In one of his most impassioned sermons ever, President Russell M. Nelson on Sunday admonished the Latter-day Saint faithful to stop being so contentious and start being more civil, more charitable and more Christlike.
How members treat one another “really matters,” said the 98-year-old Nelson, who spoke while seated on a chair in Salt Lake City’s giant Conference Center (as he did at last October’s conference) on the second day of the faith’s 193rd Annual General Conference.
He beseeched members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be peacemakers and “interact with others in a higher, holier way.”
Nelson, the church’s oldest ever prophet-president, did not speak Saturday but was the capstone speaker Sunday morning, as well as the final speaker in the afternoon, when he announced the building of 15 new temples, including one in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
On Saturday, the church noted that global membership has topped 17 million and named a new general presidency for the Young Women to oversee programs for teenage girls. The trio, which will assume its duties Aug. 1, includes an Argentine woman.
Emily Belle Freeman will be the new president, with Tamara W. Runia and Andrea Muñoz Spannaus as her counselors. They will replace Bonnie H. Cordon, Michelle D. Craig and Rebecca L. Craven.
The church also released Ahmad S. Corbitt from his position in the Young Men general presidency and sustained him as a new general authority Seventy. In the Young Men General Presidency, Bradley R. Wilcox, who had been second counselor, became the first counselor, and Michael T. Nelson was named as second counselor.
Of the 33 speakers in the five sessions, only two were women. And one prominent apostle — Jeffrey R. Holland — was missing after testing positive for COVID-19.
A Christian message
In the past, Palm Sunday, a day widely celebrated by millions of mainstream Christians, has never been part of the Latter-day Saint tradition. Nor has it been mentioned often over the pulpit at the church’s General Conferences.
But at this gathering, it was noted by nearly every speaker.
That could be because of a speech Nelson gave in 2021, urging Latter-day Saints and others to make Palm Sunday “truly holy by remembering, not just the palms that were waved to honor the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, but by remembering the palms of his hands.”
Under Nelson’s leadership, apostle Neil L. Andersen said Sunday, the church has focused more and more on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
Nearly five years ago, the church president asked Latter-day Saints to stop using the “Mormon” nickname and instead tout the faith’s full name.
“Our minds caught hold upon this thought of Jesus Christ and we have spoken his name more earnestly,” Andersen said. “By reducing the time of our sacrament meeting, we gave increased focus to partaking of the Lord’s sacrament, and our ‘mind caught hold upon this thought’ of Jesus Christ, and our promise to take his name upon us, and always remember him.”
During the isolation of the worldwide pandemic, the church’s curriculum centered on the New Testament, Andersen said, which meant the teachings of the Savior “became more prominent in our home.”
Indeed, on Sunday, the church posted Nelson’s latest video message about Easter, urging viewers to forgive others.
The need for unity
In his own address, Nelson emphasized that charity defines a peacemaker.
“Peacemaking is a choice. ...I urge you to choose to be a peacemaker, now and always.”
The gospel net “is the largest net in the world,” he said. “...There is room for everyone. However, there is no room for prejudice, condemnation or contention of any kind.”
He lamented that “civility and decency seem to have disappeared during this era of polarization and passionate disagreements. Vulgarity, faultfinding and evil speaking of others are all too common. Too many pundits, politicians, entertainers and other influencers throw insults constantly. I am greatly concerned that so many people seem to believe that it is completely acceptable to condemn, malign and vilify anyone who does not agree with them. Many seem eager to damage another’s reputation with pathetic and pithy barbs.”
The president urged members to “lay aside bitterness … to cease insisting that it is your way or no way. … Now is the time to bury your weapons of war.”
A church filled with peacemakers, he said, could be “a light on the hill.”
Nelson’s first counselor in the governing First Presidency, Dallin H. Oaks, whose conference sermons have often touched on headline-making topics from LGBTQ issues to political discord, departed from that approach and recited a string of scriptural passages quoting the “words of our Savior.”
Other speakers during the two-day conference discussed the importance of unity and harmony.
Do not contend with one another, apostle Ulisses Soares urged church members — and he specifically warned against contention on social media.
“We often see people who engage in negative and even derogatory comments about the perceived characteristics, weaknesses and opinions of others,” Soares said, “mainly when such characteristics and opinions differ or contradict how they act and think. It is very common to see these people passing on such comments to others, who repeat what they heard without truly knowing all the circumstances surrounding a situation.
“Unfortunately, social media encourages this kind of behavior in the name of relative truths and transparency,” he added. “Without restraint, digital conversation often leads people to personal attacks and heated disputes, creating disappointments, wounding hearts and spreading flaming hostility.”
Soares went on to say that social media is “one of the adversary’s tactics ... to stir up enmity and hate in the hearts of God’s children. He rejoices when he sees people criticizing, ridiculing and slandering one another.”
Latter-day Saints should “be of one heart and one mind,” apostle D. Todd Christofferson said, later adding that members are “too diverse, and at times too discordant, to be able to come together as one on any other basis or under any other name” than Jesus Christ.
“Unity does not require sameness, but it does require harmony,” the apostle said. “We can have our hearts knit together in love, be one in faith and doctrine, and still disagree on political matters, the athletic teams we support, our food preferences, and any number of such things. But we can never disagree or contend with anger.”
Continuing the message of Christ
As Bonnie H. Cordon’s father revealed to her that he had Lou Gehrig’s disease — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive fatal muscle disease — he counseled her to take every opportunity to testify of Christ.
“While we may not enjoy the same physical proximity as those who walked with Christ during his earthly ministry, through the Holy Ghost,” the outgoing Young Women general president said, “we can experience his power every day as much as we need.”
As members “choose to seek Christ, the Spirit will witness of him in many different situations,” Cordon said. “... Our closeness to Christ grows through worshiping frequently in the temple, repenting daily, studying scripture, attending church and seminary, pondering our patriarchal blessings, worthily receiving ordinances, and honoring sacred covenants.”
The faith’s worldwide Young Women leader urged her listeners to develop “holy habits,” serving and giving in ways that are “less of a checklist and more of a witness.”
Her father has been gone for more than a decade, she said, but his words — “never give up an opportunity to testify of Christ” — “are alive” in her.
Cordon invited everyone to “look for Christ everywhere. I promise he is there.”
As Latter-day Saints celebrate Easter this year, apostle Gary E. Stevenson counseled, they should take more time and thought with their families to observe the holiday commemorating Christ’s resurrection.
In stressing the importance of Christianity’s holiest day, Stevenson quoted church founder Joseph Smith about the centrality of the resurrection in the gospel.
“The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the apostles and prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it,” Stevenson quoted Smith as saying in his remarks to open the Saturday morning session.
In reading about the Savior’s crucifixion and resurrection in the Bible, Stevenson said, members should also take time with their families to read the rich account of the resurrected Lord’s appearance in the ancient Americas in the Book of Mormon, the faith’s signature scripture.
“In reality, the Book of Mormon shares the greatest Easter story ever told,” he said. “Let it not be the greatest Easter story never told.”
Following Jesus and removing burdens
Ahmad S. Corbitt, first counselor in the global Young Men presidency and a newly named general authority Seventy, cautioned parents, “If your child struggles with a gospel principle or prophetic teaching, please resist any type of evil speaking, or activism, toward the church or its leaders.”
Because, he added, “these lesser, secular approaches can be lethal to the long-term faithfulness of your child.”
Corbitt warned last fall that activism against the Utah-based church or its leaders can be “a tactic of Satan … to blind and mislead the young.”
Jesus Christ “had to suffer,” he said Sunday, “to redeem all humanity from physical death and to give eternal life with God and our families to all who would follow him.”
God has revealed the steps “we must take to follow Jesus and receive eternal life,” which include “faith in Jesus Christ and his atonement, repentance, baptism into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost and enduring to the end.”
Each Latter-day Saint is “carrying a metaphorical backpack,” Camille N. Johnson said in her first conference speech as global head of the women’s Relief Society. “This metaphorical backpack is where we carry the burdens of living in a fallen world. Our burdens are like rocks in the backpack.”
The rocks include sin, poor decisions, misconduct and unkindness toward others, Johnson said. Humans carry some simply because they are “living in a fallen condition. These include the rocks of disease, pain, chronic illness, grief, disappointment, loneliness and the effects of natural disasters.”