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Mormons should live within their means, avoid excessive debt, and forgo an upscale lifestyle, LDS leaders urged thousands of the faithful gathered in downtown Salt Lake City on Saturday and millions more watching across the globe via satellite and the Internet.

The freedom to choose is diminished by "ill-advised choices ... that have led to excessive debt," apostle Robert D. Hales said during the opening session of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' 179th Annual General Conference. "Some debt incurred for education, a modest home or a basic automobile may be necessary to provide for a family. Unfortunately, however, additional debt is incurred when we cannot control our wants and addictive impulses."

Several years into his marriage, Hales wanted to buy an expensive coat for his wife, Mary, as an anniversary gift, but she balked.

"Are you buying this for me or for you?" the apostle recalled his wife saying. "In other words, she was asking, 'Is the purpose of this gift to show your love for me or to show me that you are a good provider?' "

That led to a "life-changing discussion about provident living," Hales said, "and both of us agreed that our money would be better spent in paying down our home mortgage and adding to our children's education fund."

After the morning session, Brigham Young University student Keith Kelly said he would take Hales' message to heart.

"Do I really need a shotgun right now?" Kelly asked. "I could buy it and put it on a credit card, but if I wait, I can pay cash for it."

President Thomas S. Monson opened the two-day conference by announcing the appointment of Neil L. Andersen, of the Presidency of the Seventy, as the faith's newest apostle. Andersen, an LDS general authority since 1993, fills the vacancy created by the death in December of Joseph B. Wirthlin.

Officials named Donald L. Hallstrom to take Andersen's place in the Presidency of the Seventy, as well as six new men -- including Kenyan Joseph W. Sitati, the first African -- in the First Quorum of Seventy.

In his opening remarks, Monson mentioned that he had rededicated the Mexico City temple, dedicated the new temple in Draper and soon will dedicate the Oquirrh Mountain temple in South Jordan.

"There is something about a temple dedication," Monson said, "which prompts a re-evaluation of one's own performance and a sincere desire to do even better."

He then reported that the church has about 53,000 missionaries serving in 348 missions around the world. He also said the church's loan program for Third World members, the Perpetual Education Fund, has helped about 35,600 young men and women improve their skills and job opportunities with small, low-interest loans. Thus far, 18,900 have completed their training.

Other speakers Saturday addressed the importance of teaching children to be reverent and respectful, keeping temple covenants, building faith and dealing with adversity.

Months after the LDS Church's support of traditional marriage with California's Proposition 8 and amid a renewed push for gay rights in Utah, Boyd K. Packer, president of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, addressed male sexuality and responsibility.

"You are a son of God," Packer told the all-male priesthood session Saturday evening. "Your gender was determined in the pre-mortal existence. You were born male. You must treasure and protect the masculine part of your nature. You must have respectful, protective regard for all women and girls."

Packer advised young men not to "abuse" themselves, allow others to touch their body "in a way that would be unworthy," or touch others in any "unworthy way."

Apostle Quentin L. Cook discussed contrasting portrayals of Mormonism in the press and how members should respond.

"Notwithstanding the significance of our doctrinal differences with other Christian faiths, our attitude toward other Christian churches has been to refrain from criticism. They do much good. They bless mankind. Many help their members learn of the Savior and his teachings," Cook said. "It is equally important that we be loving and kind to members of our own faith, regardless of their level of commitment or activity."

But speakers returned again and again to the economic crisis.

Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency, described one young couple who were barely getting by on a tiny budget, but helped another couple even poorer than themselves.

"A promised blessing of peace came while they were still in their poverty," Eyring said. "The blessing of prosperity beyond their fondest dreams came later. And the pattern of seeing someone in need, someone with less or in pain, has never ceased."

In the evening priesthood session, Richard C. Edgley, first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric offered a call to arms to Mormon men.

"The unemployment and financial wakes of this storm are splashing over every stake and every ward throughout the church," Edgely said. "We now call upon you to mobilize our priesthood quorums in response to the employment and financial challenges facing our members. ... Now is the time to rally around, lift up, and help the family in our quorums who may be in distress."

Salamasina Sione, of Salt Lake City, appreciated the authorities' counsel on finances.

For years, church leaders have urged members to live frugally and dodge debt, but "now more than ever, it's sinking in," Sione said after the morning session. "A lot of times, we fill the needs in our lives with things. We should stop and reflect."

Tribune reporter Kristen Moulton contributed to this report.

Statistics about the LDS Church

The LDS First Presidency reported Saturday about the church's growth as of Dec. 31, 2008:

Church units

Number of stakes » 2,818

Missions » 348

Districts » 622

Wards and branches » 28,109

Church membership

Total membership » 13,508,509

New children of record » 123,502

Converts baptized » 265,593


Full-time missionaries » 52,494


Temple dedicated during 2008 » Rexburg, Idaho; Curitiba, Brazil; Panama City, Panama; and Twin Falls, Idaho

Temples rededicated during 2008 » Mexico City