With President Thomas S. Monson newly sustained as the church's leader and a First Presidency at the helm, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opened its 178th Annual General Conference Saturday, adding Elder D. Todd Christofferson as a new apostle and installing dozens of other new leaders, including a new Young Women general presidency.
The three Saturday sessions featured sermons by top leaders on a variety of topics, including a frank discourse on the evils of verbal, emotional, physical and sexual abuse. President Monson spoke only during the evening priesthood session for male members, counseling them to live worthy of the priesthood they hold.
"The face of sin today often wears the Halloween mask of tolerance," he said. "Do not be deceived; behind that facade is heartache, unhappiness and pain. You know what is right and what is wrong, and no disguise, however appealing, can change that," President Monson counseled.
Thousands packed the Conference Center and other church meeting halls on Temple Square during the sessions, joined by additional millions who participated through electronic media. The proceedings, which continued today with sessions at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., are being translated into 92 languages and broadcast in 96 countries via the Internet.
The First Presidency also reported on the growth of the church's wards, stakes and missions, announcing that membership now exceeds 13.1 million around the world.
Saturday morning's solemn assembly to sustain President Monson, 16th president of the church, and his counselors, President Henry B. Eyring and President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, was the first order of business. Elder Christofferson, formerly of the presidency of the Quorums of the Seventy, was named to the Quorum of the Twelve, filling the vacancy created when President Uchtdorf was called as a counselor in the First Presidency.
President Uchtdorf conducted the assembly, which provided church members their first opportunity to express support for the new presidency. The three were named in a press conference on Feb. 4, slightly more than a week after the death of President Gordon B. Hinckley on Jan. 27.
Throughout the history of the church, the succession of presidents has followed the same pattern: The president of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles has been elevated to the presidency of the church. The practice of sustaining the new president in a solemn assembly has been an important part of the process.
"Today at this solemn assembly, we have complied with the will of the Lord," said Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve, who was first to address the congregation after the assembly. The "law of common consent has been invoked and the church will move forward on its prescribed course."
Sustaining proceeded from the the three members of the First Presidency itself through the ranks of leadership, priesthood quorums, auxiliary membership and then to the general membership of the church, with each group rising to make its support known. The vote in the Conference Center appeared to be unanimous, although it was announced that dissenting votes could be noted and passed along to authorities.
It was an emotional moment for many, including members who had traveled long distances to be present for the conference.
"Ohhh," said Maria Ofer Sanabria, her hand on her heart. "It was so special. It was the only (such moment) in my life. I raised my hand high. I feel very happy." She traveled from Florida with two daughters to take part in the special day.
Her friend Victor Cardozo of Salt Lake City then expressed the obligation his show of support entailed. "Now I will support him (President Monson) and follow his instructions," he said.
The solemn assembly was a common thread that wove itself into several of the Saturday talks.
Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve paid tribute to the new presidency based on his long experience with them. "I have known President Monson for a long time. He is a mighty man of Israel who was foreordained to preside over this church. He is well-known for his captivating stories and parables, but we who know him best understand that his life is a practical and exemplary model of the application of those stories."
Elder Wirthlin described President Eyring as a "wise, learned and spiritual man. He is known and respected not only in the church, but by those not of our faith. He is a kind man who, when he speaks everyone listens."
Elder Wirthlin, then area president of the church in Europe, extended a call to President Uchtdorf to be a stake president in Frankfurt, Germany, 23 years ago, he said. "As I have watched him over the years, I have noticed that everything under his direction has succeeded. The Lord is with him." Elder Wirthlin, who is 90 and has experienced some health problems in recent years, remained seated while giving his remarks, which centered on the great value of each individual and the need to be all-inclusive in church activity.
President Eyring, on the morning roster of speakers, bore witness that the LDS Church is "true and living."
"This is the true church, the only true church, because in it are the keys of the priesthood. Only in this church has the Lord lodged the power to seal on earth and to seal in heaven as he did in the time of the Apostle Peter."
One of Saturday's most emphatic sermons was given by Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve, who lambasted the evils of sexual abuse and encouraged victims to seek help to overcome its devastating effects. (See related story on A1.)
How to gain and maintain a testimony was the Saturday afternoon topic for both Elders Dallin H. Oaks and Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve.
"People all over the world, of every creed and persuasion, search and struggle to know 'Who is God?' 'What is his relationship to Jesus Christ?' and 'What is our relationship with them?"' said Elder Hales. The search for answers to those questions constitutes the quest for a testimony.
"As an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, I testify of the truth of what is in the scriptures. What has been revealed to me may be revealed to you according to your obedience and desires," he said.
Elder Oaks defined a testimony as a "personal witness borne to our souls by the Holy Ghost that certain facts of eternal significance are true and that we know them to be true. Such facts include the nature of the godhead and our relationship to its three members, the effectiveness of the atonement and the reality of the restoration." Acquiring such a testimony is not a passive thing, but a process in which seekers are expected to do something, he said.
He urged church members to speak out against those who revile LDS beliefs, "to clarify our doctrine and what we believe," but in an attitude of mildness and meekness.
In Saturday evening's priesthood session, President Uchtdorf drew on his experience as a pilot to warn priesthood holders against even small departures from church teachings. A pilot taking off at the equator to circumnavigate the globe, by deviating by just one degree, would find himself almost 500 miles off course when he returned to the longitude from which he had departed, he said.
"No one wants his life to end in tragedy. But all too often ... we set out on what we hope will be an exciting journey only to realize, too late, that an error of a few degrees has set us on a course for spiritual disaster."
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