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Jesus, ancient prophets and, by extension, Mormon apostles, considered "prophets, seers and revelators" in the 15 million-member faith, are often unpopular because they have to tell uncomfortable truths and insist on upholding moral standards.

These modern LDS leaders "know full well that the road leading to the Promised Land, 'flowing with milk and honey,' of necessity runs by way of Mount Sinai, flowing with 'thou shalts' and 'thou shalt nots,' " Jeffrey R. Holland, of the church's Quorum of Twelve Apostles, said in the opening session of the church's 184th Annual General Conference.

LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson did not announce any new temples when ushering in Saturday morning's session. But he noted that when all previously announced temples are completed, the Utah-based faith will have 170 such edifices throughout the world.

"We are a temple-building and a temple-attending people," the 86-year-old Monson said.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints see temples as houses of God, places where they take part in their faith's highest sacraments, including eternal marriage.

Monson addressed more than 20,000 Latter-day Saints gathered in the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City and millions more watching on television or online.

For the first time, the general women leaders of the church's auxiliary organizations — Relief Society, Young Women and Primary — were seated among members of the Quorum of the Seventy. Usually, the women sit off to the right.

Controversy has arisen in the buildup to this two-day conference.

The group Ordain Women, pushing for female ordination to the Mormon priesthood, is again seeking standby tickets to Saturday night's all-male meeting. LDS officials have already said they wouldn't be accommodated and invited the women to watch the live broadcast of the priesthood session.

In addition, news reporters and photographers have been barred from Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City. LDS officials hope to avoid a repeat of what happened last fall when media pictures showed women being turned away, one by one, as they sought tickets to the all-male priesthood meeting.

"We found the interaction between protesters and news media to be disruptive to the sacred atmosphere of Temple Square," a church spokesman said last week, "and do not wish to play host to similar circumstances again."

In Saturday's sermons, several LDS leaders emphasized the importance of Mormons following their church leaders — even when their teachings may seem rigid.

"Unfortunately, messengers of divinely mandated commandments are often no more popular today than they were anciently," Holland said. And because their words at times seem harsh, LDS leaders are accused of being "provincial, patriarchal, bigoted, unkind, narrow, outmoded and elderly."

In contemporary society, "if people want any gods at all, they want them to be gods who do not demand much, comfortable gods, who not only don't rock the boat but don't even row it, gods who pat us on the head, make us giggle, then tell us to run along and pick marigolds," Holland said. "Talk about man creating God in his own image."

The apostle pointed to gospel teachings as divine and demanding, pointing out that Jesus said "not only should we not break commandments, but we should not even think about breaking them."

"And if we do think about breaking them," Holland continued, "we have already broken them in our heart. Does that sound like 'comfortable' doctrine, easy on the ear and popular down at the village love-in?"

Holland urged Latter-day Saints to "forsake transgression and any hint of advocacy for it in others."

Russell M. Nelson, also of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, echoed that thought.

"Political campaigns and marketing strategies widely employ public opinion polls to shape their plans. Results of those polls are informative. But they could hardly be used as grounds to justify disobedience to God's commandments," Nelson said. "Evil, error and darkness will never be truth, even if popular. ... Immorality is still immorality in the eyes of God, who one day will judge all our deeds and desires."

Fellow apostle Robert D. Hales cautioned listeners against choosing which commandments to follow.

The commandment not to kill, he said, "is founded upon spiritual law that protects all of God's children, even the unborn. ... Yet many believe it is acceptable to terminate the life of an unborn child for reasons of preference or convenience."

The faith's newest apostle, Neil L. Andersen, who assumed his position in 2009, described another increasingly unpopular position the LDS Church maintains: opposition to same-sex marriage.

In the past month, Andersen said, the faith's governing First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve sent a letter to LDS leaders across the globe, reiterating the church's stand.

"Changes in civil law do not, indeed cannot, change the moral law that God has established. God expects us to uphold and keep his commandments regardless of divergent opinions or trends in society," the apostle said. "His law of chastity is clear: Sexual relations are proper only between a man and a woman who are legally and lawfully wedded as husband and wife. As the world slips away from the Lord's law of chastity, we do not. ...While many governments and well-meaning individuals have redefined marriage, the Lord has not."

But opposing same sex-marriage, he said, does not mean Mormons should be judgmental of those who support it, particularly gays.

"Everyone, independent of their decisions and beliefs, deserves our kindness and consideration," Andersen said. "The savior taught us to love not only our friends but also those who disagree with us, and even those who repudiate us."

He urged Latter-day Saints to avoid self-righteousness and to "enlarge our hearts toward all men and women."

"In the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is no place for ridicule, bullying or bigotry."

W. Craig Zwick, of the First Quorum of Seventy, also quoted that First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve letter, which read in part,"The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us to love and treat all people with kindness and civility — even when we disagree."

That sentence was, Zwick said, "a masterful reminder that we can and should participate in continuing civil dialogue, especially when we view the world from differing perspectives."

He bemoaned "unchecked anger ... in public places ... sporting events, in the political arena and even in our own homes."

Then Zwick noted the biblical verse which says, "A soft answer turneth away wrath."

"A 'soft answer' consists of a reasoned response — disciplined words from a humble heart," he said. "There exists today a great need for men and women to cultivate respect for each other across wide distances of belief and behavior and across deep canyons of conflicting agendas."

Linda S. Reeves, second counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency, addressed the church's ongoing concern about pornography.

"Many children, youth and adults are innocently exposed to pornography," Reeves said, "but a growing number of both men and women are choosing to view it and are drawn back repeatedly until it becomes an addiction."

It is healthy for members who struggle with pornography to confide in loved ones or a church leader, she said. "We would be wise not to react with shock, anger or rejection, which may cause them to be silent again. We, as parents and leaders, need to counsel with our children and youth on an ongoing basis, listening with love and understanding."

Senior apostle Boyd K. Packer, the 89-year-old head of the Quorum of Twelve and next in line for the LDS presidency, did not attend Saturday's general sessions.

"Aside from when President Packer is speaking in General Conference, he will likely be preserving his energy by watching from home," said church spokesman Cody Craynor. —

Send us your tweets and photos

We invite readers to send their tweets and photos from Temple Square this conference weekend to the hashtag #ldsban. The LDS Church has barred news photographers and reporters from the church-owned square in downtown Salt Lake City during the two-day gathering. —

By the numbers by 2013's end

Membership • 15,082,028

New children of record • 115,486

Converts • 282,945

Stakes • 3,050

Missions • 405

Wards, branches • 29,253

Full-time missionaries • 83,035

Service missionaries • 24,032

Operating temples in operation • 141*

* Temple in Gilbert, Ariz., last month became the 142nd operating temple.