|Print | Back||April 2, 2014|
Rambling Thoughts on Church HistoryGeneral Conference: Some Historical Observations
by James B. Allen
We are about to enjoy another General Conference weekend, in which we will sustain the General Authorities and other general officers of the Church, and receive inspired instruction from them. In addition, millions of Latter-day Saints all over the world will watch or listen to conference on television, radio, or over the internet. And in the coming months we will read and often re-read the conference talks.
Conference is a very special time for Latter-day Saints, though over the years its nature has changed somewhat. (1) In nineteenth-century Utah, for example, conference was not only a time for preaching but also a time for conducting all kinds of business related to building the Kingdom in the West. Economic needs and activities were frequently discussed, and missionaries were called (often without prior notice) during conference meetings. Leonard J. Arrington observed that the conferences of that day were "the cement that held together the Mormon Commonwealth." He explained that:
It was through the instrumentality of the conference that church leaders were able to effect the central planning and direction of the manifold temporal and spiritual interests of their followers. It was in the conference that Latter-day Saints experienced most keenly the sense of belonging to a whole-- a worshiping, building, expanding Kingdom. Other pioneering groups in the West studied the Bible, prayed, formed local institutions to solve their many problems, such as churches, schools, and associations, and developed many collective instrumentalities and enterprises, but for the lack of an institution resembling the general conference, few that were scattered over such a wide territory achieved the militant strength and social cohesion of the Mormons" (2)
Our modern conferences are much different in some ways than those of earlier years but, not unlike earlier conferences, they are still, at least in part, the cement that holds the modern Church together. Believing, as they do, that Church leaders are inspired in what they have to say, Saints around the world not only watch, listen to, and read their messages but also discuss them frequently and, hopefully, act on them. What follows is a brief overview of some aspects of the history of General Conference.
First, let me suggest that at least one event in the Book of Mormon might be thought of as an early conference that in some ways followed patterns we see today. (See Mosiah 2-5.) The date was about 124 B.C. and the leader of the people (and of the Church, if we want to compare with today) was King Benjamin. He called together all the people of his land. They came by the thousands to hear him, just as throngs gather to Salt Lake City or around radios and televisions and computers today. They were prepared to stay overnight and pitched their tents with the openings facing the temple (which might be compared to the Conference Center today). But the throng was so huge that not all could see or hear the king, so he had a tower built to facilitate wider communication. (Could we not think of our television towers and communication satellites as something analogous?) But many still could not hear so Benjamin had his words recorded and circulated among the people. (Is this not what we do as we publish the conference proceedings in the Ensign and other church publications?) And after Benjamin finished his great speech the people were spiritually renewed, much like our experiences after conference meetings today.
Well, while the analogy may not be perfect it seems to me that this great gathering, and its purpose and results, was not unlike our conferences today.
In our time, the practice of holding conferences was introduced the day the Church was organized, April 6, 1830. It was included in a revelation then known as the "Articles and Covenants of the Church," and now in the Doctrine and Covenants as Section 20. It says, in part:
61 The several elders composing this church of Christ are to meet in conference once in three months, or from time to time as said conferences shall direct or appoint;
62 And said conferences are to do whatever church business is necessary to be done at the time.
Note a few interesting things about this revelation and some things that followed:
1. Conferences were to be held every three months, OR "from time to time."
2. There was no distinction made between general conferences and local or regional conferences. The very earliest conferences seemed local, or regional, in nature, though there was no real distinction between "local" and "general."
3. In this revelation, and for nearly the first 100 years of Church history, the word "conference" had a dual meaning. It referred to important local, regional, or general meetings, but it also had a geographical meaning. From the beginning the various geographical regions were called "conferences" (a term consistent with the organizational patterns of other contemporary churches), and that lasted until 1927. Beginning in the Nauvoo period the Church also used the terms "ward" and "stake," but in the mission fields the term "conference" was applied. In June of 1927 the Improvement Era published the following note: "It has been ordered by the First Presidency that divisions of missions heretofore called conferences, shall hereafter be known as districts; and that the word conference shall apply to the general meetings or gatherings of the people in the districts or missions."
4. Throughout most of Church history, STAKE conferences were held every three months. This was consistent with the 1830 Articles and Covenants implications about regional conferences. In 1979, however, the frequency was reduced to twice a year (still consistent with "or from time to time" in the revelation).
5. After the Church moved to Utah, GENERAL conferences were held twice a year, on a schedule like we have now, except that throughout most of the 20th century they were held for three days. One of those days had to be April 6, the anniversary of the founding of the Church, and another had to be October 6. Beginning in April 1977 the conference was reduced to two days, Saturday and Sunday, and the 6th of April and October were no longer required dates.
6. As stated in the "Articles and Covenants," one of the things that should happen in conferences is the "business of the Church." In the nineteenth century conferences took care of all kinds of business, including accepting of new members, announcement of excommunications, the calling of missionaries (often without prior notification), and promoting various economic activities. Now the "business" is limited to sustaining the officers of the Church and receiving a brief auditor's report.
The meeting that is generally considered the first General Conference of the Church was held on June 9, 1830 (just over 2 months after the Church was organized) in Fayette, New York. It was an inspiring meeting, though quite different from the conferences we experience today.
There are different accounts of how many people attended that important meeting but it appears that there about thirty members along with several people who wanted to be baptized or were interested. Joseph Smith, then only age 24, opened the meeting by reading the fourteenth chapter of Ezekiel and then offering a prayer. A song was then sung and the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was administered. Joseph then read the "Articles and Covenants," which were unanimously accepted by those present. After that Oliver Cowdery ordained Samuel Smith an elder and Joseph Smith's father as well as his brother Hyrum were ordained priests. Several people who had been baptized were confirmed, and others were ordained to various offices in the Priesthood. In addition, as Joseph Smith described it in his published history:
Much exhortation and instruction was given, and the Holy Ghost was poured out upon us in a miraculous manner--many of our number prophesied, whilst others had the heavens opened to their view, and were so overcome that we had to lay them on beds or other convenient places; among the rest was Brother Newel Knight, who had to be placed on a bed, being unable to help himself. By his own account of the transaction, he could not understand why we should lay him on the bed, as he felt no sense of weakness. He felt his heart filled with love, with glory, and pleasure unspeakable, and could discern all that was going on in the room; when all of a sudden a vision of the future burst upon him. He saw there represented the great work which through my instrumentality was yet to be accomplished. He saw heaven opened, and beheld the Lord Jesus Christ, seated at the right hand of the majesty on high, and had it made plain to his understanding that the time would come when he would be admitted into His presence to enjoy His society for ever and ever. When their bodily strength was restored to these brethren, they shouted hosannas to God and the Lamb, and rehearsed the glorious things which they had seen and felt, whilst they were yet in the spirit.
The effect of all this, according to Joseph, was:
to inspire our hearts with joy unspeakable, and fill us with awe and reverence for that Almighty Being, by whose grace we had been called to be instrumental in bringing about, for the children of men, the enjoyment of such glorious blessings as were now at this time poured out upon us. To find ourselves engaged in the very same order of things as observed by the holy Apostles of old; to realize the importance and solemnity of such proceedings; and to witness and feel with our own natural senses, the like glorious manifestations of the powers of the Priesthood, the gifts and blessings of the Holy Ghost, and the goodness and condescension of a merciful God unto such as obey the everlasting Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, combined to create within us sensations of rapturous gratitude, and inspire us with fresh zeal and energy in the cause of truth. (3)
This first conference was essentially a business meeting, even though there was some preaching and some miraculous spiritual manifestations. We would love to know what was said in the "exhortation and instruction" but, unfortunately, no record was kept.
Other early conferences were also more like church business meetings, with men sustained in the priesthood, and members of the Church making suggestions and presenting resolutions from the floor. In addition, at these conference Church members were tried, disfellowshipped, excommunicated, chastised, praised, and reinstated.
Clearly, the nature of conference has changed from time to time--something to be expected in our ever-growing, and hence ever-changing, church.
One difference is the fact that early conferences were not held at regular times and places but, rather were convened at the request of the First Presidency at different times of the year and in different places. Holding conference each April and October was not set as a firm pattern until Church headquarters were moved to Illinois, though some conferences were held during those months. (See below for a listing of where conferences were held.)
In the early years conferences did not have the great social implications that later developed, but as the schedule became firmly established on a semiannual basis in the 1850s and beyond conference also developed into a time of reunion and socializing. It became one of the great symbols of Mormon unity as well as a cohesive force in building a sense of community among the Saints. In 1858 one eastern correspondent good-naturedly observed that conference was "the post-office, newspaper, legislature, Bible, almanac, temporal, spiritual, and social director of the people." (4) This was especially true so long as the Church population was centered mainly in Utah and the West, but even with the current worldwide nature of the Church conference time takes on a special and profound social and spiritual aura.
Another difference is the fact during most of our recent history only General Authorities or other general officers of the Church have addressed conferences. In the past speakers also included stake presidents, returning mission presidents and missionaries, representatives of the president of the United States and the Boy Scouts of America, and even the chief of staff of the United States Army.
One development that some people have been especially interested in is the pattern of women speaking in General Conference. A kind of cultural myth suggests that this is something relatively new, but in reality its is not as new as some people think.
The first woman to speak in a General Conference was Lucy Mack Smith, mother of the Prophet. On October 6-8, 1845, a General Conference was held in the unfinished Nauvoo Temple. On the morning of October 8 Lucy and Brigham Young were the only speakers. It was a powerful meeting in which Lucy expressed her support for what Brigham and the apostles were doing. She was feeble and sometimes her voice was so inaudible that the reporters could not make out what she said, but Brigham repeated it for them.
In October 1878, Zina D. H. Young spoke in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on the second day of General Conference. She was probably the first woman to speak in the tabernacle during such a meeting.
So far as I know, the next time a woman spoke in conference was in April 1908. Since the Tabernacle and Assembly Hall could not accommodate everyone who wanted to attend, overflow meetings were held outdoors. At one of them two recently returned lady missionaries, Sister Rachel Leatham and Sister M. M. Langenbucher, spoke. Their talks were printed in the official Conference Report. The following April Sister Lilian Jones, recently returned from the Southern States Mission, spoke to a similar, though larger, group of 2500. Her talk, too, was printed in the Conference Report.
On the second day of the October 1929 conference President Heber J. Grant suddenly said "We have listened to a great many testimonies from our brethren during this conference. We should now call on some of our sisters." Then, with no prior warning, he called on Relief Society President Louise Robison, Young Women President Ruth May Fox, and Primary President May Anderson to speak. The same three women also spoke during the next two conferences, though this time they had more warning.
The next woman to speak in conference was new Relief Society General President Belle Spafford, who spoke in the priesthood session of General Conference in 1946. From 1976 to October 1979 and again in 1981 her successor, Barbara Smith, spoke in the Welfare Sessions of General Conference. A few other women spoke at some of the same sessions. In April 1984 four women spoke in General Conference: Barbara Winder (the new Relief Society General President) and Ardeth G. Kapp (the new Young Women's General President), and their predecessors, Barbara Smith and Elaine Cannon.
Toward the end of the 1980s it became more common to see women speaking in General Conference. Dwan J. Young spoke in the April 1988 conference, shortly after her release as Primary General President. Her successor, Michaelene P. Grassli, spoke the following October, as did Ardeth G. Kapp, Young Women's General President. How strange that one website, apparently operated by ex-Latter-day Saints, reports that Sister Grassli was the first woman to speak in general conference in 133 years! Such is the mis-direction created by myth makers.
The pattern continued so that in the 1990s women were speaking in General Conference more regularly and by the early twenty-first century it was common for at least two women to speak in every conference.
What was not yet happening was women giving prayers in conference, but that, too, soon changed. At the first session of the April 2013 General Conference Jean A. Stevens, first counselor in the Primary General Presidency, gave the closing prayer. When President Dieter F. Uchtdorf announced that she would pray he did it with no fanfare, but within minutes after that announcement the social media went wild and newspapers and television stations around the country quickly picked up the story. Many women around the Church wept for, to them, it was a revolutionary development for which they had long been praying.
An important addition to what I like to call the culture of General Conference came in 1994 when the Church began to hold annual Young Women's meetings on the Saturday before April General Conference and annual Relief Society Meetings on the Saturday before October General Conference. The messages there, delivered mostly by women, were as vital as the messages of General Conference itself. Then, in November 2013, the First Presidency announced that these annual meetings would be replaced by a semiannual General Women's Meeting to be held on the Saturday before each General Conference. All women, young women, and girls age eight years old and older would be invited to attend. Like General Conference, the proceedings of these meetings would be translated into 55 languages and would reach millions of people around the world through radio, television and the internet. Women worldwide were delighted. When the first Women's General Meeting was held on March 29, 2014, those who attended, watched, or listened were thrilled not only with the historic importance of the meeting but also with the powerful and important messages they received.
As indicated above, General Conferences were held in various places prior to the location of the Church in Salt Lake City and, in a few instances, even afterwards. Here is a brief overview of those places.
Before the move to Utah conferences were held in Fayette, New York; Kirtland, Ohio; Hiram, Ohio, Amherst, Ohio; Independence, Missouri; at the ferry of the Big Blue River, Missouri (April 6, 1833); at a spot near Quincy, Illinois; Nauvoo, Illinois. The last conference to be held in Nauvoo was in October 1845.
1847, April 6: Winter Quarters Nebraska
1847 December 25-27: Council Bluffs, Iowa
1848 Apr 6-8: Council Bluffs, Iowa
1848 Oct 6-8: Salt Lake City, Utah; also at Mosquito Creek, Pottawattamii Lands (Iowa)
1849 Apr 6-8 to October1876: Salt Lake City
1877 Apr 6-8: St. George, Utah
1885 Apr 4-6: Logan, Utah. At this point conferences were affected by the harassment of government officials seeking to arrest Church leaders because of plural marriage. Some leaders were thus forced into hiding "on the underground" and this and the next several General Conferences were held outside Salt Lake City until October 1887.
1885 Oct 6-8: Logan, Utah
1886 Apr 4-7: Provo, Utah
1886 Oct 6-8: Coalville, Utah
1887 Apr 6-8: Provo, Utah
October 1887 to the present: All General Conferences were held in Salt Lake City.
While all General Conferences have been important and uplifting to the members of the Church, a few stand out, or of special spiritual and historical significance, at least to me. Here are some of them.
*June 9, 1830: The first Church conference (maybe not a "real" General Conference, but still considered in most listings as the first one.)
*April 26, 1832: Joseph Smith sustained as president of the high priesthood and, therefore, as President of the Church.
*May 3, 1834: The name of the Church was changed from the Church of Christ to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
*February 14, 1835: Members of the first Quorum of the Twelve were selected and ordained.
*August 17, 1835: The Doctrine and Covenants, with 102 sections, was approved by a General Conference. (An earlier edition had been approved by a conference of elders in Hiram, Ohio.)
*April 1844: According to Kenneth Godfrey, this conference was distinctive for three reasons: Joseph Smith was nominated as a candidate for the U.S. Presidency; it was the last conference over which he presided; and it was here that conferences became more a time of instruction rather than business. In that connection, the conference was especially notable because of Joseph Smith's famous King Follet discourse in which he expounded on numerous doctrinal subjects, including the character of God and the origin and destiny of man.
*December 27, 1847, at Council Bluffs Iowa: Brigham Young sustained as President of the Church.
*October 1867: The first conference to be held in the new Salt Lake Tabernacle. (Previous conferences were held first in boweries and then in the old tabernacle.)
*April 6, 1890: President Wilford Woodruff's Manifesto, officially ending plural marriage, accepted in General Conference.
*April 1893: One session of General Conference was held in the Salt Lake Temple so that President Woodruff could dedicate this magnificent sacred building.
*June 1919: General Conference was postponed from April 1919 because of the influenza epidemic that swept most of the western world. But that conference, in solemn assembly, sustained Heber J. Grant as President of the Church.
*October 1924: The first General Conference to be broadcast by radio. Said President Heber J. Grant on that occasion: "The exercises of today and throughout the conference are to be broadcasted; and it is estimated that in the neighborhood of a million people will be able to hear all that is said, provided they are listening in during the conference sessions. The radio is one of the most marvelous inventions man knows anything about. To have the voice carried for thousands of miles seems almost beyond comprehension."
*October 4, 1946: President George Albert Smith told of talking by short-wave radio to LDS servicemen in Japan, then made the following prediction: "I thought that was a beautiful experience.... I have traveled more than a million miles in the world to divide [sic] the gospel of Jesus Christ with my fellowmen, but that was the first time I ever delivered a religious address to a congregation seven thousand miles away. Short-wave broadcasting will continue to improve, and it will not be long until, from this pulpit and other places that will be provided, the servants of the Lord will be able to deliver messages to isolated groups who are so far away they cannot be reached. In that way and other ways, the gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord, the only power of God unto salvation in preparation for the celestial kingdom, will be heard in all parts of the world, and many of you who are here will live to see that day."
*October 1948; The first general broadcast of conference by television. (The Church began limited television broadcasting in April 1948, when the sessions of general conference were carried from the Tabernacle to other buildings on Temple Square by closed-circuit.)
*October 1957: The only General Conference in the twentieth century to be canceled completely. This was because of the Asian flu epidemic that was sweeping the country.
*April 1975: The first satellite transmission of conference.
*October 1975: The reconstitution of the First Quorum of the Seventy, returning the organization of the Church closer to that established by Joseph Smith.
*April 1976: Two revelations were canonized--Sections 137 and 138. They were included in a new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants in 1981.
*October 1976: All of the Assistants to the Quorum of the Twelve became members of the First Quorum of the Seventy.
*April 1977: The first two-day General Conference, replacing the former three-day General Conference. After this the 6th of April and 6th of October were no longer required dates.
*September 30, 1978: President Spencer W. Kimball's revelation on priesthood was accepted by unanimous vote in General Conference.
*April 1980: Thirteen stake centers in the United States received satellite transmission of conference on their own receivers rather than picking it up through commercial channels that carried satellite broadcasting. This limited project was so successful that it was used again in the October 1980 conference and has since expanded widely.
*April 2000: First conference meeting in the new Conference Center in Salt Lake City.
*October 2012: President Thomas S. Monson announced dropping the age for young men to go on missions from 19 to 18 and for young women from 21 to 19.
*April 2013: First General Conference at which a woman offered a prayer.
As a sidelight, there are a few curious problems of identification. The forthcoming conference is identified as the 184th annual General Conference of the Church and the October conference will be called the 184th semi-annual conference. This wording suggests that the first annual and semi-annual conferences were held in 1830 and that these conferences have been held on the current schedule since the beginning of the Church. In a sense this is true, for conferences were begun the year the Church was organized and have been held ever since. But it is also a bit misleading for conferences were held somewhat irregularly in the very earliest years of the Church. Nevertheless, during the Nauvoo period and after the settlement in Utah they were held regularly, with minor exceptions, in April and October.
Another little question concerns what was really the first General Conference of the Church. The author of a Ph.D. dissertation on the history of General Conferences holds that the conference held before 1838 were really regional, not general, conferences, and that the first "real annual general conference to be held on the birthdate of the Church should probably be designated as the one held in Far West, Missouri, April 6, 1838." (5) At this conference, he said, plans for the future seemed to make a more clear distinction between local and general conferences, though as yet that distinction was not formalized.
However, still another conference vies for "first place." The Nauvoo Times and Seasons for November 1, 1945 (Vol. VI, No. 16) published the minutes of what it says was "the first General Conference, which was ever held by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in the House of the Lord in the City of Joseph, commencing on Monday October 6th 1845, ten o'clock forenoon." Did this mean first General Conference, or first General Conference to be held in the Nauvoo Temple?
Finally, there is another picky little question. If we think of the June 9, 1830 conference as the first annual general conference, should we not think of the forthcoming one as the 185th annual instead of the 184th? I don't know when this number started to be used, or who started it, but do the math. If 1830 was the first, then 1831 was the second, but that was just one year after the Church was organized. So, by this reasoning, one year after 1830 would be called the 2nd, two years later would be called the 3rd, etc., and 184 years later (2014) would be called the 185th. However, since there was no General Conference in 1846, maybe that accounts for whatever is going on. But I leave it to wiser heads than I to figure all this out. For myself, the numbering hardly matters and I am content with whatever the Church officially says.
But such picky concerns are profoundly unimportant compared with the real significance of General Conference. Actually, I believe that one cannot study or appreciate the history of the Church itself without become familiar with what was said and done in its conferences. As one scholar has observed, through studying conferences we gain important insight into such things as the early trials of the Church, what Church leaders taught, judicial and disciplinary actions in the early Church, various important practices, revelations, doctrinal development, organizational development, internal conflicts, the use of mass media, financial activities, political concerns, humanitarian efforts, and many other factors. "I believe," he concluded, "that the student of Mormonism lacking familiarity with general conference history and the addresses themselves cannot expect to be seen as a credible reporter of things Mormon no matter which facet of Mormonism he or she chooses to examine." (6)
Much more could be said about the history of General Conferences, but there is something vastly more important than anything I have said so far: the spirt of conference itself and what each of us takes to and takes away from it. I am sure that those who will speak this weekend have been praying long and hard about what they should say. I am also sure that each of us will find something of genuine personal value in what we hear from them. That, after all, is the major purpose of conference. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland says on the Church's website: "If we teach by the Spirit and you listen by the Spirit, some one of us will touch on your circumstance, sending a personal prophetic epistle just to you."
1. This material is generally based on the following sources: Jay R. Lowe, "A Study of the General Conferences of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1901" (Ph.D. dissertation, BYU, 1972); M. Dalllas Burnett, "General Conference," Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992), 1: 307-308; Joseph Walker, "General Conference Through the Years is Different But the Same," Deseret News. April 1 2013; Kenneth Godfrey, "150 Years of General Conference," Ensign (February 1981), 66-70; Richard Armstrong, "Researching Mormonism: General Conference as Artifactual Gold Mine," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 30 (Fall 1997), 151-66; J. Johnson, " 'We shall now call on some of our sisters': LDS Women and General Conference Participation," found online at http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/we-shall-now-call-on-some-of-our-sisters-lds-women-and-general-conference-participation; Peggy Fletcher Stack, "First prayer by Woman Offered at Mormon Conference," Salt Lake Tribune, April 12, 2013.
2. Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958), 32-33.
3. Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1946), 1:84-86.
4. Harper's 2 (December 4, 1858): 781, as quoted in James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 286.
5. Lowe, "A Study of the General Conferences of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1901," 128.
6. Armstrong, "Researching Mormonism," 68.
|Copyright © 2023 by James B. Allen||Printed from NauvooTimes.com|