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.
"We'd get a message that said we had four speakers today, two prayers and the choir will sing … and good luck," Alba recalled. "In those days we had Thursday sessions for the auxiliaries, conference on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, a welfare session and then a special meeting for the patriarchs after general conference concluded."
As the church membership has expanded throughout the world, so too has the church's translation technology evolved to accommodate growing translation needs. This weekend's conference sessions will be interpreted into 93 different languages. But only 43 of those languages will be interpreted in the high-tech Conference Center facilities and broadcast to the world via satellite. For the rest:
31 languages will be interpreted in various locations around the world, transmitted back to the Conference Center where they are combined with video and broadcast via satellite with only a few seconds delay from the live proceedings
12 languages will be interpreted on location around the world and heard locally without transmission through the Conference Center
And seven languages will be interpreted in the Conference Center and distributed later on DVD
All together, the translation work requires about 800 people, Bateson said — 600 at the Conference Center and 200 at other locations around the world.
Another group of people are employed in making the translations available through audio and video broadcast sent out over the air, via satellite, on the internet and through recordings.
"Fifty years ago we were interpreting from dirt floors in the Tabernacle, and now we are interpreting from a single event for essentially anywhere in the world," said Brad Lindsay, manager of interpretation services. "This is a huge change, and technology makes it possible."
Just as the international expansion of the church makes it necessary.
181st Semiannual LDS General Conference
What: The five sessions of the 181st semiannual general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Where: The LDS Conference Center, 52 W. North Temple St., Salt Lake City
When: Three Saturday sessions — at 10 a.m, 2 p.m. and the 6 p.m. priesthood meeting for males 12 and older; two Sunday sessions — at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Who: A total of more than 100,000 Church members, friends and invited guest are expected to attend in Salt Lake City, with millions more watching and listening at various locations around the world.
Tickets: Required to enter the Conference Center. Attendees will pass through a security check, with cameras, recording devices, weapons, food, backpacks, packages and large bags not allowed.
Overflow: In the Tabernacle, the North Visitors' Center on Temple Square and the Joseph Smith Memorial Building for all sessions. For the priesthood and Sunday sessions, additional seating is available in the Conference Center Theater. The Assembly Hall will provide overflow seating for Spanish speakers for all five sessions. Tickets are not required for admission to overflow facilities.9 comments on this story
Traffic: Conference-goers are encouraged to carpool or use public transportation to relieve downtown traffic and parking congestion. UTA service options can be found at www.rideuta.com/.
Parking: Public parking is not available at the Conference Center parking lot. Limited public parking is available at Regent Street Parking (119 S. Regent Street (50 East)), the Energy Solutions Arena parking lot (70 N. 300 West) and Eagle Gate Terrace (145 E. Social Hall Ave. (50 South)). Disability parking is located at the West Temple lot just north of North Temple. Conference attendees should avoid parking in front of homes in downtown residential areas. Cars parked on neighborhood streets may be ticketed or towed at the owner's expense.
Broadcast plans: A detailed broadcast schedule is available at www.bonneville.info, with information regarding audio and video streaming via the Internet at www.lds.org/broadcast/. With the exception of the priesthood session, conference sessions will be broadcast on BYU Television and locally on KSL-TV. For additional information on broadcast availability and rebroadcasts visit www.byutv.org