General Conference—“Carried by Some Miraculous Power”

    By Christine R. Marin, Church history audiovisual specialist
    10 September 2019

    In this post, conference historian Christine Marin shares the story of how the messages of general conference were relayed to a growing Church through the years.

    In a discourse delivered in 1873, Apostle Orson Pratt stated, “The sound of that trump will be heard by all people, nations, kindreds and tongues in the four quarters of our globe. I do not know that the sound will be so much louder than some we have heard, but it will be carried by some miraculous power so that all people will hear it.”1 This address was given three years before Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone and almost 20 years before commercial use of wireless telegraphy (the predecessor to radio).

    Pratt’s prophetic words accurately describe the modern general conference experience. Conferences of today are worldwide gatherings of members of the Church who see and hear the proceedings via the “miraculous power” of satellite, internet, and television broadcasts in homes and meetinghouses across the globe, usually in their own language. Church members anticipate the spiritual boost provided by the messages of encouragement and instruction they receive every year.

    Churchwide conferences are a long-standing latter-day tradition. These meetings have been held every year since June 9, 1830, with few exceptions. That first conference was held at the Peter Whitmer home in Fayette, Seneca County, New York, with 27 members in attendance.2

    In the early days of the Church, conferences were called by the First Presidency as needed. As revealed to Joseph Smith in Kirtland, Ohio, March 8, 1831, “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.”3 By the time members of the Church arrived in Nauvoo, the recognizable pattern of two conferences a year had been established.

    The membership of the Church soon outgrew containment in any one venue. It became important for Church leadership to communicate to those who couldn’t make the journey to Salt Lake City. However, this was never an easy undertaking. It took time for technology to catch up to the needs of the growing Church and fulfill Pratt’s hope that all the world would hear the word.

    Written accounts of conference came first. Incomplete notes and summaries from early conferences are found in Church minutes and Church publications like the Millennial Star and Times and Seasons. Accounts of conference have also been found in diaries and correspondence of 19th-century Church members. The first full report of any conference address was published in the Deseret News on April 6, 1850. The earliest official Church-produced report of conference was printed in April 1880, the 50th annual conference. These detailed reports became consistent in October 1897.

    The custom of printing conference talks twice a year in Church publications began in 1942 in the Church’s flagship magazine, the Improvement Era (which became the Ensign in 1971). In 1971 the conference reports were regularly printed in the May and November issues, which continues to this day. Talks since 1971 are also published and archived online at ChurchofJesusChrist.org, providing previously unprecedented access.

    The first radio broadcast of general conference was October 3, 1924. President Heber J. Grant marked the significance of the day: “To have the voice carried for thousands of miles seems almost beyond comprehension.”4 The earliest-dated sound recording of conference in the Church History Library’s collection is April 5, 1936. This recording is available in the Church History Catalog. Speakers included David O. McKay (00:02:15), J. Reuben Clark (00:07:53), and Heber J. Grant (00:16:39). Conference sessions were more consistently recorded beginning in 1938, but evolving technology left some gaps in audio until the 1950s.

    The earliest moving image of general conference was filmed by pioneering Latter-day Saint filmmakers, the Clawson brothers, about 1917. Views included crowds on Temple Square going into the Tabernacle for conference and a brief interior view of conference in the Tabernacle. The earliest moving images with sound were made in Kinescope (a film recording of a television broadcast) of President George Albert Smith on September 30, 1949, at the first session of the 120th Semiannual General Conference. This video is available in the Church History Catalog. 

    In the early days of film, mainly members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve were filmed as individual speakers. There are also gaps in video coverage until the 1970s.

    The Church History Library has created a General Conference Research Guide to assist you in navigating audiovisual collections. The guide will help you understand what sessions and addresses are available and the limitations of the recording technology through the years. It also contains additional library collections relevant to a study of conference and historic photographs.

    General conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is truly a time of gathering. The body of Saints may not be able to meet in one physical place, but through the printed word, television, internet, and satellite broadcasting, members of the Church around the world can hear or read or see the inspired messages, just as Orson Pratt predicted.