The role of college devotionals in relaying Church leaders’ messages to the world

On Sept. 17, 2019, President Russell M. Nelson stood on the podium in the BYU Marriott Center in Provo, Utah, and spoke of “The Love and Laws of God.” 

The Prophet not only communicated his love to the 19,000 young adults situated in the Marriott Center and beyond, but he also explained the motivation behind some important policy adjustments in the Church.

The Church’s 2015 and 2019 policy changes regarding those who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and their children were “motivated by love — the love of our Heavenly Father for His children and the love of the Brethren for those whom we serve,” President Nelson said.

While the weight and substance of President Nelson’s message were significant, the venue was also noteworthy. The Prophet chose to deliver his landmark address during a Church school devotional filled with young adults.

Read President Nelson’s full BYU devotional on the love and laws of God, 2015 LGBT policy

These type of events — which happen weekly at BYU, BYU–Idaho, BYU–Hawaii and Ensign College and monthly for BYU–Pathway Worldwide — are becoming an increasingly important forum for Church leaders to share their messages. The devotionals not only allow speakers the opportunity to explore and expand on topics and issues during a 40-minute time span, but they also enable Latter-day Saint leaders to speak to the next generation of Church leaders as messages are disseminated in an ever more digital world.

President Dallin H. Oaks and his wife, Sister Kristen Oaks, enter the Marriott Center on BYU campus prior to President Oaks offering the campus devotional on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.
President Dallin H. Oaks and his wife, Sister Kristen Oaks, enter the Marriott Center on BYU campus prior to President Oaks offering the campus devotional on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. Credit: BYU photo

Like President Nelson, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, also recently issued a historic address during a BYU devotional. In an expansion of his October 2020 plea for Church members to “root out racism,” the Church leader challenged students to discover unity through Christ’s timeless love and in His gospel.

“Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can unite and bring peace to people of all races and nationalities,” President Oaks declared. “We who believe in that gospel — whatever our origins — must unite in love of each other and of our Savior Jesus Christ.”

During a devotional address in November of 2018, President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency, offered encouragement that applies to all who struggle or feel discouraged in pursuing an education, not just his Ensign College student audience. 

President Henry B. Eyring acknowledges the crowd as he exits after speaking to LDS Business College students at a devotional in the Conference Center Theater in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018.
President Henry B. Eyring acknowledges the crowd as he exits after speaking to LDS Business College students at a devotional in the Conference Center Theater in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“I know school can be a grind,” he said. “I know it seems difficult. I know you get discouraged at times. I know you wonder why you are attending school at all. But keep on. Keep on hammering away. Keep on learning. You will never regret learning — neither in this life, nor in the world to come. Indeed, you will treasure forever what you learn and what you learn about how to keep on learning.”

With the influence of the Holy Ghost, individuals can learn things, know things and do things beyond their own personal powers, President Eyring said.

In the roughly 50 devotionals offered by members of the First Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the past three years, many of them have provided a platform for leaders to share words of warning and timely counsel or address specific areas of concern.

For example, in a recent devotional to Ensign College students, President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, took the opportunity to warn his young listeners about the opportunities and dangers involved in today’s technology.

Text messaging, Facebooking, Tweeting and Instagramming should not replace talking — talking to another person or to Heavenly Father, he said.

President Ballard said he is also concerned that some Latter-day Saints are checking email, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram or sending text messages during the most important meeting in the restored Church — sacrament meeting.

“In this important meeting we should be focusing on the Lord through praying, singing hymns, and partaking the emblems of His body and blood instead of checking social media, the news, or the score of an athletic event.”

President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, speaks during an Ensign College devotional broadcast on Nov. 3, 2020.
President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, speaks during an Ensign College devotional broadcast on Nov. 3, 2020. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Calling his young audience “modern stripling warriors,” President Ballard invited Latter-day Saints to use social media to have gospel discussions with family, friends and, for returned missionaries, with former investigators and new members. “You can stand as witnesses to the truth and defend the kingdom of God,” President Ballard said. 

In a commencement address at BYU–Idaho, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles warned listeners that spiritual convictions can slip away in time into forgetfulness or disrepair or seeming unimportance. “Educational success can do it. Money can do it. Stress can do it. Above all, vanity and arrogance and self-sufficiency can do it,” he said.

Unnourished, untended and unappreciated, the flame that fuels a person’s testimony and “remembrance” can flicker, grow dim and even die, said Elder Holland, who also charged his audience to remember the divinity of the Lord’s work.

Remember to pray. Remember to serve. Remember to learn. Remember to tithe. Remember to teach. Remember to be clean, to be honest, and to forgive, Elder Holland told graduates.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland speaks at the April 12, 2019, BYU-Idaho Winter Commencement.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland speaks at the April 12, 2019, BYU-Idaho Winter Commencement. Credit: Church News archives

Less than a year before the COVID-19 pandemic would disrupt campus life and students’ studies, President Oaks said he felt impressed to speak on anxiety and living in stressful times and told BYU-Hawaii students the most reliable prevention of anxiety in eternal terms is the doctrine of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

No matter the uncertainties about the causes of anxiety, the gospel gives hope and assurance, as well as perspective to understand the purpose of life and the role of opposition, President Oaks said.

“There is great power in the doctrine of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Our unshakable faith in that doctrine guides our steps. It enlightens our minds and empowers our actions,” he said.

Read more: President Oaks speaks on dealing with anxiety, stress, at BYU-Hawaii devotional

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles shared a personal message with students of BYU–Pathway Worldwide in July of last year. He said his advice to his listeners would be the same as if he could go back in time and talk to his young self. He would say, “Dieter, It’s not going to be easy, but you can do it. You will be all right.

“The journey will be filled with challenges, but the struggle itself will transform you into the person you want to be. Work hard. Be consistent. Focus on the things you can change, not so much on the things you cannot change.

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf speaks in a devotional address broadcast to BYU-Pathway students on Tuesday, July 14, 2020.
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf speaks in a devotional address broadcast to BYU-Pathway students on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. Credit: Courtesy BYU-Pathway

“Have faith. Have hope. Trust in God. Know that if you do your part, things will work out,” Elder Uchtdorf said.

Prior to addressing world religious leaders and political representatives during the G20 Interfaith Forum in October 2020, Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles first discussed his important topic during an address at BYU. 

Speaking on June 17, 2020, on the opening day of Brigham Young University’s online Religious Freedom Annual Review, Elder Bednar said the ongoing pandemic has presented essential opportunities to “reaffirm” and “shore up” religious freedom.

During crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, believers and their religious organizations must be good citizens — but we cannot “allow government officials” to treat the exercise of religion as simply “nonessential,” declared the Latter-day Saint Apostle. Never again, he added, “must the fundamental right to worship God be trivialized below the ability to buy gasoline.”

Elder David A. Bednar speaks via videoconference from his office on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, during BYU's Religious Freedom Annual Review on June 17, 2020.
Elder David A. Bednar speaks via videoconference from his office on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, during BYU’s Religious Freedom Annual Review on June 17, 2020. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Similarly, in BYU’s annual university conference on Aug. 24, 2020, Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles expressed his concern that various movements today are deeply opposed to religion and people of faith. “I am concerned when much of the discussion is an attack on faith and belief, often reframing and distorting our history. …

“We all support peaceful efforts to overcome racial and social injustice. This needs to be accomplished. My concern is that some are also trying to undermine the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights that has blessed this country and protected people of all faiths. We need to protect religious freedom.”

Elder Cook then challenged BYU faculty and staff to “lift and bless” the students who attend Brigham Young University. “If you do this for all the young people who attend this great university, there will be a strong foundation of faith and service and righteousness that will bless the Church and bless the world.”

In a pre-recorded message streamed during BYU’s annual University Conference on Aug. 24, 2020, Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles challenges BYU faculty and staff to build faith in Jesus Christ.
In a pre-recorded message streamed during BYU’s annual University Conference on Aug. 24, 2020, Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles challenges BYU faculty and staff to build faith in Jesus Christ. Credit: Screenshot from BYU broadcast