Apostle urges Mormons to stand against racism, sexism and nationalism while trumpeting life of a pioneering black woman

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of the Church of the Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints walk to the General Conference Oct. 1 2017.

After describing the heroic life of black Mormon pioneer Jane Manning James, LDS apostle M. Russell Ballard told a worldwide audience of Mormons on Sunday that bigotry in any form is un-Christian.

“We need to embrace God’s children compassionately,” Ballard said, “and eliminate any prejudice, including racism, sexism and nationalism.”

He and others assured the faithful gathered in downtown Salt Lake City for the 187th Semiannual General Conference that Mormon apostles represent the “voice of God” — and warned them not to listen to unauthorized figures asserting “special knowledge.”

The conference’s final day began without the presence of the church’s ailing 90-year-old leader, President Thomas S. Monson, who did not attend any sessions of this fall’s twice-yearly gathering.

It marks the first time that has happened during Monson’s nearly 10-year tenure as leader of the nearly 16 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Shortly after the morning session, longtime apostle Robert D. Hales died at a nearby hospital. The 85-year-old leader, who had been in failing health for several years and was unable to attend this conference, was being treated for pulmonary conditions and other health issues.

Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the governing First Presidency, noted Hales’ passing at the start of the afternoon session.

“We will miss him,” Eyring said. “His wisdom and goodness have blessed our lives for many years.”

Going off script, apostle Neil L. Andersen noted in his concluding speech that the First Presidency had offered to let Hales speak Sunday — if he were up to it. Though he was unable to do so, the late apostle did pen his thoughts, which he gave to Andersen to read.

‘When we choose to have faith, we are prepared to stand in the presence of God,” Hales wrote. “After the savior’s crucifixion, he appeared only to those who had been faithful in the testimony of him while they lived in mortality.”

Those who “rejected the testimony of the prophets could not behold the savior’s presence nor look upon his face.”

Steve Griffin / The Salt Lake Tribune Jeri Harwell, dressed and acts in character as Sister Jane Elizabeth Manning James as she tells her life story at the grave site of the historical African-American Mormon woman at the Salt Lake City Cemetery Thursday June 9, 2016. The event was part of a tour in conjunction with the Mormon History Association conference that visited significant sites and stories related to African-Americans in Utah history.

In his earlier remarks, Ballard presented Jane Manning James as an example of “faith in every footstep.”

The daughter of a freed slave, James was an early Mormon convert, Ballard said, “and a most remarkable disciple who faced difficult challenges. [She] remained a faithful Latter-day Saint until her death in 1908 at the age of 87.”

As a black member, James was denied access to Mormon temples — despite her pleas to perform the faith’s holiest religious rites there. The LDS Church’s ban preventing black men and boys from being ordained to its all-male priesthood and women from entering its temples didn’t end until 1978.

Through it all, though, James did not stop believing.

“I want to say right here, that my faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, as taught by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is as strong today, nay, it is, if possible, stronger than it was the day I was first baptized,” James wrote, according to Ballard. “I pay my tithes and offerings, keep the Word of Wisdom. I go to bed early and rise early. I try, in my feeble way, to set a good example to all.”

The longtime member along with so many others, the apostle said, “not only built Zion with blood, sweat and tears but also sought the Lord’s blessings through living gospel principles as best she could.”

Mormons today should be careful, Ballard said, “where our footsteps in life take us.”

He warned his listeners not to be “deceived” by those without LDS priesthood authority or who “tamper with the doctrine” about Christ. He urged them to stay away from “organizations, groups or individuals” who say they have “secret answers to doctrinal questions” that “apostles and prophets do not have or understand.”

Though Ballard did not mention any group by name, the characterizations seem to fit the nascent Remnant movement, based in part on divine revelations asserted by excommunicated Mormon Denver Snuffer, a Sandy attorney.

The movement, which reportedly has between 5,000 and 10,000 members, teaches that Mormon founder Joseph Smith was a “true prophet,” but all subsequent LDS leaders, starting with Brigham Young, fell away from the truth.

Ballard further cautioned members to stay away from “those who entice you with get-rich schemes.” Latter-day Saints “have lost far too much money, so be careful.”

He also counseled Mormons to avoid “seeking secret knowledge in expensive and questionable practices to provide healing and support.”

Ballard concluded by inviting everyone “within the sound of my voice to welcome and embrace anyone who is making his or her own trek today, no matter where they are in their journey.”

During the morning gathering, Eyring mentioned Monson’s brief remarks at the April conference, during which the frail LDS prophet-leader encouraged all members to read the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon.

“Like many of you,” Eyring said, “I heard the prophet’s words as the voice of the Lord to me.”

The counselor and many other Mormons intensified their study of the text, he said, and, as a result, “have found a greater power to resist temptation, and have felt greater faith in a resurrected Jesus Christ, in his gospel and in his living church.”

As faith increases, Eyring said, so does the desire to do good as does “the courage to go to the rescue of others without concern for our own needs.”

He pointed to the widespread service of Latter-day Saints who partnered with other churches, community groups and national organizations to begin cleanup efforts in the aftermath of recent hurricanes in Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, Texas and Florida.

“We see such love in the lives of Latter-day Saints everywhere,” he said. “Each time there is a tragic event anywhere in the world, Latter-day Saints donate and volunteer to the church’s humanitarian efforts. An appeal is seldom needed.”

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jean B. Bingham, Relief Society general president, speaks at General Conference on Sunday, Oct. 1 2017.

In her first major address to the Mormon faithful since being named the 17th general president of the faith’s all-female Relief Society in April, Jean B. Bingham said the more Latter-day Saints learn about, have faith in, and emulate Jesus Christ, the more they will recognize him as “the source of all healing, peace and eternal progress.”

As believers center their lives on the Christian Savior, Bingham said, “you will find joy in your circumstances, whatever they may be.”

“No matter what we have suffered, he is the source of healing,” she said. “Those who have experienced any manner of abuse, devastating loss, chronic illness or disabling affliction, untrue accusations, vicious persecution, or spiritual damage from sin or misunderstandings can all be made whole by the redeemer of the world. However, he will not enter without invitation. We must come unto him and allow him to work his miracles.”

Apostle David A. Bednar discussed the ways in which honoring the sabbath and attending an LDS temple are similar.

Both are meant to “elevate our vision from the things of the world to the blessings of eternity,” Bednar said. “Removed during this sacred time from many of the regular routines of our busy lives, we can ‘look to God and live’...remembering the great and precious promises whereby we become partakers of the divine nature.”

W. Craig Zwick, a newly named emeritus general authority, urged Mormons to see others through the eyes of Jesus.

“The gospel net is filled with people in all their variety,” Zwick said. “We can’t fully understand the choices and psychological backgrounds of people in our world, church congregations and even in our families because we rarely have the whole picture of who they are. We must look past the easy assumptions and stereotypes and widen the tiny lens of our own experience.”

He told the story of a young Mormon missionary in his charge who repeatedly asked to go home. Zwick, as mission president, just kept lecturing and challenging the young man to study and work harder, but the young man’s resolve to leave did not change.

Finally, the former mission president was impressed to ask the missionary what was hard for him. The young man responded, “I can’t read.”

Zwick felt horrible about misunderstanding the missionary.

“What he needed most was for me to look beyond my hasty assessment and allow the Spirit to help me understand what was really on this elder’s mind,” he said. “He needed me to see him correctly and offer a reason to hope. Instead, I acted like a giant demolition wrecking ball.”

Today’s world “feeds on comparisons, labeling and criticism,” Zwick said. “Instead of seeing through the lens of social media, we need to look inward for the godly attributes to which we each lay claim. These godly qualities and longings cannot be posted on Pinterest or Instagram.”

To truly love others, he said, believers much practice “accepting the best efforts of people whose life experiences and limitations we may never fully know.”