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Historic conference ends with call to prepare for 2020 bicentennial of First Vision

Church members believe that the 1820 event marked the onset of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and priesthood authority.

President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, wave to attendees after the Sunday morning session of the 189th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019.
President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, wave to attendees after the Sunday morning session of the 189th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — President Russell M. Nelson sent the 16.3 million members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into the winter at the end of their weekend general conference on Sunday afternoon with a big promise for spring.

Like spring, the four conferences during his administration have surged with fresh pledges of possibility and renewal: adjustments, updates and changes to programs, worship and the activities of the church. Sunday, he gave members his express permission to look forward to the next one, on April 4 and 5.

“The year 2020 will be designated as a bicentennial year,” he said. “General conference next April will be different from any previous conference. In the next six months, I hope that every member and every family will prepare for a unique conference that will commemorate the very foundations of the restored gospel.”

That foundation goes back to Day 1 for Latter-day Saints.

“In the springtime of the year 2020, it will be exactly 200 years since Joseph Smith experienced the theophany that we know as the First Vision,” he said. “God the Father and his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Joseph, a 14-year-old youth. That event marked the onset of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ in its fulness, precisely as foretold in the Holy Bible.”

Church members believe many of the doctrines and priesthood authority of Christ’s original church were lost and that Christ himself ushered in a restoration of his church through Joseph Smith beginning with that first vision. But by focusing members on the faith’s past, President Nelson actually is pointing the church forward.

He and other church leaders have taught clearly in recent years that the Restoration begun in 1820 is ongoing and still unfolding. They reiterated this weekend that the changes and updates reverberating through the faith today are revelatory.

“Please be assured that revelation continues in the church and will continue under the Lord’s direction” until Christ’s Second Coming, President Nelson said at the end of the two-day conference’s concluding address.

Revelation and the Restoration brought restored priesthood authority, scripture and church organization and temple covenants.

“The crowning jewel of the Restoration is the holy temple,” President Nelson said.

He and several of the other 11 speakers on Sunday used the word “strive” as they encouraged members to diligently keep the commandments and show love to others. They asked members to strive to find Christ, turn to him, love him, become like him, follow him and live his teachings.

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles used the example of Bilbo Baggins from the Tolkien novel “The Hobbit” and assumed for himself a role like Gandalf, asking members to drop everything and get going on their great adventures “there and back again” to God.

“All God asks is that you consciously keep striving,” he said, adding, “There are many bends in this road. There are hills, valleys and detours. There may even be metaphorical spiders, trolls and even a dragon or two. But if you stay on the path and trust in God, you will eventually find the way to your glorious destiny and back to your heavenly home.”

Elder Ulisses Soares of the Quorum of the Twelve said each person’s job in taking up their cross is to strive to do their best, overcome challenges and apply Sunday’s inspired and timely teachings from prophets and apostles.

“Additionally, for those who feel bitter, angry, offended or chained to sorrows for something you feel is undeserved,” he counseled, “to take up one’s cross and follow the Savior means to strive to lay aside these feelings and turn to the Lord so he can free us from this state of mind and help us to find peace.”

President Nelson also pointed each Latter-day Saint toward a specific place that can help them on their personal quest for peace, joy and progress.

“Each temple is a holy place. Each temple patron strives to become more holy,” he said.

In fact, he teased the unique April conference immediately after he shared revisions to the temple recommend questions local leaders ask members who desire to enter one of the faith’s 166 operating temples.

The new questions add the word “strive” twice: “Do you strive for moral cleanliness in your thoughts and behavior? Do you strive to be honest in all that you do?” Those additions complement a previous use of the word that is part of another edited question: “Do you strive to keep the Sabbath day holy, both at home and at church; attend your meetings; prepare for and worthily partake of the sacrament; and live your life in harmony with the laws and commandments of the gospel?”

President Nelson also thanked church members because he said they strive to live the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ through generous giving that has allowed Latter-day Saint Charities and other church organizations to provide more than $2 billion in humanitarian aid.

“Latter-day Saints, as with other followers of Jesus Christ, are always looking for ways to help, to lift and to love others,” he said.

President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency, said God has issued a guaranteed offer of lasting happiness available through faith in Jesus Christ, continuing repentance and keeping covenants. He, too, asked church members to act.

“Greater holiness will not come simply by asking for it. It will come by doing what is needed for God to change us,” he said.

He suggested actions seekers could take.

“The scriptures teach us that among other things, we can be sanctified or become more holy when we exercise faith in Christ, demonstrate our obedience, repent, sacrifice for him, receive sacred ordinances and keep our covenants with him,” he said. “Qualifying for the gift of holiness requires humility, meekness and patience.”

Learning to give one’s spirit control over one’s body is another important action, said President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

He spoke poignantly about the death of his wife, Barbara, last year after a struggle with Alzheimer’s. He said he believes in the possibility of a glorious reunion with her.

“I encourage you to slow down a bit and think about where you are now in subjugating your carnal nature and empowering your divine, spiritual nature,” he said, “so when the time comes, you may pass into the spirit world to a joyful reunion with your loved ones.”

He said all people are first and foremost spiritual beings.

“This is who you really are and who you have always been: a son or daughter of God, with spiritual roots in eternity and a future overflowing with infinite possibilities,” he said.

“So,” he added, “when one chooses to put our carnal nature ahead of our spiritual nature, we are choosing something that is contrary to our real, true, authentic, spiritual selves.”

Elder Gary E. Stevenson and Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve warned members against deceptions, distractions, commotion and enticements. Elder Andersen talked about the dream of the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi, who saw a great and spacious building of people mocking the righteous.

”In our world today, the adversary’s construction crews are working overtime, hastily inflating the large and spacious building,” Elder Andersen said. “The expansion has spread across the river, hoping to enter our homes, while the pointers and scoffers sound off day and night on their internet megaphones.”

Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve expanded on the theme, saying the world is full of mirage and illusion. He said the way to things that are real and that matter is through divine covenants, joint promises with God that become a source of love for and from him. They then become a source of love for and with other people. He termed all of those relationships “covenant belonging.”

“Our God is a God of covenant,” he said, adding, “We are not meant to wander in existential uncertainty and doubt, but to rejoice in cherished covenant relationships ‘stronger than the cords of death.’”

Like President Ballard, Elder Gong said those relationships help a person be more like their true self and begin to become more.

“In losing our worldly self through covenant belonging, we find and become our best eternal self — free, alive, real — and define our most important relationships,” Elder Gong said. “Covenant belonging is to make and keep solemn promises to God and each other through sacred ordinances that invite the power of godliness to be manifest in our lives. When we covenant all we are, we can become more than we are.”

“Covenant belonging,” he added, “gives us place, narrative, capacity to become.”

The two-day conference included 34 talks by 29 speakers. President Nelson spoke four times. Video and audio of the talks are available on churchofjesuschrist.org. Transcripts will be available there later this week.

One of the speakers was Elder Peter M. Johnson, who became the first African American General Authority Seventy to speak in general conference. Men of African descent from other countries have spoken in conference previously.

Like Elders Andersen and Stevenson, Elder Johnson taught that the adversary uses three tools to hurt his foes: deception, distraction and discouragement.

He spoke of efforts that unlock blessings, drawing praise on social media for his eloquence and teaching as members searched the internet to find out more about the man called to the Quorum of the Seventy last April.

“I promise that as we strive to love God with all our heart, pray in the name of Jesus Christ, study the Book of Mormon and prayerfully partake of the sacrament,” he said, “we will have the ability, with the strength of the Lord, to overcome the deceptive practices of the adversary, to minimize distractions that limit our divine potential and to resist the discouragement that diminishes our capacity to feel the love of our Heavenly Father and his son. We will come to fully understand who we are as sons and daughters of God.”