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 today by adhering to social distancing guidelines that offered a stark reminder of how the global coronavirus pandemic is impacting religious practices.
Speeches that largely commemorated the 200th anniversary of events that to the creation of the church by founder Joseph Smith were made in a small auditorium in Salt Lake City and livestreamed to members around the world. It was the faith’s first crowd-less conference since World War II, when wartime travel restrictions were in place.
Normally, top leaders sit side-by-side on stage with the religion’s well-known choir behind them and some 20,000 people attending each of the five sessions over two days in a cavernous conference center. There is no choir this weekend. Fewer than 10 people are in the room, said church President Russell M. Nelson.
Nelson acknowledged the unusual circumstances and the major impact COVID-19 is having on the world during his opening speech. The faith known widely as Mormon church 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.
“Though today’s restrictions relate to a virulent virus, life’s personal trials stretch far beyond this pandemic,” Nelson said. “How can we endure such trials? The Lord has told us that ‘if ye are prepared ye shall not fear.’ 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.”
He said the empty auditorium and seating arrangements were done to be good “global citizens” and prevent the spread of the virus.
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.
Leaders from the Utah-based faith utilize the conference to provide spiritual guidance, underscore the religion’s key beliefs and, sometimes, announce new initiatives or rules.
Each April, the church also releases a statistical report. The figures unveiled today showed church membership grew to nearly 16.6 million worldwide in 2019 — a 1.5% increase from 2018. It marked the first time membership had increased since 2012, church figures show.
The number of new births among church families continued to decline, however, with the 94,000 births in 2019 representing a nearly 8% decline from the previous year. It was the fifth consecutive year that births have declined as Latter-day Saint parents have smaller families like others in society.
That mirrors a steady decline in Utah’s birth rate, which dropped to 2.03 per family in 2018, the most recent statistics available from the National Center for Health Statistics. Utah’s birth rate was 4.3 in 1960. Church members account for an estimated two-thirds of the state’s 3.2 million residents.
The theme of this conference is celebrating the moment in 1820 when Smith, then a teenager, says he had a vision of God and Jesus Christ in the woods of upstate New York that led to the formation of the church 10 years later. 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.
Church leader M. Russell Ballard spoke about why Smith went to the woods that day seeking spiritual guidance.
“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 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. Anderson 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.
“He continued to boldly testify of his ‘First Vision,’” said Anderson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. “The experiences were real, and he never forgot or denied them, quietly confirming his testimony as he moved to Carthage.”