COVID clashes show need for unity among Latter-day Saints, apostle says

Church President Russell Nelson and other speakers cover topics from temples to mental illness and social conflicts during two-day General Conference.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Dale G. Renlund speaks at General Conference on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021.

In the just-completed General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the faith’s top leaders tackled topics ranging from mental illness, social conflicts and the importance of temples to the need to hold fast to faith in Christ, use the church’s full name, and take precautions against the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 has been a “spiritual stress test,” apostle Dale G. Renlund said Sunday, that has yielded “mixed results.”

Many members have provided compassionate help and comfort during these difficult times and continue to do so, the former cardiologist told listeners in a nearly empty Conference Center Auditorium in downtown Salt Lake City (with millions more watching on TV or the internet). “Yet, in some instances, the spiritual stress test has shown tendencies toward contention and divisiveness.”

This suggests that Latter-day Saints, he said, “have work to do, to change our hearts, and to become unified as the Savior’s true disciples.”

It was the fourth straight all-virtual General Conference, featuring dozens of speeches, including four delivered by female leaders in the church.

The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square sang at the opening session, its first live conference performance in two years. The scaled-back choir also sang at both Sunday meetings. All the attendees and choir members were fully vaccinated and socially distanced.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square sings at General Conference on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021.

President Russell M. Nelson noted that the world is “still dealing with the ravages of COVID-19 and its variants,” and thanked those in the 16.6 million-member faith “for following our counsel and the advice of medical experts and government officials in your own communities.”

Nelson, a former heart surgeon, and the faith’s top brass consistently have urged members to be vaccinated against the virus, assuring them that the shots have proved “safe and effective.”

Some Latter-day Saints have pushed back against that call — although vaccination rates did rise briefly in Utah after the church’s latest plea in August. A survey from Public Religion Research Institute this past summer showed that 65% of Latter-day Saints were classified as vaccine acceptors.

At the end of the conference, Nelson announced 13 new temples, including plans for a 28th (in the Heber Valley) in Utah and the rebuilding of the 49-year-old Provo Temple.

Temple building has been a hallmark of Nelson’s presidency, which was clear again at this meeting.

Here are summaries of key sermons:

Build a strong spiritual foundation, says Russell M. Nelson

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Russell M. Nelson speaks at General Conference on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021.

The 97-year-old president opened his Sunday morning sermon with an update on the ongoing renovation of the Salt Lake Temple, including a video presentation in which he stood below what was once the Garden Room, and said into the camera, “As I examine the craftsmanship of this entire building, I marvel at what the pioneers accomplished. I am totally in awe when I consider that they built this magnificent temple with only tools and techniques available to them more than a century ago.”

Back at the Conference Center pulpit, Nelson said the church is “sparing no effort to give this venerable temple, which had become increasingly vulnerable, a foundation that will withstand the forces of nature into the millennium. In like manner, it is now time that we each implement extraordinary measures — perhaps measures we have never taken before — to strengthen our personal spiritual foundations. Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.”

He took the temple as a metaphor for a spiritual foundation.

“If you and I are to withstand the forthcoming perils and pressures, it is imperative that we each have a firm spiritual foundation built upon the rock of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ,” he said. “So, I ask each of you, ‘How firm is your foundation? And what reinforcement to your testimony and understanding of the gospel is needed?’”

The temple “lies at the center of strengthening our faith and spiritual fortitude because the Savior and his doctrine are the very heart of the temple,” Nelson said. “Everything taught in the temple, through instruction and through the Spirit, increases our understanding of Jesus Christ. His essential ordinances bind us to him through sacred priesthood covenants. Then, as we keep our covenants, he endows us with his healing, strengthening power.”

Temple ordinances are ancient, but they have been “gradually refined,” Nelson said. Procedures change, but the covenants “remain the same.” He noted that principles and doctrines can be changed only by revelation from God.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) President Russell M. Nelson and his, wife, Wendy greet organist Linda Margetts during the close of the afternoon session of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' 191st Semiannual General Conference at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021.

Current adjustments in temple procedures, “and others that will follow, are continuing evidence that the Lord is actively directing his church,” he said. “He is providing opportunities for each of us to bolster our spiritual foundations more effectively by centering our lives on him and on the ordinances and covenants of his temple.”

Nelson urged members to enter and return often to temples, which the faithful view as Houses of the Lord and where they participate in the faith’s holiest religious rites.

“If I could speak with each husband and wife who have still not been sealed [for eternity] in the temple, I would plead with you to take the necessary steps to receive that crowning, life-changing ordinance,” he said. “Will it make a difference? Only if you want to progress forever and be together forever. Wishing to be together forever will not make it so. No other ceremony or contract will make it so.”

When renovations on the Salt Lake Temple wrap up, Nelson said, “there will be no safer place during an earthquake in the Salt Lake Valley than inside that temple.”

And whenever any kind “of upheaval occurs in your life,” he promised, “the safest place to be spiritually is living inside your temple covenants.”

Dale G. Renlund lauds ‘safe and effective’ vaccines

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Dale G. Renlund speaks at General Conference on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021.

Apostle Dale G. Renlund touted the “safe and effective” vaccines against COVID-19 and praised the “medical professionals, teachers, caregivers and others [who] have sacrificed heroically — and continue to do so.”

He noted that many people “have displayed generosity and kindness — and continue to do so. Yet, underlying disadvantages have been manifest. Vulnerable individuals have suffered — and continue to do so.”

Renlund, who contracted and recovered from COVID-19, released a headline-making video in December in which he urged people to wear masks as “a sign of Christlike love for our brothers and sisters.”

On Sunday, the apostle said the disputes that have arisen among members surrounding the pandemic show the need to be unified.

He told the story of the long-standing enmity between Finland and Russia and how members in both countries dealt with it when a temple was being built in Finland.

The temple committee, made up of exclusively Finnish members, decided that “Russian saints would be traveling several days to attend [the dedication] and might hope to receive their temple blessings before returning home,” said Renlund, whose father was a Russian-hating Finn. “Faithful Latter-day Saint Finns delayed their temple blessings to accommodate Russian saints.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Morgan Jones and boyfriend Benjamin Pearson of Salt Lake City spend time on the Conference Center steps before the afternoon session of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' 191st Semiannual General Conference on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021.

When Renlund relayed this kindness to his dad, the apostle reported, “his heart melted and he wept, a very rare occurrence for that stoic Finn. From that time until his death three years later, he never expressed another negative sentiment about Russia.”

The gesture did not make Finns less Finnish, nor the Russians less Russian, Renlund said. “Neither group abandoned their culture, history or experiences to banish enmity. They did not need to. Instead, they chose to make their discipleship of Jesus Christ their primary consideration.”

If they could do that, “so can we,” he said. “...Even former enemies can become united in their discipleship of the Savior.”

Erich W. Kopischke offers help for mental illness

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) General authority Seventy Erich W. Kopischke delivers recorded remarks at General Conference on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021.

German native and general authority Seventy Erich W. Kopischke spoke Saturday in a prerecorded message about the pain caused by mental illness.

With his son’s permission, Kopischke shared how his son returned from his two-year church mission after four weeks due to severe panic attacks, anxiety and depression. This was so devastating that he tried to end his own life.

His son survived, Kopischke said, but “it has taken a long time and much medical, therapeutic and spiritual care for him to heal and accept that he is loved, valued and needed.”

He recognized that not every story ends like this and said he sorrows with those who have lost loved ones.

Help is available

If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.

Kopischke also addressed parents who are struggling to identify the nature and severity of their children’s challenges, encouraging them to stay close to God so they can be guided “step by step through the darkest hours.”

Becoming educated and having honest discussions about mental illness, Kopischke added, will allow members to help themselves and others who might be struggling.

He asked Latter-day Saints to watch over and not judge one another, especially when expectations aren’t immediately met.

“For all who are personally affected by mental illness,” Kopischke said, “hold fast to your covenants, even if you might not feel God’s love at this time.”

The Utah-based faith recently released a new manual and videos to help members build up emotional resilience.

The new content, “Finding Strength in the Lord: Emotional Resilience,” provides training materials, according to a news release, and covers topics such as developing healthy thinking patterns, managing stress and anxiety, understanding sadness and depression, and overcoming anger.

Kopischke’s remarks were the most extensive at a conference on the subject since Reyna Aburto, second counselor in the women’s Relief Society general presidency, and apostle Jeffrey R. Holland, tackled the topic in 2019 and 2013, respectively.

Go all-in for God, says Jeffrey R. Holland

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland speaks at General Conference on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021.

In his first public address since he delivered a hotly debated August speech at BYU, apostle Jeffrey R. Holland spoke of believers giving their whole selves to God.

“In the kingdom of God, there can be no halfway measures, no starting and stopping, no turning back,” Holland said. “When difficult things are asked of us, even things contrary to the longings of our heart, remember that the loyalty we pledge to the cause of Christ is to be the supreme devotion of our lives.”

Admittedly, all people have “some habits or flaws or personal history that could keep us from complete spiritual immersion in this work,” the apostle said. “But God is our Father and is exceptionally good at forgiving and forgetting sins we have forsaken, perhaps because we give him so much practice in doing so.”

Holland, whose recent comments against same-sex marriage to BYU faculty and staff ignited widespread controversy, discussed current conflicts.

“In our present moment we find all manner of divisions and subdivisions, sets and subsets, digital tribes and political identities, with more than enough hostility to go around,” he said. “...When the love of God sets the tone for our own lives, for our relationship to each other and ultimately our feeling for all humankind, then old distinctions, limiting labels, and artificial divisions begin to pass away, and peace increases.”

So much more to do to help the poor, says Sharon Eubank

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the general Relief Society presidency and head of Latter-day Saint Charities, the faith's humanitarian arm, speaks at General Conference on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021.

The church’s “divine mandate” is to care for the poor, said Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the general presidency of the women’s Relief Society. “It is one of the pillars of the work of salvation and exaltation.”

As needs grow around the world, the governing First Presidency has charged the faith’s humanitarian wing to increase its outreach “in a significant way,” said Eubank, president of Latter-day Saint Charities. Church leaders “are interested in the largest trends and the smallest details.”

In the past 18 months, the faith has responded to hurricanes, earthquakes, refugee displacement — and even a pandemic, she said. “While the more than 1,500 COVID-19 projects were certainly the largest focus of the church’s relief over the last 18 months, the church also responded to 933 natural disasters and refugee crises in 108 countries.”

Eubank mentioned several individual projects, including how some of the Relief Society sisters in Germany noticed that many Afghan women evacuees “were using their husbands’ shirts to cover their heads because their traditional head coverings had been ripped off in the frenzy at the Kabul airport.”

In an act of friendship “that crossed any religious or cultural boundaries,” she said, those Latter-day Saint women “gathered to sew traditional Muslim clothing for Afghan women.”

She quoted Bethani Halls, who said, “We heard that women were in need of prayer garments, and we are sewing so that they can be [comfortable] for prayer.”

Through their “ministry, donations, time and love,” Eubank said, members have been “the answer to so many prayers. And yet there is so much more to do.”

Individual efforts “don’t necessarily require money or faraway locations,” she said. “They do require the guidance of the Holy Spirit and a willing heart to say to the Lord: Here am I, send me.”

Go to church, Dallin H. Oaks urges

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, speaks at General Conference on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021.

With the surge of “nones” — those who profess no religious affiliation — still prevalent, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, addressed people of all faiths.

He said he’s concerned that attendance in all churches, from synagogues to mosques to other religious organizations, is “down significantly” nationwide.

“If we cease valuing our churches, for any reason, we threaten our personal spiritual life,” he warned, “and significant numbers separating themselves from God reduces his blessings to our nations.”

Oaks, whose General Conference speech about the U.S. Constitution on Easter in April generated weeks of headlines, also said that some people feel they don’t learn anything at church or feel offended by others there.

“Personal disappointments,” he said, “should never keep us from the doctrine of Christ, who taught us to serve, not to be served.”

Speaking specifically to Latter-day Saints, Oaks said members who forgo church attendance and rely on individual spirituality separate themselves from gospel essentials like priesthood blessings and the fulness of restored doctrine.

Other advantages of church attendance include spiritual growth and the “motivation and structure” for unselfish service.

His remarks come amid a pandemic in which Latter-day Saints have slowly begun worshipping again in person. Some observers worry that many members will never return.

Oaks, next in line to take the church’s helm, emphasized that he doesn’t believe good can be accomplished only through a church.

However, “the fulness of doctrine and its saving and exalting ordinances are available only in the restored church,” he said. “Church attendance gives us the strength and enhancement of faith that comes from associating with other believers.”

Church’s name is “not negotiable, says Neil Andersen

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Neil L. Andersen speaks at General Conference on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021.

Three years ago, Nelson issued a stern, uncompromising lecture — for members, media and others — to use the faith’s full name: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Using common nicknames such as “Mormon church,” “LDS Church” or the “Church of the Latter-day Saints,” Nelson said, “... is a major victory for Satan.”

On Sunday, apostle Neil L. Andersen reiterated Nelson’s mandate that members eschew the use of “Mormon” to name themselves. He also detailed all the efforts in the past years to make this change.

The Utah-based faith now has been able to buy the internet domain sites: ChurchofJesusChrist.org and ChurchofJesusChrist.com, neither of which was for sale in 2018.

“It was,” Andersen said, “a miracle.”

The church also has revised names that have long been attached to the church, he said. “The name of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was changed to The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. The website lds.org, which received more than 21 million visits each month, was transitioned to ChurchofJesusChrist.org. The name of LDS Business College was changed to Ensign College. The website Mormon.org was redirected to ChurchofJesusChrist.org.”

More than 1,000 products that had the name “Mormon” or “LDS” attached to them have been changed, Andersen said. “Faithful Latter-day Saints have adjusted their websites, podcasts and Twitter accounts.”

The church adopted a new symbol centered in Jesus Christ, he said. “The typography of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been adapted in more than 50 languages. New domain names have been acquired across the world.”

Andersen thanked “responsible media” for “extending to us the same consideration given cultural, athletic, political or community organizations by using our preferred name.”

There will be a few, “hoping to detract or diminish the seriousness of our mission, who will continue to call us ‘Mormons,’” he said. “With courtesy, we again ask the fair-minded of the media to honor our desire to be called by our name of nearly 200 years.”

The name of the church “is not negotiable,” Andersen repeated, quoting Nelson.

Restoring the church’s “correct name from a nickname may be awkward,” the apostle said, but “let us go forward in faith, remembering we are restoring the name of Jesus Christ.”

The Associated Press, the world’s largest arbiter of journalistic style, adjusted its guidelines, instructing news media to use the full name of the church on first references, while stating that “Mormon” still could be used “when necessary for space or clarity or in quotations or proper names.”

Only Christ brings true joy, says M. Russell Ballard

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle M. Russell Ballard speaks at General Conference on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021.

M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, invited church members to reflect on whether they love the Lord more than the world.

“Do the things of this world bring us the joy, happiness and peace that the Savior offered to his disciples and that [Christ] offers to us?” Ballard said. “Only he can bring us true joy, happiness and peace through our loving him and following his teachings.”'

The senior apostle, who will turn 93 on Friday, said at his age he has attended many funerals.

“I am sure many of you have noticed what I have noticed. When celebrating the life of a deceased family member or friend, it is rare for a speaker to talk about the size of the person’s home, the number of cars or bank account balances. They usually don’t speak about social media posts. At most funerals, they focus on their loved one’s relationships, service to others, life lessons and experiences, and their love for Jesus Christ,” Ballard said. “Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that having a nice home or a nice car is wrong or that using social media is bad. What I am saying is that in the end, those things matter very little compared to loving the Savior.”

In speaking about how today’s world is unsettled, he referred to a 2017 speech that fellow apostle Dallin H. Oaks gave at BYU-Hawaii on the dangers of armed conflicts and climate change.

“These are challenging times,” Oaks said then, “filled with big worries: wars and rumors of wars, possible epidemics of infectious diseases, droughts, floods and global warming.”

One way members can demonstrate their love for God, Ballard said, is by joining family, friends and neighbors in serving others.

Write your own story, advises Camille N. Johnson

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Camille N. Johnson, who oversees the children's Primary worldwide, speaks at General Conference on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021.

In her first General Conference talk since being named general president of the children’s Primary in April, Camille N. Johnson encouraged Latter-day Saints to listen to the Holy Ghost.

“We know that the manifestations of the Holy Ghost are reliable,” she said. “Why, then, are we sometimes resistant to asking for this kind of heavenly help, truth manifest to us by the Holy Ghost? Why do we put off asking a question to which we do not know the answer when the witness is not only friendly, but will always tell the truth?”

Johnson said, “We will be judged by our book of life,” and church members can “choose to write a comfortable narrative for ourselves” or allow God to “write our story for us” and let that “take precedence over other ambitions.”