While all eyes will be on the dozens of speakers who will command the pulpit at this weekend’s General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they may first be drawn to the empty chair on the rostrum.
President Russell M. Nelson, the oldest-ever leader of the global faith of 17 million members, will be noticeably absent. The church announced Thursday that its 99-year-old prophet is viewing the proceedings remotely after suffering a fall and injuring his back the day after his birthday earlier this month.
He said he hopes to record a message that will be shared at one of the five sessions — three take place on Saturday and two on Sunday.
Popular apostle Jeffrey R. Holland, recovering from a lengthy hospital stay, also is watching the conference from home. The 82-year-old leader was unable to attend last spring’s sessions as well due to illness.
President Dallin H. Oaks, Nelson’s 91-year-old counselor in the three-member governing First Presidency and next in line to lead the church, presided in person at the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City and gave the morning session’s concluding speech.
The second counselor, 90-year-old President Henry B. Eyring, conducted Saturday’s morning session and noted the absence of Nelson and Holland, while pointing to the recent death of Holland’s wife, Pat Holland.
The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square provided the music with help of international singers from Ecuador, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, South Africa and South Korea in the morning session. The afternoon session featured a multicultural choir of members from northern Utah. A choir of young single adults from Utah County sang during the evening gathering.
Latter-day Saints around the world tune in via TV, radio and the internet to these twice-yearly gatherings to receive counsel and inspiration from their top leaders. These celebrations of sermons, songs, prayers and pronouncements are the highlight of the faith’s calendar and become the topic of Sunday speeches and lessons until the next conference rolls around in six months.
Here are updates from Saturday’s sessions, including the latest talks and announcements:
Apostle Ulisses Soares: Abandon prejudicial attitudes and behavior
Apostle Ulisses Soares invited listeners to heed church President Russell M. Nelson’s call to abandon prejudicial attitudes and actions and to promote respect for all of God’s children.
All are alike unto God and are “spirit sons and daughters of Heavenly Parents who truly love us,” Soares said. “As disciples of Christ, we are invited to increase our faith in, and love for, our spiritual brother and sisterhood by genuinely knitting our hearts together in unity and love, regardless of our differences, thereby increasing our ability to promote respect for the dignity of all the sons and daughters of God.”
Soares’ sermon was a continuation of sorts of the message he delivered recently at a religious freedom symposium in his native Brazil, where he touted the beauties and blessings that diversity brings to the natural world and to human interactions.
In his concluding remarks to the Saturday evening session, the apostle called on church members to consider the sacred bond that unites all of God’s children, which will make it easier for them to “build bridges of understanding rather than create walls of prejudice and segregation.”
To better abandon prejudicial attitudes and behavior, he counseled, Latter-day Saints should follow the example of Jesus Christ, who “ministered” and attended to everyone’s needs, especially those who at the time were considered “different, belittled or excluded.”
In our time, Soares noted, the world is polarized by strong divisions along racial, political and socioeconomic lines.
“For this reason, he said, “it is not uncommon to see people characterizing the way of thinking, acting and speaking of other cultures, races and ethnicities as inferior, making use of preconceived, mistaken and often sarcastic ideas, generating attitudes of contempt, indifference, disrespect and even prejudice against them. Such attitudes have their roots in pride, arrogance, envy and jealousy, characteristics of a carnal nature, which are totally contrary to Christlike attributes.”
After talking about Jesus’ ministry, the apostle then turned to an example closer to home. He noted that in Brazil, the Iguazu River flows into a system of waterfalls known as Iguazu Falls, considered one of the “seven wonders of the world” for its impressive beauty. He added the falls, metaphorically speaking, serve as a reflection of God’s family here on earth.
“For we share the same spiritual origin and substance, derived from our divine heritage and kinship,” he said. “However, each of us flows in different cultures, ethnicities and nationalities, with different opinions, experiences and feelings.
“Despite this,” Soares continued, “we move forward as God’s children and as brothers and sisters in Christ, without losing our divine connection, which makes us a unique people and a beloved community.”
As Latter-day Saints “align their hearts and minds” with the knowledge that they are all equal under God and are endowed with the same divine heritage, the apostle said, “we will flow in our own way, as does the water of the Iguazu Falls, without losing the divine connection that identifies us as a peculiar people, the children of Christ and heirs to the kingdom of God.”
Young Women leader Tamara Runia: Finding an ‘overview’ lens
During the Apollo 8 mission to the moon, the astronauts were able to see the Earth from space. Their perspective came to be known as “the Overview Effect,” said Tamara W. Runia, first counselor in the church’s global Young Women presidency.
“As humans, we have an earthbound point of view, but God sees the grand overview of the universe,” Runia said. “He sees all creation, all of us, and is filled with hope.”
She encouraged Latter-day Saints to “see as God sees while living on the surface of this planet. … I believe we can, through the eye of faith, zoom out and view ourselves and our families with hope and joy.”
She explained that “there’s no way to be a perfect spouse, parent, son or daughter, grandchild, mentor or friend, but a million ways to be a good one.”
Runia, one of two women to speak at Saturday’s sessions, sees hope as a way to help loved ones, who are “living in a wicked world.”
“Our hope changes the way they see themselves and who they really are,” she said. “And through this lens of love, they’ll see who they will become.”
It is possible for human families, the energetic leader said, to use an “overview lens and see the people we love and live with as shared companions on this beautiful planet.”
Seventy Joni Koch: ‘Be thou humble’
General authority Seventy Joni L. Koch emphasized the importance of developing humility as a prerequisite to returning to live with Heavenly Father.
“Then what is humility?” Koch asked. “According to ‘Preach My Gospel’ [the church’s teaching tool for missionaries] it is a ‘willingness to submit to the will of the Lord. It is being teachable. It is a vital catalyst for spiritual growth.’”
Koch, who was born in Brazil, listed several ways Latter-day Saints could develop the Christlike attribute of humility, including heeding church President Russell M. Nelson’s counsel to use the “full name of the church” in their interactions.
“To remove the Lord ́s name from the Lord ́s church is a major victory for Satan,” Koch quoted Nelson as saying.
Koch also urged members to follow the church president’s invitation to “let God prevail” in their lives. He further urged them to put more trust in the doctrine of Christ than in the philosophies of men, to abandon prejudice and to be peacemakers in their discourse about others.
Other aids in cultivating humility, he added, are regular church and temple attendance to renew covenants and acknowledge “our dependence” on Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.
“Brothers and sisters,” Koch concluded, “the command, invitation and promise from the Lord is clear and comforting: ‘Be thou humble and the Lord thy God shall lead thee by the hand and give thee answer to thy prayers.’”
Seventy Gary Sabin: The true source of happiness
While on an airplane trip, general authority Seventy Gary B. Sabin was seated next to a man from the Netherlands who described himself as an “professor of happiness.”
True happiness, Sabin told the Latter-day Saints in his audience Saturday evening, is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ.
“This is a sure foundation … [which cannot fail],” the church leader said. “Doing so prepares us for the challenges of life, come what may.”
The Savior has “defeated death, disease and sin, and has provided a way for our ultimate perfection if we will follow him with all of our hearts,” Sabin said. “...The greatest happiness and blessing of mortality will be found in whom we have become through God’s grace as we make and keep sacred covenants with him. Our Savior will polish and refine us through the merits of his atoning sacrifice.”
Sabin promised the faithful that they can find the true happiness they seek “during this mortal adventure,” he said. “Life will still have its challenges, but we will be able to better face each with a sense of purpose and peace because of the eternal truths we understand and live by.”
Apostle Ronald Rasband: More senior missionaries, please
The church wants more “seasoned seniors” to serve as missionaries, apostle Ronald A. Rasband said as the concluding speaker Saturday afternoon. “The Lord needs you. We need you in New York and Chicago, Australia and Africa, Thailand and Mexico, and everywhere in between.”
For some, and maybe for thousands, “full-time missionary service in another corner of the world will be the right place,” he said. “For others, serving a church service mission at home might be preferable. Because of health issues and other circumstances, there are those who are unable to serve. We understand those situations and it would be my hope, you might find ways to support those who are serving.”
Some older couples, Rasband acknowledged, “might be thinking, ‘But what about leaving the grandchildren? We would miss family milestones, birthdays, friends and even pets.”
To them, he offered a person observation: “If I had asked my mother why she and Dad went on a mission, I know she would have said, ‘I have grandchildren. I want them to know that your father and I served in the mission field, we wanted to set the example for our posterity, and we were blessed, so blessed.’”
Rasband said he has seen “the remarkable service of our legion of senior missionaries. It is clear they are happy doing ‘the will of the Lord’ and being about the ‘Lord’s business.’” They are, he said, “making a difference.”
Who, he asked, “would not want that?”
Seventy Alan Phillips: ‘He is mine’
To illustrate the importance that no one is lost to God nor alone in her or his circumstances, general authority Seventy Alan T. Phillips related an experience of accidentally leaving his 5-year-old son, Jasper, behind at a service station during a family trip in England six years ago.
When the family members arrived back at the station and were reunited with Jasper, the British church leader said, he could never forget “the joy” that he felt.
“Many of the Savior’s parabolic teachings focus on gathering, restoring or striving to find that which has been scattered or lost,” he said. “Among these, are the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son.”
Phillips counseled conferencegoers to find people in their families, congregations, communities or globally who are lost or struggling and to minister to them to alleviate their suffering. He reminded members that “religion is not only about our relationship with God, it is also about our relationship with [one another].”
The general authority emphasized that “how we treat one another truly matters” and turned to the following quote from church President Russell M. Nelson: “The Savior’s message is clear: His true disciples build, lift, encourage, persuade and inspire.”
Phillips said such help is even more important when “fellow travelers feel lost, alone, forgotten or removed.”
In aiding others and pressing forward during times of difficulty, Phillips said, it is important to remember the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, whose atonement makes it possible to receive support through the trials of life and to return to Heavenly Father.
“Christ is our rescuer and the healer of our souls,” he said. “As we exercise faith, he helps us press forward through hardships. He continues to extend his loving and merciful invitation: ‘Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’”
By yoking ourselves to the Savior and keeping our covenants, Phillips added, “we are not and never need to be alone” and he will “provide the strength, and healing you need to face the journey ahead. He is the refuge from our storms still.”
In summing up his talk, Phillips referred, once again, to son Jasper.
“For the record, Jasper is witty, affectionate, intelligent and rambunctious. But the key to this story is, he is mine,” Phillips said, his voice cracking with emotion. “He is my son, and I love him more than he will ever know. If an imperfect, earthly father feels this way about his child, can you imagine how a perfect, glorified, loving, Heavenly Father feels about you?”
To be secure in the knowledge of God’s love, Phillips told his listeners to come to “know their Father in Heaven,” and to understand that “he is perfect and loving.” He also counseled people to bind themselves and those they love to the Savior.
“God’s plan of happiness is all about you.,” he said. “You are his precious child and of great worth. He knows and loves you.”
Seventy Yoon Hwan Choi: Happiness comes from staying on ‘the covenant path’
Latter-day Saints facing tough times can find relief in God as they pay their tithing, fulfill their callings and generally keep their promises with God, general authority Seventy Yoon Hwan Choi taught.
Choi, who is Korean, illustrated this point by describing a time in his life when financial and other worries plagued him and his wife. It was amid these difficulties that he was called to be lay bishop of his ward, or congregation. The news came as a terrible shock to his wife, who prayed to know why God seemed to be adding to their burdens.
The day he was released as bishop, he said, “my wife heard a voice while she was receiving the sacrament. The voice whispered to her, ‘Because it was too hard for you to walk, I called him as a bishop in order to hold you and walk for you.’”
The challenges that had weighed so heavily on them at the start of his tenure as bishop, Choi said, had since been resolved.
“My dear brothers and sisters, do you want to be happy?” he asked. “Stay on the covenant path. Your life will be easier, happier and filled with joy.”
Apostle Gary Stevenson on exercising spiritual gifts
God-given “gifts make gifted people,” said apostle Gary E. Stevenson, but such gifts must be “refined and honed by a lifetime of hard work, study and practice. … A gift alone does not a master make.”
That is no less true, he said, of spiritual gifts. “Exercising spiritual gifts requires spiritual exercise.”
One of the greatest spiritual gifts, Stevenson said, is the “constant companionship of the Holy Ghost.” He offered four guiding principles for “inviting and recognizing the promptings of the Spirit”:
• Stand in holy places, including temples and chapels.
• Stand with holy people, those with whom “the Spirit can easily dwell.”
• Testify of “holy truths,” which the Spirit will confirm.
* Listen to the Spirit, who speaks in “subtle, quiet tones.”
“It remains for each of us to seek to exercise our spiritual gifts,” Stevenson concluded, “and then to invite and learn to recognize the promptings of the Spirit.”
Seventy Joaquin Costa: Put faith in Jesus every day
Faith in Jesus Christ gives Latter-day Saints the strength they need to weather the storms of life, general authority Seventy Joaquin E. Costa told listeners during the Saturday afternoon session.
In talking about coping with trials, the native of Argentina provided several examples. He talked about a widow who lost her husband while on the Lord’s errand in Bolivia, a young woman in Argentina who was pushed under a train and lost her leg and people in Chile whose homes were lost during a devastating fire two days before Christmas.
While exercising faith in the Savior during such adversity may seem “impossible” or “unattainable,” the church leader said, “I have learned … that faith in Jesus Christ is what gives us the energy to begin the journey. Sometimes we may think, ‘I need to fix my life before I come to Jesus,’ but the truth is that we come to Jesus to fix our lives through him.”
Costa said exercising faith comes in simple ways such as reading the scriptures, uttering simple prayers and partaking of the sacrament, or Communion, to “always remember him.”
“When I ‘remember him,’ I feel a desire to change, to repent,” he said. “I find the source of energy to keep my covenants, and I feel the influence of the Holy Ghost in my life ‘and keep his commandments which he has given (me), that I may always have his spirit.’ It helps me to endure to the end.”
Sunday school leader Jan Newman to parents: ‘You are doing much better than you think’
Jan E. Newman, a leader in the church’s global Sunday school, called on parents to be diligent in their efforts to teach their children about Jesus Christ, stressing that such work will look different depending on each family.
“One of our most sacred responsibilities is to help our children come to know deeply and specifically that Jesus is the Christ,” the second counselor in the Sunday school presidency said, “the son of the living God, their personal Savior and Redeemer, who stands at the head of his church!”
Parents, he advised, should not feel like they are alone in this effort, explaining that wards, or congregations, are authorized to convene quarterly teacher council meetings for parents looking to learn from one another’s experiences.
“My dear friends in Christ,” he assured listeners, “you are doing much better than you think.”
He also reminded parents that while their kids “may forget the Savior for a season ... I promise you, he will never forget them.”
Apostle Neil Andersen: The ‘blessings of tithing’
All material resources enjoyed by Latter-day Saints come “from God,” apostle Neil L. Andersen said Saturday afternoon.
“As disciples of Christ, we willingly share with those around us,” he said. “With all the Lord gives to us, he has asked us to return to him and his kingdom on earth 10% of our increase.”
The only “permanent solution to the poverty of this world is the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Andersen said. “...The world speaks of tithing in terms of our money, but the sacred law of tithing is principally a matter of our faith.”
In recent years, the Utah-based church has faced increasing scrutiny in regards to its wealth, with some observers and experts estimating it could reach a trillion dollars in 20 years. Even devout Latter-day Saints are calling upon their leaders to be more transparent about the faith’s finances and even more generous with its humanitarian aid, which exceeded $1 billion last year.
Andersen defended the church’s use of its funds. “Sacred tithes do not belong to leaders of the church,” Andersen said. “They belong to the Lord.” They are spent on helping those in need, missionary work, temples, meetinghouses and five institutions of higher learning.
“The spiritual power of the divine law of tithing is not measured by the amount of money contributed, for both the prosperous and the poor are commanded by the Lord to contribute 10% of their income,” he said. “The power comes from placing our trust in the Lord.”
Andersen shared a quote from former church President Gordon B. Hinckley’s father about tithing: “What the authorities of the church do with it need not concern [you, Gordon]. They are answerable to the Lord, who will require an accounting at their hands.”
Today’s top church leaders, Andersen assured, “deeply feel the weight of being ‘answerable to the Lord.’”
President Dallin Oaks: ‘Gender is an eternal characteristic’
Unlike other Christians, Latter-day Saints do not believe in a heaven for the righteous and a hell for the wicked, said Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency.
Instead, these believers can aspire to one of three afterlife “degrees of glory” — the Celestial, Terrestrial and Telestial kingdoms.
“God’s plan, founded on eternal truth, requires that exaltation [in the highest degree] can be attained,” Oaks said, “only through faithfulness to the covenants of an eternal marriage between a man and a woman in the holy temple, which marriage will ultimately be available to all the faithful.”
That is why the church teaches that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal and eternal identity and purpose,” said Oaks, who has spoken repeatedly about LGBTQ issues.
The Latter-day Saint leader pointed to the 1995 family proclamation, which “clarify the celestial requirements that prepare us to live with God the Father and his son, Jesus Christ.”
Some members “may consider this family proclamation no more than a changeable statement of policy,” Oaks said. “In contrast, we affirm that the family proclamation, founded on irrevocable doctrine, defines the mortal family relationship where the most important part of our eternal development can occur.”
Much about the afterlife remains unclear, he conceded. Even so, Latter-day Saints teach these “eternal truths” that “salvation is an individual matter, but exaltation is a family matter.”
A loving God “will see that we receive every blessing and every advantage,” Oaks said, “that our own desires and choices allow.”
Seventy Ian Ardern cites widespread collaboration with UNICEF, others to provide aid to God’s children
General authority Seventy Ian S. Ardern extolled the virtues of the faith’s humanitarian efforts, describing in detail a trip he recently took with other church leaders to Uganda. There, they visited a project jointly funded by the Utah-based church’s humanitarian services, along with UNICEF and the Ugandan Ministry of Health.
“These are trusted organizations,” the native New Zealander said, “carefully selected to ensure the donated humanitarian funds of the members of the church are prudently used.” The church’s international relief spending topped $1 billion last year.
Later in his talk, Ardern, who is the uncle of New Zealand’s former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, a former Latter-day Saint, identified additional partners in the church’s effort to provide aid — including the United Nations, Catholic Relief Services, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent — to God’s children.
The speaker then described his feelings as he, worldwide women’s Relief Society President Camille Johnson and the director of the church’s humanitarian operations, Sharon Eubank, along with others, witnessed the gratitude of those impacted.
“On that hot and dusty day, I wished you could have seen the recipients dance and sing in appreciation for the help and hope they were receiving,” he said. “Most of all, I wish you could have heard their prayers of sincere gratitude to God.”
Ardern attributed that day’s moving experience to the “kindness” of members worldwide, who donate their time and money to humanitarian outreach.
Apostle D. Todd Christofferson: The power to ‘seal’ couples and generations
God has given Latter-day Saint authorities the power to bind — “seal” — couples, parents and children, and generations in the faith’s temples, apostle D. Todd Christofferson taught Saturday.
“The highest and holiest manifestation of the sealing power is in the eternal union of a man and a woman in marriage and the linking of humankind through all their generations,” Christofferson said. “Because the authority to officiate in these ordinances is so sacred, the president of the church personally oversees its delegation to others.”
Without these sealings that “create eternal families and link generations here and hereafter,” he said, “we would be left in eternity with neither roots nor branches, that is, neither ancestry nor posterity. It is this free-floating, disconnected state of individuals, on the one hand, or connections that defy the marriage and family relations God has appointed, on the other hand, that would frustrate the very purpose of the earth’s creation.”
If that ever became “the norm,” Christofferson said, “it would be tantamount to the earth being smitten with a curse or ‘utterly wasted’ at the Lord’s coming.”
The apostle reiterated his faith that “the sealing power and authority restored to earth through [church founder] Joseph Smith are real, that what is thereby bound on earth is bound in heaven,” adding that “the possibility of exalted family relationships [is a] a reality.”
Seventy Carlos Godoy warns lukewarm and inactive members risk losing their children ‘in this life and eternity’
In his Saturday morning address, Carlos A. Godoy of the Presidency of the Seventy spoke directly to Latter-day Saints who have stepped away from church activity or have grown lax in their adherence to the faith’s teachings. Doing so, the Brazilian warned, jeopardized their family’s eternal status and risked robbing future generations of “the protection and the blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ in their lives.”
He decried “lukewarm membership,” warning that such individuals “may remain active, but the risk of losing their children is high — in this life and in eternity.”
Those who choose to step away from “the covenant path” entirely, he said, negatively impact “a whole chain of descendants,” adding that “a legacy of faith has been broken.”
Godoy closed with a heartfelt invitation to such individuals “to look ahead and evaluate” where their current decisions will lead and, “if necessary, to be valiant enough to reshape your path for the sake of your posterity.”
Seventy Robert Daines: Spiritual ‘face-blindness’
Being unable to recognize faces or recognize the beauty and sacrifices of others, said Robert M. Daines of the Seventy, is known as “face-blindness.”
And that applies, Daines said, to Christian spirituality as well.
“You may struggle to see God as a loving Father. You may look heavenward and see, not the face of love and mercy, but a thicket of rules through which you must wend your way,” the general authority said. “Perhaps you believe God rules in his heavens, speaks through his prophets and loves your sister, but you secretly wonder whether he loves you. Perhaps you have felt the ‘iron rod’ in your hand, but not yet felt your Savior’s love to which it leads.”
Daines acknowledged his own spiritual “face-blindness.”
“I saw rules but not the face of the [Heavenly] Father’s mercy. I knew it wasn’t the church’s fault; it wasn’t God’s, and it didn’t mean everything was lost. It’s something we all have to learn,” he said. Even the early witnesses to the resurrection often came face to face with the resurrected Lord but did not recognize him.”
After he realized this in himself, he “started to follow Mormon’s counsel [from the Book of Mormon, the faith’s foundational scripture] to pray ‘with all the energy of heart’ to be filled with the love promised his disciples — my love for him and his love for me — and to ‘see him as he is…and have this hope.’”
Daines reminded the faithful that they “worship our Father, not a formula and that we’re not finished until we see Jesus as the face of our Father’s love and follow him, not just his rules.”
Primary leader Amy Wright: Find joy through Jesus
Amy A. Wright, first counselor in the presidency of the worldwide children’s Primary, reflected on the “crisp fall day” she first learned she had cancer.
As she prayed on the drive home to know whether she would live or die, she said, the Holy Ghost whispered back only “Everything will be OK.”
Through this experience, Wright came to better understand, she said, the importance of daily acts of building faith in her children, relieved that even if she were to die, she would do so knowing she had taught them to believe in Jesus Christ.
“In that moment,” she said, “every family home evening lesson, scripture study session, prayer of faith offered, blessing given, testimony shared, covenant made and kept, House of the Lord attended, and Sabbath day observed mattered — oh how it mattered! It was too late to put oil in our lamps. We needed every single drop, and we needed it right now!”
She continued, explaining that because of Christ, she knew her family would be restored, should the worst occur. Neither is her family alone. Because of him, the taught, all families can be restored, regardless of the troubles they face in this life.
“Nothing we have, or have not done, is beyond the reach of his infinite and eternal sacrifice,” she said. “He is the reason why it is never the end of our story.”
Knowing this, can be a source of “joy in this life, right now — not despite the challenges of our day but because of the Lord’s help to learn from and ultimately overcome them — and immeasurable joy in the life to come.”
Apostle David Bednar: Celebrating ‘anonymous heroes’
Drawing on a speech about the early Mormon pioneers, apostle David A. Bednar described the contribution of “migrants who traveled in the last covered wagon in each of the long wagon trains that crossed the Plains.”
The apostle then praised current members who, “in the path of their duty,” sit by women and men sitting alone at church, who comfort those who “stand in need of comfort,” who “support a companion, parent or child who serves in a leadership position in the Lord’s restored church,” and many other “devoted disciples.”
He told his listeners that their “strong faith in Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ and your unpretentious, consecrated lives inspire me to be a better man and disciple,” Bednar said. “...They of the last wagon, all who are no less serviceable, and you who today are pressing forward in the path of your duty are the strength of the Savior’s restored church.”