President Russell M. Nelson gestures during The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints conference Sunday, April 7, 2024, in Salt Lake City. Source: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Latter-Day Saints Leader Addresses Congregants without a Word on Racial or LGBTQ+ Issues

Hannah Schoenbaum READ TIME: 4 MIN.

The oldest-ever president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged congregants on Sunday to spend more time worshiping in temples. He backed up the invitation by announcing plans to build 15 new places of worship around the globe.

Russell M. Nelson announced the planned construction in a pre-recorded closing speech at the twice-annual Salt Lake City conference. It's traditionally watched by millions worldwide.

"Nothing will help you more to hold fast to the iron rod than worshipping in the temple as regularly as your circumstances permit," Nelson said.

The 99-year-old retired heart surgeon attended both days of the conference in a wheelchair, but did not speak live. He was absent from the fall 2023 conference due to a back injury.

As he nears his 100th birthday, the president has created a mixed legacy that some churchgoers say has made the faith's global membership feel more included but has left LGBTQ+ and other minority members feeling unsupported. Sunday's address mentioned none of it.

Nelson had a conservative track record in his previous position on the church's leadership panel, which led many to predict he wouldn't make any significant changes as president. Religious scholars now say his six years in office have been anything but stagnant.

"He's shaken up the church in a lot of ways – changed everything from what happens every Sunday at regular worship services to the long-term trajectory of where the church is pointed," said Matthew Bowman, a religion professor at Claremont Graduate Universities.

Nelson, who notes he has been alive for more than half of the faith's 194-year history, is known for leading the church through the COVID-19 pandemic and urging people to stop referring to Latter-day Saints as "Mormons," a sharp shift after previous church leaders spent millions over decades to promote the moniker.

He severed the faith's century-long ties with the Boy Scouts of America, creating the church's own youth program that also could serve the more than half of its 17 million members who live outside the U.S. and Canada. He appointed non-American leaders to the top governing body and pushed to publish regional hymnbooks celebrating local music and culture worldwide.

The president shortened Sunday services and spearheaded a massive building campaign totaling more than 150 temples, even before Sunday's announcement of 15 more locations to come. The drive accelerates a long-running effort to dot the world with the faith's lavish houses of worship.

He also forged a formal partnership with the NAACP. Until 1978, the church banned Black men from the lay priesthood, a policy rooted in the belief that black skin was a curse. The church disavowed the reasons behind the ban in a 2013 essay, but never issued a formal apology. It remains one of the most sensitive topics for the Utah-based religion.

Considered a prophet by church members, Nelson has largely avoided taking a position on hot-button issues.

"He's not a culture warrior," said Patrick Mason, a religion and history professor at Utah State University. "But in terms of church presidents over the past century, I would put him in the the top two or three who, by the time of their death, will have left their mark on the church."

Mason described Nelson's administration as "gentler" and more welcoming than those of previous presidents, even as he strictly interprets religious doctrine.

Under Nelson, the church insists LGBTQ+ members are welcome, but maintains that same-sex marriage is a sin. It also limits participation by transgender members who pursue gender-affirming medical procedures or change their names, pronouns or how they dress.

Nelson's early actions as president gave some LGBTQ+ members hope that he might change those policies.

He made waves in 2019 when he rescinded controversial rules banning baptisms for the children of gay parents and branding same-sex couples as heretics who could face excommunication. His administration later supported a 2022 law protecting same-sex marriage at the federal level because it included what Nelson's top adviser, Dallin H. Oaks, called "necessary protections for religious freedom."

Oaks, 91, is Nelson's likely successor. He has reminded followers at several past conferences that the church believes children should be raised by a married man and woman.

That message is echoed in what's known as the "musket fire speech," now required reading at Brigham Young University. In it, a high-ranking church leader urges faculty and students to take up their intellectual "muskets" to defend the faith's stance on marriage and family values.

Fred Bowers, president of the LGBTQ+ Latter-day Saints support group Affirmation, pointed to the speech as one of many recent examples of how the faith has made LGBTQ+ members feel isolated.

Despite ongoing tensions between church leadership and LGBTQ+ members, Nelson repeatedly has instructed congregants to be kind to those whose experiences they might not understand.

"One of the easiest ways to identify a true follower of Jesus Christ," he said in his conference speech last spring, "is by how compassionately that person treats other people."

by Hannah Schoenbaum

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