Pacific tour: As religion declines in Australia, President Nelson speaks on Book of Mormon, happiness

SYDNEY, Australia — Addressing a capacity congregation of 8,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints here in this increasingly secular city, President Russell M. Nelson delivered a custom message on the importance of the Book of Mormon.

“If you want to be happy, choose the way of the Lord,” said President Nelson to a multicultural congregation Sunday evening, May 19 — the third stop on his Pacific Ministry Tour. “If you want to be miserable, choose the paths and the temptations of the adversary.”

Latter-day Saints, who number just more than 150,000 in a country of 24 million, filled the International Convention Centre in Sydney. As a result of the venue’s contemporary design, the seats rose upward along the facility’s back wall, creating a tapestry of member faces.

“I wonder if you need oxygen up there on that very back row,” said President Nelson.

President Nelson called the congregation impressive.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks at the International Conference Center on May 19, 2019, in Sydney, Australia.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks at the International Conference Center on May 19, 2019, in Sydney, Australia.

“Since Elder Dallin H. Oaks and I were called to serve as members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in April of 1984, (worldwide) membership in the Church has tripled,” President Nelson said. “Often I am asked, ‘What is the reason for this growth?’ The answer: Because the Book of Mormon is true.”

Personalized messages

President Nelson said he felt directed by the Lord to speak on the Book of Mormon at the devotional.

“Have you ever wondered what knowledge you have learned from the Book of Mormon? Or to say it another way, if you pushed the delete button in your mind and removed everything the Book of Mormon has taught you, what would you lose.”

The address was his third in as many days and countries. In Kona, Hawaii, he shared 10 personal messages for Latter-day Saints. In Apia, Samoa,President Nelson urged Latter-day Saints to be strong in the face of persecution and “attacks of the adversary.”

Twins Darren and Donovan Mekaio wait to hear President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on May 19, 2019, in Sydney, Australia.
Twins Darren and Donovan Mekaio wait to hear President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on May 19, 2019, in Sydney, Australia. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News, Deseret News

Accompanying him on the trip are his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, and Elder Gerrit W. Gong and his wife, Sister Susan L. Gong.

Answering questions after the devotional, President Nelson said he didn’t know how to prepare for the trip, so “I decided to let the Lord guide me.”

As a result, a different, personal message “was dictated” for each of the first three stops on his nine-day, seven-nation Pacific tour.

“President Nelson has perfect pitch,” said Elder Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “You feel that when you sit next to him and you hear him sing. He also has perfect spiritual pitch. What he says in every situation is exactly what people need to feel and hear. And he always says it with such kindness and such clarity.”

Secular society

The devotional, the first time a prophet has spoken in Sydney in 22 years, came at a time when religion is on the decline in Australia.

Nearly one-third of Australians (30%) reported in the 2016 census that they are not religious, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. That number increased by 2.2 million from 2011 to 2016.

And while 50% of the population reported Christianity as their current religious affiliation, that number has been in sharp decline for the past 50 years, according to the census. In 1966, 88% of the population classified themselves as Christian.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, meet with youth during a meeting on May 19, 2019, in Sydney, Australia.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, meet with youth during a meeting on May 19, 2019, in Sydney, Australia.

Elder Robert J. Dudfield, an Area Seventy in Australia, said it can be hard for Latter-day Saints to share their views about marriage and family.

“Marriage and family are constantly under attack, and members feel this,” he said, noting that many commonly accepted views “are drawing further away from gospel teachings.”

Other issues include legalized abortion, debate on legalizing marijuana, and gender fluidity (the state of Tasmania no longer requires gender to be listed on birth certificates), he said.

“In spite of the challenges around them they are happy people who are striving to do their best to create gospel-centered homes and raise their families in a gospel environment,” Elder Dudfield said. “They invite their friends to come and worship with them, and they regularly are seen out ministering in the communities.”

Slow growth

One decade after the organization of the Church, William Barratt was called from England to serve a mission in Australia. In 1851, the Church sent two missionaries from Salt Lake City.

“You will see, by foregoing, to spread the gospel over these isles is not the work for one, two or five years, but will require the diligent perseverance of many years,” one of the missionaries, John Murdock, wrote to the First Presidency.

Elder Murdock’s words proved prophetic. It would be 110 years before Australia’s first stake was created in Sydney, in 1960.

Elva Merle Mitchell said during her growing up years, the Church in Australia was so small that member children did not call the adults by the title of “Brother” or “Sister;” instead they were “Aunt” or “Uncle.”

Paul Parton’s third-great-grandmother joined the Church in Australia in 1842. His wife, Diane Parton, is a fourth-generation member whose great-grandmother joined the Church in 1901. They raised their family in one of three branches in the area. “You knew pretty much everyone,” said Diane Parton.

Paul Parton attended the meeting when President David O. McKay visited Australia in 1955; the Partons’ daughter sang in the Primary choir at the member meeting at the Sydney Opera House in 1976 with President Spencer W. Kimball.

The Sydney Opera House on May 18, 2019, in Sydney, Australia. President Russell M. Nelson, with his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, visited the city on his nine-day, seven-nation Pacific Ministry Tour.
The Sydney Opera House on May 18, 2019, in Sydney, Australia. President Russell M. Nelson, with his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, visited the city on his nine-day, seven-nation Pacific Ministry Tour. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News, Deseret News

Even though Church growth in his country has been slow, Paul Parton said he has witnessed a miracle in his lifetime.

There are now six missions, 41 stakes, five temples and 151,000 Latter-day Saints in Australia. And the closing hymn of the devotional, "We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet," was penned by Australian-born William Fowler in 1860.

“We are a respected people now,” Parton said. “As a kid, if anyone knew you were a member of the Church, you were seen as something different.”

Revelation

Speaking at the Sydney devotional, Sister Nelson said President Nelson recently told her, “The Lord is just as eager to give you revelation as He is to give it to me.”

Sister Nelson said, gratefully, she has understood this all her life. "But it was wonderful to have my husband spontaneously confirm that great truth which applies to you. The Lord is just as either eager to give you revelation as He is to give it to His prophet.”

Sister Wendy Nelson speaks on May 19, 2019, in Sydney, Australia.
Sister Wendy Nelson speaks on May 19, 2019, in Sydney, Australia.

Sister Nelson then shared her experience seeking revelation 14 years ago as she began dating then-Elder Nelson. “To this very moment I can feel the power and clarity with which the Lord let me know His will, for my potential relationship with Elder Russell M. Nelson. … The heavens have opened, and my life would never be the same.”

Elder Gong also spoke of personal revelation. “What a blessing it is know that as we call upon the Father in the name of the Son, He will hear us and bless us,” he said, adding “I'm grateful to meet members of the Church across the world who share how they find, through their prayers and their faith, continuing revelation in each of their circumstances.”

Sister Gong said that during the last nine years as Elder Gong has served as a General Authority, she has had “a front-row seat to the unfolding of the fulness of the gospel.”

The experiences of Church members around the world have taught her “to understand critical principles of the gospel in deeper and more fundamental ways.”

She added: “I pray that we will all open our hearts to the Holy Spirit to know what it is that we are to do, and open our hearts to our brothers and sisters and their lived experience, especially in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Sydney

Known for its harbor front — a bustling center featuring the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge — Sydney is a city of diverse landscapes, architecture and demographics, said Elder Dudfield.

“From the mountainous ranges, to golden-sand beaches and the iconic harbor, from busy city streets to rolling green hills, Sydney captures landscapes and atmospheres that resemble many parts of the globe.”

Boats travel past the Sydney Opera House on May 19, 2019, in Sydney, Australia.
Boats travel past the Sydney Opera House on May 19, 2019, in Sydney, Australia.

Early English settlers commenced construction of the city, where many buildings still reflect that European influence, he explained.

“The people of Sydney are a melting pot of the world,” he added. The city’s population includes thousands born in Asia, Europe and many islands of the Pacific.

This melting pot is a blessings to Latter-day Saint branches, Elder Dudfield said.

“In addition to our English heritage membership, we also have Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and other language units that meet throughout the country,” he said. “Church members are striving the best they can to be examples of followers of Jesus Christ.”

President Nelson called Sydney “a microcosm of the whole world.”

“Our message is applicable to people of every nation, every kindred, tongue and color. It is a message to come unto Christ and let him make life better for you.”