SALT LAKE CITY — Latter-day Saints must help root out racism and strive to increase unity in an era of widespread political division, violent protest and pandemic, church leaders said Saturday morning during the opening session of the faith’s 190th Semiannual General Conference.
“As citizens and as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we must do better to help root out racism,” said President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency.
He directly addressed the U.S. presidential election and the summer’s series of protests. He affirmed the right of Americans to peaceably assemble to protest but condemned violence and property damage, though he plainly stated that “there have been injustices. In public actions and in our personal attitudes we have had racism and related grievances.”
“This country should be better in eliminating racism, not only against Black Americans, who were most visible in the recent protests, but also against Latinos, Asians and other groups,” he said. “This nation’s history of racism is not a happy one and we must do better.”
He also said Latter-day Saints “peacefully accept the results of elections. We will not participate in the violence threatened by those disappointed with the outcome. In a democratic society we always have the opportunity and the duty to persist peacefully until the next election.”
President Oaks said Jesus Christ’s teaching to “love your enemies” is the key to overcoming divisiveness.
“Anger is the way to division and enmity,” he said. “We move toward loving our adversaries when we avoid anger and hostility toward those with whom we disagree. It also helps if we are even willing to learn from them.”
Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles also acknowledged the strong divisions in the world today and provided counsel about how to address them.
“Righteousness and unity are profoundly significant,” he said. “When people love God with all their hearts and righteously strive to become like him, there is less strife and contention in society. There is more unity.”
He said church doctrine considers the the U.S. Constitution and related documents to be inspired documents intended to bless all people.
“With our all-inclusive doctrine, we can be an oasis of unity and celebrate diversity. Unity and diversity are not opposites,” he said, adding, “The millions who have accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ have committed themselves to achieving both righteousness and unity.”
“Unity,” he said, “is enhanced when people are treated with dignity and respect even though they are different in outward characteristics.”
He issued a challenge to church members to do better at being a force to lift society as a whole.
“At this 200-year hinge point in our church history, let us commit ourselves as members of the Lord’s church to live righteously and be united as never before.”
President Russell M. Nelson expressed joy at convening a digital worldwide gathering of Latter-day Saints during the pandemic but church leaders’ grief over those who have died during the pandemic.
“During the past few months, a global pandemic, raging wildfires and other natural disasters have turned our world upside down,” he said in the conference’s opening talk.
“I grieve with each of you who has lost a loved one during this time and I pray for all who are currently suffering.”
The First Presidency and members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wore masks and sat at a physical distance from each other on the stage of the Little Theater in the Conference Center. The only other people in attendance were the speakers and those who said opening and closing prayers.
President Nelson said April’s general conference, the first held without a live audience due to the pandemic, had a record viewership. He said he expected this weekend’s conference to draw an even larger audience. It is being broadcast on TV and radio in more than 50 countries, 233% more than the April conference.
He also provided an update about the church’s humanitarian aid contributions during the COVID-19 era. He said the church now has contributed to 895 humanitarian aid projects in 150 countries.
He and other speakers urged listeners to rely on the gospel of Jesus Christ for peace and hope.
“I pray that you will choose to lay hold upon the word of God as it is declared during this general conference,” President Nelson said. “I promise that as you do so, your testimonies will be strengthened, and we will continue to move forward together.”
He said the church has learned to do some things even more effectively despite social distancing, face masks and Zoom meetings. He talked specifically about missionary work, temples, family history work and the home-centered church.
The church also has broken ground for eight new temples this year, and has scheduled a dozen more groundbreakings by year’s end.
“I pray that we as a people are using this unique time to grow spiritually,” he said.
The pandemic is a reminder that church leaders and scriptures teach that God’s children should prepare “every needful thing,” from food storage to spiritual strength, said Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
“We learn, for example, in the parable of the 10 virgins that procrastinating preparation leads to unsuccessful proving,” he said.
He counseled that periodic tests are essential to learning and development.
“What have we learned during these recent months of lifestyle adjustments and restrictions?” he asked. “What do we need to improve in our lives spiritually, physically, socially, emotionally and intellectually? Now is the time to prepare and prove ourselves willing and able to do all things whatsoever the Lord our God shall command us.”
He said those who follow Christ are blessed with an eternal perspective and vision.
“Faithfulness is not foolishness or fanaticism,” he said. “Rather, it is trusting and placing our confidence in Jesus Christ as our Savior, on his name, and in his promises.”
One key to pressing forward when feeling under siege is clearly seeing who God is and “who we really — sons and daughters of heavenly parents with a ‘divine nature and eternal destiny,’” said Sister Michelle D. Craig, first counselor in the Young Women general presidency.
“Ask God to reveal these truths to you, along with how he feels about you,” she said. “The more you understand your true identity and purpose, soul deep, the more it will influence everything in your life.”
Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Twelve asked church members to continue to be “recommended to the Lord” even if they cannot attend a temple right now because some temple worship has been suspended by the pandemic.
“Being worthy to attend the temple, however, has not been suspended,” he said. “Let me emphasize, whether you have access to a temple or not, you need a current temple recommend to stay firmly on the covenant path.”
To be “recommended to the Lord,” he said, “is to be reminded of what is expected of a covenant-keeping Latter-day Saint. Your temple recommend reflects a deep, spiritual intent that you are striving to live the laws of the Lord and love what he loves: humility, meekness, steadfastness, charity, courage, compassion, forgiveness and obedience. And you commit yourself to those standards when you sign your name to that sacred document.”
Elder Scott D. Whiting of the Seventy said the first step to that influence is to have a desire to become like Jesus Christ.
“You are good enough, you are loved, but that does not mean that you are yet complete,” he said. “There is work to be done in this life and the next. Only with his divine help can we all progress toward becoming like him.”
Elder Patrick Kearon, senior president of the Seventy, offered the opening prayer. He prayed for all those who feel marginalized, saying, “We plead for healing, peace and comfort to settle upon them.”
He also said, “We yearn for a return to grace, dignity and civility in public life.”
Elder Juan A. Uceda of the Seventy gave the closing prayer.
The Tabernacle Choir at Tabernacle Square is not performing live at the the conference due to the pandemic. Instead, recordings of the choir were used during the first session, beginning with “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” recorded in April 2016. The other hymns included, “I Feel My Savior’s Love,” recorded in April 2019; “Come Ye Children of the Lord,” also from April 2019; and “Love One Another,” recorded in April 2018.