General conference through the years is different but the same

Published: Monday, April 1 2013 5:40 p.m. MDT

Historical photo shows the old bowery that was home for LDS general conference sessions during the mid-1800s.

Courtesy LDS Church

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.”

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