GLENDALE, Arizona — Not far from the Mormon Battalion Trail on Sunday night, President Russell M. Nelson spoke to about 65,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Valley of the Sun and called them the faith's Arizona battalion.
Speaking from a podium set up about 20 yards behind what normally is the south end zone at State Farm Stadium — home of the NFL's Arizona Cardinals — the president of the church invited its members, who make up 6 percent of the state's population, to spiritually strengthen themselves and God's children everywhere.
President Nelson and President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, and their wives asked church members to live the commandments more exactly and to stand out as "much different" from the modern world. They promised peace, spiritual healing and growth to those who do.
"To be faithful to our temple covenants means we are willing to be different — much different — from men and women of the world," President Nelson said. "As covenant keepers, our thoughts, behavior, language, entertainment, fashion, grooming and time on the internet — to name a few things — are to be distinct from patterns and habits considered as normal by the world."
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey met with President Nelson before the Greater Phoenix Area Devotional, as did other government, religious, education and civic leaders, including Phoeniz Mayor Thelda Williams, Arizona State University President Michael Crow and the Most Reverend Thomas J. Olmstead, who is the Catholic bishop of Phoenix.
Several state leaders commended President Nelson for the viewpoint column he wrote that was published Sunday in the Arizona Republic and thanked him for Latter-day Saint contributions in Arizona and around the world.
Gov. Ducey pointed out that the Latter-day Saint presence in Arizona predates statehood by 65 years, with the Mormon Battalion's march in the winter of 1846-47. He expressed gratitude for President Nelson's visit to the state.
"He certainly strikes me as a man of peace and you can just see it in his presence and the strength of his words," the governor said. "The sheer number of people of the faith that are in leadership positions in the state — local, city, county, municipal and federal — has changed Arizona for the better. The strength and energy of the young missionaries when they tackle a problem or an issue has been positive for the state of Arizona."
Bishop Olmstead, leader of the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, thanked President Nelson for the collaboration of the two churches around the world on a large number of projects.
"I'm so grateful for those opportunities," he said, "especially addressing issues like the dignity of every human person and religious liberty, which are really important questions in society today."
Crow said Latter-day Saints are foundational to Arizona's identity.
"It's tremendously important to be able to meet with the president of the faith," he said, "and hear his words of wisdom and his insights and his perspective, at the moment of his life, age 94, where he's at the peak of his wisdom."
Afterword, during the devotional, President Nelson asked church members to remodel their homes into sanctuaries of faith and to join efforts to alleviate suffering while President Oaks said ancient truths maintain their strength in the modern world.
"Right is still right, and wrong is still wrong," President Oaks said, "regardless of what is said or done by movie idols, TV personalities or sports stars." He repeated the church's position on avoiding tattoos, piercings, immodesty and pornography, calling such things "grafitti on your personal temple."
The devotional was the largest meeting of Latter-day Saints in Arizona history with the 65,000 figure an unofficial count. It continued the global travels of President Nelson, who became the church's leader 13 months ago, to reach members of the faith around the world.
He spoke to 49,000 at Safeco Field — home of baseball's Seattle Mariners — in September and to 24,000 at the Alamodome — home of the NBA's San Antonio Spurs — in November.
In between, in October, he traveled to five South American countries and spoke to more than 10,000 people at multiple venues. In all, he visited 15 countries last year.
In a television interview with the local CBS affiliate before the devotional, President Nelson made news when he said he has plans for additional travels this year.
President Nelson's Arizona Republic piece on Sunday morning set up a theme of the talks during Sunday night's devotional about the gospel of Jesus Christ as a salve in the face of difficulty and tragedy. He said he's found nothing "to compare with the refining, ennobling strength and meaning that come into the life of a devoted believer and servant."
"It is my conviction," he added, "that our Savior can strengthen and enable us to reach our highest highs and be able to cope with our lowest lows. As an ordained apostle of Jesus Christ, I invite you to seek to know for yourself that he is the master healer. He has the capacity to heal you from sin and sadness, from despair and heartache. I saw this healing balm among the people of Paradise, California, and I have felt it personally again and again, including recently in the passing of our precious daughter."
Sunday night he shared a story about a young cousin of his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, who was paralyzed two weeks ago in a skiing accident. He said he has blessed the young Brigham Young University student but does not know what miracle God will work in his life.
"God gives His faithful children exactly the miracles needed to further God’s work here on earth," he said.
President Nelson said God promised Abraham that the nations of the world would be blessed through his seed. He called it the gathering of Israel, described how it happens today and invited the Arizona battalion "to help gather Israel on both sides of the veil."
"It happens as missionaries take the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world," he said. "It happens as the light of the gospel and the love of the Savior infuse the lives of people in all nations. They are seen as distinct and different from others in happy ways. It happens as worthy men in all nations are ordained to the priesthood and as worthy women are endowed with priesthood power in the house of the Lord. And it happens as temples dot the earth — as men, women, and children of the covenant worship there and bring temple blessings to their departed ancestors."
It also happens, he added, "as you help to strengthen the testimonies of others; as you repent and help others to repent; as you reach out in your communities and participate in worthy efforts to alleviate suffering."
President Oaks also called on church members to strengthen themselves through gospel living.
"A commitment to put the Lord first and to keep his commandments brings a constancy to our lives that gives us direction and peace, whatever happens," he said. "Then it does not matter whether we are married or single, what we are or are not called to do, or even whether we die tomorrow. We just do our best and trust in the Lord and his timing."
"Don’t define yourself by some temporary quality," he said. "Our single-best quality to characterize ourselves is that we are a son or daughter of God. That fact overrides all other labels, including race, occupation, physical characteristics, honors or even religious affiliation."
Sister Wendy Nelson suggested that Arizona church members could give a Valentine gift to God by humbling themselves, keeping his commandments with increasing exactness and opening their hearts to receive his love.
Sister Kristen Oaks called Arizona "the land of delicious Christmas oranges," then held up as an example a Chicago woman whom she said exemplified "the power of the Atonement (of Jesus Christ) in action." The woman's faith, large spirit, gratitude and enthusiasm impressed Sister Oaks before she learned the woman was plagued by cancer and cancer treatments.
President Oaks said a visit to Arizona was a priority because of the size of the Latter-day Saint population here, 428,000 people in 895 congregations. Alexandria Griffin, a doctoral candidate in religious studies at ASU, called Arizona "Utah Junior" because it has the fourth-largest concentration of Latter-day Saints after Utah, California and Idaho.
"Arizona is part of the Book of Mormon Belt or the Jello Belt stretching from Idaho to Arizona and across Nevada into Southern California," she said. "A meeting of this size really does tell you the church has a significant presence in Arizona."
In fact, tens of thousands of additional Latter-day Saints watched the devotional from meetinghouses across the state. Derek Wilcock was at the stadium with his family, but he was told 500 people were at his meetinghouse in nearby Mesa.