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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
President Gordon B. Hinckley reaches out with his cane and appears to "knight" President Henry B. Eyring to his new position in the First Presidency.

The chair next to LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley on the Conference Center dais was vacant only a few minutes Saturday morning before he called Elder Henry B. Eyring to fill the seat and serve as his counselor in the First Presidency.

The call was sustained by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the first session of the church's 177th Semiannual General Conference, which concludes today in Salt Lake City. It ended more than a month of speculation by church members about who would replace President James E. Faust as second counselor in the First Presidency.

Elder Quentin L. Cook, who had been serving in the Presidency of the Quorums of the Seventy, was named as the newest apostle to fill President Eyring's spot.

President Faust died Aug. 10 from causes incident to age. President Eyring, who at age 74 was a junior apostle in the Quorum of the Twelve, now joins President Hinckley and President Thomas S. Monson to form the First Presidency of the church.

President Hinckley noted the death of President Faust and described his former counselor as "a man of great faith and capacity who contributed much to our meetings" and who is "greatly missed." But as President Eyring took his seat next to President Hinckley, the 97-year-old church leader reached out with his cane and tapped him on the head.

It was almost a "knighting" of sorts for President Eyring, who smiled widely and ducked as more than 20,000 Conference Center spectators laughed in stride with President Hinckley, who is known for using his trademark sense of humor to lighten solemn moments.

During a noon news conference, President Eyring said the emotions he felt after receiving his call included joy, inadequacy and love from the Lord.

"It's a great, great feeling of opportunity, and I think an opportunity to serve the people whom I love," he said.

Both President Eyring and Elder Cook were notified of their new assignments on Thursday. Elder Cook, 67, had been overseeing the church's missionary program.

Elder Cook said later of his call: "We all started out doing other things and accepted these calls because we believe that Jesus Christ is the Savior ... and we try to fill these calls in the best ways that we can."

Session topics

During the remainder of Saturday's conference sessions, including an evening priesthood session, speakers touched on a variety of topics, including church service, the faith's belief in Jesus Christ, moral standards, missionary work, basic beliefs and death.

President Boyd K. Packer, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve, described how church members are called to leadership positions, and said top leaders in the church are "just the same" as ordinary members.

"You have the same access to the powers of revelation for your families and your work and your callings as we do," he said.

President Monson was the last speaker during the morning session of Saturday's conference. He talked about the death of a friend during World War II and recounted words from a talk he gave 38 years ago titled: "Mrs. Patton, Arthur Lives."

In that talk, President Monson said he told Mrs. Patton that he knew her son would live again.

"With all the strength of my soul I testify that our Heavenly Father loves each one of us," he said. "He hears the prayers of humble hearts, he hears our cries for help, as he heard Mrs. Patton."

During the evening session for men, President Hinckley talked about anger — an "unusual" but timely topic, he said. He followed speakers who talked about procrastination, pornography and "raising the bar" in missionary work.

"It is when we become angry that we get into trouble," he said, later adding: "I plead with you to control your tempers, to put a smile upon your faces, which will erase anger; speak out words of love and peace, appreciation and respect. If you will do this, your lives will be without regret. Your marriages and family relationships will be preserved. You will be much happier."

Talks during the afternoon session touched on missionary work and also the growing membership of the church. Elders Jeffrey R. Holland and M. Russell Ballard, of the Twelve, noted increased media attention to the church and its doctrine, and spoke of basic beliefs of the church, including the centrality of Jesus Christ as the head of the church that bears his name.

"The growing prominence of the church and the increasing inquiries from others present us with great opportunities to build bridges, make friends and pass on accurate information," Elder Ballard said, referring to the volume of media about the church since the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and more particularly, in the wake of Mitt Romney's presidential quest.

"But it can also present a greater possibility of misunderstanding, sometimes even prejudice, if we allow others to define who we are and what we believe, rather than presenting it ourselves." This week the church unveiled a new outreach campaign by top church leaders that targets reporters and editorial boards.

Current questions about whether Latter-day Saints are Christians revolve primarily around two doctrinal issues: the nature of the Godhead and the LDS belief in continuing revelation, which leads to an open scriptural canon, Elder Holland said. "I testify that Jesus Christ is the literal, living Son of our literal, living God," he said.

Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, also of Twelve, said love of the Lord is a quality that best defines members of the LDS faith. In a tender gesture, Elder Wirthlin was assisted by Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Twelve, who supported the aging church leader at the podium during part of his remarks.

"We are a people who love the Lord with all our hearts, souls and minds, and we love our neighbors as ourselves," Elder Wirthlin said. "That is our signature as a people. It is like a beacon to the world signaling whose disciples we are."

A rainy day

The Conference Center choir seats, usually the setting for the two-toned Mormon Tabernacle Choir, blossomed with lollipop colors Saturday afternoon as young women from the Mapleton and Springville area provided the music.

Persistent rain thinned the usual ranks of those crowded in and around Temple Square, but a group of 19 young men from the Rapid Creek Ward, Inkom, Idaho, braved the downpour for two hours, hoping to get into the center for the evening priesthood session. The group, led by Paul Lisk, had two exchange students in tow, one from Israel, one from Indonesia.

"It's been wonderful," Lisk said, refusing to the let the weather dampen his enthusiasm for meeting with other Latter-day Saints from many states and nations.

The conference will conclude today. Sessions will be held at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. in the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City and will be televised in many areas and broadcast live via satellite to thousands of LDS chapels worldwide.

Contributing: Twila Van Leer

E-mail: nwarburton@desnews.com