SALT LAKE CITY — Despite growing opposition and commotion, the best days are ahead for the kingdom of God and there is no need for church members to fear. Nor is there any place for prejudice, specifically racism, sexism and nationalism, the faith's senior leaders said on the final day of its worldwide general conference Sunday.
The absence of church President Thomas S. Monson and the death, between Sunday's two sessions of long-time apostle Elder Robert D. Hales, marked the 187th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The final session began with a clarion call for an end to all prejudice, while the entire conference included numerous reminders of the last address by President Monson, drawing on the healing power of the Book of Mormon. He did not attend the six sessions over two weekends due to limitations incident to age.
Holding up black Mormon pioneer Jane Manning James, the daughter of a freed slave, 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.'"
It was the second time in two days that an apostle had condemned racism. On Saturday, Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Twelve declared it morally wrong. After Elder Ballard spoke Sunday, Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Twelve repeated his statement and Elder Joni L. Koch of the Quorum of the Seventy made an additional comment.
"As we enter a chapel or a temple to worship as a group, we should leave behind our differences," Elder Koch said, "including race, social status, political preferences, academic and professional achievements and instead concentrate on our common spiritual objectives."
The conference addresses follow the church's own statement Aug. 15 after racial unrest in the South. "White supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them. Church members who promote or pursue a 'white culture' or white supremacy agenda are not in harmony with the teachings of the church," it said.
Faith defeats fear
"The best days are ahead for the kingdom of God on the earth," said President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency. "Opposition will strengthen our faith in Jesus Christ, as it has since the days of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Faith always defeats fear. Standing together produces unity. And your prayers for those in need are heard and answered by a loving God. He neither slumbers nor does he sleep."
President Eyring said his optimism was renewed by heeding President Monson's counsel. He has been reading the Book of Mormon daily for 50 years but decided to obey President Monson's call in April for church members to make a greater effort to ponder, study and apply the Book of Mormon's teachings.
"The happy result for me, and for many of you, has been what the prophet promised," President Eyring said. "Those of us who took his inspired counsel to heart have heard the Spirit more distinctly. We have found a greater power to resist temptation and have felt greater faith in a resurrected Jesus Christ, in his gospel and in his living church. In a season of increasing tumult in the world, those increases in testimony have driven out doubt and fear and have brought us feelings of peace."
It also produced two other effects in President Eyring.
"First, the Spirit he promised has produced a sense of optimism about what lies ahead, even as the commotion in the world seems to increase," he said. "And, second, the Lord has given me — and you — an even greater feeling of his love for those in distress. We have felt an increase in the desire to go to the rescue of others. That desire has been at the heart of President Monson’s ministry and teaching."
President Eyring said he'd seen it in action as he visited Puerto Rico, St. Thomas and Florida after Hurricane Irma.
"That desire to bless is the fruit of people gaining a testimony of Jesus Christ, his gospel, his restored church and his prophet," he said, adding, "They ignore their own trials to go to the relief of others."
Hard things in life should come as no surprise, are constant and are part of the gospel plan, said Elder Stanley G. Ellis of the Seventy, because "hard makes us stronger, humbles us and gives us a chance to prove ourselves."
"The variable," he added, "is our reaction to the hard."
Scriptural examples show that turning to the Lord, and not from the Lord, provides peace and healing, said Bishop W. Christopher Waddell, second counselor in the Presiding Bishopric. No one can control all that happens to them, "but we have absolute control over how we respond to the changes in our lives."
No matter the circumstance, Christ is the source of all healing, peace and eternal progress, said Sister Jean B. Bingham, Relief Society general president
"Whether they are personal struggles, family troubles or community crises, peace will come as we trust that God’s Only Begotten Son has power to soothe our aching souls."
Sister Bingham spoke first on Sunday morning, a speaking position that for more than a decade featured a member of the First Presidency when all three members were available to speak. She counseled listeners to come to know Christ through study, faith and effort to become more like him.
"I testify that as you center your life on Jesus Christ, you will find joy in your circumstances, whatever they may be," she said.
President Eyring said doing that allows Latter-day Saints to live without doubt that Christ watches over them, and they become fearless.
He said President Monson had provided the church "the way to optimism as we go forward," which "is to ponder and apply the Book of Mormon and the words of prophets. Pray always. Be believing. Serve the Lord with all our heart, might, mind, and strength. ... And above all, we are to be consistent and persistent in following prophetic counsel."
Sacred time, space
The Sabbath and the temple are sources of help to rise above life's daily diversions and worldly corruption, said Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Heavenly Father's plan of happiness defines his children's eternal identity and the pathway they must follow to learn, change, grow and ultimately dwell with him eternally, he said.
"Eternal life is the ultimate exceeding great and precious promise," he said.
The Sabbath is a sacred time and the temple a sacred space "set apart for worshipping God and for receiving and remembering His great and precious promises," he said, adding that "a temple is literally the house of the Lord, a sacred space specifically set apart for worshipping God and for receiving and remembering His great and precious promises."
The purpose of the Sabbath and the temple are exactly alike, he said: "to powerfully and repeatedly focus our attention upon our Heavenly Father, his Only Begotten Son, the Holy Ghost and the promises associated with the ordinances and covenants of the Savior’s restored gospel."
The spirit and strength derived from Sunday meetings and the temple must be brought home to sustain focus on the plan of happiness.
The Book of Mormon
A forceful rebuttal to critics of the Book of Mormon was issued by Brother Tad R. Callister, the Sunday School general president, who addressed numerous specific criticisms.
"The Book of Mormon is one of God’s priceless gifts to us," Brother Callister 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."
The conference was broadcast to over 200 countries in 93 languages. A total of 35 speakers delivered messages in six sessions across two weekends.
In addition to repeating Elder Ballard's remarks on prejudice and President Eyring's statement that God watches over all, Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve closed the conference by quoting Elder Dallin H. Oaks' Saturday 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."
"I testify that in this conference," he concluded, "we have heard the voice of the Lord."