SALT LAKE CITY — Leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sat 6 feet apart inside an empty room as the faith carried out its signature conference Saturday by adhering to social distancing guidelines that offered a stark reminder of how the global coronavirus pandemic is affecting religious practices.
Their livestreamed speeches didn't dwell heavily on the pandemic as they instead stuck to plans made last year to make the conference a commemoration of the 200th anniversary of events that led to the creation of the church by founder Joseph Smith. Speakers spoke at length about the tenets he established, including why men have priesthood powers but not women.
Church President Russell M. Nelson also unveiled a new church logo that continued his push to rebrand how the faith is known and recognized around the world. The new symbol features a drawing of Thorvaldsen’s marble Christus statue under an arch and on top of the church name with the words “Jesus Christ” larger than the rest.
Nelson, who took the helm in 2018, has made a concerted effort to get the world to use the full church name rather than shorthand monikers such as “Mormon church” and “LDS church” that previous presidents embraced and promoted. He has renamed the choir and changed names of websites and social media accounts to show he's serious.
“When we remove the Lord’s name from the name of his church, we inadvertently remove him as the central focus of our worship and our lives,” said Nelson, explaining the logo.
The conference that will continue Sunday is the faith's first without a crowd in attendance since World War II, when wartime travel restrictions were in place.
Church leaders gave their speeches from inside a small auditorium in Salt Lake City with fewer than 10 people in the room. Normally, top leaders sit side-by-side on stage with the religion’s well-known choir behind them and about 20,000 people attending each of the five sessions over two days in a cavernous conference center. There is no choir this weekend.
Nelson acknowledged the unusual circumstances and the impact COVID-19 is having on the world during his opening speech. In his second speech that capped off the night session, he called for church members to fast and pray on April 10, or Good Friday, so that pandemic can be controlled and the economy strengthened.
Like other religions, the pandemic has brought regular worship practices to a halt. The faith has closed its temples and churches and brought home thousands of missionaries.
Nelson said the pandemic is one of life's trials along with accidents, natural disasters and unexpected personal heartaches.
“How can we endure such trials? The Lord has told us that ‘if ye are prepared ye shall not fear,' ” Nelson said. "Of course, we can store our own reserves of food, water, and savings. But equally crucial is our need to fill our personal spiritual storehouses with faith, truth and testimony.”
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with health problems, it can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia.
Nelson is 95 years old, his first counselor Dallin H. Oaks is 87 and his second counselor Henry B. Eyring is 86.
New church figures unveiled Saturday show membership grew to nearly 16.6 million worldwide in 2019, a 1.5% increase from 2018 and the first time membership had increased since 2012,
The number of new births among church families continued to decline, however, for the fifth consecutive year as Latter-day Saint parents have smaller families like others in society.
Touching on the conference theme, church leader M. Russell Ballard spoke about why Smith went to the woods of upstate New York in 1820 as a teenager where Smith says he had a vision of God and Jesus Christ.
“Joseph came to realize that the Bible did not contain all the answers to life’s questions; rather, it taught men and women how they could find answers to their questions by communicating directly with God through prayer," said Ballard, a member of a top governing panel called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Ballard told members watching in 33 languages that Smith emerged from the woods ready to begin his preparation to become a prophet of God. The church teaches its members that Smith received help from God to translate gold plates engraved with writing in ancient Egyptian to create the religion’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon. The faith believes church presidents are prophets, as Abraham, Moses and Isiah were, and receive continuing revelation from God.
Eyring referenced the special place Smith holds in the religion by saying: “He asked in childlike faith what the Lord would have him do. His answer changed the history of the world.”
Critics have long questioned Smith’s accounts of his visions and his story of the gold plates. Leader Neil L. Andersen addressed those critiques when he told members that Smith never wavered despite facing “opposition, persecution, harassment, threats, and brutal attacks" before eventually being killed in 1844 along with his brother in Carthage, Illinois.
Several speakers talked about how women play an important role in the faith even as the religion sticks to Smith's rule that allows only men to be lay priests, which allows them to lead congregations and give certain blessings. Though women hold many leadership positions in the faith, there has long been a portion of church members who have advocated for women to be allowed to be priests.
Jean Bingham, the faith's highest-ranking female leader as president the women’s council called the Relief Society, said men and women accomplish more working together and called their roles“complementary rather than competitive.”
“Seeing women as vital participants is not about creating ‘parity’ but about understanding doctrinal truth," Bingham said. “Rather than establishing a program to bring that about, we can actively work to value women as God does: as essential partners in the work of salvation and exaltation.”
In his own speech explaining the priesthood, Oaks said: “Satan is anxious to confuse our thinking or to lead us astray on important matters like the operations of the priesthood of God.”
He said the best response to critics of church policy and doctrine is to point to the “fruits” of the church's efforts in growing from a faith concentrated in the intermountain region of the American West to one that has more than half of its members outside the U.S.