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75 Thoughts on October 2020 General Conference

Lincoln Cannon

1 November 2020 (updated 10 July 2024)

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"General Conference" by Lincoln Cannon

Last month, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints met for our semi-annual General Conference. I’m a practicing member of the Church, which is by far the largest Mormon denomination. And I watched the conference online while sharing some of my thoughts via Twitter.

This post summarizes the thoughts that I shared about October 2020 General Conference. As is my tradition, the thoughts include affirmations, criticisms, questions, and elaborations. My intent is to provoke greater engagement with the messages shared by Church leaders at the conference. And I invite you to share your feedback in the comments.

I’m posting this summary later than usual. But please don’t take this as a negative reflection on the relative value of this conference. If anything, it’s a positive reflection. I feel that this General Conference was among the best of my lifetime.

  1. The opening prayer invokes desire for a return to civility in public life. AMEN! It may be present bias, but I don’t recall worse public dialogue at any previous time in my life.
  2. President Nelson expresses gratitude for technology. It has enabled more people to view conference than ever before. That’s right. Technology is part of the work of God. We’ll increasingly observe this, I’m sure.
  3. The Church has contributed pandemic aid in the form of 895 projects in 150 countries.
  4. Elder Bednar positions the pandemic as a test or proof of human nature.
  5. Elder Bednar reminds Church members about preparing (food storage and such) for challenges and emergencies. This is a valuable pragmatic aspect of traditional Mormon practice.
  6. Elder Bednar also encourages Church members to endure, or press forward. This too is an admirable trait that Mormons have exhibited for two centuries. Whatever else may be our weaknesses, we keep working.
  7. “Faithfulness is not foolishness or fanaticism.” - Elder Bednar
  8. Elder Bednar criticizes polarization. But he then seems to encourage it by suggesting that Church members will have increasing difficulty operating in the world. I think he could have offered a more clear message on this topic.
  9. Elder Whiting criticizes apathy, saying it’s not enough to extol Christ. We should emulate Christ. We are directed to become complete and full in Christ. We should become as Jesus.
  10. Elder Whiting says that step #1, to become like Jesus, is to yearn to “transform ourselves beyond the natural man.”
  11. Elder Whiting is addressing the central and most important part of our religion: transformation into Christ. This is theosis, becoming God, as exemplified and invited by Jesus.
  12. Elder Whiting observes that we need BOTH sublime grace and meaningful personal effort as we transform to be Christ like Jesus.
  13. Elder Whiting teaches that true Christianity is striving to become like Jesus – not just extolling Jesus.
  14. Here’s an important exercise. Reconsider Sister Craig’s descriptions of Jesus in light of Elder Whiting’s reminder that we should emulate and not merely extol Jesus. We should become those who give grace and comfort.
  15. Sister Craig says that Jesus loves us at the hardest times, and encourages us to do the same for each other. If we do, “in that great day, we will be like him.”
  16. Elder Cook characterizes early Mormons as “kind” toward native Americans. The history on that topic seems much more complicated than a general “kind” would suggest. This seems like something that merits some careful retrospection.
  17. Elder Cook acknowledges that we, as Church members and leaders, haven’t always been as ethical as we should have been in past conduct.
  18. Elder Cook observes that “we live in a moment of particularly strong divisions.” And he points out that we are committed to doing better in civility and racial harmony.
  19. “Unity and diversity are not opposites.” - Elder Cook
  20. “Race is not identified on membership records.” - Elder Cook
  21. Elder Cook says that the US Constitution was “written by imperfect men” who were “inspired” to help all people.
  22. Elder Cook says that Mormon scripture makes it clear that no one should be in bondage to another.
  23. Elder Cook says that Church members today are as different as the Jews and Gentiles at the time of the Apostle Paul. But we can and should still be united.
  24. Elder Rasband says the decision to close temples during the pandemic was painful. What would we say to past Church leaders? That’s an interesting thought experiment.
  25. Elder Oaks observes that we “must forego the anger and hatred” that is often expressed in political engagement.
  26. Elder Oaks reminds us of Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies. How many Christians are simply and completely ignoring this in our current political discourse?
  27. Elder Oaks has often received considerable criticism, even from some Church members, for his social views. I think he’s generally exemplified a civil response to such criticisms. This is a topic he knows something about on a personal level.
  28. Elder Oaks observes that supporting the law doesn’t mean we always agree. But we use peaceful means to express disagreement and pursue change.
  29. I think Elder Oaks’ observation about support for law also applies to support for the Church. We might not always agree. But we should use civil and peaceful means to express those disagreements and pursue change.
  30. “We must do better to root out racism.” - Elder Oaks
  31. Elder Oaks observes that “this nation’s history of racism is not a happy one and we must do better.” He says this applies to Blacks, as well as to Latinos and Asians among others.
  32. Elder Oaks encourages us to “love our enemies as we seek unity in diversity.”
  33. Elder Oaks says it’s possible, even if not easy, to both obey laws, seek better laws, and love our enemies.
  34. Elder Christofferson begins the second session with encouragement to “sustainable societies,” including but beyond important aspects such as no poverty, zero hunger, quality education, gender quality, sanitation, and decent work.
  35. Elder Christofferson characterizes sustainable society as that in which each person seeks after the well-being of each other.
  36. Elder Christofferson suggests that family and religion, integrity, accountability, marriage and fidelity, respect for others and their property, service, and the dignity of work are essential to sustainable society.
  37. Elder Christofferson acknowledges that non-religious persons can be good persons. He suggests that we, as religious persons, should see secular goodness as a manifestation of the Light of Christ.
  38. Elder Christofferson observes that some of the consequences of the sexual revolution have been negative for society. I wish he would have also identified some of the positive consequences. There are both.
  39. President Lund says that we should do what Jesus does: “behold, this is my work and my glory, to bring about the immortality and eternal life of man.” We should join Christ in this. How seriously do we take this?
  40. Elder Gong was exposed to COVID, so he recorded his sermon separately. That was wise. Given the ages of most Church general authorities, it would probably be tragic if an outbreak occurred among them.
  41. Elder Matthew Holland on passing his kidney stone: “never has one man experienced such great things when such a simple thing was brought to pass.” :)
  42. Elder Matthew Holland claims that all good things, including medical science, come from Christ. That’s a science-positive attitude that we should keep in mind as we consider how best to approach our Christian discipleship.
  43. “Your ashes will become beauties beyond anything Earthly.” - Elder Matthew Holland
  44. Elder Jackson calls attention to what he calls the “beauties” of the diversity of culture worldwide.
  45. Elder Jackson suggests that the Gospel of Christ is an original culture that predates diverse cultures. I think I get his intent. But I’m not sure it’s an overall helpful view. I’m concerned that it obfuscates history and is easily confused with Church culture.
  46. Elder Jackson says that, in the culture of Christ, women are not subservient to men, but are full and equal partners to men. I’m on board with that. I think we can exhibit that much better.
  47. Elder Uchtdorf mentions the historical fact that the US Government marched an army on Salt Lake City. We forget this too often.
  48. Elder Uchtdorf says the pandemic didn’t surprise God – didn’t need unexpected extra help from the “world creation division.” :)
  49. Elder Uchtdorf asks, how often did early Mormons wonder if God had forgotten them? From this, he says, we learn that no one gets a free pass. In our hardships, we learn principles that fortify our character.
  50. Elder Uchtdorf just gave half the audience a BINGO with his airplane analogy. :)
  51. “The use of technology in sharing the Gospel and doing the Lord’s work has spread throughout the Church … it wouldn’t be possible without technology.” - Elder Uchtdorf
  52. “We might have been so attached to traditional approaches that it took a pandemic to open our eyes.” - Elder Uchtdorf
  53. Elder Uchtdorf gave high praise to new ways of participating in the work of God, with particular attention to the use of technology. I’m confident that this is just the beginning and that we’ll continue to see this more clearly.
  54. I love Mormons. Yes, that includes members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. ;)
  55. Elder Ballard invites all, “no matter how you pray or to whom you pray,” to seek inspiration for healing the world. I appreciate this ecumenical appeal.
  56. “After we kneel in prayer, we need to get up off our knees and do what we can.” - Elder Ballard
  57. Elder Ballard says that prayer will help scientists develop vaccines for COVID. This epitomizes the Mormon approach to combining faith with work.
  58. “The Savior prayed, and then he went about doing good.” - Elder Ballard
  59. Sister Harkness characterizes faith as “gritty and resilient.” Too many imagine faith as superstition or some other form of irrationality. In practice, it’s courageous action on compassionate hope, leading to real creation.
  60. Elder Soares injects “and women” while quoting a scripture that references “men.” This is a practice that I’ve heard with increasing frequency among Church leaders. I wonder if this will lead to scriptural revisions.
  61. Elder Soares says, “a clean field does not suddenly become weedy,” as a metaphor for maintaining ethical thoughts. An interesting corollary is the observation that all fields grow weeds. The implication is that we all need to cultivate ethical thoughts.
  62. Elder Godoy says that he “believes in angels.” He then proceeds to explain that he wants to talk about the people around us who love and serve each other. I share his esteem for these most dependable and practical angels.
  63. Elder Godoy quotes scripture, promising “angels round about you, to bear you up.” And then he asks us if we’re ready to be these angels for each other. Excellent question.
  64. Elder Andersen references a study that predicts a worldwide decrease in Christian adherence over the next two decades. All the studies that I’ve seen predict the opposite, with only Islam growing faster. Where did he get his prediction?
  65. Elder Andersen says that “we care more about being [Jesus’] followers than being liked by our followers.” I think Jesus would suggest that he cares more about loving our followers than being his follower. Sometimes Christians “follow” Jesus in poor ways.
  66. President Nelson mentions that some scholars think “Israel” may mean “let God prevail.” I’ve also heard scholars describe the meaning as something like “wrestling with God.” These meanings diverge in an interesting way.
  67. “God does not love one race more than another.” - President Nelson
  68. Reflecting the breadth of scholarly accounts of the meaning of “Israel,” I think we should carefully interpret President Nelson’s definition. “Let God prevail” shouldn’t be passive. It’s something active that we participate in. We work and wrestle together.
  69. President Nelson, citing scripture, says that God will fight our battles. This perspective unites us with God in work to overcome our challenges. Thus, “let God prevail” isn’t just something we watch for and wait on. It’s something we enact.
  70. Elder Eyring recounts the mythic War in Heaven. Have you ever contemplated how well this story can be applied to the ethical development of artificial intelligence?
  71. While my father was suffering from and dying of cancer, he loved to quote passages of scripture about endurance and progression that Joseph Smith wrote in Liberty Jail.
  72. “We must notice the tribulation of others, and try to help. That will be hard.” - Elder Eyring
  73. Suffering is one the greatest, if not the greatest, challenges to faith in God. If faith persists (it doesn’t always), it’s generally accompanied by construction of purpose from suffering, as Elder Eyring described.
  74. President Nelson caps off conference by encouraging us all to pursue divine potential with eternal perspective. So let it be written. So let it be done.
  75. Oh. And in case my neighbors missed it, President Nelson just announced a new temple in Lindon, Utah.

More Thoughts on General Conference

If you enjoyed reading my thoughts on this general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you might also enjoy reading my thoughts on other general conferences. Here's a list, in reverse chronological order, of the conferences for which I've published thoughts:

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