Mormon conference gets first-ever non-English speech

In 1997, the number of members outside the US surpassed the number inside the country, and since 2000, there have been more non-English-speaking Mormons than those that speak English.

Kim Raff/AP
People fill their seats in the Conference Center before the start of opening session of the two-day Mormon church conference Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014, in Salt Lake City. Chi Hong Wong, a Mormon leader from Hong Kong delivered a speech in Mandarin on Saturday in what marked the first time in the history of the faith's signature conference that an address was delivered in a language other than English.

A Mormon leader's speech in Cantonese on Saturday marked the first time in the history of the faith's signature conference that a lecture was delivered in a language other than English.

As Chi Hong "Sam" Wong of Hong Kong spoke, the 21,000 in attendance at the conference center read English subtitles on big screens while people watching the live broadcast at home heard a dubbed English version. Leaders with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have in the past given speeches in English, no matter their native language.

Wong's speech focused on the importance of people in local congregations working together to help those in need. He said the record number of missionaries serving around the world — 88,000 currently — offers a perfect opportunity for church leaders to figure out who needs help in the congregation.

"They are young and full of energy," was the English translation of Wong's speech.

Earlier this year, Wong was named to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Quorum of the Seventy, a group of high-ranking leaders from around the world. Wong's speech came during the first day of the faith's biannual general conference in Salt Lake City.

When Wong finished his speech, English-speaking church leader D. Todd Christofferson took the stage and said, "Buenos Dias," drawing laughs from the crowd. He then began his speech in English.

There may be more non-English speeches during the rest of the weekend's sessions.

The foreign-language speech marked an important representation of the church's growing international reach, Mormons scholars said. In 1997, the number of members outside the U.S. surpassed the number inside the country, and since 2000, there have been more non-English-speaking Mormons than those that speak English.

"It's a hugely important symbol, because it reveals that the religion is becoming less and less a small, interesting American sect, and more and more a diverse, global religion," said Matthew Bowman, a Mormon scholar and history professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

The historical moment put the faith's growing international footprint on display. Church leaders expect 65 countries to be represented this weekend when 100,000 people will attend five sessions Saturday and Sunday.

One of them was Juan Lint, who stood in is suit and tie outside the Mormon church's conference center holding a sign: "I am from Peru. I need four tickets."

It didn't take long for Lint to secure the free tickets from fellow Latter-day Saints happy to help make sure he and family could watch Saturday's opening session of conference.

"It's always been my dream to come to the conference and see up close the prophets and listen to the word of the Lord through them," said Lint in Spanish.

Lint, 48, a certified nursing assistant from Chimbote, Peru, is among thousands of international LDS members in Utah for the biannual conference.

Lint has watched many general conferences on TV in Peru. Siblings Jose Arredondo and Rebeca Arredondo of Guatemala were also attending the conference.

"When we're in Guatemala, it's on a screen, it's dark, it makes me sleepy," said Jose Arredondo, 22, in Spanish, who is studying at the LDS Business College in Salt Lake City. "Here, I'm sure it will be different."

Like many Mormons outside the U.S., the Arredondo family became Latter-day Saints because of a missionary. Their grandparents welcomed a missionary into their home more than four decades ago, and the family eventually converted.

During the general conference, Latter-day Saints listen to speeches from church leaders who offer guidance and inspiration.

Church leaders instructed members Saturday to hold strong to their values and not lower their principles to adhere to the larger society.

"A God who makes no demands is the functional equivalent of a God who does not exist," said D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Tens of thousands watch the conference live on TV around the world. The speeches are translated into 23 languages for people inside the conference center and in 94 languages for people watching on TVs around the world.

German Dieter Uchtdorf, one of Church President Thomas Monson's two counselors, gave his speech in English. He said many people had asked if he would be speaking in German.

"I said, no, but it may sound like it," he said, joking about his accent.

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