SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — For the first time in the event’s 183-year history, a woman led a prayer Saturday at the semiannual gathering of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Jean A. Stevens led the morning session’s closing prayer for the more than 100,000 Mormons gathered in Salt Lake City for the two-day general conference, and the millions more watching via satellite, radio or Internet broadcast.
Among other church roles, Stevens is member of a three-person board that advises and assists parents on teaching their children about the faith, which has more than 14 million members worldwide.
A feminist group launched a campaign earlier this year asking church leaders to let women lead the opening and closing prayer — a first for the conference — as a symbol of gender equality.
Women hold leadership positions in the Mormon church but aren’t allowed to be bishops or presidents of stakes, which are geographic areas similar to Catholic dioceses. At past conferences, women have regularly given speeches and could pray in the audience.
The “Let Women Pray” campaign was launched in January from the same group that drew national attention in December by urging women to wear pants to church rather than skirts or dresses to raise awareness about what they perceive as gender inequality within Mormon culture.
Amber Whiteley, 23, of St. Louis, was one of the campaign organizers and said Saturday she was “thrilled” and couldn’t stop smiling when she heard the news.
“I think it shows that it was really compassionate on the church’s behalf … that women are really important in the church and that women’s voices matter,” she said Saturday.
It also shows that “women’s prayers matter as much as men’s,” Whiteley said.
Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said Mormon leaders late last year decided who would be leading the conference prayers, which is before the women prayer campaign was launched.
Hawkins did not elaborate on why Stevens was selected, but said leaders of the church are the ones chosen to give the invocation and benediction.
Earlier Saturday, Thomas S. Monson, the faith’s president, announced the church is planning to build two new temples, in Rio de Janeiro and Cedar City, Utah.
Temples are considered sacred to Latter-day Saints and are used for religious rituals including proxy baptisms, marriage ceremonies and other rites designed to strengthen church teachings.
The exact locations of the new buildings will be announced later, the church said. Worldwide, there are 141 temples in operation and 29 under construction.
The newly announced temple in Rio de Janeiro will be the eighth planned or operating temple in Brazil, where there are more than 1.1 million Mormons. Six temples are up and running in the country, and a seventh is planned in Fortaleza.
The planned temple in Cedar City, in southwest Utah, will be the 17th temple operating or planned in the state. The church previously announced construction of temples in Payson and Provo. Nearly 2 million members of the faith live in Utah, where the church headquarters is located.
Monson also announced during his opening address Saturday that the church has created 58 new missions to accommodate swelling numbers of missionaries.
At the last general conference in October, church officials announced a lowering of the minimum age for missionaries: from 21 to 19 for women, and from 19 to 18 for men.
Church leaders and outside scholars believe that decision could be a landmark leading to many more women serving missions.
The church says applications for new missions are up twofold since the announcement. About half of all new applications have come from women. Previously, only 15 percent of missionaries were women.
“The response of our young people has been remarkable and inspiring,” Monson said.
As of April 4, more than 65,000 Mormon missionaries were serving around the world, Monson said. More than 20,000 additional missionaries have been called to serve, while another 6,000 are in the interview process.
The semiannual conference, taking place Saturday and Sunday, offers Mormons words of inspiration and guidance for daily living from the faith’s senior leaders. Besides the thousands attending in person, millions more participate in the meeting through satellite, radio or Internet broadcast translated into more than 90 languages.