SALT LAKE CITY – The increasing international reach that the Mormon Church has made in its 174-year history was celebrated Saturday at its semiannual conference.
“We are now a great international family, living in many nations and speaking many languages,” said Gordon Hinckley, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose words were translated into 66 languages, eight more than last year.
More than 21,000 faithful gathered at the downtown Conference Center to hear Hinckley’s comments opening the 174th General Conference. Overflow crowds watched closed-circuit television broadcasts in the Mormon Tabernacle and Assembly halls.
About 95 percent of the church’s members across the world also had access to the conference, either by watching it on television or listening on the radio or the Internet.
The church’s membership is reaching 12 million, Hinckley said, with more living outside the United States than within. The 5.2 million Mormons in America make it the nation’s fifth-largest Christian denomination, according to the National Council of Churches.
“Once we were recognized as a Utah church,” Hinckley said. “Now we have become a great international body.”
But Hinckley warned that it is not enough to bring people into the faith; they also must keep them.
“It is a fact that we lose some, far too many,” said the 93-year-old Hinckley, who spoke with a firm voice and several times raised his cane and pointed to greet people as he took the stage.
Jeffrey Holland, an elder in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said Hinckley would be remembered as much for his efforts at member retention as he would be for growing the church.
“With a twinkle in his eye and a hand smacking the table in front of him, he said to the Twelve recently, ‘Brethren, when my life is finished and the final services are concluding, I am going to rise up as I go by, look at each of you in the eye, and say, how are we doing on retention?’ ” Holland said.
But Hinckley said perhaps as important as was the growing respect for the church, whose members were expelled by force from two states before settling in Utah in July 1847.
On Thursday, the Illinois House of Representatives passed a resolution of regret for the forced expulsion of Mormons from Nauvoo, Ill., in 1846 after a mob killed church founder Joseph Smith in jail.
Hinckley called it a “magnanimous gesture” which mirrored the 1976 action by then-Gov. Christopher Bond of Missouri, who revoked the “cruel and unconstitutional extermination order” against Mormons by Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs in 1838.
“These and other developments represent a most significant change of attitude toward the Latter-day Saints,” Hinckley said.
The Mormon church actively preaches scripture and family values to its members, and the semiannual conference is intended to remind members of those teachings.
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