Church members asked to seek unity, heal political division, root out racism and champion faith over fear
‘Life without God is a life filled with fear. Life with God is a life filled with peace,’ said President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
SALT LAKE CITY — The faithful can live without fear even when surrounded by widespread political division, violent protest and a pandemic that has killed 1 million people, the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said Saturday on the first day of a global conference that reached millions.
“Life without God is a life filled with fear. Life with God is a life filled with peace,” President Russell M. Nelson said at the end of the first of three Saturday sessions of the church’s 190th Semiannual General Conference.
Church leaders strongly condemned racism and violence and advocated for unity and righteousness. Most of the 18 speakers directly addressed the challenges of 2020 on a day in which they wore masks while seated according to health guidelines inside the Conference Center Theater.
Among the direction provided:
- President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, alluded to the U.S. presidential election and directly condemned violence and property damage during the summer’s series of race-based protests. He also said that minorities have had legitimate grievances and that, “As citizens and as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we must do better to help root out racism.”
- Elder Quentin L. Cook, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said church members are positioned to become unifying forces: “With our all-inclusive doctrine, we can be an oasis of unity and celebrate diversity. Unity and diversity are not opposites.”
- Another apostle, Elder D. Todd Christofferson, called religion and the family the blueprint for flourishing, sustainable societies because they provide the virtues that undergird them: “Rooted in gospel principles, these virtues include integrity, responsibility and accountability, compassion, marriage and fidelity in marriage, respect for others and the property of others, service and the necessity and dignity of work, among others.”
- President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency, spoke about the influence of women on others, on church congregations and on the world: “My experience has taught me that Heavenly Father’s daughters have a gift to allay contention and to promote righteousness with their love of God and with the love of God they engender in those they serve.”
- President Nelson and others also provided updates about the church’s humanitarian giving, temple construction and reach.
“Our best days are ahead of us, not behind us,” said Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
President Oaks said American Latter-day Saints should strive for a “constitutional patriotism” that embraces both national identity and multiculturalism.
“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.”
The key to transcending divisiveness is to follow Christ’s teaching to “love your enemies,” he said. Personal contact with an enemy or a stranger reduces suspicion or hostility and produces mutual respect and understanding.
“Anger is the way to division and enmity. We move toward loving our adversaries when we avoid anger and hostility toward those with whom we disagree,” President Oaks said. “It also helps if we are even willing to learn from them.”
At the end of a week in which President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden were asked whether they would accept the results of the U.S. presidential election next month, President Oaks clearly stated the Latter-day Saint position.
“We peacefully accept the results of elections,” he said. “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.”
He also clearly condemned violence, saying the Constitution allows for peaceable protests and he pointed to the example of Christ who brought change.
“Protesters have no right to destroy, deface or steal property or to undermine the government’s legitimate police powers,” he said. “The Constitution and laws contain no invitation to revolution or anarchy. All of us — police, protesters, supporters, and spectators — should understand the limits of our rights and the importance of our duties to stay within the boundaries of existing law.”
Finding spiritual security
President Nelson opened the conference by saying that, “During the past few months, a global pandemic, raging wildfires and other natural disasters have turned our world upside down. I grieve with each of you who has lost a loved one during this time and I pray for all who are currently suffering.”
Elder Uchtdorf added, “We plead with Heavenly Father to comfort and console you.”
Those events have generated countless expressions of fear, but President Nelson said fear dissipates and security develops when people yoke themselves to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, leading to personal revelation.
President Nelson and several other speakers, including Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve, encouraged listeners to seek a dual preparedness for overcoming fear and handling temporal disruption like earthquakes, fires and economic hardship.
Periodic tests are essential to learning and development, Elder Bednar said: “We learn, for example, in the parable of the 10 virgins that procrastinating preparation leads to unsuccessful proving.”
“What have we learned during these recent months of lifestyle adjustments and restrictions?” he added. “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.”
President Nelson urged church members to prepare temporally, mentioning food, water and financial reserves. “But I am even more concerned about your spiritual and emotional preparation,” he said.
A latter-day survival guide
President Nelson encouraged regular immersion in the Book of Mormon: “No other book testifies of Jesus Christ with such power and clarity. Its prophets, as inspired by the Lord, saw our day, and selected the doctrine and truths that would help us most. The Book of Mormon is our latter-day survival guide.”
He said he was not promising the days ahead would be easy, but he said: “Turbulent times are opportunities for us to thrive spiritually. They are times when our influence can be much more penetrating than in calmer times.”
Elder Uchtdorf said that as a fighter pilot and airline captain, he couldn’t choose the adversity he faced during a flight, but “I could choose how I prepared and how I reacted. What is needed during times of crisis is calm and clear-headed trust.”
He encouraged listeners to pray, study the scriptures, make decisions based on proven practices, listen for the word of God and President Nelson and learn from scriptural examples of adversity.
“Our Heavenly Father knows that we suffer, and because we are his children, he will not abandon us,” Elder Uchtdorf said, adding “God will watch over and shepherd you during these times of uncertainty and fear. He knows you. He hears your pleas. He is faithful and dependable.”
One key to pressing forward when feeling under siege is clearly seeing who God is and “who we really are — 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.”
Virtues, unity and sustainable societies
Elder Christofferson noted that the United Nations in 2015 adopted an agenda for sustainable development as a blueprint for peace and prosperity. The blueprint for a sustainable society includes following God’s teachings, he said.
“A thriving society can fail in time if it abandons the cardinal virtues that uphold its peace and prosperity,” he said. Societies decay when “individual consent is the only constraint on sexual activity,” leading to “adultery, promiscuity, elective abortion and out-of-wedlock births.” They also lead to growing numbers of children raised in poverty without the influence of fathers.
“Reliance on culture and tradition alone will not be sufficient to sustain virtue in society,” he said, adding, “If we, our families and enough of our neighbors make our decisions and guide our lives by the truth of God, the moral virtues needed in every society will abound.”
Elder Cook provided counsel on addressing the world’s strong divisions.
“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 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.”
Church contributions to humanitarian aid, peace
President Nelson noted that the church’s humanitarian aid contributions during the COVID-19 era now include 895 humanitarian aid projects in 150 countries.
The church has learned to do some things even more effectively despite social distancing, face masks and Zoom meetings, he said, mentioning 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.
The church closed its 168 temples during the pandemic but has reopened 146 of them on a limited basis. Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles asked church members to maintain a temple recommend even if they cannot attend one of the holy sanctuaries right now.
“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 Gerrit W. Gong provided prerecorded remarks because he is self-quarantining after a possible COVID-19 exposure. He noted that the church now has members living in 196 nations and territories with established stakes — groups of multiple congregations — in 90 nations.
“For those with faithful hearts and eyes to see, the Lord’s tender mercies are manifest amidst life’s challenges,” he said. “Faithfully-met challenges and sacrifice do bring the blessings of heaven. In this mortality, we may lose or wait for some things for a time, but in the end we will find what matters most.”
He added that, “As we increase our faith in Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ; live restored gospel truths and receive sacred covenants; and study, ponder and share about the ongoing Restoration, we participate in fulfilling prophecy,” he added. “We are changing ourselves and the world in a gospel pattern that blesses lives everywhere.”
Numerous church members on social media expressed gratitude for the prayer Elder Patrick Kearon, the senior president of the Seventy, offered to begin the conference. He prayed for all those who feel marginalized, saying, “We plead for healing, peace and comfort to settle upon them.”
He added, “We yearn for a return to grace, dignity and civility in public life.”
The Tabernacle Choir at Tabernacle Square will not be performing live at the conference due to the pandemic. Instead, the church used recordings of various choirs from previous conferences. The conference continues Sunday with two sessions.