The all-virtual 190th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints got underway Saturday, with 96-year-old President Russell M. Nelson declaring that the “work of the Lord is steadily moving forward” despite a global pandemic that has halted Sunday services, disrupted missionary work and temporarily closed temples.
“Amid social distancing, face masks, and Zoom meetings, we have learned to do some things differently, and some even more effectively,” he said. “Unusual times can bring unusual rewards.”
Nelson addressed believers — watching online or on TV — from a theater in downtown Salt Lake City’s massive Conference Center, which is usually packed with 20,000 worshippers during these sessions.
For the second time, though, conference is an all-virtual event, with no public attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first one was in April.
The conference is taking place under the direction of Nelson, considered a “prophet, seer and revelator” in the 16.5 million-member global faith.
Henry B. Eyring, Nelson’s second counselor in the governing First Presidency, conducted the opening session of the two-day gathering. Seated around him, socially distanced and wearing masks, were Nelson and his first counselor, Dallin H. Oaks, along with members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Speakers removed their masks when they gave their sermons. The microphone and podium were not scrubbed down with disinfecting wipes between talks.
Patrick Kearon, a member of the faith’s Presidency of the Seventy, offered the invocation, pleading with God for an end to the pandemic, seeking heaven’s blessings on those who are ill or grieving, and urging a return to civility in public life.
7:30 p.m.: Life with God brings peace, Nelson says
In the final speech of the evening’s women’s session, President Russell M. Nelson discussed being prepared for trials — physically, emotionally and spiritually.
First, he urged members to create “places of security,” including making their home a “personal sanctuary of faith.”
The temple — which Latter-day Saints believe is “the House of the Lord” — is a “place of security unlike any other,” Nelson said. “There, you sisters are endowed with priesthood power through the sacred priesthood covenants you make.”
The “ultimate security,” he said, “comes as we yoke ourselves to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.”
Life without God “is a life filled with fear,” the president said. “Life with God is a life filled with peace.”
He was not saying “the days ahead will be easy,” Nelson said, “but I promise you that the future will be glorious for those who are prepared, and who continue to prepare to be instruments in the Lord’s hands.”
7:10 p.m.: Be of good cheer amid adversity, Oaks counsels
Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the governing First Presidency, urged his female listeners to “be of good cheer” no matter what trials they face.
Mortal adversities “come to us in common with many others, like the millions now struggling through some of the many devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Oaks said. “Similarly, in the United States millions are suffering through a season of enmity and contention that always seems to accompany presidential elections, but this time is the most severe many of the oldest of us can ever remember.”
Each person “struggles individually with some of the many adversities of mortality, such as poverty, racism, ill health, job losses or disappointments, wayward children, bad marriages or no marriages, and the effects of sin,” he said, " — our own or others."
Yet, amid troubles, Oaks said, “we have that heavenly counsel to be of good cheer and to find joy in the principles and promises of the gospel and the fruits of our labors.”
6:45 p.m.: Women are key to preparing for Christ’s return, Eyring says
Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the governing First Presidency, described women’s role in the Second Coming.
“As the beloved daughters of Heavenly Father, and as the daughters of the Lord Jesus Christ in his kingdom, you will play a crucial part in the grand times ahead,” Eyring said. “We know that the Savior will come to a people who have been gathered …[and are ] united in faith in Jesus Christ.”
Latter-day Saint women — sisters, daughters, granddaughters “and the women you have nurtured,” he said, “will be at the heart of creating that society of people who will join in glorious association with the Savior. You will be an essential force in the gathering of Israel and in the creation of a Zion people who will dwell in peace in the New Jerusalem.”
When Jesus comes again, Eyring said, “the daughters who are deeply committed to their covenants with God will be more than half of those who are prepared to welcome him when he comes. But whatever the numbers, your contribution in creating unity among the people prepared for that Zion will be far greater than half.”
6:30 p.m.: Jesus heals our brokenness, says Primary leader
Cristina B. Franco, second counselor in the general presidency of the children’s Primary, discussed the healing power of Jesus Christ.
She told about getting a new piano that fell off a hand truck during delivery and was damaged. The manager offered to give Franco and her husband, Rudy, a new piano, but Rudy would not hear of it. He wanted the broken one back.
“Sisters and brothers, aren’t we all like this piano, a little broken, cracked and damaged, feeling like we will never be the same again?” Franco asked.
But Jesus Christ can “heal brokenness,” when people have faith, repent and seek him, she said. These believers will be “mended and made whole.”
6:20 p.m.: Change for the better, says Young Women leader
Rebecca M. Craven, second counselor in the general presidency of the Young Women organization for girls starting at age 11, addressed the possibility of individual change.
“Jesus Christ has given us a continuous pattern for change,” Craven said. “He invites us to exercise faith in him which inspires us to repent... As we repent and turn our hearts to him, we gain a greater desire to make and live sacred covenants. We endure to the end by continuing to apply these principles throughout our lives and inviting the Lord to change us.”
Enduring to the end “means changing to the end,” she said. “I now understand that I am not starting over with each failed attempt, but that, with each try, I am continuing my process of change.”
6:15 p.m.: We can build Zion, says Relief Society leader
Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the all-female Relief Society’s general presidency, spoke about building a unified Zion society.
“The change we seek in ourselves and in the groups we belong to will come less by activism and more by actively trying every day to understand one another,” said Eubank, who also is president of Latter-day Saint Charities, the church’s humanitarian arm. “Why? Because we are building Zion — a people ‘of one heart and one mind.’”
She urged the women to be “part of a collective force that changes the world for good,” she said. “Our covenantal assignment is to minister, to lift up the hands that hang down, to put struggling people on our backs or in our arms and carry them. It isn’t complicated to know what to do, but it often goes against our selfish interests and we have to try.”
Latter-day Saint women, she said, “have power to remove prejudice and build unity” and “unlimited potential to change society.”
3:45 p.m.: God will be there for us, Uchtdorf says
In Saturday afternoon’s concluding talk, apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf acknowledged the suffering caused by the pandemic, then echoed Nelson’s optimism about the future.
“I doubt there is a person who hears my voice or reads my words who has not been affected by the worldwide pandemic,” he said. “To those who mourn the loss of family and friends, we mourn with you. We plead with Heavenly Father to comfort and console you.”
Beyond that, he said, “Many families have lost incomes and are threatened with hunger, uncertainty and apprehension. We admire the selfless efforts of so many to prevent the spread of this disease. We are humbled by the quiet sacrifice and noble efforts of those who have risked their own safety to assist, heal and support people in need.”
The church leader noted that much remains unknown about the virus.
“But if there is one thing I do know, this virus did not catch Heavenly Father by surprise,” he said. “He did not have to muster additional battalions of angels, call emergency meetings, or divert resources from the world-creation division to handle an unexpected need.”
Even though COVID-19 “is not what we wanted or expected,” Uchtdorf said, “God has prepared his children and his church for this time.”
Latter-day Saints will “move forward,” he said, “and we will be better as a result. ...Our best days are ahead of us, not behind us.”
That does not mean, however, that there won’t be “turbulence in our flight through mortality,” said Uchtdorf, a former airplane pilot. “It doesn’t mean there won’t be unexpected instrument failures, mechanical malfunctions and serious weather challenges. In fact, things might get worse before they get better.”
God never promised that the righteous would have a “free pass that allows them to avoid the valleys of shadow,” he said. “We all must walk through difficult times, for it is in these times of adversity that we learn principles that fortify our characters and cause us to draw closer to God.”
But the Almighty will be with those who suffer, Uchtdorf said, “Because we are his children, he will not abandon us.”
3:30 p.m.: Join the culture of Christ, says Seventy
William K. Jackson, a general authority Seventy, encouraged the world to join what he called the culture of Christ — which he said would end disputes among other cultures.
“Most of our world’s problems are a direct result of clashes between those of differing ideas and customs arising from their culture,” he said. “But virtually all conflict and chaos would quickly fade if the world would only accept its 'original culture,” which he insisted God’s children enjoyed before birth in his presence.
He said Christ’s culture “espouses the concept of equal worth. There is no recognition of caste or class. We are, after all, brothers and sisters, spirit children of our Heavenly Parents — literally.”
Jackson added, “There is no prejudice or ‘us versus them’ mentality in the ‘greatest of all cultures.’ We are all ‘us.’ We are all ‘them.’ We believe that we are responsible and accountable for ourselves, each other, the church, and our world.”
He said joining Jesus' culture will require change and leaving behind parts of old cultures that are not Christ-like.
“We can, indeed, all cherish the best of our individual earthly cultures and still be full participants in the oldest culture of them all," Jackson said, “the eternal culture that comes from the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
3:20 p.m.: Christ brings healing, Seventy says
Matthew S. Holland, a Seventy and son of apostle Jeffrey R. Holland, spoke of suffering and righteousness.
“Sometimes exquisite pain comes not from sin but honest mistakes, the actions of others, or forces beyond our control,” he said. “...Regardless of the causes of our worst hurts and heartaches, the ultimate source of relief is the same: Jesus Christ. He alone holds the full power and healing balm to correct every mistake, right every wrong, adjust every imperfection, mend every wound, and deliver every delayed blessing.”
3:05 p.m.: Do what you can do, bishopric member says
Following prophets will help people prepare to handle future calamities — just like heeding advice in recent years to build a reserve of food and money helped many during the current pandemic, said W. Christopher Waddell, the newly named first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, which oversees the church’s vast financial, real estate, investment and charitable operations.
“Today we are blessed to be led by prophets who understand the need for us to prepare against the calamities ‘which should come,’ and who also recognize the limitations or restrictions that we may encounter in striving to follow their counsel,” he said.
Waddell — who was just elevated from being the second counselor in the presiding bishopric — said to all who have been affected by the pandemic, “We express understanding and concern for your situation, as well as a firm conviction that better days are ahead.”
He added, “In an ever-changing world, we must prepare for uncertainties. Even with better days ahead, we know the temporal peaks and valleys of mortality will continue. As we seek to become temporally prepared, we can face the trials of life with increased confidence.”
Waddell counseled caution during the current pandemic about trying to build new financial or food reserves too quickly.
“It would be inconsistent with a compassionate Savior to ignore the reality that many are struggling, and ask them to begin building a reserve of food and money for the future,” he said. “The Lord does not expect us to do more than we can do, but he does expect us to do what we can do… when we can do it.”
2:45 p.m.: Gong points to church’s miraculous growth
Apostle Gerrit W. Gong spoke Saturday afternoon about the church expanding across the world in a prerecorded address because he was “potentially exposed” to COVID-19.
The 66-year-old Chinese American “is feeling well,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a news release, “but out of an abundance of caution is participating in General Conference from home this weekend.”
Gong, the faith’s first Asian American apostle, declared that “God’s love for all people is affirmed throughout scripture. "In the household of faith, there are to be no strangers, no foreigners, no rich and poor, no outside ‘others.’”
Latter-day Saints are “invited to change the world for the better, from the inside out, one person, one family, one neighborhood at a time,” Gong said. “This happens when we live and share the gospel.”
The church has grown dramatically since its beginnings in upstate New York in the 1800s.
Members now live in “196 nations and territories, with 3,446 church stakes [regional groups] in 90 of them,” he said. “We represent both geographic breadth and centers of strength. In 1823, who would have imagined that, in 2020, there would be three countries each with more than a million members of this church — the United States, Mexico and Brazil? Or 23 countries, each with more than 100,000 members of the church — three in North America, 14 in Central and South America, one in Europe, four in Asia, and one in Africa?”
Heavenly Father “invites us everywhere to feel his love, to learn and grow through education, honorable work, self-reliant service, and patterns of goodness and happiness we find in his restored church,” Gong said. “...We need God’s help to create lasting justice, equality, fairness and peace in our homes and communities. Our truest, deepest, most authentic narrative, place and belonging come when we feel God’s redeeming love, seek grace and miracle through his son’s atonement.”
2:30 p.m.: Find joy by serving others, youths urged
The surest way to find joy in Christ is to join him by helping others — especially when it may be difficult during the pandemic, said President Steven J. Lund, who oversees the church’s Young Men organization.
“Our youth cannot wait for the world to right itself before they come to know the Savior,” he said. “Some are making decisions even now that they would not make if they understood their true identities — and [Christ’s].”
To show how serving even when it may be difficult brings blessings, Lund talked about his 12-year-old son, who was dying of cancer but decided to go to church to help pass the sacrament, or communion. His mother suggested that maybe he should rest and that someone else could do it for him.
“Yes, but … I see how people look at me when I pass the sacrament. I think it helps them,” Lund said. His father said everyone watched him, and his service amounted to a silent sermon.
Lund said the church’s programs for youths are designed to help them set goals and serve. “If your youth are struggling, Children and Youth [the name of the church program that took effect this year] will help bring them to the Savior, and the Savior will bring them peace.”
He added, “The urgent call from God’s battalions in fateful training is for: ‘All hands on deck.’”
2:15 p.m.: Christofferson says family, faith at center of successful societies
Apostle D. Todd Christofferson explored the idea: What does it take to sustain a flourishing society, “one that promotes happiness, progress, peace and well-being among its members?”
The institutions of family and religion are “crucial,” he said, “for endowing both individuals and communities with the virtues that sustain an enduring society.”
These virtues, he said, “include integrity, responsibility and accountability, compassion, marriage and fidelity in marriage, respect for others and the property of others, service, and the necessity and dignity of work, among others.”
On the other hand, Christofferson said, a society “in which individual consent is the only constraint on sexual activity is a society in decay.”
In such a society, “adultery, promiscuity, elective abortion and out-of-wedlock births are but some of the bitter fruits,” he said, “that grow out of the immorality sanctioned by the sexual revolution.”
The consequences that follow work against a healthy society include “growing numbers of children raised in poverty and without the positive influence of fathers, sometimes through multiple generations,” Christofferson said, “women bearing alone what should be shared responsibilities, and seriously deficient education as schools, like other institutions, are tasked to compensate for failure in the home.”
Latter-day Saints can help build a Zion society, he said, “if we, our families, and enough of our neighbors make our decisions and guide our lives by the truth of God.”
11:50 a.m.: Oaks takes on protests, racism and election disputes
In a sermon about loving your enemies, Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the governing First Presidency and a former Utah Supreme Court justice, called out racism in the church and in the United States as a whole.
As citizens and Latter-day Saints, “we must do better to help root out racism,” he said, adding that “this country should be better in eliminating racism, not only against Black Americans, who were most visible in the recent protests, but also against Latinos, Asians and other groups. This nation’s history of racism is not a happy one, and we must do better.”
Discussing the tensions over race this summer, Oaks supported peaceful protests, while condemning violence and looting, as well the need for obeying laws. And he condemned the threatened rejection of the results this year’s U.S. election.
“We will not participate in the violence threatened by those disappointed with the outcome,” he said. “In a democratic society, we always have the opportunity and the duty to persist peacefully until the next election.”
President Donald Trump, who currently is battling a COVID-19 infection, has come under fire for showing reluctance to accept the ballot counts from this fall’s race against his chief rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
In a pointed and topical talk, Oaks, who is next in line take over the church’s presidency, also tackled the issues of police violence and racism and the protests surrounding those subjects.
“Though Jesus’s teachings were revolutionary,” the 88-year-old church leader said, “he did not teach revolution or law-breaking. He taught a better way.”
Some seem to have forgotten that “the First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the ‘right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances,’” Oaks said Saturday morning. “That is the authorized way to raise public awareness and to focus on injustices in the content or administration of the laws.”
And, he acknowledged, “there have been injustices. In public actions and in our personal attitudes, we have had racism and related grievances.”
Still, Oaks did not offer unconditional support for police.
“This does not mean that we agree with all that is done with the force of law,” he said. “It means that we obey the current law and use peaceful means to change it.”
Oaks, who did not name any specific candidates or parties, specifically called out some of the current partisan bitterness that has sometimes crept into the church.
“We live in a time of anger and hatred in political relationships and policies. We felt it this summer where some went beyond peaceful protests and engaged in destructive behavior,” he said. “We feel it in some current campaigns for public offices. Some of this has even spilled over into political statements and unkind references in our church meetings.”
There will always be differences over proposed candidates and policies, he said. “However, as followers of Christ, we must forgo the anger and hatred with which political choices are debated or denounced in many settings.”
He urged his listeners to let go of anger, which sows “division and enmity,” but rather try to listen and even “learn from” their opponents.
11:40 a.m.: Be worthy to enter temples, Rasband urges members
The coronavirus pandemic may have temporarily closed many temples and suspended sacred ordinances performed in them, but apostle Ronald A. Rasband still urged church members to redouble their efforts to prepare to enter them.
“Being worthy to attend the temple, however, has not been suspended,” he said. “Let me emphasize, whether you have access to a temple or not, you need a current temple recommend to stay firmly on the covenant path.”
Members who follow key commandments are given by their leaders a “temple recommend,” a small card, that allows them to enter temples. Rasband says it is even more than that.
“Your temple recommend opens the gates of heaven for you,” Rasband said.
He told the story of his father-in-law who was nearing death. Rasband arrived just as the man’s bishop was leaving, and the father-in-law said he had requested an interview to obtain a temple recommend because, “I want to go recommended to the Lord.”
Rasband said he did.
The apostle urged members to “begin the process now to become ‘recommended to the Lord’ that his spirit will be with you in abundance and his standards will bring you ‘peace of conscience.’”
He said redoubling righteous efforts by obeying commandments, studying scriptures, doing family history research and praying will help Latter-day Saints “feel peace knowing you are ‘recommended to the Lord.’”
He encouraged those that do not have such recommends now to work on it and obtain them as soon as possible.
“If you have yet to receive a recommend or if your recommend has lapsed," Rasband said, “line up at the door of the Bishop.”
11:25 a.m.: Seek unity amid racial, political divisions, says Cook
In the wake of protests against racism and the rancor at the recent U.S. presidential debate, apostle Quentin L. Cook addressed modern-day polarization and the need for unity amid racial and political divisions.
“Unity is enhanced when people are treated with dignity and respect even though they are different in outward characteristics,” Cook said. “... Our faith teaches that we are all children of our Father in Heaven, and we worship him and his son, Jesus Christ, who is our Savior. Our desire is that our hearts and minds will be knit in righteousness and unity."
This is “a moment of particularly strong divisions,” Cook said. “However, the millions who have accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ have committed themselves to achieving both righteousness and unity. We are all aware that we can do better, and that is our challenge in this day. We can be a force to lift and bless society as a whole.”
The apostle quoted Nelson, who recently asked members “to demonstrate greater civility, racial and ethnic harmony, and mutual respect.”
He also repeated a passage from the Book of Mormon, the faith’s signature scripture, that says, “he denieth none that come unto him, Black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God."
Christ’s “ministry and message have consistently declared all races and colors are children of God,” Cook said. “...The culture of the gospel of Jesus Christ is ... not determined by the color of one’s skin or where one lives. While we rejoice in distinctive cultures, we should leave behind aspects of those cultures that conflict with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The “clarion call” to church members, he said, “is to strive to be a Zion people who are of one heart and one mind and dwell in righteousness.”
11 a.m.: See others as God sees them, says Young Women leader
During trying times, hope may be found by praying for God to open our eyes to see more of his power and plan for us, said Michelle D. Craig, first counselor in the Young Women general presidency.
The first woman to speak at this year’s conference retold the Bible story of a young servant of the ancient prophet Elisha who worried when they were surrounded by a vast army. Elisha told him to fear not, and the servant’s eyes were opened to a vision to see an even bigger heavenly army with them full of horses and chariots of fire.
“There may be times when you, like the servant, find yourself struggling to see how God is working in your life — times when you feel under siege — when the trials of mortality bring you to your knees,” she said." … You, too, can pray for the Lord to open your eyes to see things you would not normally see."
That includes seeing how God sees us so that we can also see others as he does. “Jesus Christ sees people deeply. He sees individuals, their needs, and who they can become,” she said. “Where others saw fishermen, sinners or publicans, Jesus saw disciples; where others saw a man possessed by devils, Jesus looked past the outward distress, acknowledged him and healed him.”
She said Jesus can help all see that way — “even when it’s hard, even when we’re tired, even when we’re lonely, and even when the outcomes are not as we hoped. Through his grace. He will bless us and increase our capacity.”
10:55 a.m.: Become like Christ ‘one step at a time,' says Seventy
General authority Scott D. Whiting of the Seventy discussed how mortals can develop Christlike attributes.
Becoming like Jesus, as he taught during his ministry, is the lens through which "lives should be lived, communications considered and relationships fostered,” Whiting said. “Truly, there is no other way to heal the wounds of broken relationships or of a fractured society than for each of us to more fully emulate the Prince of Peace.”
The Latter-day Saint leader described a process that begins with desire, he said, “a yearning to transform ourselves, one step at a time."
The next step is to focus on a single attribute, such as charity, obedience or faith, Whiting said. “You will need to commit to exerting meaningful effort. ...By focusing deeply on one needed attribute, as you progress in obtaining that attribute, other attributes begin to accrue to you.”
As people work on a single attribute they wish to develop, he said, they will begin to see it in others — inside and outside the church.
Still, Whiting cautioned listeners about getting discouraged.
“The commandment to be like [Christ] is not intended to make you feel guilty, unworthy or unloved,” he said. “Our entire mortal experience is about progression, trying, failing and succeeding.”
10:45 a.m.: Pandemic proves need to be prepared, Bednar says
The coronavirus pandemic is providing a test to help people learn and prove their faith in God, apostle David A. Bednar said.
For decades, Bednar was a university teacher and administrator, and said he saw that periodic tests are essential to learning — and help compare what we need to know with what we actually know.
“The year 2020 has been marked, in part, by a global pandemic that has proved, examined and tried us in many ways,” he said. “I pray that we as individuals and families are learning the valuable lessons that only challenging experiences can teach us.”
For example, when COVID-19 was spreading rapidly and after earthquakes had hit his home in Utah, Bednar said he and his wife decided to take an inventory of their food storage and emergency supplies.
“We learned a great deal. In many areas, our preparatory work was just right,” he said. “In some other areas, however, improvement was necessary because we had not recognized and addressed particular needs in timely ways.”
He said they were afraid to open some long-forgotten food containers “for fear of unleashing another global pandemic! But you should be happy to know that we properly disposed of the hazardous materials.”
Bednar urged such inspection of how prepared people are in all areas of life during the pandemic to prepare for future trials. “Just as challenging times reveal inadequacies in temporal preparedness, so, too, the maladies of spiritual complacency inflict their most detrimental effects during difficult trials.”
He added, “What do we need to improve in our lives spiritually, physically, socially, emotionally and intellectually? Now is the time to prepare and prove ourselves willing and able to do all things whatsoever the Lord our God shall command us.”
10:30 a.m.: Nelson notes nearly 900 pandemic relief projects
Latter-day Saint missionaries and leaders have been “resourceful, resilient and truly remarkable,” Nelson said, at finding “new, creative ways” to find converts. “... Many missions have reported doing more teaching than before.”
He noted the church “had to close temples for a time, and some construction projects were briefly delayed, but now they are all moving forward.” The faith has broken ground on 20 new temples this year.
Many new wards, or congregations, and stakes, which are regional clusters of congregations, have been created, he said, and the Utah-based church “has provided pandemic humanitarian aid for 895 projects in 150 countries.”
That outreach represents the largest-ever charitable effort in the faith’s 190-year history.
He urged members to use “this unique time to grow spiritually,” Nelson said. “We are here on earth to be tested, to see if we will choose to follow Jesus Christ, to repent regularly, to learn, and to progress.”