SALT LAKE CITY — On Saturday, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were reminded of the early history of the church, founder Joseph Smith’s life, and the importance of the faith’s Book of Mormon during the first day of the church’s 190th Annual General Conference.
In welcoming the world to conference, President Russell M. Nelson put in a disclaimer about the mode in which the conference’s digital presentation was being given due to the worldwide virus.
“Little did I know, when I promised you at the October 2019 general conference that this April conference would be ‘memorable and unforgettable,’ that speaking to a visible congregation of fewer than 10 people would make this conference so memorable and unforgettable for me!” Nelson said.
He added, “Yet, the knowledge that you are participating by electronic transmission, and the choir’s beautiful rendition of, ‘It Is Well With My Soul,’ bring great comfort to my soul.”
Leaders participating in the conference spoke to empty seats in a small theater on Temple Square and sat several feet apart to adhere to social distancing recommendations.
Special solemn assembly
Nelson announced that at the end of the Sunday morning session of conference he would lead the church in a special solemn assembly and the church’s Hosanna Shout ritual.
“We pray that this will be a spiritual highlight for you as we express in global unison our profound gratitude to God the Father and his Beloved Son by praising them in this unique way,” Nelson said.
Church members view solemn assemblies as special, sacred meetings held for a variety of purposes. They require members to bring an elevated sense of spirituality with them into the meeting.
Previous assemblies have been held for the purpose of sustaining new church presidents, dedicating a temple or another significant building (such as the Conference Center in Salt Lake City), introducing new scripture, instructing priesthood leaders, and other special gatherings, according to church information.
Since the 1892 capstone ceremony of the Salt Lake Temple, the Hosanna Shout has been done while waving a white handkerchief. “For this sacred experience, members use clean, white handkerchiefs,” Nelson explained Saturday morning. “But, if you do not have one, you may simply wave your hand.”
At the conclusion of Sunday’s Hosanna Shout, the congregation will join in singing “The Spirit of God,” just as was done at the historic Kirtland Temple dedication.
“Honoring deity in this way is an especially important and holy symbol as the church celebrates in this general conference (and throughout the year) the bicentennial of Joseph Smith’s First Vision of the Father and the Son,” Nelson said. “It was in that vision that the Father, pointing to Jesus Christ, told the teenage Joseph, ‘This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!’”
Saturday morning session
In giving an overview of the life of Joseph Smith, President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of The Quorum of the Twelve, noted how individuals could find answers to their deepest questions as Smith did.
“Joseph came to realize that the Bible did not contain all the answers to life’s questions; rather, it taught men and women how they could find answers to their questions by communicating directly with God through prayer,” he said.
In referencing the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, James R. Rasband of the Seventy asked, without its clarity about the doctrine of Christ and his atoning sacrifice, “Where would I turn for peace?”
He added, “The magnificent, peace-giving promise of the Book of Mormon and the restored gospel is that the Savior will mend all that we have broken.”
Speaking about the experience of the “last days,” President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency, noted there will be unity among members of the church.
“We as a people will become more united amid increasing conflict. We will be gathered in the spiritual strength of groups and families filled with the gospel light.”
Speaking specifically about the women of the church and their roles, Sister Joy D. Jones, Primary general president, said women have a divine errand.
“Sisters, it is our turn. We have a divine errand from the Lord, and our faithful, unique contributions are vital,” Jones said. “The First Vision gives us direction in our unique, continuing roles.”
Jones added, “As women of faith, we can draw principles of truth from the Prophet Joseph’s experiences that provide insights for receiving our own revelation.”
Referring to Smith’s own testimony of what he saw in the grove in the spring of 1820, Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve noted, “In his difficult hours, Joseph’s memory reached back nearly two decades to the certainty of God’s love for him, and the events that welcomed in the long-foretold restoration. Reflecting on his spiritual journey, Joseph said, ‘I don’t blame anyone for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I would not have believed it myself.’”
Adding to the theme and message of the morning session was music prerecorded in late February and early March by the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, along with recordings of the choir’s performances at past conference sessions.
Beginning with celebratory music including “Awake and Arise,” The Morning Breaks,” and “It is Well With My Soul,” the choir also sang “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer” and finished with “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”
Saturday afternoon session
President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency, conducted the Saturday afternoon session, which continued its focus on the importance of the Book of Mormon as a testament of Christ.
As is tradition, President Dallin H. Oaks began the meeting with the releasing and sustaining of new general authorities and general officers of the church.
For those living along the Wasatch Front, some familiar names were a part of those sustainings, including as a General Authority Seventy former Utah Valley University President Matthew S. Holland, who was serving with his wife, Paige, as mission president of the North Carolina Raleigh Mission.
Sustained as an area seventy was Clark Gilbert, president of BYU–Pathway Worldwide.
Steven Lund, who was called as President of the Young Men general presidency, is executive chairman of the board of directors of Nu Skin in Provo.
Following the sustainings and the reading of the letter from the auditing department, Ulisses S. Soares of the Quorum of the Twelve spoke on the Book of Mormon.
“I bear my witness that the Book of Mormon is indeed the word of God. I testify that this sacred record puts forth the doctrines of the gospel, outlines the plan of salvation, and tells men what they must do to gain peace in this life and eternal salvation in the life to come.”
John A. McCune of the Seventy offered his testimony on the importance of members of the church coming to Christ, noting that when they do, challenges should be expected.
“As we labor with Christ, our most deeply focused efforts should be within our own homes,” McCune said. “There will be times when family members and close friends will face challenges. The voices of the world, and maybe their own desires, might cause them to question truth.”
Gérald Caussé, presiding bishop of the church, also spoke of the living Christ as the theme of the Book of Mormon.
“The central message of the Book of Mormon is to restore the true knowledge of the essential role of Jesus Christ in the salvation and exaltation of mankind,” Caussé said.
Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve reflected on Christ’s goodness as taught in the Book of Mormon, and the gifts God gives.
“What does it take for you to be drawn to the Savior?” Renlund asked. “Consider Jesus Christ’s submission to his father’s will, his victory over death, his taking upon himself your sins and mistakes, his receiving power from the father to make intercession for you, and his ultimate redemption of you.”
Connecting the theme of the teachings of the Book of Mormon, Benjamin M. Z. Tai of the Seventy spoke of spiritual learning and how the Book of Mormon helps in conversion.
“The Savior has given us the Book of Mormon as a powerful tool to aid in conversion,” Tai said. “The Book of Mormon provides spiritual nutrition, prescribes a plan of action, and connects us with the Holy Spirit.”
In the concluding talk of the session, Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve reviewed the current upgrading of the Salt Lake Temple. He suggested that members of the church do the same thing with their own “foundation.”
“An introspective look may reveal that we, too, and our families could benefit from our doing some needed maintenance and renovation work, even a seismic upgrade,” Stevenson said.
Concluding, Stevenson said, “During the coming years, may we allow these improvements made to the Salt Lake Temple to move and inspire us, as individuals and families, so that we too — metaphorically — will be built in a manner that will endure the millennium.”
The special evening session, which is usually the Priesthood Session during the April general conference, was focused on the restoration of the priesthood and how it functions in the lives of members of the church. However, all church members participated in this session, not just the male members.
The current COVID-19 pandemic was discussed by President Russell M. Nelson, who said the Lord knows the needs of the world at this time. Nelson called for another day of fasting as part of Holy Week leading up to Easter.
“I invite all, including those not of our faith, to fast and pray on Good Friday, April 10, that the present pandemic may be controlled, caregivers protected, the economy strengthened, and life normalized.”
Nelson also announced the worldwide organization would adopt a new logo and symbol, in order to fortify the focus of the full name of the church. The new logo adds Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Christus statue standing in an arch.
Nelson indicated that the Christus and the arch represent Christ emerging from the tomb following his resurrection.
The rest of the evening was focused on various aspects of the priesthood and its functions and influences on various members of the church.
Two youth from the Provo area — Laudy Ruth Kaouk and Enzo S. Petelo — were invited to speak during the session. They addressed how the priesthood can bless the youth of the church.
Both Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency, and Dallin H. Oaks, the second counselor, also spoke.