If Latter-day Saints resist society’s temptations and fulfill their covenants to God and Jesus Christ, said church President Russell M. Nelson this weekend, they will find rest from this “sin-saturated, self-centered and often exhausting world.”
In a major address Sunday during the 192nd Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Nelson told members that overcoming the evils around them may require giving up their “favorite sins.”
It does not mean that problems will “magically evaporate,” he warned, “because they won’t. … It does not mean that you won’t still make mistakes. But overcoming the world does mean that your resistance to sin will increase.”
Several other leaders also took up the call to avoid worldly ways.
As evil increases in the world, said apostle Neil L. Andersen, “our spiritual survival, and the spiritual survival of those we love, will require that we more fully nurture, fortify and strengthen the roots of our faith in Jesus Christ.”
Both men promised that God would never abandon “his covenant people.”
Other speakers at the two-day gathering — including the 15,000 or so permitted in the giant Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City for each session and millions more watching at home — tackled spiritual subjects and timely topics, including the way to lasting happiness, forgiveness, spiritual healing, missionary work, pioneering, caring for one another and lifting others’ burdens.
One crucial topic was abuse.
The question of the Utah-based faith’s response to abuse was raised this summer in an Associated Press investigation of an egregious case in Arizona, where a father raped his two young daughters and then posted photos of the acts on the internet. A lawsuit alleges the abuser confessed to his Latter-day Saint bishop but that the lay leader did not report the abuse to legal authorities.
The church issued two rebuttals to the story, alleging a flawed timeline, a “mischaracterization of the fact” and “erroneous conclusions.”
“Abuse constitutes the influence of the adversary,” the 98-year-old Nelson said in a short, pointed speech while sitting down on Saturday morning. “It is a grievous sin.”
He reiterated the church’s position that it has long opposed abuse and has established rules for dealing with such behavior.
“For decades now, the church has taken extensive measures to protect — in particular — children from abuse.” he said. “There are many aids on the church website. I invite you to study them. These guidelines are in place to protect the innocent.”
He did not mention the so-called abuse help line, staffed by lawyers for the church.
The faith — along with other religious denominations — has been lobbying to protect “clergy-penitent privilege,” laws that exempt church leaders from having to report child abuse if they learn about the crime in a confessional setting.
Even so, Nelson urged Latter-day Saints “to be alert to anyone who might be in danger of being abused and to act promptly to protect them. The Savior will not tolerate abuse, and, as his disciples, neither can we.”
As the top Latter-day Saint leader, Nelson said, he affirms “the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ on this issue. Let me be perfectly clear: Any kind of abuse of women, children or anyone is an abomination to the Lord. He grieves, and I grieve, whenever anyone is harmed. He mourns, and we all mourn, for each person who has fallen victim to abuse of any kind. Those who perpetrate these hideous acts are not only accountable to the laws of man but will also face the wrath of God.”
On Sunday, apostle Quentin L. Cook added a condemnation of verbal and physical abuse.
“In our day one of the most significant challenges is contention and verbal abuse related to societal issues,” Cook said. “In many cases anger and abusive language have replaced reason, discussion and civility.”
One manifestation of this is in the home, Cook explained, saying, “in some families, it is not uncommon for an angry husband or wife to hit a spouse or a child.”
This, he said, must stop.
“Please make up your mind that regardless of whether your parents did or did not abuse you,” Cook said, “you will not physically or verbally or emotionally abuse your spouse or children.”
The always-popular Dieter F. Uchtdorf introduced the church’s new pamphlet for young Latter-days, an updated version of “For the Strength of Youth.”
It emphasizes principles over proscription, Uchtdorf said, and is designed to focus on making “righteous decisions.”
“I suppose the guide could give you long lists of clothes you shouldn’t wear, words you shouldn’t say, and movies you shouldn’t watch,” he said. “But would that really be helpful in a global church? Would such an approach truly prepare you for a lifetime of Christlike living?”
The update marks the first to the more than 50-year-old guide since 2011.
And Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the governing First Presidency, gave a report of the church’s humanitarian aid, which reached nearly $1 billion in 188 countries worldwide last year, while members volunteered over 6 million hours of labor in the same cause.
The 90-year-old Oaks, next in line to lead the church of 16.8 million members, mentioned specifically partnering with the Red Cross and Red Crescent agencies as well as Catholic Relief Services, the U.N. and Muslim agencies, providing “the children of God crucial relief during natural disasters and conflicts.”
“These organizations,” he said, “have taught us much about world-class relief.”
In a particularly poignant moment, Henry B. Eyring, Nelson’s second counselor, mentioned the example of his wife of 60 years, who is “a private person who neither seeks nor appreciates praise.”
The 89-year-old leader noted that Kathleen no longer can speak, but whenever talk turns to lauding her, she runs her fingers across her lips, motioning for him to zip it — and stop. Eyring then dragged his finger across his mouth.
Sunday saw the final conference speech of Joseph W. Sitati, who was made an emeritus general authority. Born in Kenya, Sitati joined the church in 1986. In 1989, he became that country’s first district president, and, in 2001, became the first stake president in Kenya. In 2004, he was called as an area Seventy, and, in 2009, Sitati was called to the First Quorum of the Seventy, making him the faith’s first Black African general authority.
Saturday’s morning session also featured a historic moment: Tracy Y. Browning gave the first conference speech by a Black woman serving in a churchwide presidency.
As always, there was Nelson’s signature naming of additional temples. This time, he announced 18, upping his total to 118 since he took the church’s reins in 2018 and bringing the church’s overall tally to 300 existing or planned edifices.
Here is a sample of some key sermons from this conference. Summaries of all the speeches and announcements can be found at sltrib.com.
Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé: An environmental entreaty
The work of creation is “an integral part of God’s plan for his children,” said Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé, the ecclesiastical leader over the church’s vast financial, real estate, investment and charitable operations. “Its purpose is to provide the setting in which men and women may be tested, exercise their agency, find joy, and learn and progress, so that they may one day return to the presence of their Creator and inherit eternal life.”
The divine gift, though, “does not come without duties and responsibilities,” Caussé said. “These duties are best described by the concept of stewardship … a sacred spiritual or temporal responsibility to take care of something that belongs to God, for which we are accountable.”
“Our Heavenly Father allows us to use earthly resources according to our own free will. Yet, our agency should not be interpreted as license to use or consume the riches of this world without wisdom or restraint,” Caussé said. “The Lord gave this admonition: ‘And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion.’”
The French church leader said members can do much “collectively and individually to be good stewards.”
“Considering our individual circumstances, each of us can use the bountiful resources of the earth more reverently and prudently. We can support community efforts to care for the earth. We can adopt personal lifestyles and behaviors that respect God’s creations, and make our own living spaces tidier, more beautiful, and more inspirational.”
Apostle D. Todd Christofferson: Eliminate prejudice
As the church’s worldwide membership continues to grow in diversity, so too must Latter-day Saints’ efforts in ensuring all feel welcome within the fold, apostle D. Todd Christofferson urged listeners.
“We cannot permit any racism, tribal prejudice or other divisions to exist in the latter-day church of Christ,” he said. “We should be diligent in rooting prejudice and discrimination out of the church, out of our homes, and, most of all, out of our hearts.”
As an example, he quoted the story of a woman whose struggle with infertility left her feeling isolated in her congregation.
She noted that the church has “widowed, divorced and single members; those with family members who have fallen away from the gospel; people with chronic illnesses or financial struggles; members who experience same-sex attraction; members working to overcome addictions or doubts, recent converts; new move-ins; empty nesters; and the list goes on and on.”
Among the lessons Christofferson drew from the story was the fact that the woman used her experience to identify others in her congregation who might be struggling.
“Belonging comes not as we wait for it,” he said, “but as we reach out to help one another.”
Ultimately, however, he stressed that members do not join the church for “fellowship alone.”
Tracy Browning makes history — again
Tracy Y. Browning, the first Black woman in a general church presidency, became the first to address General Conference when she discussed the importance of believers “seeing Jesus Christ in their lives.”
“As covenant children of God, we have been uniquely blessed with a rich supply of divinely appointed tools to improve our spiritual vision,” said Browning, second counselor in the children’s Primary organization. “The Savior can also be our compass and our pilot as we steer through both the calm and the turbulent waters of life. He can make plain the correct path that leads us to our eternal destination. So, what would he have us see, and where would he have us go?”
When Browning joined the church, others noticed “changes in my behaviors, practices and choices,” she said. “They were curious about the ‘whys’ of what they were seeing — why I chose to be baptized and join this congregation of believers. ... why I refrain from certain practices on the Sabbath, why I’m faithful in keeping the Word of Wisdom, why I read the Book of Mormon, why I believe in and incorporate the teachings of modern-day prophets and apostles into my life, why I attend weekly church meetings, why I invite others to ‘come and see, come and help, come and stay’ and ‘come and belong.’”
While those questions felt “overwhelming and, transparently, sometimes accusatory,” Browning said, the scrutiny also helped the convert to “pick up and put on a pair of spiritual lenses to clarify, focus and solidify what motivated my adherence to gospel practices and standards. What was the source of my testimony?”
Was she only carrying out “outward performances,” Browning asked herself, or had those practices embedded Jesus Christ “in my every thought and deed?”
In searching her own heart, she came to recognize that Jesus Christ “directs our mouths to testify of him, our hands to lift and serve as he would lift and serve,” Browning said. He also helps “our eyes to see the world and each other as he does — ‘as they really are, and ... as they really will be.’”
Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland: The meaning of the cross
One reason Latter-day Saints do not emphasize the cross as a symbol, apostle Jeffrey R. Holland said in the first General Conference speech Sunday morning, “stems from our biblical roots.”
Because crucifixion was “one of the Roman Empire’s most agonizing forms of execution, many early followers of Jesus chose not to highlight that brutal instrument of suffering,” the apostle said. “The meaning of Christ’s death was certainly central to their faith, but for some 300 years they typically sought to convey their gospel identity through other means.”
By the fourth and fifth centuries, a cross was being introduced as “a symbol of generalized Christianity,” Holland said, but Mormonism is not a “generalized Christianity.”
“As I attempt to explain why we generally do not use the iconography of the cross,” the apostle said, “I wish to make abundantly clear our deep respect and profound admiration for the faith-filled motives and devoted lives of those who do.”
Still, being neither Catholic nor Protestant, Latter-day Saints believe that their church is, rather, “a restored church, the restored New Testament church,” he said. “Thus, our origins and authority go back before the time of councils, creeds and iconography.”
The most important of all scriptural references to the cross, Holland said, “has nothing to do with pendants or jewelry, with steeples or signposts. It has to do, rather, with the rock-ribbed integrity and stiff moral backbone that Christians should bring to the call Jesus has given to every one of his disciples.”
J. Anette Dennis: Ease others’ burdens
J. Anette Dennis counseled members against prejudice. She repeated Nelson’s urgings that “any abuse or prejudice toward another because of nationality, race, sexual orientation, gender, educational degrees, culture or other significant identifiers is offensive to our maker.”
Dennis, first counselor in the general presidency of the women’s Relief Society, asked, “How often do we judge others based on their outward appearance and actions, or lack of action, when, if we fully understood, we would instead react with compassion and a desire to help instead of adding to their burdens with our judgment?”
One of four women to speak at this General Conference, she said she believes “the Savior is inviting us to live a higher, holier way — his way of love where all can feel they truly belong and are needed.”