SALT LAKE CITY — Millions of Mormons made history Saturday morning when they simultaneously stood where they were around the world and sustained President Russell M. Nelson as the 17th leader of the LDS Church at the start of an international general conference.
They also witnessed President Nelson alter the face of the senior leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He called the first Asian-American apostle, Elder Gerrit W. Gong, 64, and the first Latin American apostle, Elder Ulisses Soares, 59. Elder Soares was emotional as the two men moved to their new seats with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
The news came as part of the historic solemn assembly conducted by President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency, after the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang, "We Thank Thee O God for A Prophet."
The solemn assembly is an ancient practice restored by Joseph Smith, said President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve. He characterized it as gift because it was part of an orderly way to transition from one leader to another at the start of a new chapter in church history.
President Nelson is considered by Mormons to be "the Lord’s living mouthpiece for all humankind," said Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Twelve. They embrace him like they would Peter or Moses if they lived in their day and are willing to follow his voice, said Elder Neil L. Andersen, also of the Twelve.
The solemn assembly was a public manifestation of Mormons’ willingness to sustain President Nelson as their anointed leader and God’s prophet and to follow his counsel, Elder Andersen added.
"Following the prophet in a world of commotion is like being wrapped in a warm, soothing blanket on a freezing cold day," he said.
During the solemn assembly, the First Presidency stood alone at first and sustained President Nelson as the president of the church. Then they sustained the entire First Presidency, with President Dallin H. Oaks as first counselor.
The callings of Elder Gong and Elder Soares were unveiled as President Eyring read the names of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Church members took to social media to herald the announcement of the first men of color in the history of the Twelve.
Elder Gong's ancestors immigrated from China in the 1800s. He served as special assistant to the U.S. ambassador in Beijing, China, in 1987. From 2011 to 2015, Elder Gong was a member of the Asia Area Presidency, headquartered in Hong Kong. He has been a General Authority Seventy since 2010.
Elder Soares was born in Brazil. He has served as a full-time missionary, elders quorum president, counselor in a bishopric, high councilor, stake executive secretary, regional welfare agent, stake president, president of the Portugal Porto Mission and as a General Authority Seventy since 2005.
Both men were serving in the Presidency of the Seventy at the time of their calling.
Melchizedek priesthood holders stood and sustained senior church leadership followed by all members of the Relief Society, then the Aaronic Priesthood and the Young Women. Finally, all church members stood as one to sustain their leaders.
The two new apostles fill vacancies created by the deaths of President Nelson's predecessor, President Thomas S. Monson, in January and Elder Robert D. Hales during the last general conference in October.
Elder Andersen welcomed Elder Gong and Elder Soares to what he called the "unparalleled brotherhood" of the Twelve. Elder Andersen said President Nelson's role is to call people to change, repent and return to the Lord. He told church members they can expect critics to attack their prophet.
"And don’t be alarmed when the prophet’s warning voice counters popular opinions of the day," he said. "The mocking fireballs of annoyed disbelievers are always hurled the moment the prophet begins to speak. As you are humble in following the voice of the Lord’s prophet, I promise you an added blessing of safety and peace."
That doesn’t mean that following a prophet is always easy.
"Don’t be surprised if at times your personal views are not initially in harmony with the teachings of the Lord’s prophet," Elder Andersen said. "These are moments of learning, of humility, when we go to our knees in prayer. We walk forward in faith, trusting in God, knowing that with time we will receive more spiritual clarity from our Heavenly Father."
He held up as an example President Nelson, who in 1982, before he became an apostle, said that he never asked when the church president is speaking as a man or a prophet.
"My interest has been," he said then, "'How can I be more like him? … My philosophy is to stop putting question marks behind the prophet’s statements and put exclamation points instead."
He called President Nelson a watchman on the tower, brilliant, wise, full of good judgment, faith and courage.
Orderly succession in the church is one of many gifts from God, President Ballard said. He listed others — knowledge that one can do all things through Jesus Christ, the Sabbath day, sacrifice, service — and then said the Savior is the matchless, supreme gift. He also said exercising faith can fill life with faith, joy, happiness, hope and love.
Then he said the gospel of Jesus Christ in its truest sense — pure religion — is to succor, lift and strengthen those in spiritual and temporal need.
"Doing so requires us to visit them and assist them that their testimonies of faith in Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ and his Atonement will be anchored in their hearts," he said.
He expressed hope that God would help Latter-day Saints treasure their membership "in his restored church" and he urged church members to record their feelings regarding the solemn assembly in their journals.
Elder Stevenson spoke more about succession. He honored late church President Thomas S. Monson, who died Jan. 2, and described how the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles led the church during the 12-day interregnum before the Twelve sustained and set apart President Russell M. Nelson on Jan. 14. The process meant there was not a second of interruption in church leadership.
"This divinely ordained process leads to another divinely called prophet," Elder Stevenson said. "Just as President Monson was one of the grandest inhabitants to grace this earth, so is President Nelson. He has been profoundly prepared and specifically tutored by the Lord to lead us at this time."
He talked about President Nelson’s internationally recognized prowess as a heart surgeon and researcher.
"Interestingly, as President Nelson’s call to the Twelve 34 years ago ended a professional medical career of strengthening and repairing hearts, it began a ministry as an apostle devoted to strengthening and repairing hearts of countless tens of thousands around the world."
Elder Stevenson said he has spoken to President Nelson’s former students, future surgeons who were residents under his tutelage. They described how he was unlike other surgeons, who could be consumed by the stress of surgery and mistreated their residents. President Nelson treated residents with a Christlike heart while maintaining high expectations for them, said Elder Stevenson, who added, "I feel like I have been one of his ‘residents in training.'"
"President Nelson has an exceptional way of teaching others and offering correction in a positive, respectful and uplifting manner," he added. "He is the embodiment of a Christlike heart and an example to us all. From him, we learn that in any circumstance we find ourselves, our conduct and hearts can be in accordance with the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ."
Two General Authority Seventies shared difficult stories of untimely deaths.
Elder Brian K. Taylor told the story of a friend who as a teenager caused a serious car accident that killed another driver. She struggled through physical recovery and emotional and spiritual recovery as she dealt with the pain of causing a life to be lost. A counselor invited to repeat the phrase, "I am a child of God" 10 times a day.
At first she couldn't, but then as she did she felt Jesus Christ "mending her wounded soul," Elder Taylor said.
"Christ felt my pains, my sorrows, my guilt,” his friend said. "I felt God’s pure love, and had never experienced anything so powerful! Knowing I am a child of God is the most powerful knowledge I possess!"
Elder Taylor said the world is engaged in "a great war over divine identity." He said Satan aims to destroy both belief in God and in the knowledge that all are his children. He said each person can find power in understanding her divine identity and can experience that power by learning about the Savior, seeking God and reading the Book of Mormon.
"Coming to know our Father changes everything, especially our hearts, as his gentle Spirit confirms our true identity and ‘great worth in his sight.'"
Elder Larry J. Echo Hawk told a personal tale of tragedy to underscore the peace brought by forgiveness.
He said a drunk teenage driver killed his younger brother and sister-in-law 36 years ago. His parents and sister comforted the driver’s parents after his sentencing, an example that helped Elder Echo Hawk begin the path to forgiving the young man.
"Only with the help of the Prince of Peace was my painful burden lifted," he said. "My heart will always miss Tommy and Joan, but forgiveness now allows me to remember them with unfettered joy. And I know we will be together again as a family."
He said followers of Christ are to be forgiving even when others may not seem to warrant it.
"We can all receive unspeakable peace and partnering with our Savior as we learn to freely forgive those who have trespassed against us" by abandoning anger, resentment and pride.
"I invite all of us to forgive completely and let healing occur from within," he said. "And even if forgiveness doesn’t come today, know that as we desire it and work for it, it will come — just as it eventually did for me after my brother’s death."
He also encouraged others to forgive themselves, too.
Elder Lynn G. Robbins of the Seventy said God allows his children to flounder and fail for several reasons — so they can gain experience, learn to prize the good, prove that only by his grace can they become like him and to develop attributes that are refined only by opposition and affliction.
He said Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ allow countless second chances on our journey back to their presence.
"Repentance is God’s ever-accessible gift that allows and enables us to go from failure to failure without any loss of enthusiasm," Elder Robbins said. "Repentance isn’t his backup plan in the event we might fail. Repentance is his plan knowing that we will. This is the gospel of repentance, and as President Nelson observed, ‘It will be a lifetime curriculum.'"
It is expected that later today, President Nelson will speak to the entire church for the first time since he was introduced as the faith's new leader in a broadcast on Jan. 15, when he pledged to serve God and church members "with every remaining breath of my life."
It would mark the first time a church president has spoken at a semiannual conference since April 2017. President Monson was unable to attend the October conference because of poor health.
President Nelson is expected to speak multiple times during the conference, which includes two more sessions today at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. MDT at the 21,000-seat Conference Center across from Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City.
Sunday sessions are at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. MDT.
Those interested can watch the conference live on DeseretNews.com, which also will provide summaries of each of conference talks soon after they end and news coverage of the conference throughout both days.
Deseret News reporters and web producers will be live tweeting through all conference sessions using the hashtag #ldsconf.17 comments on this story
The 188th Annual General Conference convenes at the end of a week in which church leaders reinforced their denunciations of all forms of abuse, changed church policies about bishopric and stake president interviews, donated $1 million to ease hunger in Africa and announced the open house and dedication dates for the highly anticipated Rome Italy Temple.
After the conference, the approximately three dozen messages from church leaders will be available on demand on LDS.org, the general conference YouTube channel and the Gospel Library app in more than 80 languages.