Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often referred to as the Mormon Church, established the pattern for regular, general conferences of the whole church. The idea was not his, but it was a commandment from God. The revelation, in part, reads:
“The several elders composing this church of Christ are to meet in conference once in three months, or from time to time as said conferences shall direct or appoint; And said conferences are to do whatever church business is necessary to be done at the time.” (D&C 20:61-62)
That is an open-ended mandate, which is good. It allows for adaptability in transacting church business, and for meeting the needs of the varied membership. Mormonism shares some of the strengths of the US Constitution. They both provide a framework that is solid enough to endure through the ages, yet flexible enough to meet different circumstances in different times and places. After all, the needs of the church in the 1830s differ from the needs of the church in the 2000s. But more on that later.
“On the ninth day of June, 1830, we held our first conference as an organized Church. Our numbers were about thirty, besides whom believers or anxious to learn. Having opened by singing and prayer, we partook together of the emblems of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“We then proceeded to confirm several who had lately been baptized, after which we called out and ordained several to the various offices of the Priesthood. Much exhortation and instruction 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; among the rest was Brother Newel Knight, who had to be placed on a bed, being unable to help himself.”
“By his own account of the transaction, he could not understand why we should lay him on the bed, as he felt no sense of weakness. He felt his heart filled with love, with glory, and pleasure unspeakable, and could discern all that was going on in the room; when all of a sudden a vision of the future burst upon him. He saw there represented the great work which through my instrumentality was yet to be accomplished. He saw heaven opened, and beheld the Lord Jesus Christ, seated at the right hand of the majesty on high, and had it made plain to his understanding that the time would come when he would be admitted into His presence to enjoy His society for ever and ever.”
“When their bodily strength was restored to these brethren, they shouted hosannas to God and the Lamb, and rehearsed the glorious things which they had seen and felt, whilst they were yet in the spirit.
“Such scenes as these were calculated to inspire our hearts with joy unspeakable, and fill us with awe and reverence for that Almighty Being, by whose grace we had been called to be instrumental in bringing about, for the children of men, the enjoyment of such glorious blessings as were now at this time poured out upon us.”
“To find ourselves engaged in the very same order of things as observed by the holy Apostles of old; to realize the importance and solemnity of such proceedings; and to witness and feel with our own natural senses, the like glorious manifestations of the powers of the priesthood, the gifts and blessings of the Holy Ghost, and 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.” (History of the Church 1:85. Cf. “Chapter 11: The Organization and Destiny of the True and Living Church,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, , 135–47.)
These same conferences continue today, with some small shifts in practice. Now the conferences are semiannual, instead of quarterly. The location has changed—from Fayette to Salt Lake City. And the buildings have changed—from log cabins and open-air boweries to the famous Salt Lake Tabernacle and now to the current Conference Center. The membership has grown—from thirty in 1830 to thirteen million in 2008. And the number of languages has multiplied by the scores. But the spirit and the intent of these conferences has been the same. They are times of revival, celebration, communion, edification, and to transact necessary church business.
Of course, managing the explosive growth has been a challenge. In 1981, Gordon B. Hinckley, a leader in the Mormon Church, commented:
“With the growth of the Church, we likely could never build a hall large enough to accommodate all who would wish to assemble in one place. Nor would accelerating travel costs make possible their coming. The gifts of science have provided a more convenient way. We are confident that as the work of the Lord expands, he will inspire men to develop the means whereby the membership of the Church, wherever they may be, can be counseled in an intimate and personal way by his chosen prophet. Communication is the sinew that binds the Church as one great family. Between those facilities which are now available and those which are on the horizon, we shall be able to converse one with another according to the needs and circumstances of the time.” (Gordon B. Hinckley, “Faith: The Essence of True Religion,” Ensign, Nov 1981, 5)
As a result of this cramping, the Mormon Church built a new Conference Center in 2000. It is a large facility, to say the least. It takes up a full city block, and a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet could fit within the auditorium. The heart of the building, however, is the translation center. It has sixty booths to get the message out in people’s mother tongues. Not just the obvious tongues as Portuguese, Spanish, and German, but also obscure ones like Tagalog, Serbo-Croatian, and Icelandic.
Here are some of the building’s statistics:
• Area covered by complex: 10 acres—one city block.
• Building size: 1.5 million sq. ft. (five times the area of the Salt Lake Temple and Tabernacle combined).
• Framing: reinforced concrete, steel roof frame (roof trusses weigh more than 1,170 tons).
• Concrete required: about 116,000 cubic yards.
• Electrical wiring: 50,000 miles, with 780 miles of conduit.
• Air-conditioning: 1,035,000 cubic feet of air moved through more than 14 miles of ducts every minute; 2,966 tons of air-conditioning equipment.
• Level-to-level transport: 11 passenger elevators, 3 service and stage elevators, 12 escalators, in addition to numerous stairways.
• Exterior covering: granite panels on south and west faces, Ashlar stone (random-length granite laid in brick pattern) on north and east faces. Granite for the building came from the same area where stone for the Salt Lake Temple was quarried.
• Landscaping: four acres on roof, with complete irrigation; trees and plants on terraced north and east sides of the building; additional planters in plaza areas.
• Water features: two fountains on the roof, one cascading down the front into pools below; 5,930 gallons of water per minute pumped through fountains and water courses; waters of City Creek flowing through rocky channel on southern edge of the block. (Don L. Searle, “The Conference Center: ‘This New and Wonderful Hall’,” Ensign, Oct 2000, 32.)
Additionally, the Mormon Church uses radio, television, satellite, and the Internet to broadcast sessions of general conference. This makes sense: the world-wide web is the best way to reach a world-wide audience. Joseph Smith would be impressed.
Next month, April 2008, in this large Conference Center, the successor to Joseph Smith will be presented to the church body for a sustaining vote. This is some of the “necessary church business” that needs to be handled. I look forward to seeing Thomas S. Monson sustained as the sixteenth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and am eager to see what direction he will take the church. I’m glad that this pattern of general, worldwide conferences continues. I feel renewed and edified at these conferences. It is comforting to know that a prophet is out there to guide us.