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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Those in the Conference Center sustain the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church during a solemn assembly in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 31, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — In three remarkable, history-making sessions of a general conference, the new leader of the LDS Church was sustained Saturday in a solemn assembly, the first-ever Asian-American and Latin American apostles were named, and the structure of priesthood quorums were changed around the world.

President Russell M. Nelson put an unforgettable stamp on the church on the same day millions of Mormons simultaneously stood where they were around the world and sustained him as the 17th leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during its 188th Annual General Conference.

First, he changed the face of senior church leadership by calling Elder Gerrit W. Gong, an Asian American, and Elder Ulisses Soares of Brazil as new members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Then Saturday night, President Nelson announced a restructuring of the priesthood quorums in all 30,500 congregations around the world, describing an immediate combining of two bodies that had been operating and meeting separately — high priest groups and elders quorums — into a single body called the elders quorum. It is the biggest change of its kind since the church discontinued stake seventies quorums in 1986.

President Nelson and other leaders said the changes would increase unanimity, simplify communication, provide for mentoring and make priesthood holders more effective ministers.

"We have felt a pressing need to improve the way we care for our members and report our contacts with them," President Nelson said. "To do that better, we need to strengthen our priesthood quorums to give greater direction to the ministering of love and support that the Lord intends for his Saints."

The flurry of news on Saturday included a new Young Women general presidency and changes in the Presidency of the Seventy that brought more diversity to one of the church's senior leadership groups. In addition, the 18 speakers provided sermons on the role of women in church, meekness, temple work, forgiveness and repentance.

'Living mouthpiece'

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 as they would Peter or Moses, said Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve.

"Following the prophet in a world of commotion is like being wrapped in a warm, soothing blanket on a freezing cold day," he said.

President Nelson is "the Lord’s living mouthpiece for all humankind," added Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Twelve.

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 from God to the church because it was part of an orderly way to transition from one leader — President Thomas S. Monson, who died Jan. 2 — to a new chapter in church history.

"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."

The solemn assembly drew unusually large crowds to the 21,000-seat Conference Center on Saturday morning. All overflow venues on Temple Square were filled. Many enjoyed audio of the session outdoors.

During the solemn assembly, groups stood one at a time to sustain the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. The order was the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve, all Melchizedek Priesthood holders stood, all members of the Relief Society, Aaronic Priesthood holders, Young Women and finally, all church members stood as one to sustain their leaders.

The callings of Elder Gong, 64, and Elder Soares, 59, were unveiled as President Henry B. Eyring read the names of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during the solemn assembly.

Historic reality

The two men will represent an increasingly diverse church in the Quorum of the Twelve, the first Asian American and Latin American in the 188-year history of the church.

"I think this is the most significant step toward more diversity the senior church leadership has taken since 1978, since the priesthood revelation," said Patrick Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

The callings have been decades in the making as a young global church has developed, Mason said. Today, more than 58 percent of the 16.1 million Mormons live outside the United States.

"I think we forget the global church began just 50 or 60 years ago," he said. "Today's announcement is a sign we'll start start seeing the fruits of the development of the global church with more international leaders moving into senior leadership."

One historian said the last time similar changes happened in the apostleship was in the 1800s and early 1900s when apostles included John Taylor and James Talmadge of England, Anthon H. Lund of Denmark and Charles A. Callis of Ireland.

"Those callings reflected the early growth centers of the church," said Keith Erekson, director of the LDS Church History Library. "What we see today is the current demographic reality of the church, that it's growing among different nationalities, ethnicities and languages."

Even more diversity was reflected when President Oaks announced changes to five seats in the seven-member Presidency of the Seventy (three of which will be effective in August) and an addition of eight new General Authority Seventies. He said the additional callings, which included a number of international representatives, brought the number of LDS general authorities to 116, with nearly 40 percent born outside the United States.

Emotional reaction

In the 1800s, Elder Gong's ancestors immigrated from China, a nation special to President Nelson's heart. Elder Gong served as special full-time missionary in Taiwan, assistant to the U.S. ambassador in Beijing, China, in 1987 and in the church's Asia Area Presidency for five years. He was called as a General Authority Seventy in 2010.

"I'm so happy," Sarah Nelson, a digital marketer for BYUtv, wrote on Twitter. "I burst into tears, and I can't stop crying. My heart is full. This means so much to me as an Asian/brown member of this church."

Asia is home to 1.1 million Mormons. Brazil is home to more than 1.35 million Mormons and tens of thousands of American missionaries have served there. That made today's announcement about Elder Soares, who was born there, like a lightning bolt to many who consider the country a special place in the church, Mason said.

Elder Soares has served in many callings, including president of the Portugal Porto Mission and as a General Authority Seventy since 2005.

"I don’t think I’ll be able to stop crying today," added Fernando Camilo, a Brazilian. "Having an apostle from my country is an indescribable feeling. I so love Elder Soares. He’s a kind, gentle apostle of the Lord."

Priesthood change

President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, called the priesthood restructuring "a revelatory event," and Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve said, "We are moving forward with unanimity in what is in reality one more step in the unfolding of the Restoration."

With the move, Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Twelve said, "There will be an increase in mentoring and unanimity as a new elder and an experienced high priest share experiences, side-by-side, in quorum meetings and assignments."

He also said it should liberate bishops and branch presidents to act as shepherds in their congregations.

Erekson called the change a tremendously significant event and pointed out that modern LDS scripture began with a priesthood organization of two elders, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. "From that day forward," he said, "there have been various changes to the priesthood.

Mason agreed, saying, "These things happen periodically, roughly every generation or two, both as needs change and as leaders study revelations and work out how they should apply in the contemporary church.

They said the best modern comparisons are the discontinuance of stake seventies quorums in 1986 and the expansion of international quorums of seventies in the 1990s.

Practical impacts

Erekson marveled at the breadth of the change across more than 170 countries and tens of thousands of congregations.

"This may be the largest batch of releases in church history, almost a quarter million people," he said, of those who will soon be released from high priest group lederships and elders quorums.

Men who attended the priesthood session reacted positively.

"I think it's going to be a lot easier to make assignments," said Ross Whatcott, 89, a high priest from Bountiful, Utah.

His grandson, Jeffrey Whatcott, 28, an elder from Provo, said, "It's going to be cool to have the high priests kind of chime in with all their experience and all their knowledge of the gospel. It will kind of be like grafting in a really healthy, strong experienced branch with a younger elders quorum. I think it will increase everybody's testimony, everybody's service and I'm excited for it."

For Brad Albrecht, 22, of Tucson, Arizona, the announcement reminded him of his youth.

"When I was 13, my home teaching companion was the bishop," he said. "We went out together and I just like watching him and learning from him. Now I'm in a young married student ward and I still feel like I have a lot to learn. Now with the fact that some of the older, more experienced members of the high priest group will be able to intermingle with the younger elders like myself, I'll be able to continue to learn from that."

President Nelson said the move had been under consideration for many months, an indication that its origins preceded his presidency, which began Jan. 14.

Understanding names

President Oaks asked Mormons to cease referring to men as "the priesthood."

"We should always remember that men who hold the priesthood are not 'the priesthood,'" he said. "It is not appropriate to refer to 'the priesthood and the women.' We should refer to 'the holders of the priesthood and the women.'"

He announced a new Young Women General Presidency (see accompanying story) and the outgoing president, Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson said Mormons should realize how much their teenage girls have to contribute to the church. She asked them to help the Young Women feel like the valuable resources they are.

"Every young woman in the church should feel valued, have opportunities to serve and feel that she has something of worth to contribute to this work," she said, adding that they are "equally needed and essential in accomplishing the work of the Lord in their families and in his church" as the Young Men who are Aaronic Priesthood holders.

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She said they are capable, eager and willing to provide service and minister with their mothers and other women.

"As we consider the roles that our young women will be expected to assume in the near future, we might ask ourselves what kind of experiences we could provide for them now that will help with their preparation to be missionaries, gospel scholars, leaders in the church auxiliaries, temple workers, wives, mothers, mentors, examples and friends."

The general conference concludes Sunday with sessions at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. MDT.