In the most pointed and potent condemnation of racism from the pulpit by a Latter-day Saint prophet in recent years, President Russell M. Nelson told members Sunday to listen up: God does not prefer one race over another.
“His doctrine on this matter is clear. He invites all to come unto him, ‘Black and white, bond and free, male and female,’” said the 96-year-old leader, revered as a “prophet, seer and revelator” by millions of Latter-day Saints across the globe. “I assure you that your standing before God is not determined by the color of your skin. Favor or disfavor with God is dependent upon your devotion to God and his commandments, and not the color of your skin.”
Nelson said he grieves that “our Black brothers and sisters the world over are enduring the pains of racism and prejudice.” “Today, I call upon our members everywhere to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice,” he added. “I plead with you to promote respect for all of God’s children.”
A day after addressing timely topics ranging from racism to the recession and politics to the pandemic, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints returned Sunday for the final two sessions of the faith’s 190th Semiannual General Conference.
The all-virtual gathering was broadcast around the world from a theater in downtown Salt Lake City’s Conference Center, with church leaders and other speakers wearing masks and social distancing.
In his closing speech in the afternoon, Nelson announced that the Utah-based faith would build six new temples, including one in Lindon, which will be the 25th in the Beehive State and the seventh existing or planned temple in Utah County.
Nelson was hardly the only authority this weekend to mention racism — his first counselor, Dallin H. Oaks, tackled the topic the day before — but his address was the most weighty by a church president at a General Conference since Gordon B. Hinckley said, in 2006, that no one who makes racial slurs or denigrating remarks can consider himself or herself a Christian.
Other speakers Sunday addressed the centrality of Jesus Christ to Latter-day Saint faith, turning to God in times of trouble, ways to resist temptation, the need for patience and the sin of self-righteousness. And, nearly every speaker in one way or another, mentioned the global pandemic.
Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland assured church members that the COVID-19 crisis will end — eventually.
“COVID and cancer, doubt and dismay, financial trouble and family trials. When will these burdens be lifted?” he asked with a sigh. “The answer is by and by.”
The 79-year-old Holland, who was briefly hospitalized in June for an undisclosed illness other than COVID-19, expressed frustration with the ongoing pandemic.
“We are so tired of this contagion that we feel like tearing our hair out. ... Everyone agrees that this has gone on much, much too long,” he said. “How long do we wait for relief from hardships that come upon us? What about enduring personal trials while we wait and wait and help seems so slow in coming? Why the delay when burdens seem more than we can bear?”
Those of us living through the pandemic “are not the first nor will be the last to ask such questions.” And, Holland said, while “our Father in Heaven clearly expects us to address these wrenching public issues as well as the personal ones,” there are times “when even our best spiritual effort and earnest, pleading prayers do not yield the victories for which we have yearned.”
He offered his “apostolic promise” that prayers “are heard and they are answered, though perhaps not at the time or in the way we wanted.” And while “God can provide miracles instantaneously … sooner or later we learn that the times and seasons of our mortal journey are his and his alone to direct.”
Holland urged Latter-day Saints to exhibit faith but warned that “faith means trusting God in good times and bad.” And, he added, “Christianity is comforting but often it is not comfortable. The path to holiness and happiness here and hereafter is a long and sometimes rocky one,” but “the reward ... is monumental.”
Apostle Dale G. Renlund drew on a biblical passage to condemn self-righteousness and call members to their better selves.
In the Old Testament’s Book of Micah, it says: “O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
To love mercy as God does, he said, “is inseparably connected to dealing justly with others and not mistreating them.”
Renlund, a former cardiologist, offered an example from his career decades ago.
In Baltimore, a patient named Mr. Jackson came in with an “alcohol-related” disease, which had taken him to the hospital several times in the past. A well-trained but relatively new doctor, who was already sleep-deprived, balked at having to deal with the patient again.
“She felt it was unfair that she would have to spend many hours caring for Mr. Jackson,” Renlund said, “even though his predicament was self-inflicted.”
The assigning doctor gently chastised her, saying, “You didn’t become a physician to judge them. If you don’t understand the difference, you have no right to train at this institution.”
Loving mercy means that “we do not just love the mercy God extends to us, we delight that God extends the same mercy to others,” he said. “... Jesus Christ exemplified what it means to do justly and to love mercy. He freely associated with sinners, treating them honorably and with respect. He taught the joy of keeping God’s commandments and sought to lift rather than condemn those who struggled. He did denounce those who faulted him for ministering to people they deemed unworthy. Such self-righteousness offended him, and still does.”
People who love mercy “are not judgmental,” he said. They treat everyone “with love and understanding, regardless of characteristics such as race, gender, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and tribal, clan or national differences.”
Prepared for the pandemic
Fellow apostle Gary E. Stevenson explored the heartbreaking disappointments brought on by COVID-19 and “being blessed during adversity.”
He pointed to the “seership of our living prophet” who introduced practices that have been useful during this time.
For example, Nelson promoted the slogan of “home-centered gospel learning,” which prepared members to worship in their houses when congregational worship was discontinued, Stevenson said. “Even as the world begins to normalize and we return to chapels, we will want to retain our home-centered patterns of gospel study and learning.”
The church president also changed the way members helped one another, in a program now known as “ministering.”
Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the governing First Presidency, discussed relying on Christ while enduring trials.
Jesus “suffered what you suffer so that he would know how to lift you up. He may not remove the burden, but he will give you strength, comfort and hope,” Eyring said. “He knows the way. He drank the bitter cup. He endured the suffering of all. You are being nourished and comforted by a loving Savior, who knows how to succor you in whatever tests you face.”
Members should “feast upon [Christ’s] words,” he said, and “exercise faith unto repentance,” be baptized and then keep their covenants with God.
Apostle Neil L. Andersen lamented the declining Christian faith in Europe and in the United States, and encouraged Latter-day Saints to speak proudly of their belief in Jesus.
“While some are neglecting their faith, others are searching for the truth,” Andersen said. “We have taken the name of the Savior upon us. What more are we to do?”
Andersen referred to Nelson’s direction to members, media and others to use the full name of the church.
Nelson “taught us that consistently using the correct name of the church, something that might seem like a small thing, is not small at all,” the apostle said, “and will shape the world’s future.”
Andersen promised members if they think and speak more frequently on Christ “and with less hesitation,” their “words will flow more comfortably… [and] those listening will feel less of a desire to dismiss or debate and a greater willingness to listen and learn.”
It’s already happening among church members, he said, “but maybe we can do a little better.”
“If the world is going to speak less of [Christ],” Andersen said, “who is going to speak more of him? We are! Along with other devoted Christians!”
Apostle Ulisses Soares urged Latter-day Saints not to yield to temptation and to resist when “inappropriate thoughts may penetrate our mind.”
“When such thoughts are permitted and even invited to stay, they can shape the desires of our heart and lead us to what we will become in this life and eventually to what we will inherit for eternity,” he said. “... When we resist the little temptations, which often come unexpectedly in our life, we are better equipped to avoid serious transgressions.”
Soares compared “yielding to temptation” to “approaching a magnet with a metal object.”
“The magnet loses its power over it only when the metal object is placed far from it,” the native Brazilian said. “Therefore, just as the magnet is unable to exercise power over a faraway metal object, as we resist temptation, it fades away and loses its power over our mind and heart, and consequently, over our actions.”
‘Pray for your country’
Lisa L. Harkness, first counselor in the general presidency of the children’s Primary, spoke about maintaining faith in the face of challenges.
“Recent events around the globe and in our nations, communities and families have buffeted us with unforeseen trials. In times of turmoil, our faith can feel stretched to the limits of our endurance and understanding,” said Harkness, the first woman to speak Sunday and the fifth to speak during the conference (three of them in Saturday’s women’s session). “Waves of fear can distract us, causing us to forget God’s goodness, thus leaving our perspective shortsighted and out of focus.”
Yet, these “rough stretches of our journey” can not only try faith, but also fortify it, she said. “Regardless of our circumstances, we can intentionally make efforts to build and increase our faith in Jesus Christ. It is strengthened when we remember that we are children of God and that he loves us.”
She encouraged listeners to rejoice even while enduring trials, she said, because Jesus “is keenly aware of our troubles, cares and sorrows.”
Russell M. Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, called on people of all faiths to “pray for your country and for your national leaders.”
“No matter how you pray or to whom you pray, please exercise your faith — whatever your faith may be,” Ballard said, adding, “We stand today at a major crossroads in history, and the nations of the earth are in desperate need of divine inspiration and guidance.”
He spoke of the pandemic, economic upheaval, peaceful protests and angry riots, but said, “This is not about politics or policy. This is about peace and the healing that can come to individual souls as well as to the soul of countries.”
As to the coronavirus, the 91-year-old apostle said, “Prayer will influence scientists and help them toward discoveries of vaccines and medications that will end this pandemic.”
Nelson closed the conference by advising members to embrace their “new normal” by “repenting daily.”
Seek to be “increasingly pure in thought, word and deed,” he told his listeners. “Minister to others. Keep an eternal perspective. Magnify your callings. And, whatever your challenges, my dear brothers and sisters, live each day so that you are more prepared to meet your maker.”