LDS Church's General Conference changed by rapid internationalization

Published: Friday, Sept. 30 2011 11:00 p.m. MDT

Sister missionaries display signs of their native languages to assist international visitors visiting Temple Square.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, general conference has always been about gathering.

In the early days of the church it was a time of reunion and inspiration, when as many church members as possible would gather to conduct church business, share experiences and receive counsel and instruction from their leaders. As recently as 1960, with church membership at about 1.7 million and all of the stakes of the church English-speaking, general conference was still focused on gathering leaders and members for training and encouragement at church headquarters.

Today, as LDS leaders prepare to open the 181st Semiannual General Conference of the church, the emphasis has changed. While conference is still a time of gathering — more than 100,000 conference-goers will participate in five sessions at the church's downtown Conference Center Saturday and Sunday — there is more emphasis now on reaching out to more than 14 million members of the LDS Church all around the world, many of whom are listening to or watching conference sessions in locations thousands of miles away from church headquarters.

"Today, the reach of general conference extends far beyond Utah," LDS spokesman Scott Trotter said. "Latter-day Saints around the world seek inspiration and encouragement by watching general conference on television, the internet or in local church buildings via satellite broadcast."

The gentle shifting of emphasis has to do with both how much the church has grown during the past 50 years, but also with where it is growing. In 1980, for example, fully 73 percent of LDS Church membership lived in the United States and Canada. A short 30 years later, in 2010, the majority of Latter-day Saints live outside the U.S. and Canada. (Please see accompanying graphic.)

"Naturally, Utah will always be associated with the church," said Michael Otterson, head of the LDS Church Public Affairs Department. "But the popular picture of a predominantly Utah faith with mostly Caucasian members no longer holds up.

"What was once, by and large, an American church is now genuinely an international faith. Today, Mormons are Bolivians, Ghanaians, Koreans and Russians, all an integral part of the church family."

As a result of the change in LDS demographics, general conference is truly a world conference and has had to change and adapt to serve the needs of church members who live outside the United States and who speak languages other than English.

General conference outreach to non-English speaking Latter-day Saints actually began 50 years ago this conference, with the first translation of sessions into other languages during the October conference in 1961. The first non-English-speaking stakes of the church were created that year in the Netherlands, Germany and Mexico, with the first stake in Samoa ready to be organized in early 1962. Leaders from those stakes were brought to Salt Lake City for general conference, and language translation was provided for those leaders in Dutch, German, Spanish and Samoan. (It is interesting to note that 1961 was also the year the Language Training Institute, the precursor to the Language Training Mission and the current Missionary Training Center, was launched at BYU. Clearly, LDS leadership was thinking internationally at the time.)

"That first interpretation was spurred by the fact that non-English-speaking leaders were being brought in to conference," said Jeff Bateson, director of the church's translation division. "There was a need to make the messages available in other languages."

The translation process was very rudimentary in those days. Edna Alba, one of the early Spanish translators, remembers wearing a bulky headset while sitting at a banquet table that was placed on the dirt floor in the Salt Lake Tabernacle basement, with an Army tent pitched as a protective barrier from ancillary noise.

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