The President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints kicked off a biannual conference on Saturday urging members to listen to religious leaders as they seek “pure truth” and expressing gratitude to those who have followed Church councils, who were to get vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.
Church President Russell M. Nelson has acknowledged that the world “still faces the ravages of COVID-19 and its variants.” And although he didn’t specifically mention vaccines, he thanked members for taking 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 vaccinated and wearing masks.
“One of the scourges of our time is that too few people know where to turn for the truth. I can assure you that what you will hear today and tomorrow is the pure truth, ”said Nelson, speaking from inside a nearly empty conference center in Salt Lake City.
The conference is once again being held without full attendance due to the pandemic, but for the first time in two years, leaders were back at the 20,000-seat Faith Conference Center with several hundred people watching in person. The church’s well-known choir, the Tabernacle Choir in Temple Square, was also back in person to sing in between speeches.
Leaders have delivered speeches at the previous three conferences in a different, smaller building at church headquarters in Salt Lake City, with no choir or attendees. These conferences were the first to take place without full participation in over 70 years.
Most members of the Utah-based faith, widely known as the Mormon Church, watch speeches at the two-day conference on televisions, computers, and tablets from their homes across the world. Before the pandemic, the two-day conference would bring about 100,000 people to church headquarters to listen to five sessions over two days.
Pressure from the church to get people vaccinated has divided faith, as has society as a whole. Members who support the position say they fear some Latter-day Saints who refuse to be vaccinated will let their political views trump their loyalty to a faith that places a high priority on unity and obedience . Other church members are upset that their leaders won’t let 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 accept the vaccine, meaning they have received at least one dose or plan to do so soon. According to the survey conducted this summer by the Public Religion Research Institute, a Washington-based polling organization, and Interfaith Youth Core, 15% were identified as hesitant and 19% said they would not get the shot.
The survey found that 79% of white Catholics and 56% of white evangelical Protestants identified themselves as accepting the vaccine.
Nelson was the only speaker on Saturday morning to mention the pandemic, with others focusing on matters of spiritual guidance.
Clark G. Gilbert said that people who start out in poverty or in difficult family situations can accomplish great things if they “involve God”.
“Excessive focus on a difficult starting point can define you and even restrict your ability to choose,” he added.
Gilbert, a member of a mid-level global leadership group that runs an online higher education program called BYU-Pathway, also called on privileged people to be aware of the benefits they start with.
“Be humble about circumstances that we may not have created on our own,” Gilbert said.
Brazilian Ulisses Soares, who in 2018 became the first-ever Latin American member of a board called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, also encouraged members to be compassionate towards others.
“We should never pass harsh and cruel judgment on our fellow human beings because we all need understanding and mercy for our imperfections from our loving Heavenly Father,” said Soares.