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General conference through the years is different but the same

When the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings the opening notes of the opening song of the 183rd Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 10 a.m. MDT on Saturday, April 6, it will feel like LDS general conference just as it has always been.

Even though it hasn’t.

In fact, general conference in 2013 is hardly recognizable from what historians generally consider to be the church’s first conference, which, like most general conferences during the early years of the church, was basically a business meeting. It was held on June 1, 1830 — a little less than two months after the church was organized — in the same Peter Whitmer Sr. home in Fayette, N.Y., in which the organization took place. Records indicate 27 church members were present for the conference, along with 30-40 others who were interested in the proceedings.

While the primary purpose of those earliest conferences was to conduct business, the church-owned Times & Seasons newspaper reported that “much exhortation 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,” the report indicated. “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.”

For the first few years of the church’s official existence, conferences were held sporadically and at different locations “whenever (church founder) Joseph Smith deemed it necessary to transact business, deal with problems or when new revelations needed to be announced and ratified by the church,” wrote author, educator and scholar Richard N. Armstrong.

From about 1838 until the time of Joseph Smith’s martyrdom in 1844, the young church started to settle into a pattern of holding annual and semiannual general conferences in April and October, respectively.

“Although the business of the church was still transacted, emphasis was placed on expounding and teaching the doctrines of the church,” wrote M. Dallas Burnett in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. “A significant body of doctrine was reviewed and revealed during this period.”

The years immediately following the death of Joseph Smith were difficult for the church, filled with persecution and uncertainty. The church was driven from its headquarters in Nauvoo, Ill., and plans were made for the westward migration of the church. Still, general conferences were held with the exception of October conference in 1846.

Following the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, general conference became a Salt Lake City tradition, held through the years in three different bowery structures on the block designated as Temple Square, then in an adobe tabernacle built on the same block and then in the famous domed Salt Lake Tabernacle. Since April conference of 2000, general conference has been held in the church’s massive, 21,000-seat Conference Center across the street just north of Temple Square.

Several exceptions to the Salt Lake City orientation of general conference occurred during the 1880s, during which five conferences were held in different Utah cities — including Provo, Logan and Coalville — because so many church authorities were in hiding from federal marshals bent on enforcing federal anti-polygamy laws.

In his book “Great Basin Kingdom,” historian Leonard J. Arrington observed that during the LDS Church’s colonization period — from 1847 to about 1890 — general conference was “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,” Arrington said. “It was in the conference that Latter-day Saints experienced most keenly the sense of belonging to a whole — a worshipping, building, expanding Kingdom.”

During this time, it was not unusual for mission calls to be extended from the conference pulpit without any advance warning. Educator and former Mormon History Association president Kenneth W. Godfrey noted “during those first few years in the Salt Lake Valley, fall conference was often held in August or September so that newly called missionaries could leave before winter storms closed the mountain passes.”

Wrote Armstrong: “That these public ‘calls from the pulpit’ were accepted without question is a telling measure of the devotion church leaders of that era enjoyed from the membership.’ ”

As time passed, LDS general conference settled into a pattern and format that would be familiar to most contemporary conferencegoers, with a few notable exceptions. For most of its 183-year history, general conference was a three-day affair, with special conference sessions devoted to LDS Church auxiliary programs and welfare needs. The April conference included sessions on April 6, even if that date fell midweek. And until radio (in 1923) and television (in 1949) coverage forced organizers to keep to specific timetables, conference speakers often spoke extemporaneously — and until they were finished, whenever that might be.

Not that the congregations of the day minded. In October 1867 — the first conference in the still-unfinished Tabernacle — the congregation even voted to extend the conference for an additional day.

In the modern church era, general conference has only been canceled once: in October 1957, as a consequence of an Asian flu epidemic. Flu also forced church authorities to postpone the April 1919 conference until June, and during World War II, general conference sessions were limited to specifically invited priesthood leaders. During one such war-era conference session, LDS apostles blessed and passed the sacrament to conference attendees, and a testimony meeting was held as a way to bring peace and comfort during difficult times.

Since 1977, general conference has been established as a two-day, weekend event, with two general sessions each day and a priesthood meeting Saturday evening. Beginning in 1986, annual women’s meetings, held the Saturday before general conference, were added to the October conference agenda. And in 1994, annual Young Women meetings were similarly added to the April conference program.

In recent history, members of the church’s First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles speak at every general conference, as they are able. Members of the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy, the Quorums of the Seventy and the general auxiliary presidencies of the church also speak on a rotating basis.

In previous years, general conference addresses had been given by stake presidents and mission presidents, as well as government and military leaders.

Music has also been a significant and meaningful element in general conference worship. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir was formed, at least in part, to provide music for general conference sessions, and to this day the choir is the centerpiece of conference music. But other choirs have also been included in the conference program — usually one for the Saturday afternoon conference session and one for the priesthood session — and guest soloists have sung at general conference as recently as 2004, when Liriel Domiciano of Brazil was invited by President Gordon B. Hinckley to sing at conference.

General conference prayers have also generated some media interest lately with reports that, for the first time, a woman will offer one of the opening or closing prayers during the 183rd Annual General Conference of the church. Historically, conference prayers have been offered by general authorities, local priesthood leaders, returned LDS mission presidents, visiting stake presidents — all of them male. More recently, general conference prayers have been offered by members of the church’s expanding Quorums of the Seventy.

Whether LDS conference history will be made during one of the prayers this weekend remains to be seen. (“We rely on heaven’s guidance in our meetings,” said Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “General conference is no different. That’s why we do not typically publish a program in advance”') But the spirit and objectives of general conference will remain as they have ever been.

“We gather from over the earth to bear our testimonies one to another, to hear instruction, to mingle as brethren and sisters,” said President Gordon B. Hinckley during the October 1995 conference. “We partake of that sociality which is so pleasant and so important a part of the culture of this great organization.

"Through the years the speakers have come on the stage and then moved on," President Hinckley continued. "The personalities are different. But the spirit is the same. It is that spirit referred to when the Lord said, ‘He that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together’ (Doctrine and Covenants 50: 22).”