After two years and four straight gatherings of practically all-virtual sessions, General Conference for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints returned Saturday to normal — or at least halfway normal.
Some 10,000 people will be permitted to attend each of the five sessions over the next two days — filling about 50% of the 21,000-seat capacity at the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City.
Masks were optional as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions continued to relax. Few if any attendees donned face coverings Saturday morning. Top church leaders, who in the four previous conferences wore masks, also went without them. They also were not spaced apart as they had been during those prior gatherings amid the height of the coronavirus crisis.
Latter-day Saints across the globe in the 16.8 million-member faith will tune in remotely to hear sermons, receive instructions and watch for announcements from their top church leaders, including 97-year-old President Russell M. Nelson, who, after more than four years at the helm, is poised in a matter of days to become the longest-living prophet-president in the faith’s 192-year history.
In his opening remarks, Nelson encouraged “every worthy, able young man to prepare for and serve a mission. … For Latter-day Saint young men, missionary service is a priesthood responsibility.”
To Latter-day Saint women, missionary service can be “powerful,” he said, but it is “an optional opportunity.”
Nelson, who became a renowned heart surgeon, did not serve a full-time mission — nor did his two counselors (Dallin H. Oaks, 89, and Henry B. Eyring, 88) — in the faith’s governing First Presidency. All three grew up at a time when expectations about full-time missionary service were different in the church.
Apostle M. Russell Ballard, the 93-year-old acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, followed Nelson’s talk. He, too, made a strong appeal for missionary service, pointing to his proselytizing stint decades earlier in Britain.
“As I have looked back over my life, I have been able to see certain experiences that made a significant difference,” Ballard said. “One of those experiences is how my full-time missionary service as a young man in England blessed my life and shaped my spiritual destiny.”
The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square also performed at Saturday’s morning session.
Here are the latest from Saturday’s sessions:
Apostle Quentin L. Cook: Converting others is ‘noble’
In closing the Saturday afternoon session, apostle Quentin L. Cook added his voice to others who had preceded him in stressing the importance of sharing the gospel through missionary work.
This task of spreading the faith and its message of a God who loves his children and expects them to follow him is an “obligation,” he explained, that falls to all who have been converted.
He quoted President Russell M. Nelson’s own talk from the Saturday morning session, saying “‘You young men have been reserved for this time when the promised gathering of Israel is taking place. As you serve missions, you play a pivotal role in this unprecedented event!’”
For the task of sharing the gospel to “become part of who we are,” Cook said, a person must not only be converted but also love their neighbors, and invite all to “come and see.”
“Laboring for the conversion of oneself and others,” he concluded, “is the noble task.”
Seventy Kevin S. Hamilton: People can change
General authority Seventy Kevin S. Hamilton said one of Satan’s greatest lies is that people can’t change.
He said God, however, asks people to repent, which at its core is simply an invitation to change.
Hamilton said God has given men and women weaknesses as part of their mortal experience, which Jesus Christ helps them overcome through his atonement.
The requirements of change, he said, are humility and faith, which enable Christ’s grace to work in people’s lives.
“We can actually be born again,” Hamilton said. “We can overcome habits, addictions and even the ‘disposition to do evil.’ As sons and daughters of a loving Father in Heaven, we have the power within us to change.”
Seventy Adrián Ochoa: Come unto Christ by following him
Speaking to those with doubts regarding their faith, general authority Seventy Adrián Ochoa called on listeners to follow the example of Apostle Peter, who trusted so firmly in Jesus as to step from his boat onto stormy waters.
“Peter trusted the Savior more than he trusted his boat,” he said. “And that faith gave him power to act with courage during a stressful, frightening situation.”
Developing this kind of trust comes through turning to Jesus “right away” during difficult times, remaining humble to his teachings and serving others.
“Never will the plan of happiness become more real to you,” Ochoa said, “than when you are helping others to live it.”
He then added: “Let us humbly put ourselves in a position where Jesus Christ can lift us, lead us, and make the most of our abilities.”
Apostle Gerrit W. Gong celebrates family ties
“From their trials and accomplishments, we gain faith and strength,” he said. “From their love and sacrifices, we learn to forgive and move forward. … Ties with ancestors increase family closeness, gratitude, miracles.”
Gong also said sometimes family relationships cause abandonment, embarrassment and hurt. At those times, he said, community can also become family.
The church leader said people can honor family members by gathering photos, journals and other items that make memories real. They can also do temple work for deceased ancestors, and gather key names, dates and experiences.
“Let the adventure of family history be intentional and spontaneous,” he said. “Call your grandmother. Look deeply into the eyes of that new baby. Make time — discover eternity — at each stage of your journey. Learn and acknowledge with gratitude and honesty your family heritage. Celebrate and become the positive, and, where needed, humbly do everything possible not to pass on the negative. Let good things begin with you.”
Seventy Marcos Aidukaitis encourages youths to serve full-time missions
Speaking on what has emerged as a theme of sorts during the Saturday sessions, general authority Seventy Marcos Aidukaitis stressed the importance of full-time missionary service — whether a teaching or service mission.
Distractions, he warned, often arise to dissuade individuals considering becoming a missionary. Among those he faced as a young Brazilian were risking his enrollment at his university — as well as a dentist who tried to persuade him not to go.
Nonetheless, he persevered, and was “richly blessed” for it.
“My mission completely shaped my life,” he said, explaining it was through that experience he learned to trust in God.
“Dear youth throughout the world,” Aidukaitis said, “I extend the same invitation that our prophet, President Nelson, has made to all of you ‘to enlist in the youth battalion of the Lord to help gather Israel.’”
He further quoted the church president, stating: “‘There is nothing of greater consequence. Absolutely nothing. This gathering should mean everything to you. This is the mission for which you were sent to earth.’”
Seventy Patrick Kearon offers comfort to abuse survivors
Patrick Kearon of the Presidency of the Seventy spoke about survival stories, saying some listeners are in the midst of their own extreme circumstances such as abuse, neglect or other kinds of suffering.
People in these situations, he said, may erroneously feel that these events are their fault and that they deserve their pain. But God does not despise people who have suffered abuse, Kearon emphasized, and he loves them in a way they have yet to discover.
“The abuse was not, is not and never will be your fault, no matter what the abuser or anyone else may have said to the contrary,” he said. “When you have been a victim of cruelty, incest or other perversion, you are not the one who needs to repent; you are not responsible.”
Kearon also said the church condemns any kind of abuse. Forgiveness is available for abusers who sincerely confess and forsake their sins, he said, but unrepentant abusers will someday stand before the Lord to account for their crimes.
“Dear friends who have been so terribly wounded — and for that matter, anyone who has borne the injustices of life — you can have a new beginning and a fresh start,” he said. “... With arms outstretched, the Savior offers the gift of healing to you.”
Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland: ‘Death by suicide is not the answer’
Focusing his remarks particularly to the faith’s young people, apostle Jeffrey R. Holland issued an emotional plea to listeners to resist the idea that ending one’s life represents a solution to life’s struggles.
“To any of our youth out there who are struggling, whatever your concerns or difficulties, death by suicide is manifestly not the answer,” Holland said. “It will not relieve the pain you are feeling or see yourself causing.”
He emphasized the worth of each individual not only in the sight of God — but also to God’s family.
“In a world that so desperately needs all the light it can get,” he said, “please do not minimize the eternal light God put in your soul before this world was.”
Instead, he called on listeners to seek help.
“Talk to someone. Ask for help,” he said. “You are loved and valued and needed.”
Holland also directed his remarks to those who might know someone in need of help, calling on them to “watch for signs of depression, despair, or anything hinting of self-harm” and offer help, listen, and intervene “as appropriate.”
How to get help
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.
Women named to new Relief Society, Primary presidencies
New general presidencies for the women’s Relief Society and children’s Primary were named at the start of Saturday afternoon’s session.
Effective on Aug. 1, Camille N. Johnson, who previously served as the Primary general president, will lead the Relief Society.
She will joined by first counselor J. Anette Dennis and second counselor Kristin M. Yee.
These three will replace current President Jean B. Bingham and her counselors, Sharon Eubank and Reyna Aburto.
The new Primary general president will be Susan H. Porter, who currently is the first counselor.
Amy Wright, the current second counselor, will move up to first counselor.
The new second counselor is a historic pick. Tracy Y. Browning becomes the first Black woman to ever serve in one of the church’s general presidencies.
Additionally, six new general authority Seventies were called: Mark D. Eddy, from Long Beach, Calif.; James W. McConkie III, from Salt Lake City; Isaac K. Morrison, from Takoradi, Ghana; Ryan K. Olsen, from Provo; Jonathan S. Schmitt, from Mesa, Ariz.; and Denelson Silva, from Recife, Brazil.
President Henry B. Eyring: Look to Jesus amid life’s storms
Today’s greatest perils come from “the forces of wickedness,” said Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the church’s governing First Presidency. “Those forces are increasing. And so it will become more difficult, not easier, to honor the covenants we must make and keep to live the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The growing storms “are the temptations and the increasing attacks of Satan,” Eyring said. “It has never been more important than it is now to understand how to build on that sure foundation.”
Quoting King Benjamin from the Book of Mormon, the faith’s foundational scripture, the Latter-day Saint leader said, it is crucial to become “as a little child, obedient to God and more loving.”
Eyring said he has come to know some of what that means.
“I have learned from experience that the Holy Ghost speaks most often in a quiet voice, heard most easily when one’s heart is meek and submissive, like that of a child,” he said. “When the storms in life come, you can be steady because you are standing on the rock of your faith in Jesus Christ. That faith will lead you to daily repentance and consistent covenant keeping. Then you will always remember him. And through the storms of hatred and wickedness, you will feel steady and hopeful. More than that, you will find yourself reaching out to lift others to safety on the rock with you.”
Faith in Jesus Christ “always leads to greater hope and to feelings of charity toward others,” he said, “which is the true love of Christ.”
Seventy Larry S. Kacher: Climb the ‘ladder of faith’
General authority Seventy Larry S. Kacher spoke about trusting in God’s plan throughout life’s difficult experiences.
Potential stumbling blocks can become steppingstones as individuals climb the “ladder of faith,” he said, adding that how high people rise is up to them.
He encouraged listeners to ask themselves if they’re stripped of pride, if they give place in their hearts for the word of God and if they’re allowing their wills to be swallowed up in God’s will.
“If you find that your current path is in conflict with your faith in the Savior,” Kacher counseled, “then please find your way back to him and to the covenant path. Your exaltation and that of your posterity depend on it.”
Seventy Eduardo Gavarret on how hearts can change
As a child, Uruguay native and general authority Seventy Eduardo Gavarret sneaked by his chapel on a Sunday to reach a soccer game.
Despite his evasive efforts, he was seen by a church leader who assigned him to teach a lesson the following week. The topic: the Sabbath day.
Gavarret taught the lesson, and this experience was the catalyst for “a mighty change of heart.” From then on, he said, he kept the Sabbath day holy.
Gavarret said a mighty change of heart is initiated by studying the scriptures, fasting and praying, and making covenants.
Individuals know their hearts are changing, he explained, when they want to please God in all things, when they treat others with love and respect and when they keep commandments that previously were difficult for them to obey.
“This change of heart is not an event; it takes faith, repentance and constant spiritual work to happen,” Gavarret said. “It begins when we desire to submit our will to the Lord, and it materializes when we enter into and keep covenants with him.”
Apostle Neil L. Andersen: ‘Internet is a blessing and a challenge’
The world, awash in conflicts that often play out on the internet, needs peacemakers, said apostle Neil L. Andersen.
“The powerful impact of the internet is a blessing and a challenge, unique to our time. In a world of social media and information superhighways, one person’s voice can be multiplied exponentially,” he said. “That voice, whether true or false, whether fair or prejudicial, whether kind or cruel, moves instantly across the world. Social media posts of thoughtfulness and goodness are often quietly under the radar, while words of contempt and anger are frequently thundering in our ears, whether with political philosophy, people in the news, or opinions on the pandemic. No one or no subject is immune from this social phenomenon of polarized voices, including the Savior and his restored gospel.”
How does a peacemaker “calm and cool the fiery darts?” the apostle asked. “Certainly not by shrinking before those who disparage us. Rather, we remain confident in our faith, sharing our beliefs with conviction, but always void of anger or malice.”
He offered the example of an opinion piece in The Salt Lake Tribune by the Rev. Amos C. Brown, a national civil rights leader and pastor of the Third Baptist Church in San Francisco.
Responding to an earlier piece critical of the church and its former temple/priesthood ban on Black members, Brown pointed to the alliance Nelson had made with the NAACP.
“Reverend Brown is a peacemaker. He calmly and respectfully cooled the fiery darts,” Andersen said. “Peacemakers are not passive; they are persuasive in the Savior’s way.”
Strength to respond to attacks “comes from our faith in Jesus Christ,” he said, “and our faith in his words.”
Latter-day Saints “love and care for all our neighbors, whether or not they believe as we do, Jesus taught us in the parable of the good Samaritan that those of different beliefs should sincerely reach out to help anyone in need, being peacemakers, pursuing good and noble causes.”
Andersen noted a recent effort in Arizona, where the Utah-based faith joined with other churches to protect gay and transgender Arizonans.
It is especially heartbreaking for church leaders and members “when harsh or dismissive words about the Savior, his followers, and his church are spoken or published by those who once stood with us, took the sacrament with us, and testified with us of the divine mission of Jesus Christ,” Andersen said. “….Sadly, not all will remain firm in their love for the Savior and their determination to keep his commandments.”
Still, Jesus taught followers “to withdraw from the circle of anger and contention,” he said. “...We, too, can move away from contention and bless the lives of others, while not isolating ourselves in our own corner.”
Members can and should be peacemakers, Andersen said, “that we may be called the ‘children of God.’”
Apostle David A. Bednar: Shun evil
Apostle David A. Bednar encouraged members to “heed not” the evil influences and mocking voices of the world.
Faith in Jesus Christ fortifies individuals, he said, as does entering into and living sacred covenants.
“I witness,” he said, “that the connections with him and Heavenly Father are real and are the ultimate sources of assurance, peace, joy and the spiritual strength that enable us to ‘fear not, though the enemy deride.’”
Bednar said for those who have made covenants, their faith and conviction are individual, personal and specific. Jesus Christ, he added, is a personal Savior to these people.
Bednar said holding fast to the word of God entails remembering, honoring and strengthening personal connections to Jesus Christ. He said it also involves using the scriptures and prophets as sure sources of revealed truth.
“I witness that fidelity to the covenants and ordinances of the Savior’s restored gospel enables us to press on in the work of the Lord,” he said, “to hold fast to him as the word of God and to heed not the allurements of the adversary.”
Reyna Aburto: ‘The church is us’
As a 26-year-old single mother, Reyna Aburto, second counselor in the general Relief Society presidency, was “powerless with fear” as she attended a Latter-day Saint service for the first time.
When she entered the building, Aburto said Saturday morning, she was “filled with warmth as I perceived the faith and joy of the people surrounding me.”
But the church “is more than the buildings and the ecclesiastical structure,” she said. “The church is us, the members. We are The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with Christ at the head and the prophet as his mouthpiece.”
Aburto, the lone female speaker during Saturday’s general sessions, urged her listeners “not [to] underestimate the marvelous work the Lord is doing through us, his church, despite our shortcomings. Sometimes we are givers and sometimes we are receivers, but we are all one family in Christ.”
Apostle M. Russell Ballard lauds missionary service
An emphasis on missionary service continued with apostle M. Russell Ballard, who spoke about how he chose to serve despite parents who stopped attending church during the Great Depression.
The 93-year-old leader, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, recently returned to Britain, where he and two other Latter-day Saint apostles served as missionaries.
He also reflected on his experiences serving as president of the Canada Toronto Mission beginning in 1974, accompanied by his wife, Barbara, who died in 2018.
“When you are serving your mission, you will have experiences that will help you come to know him better,” Ballard said. “... The Lord will authorize you to teach in his name. You can show him that he can trust you and can rely on you.”
He called on young men and young women who desire to serve to begin discussing missionary service with their parents and church leaders.
Parents have a vital role in the preparation process, Ballard said, and he encouraged bishops to identify young men and young women who are old enough to serve but haven’t yet.
“If you are still in the age range for missionary service (young men can serve at 18, women at 19) but have not served yet due to the pandemic or other reasons,” Ballard said. “I invite you to serve now.”
He also praised currently serving missionaries, saying their proselytizing experiences have been unlike any others due to the COVID-19 pandemic but that the Lord still has a work for them to do.
“As you have served diligently and according to your abilities,” Ballard said, “I know that the Lord is pleased with your effort. I know that your service will bless your life.”
President Russell M. Nelson: Pray for peace, serve missions
President Russell M. Nelson opened the two-day gathering by stating that this conference would be “a time of spiritual rejuvenation.”
Since the last gathering, the world “has been rocked by a conflict that is raining terror on millions of innocent men, women and children,” said the 97-year-old leader, considered a “prophet, seer and revelator” by the church’s faithful. “Prophets have foreseen our day when there would be wars and rumors of wars, and when the whole earth would be in commotion. As followers of Jesus Christ, we plead with leaders of nations to find peaceful resolutions to their differences.”
The gospel of Jesus Christ, Nelson said, “has never been needed more than it is today.”
To spread that word, he called on “every worthy, able young man to prepare for and serve a mission. … For Latter-day Saint young men, missionary service is a priesthood responsibility.”
To Latter-day Saint women, missionary service can be “powerful,” Nelson said, but it is “an optional opportunity.”
“We also welcome senior couples to serve when circumstances permit,” he added. “Their efforts are simply irreplaceable.”
Nelson, who became a renowned heart surgeon, did not serve a full-time mission. He grew up at a time when expectations about proselytizing service were different in the church.
All young and senior missionaries “teach and testify of the Savior,” he said. “The spiritual darkness in the world makes the light of Jesus Christ needed more than ever. Everyone deserves the chance to know about the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.”