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When General Conference Was Canceled and Other Conference Firsts

Editor's note: This article originally ran on LDS Living in October 2018.

If you’re a Latter-day Saint or live near a group of them, you probably mark spring and fall not by the changing temperatures but by the commencement of another general conference weekend. Over the years, there are some practices that have come to be expected as much as the conference itself: two days, general authority and officer speakers, meeting at the conference center, a conference edition of the Ensign the following month.  But did you know it hasn’t always been that way? Here are a few things that haven’t always been a part of general conference.* 

Meetings

First general conference: June 9, 1830 

This conference was held in Fayette, New York, only a few months after the organization of the Church. It included seven elders and a handful of others who unanimously accepted the articles and covenants found in Doctrine and Covenants section 20 that Joseph Smith read on that occasion. Church business that occurred at this conference included the ordination of Samuel Smith as an elder and Joseph Smith, Sr. and Hyrum Smith as priests. 

First (and only) general conference meeting outside of the United States: April 1840

All the Saints in the British Isles gathered for this conference meeting at the home of Elder Willard Richards in Preston, where Brigham Young had been unanimously sustained as the President of the Council of the Twelve the day before

First time conference was held primarily for instruction instead of business: April 1844

While the first conferences were used to sustain members of the priesthood, hear member suggestions and present changes, and carry out membership actions such as excommunication or reinstatement, starting in 1844, teaching and instruction became a primary pillar of the conference. 

April 1906 conference. Photo retrieved from Utah State Historical Society.

First general conference in Utah: October 1848

This conference was held in an open-air bowery in the middle of the Salt Lake Valley, on present-day Temple Square.

Old Salt Lake Tabernacle. Photo from Utah State Historical Society.

First time general conference was held in the Tabernacle: October 1867

Though the building was not dedicated until 1875, the Saints made do for several years, first using their beloved new building in October of 1867. Before the Tabernacle was built, general conference had been held in an old tabernacle that stood where the Assembly Hall stands today.

Photos from Utah State Historical Society.

First time the general public was not invited: April 1942

One of the opening statements in the April 1942 conference report reads

"Owing to conditions incident to War emergency, the general public were not invited to attend this Conference; those present consisted of the General Authorities of the Church, Presidents of Stakes and their counselors, and Presidents of the High Priests quorums. 

"Through the courtesy of Radio Station KSL of Salt Lake City, the proceedings of the Sunday morning and Monday morning meetings were broadcast for the benefit of the general public." 

Because of the limited invitations, this conference was held in the Assembly Hall, with a special session and testimony meeting held on the fifth floor of the temple on that Sunday. 

Council of the Twelve Apostles, 1947. Photos from Utah State Historical Society.

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First time conference was canceled: October 1957

Though no conference was planned for 1846 due to the exodus west, President Brigham Young was sustained at the next conference in December 1847. Since then, conference has been canceled only once, when there was a severe countrywide Asian flu epidemic in October 1957. It was also postponed in 1919 due to a Spanish flu epidemic. 

First time general conference was only two days: April 1977

Prior to this time, general conference had always been a three-day event, with the congregation even voting to extend it to four days in 1867. 

First time the conference was not held on April 6: April 1977

With the change to a two-day conference, other changes were instituted by the First Presidency, including permanently holding the conference on the first Sunday of April and October. Prior to this time, the April conference had always included April 6, no matter what day of the week it fell on. Read the First Presidency’s announcement of this change here.

1912 general conference on Temple Square. Photos from Utah State Historical Society.

First time general conference was held in the conference center: April 2000

The conference center, which has been the only place many of the younger generation remember general conference taking place, was the inspired idea of President Gordon B. Hinckley. He dreamed of a meeting place where everybody in the audience could see the speakers without obstruction of their view. The building was finished just in time for the first general conference of the new millennium. 

Photo from Church Newsroom.

Technology 

First time general conference was broadcast on the radio: 1923

In 1923, when the KSL radio station was just a year old, it began broadcasting parts of general conference. The first full general conference was broadcast the next year. It wasn’t until 1936 that portions of the conference would be broadcast to Europe by international shortwave radio.

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First time a microphone was used in conference: April 1924

Believe it or not, until 1924, speakers relied on the incredible sound-carrying ability of the Salt Lake Tabernacle and how loudly they could speak for everyone to hear them! When the microphone was introduced to the conference, however, they were also able to pipe sound to another building on Temple Square for those who didn’t fit in the Tabernacle. 

April 1956 general conference. Photo from Utah State Historical Society.

First time conference was broadcast over television: October 1949

Television added a new dynamic to general conference, with an even wider potential reach among those who were not members of the Church. This meant that speakers began tailoring their talks to appeal to those outside the Church who might be listening. A little less than two decades later, the conference was first broadcast in color in 1967.

1956 general conference. Photo from Utah State Historical Society.

First satellite transmission of conference: October 1979

Though radio satellites had been used prior to this time, 1979 was the first time satellite direct was used to transmit conference sessions. Just a few years later, President Spencer W. Kimball demonstrated satellite broadcast capability in a new way, speaking to the general conference congregation remotely from Fayette New York. 

First live audio and video broadcast of general conference online: October 1999

While this is no surprise to us today, it was brand new in 1999. Audio archives in several languages were also made of this conference and the audio broadcast was available on ChurchofJesusChrist.org. 

Church Business 

First time a prophet was nominated as a presidential candidate in conference: April 1844

This was the first and only time that such an action was part of a general conference meeting. At this April conference, those in attendance nominated the Prophet Joseph Smith as a presidential candidate. 

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

First time the President of the Church was sustained as a prophet, seer, and revelator: 1850

The members of the Church gathered for conference this year and participated in sustaining President Brigham Young as prophet, seer, and revelator. The name of the Church patriarch was first presented for sustaining in 1843 and the name of the presiding bishop was first presented for sustaining in 1847. 

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First time an auditing report was given: October 1908

This was the first conference at which an auditing committee made a report to the congregation that all financial matter in the Church were acceptably conducted.

First conference in the 20th century where revelations were canonized: April 1976

During this conference, President N. Eldon Tanner presented two revelations to the Church and asked for a sustaining vote to add them to the Pearl of Great Price. These revelations became Doctrine and Covenants section 137 and 138.

David O. McKay speaking at the1936 general conference. Photos from Utah State Historical Society.

Speakers and Talks

First time a woman spoke in general conference: October 1845

Seventy-year-old Lucy Mack Smith, mother of the prophet Joseph Smith, delivered an address to during the general conference held at the Nauvoo temple that year. You can read her address here. Though women speakers were few and far between after that, starting in October 1988, a woman has spoken in every conference. 

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First conference address printed in full: April 6, 1850

 An article on ChurchofJesusChrist.org states that “In that year, the Deseret News was able to print word-for-word transcriptions because a young reporter, George D. Watt, had learned shorthand and transcribed the talks for publication.” Brother Watt was also the one who helped develop the Deseret Alphabet in the early days of the Church.

First time limits on talks: 1949

As general conference began being shared on radio and television, there was a growing need to stick to the station timetables so that talks would not be interrupted by station breaks, leading to the introduction of a time limit on talks.

General conference in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, 1953. Photo from the Deseret News.

First time general conference was translated into a different language: October 1962

As the Church spread outside of the United States and more Church leaders from those areas were beginning to attend conference, there was a growing need for translation, and a translation room was added to the Tabernacle for this purpose. Learn more about the history of translation in the Church here

First time a prophet’s message was read in general conference by somebody else: October 1964

Following the advice of his doctor, President David O. McKay did not attend the October 1964 conference, but instead had his two messages read by his sons Robert R. McKay and David Lawrence McKay.

Photo from archive.org

First time conference talks appeared in the Ensign: June 1971

Photo from churchofjesuschrist.org

The Ensign magazine was first published in January of 1971. During its first year of publication, it included an issue dedicated to sharing all the general conference talks. Prior to this time, the talks were printed in their own conference report booklet published by the Deseret News.

First time an Olympian spoke during general conference: April 1985

Before general conference talks were limited to general authorities and auxiliary members, Olympic gymnast Peter Vidmar was invited to speak at the 1985 priesthood session of general conference. You can still read his talk on ChurchofJesusChrist.org.

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First time a woman prayed in conference: April 2013

Though women had regularly offered prayers for the general women’s meetings, it was not until 2013 that Sister Jean A. Stevens, First Counselor in the Primary General Presidency, offered a prayer at the close of a general session of conference.

First time speakers used a different language in general conference: October 2014

Leading up to the October 2014 general conference, it was announced that speakers who wished to give their addresses in their native languages would be able to do so. Four members of the Quorums of the Seventy did so during that first conference. English subtitles were shown on the screens of the conference center during these talks, while those listening outside hear a live English interpretation. This practice was only continued for one more session of general conference, in April 2015. 

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Priesthood and Relief Society Meetings

First time the general priesthood session was added: October 1945

Though an evening meeting had been held as part of general conference since as early as 1942, following the end of World War II, it was officially published as the "General Priesthood Meeting" in the October 1945 conference report. 

Elder Joseph Fielding Smith was the first speaker at that session and said,

“It is my purpose tonight to plead with our brethren who hold the responsibility of conducting the priesthood for a better supervision of priesthood quorums. In a revelation give to the Prophet for the benefit of the first elders of this Church he said: ‘. . . thou shalt not idle away they time, neither shalt thou bury thy talent that it may not be known’ (D&C 60:13). Too many of those who hold the priesthood have idled away their time and have buried their talent. We would like to have a revival among all the quorums of the priesthood.”

October 1941 general conference. Photo from Utah State Historical Society

First annual women's meeting: October 1986

The first Relief Society conference was held in the Assembly Hall on April 6, 1889, in conjunction with general conference, and began a pattern of holding a fall conference for education and a spring conference for compassionate service, music, and similar topics until 1945. The first general women’s meeting, held the Saturday before general conference as part of conference, was introduced in 1986. It eventually evolved into the general women’s meeting, with a member of the First Presidency and a member of each woman-led organization presidency speaking. In 2013, the meeting was reorganized, with the general Young Women meeting to replace the general Relief Society meeting before April conference sessions. This lasted only one year, after which the two meetings were again combined, this time with an invitation to girls age 8 and up to attend both the April and October sessions. 

April 1956 general conference. Photo from Utah State Historical Society.

First time live broadcast of the General Priesthood Session on television and online: October 2013

Though other sessions of general conference had been broadcast for several years, this was the first time members of the Church were able to tune in to this session of conference from their own home.

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First time the general women’s meeting was held as part of conference: October 2018

With the announcement made in October 2017, general priesthood session and general women’s session will now be held annually in April and October respectively. This upcoming October 2018 general conference will mark the first time a session for the women will be held on the Saturday night of conference weekend instead of the week before. 

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Music 

First time the Tabernacle Choir sang at general conference: October 1865

Just after the Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in August 1847, a group of them sang at a conference of the Church (though not general conference). This small choir grew, and in 1849, President Brigham Young asked John Parry, who had led an 85-member choir of Welsh converts during that year’s general conference, to formally organize a choir to provide the music for all future general conferences. A choir was formed that performed at every general conference after that, but it was not until 1865, just a few years after the announcement that a new tabernacle would be built to house conference goers, that this choir was first referred to in the conference minutes as the “Tabernacle Choir.”

The Tabernacle Choir in 1953. Photos from Utah State Historical Society.

First general conference hymn sung in the Salt Lake Tabernacle: “Praise, praise, O, praise the Great I Am!”

This hymn was specially composed for the occasion by Eliza R. Snow, accompanied by Joseph J. Daynes on the new Tabernacle organ. The text of the hymn appeared in the October 1867 Deseret News general conference minutes: 

Praise, praise, O, praise the Great I AM!
Sing glory, glory to the Lamb!
Let ev’ry heart a tribute bring,
And join to praise our God and King. 

O God, who form’d the heav’ns and earth—
Who sends the gushing fountains forth—
Who built the sky and made the sea,
Thou art our God: we bow to Thee. 

They servants, Lord, assemble here,
To praise and pray—to speak and hear:
O, let Thy Spirit on them rest,
And ev’ry humble soul, be blest.

While we convene from day to day,
Be in our midst, O God, we pray:
And let Thy mighty power be felt,
The dross, to burn—the gold, to melt. 

On mountain tops, a beacon stands:
Its light is seen in distant lands;
Like burning lamps, Thy Truth, O God,
And righteousness go forth abroad. 

Praise, praise, O, praise the Great I AM!
Sing glory, glory to the Lamb!
Let ev’ry heart a tribute bring,
And join to praise our God and King. 

The Tabernacle Choir at the 1956 general conference.Photos from Utah State Historical Society.

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*Note: Additional resources are found throughout the article, but many of the facts contained originally came from 150 Years of General Conference, found on ChurchofJesusChrist.org. 

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