SALT LAKE CITY — When President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stands to open the church's 182nd Annual General Conference this morning, he will be speaking to a lot of different audiences.
He will be speaking to what is expected to be a capacity congregation in the church's 21,000-seat Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City. There will also be congregations at overflow facilities scattered around LDS headquarters, including the grand old Salt Lake Tabernacle and the North Visitors' Center on Temple Square and the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.
And there will be congregations of various types and sizes all around the world watching and listening to the proceedings via television, radio, satellite and Internet broadcasts. Some of these congregations will be fairly large, with LDS congregations gathering in their respective meetinghouses to participate in conference collectively. Others will be quite small, with families surrounding a television set or a computer monitor in their living room, or individuals listening on the radio while driving in their car.
The same thing will be true for all five general conference sessions this weekend, although there will be less of the individual participation and more of the communal gathering for tonight's priesthood session.
While there is no way of knowing exactly how many of these gatherings will be taking place during the next two days or where exactly they will all be, there is at least one thing that seems pretty clear: most of them will feature the words of general conference sermons in English, while the next most common language of conference will be Spanish.
According to those who manage the church's official website, lds.org, 76 percent of those who used the LDS Media Player to watch conference on the Internet last October chose the English option, while 15 percent chose Spanish, 4 percent chose Portuguese, 1 percent each chose American Sign Language (ASL) or French, and 3 percent chose other languages.
They also indicated that during that same conference, those who used LDS Media Player to watch conference outside the United States primarily came from Mexico (16 percent), Brazil (13 percent), Canada (11 percent), Argentina (5 percent) and Chile (5 percent). In other words, three of the top five non-U.S countries watching conference through LDS Media Player were countries in which Spanish is the de facto official language.
While the church doesn't separate its membership statistics by language ("There is no place on the church membership record that asks that question," one official observed), it is widely assumed that Spanish is second only to English among the languages spoken by Latter-day Saints. A rough estimate (determined by totaling the number of Mormons in every country for which Spanish is the official national language or the de facto national language, and adding a number based on a recent Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey indicating that 7 percent of U.S. Mormons are Hispanic) suggests that the number of Spanish-speaking Mormons at the end of 2011 was right around 5 million — or a little more than one-third of the total LDS population.
Admittedly, the number is only slightly better than an educated guess. But combined with other, more substantive numbers — like the fact that of the 2,500 missionaries being trained at Provo's Missionary Training Center at any given time, 1,000 of them (or a little more than a third) are learning Spanish – it illustrates the significant role currently being played by Spanish-speaking Latter-day Saints in the overall growth and strength of the church.
It was just a little more than 50 years ago — Dec. 3, 1961 — that the first Spanish-speaking stake of the church was created in Mexico City. At that time, there were about 25,000 members of the church in Mexico. Today, church membership in Mexico numbers more than 1.2 million, with some 2,009 congregations and 12 temples.
Similarly startling growth has taken place in other Spanish-speaking countries. In 1974, there were about 620 Latter-day Saints in Spain worshipping in 17 congregations. Today there are more than 47,000 Spanish saints in 133 LDS congregations.
The Chilean Mission was organized in 1961, with a little more than 1,000 members living in the country. Today there are more than a half-million Mormons in Chile, with 620 congregations and a temple. And in Argentina, church membership has grown from 40,000 members in 1978 to nearly 400,000 today.
When the Mexico City Temple was remodeled in 2008, Florencio Hernandez Vigueras of Pachuca, Hidalgo, was one of comparatively few Latter-day Saints who remembered when there weren't so many Mormons in Mexico.
"When I was baptized in 1944, there were about 100 members in my congregation," he said. "My family and I were part of the first stake organized in Mexico, and now there are three stakes in that same geographic area, or nearly 10,000 members. It's a wonderful thing to see how the church has grown all these years."
Part of that growth is due to the large number of missionaries who have worked successfully in Spanish-speaking countries. But part of it is also due to the faithfulness of members who have raised families in the church.
Eulogia Diaz de Sanchez, for example, was baptized in Paraguay in 1960. Despite intense pressure from her local minister to renounce her baptism, she worked to bring her mother and a daughter into the church the following month, and her husband followed the next year. Today there are more than 60 Sanchez descendants who are LDS, not to mention dozens of others who have joined the church through the family's missionary efforts.
Spanish-speaking Latter-day Saints, as well as those who speak the other 92 languages into which conference sessions are translated, are among those to whom Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve was speaking last April when he said, "We testify to every nation, kindred, tongue and people that God not only lives but also that he speaks, that for our time and in our day the counsel you have heard is, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, 'the will of the Lord, … the word of the Lord, … the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation'" (Doctrine & Covenants 68: 4).
In Spanish, or otherwise.