. He knows us personally. He knows you. He loves us,” Laudy said. “He is always aware of us and blesses us even when we feel we don’t deserve it. He knows what we need and when we need it.”
Enzo Serge Petelo, also of Provo, spoke about the faith’s understanding of priesthood power as well.
“Our service in and with his priesthood brings together those who are dedicated to following and living the Lord’s teachings with exactness, which I personally know can be difficult as we face the challenges of youth,” the 15-year-old Enzo said. “...You can be a beacon of light to all those who are unsure of themselves. The light within you will shine so bright that everyone you interact with will be blessed by just being in your company.”
Young people have spoken before in General Conference, in, for example, 1982, 1983 and 1997.
Both Jean B. Bingham, president of the women’s Relief Society and Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the governing First Presidency, explored the role of women and the priesthood.
In Mormonism’s early days, church founder Joseph Smith helped create a new organization for women that was, Bingham said, “unlike other women’s societies of the day because it was established by a prophet who acted with priesthood authority to give women authority, sacred responsibilities, and official positions within the structure of the church, not apart from it.”
Recently, members have been taught “that women who are set apart under the direction of one holding priesthood keys operate with priesthood authority in their callings,” Bingham said. “... Although women are not ordained to a priesthood office ... women are blessed with priesthood power as they keep their covenants and they operate with priesthood authority when they are set apart to a calling.”
Becoming more in tune with “the divine pattern of working together in unity is critical in this day of ‘me-first’ messages that surround us,” she said. “Women do possess distinctive, divine gifts and are given unique responsibilities, but those are not more — or less — important than men’s gifts and responsibilities. All are designed and needed to bring about Heavenly Father’s divine plan to give each of his children the best opportunity to fulfill his or her divine potential.”
Oaks looked at the way priesthood operates — or should operate — in the home.
“A father presides and exercises the priesthood in his family by the authority of the priesthood he holds,” Oaks said. His obligations include “counseling the members of his family, holding family meetings, giving priesthood blessings to his wife and children, or giving healing blessings to family members or others.”
Fathers should “exercise their authority,” Oaks said, citing Latter-day Saint scripture, “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.”
The same principle applies “when a father is absent and a mother is the family leader,” Oaks said. “She presides in her home and is instrumental in bringing the power and blessings of the priesthood into her family through her endowment and sealing in the temple.”
Though women are not authorized to give priesthood blessings — only men can hold offices in the priesthood — she can “perform all of the other functions of family leadership,” Oaks said. “In doing so she exercises the power of the priesthood for the benefit of the children over whom she presides in her position of leadership in the family.”