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President Nelson promised a ‘remarkable conference.’ Now it is finally here

It coincides with the 200th anniversary of the First Vision honored as the launch of the Restoration of Christ’s church

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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 — The 20th anniversary this weekend of the first international general conference held here at the Conference Center was always going to be special for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

After all, it coincides with the 200th anniversary of the First Vision they honor as the launch of the Restoration of Christ’s church. The faith’s president and prophet, President Russell M. Nelson, whetted their anticipation last fall when he announced this weekend’s conference would “be different from any previous conference.”

No one imagined a conference without the Conference Center.

Then again, no one expected a coronavirus pandemic. All of the church’s 168 temples are closed. None of its 31,000 congregations have met together in person for about four weeks; this weekend will mark 10 weeks without gathering for wards and branches in some parts of Asia. Church leaders have moved about half its 67,000 missionaries to their home countries in a matter of weeks, and thousands will be released early or temporarily.

Now the 20,000-seat home of the famed Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square will stand empty on Saturday and Sunday.

But the church’s 190th Annual General Conference — and the bicentennial commemoration of the First Vision — will go on, broadcast by satellite and through the internet.

Of course, most of the 16.5 million global members of the church have experienced general conference by broadcast for decades, but this one will look decidedly different.

A small auditorium across the street on Temple Square will be the broadcast studio for the five sessions of the conference, three on Saturday and two on Sunday.

The three members of the First Presidency will preside and conduct each session, and only the church leaders invited to speak or pray in a particular session will attend it. The skeleton crew complies with the latest local public health order declared to mitigate the spread of the virus.

The music was all prerecorded.

So 100,000 people will not converge on Temple Square, 20,000 of them per session. Tens of thousands of others will not gather together in meetinghouses around the world to watch satellite broadcasts.

But the messages will be the same. Church leaders for months have shared messages and invitations on social media about Jesus Christ using the hashtag #HearHim, with President Nelson specifically inviting people to consider the question, “How do you hear him?”

“There are a few wonderful occasions in the scriptures when our Heavenly Father personally introduced his Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, with a specific charge to ‘Hear him!’’ he said.

Last fall, he promised this weekend’s conference would be remarkable.

“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 (Smith), a 14-year-old youth. That event marked the onset of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ in its fullness, precisely as foretold in the Holy Bible.”

He promised messages of truth, hope and inspiration.

“General conference next April will be different from any previous conference,” he said at the end of the October general 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.”

The commemoration of the 200th anniversary led the First Presidency to announce a change to the Saturday evening session, which usually alternates between the annual priesthood session in April and the annual women’s session in October. This weekend, it will instead be a special session for all church members 11 and older.

This isn’t the first time a pandemic has altered the way a general conference has been conducted. It’s not even the second time.

In 1919, the April general conference that was scheduled to include a solemn assembly to sustain the new church president, Heber J. Grant, was postponed for two months due to the Spanish flu. That flu killed 50 million people worldwide and at least 2,915 in Utah. In 1918, it was responsible for the deaths of 1,054 Latter-day Saints. It also took the lives of several missionaries.

In 1957, church leaders canceled the October general conference because of the then-new H2N2 flu virus, which killed 1.1 million.

“If we contributed in any way to the spread of the flu, and one life were lost, he thought that holding the conference would not be worth it,” wrote a person who recorded a statement made in the decision-making process by then-church President David O. McKay, according to work by research historian Ardis E. Parshall.

The church prepared two new illustrated explainer videos since the October conference to help people understand the First Vision and the Restoration.

The videos are available, along with Joseph Smith’s multiple accounts of the First Vision, at Restoration.ChurchofJesusChrist.org.

The church sent members an email on Friday morning with ideas for how to “get the most out of what will surely be an unforgettable conference.” The email included all the ways to watch or listen to the conference and said the conference would help people find peace in chaos.

For the latest updates and coverage of general conference, follow the Deseret News all weekend on Deseret.com, the Deseret News app, the Deseret News Facebook page, the Deseret News Twitter account and the Deseret News Instagram account.

People participating in the conference via social media can follow the #GeneralConference hashtag or look for messages from church leaders on Facebook and Twitter.

Here’s how to watch:

Deseret.com and TheChurchNews.com will carry the English livestream provided by the church and also publish complete coverage of each session.

All sessions will be streamed live in 41 languages on ChurchofJesusChrist.org, with closed captions in English, Spanish and Portuguese. The church’s YouTube channel will stream the conference live in 12 languages.

Other online options for streaming or listening include the Deseret News app, the Church News app, KSL TVKSL NewsRadioksl.com or the KSL app, BYUtv.orgBYUradio, and the BYUtv app, Latter-day Saints Channel internet radio, Latter-day Saints Channel app on your iOS or Android device, or RokuApple TVFire TV and Android TV.

Utah residents can watch general conference on KSL TV (Ch. 5). Dish Network subscribers can find BYUtv on channel 9403. DirecTV users will find BYUtv on Ch. 374. Visit bonneville.info to find general conference on cable or broadcast TV in your area.