For the first time in years, the seat held for the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the faith’s two-day General Conference was vacant.
On Sunday afternoon, though, President Russell M. Nelson delivered a strong video message to the faithful in Salt Lake City’s Conference Center and those tuning in around the globe about what he has learned in his 99 years and what they can expect in the hereafter.
As he approaches the century mark, the former surgeon, who injured his back in a fall three weeks ago, encouraged his listeners to think “celestial” — alluding to the Latter-day Saint belief that the highest heaven is the Celestial Kingdom — because “the very things that will make your mortal life the best it can be are exactly the same things that will make your life throughout all eternity the best it can be.”
He warned against sex outside of heterosexual marriage and listening to nonbeliever voices, while encouraging more temple attendance. Indeed, the faith’s 17th president announced 20 new temples Sunday, upping the total tally of existing or planned temples to 335 (46% of them announced by him).
Other speakers during the weekend — including only three women — discussed the importance of commitment and community (Gerrit W. Gong), the contribution of unsung heroes in the pews (David A. Bednar), and finding an “overview perspective” to see others as God sees them (Tamara W. Runia).
Apostle Neil L. 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.”
W. Christopher Waddell, first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, bemoaned members who revere “politicians, bloggers, influencers, athletes or musicians,” causing them “to lose sight of what is truly essential.”
The only hero for today’s believers, he said, “is Jesus Christ.”
Apostle Ulisses Soares spoke eloquently of the dangers of prejudice and discrimination.
“It is not uncommon to see people characterizing the way of thinking, acting and speaking of other cultures, races and ethnicities as inferior,” the Brazilian said, “making use of preconceived, mistaken and often sarcastic ideas, generating attitudes of contempt, indifference, disrespect and even prejudice against them.”
At the same time, Seventy Carlos Godoy 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.”
Nelson’s first counselor in the governing First Presidency, Dallin H. Oaks, next in line to lead the faith, made the same point as Nelson — that the highest realms of heaven are open only to those faithful “to the covenants of an eternal marriage between a man and a woman in the holy temple.”
Oaks, who has spoken repeatedly about LGBTQ issues, added that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal and eternal identity and purpose.”
Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland also watched the services from his home, where he is recovering from a lengthy hospital stay.
Here are short summaries of key sermons:
Dallin Oaks: Family proclamation is ‘irrevocable’
The Latter-day Saint leader pointed to elements in 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.”
Apostle Ulisses Soares: Abandon prejudicial attitudes and behavior
Soares invited listeners to heed Nelson’s call to abandon prejudicial attitudes and actions.
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.”
After talking about Jesus’ ministry, the apostle turned to an example closer to home. He noted that in his native Brazil, the Iguazu River flows into a system of waterfalls known as Iguazu Falls, considered one of the “seven wonders of the world.” 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.”
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.”
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.
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].”
In summing up his sermon, the church leader 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?”
Seventy Carlos Godoy: A warning to ‘lukewarm’ members
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.”
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.”
Apostle Neil Andersen: The ‘blessings of tithing’
“As disciples of Christ, we willingly share with those around us,” Andersen 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” in the form of tithing.
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.
The only “permanent solution to the poverty of this world,” Andersen said, “is the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
He defended the church’s use of its funds. “Sacred tithes do not belong to leaders of the church,” he said. “They belong to the Lord.” They are spent on helping those in need, missionary work, temples, meetinghouses and five institutions of higher learning.
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.’”
Bishop W. Christopher Waddell: Hero worship as a ‘golden calf’
It can be tempting, warned Waddell, first counselor in the church’s Presiding Bishopric, “to turn to society’s ‘heroes’ in an effort to provide clarity to life when it may seem confusing or overwhelming.”
”We buy the clothes they sponsor, embrace the politics they espouse, and follow their suggestions shared on social media,” he said. “This might be fine for a temporary diversion, but we must be watchful that this form of hero worship does not become our golden calf.”
Waddell generated national attention in May, when he appeared on “60 Minutes” in defense of the church’s wealth and financial practices. As a member of the Presiding Bishopric, he works as an ecclesiastical overseer of the Utah-based faith’s far-reaching financial, real estate, investment and charitable operations.
Apostle Dieter Uchtdorf: Today’s ‘prodigal’ members
Popular apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf expounded on “the greatest short story ever told” — the biblical account of the prodigal son.
After the son took his inheritance and left his father’s house, Uchtdorf said, “had there been social media in that time, surely, he would have filled pages with animated photos of laughing friends — #Livingmybestlife! #Neverhappier! #Shouldhavedonethislongago! But the party did not last — it rarely does.”
The prodigal son ran out of money; a famine swept the land; and “the once unstoppable, jubilant, high-roller now could not afford a single meal, let alone a place to stay. How would he survive?”
Uchtdorf — a refugee twice in his life, once while leaving then-Czechoslovakia and again while fleeing from then-East Germany to West Germany — said it “wasn’t just an empty stomach that troubled” the prodigal son. “It was an empty soul.”
The parable, he said, shows that, no matter what we’ve done, “our Heavenly Father will run to us, his heart overflowing with love and compassion. … Though choices may have taken you far away from the Savior and his church, the master healer stands at the road that leads home, welcoming you.”
Young Women leader Emily Freeman: Walking with Jesus
A covenant is more than “a set of checkboxes,” said President Emily Belle Freeman, leader of the church’s worldwide Young Women program. It’s about a relationship with God. '
“Conditions have been set, and there will be expectations along the way,” she said. “And yet, he invites each of us to come as we are able with full purpose of heart, and to ‘press forward’ with him at our side, trusting that his promised blessings will come.”
She praised the church’s young people, noting “the strength of the rising generation.”
Everyone can learn from the young, Freeman said. “You have a genuine desire to know the guide, Jesus Christ. You trust the strength of the rope that tethers us to him. You are gifted in leading others to him.”
Thankfully, she said, “we walk this path together.”
Apostle M. Russell Ballard: Thank you, Joseph
Unable to read from the teleprompter because of failing eyesight, 94-year-old apostle M. Russell Ballard expressed gratitude for church founder Joseph Smith and his reported encounter with deity.
“We sing … ‘Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah,’” Ballard said. “We thank the Lord for Joseph Smith and for his courage to go into that grove of trees in 1820 near his home in Palmyra, New York.”
Ballard’s great-great-grandfather was Hyrum Smith, the brother of the faith’s founder.
Speaking slowly and somewhat haltingly, Ballard said “I’ll soon be 95 [on Oct. 8]. My children tell me they think I’m a lot older than that some days. But that’s OK. I’m doing the best I can.”
Ballard has been in the headlines in recent weeks after a church spokesperson issued a stinging rebuke of anti-human-trafficking activist Tim Ballard (no relation) for allegedly exploiting a former friendship with the senior apostle.
The apostle did not address that dispute in his remarks. Rather, he said he was grateful for the Book of Mormon, a “marvelous, wonderful gift. … We have it because Joseph was worthy to go get the [gold] plates, was inspired by heaven to translate them by the gift and power or god. And to give it to the world.”