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Church and coronavirus: Pandemic brings major changes to April general conference, missionary training and stake gatherings

Church issues 3 letters about coronavirus and large gatherings

People enter and exit The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. The church announced Wednesday that April’s general conference sessions will be held virtually, some incoming missionaries will train remotely, and gatherings of multiple congregations in some areas will be postponed due to the spread of COVID-19.
People enter and exit The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. The church announced Wednesday that April’s general conference sessions will be held virtually, some incoming missionaries will train remotely, and gatherings of multiple congregations in some areas will be postponed due to the spread of COVID-19.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — For the first time since World War II, a general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will go on without the public, this time in an attempt to control the spread of COVID-19, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said in a joint letter issued Wednesday.

They announced in two additional letters that missionaries will stay home and be trained by video conference rather than travel to the church’s missionary training centers in Provo, Utah, and Preston, England, and that stake conferences and other larger gatherings will be canceled or postponed beginning Monday in virus-affected areas of the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia.

The faith’s April 2020 general conference is scheduled for April 4-5. It will mark the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, which church members consider the beginning of the Restoration of Jesus Christ’s church. The faith’s leader, President Russell M. Nelson, declared 2020 a bicentennial year in his final talk during the October 2019 general conference and said that April’s conference would “be different from any previous conference.”

“President Nelson was right that it will be unforgettable,” said Ronald Guðnason, a science teacher in Selfoss, Iceland.

Guðnason and his wife, Bettina, had planned to fly to Utah to attend the April conference with their daughter Elín, who served a church mission on Temple Square.

Elín still plans to come to Utah, but her parents will not, even though their plane tickets, worth $1,500, are nonrefundable and Guðnason was scheduled to speak at an expo on church beliefs.

“We are very disappointed, we were looking forward to this since September, but I understand and respect the decision of leaders of the church, and perhaps this will help us focus on the messages of the conference instead of the excitement of being live in Conference Center,” Guðnason said.

The Guðnasons and most of the world’s 16.3 million Latter-day Saints usually experience general conference via broadcast technologies. About 595,000 households in North America watch the Sunday morning session live via television, for example.

But traditionally about 100,000 people attend the meetings at the Conference Center across the street from historic Temple Square. This time, church leaders will speak and the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square will perform in a mostly empty Conference Center.

Attendees leave the 189th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019.
Attendees leave 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

World War II travel restrictions were the cause the last time general conference went on without the public. That leaders-only conference was held in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square.

This is the third time in church history that a viral epidemic has affected general conference. Wednesday, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. It is present in at least 114 countries and killed more than 4,000 people.

The Spanish flu pandemic postponed the April 1919 general conference for two months.

Then, in October 1957, church leaders completely canceled general conference during the Asian flu epidemic. The First Presidency at the time said, “Life is so precious the Lord expects us to do all within out power to conserve it.”

The church has been addressing the spread of COVID-19 for weeks now. It temporarily closed its mission in Hong Kong last month. Missionaries in several countries are working from their apartments using technology, leaving only to exercise and shop for essentials.

On Wednesday, church leaders decided to reduce the number of missionaries at two of its missionary training centers. About 1,100 missionaries currently live at the Provo MTC campus, church spokesman Daniel Woodruff said. They meet in small, intimate study groups but also gather in larger groups for lunch and for weekly meetings.

The Missionary Department sent letters to missionaries who are scheduled to arrive at the Provo and Preston MTCs beginning next week and to their stake presidents with instructions them about the “online MTC experience.”

Once missionaries finished with their online training, they will travel directly from home to their mission assignments.

Wednesday’s third letter announced the postponement of stake and leadership conferences, beginning Monday, and other large gatherings in church areas where COVID-19 has spread. Those areas include the United States and Canada, Asia, Asia North, Europe, Europe East.

The letters were sent just before the World Health Organization declared a COVID-19 pandemic and a couple of hours before ESPN broke the news that the NBA’s Golden State Warriors will play home games without fans for the foreseeable future. Congregations in the church’s San Francisco Stake held virtual worship services on Sunday due to concerns about the local spread of the virus.

A church stake is made up of several congregations usually totaling thousands of members.

The three letters were emailed to church members and released on the faith’s websites.

“We want to be good global citizens and do what we can to control this contagious illness,” First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote in the letter on general conference. “We are most grateful for the many who are working tirelessly to address this health hazard. We pray for them and for all who may be suffering,” stated the letter focused on general conference.”

“We live in a remarkable age,” they added. “The Lord has blessed us with the technology and capacity to participate in and receive messages from Church leaders in all parts of the world.”

Radio broadcasts of general conference began in 1924 and television broadcasting started in 1949, according to Christine Marin, an archivist and audiovisual specialist at the Church History Department. Satellite broadcasts were introduced in 1975 followed by internet streaming in 1999.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Governor Spencer Cox, chairman of the state’s COVID-19 Community Task Force, praised the church’s decision.

“We appreciate the prudent steps taken by senior leadership of The Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints to help mitigate the spread of novel coronavirus,” they said in a joint written statement. “The Utah COVID-19 Community Task Force encourages all organizations in the state of Utah to consider adapting their normal operations to help slow the spread of coronavirus in their spheres. These adaptations will vary greatly depending on the scale and scope of events and daily operations. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has made wise decisions that will help minimize exposure to the virus, while simultaneously allowing church members to participate in meetings that are important to their worship.”

Read the church leaders’ three letters in full below.

On general conference:

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

We are deeply concerned about the global spreading of illness caused by COVID-19. We have counseled with worldwide governmental, ecclesiastical, and medical leaders and have prayerfully considered the current circumstances. We want to be good global citizens and do what we can to control this contagious illness. We are most grateful for the many who are working tirelessly to address this health hazard. We pray for them and for all who may be suffering.

To help control this problem, we feel it wise to limit attendance at the upcoming April 2020 General Conference. We plan to conduct all five sessions of that conference at the Conference Center. General authorities, general officers and their spouses, musicians, choirs, technicians, and others will participate as assigned. But, proceedings of the conference will be distributed throughout the world via technology only. The public will not be admitted in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City, or in stake centers or meetinghouses in areas where contagion is a concern. Questions about other large gatherings of Church members will be answered in separate announcements.

We live in a remarkable age. The Lord has blessed us with the technology and capacity to participate in and receive messages from Church leaders in all parts of the world. This special conference will commemorate the bicentennial of the First Vision and the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in these latter days.

We invite all to continue to prepare for this conference. As we do, we will be blessed to hear the word of the Lord and participate in a general conference experience that will remain not only memorable, but unforgettable.

Sincerely,

The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

On missionary training centers:

Caring for the health and safety of our missionaries and those with whom they meet is vital to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We have counseled with governmental, ecclesiastical and medical leaders worldwide on the spread of COVID-19. We have prayerfully considered this evolving circumstance and are taking additional steps at missionary training centers to protect missionaries and prevent the possible spread of the virus.

Beginning March 16, 2020, all missionaries scheduled to enter missionary training centers in Provo, Utah, or Preston, England, will be trained remotely by video conference. Other missionary training centers will continue to function as usual, but they will not receive any missionaries from regions where government officials are restricting activity. Missionaries from those areas will also be trained by video conference.

We believe this temporary virtual training program will help to prepare missionaries for the field while minimizing risks related to communicable disease.

Each missionary will receive specific information regarding the length of training, schedules, and other logistics as his or her starting date approaches. Once missionaries complete their online training, they will travel directly to their mission assignments.

We will continue to follow developments closely and make any needed further adjustments.

We love our missionaries and their families and are grateful for their willingness to serve the Lord. We hope they will take advantage of this unique training experience to prepare for a wonderful period of Christlike service.

Sincerely,

The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

On large gatherings:

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

With the recent announcement changing the attendance at the April 2020 General Conference, we are providing the following guidance related to large gatherings of Church members.

After considering the counsel of governmental, ecclesiastical, and medical leaders around the world and our own prayerful reflection, we will postpone stake and leadership conferences and other large gatherings in Church Areas where illness caused by COVID-19 is a challenge, including,

Asia

Asia North

Europe

Europe East

All Areas in the United States and Canada

These temporary adjustments will take effect March 16, 2020. Large gatherings in other areas of the world may continue as usual unless directed otherwise by Area Presidencies, who counsel with their leaders.

In relation to weekly worship services, activities and other meetings, members should follow the guidance of their local leaders, who will receive direction in the usual manner.

As this constantly changing situation develops, we will provide further guidance on this topic.

Sincerely,

The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles