General Conference in (My) Perspective

General Conference has its own culture but the present version of that culture is rather modern. It has been used as a medium to announce policy changes or revelations, for a long time, certainly. But addresses at conference were not particularly regarded as “revelation” in any formal sense in say, the nineteenth century. The April-October cycle seemed firmly in place for headquarters meetings by Nauvoo, but certainly June was almost as important historically prior to that. What is the most important conference ever? I think one could argue that June 1831 was important, and November 1831 too. October 1830 is up there. But of course these were tiny gatherings compared to today’s giant (media) audiences. April 1844 was certainly influential (though it was not a general conference for technical reasons). August 1844 was mightily important, and August 1852 ranks up there. And what about October 1978?

For me, conference came into being in terms of importance when I turned 12. I became eligible to attend the Priesthood Session. Nineteenth-century Priesthood sessions evolved from evening instructional groups of various stripes to the twentieth-century form where boys and men of all ranks were invited and the specialized purposes were somewhat spun off into other venues.

Sometimes it snowed, but there were no Christmas lights.

Sometimes it snowed, but there were no Christmas lights.


At age 12, I lived in Salt Lake City, and my father and his brother had a–by then–decades long tradition of attending the Priesthood Session in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. They had their favorite seats there: Balcony, Northeast Corner, as close to the front row as possible (they felt downstairs seating was less desirable because of the annoying pillars that cramped sight lines, and sound seemed better at that spot–also exit strategy was good). In those ancient times there were no tickets for the rank and file, but downstairs in the front middle section were reserved seats for the high-mucky-mucks. If you wanted a seat anywhere, you had to get there early. The session started at 7pm in those days I believe, and that meant getting in line by 5pm or so, a time that gradually crept up to 3pm as interlopers decided it was a cool place to drag your deacons quorums.
Look straight back on the left. That's where we normally sat, until things started to get exclusive.

Look straight back on the left. That’s where we normally sat, until things started to get exclusive.


The primary first impression for me was the seats. They were wooden, and sitting there for 2 or 3 hours (depending on how soon they let you in) was buttnumbing. Moreover, the things were close together, certainly structured for a pervious generation where average height must have been 5 feet + small error. I have no memory of any of the addresses from those early times. What I do remember was what happened after the meetings. As rapidly as we could escape, we exited the venerable building and hoofed it east down South Temple Street to the establishment of Snelgrove’s Ice Cream Parlor. No matter how soon we got out, there was a line, and it sometimes took an hour to be seated. But wait we did, every time. The reason: the most fabulous ice cream ever invented since Eve felt Adam’s cold shoulder. Snelgrove’s Triple-Thick Chocolate malts were large, smooth beyond belief, and solidly thick but pliable offerings. In short, the Celestial Reward for enduring those seats.

In my 12 year old mind, this seemed like a great trade-off. As I got older, the whole experience became iconic to me, but that last part never lost its romance. These years later, so much has changed. My father and uncle are no longer with us. Snelgrove is long gone and even the company who bought the recipes has ceased making it–too expensive for a healthy margin maybe. I don’t know. But the taste of time and friendship and love and ice cream lingers. Happy watching in your sterile chapels and living rooms, people. But know that there was a different time.

Comments

  1. As I got older, the whole experience became iconic to me, but that last part never lost its romance.

    Really nice — thank you.

  2. I wonder if Conference hasn’t lost some of power because of the ease for watching.

  3. Still looking forward to it says:

    There was a lot more sociality in all things Mormon back in the day. Now it’s all “spiritual” and no fun, at least in Bountiful, UT, these days. Our ward hasn’t had a primary activity in years. How can I respond to my kids’ protests about going to church when they’re right – all associations with their teachers, classmates, leaders, and even the building itself are only as fun as the 3 hour Sunday block (where we hurry quietly home so as to not disturb the next ward’s meetings already in progress). It didn’t used to be this way.

  4. I wonder the same thing, Steve. But this applies I think to the whole social aspect of church. The move to the 3-hour block helped move us away from church-as-community I suppose, though many other forces participate. The current complaints about gadgets in church is really too little too late.

  5. Still looking: see above.

  6. No primary activities???? We still have them–here and in our last ward. They’re still an option in the handbook, although the new handbook has that local flexibility of course. Bug your primary presidency & bring ’em back!

  7. My dad grew up on the west side of SLC and has a deep love for Snelgroves and extra thick chocolate malts. Thank you for the smile this post brought to my face.

  8. Still looking forward to it says:

    Sara, we bugged (begged and begged!) last year for a primary party. We were told the parties had been such a hit in years past (especially at Halloween) that they would be overrun with non-members. So they decided to stop having them altogether. I kid you not.

  9. Mythoughts says:

    Wait, what?! Your Primary activities were overrun by non-members so you quit having them?! What kind of missionaries are you? That’s crazy, lol.

    As to the post, very warmly nostalgic. I have fond memories of my own in what my children and grandchildren now call the “before-the-before.” Mothers/daughters/sisters gathered for girls’ night while the guys went to priesthood session. Loved those sweet/giggly times. I remember the first time we got Sunday sessions on TV long before the church had satellites. That was early 60’s and we were thrilled to hear the prophet live in black and white. Salt Lake seemed a million miles away in those days and members were so hungry for feeling a part of the goings on. I don’t know anyone who much cares about that any more because Salt Lake is only a click away and the goings on aren’t so black and white. Times change. That’s one thing ever certain. So I try to enjoy today before it’s gone too, though a little nostalgia can be a joy unto itself.

  10. John Mansfield says:

    I remember a couple years before the satellite dishes went in (so about 1979) going to the St. George temple with my ward’s MIA to do baptisms for the dead on a Saturday morning that was also General Conference weekend. In Las Vegas at that time one and half sessions were usually available on TV, but in St. George they must have all been available, yet the temple was still open and functioning. It makes me wonder how those satellite dishes across America also changed conference for those in Utah. As noted above by others, much of LDS church life has been pared down, but it seems that the attention to General Conference has grown compared to forty years ago.

    Here’s a General Conference mention that caught my attention. Due to illness, Solomon Nunes Carvalho was left behind in Parowan, Utah in February by the 1853-54 Fremont expedition. After some weeks convalescing, “I left for great Salt Lake City, in a wagon belonging to one of a large company of Mormons, who were on their way to ‘Conference.'” The quote marks and capital C are in Nunes’ account. Conference was a thing in 1854.

  11. Depending on the age limit set for that particular year and the age of her daughters, my mother would take whomever she could to Salt Lake for the Women’s Meeting during from about 1980 until the Conference Center was built. We knew which door to start a line at so we could sit in those same front-row seats on the balcony and we’d get ice cream afterwards too. I think that was one of our favorite weekends of the year, for all of us. Most of us daughters had moved from Utah by the time the Conference Center was built so that contributed to the end of the tradition, but even when she does have a daughter available, my mother doesn’t go to the Conference Center. It’s just not the same.

    But I am always grateful that Conference is available online now. We’ve listened in lots of places over some very sketchy connections in different time zones almost every year, sometimes when we’ve been very isolated from the church. If it takes both a bigger building and the Internet to make Conference more accessible, I’ll take it.

    And I’m very much hoping to hear as many talks as possible in other languages this weekend to make Conference even more accessible.

  12. 1. Buttnumbing FTW.
    2. I can’t believe you just admitted to attending GC in the 19th century.
    3. SNELGROVES!!!!
    4. I wish my newly-minted 12-year-old was there with you to carry on the Smith family tradition. Makes me sad :(

  13. John Coldesina says:

    My friend and I were trying to figure our when General Conference went from three days to two. I think it was around 1954. Anybody know? Also wondering when Stake conference went from two whole days to just Sat evening plus Sunday, One session. Also, when did Stake conference go from quarterly to semi Annual? I would sure like to know. Also, with respect to Snelgroves, I was, as a young lad interested in the mechanisim of the automatic opening door.

  14. Left Field says:

    October 1976 was the last three-day conference. I believe that stake conferences became semiannual sometime in the early 1980s.

  15. George Durrant was the Provo MTC president when I was there for the April 1987 GC, and he told us how he used to go to the Tabernacle as a child and young man and sit on the hard benches and listen to the prophets, but that it lost some of its solemnity and spirit once he could watch it on TV on his own living room sofa. So (Durrant being Durrant, for those of you who know of him), he would get dressed up in his suit and tie and put a hard wooden kitchen chair right in front of the TV, so he would be looking his best and sitting up straight and awake while listening to the prophets, and that brought it back to him.

    Me, I hear better when I’m not thinking about how badly my back hurts, and I’m grateful for the Internet broadcasts that have gotten me out of a pew and into a comfortable chair so that I can concentrate – but I am not the man George Durrant is, by any means. YMMV. :)

  16. New Iconoclast, GD and I were temple workers together for a time. This is both funny and obvious. Thanks for sharing it.