The April 2020 General Conference will be long remembered.
Held just weeks after COVID-19 began its spread throughout the United States, Church leaders decided to conduct the conference without a public audience for the first time since 1942, when World War II sparked nationwide travel restrictions.
Speakers accustomed to delivering their message in front of 21,000 people at the Conference Center instead spoke to a nearly empty auditorium on Temple Square. The hymns, sang by the Tabernacle Choir, were recordings from years past. But the messages, often centered on remaining positive amid the circumstances, reached millions of Church members throughout the world as usual.
As Church leaders prepare to hold another conference under similar circumstances on Oct. 3rd and 4th, The Daily Universe takes a look at how the April 2020 General Conference has since shaped the Church’s COVID-era culture.
Messages of encouragement
President Russell M. Nelson opened the April 2020 conference by acknowledging the unforeseen circumstances within the Church as a result of the pandemic.
“As you know, attendance at this general conference has been strictly limited as part of our efforts to be good global citizens and do all we can to limit the spread of COVID-19,” President Nelson said. “The virus has had a major impact throughout the world. It has also altered our Church meetings, missionary service and temple work for a while.”
Additional speakers urged members to keep the big picture in mind.
“We are waging an ‘all hands on deck’ war with COVID-19, a solemn reminder that a virus 1,000 times smaller than a grain of sand can bring entire populations and global economies to their knees,” Elder Holland said. “When we have conquered this — and we will — may we be equally committed to freeing the world from the virus of hunger, freeing neighborhoods and nations from the virus of poverty.”
Since April, Church officials have continued to rely on media outlets to encourage members to stay positive, even as the pandemic outlook has worsened. Members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have filled Church members’ social media feeds with uplifting posts, videos and articles.
Additionally, local Church area presidencies have been adamant in urging members to do their part in slowing the spread of the virus. On July 10, after Utah health officials reported a then single-day record of 867 new COVID cases, the Utah Area presidency asked the state’s members to wear face coverings when in public. Although the state’s COVID case numbers declined soon after the announcement, they have since shot up again.
Church meetinghouses, temples and other facilities have also remained mostly empty since April. The virus forced the Church to suspend its weekly worship services entirely for a time. Members were encouraged to continue studying the gospel at home via the scriptures and the Church’s “Come Follow Me” manual, as well as minister to others in a socially-distant manner.
On May 19, however, the Church authorized a phased return plan for select meetings and activities. Some wards slowly began to hold weekly sacrament meetings again with a variety of precautions and in accordance with local COVID regulations. On Sept. 11, Church officials authorized the return of stake conferences beginning in November and provided additional guidelines for weekly worship services.
A phased reopening of temples also began in May. As of Sept. 28, only 28 of the Church’s 168 dedicated temples remained closed due to COVID restrictions. Among the temples that have since reopened, however, only select living ordinances are available for members to take part in. No temple has yet to enter phase three of the reopening plan, which is when proxy ordinances will once again be made available.
Although a complete reopening of Church facilities likely won’t be possible until the virus is eradicated, Church officials are pressing forward with the plans set soon after the April General Conference.
As Church leaders prepare for their second COVID-era General Conference, they continue to send members encouraging messages of hope, similar to the ones delivered in April. While the pandemic has worsened since then, these leaders remain committed to helping members find the silver lining amid difficult circumstances.
“Gratefully, even a pandemic cannot and will not stop the Lord from embracing us. His love is constant,” President Nelson wrote in a Sept. 20 Facebook post. “You and I have the special opportunity to feel His love during the upcoming general conference. I pray that you and your family are preparing to hear the words the Lord will speak to you through His servants.”