SALT LAKE CITY - A Mormon leader urged members Saturday during a church conference not to be timid about defending church founder Joseph Smith's story and role as the faith's first prophet despite "erroneous" beliefs spread about him.
Mormons should remember the many benefits that have come in the nearly 200 years since Smith, then a teenager, says he had a vision of God and Jesus Christ in the woods of upstate New York that led to the formation of the church 10 years later, said Craig Christensen, a member of the faith's second-tier worldwide leadership council called the Quorum of the Seventy.
"To any who may be questioning their testimony of Joseph Smith or are struggling with erroneous, misleading, or superficial information about his life and ministry, I invite you to consider the fruits — the many blessings that have come to us through the miraculous mission of Joseph Smith, the prophet of the restoration," Christensen said.
Christensen didn't reference any specific misinformation about Smith, but pointed out that the battle over Smith is not new, with "antagonists" long fighting furiously against him and his cause.
Critics of The Church of Jesus Christs of Latter-day Saints have questioned Smith's accounts of his visions and his account that God helped him translate gold plates engraved with writing in ancient Egyptian into the Book of Mormon.
Smith's polygamous practices have also fueled criticism. The Mormon church acknowledged in 2014 in an essay that Smith had a teenage bride and was married to other men's wives during the faith's early polygamous days, a recognition of an unflattering part of its roots that historians had chronicled for years.
The essay was part of a push in recent years for greater transparency about the faith's history, tenets and beliefs that is designed to peel back layers of secrecy and fill a void on the internet for accurate information as curiosity increased while church membership tripled to 15 million over the past three decades.
The religion has published a series of journals and writings from Smith's vault as part of the drive. Last year, the church published for the first time pictures of a small sacred stone it believes Smith used to help translate the Book of Mormon.
Christensen harkened back to Smith's experience as a call to modern-day members to use revelation as a way to guide their lives.
"Joseph's life stands as a testimony that if any of us lack wisdom, we can ask God in faith and receive answers_sometimes from heavenly beings, but more often by the power of the Holy Ghost, who speaks to us through inspired thoughts and feelings," Christensen said.
The faith believes church presidents are prophets of God, as Abraham, Moses and Isiah were, and receive continuing revelation from God. That has led to fundamental changes. In 1890, the church president at the time said he received a revelation to end the practice of polygamous marriages that were part of the first 60 years of the church.
Rank-and-file Mormons are also encouraged to use revelation through prayers to help guide them in their decisions.
Christensen's speech came during a twice-yearly conference in which leaders give speeches of spiritual guidance. More than 100,000 members of the faith are expected to attend five speeches Saturday and Sunday while thousands more will listen or watch in nearly 100 languages around the world on television, radio, satellite and internet broadcasts
Saturday's speakers mainly focused on imploring members to adhere to the religion's teachings and avoid straying from the righteous path.
Quentin L. Cook, a member of the church's highest leadership council, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, warned followers not to practice "gospel extremism" such as expensive preparations for "end-of-days scenarios" in an apparent reference to preppers. He also singled out as an example people advocating for changes to the faith's health guidelines that include prohibition on drinking coffee or alcohol.
"If we turn a health law or any other principle into a form of religious fanaticism, we are looking beyond the mark," Cook said.
In a speech Saturday, President Thomas S. Monson urged Mormons to follow the church's teachings on health and food.
Church teachings "give specific direction regarding the food we eat, and it prohibits the use of substances which are harmful to our bodies," Monson said. "Those who are obedient to the Lord's commandments and who faithfully observe the Word of Wisdom are promised particular blessings, among which are good health and added physical stamina."
Storing away enough food and water in case of disaster, job loss or something worse is part of the fundamental teachings of the religion. The belief that regular history will someday end, bringing a second coming of Jesus, is embedded in the minds of Mormons and the church's official name.
J. Devn Cornish of the Quorum of the Seventy cautioned members that rebellion would keep them out of heaven, and called "premeditated sin" the worst kind.
D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said that while God loves everyone, "God's greater blessings are conditioned on obedience.
"Sinners cannot bend his will to theirs and require him to bless them in sin," Christofferson said. "If they desire to enjoy every bloom in his beautiful bouquet, they must repent."