As the COVID-19 pandemic forced a digital-only General Conference, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints repeatedly said Saturday that the gospel has answers to help people find peace now and during challenging times in the future.
They said many of those lessons emerge from church founder Joseph Smith’s “First Vision,” in which he reported seeing God the Father and Jesus Christ. The conference is celebrating the 200th anniversary of that event, which gave birth to the Mormon movement, and leaders announced that a global “solemn assembly” with a “Hosanna Shout” ritual would be held Sunday to honor it.
With no public attendance permitted for this spring’s sessions, the downtown Salt Lake City Conference Center, usually packed with 20,000 people inside and bolstered by a hive of activity outside, was eerily quiet Saturday.
Even so, little was said in the morning and afternoon sessions about how the coronavirus crisis has upended church operations. Sunday services globally have been canceled. All Latter-day Saint temples worldwide have been closed. Thousands of missionaries have been sent home, released or reassigned. But speaking from a small auditorium in the Church Office Building, and with only a handful of people present, church President Russell M. Nelson urged spiritual preparation for the challenges of life.
“Though today’s restrictions relate to a virulent virus, life’s personal trials stretch far beyond this pandemic. Future trials could result from an accident, a natural disaster or an unexpected heartache,” he said. “How can we endure such trials? ... Of course, we can store our own reserves of food, water and savings. But equally crucial is our need to fill our spiritual storehouses with faith, truth and testimony.”
The 95-year-old leader, whom members view as a “prophet, seer and revelator," said such spiritual preparation is part of the ultimate quest in life for people to prepare to meet their maker.
“We do this by striving to become more like our Savior, Jesus Christ,” he said. As people do that “we can feel enduring peace and joy, even during turbulent times.”
Nelson said that when the Father and Son first appeared to Joseph Smith in 1820, the youngster said the Father pointed to Jesus and said, “Hear him” — and that’s a message also needed now.
Nelson said this conference is designed to help people hear Christ with “messages that will bring peace to your soul, messages that will heal your broken heart … messages that will help you know what to do as you move ahead through times of turmoil and trial.”
Nelson, who has posted two recent videos on social media addressing the coronavirus, also joked that when he promised last October that this conference would be “memorable and unforgettable,“ little did he know that "speaking to a visible congregation of fewer than 10 people would make this conference so memorable and unforgettable for me!”
Other leaders also said that Joseph Smith’s experience helps show ways to find peace and joy.
Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the church’s governing First Presidency, said that faithful and powerful prayer such as that by Smith is needed to help guide through upcoming challenging times.
Christ “will lift each of us," he said, "so we may rise to spiritual challenges and opportunities unlike any seen in the history of the world” with the help of such heavenly pleadings.
Eyring said Smith gave an example when he prayed in faith believing that God would answer him, despite what he described as a powerful attempt by the devil to stop him.
“Joseph had faith in Christ to go into the grove and also to pray for release from the powers of Satan. He had not yet seen the Father and the Son, but he prayed in faith with all the energy of his heart,” Eyring said. “ ... Such prayer, offered in faith in Jesus Christ, ushered in this last dispensation. And it will be at the heart of the part each of us will play in its continuing unfolding."
M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the faith’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, reviewed details of Smith’s appeal to God — and how it shows that many of life’s answers come only through prayer. Weaving together four accounts of the First Vision, the 91-year-old senior apostle described Smith seeing God and Jesus and of being told not to join any of the current churches.
“Joseph came to realize that the Bible did not contain all the answers to life’s questions; rather, it taught men and women how they could find answers to their questions by communicating directly with God through prayer,” Ballard said. “...Joseph also began to learn what ancient prophets experienced — rejection, opposition and persecution.”
Smith engaged his family, especially his brother Hyrum, in launching the church. They faced opposition together and were killed by a mob in Carthage, Ill., in 1844.
Ballard has wondered, he said Saturday, why Joseph and Hyrum and their families had to suffer so much.
“It may be that they came to know God through their suffering in ways that could not have happened without it,” the apostle said. “Through it, they reflected on Gethsemane and the cross of the Savior.”
‘Embrace your sacred memories'
Apostle Neil L. Andersen said that recording and treasuring spiritual experiences — as Smith did with his vision — will help people pass through troubling times.
“In our moments of difficulty," he added, “the Savior brings these experiences into our mind.”
He said that when difficulty, doubt and discouragement come or “when world conditions beyond our control lead us to wonder about the future,” such spiritual memories can brighten the road ahead.
“Embrace your sacred memories. Believe them. Write them down. Share them with your family," he counseled. " ... I promise you that as you willingly acknowledge and carefully treasure the spiritually defining events in your life, more and more will come to you."
The Book of Mormon, the church’s foundational text, was produced by a series of miracles, apostle Ulisses Soares said, and another personal miracle awaits for those who read it and pray to know whether its teachings are true.
"The historical facts and the special witnesses of the Book of Mormon testify that its coming forth was indeed miraculous,” the Brazilian native said. “Nevertheless, the power of this book is not based only on its magnificent history but on its powerful, unparalleled message that has changed countless lives — including mine!”
Soares said Joseph Smith was led by an angel to buried ancient gold plates that contained a history of followers of Christ in America. By another miracle, he said, the young man was able to translate them. By another miracle, 11 witnesses were shown the plates, three of them by an angel, and never denied that testimony even though some left the faith.
The apostle promised to those who read and ponder the book and pray about its truthfulness that God “will give you the answer in a very personal way as he has done for me and many others around the world. Your experience will be as glorious and sacred for you as Joseph Smith’s experiences were for him.”
The church’s presiding bishop, Gérald Caussé, also said the central message of the Book of Mormon “is to restore the true knowledge of the essential role of Jesus Christ in the salvation of mankind.”
The church, he noted, often places in its visitor centers copies of a statue of Christ by Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen because it “presents the living Christ, who gained victory over death and, with open arms, invites all to come unto him.”
The Book of Mormon has the same central message, he said, which “is to restore the true knowledge of the essential role of Jesus Christ in the salvation of mankind.”
Caussé, the ecclesiastical leader who oversees the Utah-based faith’s vast financial, real estate, investment and charitable operations, has been a point person in the recent controversy over the church’s reported $100 billion “rainy day” fund.
He did not address those financial issues in his faith-centered sermon.
General authority Seventy James R. Rasband said the Book of Mormon gives especially powerful and authoritative understanding about the atonement of Christ not only to forgive sin but also to heal its effects even on others.
“As any parent can testify," he said, “the pain associated with our mistakes is not simply the fear of our own punishment but the fear that we may have limited our children’s joy or in some way hindered them from seeing and understanding the truth.”
Rasband said the glorious promise of Christ’s atoning sacrifice is that “as far as our mistakes as parents are concerned, he holds our children blameless and promises healing for them. And even when they have sinned against the light — as we all do — his arm of mercy is outstretched and he will redeem them if they will but look to him and live.”
The Book of Mormon offers prescriptions to improve our lives from the master physician, Jesus Christ, said general authority Seventy Benjamin M. Z. Tai.
“Through his Atonement, he binds up our wounds, takes upon himself our infirmities and heals our broken hearts,” said Tai, who was born in Hong Kong. “ ... He has promised to help us in this lifelong process of conversion, which transforms us and brings everlasting joy.”
‘Sisters, it is our turn’
President Joy D. Jones, who oversees the church’s Primary organization for children, addressed the role of women in the church’s history.
She noted that in the faith’s early Relief Society, established 178 years ago, founder Smith urged the women to “live up to [their] privileges.”
Their example lives on today, said Jones, the first woman to speak at this conference.
“They unitedly followed a prophet’s voice and lived with steadfast faith in Jesus Christ as they helped lay the foundation we now stand upon.” Jones told the women. “Sisters, it is our turn. We have a divine errand from the Lord, and our faithful, unique contributions are vital.”
The role of women, she said, is to receive continuing revelation.
Jones acknowledged that when she was younger, she didn’t realize that, as a woman, she had access “to the power of the priesthood.” (Only men and male youths are ordained to priesthood offices in the faith.)
It comes, she said, “through covenants, made first in the waters of baptism and then within the walls of holy temples.”
Don’t try to do everything at once, she cautioned. That is impossible.
“The Spirit helps us determine,” she said, “which work to focus on today.”
A woman’s “preeminent role” is to “hear [God], to follow him, to trust him,” she said, “and to become an extension of his love.”
Apostle Dale G. Renlund urged listeners to “consider the sacrifice, generosity and compassion of the givers” who have provided sacrifices for them, whenever they “use, benefit from, or even think of these gifts.”
The former cardiologist told the story of Thomas Nielson, who needed a heart transplant. A donor heart became available from his grandson, who was killed in a auto accident. At first he refused it, but came to understand through prayer that his desire for a heart had not caused the accident.
The grandson’s heart was “a gift that could bless Tom in his time of need,” the apostle said. “They recognized that something good might come out of this tragedy and decided to proceed.”
Like Tom, all people have received gifts “that we could not provide for ourselves, gifts from our Heavenly Father and his beloved son, including redemption through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ,” Renlund said. “We have received life in this world; we will receive physical life in the hereafter, and eternal salvation and exaltation — if we choose it — all because of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.”
Give your life a ‘seismic upgrade’
Apostle Gary E. Stevenson said that the ongoing renovation of the Salt Lake Temple to protect it from earthquakes is a metaphor for faith.
He asked listeners, “How could this extensive renewal of the Salt Lake Temple inspire us to undergo our own spiritual renewal, reconstruction, rebirth, revitalization or restoration?”
Believers might discover that their faith needs “some maintenance and renovation work,” Stevenson said, “even a seismic upgrade.”
The Salt Lake Temple was rocked last month, along with much of northern Utah, by a magnitude 5.7 earthquake that knocked the trumpet out of the Angel Moroni statue’s hand and displaced some spire stones.
“During the coming years," Stevenson said, "may we allow these improvements made to the Salt Lake Temple to move and inspire us, as individuals and families, so that we too — metaphorically — will be built in a manner that will endure the millennium.”
Christ’s followers will not be “spared challenges and trials,” said general authority Seventy John A. McCune. “We are often required to do difficult things that if attempted alone would be overwhelming and maybe impossible."
He told about how his own son suffered a serious injury, and he was not sure if he would survive. He said prayer helped his family gain an assurance that whatever happened would be God’s will and would work to their good in the long run.
The young man survived but had an arduous journey back to health.
“Challenges remain, but over time we have witnessed a miracle,” the Seventy said. “We understand clearly that not every trial we face will have a result we wish for. However, as we remain focused on Christ, we will feel peace and see God’s miracles, whatever they may be, in his time and in his way.”
Nelson, the church president, also announced that at the end of the Sunday morning session, “we will convene a worldwide solemn assembly when I will lead you in the sacred ‘Hosanna Shout.’ We pray that this will be a spiritual highlight for you as we express in global unison our profound gratitude to God the Father and his beloved son by praising them in this unique way.”
Solemn assemblies are special, sacred meetings held for a variety of holy purposes, such as dedicating new Latter-day Saint temples. This time, it will honor deity as an important symbol as the church celebrates the 200th anniversary of Smith’s First Vision.
Participants in the Hosanna Shout typically wave a white handkerchief — “if you do not have one,” Nelson said, “you may simply wave your hand” — while reciting three times the phrase: “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna to God and the Lamb; Amen, Amen and Amen!”