Saturday morning, Melanie Cowley will carry on a tradition she remembers as a child. Every radio and television in her house will be tuned into the Tabernacle, where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will hold its 164th Semiannual General Conference.
Anywhere she, her husband or three children may roam in their Salt Lake home, the prayers, speeches and hymns of conference will be heard."I don't always know all the names or who's who, but it is just motivational for me to listen," she said.
But like most LDS Church members worldwide, Cowley will pay particular attention to one talk - the opening address of President Howard W. Hunter. It will be his first conference as the church's president and the first time in five years members will hear their prophet, seer and revelator speak from the Tabernacle pulpit.
President Ezra Taft Benson addressed a general conference gath-er-ing in October 1989, after which declining health kept him from speaking publicly. He died in May, and President Hunter, 86, was named his successor.
Since he was ordained president, President Hunter has spoken several times. But the church's 8.9 million members place particular importance on a prophet's general conference utterances, regarding them as the will of God to the world and akin to scripture.
Ken Godfrey, director of the church's Logan Institute at Utah State University and who has researched and written about the role of general conference through church history, said a new president's initial conference address historically has set the tone for his administration.
"It can give an indication as to the course and direction the church will go," Godfrey said.
That is of interest to members and outsiders alike.
"What I will be watching for most closely is . . . what the themes of his presidency will be and whether he speaks to issues that are forward looking or reminiscing and going back to the way things used to be," said Jan Shipps, a non-LDS professor of religious studies and history at Indiana University and noted researcher on the LDS Church.
Godfrey and other church educators have been poring over President Hunter's past speech-es, trying to incorporate their new leader's teachings into their own instruction. They have found a consistent emphasis on families and family history, temple worship and belief in Jesus Christ.
Several told the Deseret News they expect President Hunter to re-emphasize his recent pleas for Christian living and increased temple worship.
"I see a simple declaration of testimony concerning Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith and an invitation to the world" to embrace the gospel, said Robert Millett, current dean of religious studies at Brig-ham Young University.
"He's a man of few words, but very significant words. He's at a point in his life where his energy is such that he can't speak at great length, so his words are constructed in a manner to say what he wants to say without excess," he said.
In addition to hearing their prophet speak, members in the Tabernacle, at home or in chapels receiving a satellite broadcast of the proceedings will participate in a "solemn assembly" Saturday morning, where President Hunter and other general authorities and officers of the church will be "sustained," or presented to the membership for a vote of support.
Considered significant and sacred occasions with precedent dating back to the Old Testament, solemn assemblies are convened in the LDS Church for various purposes, such as temple dedications, with the foremost being the sustaining of a new prophet.
Saturday will be the 12th solemn assembly to sustain a new president, the first occurring when President John Taylor was sustained the church's third president in October 1880. The most recent was April 6, 1986, when President Benson was sustained.
"This has significant personal value to the prophet, and it's of significant value to members in that it is the first time we can express our testimonies that the successor is indeed a prophet of God," Godfrey said.
Morning 10 a.m.
Afternoon 2 p.m.
Priesthood 6 p.m.
Morning 10 a.m.
Afternoon 2 p.m.