SALT LAKE CITY — The world needs to eliminate racism, sexism and nationalism, an LDS leader said as he opened the final session of the faith's 187th Semiannual General Conference on Sunday afternoon.
Holding up black Mormon pioneer Jane Manning James as an example of "a remarkable disciple," Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles invited listeners "to welcome and embrace anyone who is making his or her own trek today, no matter where they are in their journey."
Then he called for compassion and an end to all bigotry.
"We need to embrace God’s children compassionately and eliminate any prejudice, including racism, sexism, and nationalism," Elder Ballard said. "Let it be said that we truly believe — and truly live — the words of the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi: '(The Lord) inviteth ... all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female ... and all are alike unto God.'"
His condemnation of racism was the second by a senior church leaders in two days. On Saturday, Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Twelve called racism morally wrong.
Leaders during the session expressed sadness at the loss of one of his colleagues among the senior leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Elder Robert D. Hales, for 23 years a member of one of the church's senior leadership bodies, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, died of causes incident to old age in the hospital shortly after the Sunday morning session. His quorum leader, President Russell M. Nelson, was at his side. Elder Hales was 85.
Elder Ballard said James, the daughter of a freed slave faced difficult challenges but remained a faithful Latter-day Saint until her death in 1908 at the age of 87. Her story is vital, he said, "because I know that rising generations must have the same kind of faith."
"I have a deep conviction that if we lose our ties to those who have gone before us, including our pioneer forefathers and mothers, we will lose a precious treasure," he said. But, he added, "Although it is appropriate and important to remember the historic nineteenth-century Mormon pioneer trek, we need to remember that 'the trek through life continues' for each of us as we prove our own 'faith in every footstep.'"
Elder Ballard also warned Mormons against deception by those who tamper with church doctrine.
"Do not listen to those who have not been ordained and/or set apart to their church calling and are acknowledged by common consent of the members of the church," he said. "Be aware of organizations, groups, or individuals claiming secret answers to doctrinal questions that they say today’s apostles and prophets do not have or understand. Do not listen to those who entice you with get-rich schemes. Our members have lost far too much money, so be careful."
Some people have offered expensive healing and support. A year ago, church leaders issued a statement against those practices.
"We urge church members," Elder Ballard said, "to be cautious about participating in any group that promises — in exchange for money — miraculous healings or that claims to have special methods for accessing healing power outside of properly ordained priesthood holders."
The 187th Semiannual Conference concluded Sunday afternoon after 35 speakers delivered messages in six sessions across two weekends.
The conference was broadcast to over 200 countries in 93 languages, said the final speaker, Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve closed the conference.
"I testify that in this conference, we have heard the voice of the Lord," he said.
He repeated short pieces of messages from the conference, including Elder Ballard's call to eliminate prejudice, and Elder Dallin H. Oaks' declaration that the Family Proclamation is an eternal truth.
"We should not be alarmed when the words of the Lord’s servants run counter to the thinking of the world, and, at times, our own thinking," Elder Andersen said. "It has always been this way. I am constantly on my knees in the temple with my brethren, and I attest to the goodness of their lives. Their greatest desire is to please the Lord and help God’s children return to His presence."
He promised listeners who act on promptings they felt during conference that they would "feel heaven’s hand upon you, and your life and the lives of those around you will be blessed."
Finally, he shared a final message from a talk Elder Hales had finished last week and planned to deliver Sunday morning before he was hospitalized in recent days.
"When we choose to have faith we are prepared to stand in the presence of God," Elder Hales wrote. "After the Savior's crucifixion, he appeared only to those who had been faithful in the testimony of him while they lived in mortality. Those who rejected the testimonies of the prophets could not behold the Savior's presence nor look upon his face. Our faith prepares us to be in the presence of God."
The other speakers Saturday afternoon included leaders from Brazil, Mexico and New Zealand.
The general president of the Sunday School, Brother Tad R. Callister, issued a spirited rebuttal to critics of the Book of Mormon, addressing numerous specific criticisms.
"The Book of Mormon is one of God’s priceless gifts to us," he said. "It is both sword and shield — it sends the word of God into battle to fight for the hearts of the just, and serves as an arch defender of the truth. As Saints, we not only have the privilege to defend the Book of Mormon, but the opportunity to take the offense — to preach with power its divine doctrine and bear testimony of its crowning witness of Jesus Christ."
He said the Book of Mormon can become the keystone of a church member's testimony.
"I bear my solemn testimony that the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God. It is God’s compelling witness of the divinity of Jesus Christ, the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith, and the absolute truth of this church."
Elder Joni L. Koch of the Quorum of the Seventy encouraged members to decide to be one with other members and church leaders, never labeling and especially not thinking or talking poorly about them behind their backs.
"Brothers and sisters, we have no right to portray anybody, especially from our church circle, as a badly finished product! Rather, our words about our fellow beings should reflect our belief in Jesus Christ and His atonement, and that in Him and through Him we can always change for the better! Some start criticizing and becoming divided with church leaders and members for things that are so small."
Elder Stanley G. Ellis of the Seventy provided a book end to his first conference talk in 2006, when he declared, "The Lord trusts us." On Sunday, he asked whether in the midst of trials, "Do we have the faith to trust him?"
"Hard is good," he said, adding that "Hard makes us stronger, humbles us, and gives us a chance to prove ourselves. Our beloved handcart pioneers came to know God in their extremities."
He said hard things in life should come as no surprise, are constant and are part of the gospel plan.
"The variable," he said, "is our reaction to the hard."
Elder Adilson de Paula Parrella of the Seventy suggested that Mormons should "always act when our living prophets speak."
"An essential truth we learn from the First Vision and the Prophet Joseph Smith is that God calls prophets, seers and revelators to instruct, guide, warn and lead us," he said. "These men are God’s mouthpieces on earth, with the authority to speak and act in the name of the Lord. By strictly following their counsel, we will be protected and receive choice blessings in our journey on this earth."
Elder Ian S. Ardern of the Seventy instructed members to spiritual fortifying themselves by heeding prophetic invitations and seeking learning out of the best books, including the Book of Mormon.
"We live in a day in which misinformation about our beliefs abounds," he said. "In times such as these, a failure to protect and deepen our spiritual roots is an invitation to have them gnawed at by those who seek to destroy our faith in Christ and our belief in his restored church."
He said many "are standing strong by continually nourishing their spiritual roots. Their faith and obedience is sufficient to give them great hope in their Savior and from that stems great happiness. They don't profess to know all things but they have paid the price to know enough to have peace and to live with patience as they seek to know more."
Elder Jose L. Alonso of the Seventy said love is service and forgiveness, and loving that way brings joy and happiness.
"In today’s world of so much suffering for different circumstances, sending a text message with a funny emoji or posting a nice picture with the words 'I love you' is good and valuable," he said. "But what many of us need to do is leave our mobile devices behind and with our hands and feet, help others in great need. Love without service is like faith without works; it’s dead indeed."