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Elder Hales' passing, Scouting changes and the top LDS Church stories of 2017

SALT LAKE CITY — The death of an apostle, members facing the adversity of major disasters and changes in the Scouting program were among the top news stories involving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2017. The church also saw its leaders take part in significant global events, celebrated the dedication of new temples and made a major change to its semiannual general conference.

What follows is our list of the major events involving the LDS Church and its members in the past 12 months.

LDS Church leadership

Elder Hales died in between Sunday sessions of general conference in October. His funeral was held the following week. He became the fourth apostle to pass away since May 2015, following the deaths of Elder L. Tom Perry, President Boyd K. Packer and Elder Richard G. Scott.

Church leaders have not said when the new vacancy in the quorum will be filled.

After delivering two short talks in April general conference, LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson was hospitalized for two days before resuming his normal schedule and duties. He celebrated his 90th birthday in August but did not attend October general conference, ending a 20-plus year pattern of LDS Church presidents speaking during at least one of the church's semiannual general conference sessions.

During the conference, church leaders sent President Monson their well wishes and remembered him in their prayers, with several speakers recalling his conference address six months previous focusing on the Book of Mormon. President Monson has been a regular speaker at conference since he was named a general authority more than 50 years ago.

Elder James J. Hamula became the first senior church official to be excommunicated in nearly three decades. He was released as a General Authority Seventy following church disciplinary action by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in August.

Changes to general conference sessions

A few weeks after the October general conference, the First Presidency announced in a letter to local church leaders that it would reduce the number of conference sessions from six to five. The church made the change to simplify its work, the Deseret News reported.

Previously, a general women's session had been held the Saturday before the traditional April and October general conference weekends. Beginning in 2018, conference will be held over a single weekend, with the priesthood meeting being conducted in April during its usual Saturday evening slot. However, in October, the Saturday evening session — a priesthood meeting in the past — will now feature the general women's meeting.

"We are confident this change will be a blessing in the lives of members throughout the church," the First Presidency wrote to local church leaders.

Book of Mormon manuscripts

In September, the LDS Church purchased the printer's manuscript of the Book of Mormon — a handwritten copy of the original manuscript — from the Community of Christ for $35 million. The entire printer's manuscript was posted online in the November.

"We hold the Book of Mormon to be a sacred text like the Bible," said Elder Steven E. Snow, LDS Church historian and recorder.

LDS historians are also working on a future volume of the Joseph Smith Papers that will feature what remains of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, of which the church acquired fragments of in August.

Changes to Scouting program

The year 2017 brought changes in the relationship between the Boy Scouts of America and the LDS Church, Scouting's largest charter organization and partner for more than 100 years.

In May, the LDS Church announced it would drop the Varsity and Venture programs for young men ages 14-17 but continue to sponsor Cub Scouts (ages 8-10) and Boy Scouts (ages 11-13). The move was part of "the church's ongoing effort to evaluate and improve its service to families and young people worldwide," a letter from the First Presidency read.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles affirmed the church is "going forward" with its own activity program for older teenage boys as he visited the 2017 National Scout Jamboree in West Virginia in July.

“We’re really trying to look at the need of the boy and the girl in a gospel context — what would the Lord have them do, what would the Lord have them be,” Elder Holland said. “We’re just trying to figure out all the ways we can deliver that.”

More than six months later, the BSA said it would begin admitting young girls into its Cub Scouts program, and within two years, older girls will be able to join Boy Scouts and be eligible to earn the Eagle Scout Award. The LDS Church acknowledged the change but said it would not be a factor in the church's version of the programs.

Church leaders take part in global events

Multiple high-ranking church leaders, including apostles and members of auxiliary presidencies, participated in global events in recent months, associating with leaders of other faiths and promoting religious freedom.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles received a World Peace Prize in India. A few months earlier during a visit to Oxford, England, he had shared lessons he learned from the Watergate scandal.

Newly called Relief Society General President Sister Jean B. Bingham, accompanied by first counselor Sister Sharon Eubank, addressed the United Nations in New York City in April. Sister Bingham also delivered a keynote address at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, in November.

Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles joined some 400 world leaders in Switzerland last June to discuss solutions to problems facing society.

Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles gave a keynote address on religious freedom at the Seymour Institute's 2017 Black Leadership Summit, held in Princeton, New Jersey, in July.

In March, Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles joined with leaders of the Catholic and Jewish faiths in reaffirming marriage between a man and a woman.

"One of the great tasks of our time — one on which our diverse faith communities should be united — is to help people understand the true meaning and purpose of marriage," Elder Bednar said.

Earlier this month, Sister Eubank, also director of LDS Charities, interacted with Prince Charles while attending a roundtable discussion on religious persecution with world leaders in London.

Major disasters and humanitarian outreach

Vast numbers of people, including Latter-day Saints, faced extreme adversity and tragedy as a result of natural disasters in 2017.

In each case, scores of volunteers, including Mormons in yellow "helping hands" shirts, showed up to assist in relief efforts and help distribute humanitarian aid supplies donated by the church and other charities.

After Hurricane Harvey caused flooding in Houston in August, an LDS meetinghouse was converted into a shelter and boat command center and more than 10,000 Mormon Helping Hands volunteers arrived to assist residents in the clean-up effort. The floodwaters breached the walls of the Houston Texas Temple, damaged meetinghouses and led to the cancellation of Sunday worship services. Among the thousands of flood victims, dozens of Mormon families were forced from their homes. In a letter, the First Presidency called for prayers and donations, and expressed gratitude for volunteers while asking them to be patient.

"From here, we rebuild," Will Willis told the Deseret News. "It will take us a while. We don't have homeowners insurance."

Two more hurricanes, Irma and Maria, followed from late August through early October, inflicting extensive damage on Florida, the Caribbean and Puerto Rico. Once again, an LDS meetinghouse was transformed into a supply storehouse and Mormon volunteers stepped in to help where needed. The damage was especially harsh in Puerto Rico, where people struggled to find food, water and power.

Tragedy also struck in northern California, where destructive wildfires wiped out entire neighborhoods of homes, with the more than 2,000 including the homes of many Latter-day Saints. The Santa Rosa community was one of the hardest hit areas. Many survived because they decided to evacuate instead of fight the flames.

Despite being displaced herself, Mary Wood said she's volunteered to feed the 20 other permanent residents at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Stony Point Ward building with experience from church such as serving food as a Relief Soci

LDS Church leaders, including President Henry B. Eyring, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf and Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, visited many of the areas affected by these disasters to offer support and supervise the humanitarian response by the church.

The LDS Church offered humanitarian aid and relief after other disasters in different parts of the world, including a deadly earthquake in Mexico, a mudslide in Sierra Leone, massive wildfires in Chile, flooding in Peru, and a wildfire in southern Utah at Brian Head.

Purpose of the Relief Society updated

In a year where the Relief Society celebrated 175 years of charity and service, Sister Linda K. Burton, then the Relief Society general president, announced updates to the purposes of the organization on Facebook in March. The document now states that “Relief Society helps prepare women for the blessings of eternal life as they: Increase faith in Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ and His Atonement; Strengthen individuals, families, and homes through ordinances and covenants; Work in unity to help those in need.”

"Focusing on these things helps prepare us for the blessings of eternal life," Sister Burton wrote.

A new Relief Society general presidency was called in April, with Sister Bingham as president, Sister Eubank as first counselor and Sister Reyna I. Aburto as second counselor.

Temple news

In 2017, the LDS Church dedicated four new temples, rededicated another, held groundbreakings for three, closed several for renovation and announced plans to build five more in the coming years.

Perhaps the most notable was the Paris France Temple, dedicated by President Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency, on May 21.

President Uchtdorf dedicated the Tucson Arizona Temple, the sixth in that state, on Aug. 13.

The Meridian Idaho Temple, the fifth in Idaho and the second in the Boise area, was also dedicated by President Uchtdorf on Nov. 21.

The last temple dedication of the year took place in southern Utah, where President Eyring dedicated the Cedar City Utah Temple on Dec. 10. The Cedar City Temple is the 17th in Utah and the church's 159th operating temple.

The renovated Idaho Falls Idaho Temple was rededicated by President Eyring on June 4.

In April, President Monson announced the future building of temples in Brasilia, Brazil; Manila, Philippines; Nairobi, Kenya; Pocatello, Idaho; and Saratoga Springs, Utah.

Ground was broken in 2017 for three temples — Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Arequipa, Peru; and Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

During the year, the First Presidency announced several temples would be renovated and rededicated: Washington D.C.; Oakland, California; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Mesa, Arizona; and Raleigh, North Carolina. The Houston Texas Temple was also closed for renovation after it was damaged in August flooding from Hurricane Harvey.

The Angel Moroni statue was placed atop the Rome Italy Temple in late March.

A few weeks ago, the First Presidency announced that LDS boys and girls with a limited use recommend will have more opportunities to serve in the temple starting in 2018.

Missionary news

Five years after President Monson announced the age change and the number of missionaries surged, LDS Church leaders announced in October it would reduce the number of missions to "better fit the needs of each region in the world."

As part of that adjustment process, the church merged two of its seven missions in Russia, where recent changes in Russian laws have resulted in restrictions for missionary work.

The church also expanded the missionary training centers in Provo, the Philippines and Ghana.

In June, the church surveyed its missionaries worldwide to better understand their day-to-day experiences and improve overall personal safety.

Another notable change came in October when the church announced that prospective missionaries will answer a standardized list of questions during interviews.

"The hope is that each young man and woman will be familiar with them years before they formally prepare to serve so they have a more complete understanding of the rigorous requirements of missionary work," a Mormon Newsroom news release said.

That same month, missionaries began carrying smartphones instead of tablets to help them locate more religious-minded people and have the latest technology.

Following the devastation of Hurricane Maria, more than 150 LDS missionaries were evacuated in late September from Puerto Rico and relocated to various locations in the United States. A small number began returning to the island territory earlier this month.

President Trump

In January, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang "America the Beautiful" before an estimated crowd of 800,000 at President Donald Trump's inauguration ceremony. One choir member chose to resign over the performance.

While in Utah on Dec. 4, President Trump made time to visit with LDS Church leaders and tour Welfare Square.

“This is very exciting for me,” President Trump said. “The job you’ve done is beyond anything you could think of — taking care of people the way you take care of people and the respect that you have all over the world.”

Other notable events

In addition to humanitarian aid, the LDS Church made several notable donations in 2017, including to homeless relief, victims of abuse, the Red Cross and famine relief, among others.

In September, Elder Andersen created the church's 100th stake in the Philippines, which joins the United States, Mexico, Brazil and Peru as the five countries worldwide to have 100 or more LDS stakes.