Thousands of faithful LDS Church members will meet on Temple Square this weekend for the 167th Semiannual General Conference. However, exactly 40 years ago, the Tabernacle was empty - the Asian flu epidemic hit Utah with a fury.
It was the first and only time that the entire conference was canceled.The First Presidency of the church issued this message on Sept. 27, 1957:
"To all members of the Church,
"With deep regret the First Presidency of the Church, with the concurrence of the Council of Twelve Apostles, announces that out of regard for the health of the people, the semiannual conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, scheduled for Oct. 4, 5 and 6, 1957, together with all meetings planned in connection therein, will not be held . . .
"We have consulted will all public agencies available to us which are concerned in the problems of health, and whose opinion on the extent and effects of the epidemic influenza we regard as helpful in reaching a decision."
The First Presidency message also stated that since conference draws members from all over the world, it was particularly unwise to convene sessions.
The statement, signed by President David O. McKay and his counselors, President Stephen L. Richards and President J. Reuben Clark Jr., concluded:
"Life is so precious the Lord expects us to do all within our power to conserve it.
"We are sure our people will understand the reluctance we feel in foregoing the uplifting, inspiring experiences of a general conference of the Church and that they will accord with the decision we have prayerfully reached."
Anyone counting the total number of semiannual conferences will also discover that the church is short one session because of the 1957 cancellation.
LDS general conference was postponed but not canceled on one other occasion. The April 1919 conference was delayed until June 1 because of another flu epidemic, this one the Spanish flu variety.
Some conferences during World War II were held but cut back because of transportation problems.
The 1957 flu epidemic halted more than LDS general conference. Five high school football games were canceled on Oct. 4, along with the Boise-Dixie junior college football game that weekend.
Brigham Young University estimated at least 600 students had the flu, and the campus "Hello Week" activities were canceled.
Most Salt Lake businesses also reported unusually high employee absenteeism due to illness, with many rates between 20 and 50 percent.
Even popular Deseret News columnist Les Goates was home ill, though he still sent an article in from his bed titled, "A Vacation with the Flu."
On Sept. 25, one-third of students at Salt Lake's Roosevelt Junior High were absent and 50 percent of the Weber School District's student were absent. However, one major state event was held in early October of 1957 - the annual Utah Education Association convention.
As it turned out, when the traditional conference weekend actually rolled around, the epidemic was reported to be on the decline.
Could such a flu epidemic happen today and cancel major gatherings including LDS conference?
"It's still a possibility," said Craig R. Nichols, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health.
He likens such predictions to earthquake forecasting - the possibility is always there and you've got to try and be prepared, but no one knows when.
Nichols said as recently as 1968 a major Hong Kong flu epidemic forced Utah hospitals to restrict visitation.
However, he said, some things have changed since the 1957 flu epidemic.
Doctors no longer believe events like conference are a major factor in spreading germs.
"Large public gatherings don't make a lot of difference," Nichols said.
Today, Nichols said, gatherings like conference or school would likely only be canceled if too many leaders or administrators became sick.
Unlike 40 years ago, rapid testing is now available to determine illness, and an anti-viral flu drug - not available in 1957 - is widely used. Vaccinations are much more commonly accepted than they were then, he said.