This week we are taking a week off from our weekly and daily Gospel Doctrine lesson posts due to the fact that all of us have had at least one week of stake conference during the past six months. Doing so this week will adjust for that one week when Gospel Doctrine classes were not taught. We will return next week with a special lesson on Christmas followed by one on the Prophet Joseph Smith. Then, as we begin the new year we will be studying the Old Testament.
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.
There are only general guidelines for conferences. For “it always has been given to the elders of my church from the beginning, and ever shall be, to conduct all meetings as they are directed and guided by the Holy Spirit” (D&C 46:2).
President 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 scriptures state: “And now, behold, I give unto you a commandment, that when ye are assembled together ye shall instruct and edify each other, that ye may know how to act and direct my church, how to act upon the points of my law and commandments, which I have given” (D&C 43:8). The word “edify” means to enlighten, lift, or elevate spiritually. By “union of feeling,” the Prophet Joseph Smith taught the sisters of the Relief Society, “we obtain power with the heavens.” Conferences contribute to building that union. In practice, Latter-day Saints often say to each other, “If you cannot come to receive, come to give.” In conferences, as in other types of Church meetings, the “strong in the Spirit” may “take with him him that is weak” (D&C 84:106).
The Business of Conferences
In these conferences the business of the Church is done. “This church of Christ [is] to meet in conference . . . from time to time . . . to do whatever church business is necessary to be done at the time” (vv. 61–62). 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).
The Presiding high priest presides at these conferences (D&C 28:10). Apostles and other general officers of the Church are sustained (D&C 118:1; D&C 124:44). In stake conferences, the Stake Presidency and all other stake officers are also sustained.
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
In these conferences 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:
- President 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).”2
- Elder Hugh B. Brown said, “These great conferences are called for the purpose of inspiring us to prepare for the battle.”3
- President 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.”4
Types and Frequencies of Conferences
We have five regularly-scheduled 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.
General Church conferences have been held regularly every since the Church’s founding in 1830. They held them quarterly in those early days, in response to the Lord’s command in D&C 20: “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).
Conferences from 1830 to 1837 were called as needed by the Prophet Joseph Smith, the first President of the Church. At these roughly-quarterly early conferences, the elders conducted the Church’s business, heard announcements of new revelations, and exercised the principle of common consent in approving leaders and doctrine.
From 1838 to 1844 the concept of a regular general conference for the Church was set firmly in place and a precedent was established for an annual and semiannual conference each April and October. Although the business of the Church was still transacted, emphasis was placed on expounding and teaching the doctrines of the Church. A significant amount of doctrine was revealed and preached during this period.
Historically, General Conference lasted three days, with the annual conference always including April 6. But this proved difficult when April 6 fell midweek, making conference participation difficult for those with work or school commitments. In April 1977, during Spencer W. Kimball’s presidency, the conference was reduced to two days, and was restricted to one weekend.
Currently, each Conference consists of six two-hour sessions: four general sessions, one Priesthood session, and a session for either women or teenage girls (held on Saturday during the previous week).
Eventually, the General Authorities felt the need to enhance channels of communication in order to strengthen the Saints and their leaders worldwide. Thus, the First Area General Conference of the Church was held in England on August 18, 1971. 5 President Joseph Fielding Smith conducted this General Conference of the Church for the first time on foreign soil. Fourteen General Authorities attended the conference and participated in the various sessions.
President Elder 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
A similar area conference convened in Mexico City the following year (1972), only one month after President Harold B. Lee became President of the Church. At great sacrifice, Saints traveled as far as three thousand miles to be present. 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.
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.
Stake Conferences began in the mid 1880s, when the first fully-functioning stakes were organized in Utah. They met quarterly. In 1979, the frequency was reduced to two times per year. General authorities presided at stake conferences until 1986, when the frequency of such visits was reduced to only one of the two conferences per year. The Stake Presidency presided at the other one. General authorities now visit stake conferences only once every other year.
The Purposes of Stakes and Stake Conferences
President Harold B. Lee said, “These units [stakes] so organized are gathered together..for a defense against the enemies of the Lord’s work, both the seen and the unseen. . . . These organizations were to be as . . . a ‘refuge from the storm, and from wrath when it shall be poured out without mixture upon the whole earth.’ (D&C 115:6).’ . . . I believe there has never been a time since the creation that the Lord has left the dominion of the devil to destroy his work without his power being manifest in the midst of the righteous to save the works of righteousness from being completely overthrown. . . . Today we are witnessing the demonstration of the Lord’s hand even in the midst of his saints, the members of the Church. Never in this dispensation, and perhaps never before in any single period, has there been such a feeling of urgency among the members of this church as today. Her boundaries are being enlarged, her stakes are being strengthened.”8
President Ezra Taft Benson said, “Presently, Israel is being gathered to the various stakes of Zion. . . .A stake has at least four purposes: 1. [Stakes are] to unify and perfect the members who live in [their] boundaries by extending to them the Church programs, the ordinances, and gospel instruction. 2. Members of stakes are to be models, or standards, of righteousness. 3. Stakes are to be a defense. They do this as stake members unify under their local priesthood officers and consecrate themselves to do their duty and keep their covenants. . . . 4. Stakes are a refuge from the storm to be poured out over the earth.”9
Strengthening the Stakes of Zion
(Isaiah 54–56; D&C 96:1, 5)
When a person pitches a tent, he drives stakes into the ground to secure it. The deeper the stakes are set, the greater the stability and strength of the tent. The revelations of the Lord liken Zion to a great tent, whose stakes are its support and therefore must be strong.
Ed J. Pinegar said, “The tent of Zion, with its securing stakes and reinforcing cords, is the perfect image for the refuge afforded by the kingdom of God. Just as the temple is symbolized by the immovable mountain of the Lord, Zion itself, as a tent, is shown as agile and growing, flexible and expanding, lithe and unfolding. The Saints of Zion can thus internalize the fixed and unchanging character of eternal principles as well as the responsive and dynamic character of the expanding kingdom whose saving and protecting influence extends into all quarters of the earth.”10
Elder Joseph Fielding Smith said, “The expression ‘stake of Zion,’ first used in the revelation given in November 1831 (Sec. 68) is taken from the expression in Isaiah: ‘Look upon Zion, the city of our solemnities; thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a quiet habitation, a tabernacle that shall not be taken down; not one of the stakes thereof shall ever be removed, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken’ (Isa. 33:20). Again: ‘Enlarge the place of thy tent and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitation: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes’ (Isa. 54:2). Isaiah speaks of Zion as a tent, or tabernacle, having in mind the Tabernacle which was built and carried in the wilderness in the days of Moses, and the cords are the binding cables that extend from the tent, or tabernacle, to the stakes which are fastened in the ground. Now, the Lord revealed that Zion was to be built and surrounding her would be the stakes helping to bind and keep her in place. This figure of speech has almost been lost through the intervening years, but it retains its significance, or beauty.”11
President Spencer W. Kimball said, “The idea of “lengthening our stride” or “stretching our muscles” or “reaching our highest” has an interesting scriptural base. The second verse in the fifty-fourth chapter of Isaiah proclaims: “Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes.”12
Elder Bruce R. McConkie said, “Build up Zion, but build it up in the area where God has given you birth and nationality. Build it up where he has given you citizenship, family, and friends. . . . The Saints who comprise . . . Zion are and should be a leavening influence for good in all these nations. And know this: God will bless that nation which so orders its affairs as to further his work.”13
Ward conferences are held annually to bring the stake leaders, ward leaders, and ward members together in local congregations to “review the status of individuals and organizations and to plan for improvement.”14
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.
1. In Conference Report, Oct. 1938, 130–131.
2. In Conference Report, Oct. 1938, 130–131.
3. Church News, July 1968, 10.
4. In Conference Report, Apr. 1977, 112–113; or Ensign, May 1977, 76.
5. Chapter 23, “Take Heed Unto Yourselves,” in Presidents of the Church [Church Educational System student manual, 1979], 208–222.
6. 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.
7. In Manchester England Area Conference Report, 1971, 5.
8. “Strengthen the Stakes of Zion,” Ensign, July 1973, 4.
9. “Strengthen Thy Stakes,” Ensign, Jan. 1991, 2, 4–5.
10. Teachings and Commentaries on the Old Testament.
11. Church History and Modern Revelation, 4 vols. [1946–1949], 2:88.
12. The Teachings of President Spencer W. Kimball , 175
13. “Come: Let Israel Build Zion,” Ensign, May 1977, 118.
14. General Handbook of Instructions, 2-4.