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Mormons hold signature conference virtually due to pandemic

SALT LAKE CITY – For the first time in more than 70 years, top leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will deliver speeches at the faith's signature conference this weekend without an in-person audience in the latest illustration of how the coronavirus pandemic is altering worship practices around the world.

The twice-yearly conference normally brings some 100,000 people to the church conference center in Salt Lake City to attend five sessions over two days.

This event, though, will be only a virtual one.

Church leaders will be inside a small auditorium with only a few other people as the speeches are broadcast live online in 33 different languages. Even the faith's well-known choir will stay at home. The music will be prerecorded.

Leaders from the Utah-based faith that counts 16 million members worldwide utilize the conference to provide spiritual guidance, underscore the religion's key beliefs and, sometimes, announce new initiatives or rules.

The last time the church conference was held without people in attendance was during World War II because of wartime travel restrictions. Flu epidemics forced the church to postpone the conference in 1919 by two months and cancel the conference in the fall of 1957, according to a church history of the conference.

Staying home and watching the speeches on TV or their computers or tablets won't feel much different for many church members, since most watch from their living rooms and attend only occasionally or on special occasions because tickets are limited.

The religion has been planning since last year to use this conference to commemorate the 200th anniversary of when their founder Joseph 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.

That will likely still be the centerpiece theme of the weekend, with leaders also providing message of reassurance to weary members, said Patrick Mason, a religious scholar who is the Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University.

“I expect that we are going to hear a lot of messages of reassurance, like ‘God is still in charge,’ ‘God still loves us,’ ‘God is still taking care of us,’” Mason said. “I think they are going to do a lot to ease people’s fears, ease people's anxieties.”

Like most religions, the faith known widely as the Mormon church has taken significant steps to prevent gatherings and religious activities that could contribute to the spread of COVID-19. The faith has shut down its temples that are used for the most sacred rituals including weddings, shuttered normal Sunday worship services at churches and brought home thousands of young people who were serving missions in foreign countries.

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. More than 56,000 people have died from the virus while more than 220,000 people worldwide have recovered, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Mason said it will be interesting to see if the church takes any precautions to adhere to social distancing guidelines for the leaders who will be speaking and in attendance, many of whom are 75 or older.

Church President Russell M. Nelson is 95, his first counselor Dallin H. Oaks is 87 and his second counselor Henry B. Eyring is 86. They usually sit side-by-side on stage along with the other members of the top governing board called The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.