Globalizing General Conference


Only 27 members attended the first General Conference in 1830. They met in a small farmhouse on the Whitmer Farm in Fayette, N.Y., with no televisions, no radios, and no Church magazines to take notes and publish what was said. Those 27 members present in that old farmhouse were the only ones who would receive the message of this first General Conference.

When General Conference first began, its primary aim was to discuss current matters of the Church.

President Thomas S. Monson greets members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles before the start of the Saturday morning session of general conference, 6 October 2012 © 2012 Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

“Those early conferences were more like church business meetings. Men were proposed for and sustained in the priesthood. Members of the Church made suggestions and presented resolutions from the floor,” said Kenneth W. Godfrey in the February 1981 Ensign.

After being sustained by the early members of the Church, General Conference soon became a regular tradition among Latter-day Saints.

“The antecedents of general conference trace back to the inception of the Church. It is hardly surprising that it took hold so quickly. Had church leaders not instigated such meetings early on church members would probably have asked for them,” according to a 2002 BYU Studies article.

In every General Conference since, it has been an aim of General Authorities to tie doctrinal messages to members of the Church directly.

“Whether in the Tabernacle, in their own living rooms or from reading the messages later, members feel the spirit of faith and testimony that moves outward to touch their lives from this moment of instruction, this time of strengthening called General Conference, ” Godfrey said.

This tradition of General Conference has lasted even today as the messages of Conference are spread across a worldwide Church and as the general authorities of the Church adjust to a more universal media.

“I’m sure that the Brethren are adapting to our global media. I know they are extremely media savvy. I also believe that they shoot straight and teach doctrine and principles — regardless of who their audience is,” said Professor Mark D. Ogletree, a Teachings of the Living Prophets professor at BYU.

This adaptation, however, is not a change in the doctrinal messages shared in General Conference.

“I don’t think the doctrine has changed at all,” Professor Brent Top, director of the Church History Department at BYU said. “I think that maybe the approach or the application, the methodology, may change a little bit because of technology and because of the demographics of the Church. But I don’t think the doctrine has changed.

“I think the approach of how we are teaching it is different than a Wasatch Front church. But the doctrines are the same. In fact, I think it’s an over-generalization to say that General Conference has changed because you’ll still find some great talks that are quite challenging and in-depth and profound.”

“The Brethren are given the charge to bear testimony of Christ in all the world. So the global church is their ministry,” he said.

Top clarified that this approach may be why some people think talks are becoming more basic.

“The vast majority of the members of the Church are not the college-educated reader. They are not the person that is seeking for what we might call more in-depth, intense doctrinal study. These are beginners in the Gospel to a large degree.”

This approach is, however, right in line with what the main goal of General Conference has been all along. “I think the purpose of General Conference is the proclaiming of the gospel, not just expounding the gospel,” Top said.

For those looking for more expansion on gospel topics, Top mentioned that “that’s not the primary purpose today. The purpose today is to proclaim the gospel to the world, motivate people, and invite people to come unto Christ and learn more. If there is a change, I think it is just in the demographics of the Church, not necessarily the conscious decision of the Brethren to make it less in-depth.”

If there are any disgruntled by this approach, Top reminds that we can all use a chance to renew the basics. “I’ve discovered that I can’t outgrow faith; I can’t outgrow repentance; I can’t outgrow those fundamental principles,” Top said. “I think that there is an emphasis at General Conference, that it is not just what is said at the pulpit, but what is said in our hearts by the power of the Spirit.”

“I’ve heard leaders of the Church talk about taking notes, but not taking of what is said, but what we hear in our hearts,” he continued.  “That’s why I don’t find it problematic in the slightest that General Conference is maybe more general. Because it is to a broader audience, and my obligation is to go in with listening ears and a heart that is going to feel that council.”

Top gave some advice that all members can take during General Conference time: “I think that is one of the great blessings of General Conference: that it is a time of renewal,” Top said. “It’s not just that we’re going to get some new teaching or some new insight into the scriptures, even though there is a certain element of that, but I think one of the things that we really ought to have is the Spirit that recharges our batteries — it motivates us to want to live the gospel better. At least for me, General Conference has a far greater motivating power in my life than an instructional power in my life.”

“Not always in General Conference do we hear something that’s never been taught before. But whatever it is that is taught, it motivates me to want to be better,” Top said. “Even if I’m not taught any new scriptural understanding, I am taught something spiritual that will help me to be better.”

Since the first General Conference on the Whitmer Farm in 1830, the mode in which members tuned into General Conference has changed dramatically. After members met in the Tabernacle in Salt Lake for over 100 years, General Conference was first broadcast by radio in 1923, and then first transmitted by television in 1949. Now it is broadcast to over 68 countries and in 55 languages. Church membership has grown to over 14 million, and so the entire membership of the Church cannot fit into the building where General Conference is being broadcast. Members now require tickets to attend General Conference live at the General Conference Center in Salt Lake City.

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