This week we are taking a week off from our weekly Gospel Doctrine lesson posts due to our upcoming April General Conference. We will return next week to our normal schedule of posts.
WHY THE SAINTS HOLD CONFERENCES
The Doctrine of Conference
Some people treat conference weekends—whether general, stake, or ward—as vacations from Church work. Since there are fewer lessons to teach and fewer Ward meetings to attend, we are tempted to head out of town or to sleep in. But if we do this, we may be denying ourselves one of the most vital experiences in the life and salvation of the Saints.
David O. McKay said, “There are four principal purposes of holding conferences of the Church:
“First, to transact current Church business [D&C 20:62],
“Second, to hear reports and general Church statistics [D&C 73:2],
“Third, to ‘approve of those names which I (the Lord) have appointed, or to disapprove of them’ [D&C 124:144],
“Fourth, to worship the Lord in sincerity and reverence, and to give and to receive encouragement, exhortation, and instruction [D&C 58:56; 72:7].”1
The Lord has commanded us to gather together in conferences regularly each year (D&C 20:61–64).
— . . . This church of Christ [is] to meet in conference once in three months, or from time to time as said conferences shall direct or appoint (v. 61);
— . . . to do whatever church business is necessary to be done at the time (v. 62).
— The elders are to receive their licenses [ordinations] by vote of the church to which they belong, [at] the conferences (v. 63).
— . . . which shall authorize him to perform the duties of his calling. . . . (v. 64).
We have five regularly-schedule conferences each year:
— 2 General Conferences
— 1 Regional Conference (takes the place of one Stake Conference)
— 1 Stake Conference
— 1 Ward Conference
— We also have special conferences for the purpose of dedicating local temples.
The Lord said that it is our duty “to attend the several conferences held by the elders of the church” (D&C 20:81). Thus, conferences are not just “days off” from Church; they are commanded meetings.
In Egypt, the children of Israel were “passed over” by the destroying angel on the 14th day of their month of Nisan. Nisan began on March 21st of each year. Therefore, 14 days later would be April 4th—the date on which our Savior died. Two days later on the 16th of Nisan, the children of Israel were set free. This corresponds with April 6th on our calendar—the day on which Christ was resurrected and set us all free from death. In Israel, this day—the 14th day of Nisan or 4th of April—was celebrated as the Passover.
Passover was one of the two great festivals of the year in Israel, when all of Israel gathered at the temple to worship and to receive instruction. The other great festival—the Feast of Tabernacles—was held exactly 6 months later, which corresponds to the first week of October on our calendars. Thus, in ancient Israel, the Lord’s people gathered twice per year—during the first week of April and the first week of October—in a great conference near the temple.
Conferences in Early Church History
Organizing Conference of the Church April 06, 1830 Fayette, NY (D&C 20)
The First Conference of the Church June 9, 1830 Fayette, NY
The Second Conference of the Church September 1830 Fayette, NY
The Third Conference of the Church January 1831 Kirtland, OH
The Fourth Conference of the Church June 3, 1831 Kirtland, OH (D&C 42)
The fourth conference is a good example of what happened at these conferences.
— It convened in a schoolhouse in Kirtland township.
— 2,000 members attended the several days of meetings and received instruction from the Prophet and revelation from the Lord.
— Many missionaries in Ohio returned for the meetings.
— Minutes record that 63 priesthood holders were in attendance.
— The First High Priests in this dispensation were ordained at this conference.
The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “It was clearly evident that the Lord gave us power in proportion to the work to be done, and strength according to the race set before us, and grace to help as our needs required. Great harmony prevailed; several were ordained; faith was strengthened; and humility, so necessary for the blessing of God to follow prayer, characterized the Saints.”2
— John Whitmer, the newly appointed Church historian, kept a record of the conference.
— There were great spiritual manifestations:
• Joseph Smith prophesied . . . that the man of sin would be revealed.
• The Lord poured out His Spirit upon His servants.
• The spirit of the Lord fell upon Joseph in an unusual manner, and he prophesied that John the Revelator was then among the Ten Tribes of Israel who had been led away. . . . He prophesied many more things that I have not written.
• After he had prophesied, he laid his hands upon Lyman Wight and ordained him [a High Priest] after the holy order of God.
• The spirit fell upon Lyman, and he prophesied concerning the coming of Christ. . . . [He also prophesied that] some of [the] brethren shall suffer martyrdom for the sake of the religion of Jesus Christ, and seal their testimony of Jesus with their blood. . . .3
• The Prophet Joseph, Harvey Whitlock, and Lyman Wight saw the heavens open and Jesus Christ sitting on the right hand of the Father. Lyman testified that he saw the Son of God making intercession to the Father for the Saints.
• The devil also made known his power. He bound Harvey Whitlock and John Murdock so they could not speak.
• Joseph commanded the devil in the name of Christ, and he departed.
• These early experiences in Kirtland served as a warning to all Saints to avoid tampering with evil spirits and to avoid excessive spiritual zeal.”4
• The final revelation of the conference called many of the brethren on missions to Missouri by different routes, preaching as they went.
• Once they all had gathered in that place, the Lord promised to reveal the location of the city of Zion, the New Jerusalem.
• The members from Colesville, New York, who had settled briefly in Thompson, Ohio, were instructed to move to Missouri. Newel Knight led this little colony of about sixty people as they hastily prepared for another 1,000–mile journey.
Area Conferences (1971–1972)
England: The First Area General Conference of the Church was held on August 18, 1971.5 President Joseph Fielding Smith conducted a general conference of the Church for the first time on foreign soil. The General Authorities felt the need to enhance channels of communication in order to strengthen the Saints and their leaders worldwide. Fourteen General Authorities attended the conference and participated in the various sessions.
President Joseph Fielding Smith was keenly aware that this historic event was to be a type of that which was to come:6 “We are members of a world church, a church that has the plan of life and salvation, a church set up by the Lord himself in these last days to carry his message of salvation to all his children in all the earth. The day is long since past when informed people think of us as a peculiar group in the tops of the Rocky Mountains in America. But now we are coming of age as a church and as a people.”7
Mexico City: A similar area conference convened in Mexico City the following year (1972), only one month after Harold B. Lee became President of the Church. At great sacrifice, Saints traveled as far as three thousand miles to be present. A group from Tijuana, Mexico, journeyed fifty-three hours by bus; they took turns standing because there were ten more people on board than seats. On Saturday evening, President Lee spoke to Aaronic Priesthood, Young Women, Relief Society, and Melchizedek Priesthood groups convened simultaneously at several locations around Mexico City. President Lee rotated to each meeting, where he spoke and inspired those in attendance. The Tabernacle Choir presented its regular Sunday morning broadcast from the national auditorium in Chapultepec Park.
At this conference, Elder Bruce R. McConkie clearly enunciated the updated understanding of the principle of the gathering: “The place of gathering for the Mexican Saints is in Mexico; the place of gathering for the Guatemalan Saints is in Guatemala; the place of gathering for the Brazilian Saints is in Brazil; and so it goes throughout the length and breadth of the whole earth. Japan is for the Japanese; Korea is for the Koreans; Australia is for the Australians; every nation is the gathering place for its own people.”8
In succeeding years similar area conferences were held in Germany, Sweden, and in other parts of the world. The Saints in these areas were similarly edified and uplifted.
Regional Conferences Today
As technology has advanced, it has become possible to replace Area General Conferences with satellite-televised Regional Conferences in some areas of the Church. These are very much like General Conferences in their content—General Authorities speak and music is sung. But they have only one session, which replaces one of the two Stake Conferences for those years when a Regional Conference is held. The subject matter is tailored to the specific needs of the Saints in that particular region.
THE PURPOSES OF CONFERENCES
The Business of Conferences
As mentioned earlier, it is in these conferences that the business of the Church is done (D&C 20:62). The Presiding High Priest presides at these conferences (D&C 28:10). Apostles and other officers of the Church are sustained (D&C 118:1; D&C 124:44).
Conferences are important means of governing the Church. Officers, policies, and procedural changes are presented to the membership for a sustaining vote. Through the sustaining vote, each member is involved in a type of democratic process unique to the Church. In exercising their privilege to sustain or to refuse to sustain their officers, members of the Church are acting in accordance with the principle of common consent.
The Spiritual Blessings of Conferences
It is in these conferences that the will of the Lord is made known (D&C 26:1) as presiding officers instruct and give direction to the membership of the Church. By this means, the Lord administers His will today just as He did in ancient times. We are to live our lives as we are “counseled by the elders of the church at the conferences” (D&C 58:56). In other words, Church conferences (general, stake, and ward) are not optional nor are they supposed to be “a week off” from doing our duty.
Consider the following counsel from our Prophets about this vital doctrine:
David O. McKay said that conferences are held “to worship the Lord in sincerity and reverence, and to give and to receive encouragement, exhortation, and instruction (D&C 58:56; 72:7).”9
Hugh B. Brown said, “These great conferences are called for the purpose of inspiring us to prepare for the battle.”10
Spencer W. Kimball said, “We have all felt the outpouring of the Spirit of the Lord as we have assembled in his name to worship and be instructed by the power of the Holy Ghost. This has always been the pattern of the meetings of the saints.”11
We encourage you and your family to attend the general, stake and ward conferences that are held each year. We testify that, if you do, you will receive spiritual blessings that are not available in any other way.
- In Conference Report, Oct. 1938, 130–131.
- History of the Church, 1:176–177.
- History of the Church, 1:175–176, nn. 2, 4.
- In McKiernan and Launius, An Early Latter Day Saint History, 67–68, 71; see also “Levi Hancock Journal,” LDS Historical Department, Salt Lake City, 91–92.
- Chapter 23, “Take Heed Unto Yourselves,” in Presidents of the Church [Church Educational System student manual, 1979], 208–222.
- Church History in the Fulness of Times [Church Educational System manual, 1989], 562-578. This chapter was written for the Church Educational System; also published in Richard O. Cowan, The Church in the Twentieth Century , 254-55, 305-8, 310–12, 315-16, 324-26, 333, 336, 338-57, 414-15, 417-18, 421.
- In Manchester England Area Conference Report, 1971, 5.
- In Mexico and Central America Area Conference Report, 1972, 45.
- In Conference Report, Oct. 1938, 130–131.
- Church News, July 1968, 10.
- In Conference Report, Apr. 1977, 112–113; or Ensign, May 1977, 76.