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LDS General Conferenceby M. Dallas Burnett
About two months after being organized on April 6, 1830, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held its first general conference at the Peter Whitmer home in Fayette, Seneca County, New York. At that June 9 meeting about thirty members were in attendance and other people who were anxious to learn. This commenced a vital and enduring tradition (see Celebrations). Each April and October, members of the Church throughout the world assemble in Salt Lake City, Utah, for two days of meetings called General Conference. For more than a century these meetings have been held in the 7,500-seat Salt Lake tabernacle located on Temple Square. Temple Square is virtually inseparable from the tradition of General Conference and has been the site of nearly every one of them.
The April conferences of the Church are called annual conferences; those in October, semiannual conferences. Current practice includes four two-hour general sessions on Saturday and Sunday, with a special priesthood session Saturday night carried by satellite to thousands of priesthood bearers throughout the world. Prior to 1977, the conferences met for three days.
Through the years General Conference has accommodated the needs of the Church in a variety of ways. In 1954 David O. McKay, President of the Church from 1951 to 1970, listed the following twentieth-century objectives:
From a historical perspective, the conferences from 1830 to 1837 were called as needed by the Prophet Joseph Smith, the first President of the Church. Those attending early conferences conducted the Church's business, heard announcements of new revelations, and exercised the principle of common consent in approving leaders and doctrine.
From 1838 to 1844 the concept of a regular general conference for the Church was set firmly in place and the precedents were established for the annual and semiannual conferences in April and October. Although the business of the Church was still transacted, emphasis was placed on expounding and teaching the doctrines of the Church. A significant body of doctrine was reviewed and revealed during this period.
One researcher has identified six major issues addressed in the conferences prior to 1845 that demonstrate flexibility and sensitivity to timely issues: (1) emergence and development of common consent; (2) initial experiment with a Zion concept and its temporary suspension; (3) teaching and expounding the doctrines of the Church, including new revelations; (4) institutionalizing of the conference system itself; (5) development of a temple-oriented worship, including covenants and principles associated with the preparing of a people worthy to inherit Zion; and (6) exodus of the Church from organized society into the wilderness (Lowe, p. 398).
Clashes with tradition, tensions with neighbors of other faiths, and preparations for the westward movement all imposed adaptation on the general conferences of the Church just prior to the exodus to the Great Basin in 1847.
Conferences continued during the exodus and into the permanent settlement in Utah, although there was no general conference in October 1846, which occurred during the transition period after the Latter-day Saints had been driven from Nauvoo, Illinois, and before the first company of settlers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847.
The conferences from 1848 to 1877 considered pressing needs such as emigration from the east and foreign countries, colonization, and missionary work. Assignments to colonize and calls to serve missions were frequently announced from the conference pulpit without prior notice. Leonard J. Arrington has characterized these conferences as "the cement which held together the Mormon Commonwealth . 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 wholea worshipping, building, expanding Kingdom" (p. 32).
The last two decades of the nineteenth century were troubled times for the Church because federal legislation against plural marriage brought a financial and societal crisis. General Conferences reflected those concerns. From 1885 to 1887, five conferences were held outside of Salt Lake City, and many of the General Authorities were in exile.
In the twentieth century because of technology and the Church's improving image, conference sessions began reaching beyond the Tabernacle and to peoples other than Latter-day Saints. In October 1924, ksl radio began broadcasting conferences. Coverage was extended in 1938 to other radio stations that wished to carry all or part of the sessions. In 1949 the conference was televised by KSL Television. Satellite transmission to interested television stations and cable systems in other parts of the United States was initiated in 1975, and in 1980 the conference sessions were first carried by satellite to Church centers outside of Utah. More than 2,600 Church satellite dishes in North America now receive General Conference twice each year (see Satellite Communication System).
Conference sessions were first translated simultaneously into other languages in 1962, and by 1990 they were being translated into twenty-nine languages. Conferences can now be heard in multiple languages on Temple Square. As a result of the worldwide broadcasting and translation of conferences, the sessions are more structured and planned than they were in earlier years. Most of the speakers are presiding authorities of the Church, although on occasion other men and women are asked to participate.General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continues today as a vital doctrinal and social institution. It touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of Latter-day Saint lives worldwide. The conference sermons are printed in the Church magazines and are recorded on video tapes.
(See also Celebrations)
Arrington, Leonard J. Great Basin Kingdom. Cambridge, Mass., 1958.
Godfrey, Kenneth W. "150 Years of General Conference." Ensign 11 (Feb. 1981):66.
Lowe, Jay R. "A Study of the General Conferences of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1901." Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1972.
McKay, David O. "Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God." IE (Dec. 1954):872-74.
Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Conference, General
Copyright © 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company