SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints decried abortion as evil and issued another plea for members to combat prejudice and racism during the first day of the 191st Annual General Conference Saturday.
The conference, which is held twice a year, took place without attendees because of the pandemic for the third time.
The faith has long opposed abortion, but addressed it only sparingly in recent years.
Lawmakers in Republican-governed Legislatures in the United States are considering an array of anti-abortion restrictions this year that they hope might reach the Supreme Court and win approval from its conservative majority, overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a nationwide right to abortion.
Citing a speech by former church President Gordon B. Hinckley from a 1998 conference, church leader Neil Anderson said abortion is “evil, stark and real and repugnant” and pleaded with women to avoid considering it during his General Conference talk.
“Let us share our deep feelings about the sanctity of life with those who make decisions in society,” Anderson said. “They may not fully appreciate what we believe, but we pray that they will more fully understand why, for us, these decisions go well beyond just what a person wants for his or her own life.”
Anderson, a member of a top governing panel called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said church members should step in to help support women if an unanticipated child is coming to allow a child to be born and continue the baby's “journey in mortality.”
He also lamented that fewer children are being born around the world, even in the most prosperous countries.
That trend could be seen in new church statistics released Saturday that showed the number of new children added to church membership rolls declined for the sixth consecutive year. About 65,500 children were added to church membership in 2020 — down 47% from a modern peak reached in 2008, church figures show.
Also on Saturday, Quorum member Gary Stevenson called on church members to be welcoming to people of all faiths and ethnicities on the heels of recent attacks on Asians and following a recent reckoning over racial justice around the world.
“The Lord expects us to teach that inclusion is a positive means towards unity, and that exclusion leads to division,” Stevenson said. “We have been heartbroken to hear of recent attacks on people who are Black, Asian, Latino, or of any other group. Prejudice, racial tension, or violence should never have any place in our neighborhoods, communities, or within the church.”
He also called on young members to stop cyber-bullying, which can lead to anxiety and depression, and for adults to model “kindness, inclusion and civility.”
Stevenson's plea marked a continuation of a push in recent years by church leadership to strike a more strident tone against racism.
Fellow church leaders urged members to root out racism and make the faith an “oasis of unity” at the last church conference in October. Two months later, the church added to the faith's handbook new language demanding members root out prejudice and racism, adding significance and permanence on one of the most sensitive topics in the church's history.
The faith's past ban on Black men in the lay priesthood, which stood until 1978, remains a delicate issue for members and non-members alike. The church disavowed the ban in a 2013 essay, saying it was enacted during an era of great racial divide that influenced the church's early teachings, but it never issued a formal apology — a sore spot for some members.
Church leadership grew a bit more diverse in 2018 when it selected the first-ever Latin American and person of Asian ancestry to an all-male top governing panel. But there are still no Black men on the panel. Black members make up a tiny percentage of church membership.
Members of the Utah-based faith known widely as the Mormon church are watching speeches during the two-day conference this Easter weekend on TVs, computers and tablets from their homes around the world. Church leaders are giving the speeches from inside a building at church headquarters in Salt Lake City, where they are sitting socially distanced and wearing masks.
Before the pandemic, the two-day conference would bring about 100,000 people to the church's headquarters in Salt Lake City to listen to five sessions over two days. The conference was held virtually in April 2020, marking the first time that occurred in more than 70 years.
Church President Russell M. Nelson, now in his third year leading the faith, and several speakers focused on the importance of repentance. Comparing self-growth to ongoing renovations at the church's flagship temple in Salt Lake City, Nelson told members to find “debris you should remove from your life so you can become more worthy.”
Dieter Uchtdorf, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, added: “The cleansing gift of repentance allows us to leave our sins behind and emerge a new creature. Because of Jesus Christ, our failures do not have to define us. They can refine us.”
Church members also heard from longtime Quorum member Jeffrey Holland, one of the faith's most well-known orators, who lamented a world filled with conflict, contention and incivility and delivered an impassioned plea for members to be kinder and follow what he called the “principles of righteousness.”
Holland warned members that compromising those principles leads to broken covenants and broken hearts.
“When the dance is over, the piper must always be paid and most often the currency is tears and regret,” Holland said.
Joy D. Jones, president of the faith's children's ministry program called “Primary,” urged parents to treasure their children and “never harm them physically, verbally, or emotionally in any way, even when tensions and pressures run high.”
She called on parents to avoid allowing the increasing use of electronic devices get in the way of having “caring conversations” and looking into their children's eyes as they teach gospel lessons.
“As children learn and progress, their beliefs will be challenged,” Jones said. “But as they are properly equipped, they can grow in faith, courage and confidence, even in the midst of strong opposition.”
Eight General Authority Seventies and a new Primary General Presidency were also appointed Saturday.
Full transcripts and videos of the talks can be found on the church's website.