SALT LAKE CITY — On a clear crisp morning in Salt Lake City, 86-year-old President Thomas S. Monson opened the 183rd Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with a prayer in his heart "that we may be filled with the Spirit of the Lord as we listen and learn" during the next two days of conference sessions.
"We have come here to be instructed and inspired," President Monson said one day after the 50th anniversary of his call to be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. "Many messages, covering a variety of gospel topics, will be given during the next two days. Those men and women who will speak to you have sought heaven's help concerning the messages they will give."
During the Saturday morning session "those men and women" included a diverse group of church leaders, with Portuguese, African and German accents mingling with U.S. voices both masculine and feminine, young and old.
During his brief opening remarks President Monson announced that total membership of the LDS Church has reached 15 million. "The church continues to grow steadily and change the lives of more and more people every year," he said.
Part of the reason for that growth, he said, is the "missionary force" that "seeks out those who are searching for truth." That force, he noted, has increased in numbers from 58,500 in October 2012, when he announced new, lower minimum age requirements for full-time missionary service in the church, to more than 80,000 today.
"What a tremendous and inspiring response we have witnessed!" he said.
"Now is the time for members and missionaries to come together, to work together, to labor in the Lord's vineyard to bring souls unto him," President Monson said. "He has prepared themeans for us to share the gospel in a multitude of ways, and he will assist us in our labors if we will act in faith to fulfill his work."
To that end, the church president urged Latter-day Saints to contribute, as they are able, to the General Missionary Fund of the church to help support "thousands of missionaries whose circumstances do not allow them to support themselves."
Later in the session President Monson's counselor in the First Presidency, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, pleaded with those who have left the LDS Church for a variety of reasons to "come back again. Join with us!"
"My dear friends," he said, "there is yet a place for you here. Come, and add your talents, gifts and energies to ours. We will all become better as a result."
President Uchtdorf acknowledged a variety of reasons why people may choose to leave the church, including struggles with "unanswered questions about things that have been done or said in the past."
"We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of church history — along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable and devine events — there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question," he said. "Sometimes questions arise because we simply don't have all the information and we just need a bit more patience ... Sometimes there is a difference to what the 'facts' really mean. A question that creates doubt in some can, after careful investigation, build faith in others.
"And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the church have simply made mistakes," President Uchtdorf continued. "There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles or doctrine. I suppose the church would only be perfect if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and his doctrine is pure. But he works through us — his imperfect children — and imperfect people make mistakes."
While it is natural to have questions ("the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding," he said), "one of the purposes of the church is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith — even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty."
"If you expect to find perfect people here, you will be disappointed," President Uchtdorf said. "But if you seek the pure doctrine of Christ, the word of God 'which healeth the wounded soul' and the sanctifying influence of the Holy Ghost, then here you will find them. In this age of waning faith — in this age when so many feel distanced from heaven's embrace — here you will fid a people who know and draw closer to their Savior by serving God and fellowmen, just like you. Come, join with us!"
Two members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles also spoke during the opening session, including Elder Robert D. Hales, who gave his listeners a behind-the-scenes view of general conference.
"These conference are always under the direction of the Lord, guided by his spirit," said Elder Hales. "As speakers, we are not assigned specific topics. Over weeks and months, often through sleepless nights, we wait upon the Lord. Through fasting, prayer, study and pondering, we learn the message that he wants us to give."
Elder Hales said the prayerful preparation for general conference should also apply to "all members of the church as we prepare to participate in ward, stake and general conferences."
"We study out in our minds what we need and desire from Heavenly Father," he said, "and we pray to understand and apply what we are taught."
Elder Hales explained that "Heavenly Father has provided the way" so that "97 percent of the church can hear these messages in their own tongue."
"Millions of members in 197 countries will watch this conference in 95 languages," he said. "In just two or three days, the messages will appear on LDS.org in English, and within one week they will begin to be available in 52 languages," and he urged members to use "the resources on the church's websites and mobile apps" to read, study and understand conference messages.
"This is (the Lord's) general conference," Elder Hales testified. "I promise you in his name that if you pray with sincere desire to hear your Heavenly Father's voice in the messages of his conference, you will discover that he has spoken to you to help you, to strengthen you and to lead you home to his presence."
The other apostle who spoke during the Saturday morning session was Elder David A. Bednar, who shared with listeners "two important lessons I have learned about the law of tithing," which Mormons believe means paying to the church 10 percent of one's increase.
The first, he said, is that "as we live the law of tithing, we often receive significant but subtle blessings that are not always what we expect and easily can be overlooked."
"Sometimes we may ask God for success, and he gives us physical and mental stamina," Elder Bednar said. "We might plead for prosperity, and we receive enlarged perspective and increased patience, or we petition for growth and are blessed with the gift of grace. He may bestow upon us conviction and confidence as we strive to achieve worthy goals. And when we plead for relief from physical, mental and spiritual difficulties, he may increase our resolve and reslience.
"As we are spiritually attentive and observant, we will be blessed with eyes that see more clearly, ears that hear more consistently and hearts that understand more fully the significance and subtlety of his ways, his thoughts and his blessings in our lives."
The second lesson about tithing that Elder Bednar spoke about is what he called "the simplicity of the Lord's way." He told of serving on the Council on the Disposition of the Tithes, which has the responsibility of overseeing and disbursing the tithing funds of the church.
"These sacred funds are used in a rapidly growing church to spiritually bless individuals and families by constructing and maintaining temples and houses of worship, supporting missionary work, translating and publishing scriptures, fostering family history research, funding schools and religious education and accomplishing other church purposes as directed by the Lord's ordained servants," he said.
"I know from firsthand experience that the Council on the Disposition of the Tithes is vigilant in caring for the widow's mite," Elder Bednar continued, adding that each time he sits on the council he thinks of the faith of church members around the world and their faithful and willing obedience to the law of tithing.
"Thank you for your goodness and faithfulness as you honor your covenants," he said.
Also speaking during the session was Sister Carole M. Stephens of the Relief Society General Presidency, who said "there exists today a great need for men and women to cultivate respect for each other as sons and daughtes of God and reverence for our Father in Heaven and his priesthood — his power and authority."
"We all need each other," Sister Stephens said. "Sons of God need daughters of God, and daughters of God need sons of God. We have different gifts and strengths. First Corinthians chapter 12 emphasizes the need for sons and daughters of God, each one of us, to fulfill our individual roles and responsibilities according to the Lord's plan 'that all may benefit.'"
Elder Ulisses Soares of the Presidency of the Seventy spoke about meekness, indicating that it "is vital for us to become more Christlike."
"Without it we won't be able to develop other important virtues," said Elder Soares, who is from Brazil. "Being meek does not mean weakness, but it does mean behaving with goodness and kindness, showing strength, serenity, healthy self-worth and self-control."
And Elder Edward Dube of the Quorum of the Seventy told of working in the fields with his mother when he was a boy in Zimbabwe. After working for a long time, he looked back and was impressed with how much they had accomplished. When he tried to get his mother to look at what they had done, she told him, "Edward, never look back. Look ahead at what we still have to do."
"In the sight of the Lord, it is not so much on what we have done or where we have been," Elder Dube said, "but much more on where we are willing to go."
Prayers for the session were offered by Elder Kent F. Richards of the Seventy and Matthew O. Richardson of the Sunday School general presidency. Music for the session was provided by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.