Strong denunciations of cyberbullying, racism and violence against people of color — along with pleas to embrace the “unmarried, widowed or divorced” in the family-focused faith — highlighted the first day of the 191st Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“We have been heartbroken to hear of recent attacks on people who are Black, Asian, Latino or of any other group,” apostle Gary E. Stevenson said Saturday morning. “Prejudice, racial tension or violence should never have any place in our neighborhoods, communities or within the church.”
Two fellow apostles, pointing to statistics that show more than half of Latter-day Saint adults are widowed, divorced or not yet married, lamented that single members sometimes feel “alone” or that “they don’t belong” in a faith that preaches eternal marriage as its loftiest religious rite.
“We should understand that eternal life is not simply a question of current marital status but of discipleship and being ‘valiant in the testimony of Jesus,” said M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “...Let us call upon our members who are single to serve, lift and teach. Disregard old notions and ideas that have sometimes unintentionally contributed to their feelings of loneliness and that they do not belong or cannot serve.”
Apostle Gerrit W. Gong echoed that sentiment.
“Our standing before the Lord and in his Church is not a matter of our marital status,” he said, “but of our becoming faithful and valiant disciples of Jesus Christ.”
Millions of members worldwide gathered virtually Saturday around their cellphones, laptops, televisions and radios to receive such counsel from their leaders. This marked the third straight all-digital conference, dating back to spring 2020, for the Utah-based faith due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Easter weekend sessions — being livestreamed from the Conference Center Theater in downtown Salt Lake City — take place under the direction of 96-year-old church President Russell M. Nelson. The socially distanced leaders in attendance wore masks, except when speaking from the pulpit.
Here are highlights from speeches given Saturday morning and afternoon:
Everyone belongs, says apostle M. Russell Ballard
M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, addressed the question of belonging.
Ballard noted a report of the Mayo Clinic, which he quoted: “Having a sense of belonging is so important. . . . Nearly every aspect of our lives is organized around belonging to something.”
This report adds, Ballard said, that “we cannot separate the importance of a sense of belonging from our physical and mental health.”
The apostle then added “our spiritual health.”
“Our spiritual identity is enhanced as we understand our many mortal identities, including ethnic, cultural or national heritage,” Ballard said. “This sense of spiritual and cultural identity, love and belonging can inspire hope and love for Jesus Christ.”
He mentioned the loneliness he has experienced since the death of his wife, Barbara, more than two years ago.
“I personally feel the pain of those who lack a sense of belonging,” he said. “As I watch news from around the world, I see many who seem to be experiencing this loneliness.”
He repeated the statistic from a talk given earlier by fellow apostle Gerrit W. Gong — that more than half the adults in the church today are widowed, divorced or not yet married.
“Some wonder about their opportunities and place in God’s plan and in the church,” Ballard said. “We should understand that eternal life is not simply a question of current marital status but of discipleship and being ‘valiant in the testimony of Jesus.’”
The 92-year-old apostle said the hope for all Latter-day Saints — whether single or married — is the same: “Access to the grace of Christ through ‘obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.’”
Never forget that “you are a child of God our Eternal Father now and forever,” he said. “He loves you, and the church wants and needs you….We need your voices, talents, skills, goodness and righteousness.”
Conversion brought joy to my family, says Seventy
Speaking from Africa, Thierry K. Mutombo of the Seventy recalled the joy that came to him and his family 35 years ago when they met Latter-day Saint missionaries and converted to the faith.
“When we started meeting with these wonderful missionaries, who were like angels that came from God, I noticed that something started to change in our family,” he said. “After our baptism, we truly started to progressively have a new lifestyle because of the restored gospel.”
Mutombo, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and was named a general authority Seventy last April, said the size of their home didn’t change, neither did their social conditions.
“But I witnessed a change of heart in my parents as we prayed daily, morning and evening,” he said. " We studied the Book of Mormon. We held family home evening. We truly became a family.”
That joy has continued as he has married and had a family of his own.
Jesus Christ “is the light, the life and the truth,” he said. “He is the antidote and remedy to the confusion of the world.”
Shun abortion, embrace adoption, apostle Neil Andersen tells women
Apostle Neil L. Andersen called on Latter-day Saints to avoid abortion and encourage adoption.
“Abortion is an evil, stark and real and repugnant, which is sweeping over the earth,” he said. “I plead with the women of this church to shun it, to stand above it, to stay away from those compromising situations which make it appear desirable.”
Andersen acknowledged that there may be circumstances, under which it can occur, “but they are extremely limited.”
If an unanticipated child is expected, he encourages members “to reach out with love, encouragement, and when needed, financial help,” allowing the unborn child to enter the world and “continue his or her journey in mortality.”
He recounted the story from two decades ago of a 16-year-old who learned that she was expecting a child. She and the baby’s father were not married, and they could see no way forward together.
The young woman gave birth to a baby girl and allowed a family to adopt her. The family named her Emily — and now she is grown and is married to Andersen’s grandson.
“You are the mothers of the sons and daughters of God, whose lives are sacred,” the apostle said. “Safeguarding them is a divinely given responsibility which cannot be lightly brushed aside.”
Help those treated unfairly, says apostle Dale Renlund
Inexplicable unfairness may be “infuriating,” but it is part of mortal life, said apostle Dale G. Renlund. “Unfairness comes from living with bodies that are imperfect, injured or diseased. ... Some people are born in affluence, others are not. Some have loving parents, others do not. Some live many years, others few. And on and on and on.”
Different types of unfairness “can merge,” he said, “creating a tsunami of overwhelming unfairness.”
For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic “disproportionately affects those who already are subject to multifactorial, underlying disadvantages,” said Renlund, a former cardiologist who contracted the virus late last year.
The response to unfairness should be “to approach others with compassion and try to alleviate unfairness where we find it,” he said. “...We can try to make things right within our sphere of influence.”
Renlund shared the biblical story of the woman accused of adultery. Jesus told the angry crowd, ready to stone her, that whoever was “without sin,” could cast the first rock.
“Brothers and sisters, not throwing stones is the first step in treating others with compassion,” he said. “The second step is to try and catch stones thrown by others.”
People “will be judged not so much by what we say but by how we treat the vulnerable and disadvantaged,” he said. “As Latter-day Saints, we seek to follow the Savior’s example, to go about doing good. We demonstrate our love for our neighbor by working to ensure the dignity of all Heavenly Father’s children.”
Do not let unfairness “harden you or corrode your faith in God,” Renlund urged members. “Instead, ask God for help. Increase your appreciation for and reliance on the Savior. Rather than becoming bitter, let him help you become better.”
Reach out to the ‘poor little ones,’ Seventy says
Jorge T. Becerra of the Seventy invited members to seek out those less fortunate.
He recalled driving in the car with his father as a young boy, seeing individuals on the road who had found themselves in difficult circumstances.
His dad always would make the comment “pobrecito,” or “poor little one.”
“On occasion, I watched with interest as my father would help many of these people, especially when we would travel to Mexico to see my grandparents.”
Becerra said he later discovered that his dad was helping them enroll in school, buy food or provide in some other way .
“In fact, in my growing up years, I cannot remember a time when we did not have someone living with us who needed a place to stay as they became self-reliant,” he said. “I invite each of us to seek out the “pobrecitos,” the “poor little ones” among us who are in need.”
Apostle Jeffrey Holland decries conflict, contention, incivility
Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland said that Jesus, considered the prince of peace, taught “emphatically that contention is of the devil” and that he “must weep, along with his divine father, over those in the human family in our day who are ‘without affection’ and cannot figure out how to live together in love.”
Holland went on to condemn the “conflict, contention and general incivility around us.”
In 21st-century culture generally and “too often in the church,” he said, “we still see lives that are in trouble, with compromises resulting in too many broken covenants and too many broken hearts.”
He cited as examples “coarse language that parallels sexual transgression, both of which are so omnipresent in movies or on television or note the sexual harassment and other forms of impropriety we read so much about in the workplace.”
Holland also decried “unrighteous dominion or any form of abuse or immoral coercion—physical, emotional, ecclesiastical or any other kind.”
Otherwise faithful men, women and even children “can be guilty of speaking unkindly, even destructively, to those to whom they may well be sealed by a holy ordinance in the temple of the Lord,” the apostle said. “Everyone has the right to be loved, feel peaceful and find safety at home.”
Year has been ‘one for the record books,’ says President Russell Nelson
Nelson opened the conference noting that the past year “has been one for the record books.”
“No doubt we have each learned things we did not know previously,” he said. “Some lessons that I knew before have been written on my heart in new and instructive ways.”
The strength of the church “lies in the efforts and ever-growing testimonies of its members,” the prophet-president said. “Testimonies are best cultivated in the home.” During this past year, he said, “many of you have dramatically increased the study of the gospel in your homes.”
Nelson noted the continuing renovation of the faith’s iconic, six-spired Salt Lake Temple — work he has been able to see from his office.
“As I have watched workers dig out old tree roots, plumbing, wiring, and a leaky fountain, I have thought about the need for each of us to remove, with the Savior’s help, the old debris in our lives.”
Nelson did not mention the controversial removal of historic murals from the temple as part of its four-year makeover and seismic upgrade.
He told conference viewers that he loves them and welcomed them to hear “the voice of the Lord.”
Henry Eyring emphasizes temple service
Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the church’s governing First Presidency, urged members to participate in temple service because it is “the only way to return” to Heavenly Father and his son, Jesus Christ.
“It is in the temple,” he said, “we can receive the assurance of loving family connections that will continue after death and last for eternity.”
Parents should encourage temple service when their children are young.
“It enables them to sense what is good and what is evil,” he said. “For that reason, even seeing a temple or a picture of a temple can cultivate in them a desire to be worthy and privileged someday to go inside.”
Later, members may perform proxy baptisms for their dead ancestors, an experience that can point to the Savior and his atonement.
“That is what temple service can do to change and lift us,” he said. “That is why my hope for you and for all your beloved family is that you will grow in desire and determination to be worthy to go into the House of the Lord as often as your circumstances allow.”
Most Latter-day Saint temples across the globe are offering limited ordinance work right now because of the pandemic.
There’s room for all in the ‘inn’ of the church, apostle Gerrit Gong says
Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles used the idea of the “inn” as a metaphor for the church.
The inn should be a place of welcoming all, no matter their foibles and imperfections, Gong said. “We all have something needed to contribute. Our journey to God is often found together. We belong as a united community — whether confronting pandemics, storms, wildfires, droughts or quietly meeting daily needs.”
It should be “a place of grace and space, where each can gather, with room for all,” Gong said. “As disciples of Jesus Christ, all are equal, with no second-class groups.”
At the “inn” — or church — members “learn perfection is in Jesus Christ, not in the perfectionism of the world. Unreal and unrealistic, the world’s insta-perfect-filtered perfectionism can make us feel inadequate, captive to swipes, likes, or double taps,” he said. “In contrast, our Savior Jesus Christ knows everything about us we don’t want anyone else to know, and he still loves us.”
The church now has an expanding global population, Gong said. “Since 1998, more church members have lived outside than inside the United States and Canada,” Gong said. “By 2025, we anticipate as many church members may live in Latin America as in the United States and Canada.”
Model nuclear families are no longer the norm in the church, he said, and that is “a significant change.”
Most adult Latter-day Saints “are now unmarried, widowed or divorced,” Gong said. “...It includes more than half our Relief Society sisters, and more than half our adult priesthood brothers. This demographic pattern has been the case in the worldwide church since 1992, and in the church in the United States and Canada since 2019.”
But that makes no difference, he said, in the “inn.”
“Our standing before the Lord and in his church is not a matter of our marital status,” Gong added, “but of our becoming faithful and valiant disciples of Jesus Christ.”
The faith’s first Asian American apostle said these disciples “come from everywhere, in every shape, size, color, age, each with talents, righteous desires, and immense capacities to bless and serve.”
“Adults want to be seen as adults, and to be responsible and contribute as adults,” Gong said. “... During this life, we sometimes wait upon the Lord. We may not yet be where we hope and wish to be in the future. A devout sister says, ‘Waiting faithfully upon the Lord for his blessings is a holy position. It must not be met with pity, patronizing or judgment but instead with sacred honor.’”
Racism, bullying need to stop, apostle Gary Stevenson says
Apostle Gary E. Stevenson encouraged kindness in every aspect of life — from stepping up against bullies to fighting racial hatred.
“While bullying is not a new concept, social media and technology have brought bullying to a new level. It becomes a more constant, ever-present threat — cyberbullying.” he told young people. “Clearly, the adversary is using this to hurt your generation. There is no place for this in your cyberspace, neighborhoods, schools, quorums or classes. Please do all you can to make these places kinder and safer.”
Racial hatred also needs to stop, he said.
“We have been heartbroken to hear of recent attacks on people who are Black, Asian, Latino or of any other group,” he said. “Prejudice, racial tension or violence should never have any place in our neighborhoods, communities or within the church.”
Stevenson recalled stories of “narrow-minded parents” who tell their children that they cannot play with a particular child in the neighborhood simply because his or her family do not belong to the LDS Church.
“This kind of behavior is not in keeping with the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ,” he said. “I cannot comprehend why any member of our church would allow these kinds of things to happen. ... I have never heard the members of this church urged to be anything but loving, kind, tolerant and benevolent to our friends and neighbors of other faiths.”
Stevenson encouraged inclusion and “love thy neighbor.”
“The Lord expects us to teach that inclusion is a positive means towards unity,” he said, “and that exclusion leads to division.”
Follow the ‘master teacher,’ Sunday school leader counsels
Jan E. Newman, second counselor in the Sunday school general presidency, discussed how church teachers can have the same effects on listeners as the Savior did and “help others [to] become more deeply converted?”
During this pandemic, he said, church instruction has mostly been done in individual homes.
“To be truly life-changing, conversion to Jesus Christ must involve our whole soul and permeate every aspect of our lives,” Newman said. “This is why it must be focused at the center of our lives — our families and homes.”
A parent’s responsibility is to “provide a nourishing environment, with good soil, free of thorns that would ‘choke the word,’” he said. “We can strive to create the ideal conditions so that our children — and others we love — can find place for the seed, ‘[hear] the word, and [understand] it’ and discover for themselves ‘that the seed is good.’”
Newman encouraged his listeners to follow the example of Jesus — the “master teacher.”
Prepare your children for life’s challenges, Primary leader urges
President Joy D. Jones, outgoing leader of the children’s Primary organization, encouraged parents to role-play difficult situations so their children know what to do when they encounter faith-testing moments.
“As they act it out and then talk it out,” she said, “rather than being caught unprepared in a hostile peer-group setting, children can be armed with “the shield of faith wherewith [they] shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.”
Parents can ask children what they would do if:
• If they are tempted to break the Word of Wisdom, the church’s health code, which forbids tobacco, alcohol, coffee and tea.
• If they are exposed to pornography.
• If they are tempted to lie, steal or cheat.
• If they hear something from a friend or teacher at school that disputes their beliefs or values.
Building spiritual resilience doesn’t have to be “complicated or time-intensive,” said Jones, Saturday’s lone female speaker. “Simple, caring conversations can lead children to know not only what they believe, but most important, why they believe it.”
“As we nurture and prepare our children,” she said, “we allow for their agency, we love them with all our heart, we teach them God’s commandments and his gift of repentance, and we never, ever, give up on them. After all, isn’t this the Lord’s way with each of us?”
Jones told parents to never harm youngsters “physically, verbally or emotionally in any way, even when tensions and pressures run high” and advised them not to allow “the convenience of electronic devices to keep us from teaching and listening to our children, and looking into their eyes.”
Gospel offers ‘divine hope,’ apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf says
Apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf offered a strong message about hope.
Twice a refugee, he recalled being a young boy in Germany after World War II, surrounded by bleakness and suffering. He was moved by the service of young Latter-day Saint missionaries who arrived from the U.S. — land of their recent enemies — “to offer divine hope to our people. They came not to blame, lecture or shame. They willingly gave of their young lives without thought of earthly gain, wanting only to help others find the joy and peace they had experienced.”
The message that God lives and cares about all humanity transcends “politics, history, grudges, grievances and personal agendas,” Uchtdorf said. “...When we feel insignificant, cast off and forgotten, we learn that we may be assured that God has not forgotten us; in fact, that he offers to all his children, something unimaginable: to become ‘heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ.’”
Failures “do not have to define us,” he said. “They can refine us.”
If Jesus came to your home or congregation, he would “know you as you are. He would know your heart’s desires.”
And one look into the Savior’s eyes, Uchtdorf said, “we would never be the same. We would be forever changed.” Such members, he added, would be “transformed by the profound realization that, indeed, God is among us.”
The apostle said “yes, the world is in turmoil. And, yes, we have weaknesses. But we do not need to hang our head in despair, because we can trust God, we can trust his son Jesus Christ, and we can accept the gift of the Spirit to guide us on this path toward a life filled with joy and divine happiness.”