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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks to a crowd of more than 49,000 people at Safeco Field in Seattle, Wash., on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018.

SEATTLE, Wash. — Standing at second base in Safeco Field, located at the heart of one of the nation’s least religious states, President Russell M. Nelson spoke Saturday evening to nearly 50,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about the necessity of religion.

“Have you ever wondered why the institution of the church is necessary?” said the global religious leader. “Why aren’t good deeds alone adequate in the eyes of the Lord? Why was the church restored in these latter days?”

Offering his first-ever address from a baseball field just one week after celebrating his 94th birthday, President Nelson emphasized the importance of helping God’s children hear “the message of the gospel” and of finding joy in families being “sealed for all eternity in holy temples.”

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Cole Edmonds, Stephanie Woods, Kylie Larreau and Grace Williams take a selfie while waiting for President Russell M. Nelson, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to speak at Safeco Field in Seattle, Wash., on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018.

“We are living in the most crucial era in the history of the world,” said President Nelson. “Since the beginning of time, prophets have foreseen our day and prophesied about what would take place during this winding-up period before the Savior comes again.”

As a church, “we need to be doing what the Savior wishes us to do. And as a people we need to be looking and acting like true followers of Jesus Christ.”

The church, he added, has a “simple and sincere” message for the world: “We invite all of God’s children on both sides of the veil to come unto their Savior, to receive the blessings of the holy temple and qualify for eternal life, so that they can have enduring joy now and forever.”

Speaking from the iconic home of the Seattle Mariners — a venue used for concerts and political rallies in addition to sporting events — President Nelson addressed a near capacity congregation in a state where religion is on the decline.

A 2017 Gallup poll found that Washington is among the least religious states in the nation; 47 percent of adults in the state report that “religion is not important to them, and they seldom or never attend services.” This is up 4 percent from 2008, when Gallup began polling about religious belief at the state level, according to the Seattle Times.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
People line up around Safeco Field to hear President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speak in Seattle, Wash., on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018.

Yet The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often called the Mormon church, is well-established in the Pacific Northwest — an area that attracts a young, well-educated work force who find jobs in technology and engineering. The area also has a rich Latter-day Saint history; the church's first unit in Washington was organized in Tacoma in 1899 with 21 members. By 1940 membership in the state had reached 5,000.

Today Washington has 288,000 Latter-day Saints, three temples and eight missions, according to the church's public affairs department. Church members account for 3 percent of the state's population, according to the Pew Research Center.

Saturday they came to hear their prophet. A Safeco Field official confirmed the devotional was the largest "non-sporting event in the history of Safeco Field" and the second largest event they have ever hosted, behind a WrestleMania event in 2003, said Elder Gary F. Gessel, an Area Seventy.

Elder Gessel said in some areas of the Greater Puget Sound region — the coastal area of the Pacific Northwest where the majority of the participants in the Safeco devotional live — there are concentrations of Latter-day Saints that account for 5 to 7 percent of the population.

Some 2,200 local youth, age 16 to 18, filled the seats directly in front of President Nelson during Saturday’s meeting.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, walk through the dugout to leave Safeco Field after speaking to a crowd of more than 49,000 people in Seattle, Wash., on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018.

Accompanied by his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, and President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency, President Nelson expressed gratitude for the opportunity to return to the Pacific Northwest, where in 1985 he was made an honorary member of the Seattle Surgical Society.

Latter-day Saints began lining up for the devotional midday — arriving at Safeco Field up to six hours before the 6 p.m. start.

As the thousands were filing into the stadium, President Nelson met with local government, community and religious leaders during a VIP reception. He thanked the group for their presence in and contributions to the community and pronounced a blessing on Seattle’s decision-makers.

Many church members shared their experience during the evening via social media, using the hashtag #followtheprophet.

During her remarks, Sister Nelson also shared her witness of her husband’s prophetic calling.

“This is indeed the Lord’s church,” she said. “Everything in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints belongs to Jesus Christ; the covenants are his, the ordinances are his, the priesthood power is his. And the prophet is his.”

President Eyring said the privilege of hearing “the word of God from a living prophet is one of the great joys of being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

He testified that the mind and will of the Lord for his church are revealed through his living prophet. “This is the Lord’s church. It is my witness that he directs his prophet even in the details of his kingdom.”

Richard W. Wells, who moved in the Pacific Northwest in 1970, said that when President Nelson entered Safeco Field, the stadium became “holy ground.”

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Finley Roberts and Avery Roberts wait for the gates to open to hear President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speak at Safeco Field in Seattle, Wash., on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018.

To the delight of the audience, Sister Nelson commented on the unique venue: “For some reason the song, ‘Take Me Out To the Ball Game’ keeps coming to mind, and I have a craving for a hot dog,” she quipped.

Charged by church leaders from Salt Lake City to find a venue for the meeting, Elder Gessel originally looked for a building that could hold 15,000 to 20,000 people. Those venues, including the KeyArena and the Tacoma Dome, were either under renovation or unavailable.

“In desperation I called Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners,” he said.

He learned the Mariners were not using the field that night, but that the church was not first in line to reserve the venue. Still he checked back a few weeks later; the stadium's availability had changed.

Reporting back to church leaders in Salt Lake City he was immediately given the green light. “Go ahead and fill it up,” he was told.

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Jennifer and Greg Harmer, who were raised in Utah and now living in Maple Valley, Wash., attended the devotional with six of their seven children.

"I felt it was an incredible honor and privledge to be part of a history-making event," Jennifer Harmer said. "We were part of history. Our kids will remember that forever."

Closing his remarks President Nelson commented on the huge crowd. Before returning to his seat, he left a blessing on those in attendance — “all 45,000 of you.”

But then he rose again and corrected himself, noting the official attendance for the evening: 49,089.