Thousands of Mormons travel to Utah for conference

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Tens of thousands of the Mormon faithful are descending on Utah’s largest city for their church’s semi-annual general conference to hear gospel-centered talks about faith, family and mission work from senior church leaders.

Five general conference sessions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are scheduled on Saturday and Sunday in a center that seats 20,000. Millions more are likely to watch live television and Internet feeds around the world.

In Salt Lake City, the atmosphere is expected to be particularly festive given the upcoming presidential election, with Republican candidate Mitt Romney the first Mormon to gain the nomination from a major party.

Several brides and grooms posed for photographs outside the temple on Friday, and hundreds of people wandered around the immaculate grounds of Temple Square.

Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said it’s unlikely that Romney’s name will come up during the sessions, because the church goes out of its way to stay out of politics.

Mormon leaders have repeatedly said the church does not endorse, promote or oppose political parties, candidates or platforms.

“Now, will you hear mention that the church is experiencing a time of greater interest? That’s certainly possible,” Hawkins said.

Marcus Ogbonna and Luke Nwogu traveled with their wives from Nigeria to experience the conference firsthand. The two couples said they have followed the U.S. presidential race closely and are praying for Romney to win.

“I was happy to see him as a flag-bearer for the GOP,” Ogbonna said. “The progress he’s making and the church is making is exciting to me, and I hope he wins.”

They also said they were thankful to gather to celebrate their faith.

“It’s like a pilgrimage to me,” said Ogbonna, who was attending the conference for the third time. “It’s like I have to be here every time and to bring my family. My wife is here today – someday, I hope to bring my children.”

Nwogu, visiting for the first time, called the experience the “dream of a lifetime.”

The Mormon church was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, who said God directed him to restore the true Christian church by revising parts of the Bible and adding the Book of Mormon as a sacred text. Smith said an angel directed him to a buried holy book in upstate New York, written on golden plates, which he translated from “reformed Egyptian” into the Book of Mormon.

Theological differences with other faith groups – about scriptures, the nature of God and heaven – have provided fodder for anti-Mormon bias over the years. At the conference this past spring, a group of protesters stood across the street shouting that the Latter-day Saints were going to hell.

Joel Jorgensen traveled from Portland, Ore., with his 14-year-old daughter Rachel for the conference and some father-daughter bonding time.

“I’m really coming for my kids,” said Jorgensen, who has already brought an older daughter and will bring his youngest in a couple of years. “To get my daughter the experience – to see all the people, even the people outside with posters chanting whatever it is they chant – I want her to experience it all.”

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