SALT LAKE CITY — With the promise of an unexpected solemn assembly on Sunday morning and additional unique announcements, President Russell M. Nelson opened the two-day 190th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Saturday by speaking to an empty auditorium and millions of people worldwide.
“The purpose of this and every general conference is to help us to hear him,” he said, referring to Jesus Christ, the bicentennial celebration of the First Vision and his own invitation to members to “commence a lifelong quest to hear him.”
The church’s prophet and president also immediately acknowledged the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the church. Its 168 temples are closed, its missionary program has been interrupted and he was speaking from an auditorium on Temple Square instead of the 21,000-seat Conference Center across the street.
But President Nelson said life is full of trials and counseled members to remember that Christ told them in Latter-day Saint scripture that “if ye are prepared ye shall not fear.”
“Of course we can store our own reserves of food, water and savings, but equally crucial is our need to fill our personal spiritual storehouses with faith, truth and testimony,” he said.
He also spoke about his promise last fall that this weekend’s conference would be unique, different from any other and memorable.
“Little did I know,” he said, “when I promised you at the October 2019 general conference that this April conference would be memorable and unforgettable, that speaking to a visible congregation of fewer than 10 people would make this conference so memorable and unforgettable for me.”
The solemn assembly is intended to be a spiritual highlight, President Nelson said, “as we express in global unison our profound gratitude to God the Father and his Beloved Son by praising them in this unique way.”
The First Presidency sat in chairs placed farther apart than typical, to provide appropriate physical distance during the pandemic. All music, presented by the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, was prerecorded, with some selections from performances as early as 2008 and 2018, as noted on screens viewed around the world.
Many of the session’s speakers focused on the First Vision.
Preparing for it by focusing on the First Vision, Restoration and Book of Mormon as prescribed by President Nelson was “a hinge point in my personal history,” said President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency. “I felt changes in my heart. I felt new gratitude. I felt filled with joy at the prospect of being invited to participate in this celebration of the ongoing Restoration.”
He said the prayer Joseph Smith offered that led to the appearance of the Father and Son in the First Vision in the spring of 1820 was a transcendent event that ushered in the Restoration. The same power is available to church members.
“He will lift each of us so we may rise to spiritual challenges and opportunities unlike any seen in the history of this world,” President Eyring said, adding, “Even an unbelieving world will recognize The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and realize the power of God upon it. Faithful and brave disciples will fearlessly, humbly and openly take upon them the name of Christ in their everyday lives.”
He said prayer helps members become a part of the Lord’s work preparing the world for Christ’s second coming.
“When I pray with faith, I have the Savior as my advocate with the Father and I can feel that my prayers reach heaven,” he said. “Answers come. Blessings are received. There is peace and joy even in hard times.”
President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, spoke in depth about Joseph Smith’s First Vision and his martyrdom with his brother, Hyrum, who is President Ballard’s great-great grandfather.
One continuing lesson of the First Vision, he said, is that “Joseph came to realize that the Bible did not contain all the answers to life’s questions; rather, it taught men and women how they could find answers to their questions by communicating directly with God through prayer.”
President Ballard spoke using four of the primary accounts of the First Vision in his talk and said that church members are forever grateful for it and those who established The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“As we celebrate this joyous occasion, the 200th anniversary of the First Vision, we should always remember the price Joseph and Hyrum Smith paid, along with so many other faithful men, women and children, to establish the church so you and I could enjoy the many blessings and revealed truths we have today. Their faithfulness should never be forgotten.”
Sister Joy D. Jones, Primary general president, said women have vital continuing roles in the Restoration and a distinctive place in our Heavenly Father’s plan.
“Our prophet’s words are continually with me as I contemplate women’s ability to step forward,” she said. “He pleads with us, which indicates priority. He is teaching us how to survive spiritually in a sin-sick world by receiving and acting on revelation.”
She said the preeminent role of women in the ongoing Restoration is “to hear him, to follow him, to trust him and to become an extension of his love.”
Memorably, she showed a video clip of primary children interacting with President Nelson and herself from inside the replica of the Smith family home in Palmyra, New York, taken during a trip there.
Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles also spoke about the First Vision. He said Joseph Smith’s experiences with deity have parallels to the individualized experiences of all people with God.
”We hear Him in our prayers, in our homes, in the scriptures, in our hymns, as we worthily partake of the sacrament, as we declare our faith, as we serve others and as we attend the temple with fellow believers,” he said. “Spiritually defining moments come as we prayerfully listen to General Conference and as we better keep the commandments.”
He said those experiences build powerful bulwarks in times of trouble.
“Along with the peaceful direction we receive from the Holy Ghost, from time to time, God powerfully and very personally assures each of us that he knows us and loves us, and that he is blessing us specifically and openly. Then, in our moments of difficulty, the Savior brings these experiences back into our mind.”
The hymns for the conference are all recordings by the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, some recorded specifically for this conference when President Nelson recognized the conference might not be able to go forward as expected. Others are past recordings.
The broadcast began with “Awake and Arise.” The choir also sang “The Morning Breaks” and “It Is Well With My Soul,” to which President Nelson referred in his opening talk. Other recorded hymns included “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer” and “Come, Thou Fount.”
Elder Richard G. Maynes, a General Authority Seventy, provided the invocation.
“We pray thy gift of inspiration with all those working diligently to find solutions to this virus,” he said. “We pray thy healing influence be with all those suffering due to this disease.”
Sister Michelle Craig, first counselor in the Young Women general presidency, gave the benediction.
President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, conducted the first session.
COVID-19 now has infected more than 1 million people in 181 countries. More than 60,000 fatalities have been reported and more than 230,000 patients are reported to have recovered, according to the BBC and The New York Times database. At least 7,100 people have died in the United States.