SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints kicked off a twice-annual conference Saturday by urging members to listen to the faith’s leaders when they seek “pure truth” and expressing gratitude for those who have followed church guidance, which has been to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Church President Russell M. Nelson acknowledged that the world is “still dealing with the ravages of COVID-19 and its variants.” And while he didn’t mention vaccines specifically, he thanked members for following the advice of church leaders, medical experts and government officials.
The Utah-based faith has repeatedly encouraged its 16 million members worldwide to limit the spread by getting vaccines and wearing masks.
“One of the plagues of our day is that too few people know where to turn for truth. I can assure you that what you will hear today and tomorrow constitutes pure truth,” said Nelson, speaking from inside a mostly empty conference center in Salt Lake City.
The conference is taking place again without full attendance due to the pandemic, but for the first time in two years leaders were back at the faith’s 20,000-seat conference center with several hundred people watching in person. The church’s well-known choir, the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, was also back in person to sing between speeches.
Leaders spoke at the previous three conferences inside a smaller building at church headquarters in Salt Lake City, with no choir and no attendees. Those conferences were the first to take place without full attendance in more than 70 years.
Most members of the faith known widely as the Mormon church are watching speeches during the two-day conference on TVs, computers and tablets from their homes around the world. Before the pandemic, the event would bring about 100,000 people to the church’s headquarters to listen to five sessions over two days.
The church's push for people to get vaccinated has divided the faith, similar to larger society. Members who support the stance say they fear that some Latter-day Saints who refuse to get vaccinated are allowing their political views to supersede their loyalty to a faith that largely prioritizes unity and obedience. Other church members are upset that their leaders aren’t letting them exercise their own personal decision-making about vaccines and masks.
About 65% of Latter-day Saints who responded to a survey earlier this year said they were vaccine acceptors, meaning they’ve gotten at least one dose or plan to soon. Another 15% identified as hesitant, and 19% said they would not get the vaccine, according to the survey this summer from the Public Religion Research Institute, a polling organization based in Washington, and Interfaith Youth Core.
The survey found 79% of white Catholics and 56% of white Evangelical Protestants identified as vaccine acceptors.
Nelson was the only speaker Saturday morning who mentioned the pandemic, with others focusing on issues of spiritual guidance.
Clark G. Gilbert encouraged people who come from poverty or difficult family situations to remember they can achieve great things if they “involve God.”
“Over-focusing on a difficult starting point can cause it to define you and even constrain your ability to choose,” he added.
Gilbert, a member of a middle-tier global leadership group who runs an online higher education program called BYU-Pathway, also called on people of privilege to be aware of the advantages they start with.
“Show some humility for circumstances we may not have created ourselves,” Gilbert said.
Ulisses Soares of Brazil, who in 2018 became the first-ever Latin American member of a top governing panel called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, also encouraged members to be compassionate with others.
“We should never make harsh and cruel judgment of our fellow men and women, because we are all in need of understanding and mercy for our imperfections from our loving Heavenly Father,” Soares said.
Bonnie H. Cordon, president of the church’s program for young women, told young members to always remember God’s love for them. She was the only woman who spoke during the morning session.
“Remembering this love can help you push back the confusion of the world that tries to weaken your confidence in your divine identity and blind you of your potential,” Cordon said.
Dallin H. Oaks issued a stern reminder to members that they need to attend church regularly and participate in projects their local congregations organize. He is the church’s second-highest ranking member as a first counselor to Nelson and member of the Quorum of the Twelve.
“If we cease valuing our churches, for any reason, we threaten our personal spiritual life, and significant numbers separating themselves from God reduces his blessings to our nations,” Oaks said. “In church we are taught how to apply religious principles. We learn from one another. A persuasive example is more powerful than a sermon. We are strengthened by associating with others of like minds.”