Mormon Sermons: How do We Preach?

There is a large body of scholarship on the analysis and sorting/classifying of rhetorical texts. Categories of preaching have been mapped in genres like homilies, commentaries, catechistic address, exhortations, charismatic address to name some of the obvious ones.

With conference coming up, I have questions with regard to patterns. Is there a typical conference talk pattern from recent years? Or perhaps a set of patterns? Looking at Mormon preaching from the late 1890s, one can discern some patterns attached to particular people, but it’s not a universal thing. Maybe that’s still the case. What are your thoughts?

The rapid diffusion and nearly immediate dissemination of general conference sermons seems to have some effect on local preaching, talks in ward and stake services. Just informally, it seems like we do a good job of imitating those patterns to one degree or another. Of course, there may be some distribution involved and talking about a “mean” in such a context is metaphor. Have you observed that the way conference talks are delivered has influenced your local speakers in church? Influence is a tricky thing of course, and I don’t really want to get dragged off into methodological problems of designing experiments.



  1. Aussie Mormon says:

    More and more sacrament talks are using specific conference talks as a main reference. i.e. “I’ll be basing my talk based on the one given by Sister Yankee Dee in the Monthember 2199 General Conference titled ‘Holograms and Designer Babies’ “.

    As far as conference patterns? The priesthood session usually has one telling the guys not to look at porn, to go on missions, and to get married.

  2. Most of the talks I hear on assigned conference talks are elementary school level book reports. They do not follow the pattern of the assigned talk.

  3. Happy Hubby says:

    The bishopric in my ward have a conference talk assigned to every week’s set of talks. I agree with JR in that about 2/3 of the talks are nothing more than “Elder such-and-such said …” and don’t dig into the topic. I have had 2 wonderful talks in about the last 3 years – and they were both by the same person. She was very honest about some of her disbelief, but very kind. Oh how I wish more would do more than just reword a conference talk. Even if they occasionally wandered into some areas maybe they shouldn’t it would give people something to think about.

  4. Just off the top of my head I’d say that most conference topics, while they may employ a variety of devices, really come down to two things: Expository (explain the topic) and Motivational (encourage behavioral change in the audience – possibly exhortation is related to his also). There is a lot of use of Narrative, but the purpose of the narrative is the first two rather than narrative standing on its own two feet.

    Then what happens in my local ward is that speakers take the conference talk and do the same thing. They explain the topic, try to motivate the audience (nothing Mormon’s love more than being a good influence on someone else), and tell a few stories to backup what they are doing and add a bit of personality.

    It kinds of makes sense that we’d do on the local level what we see modeled at GC.

  5. I think ward-level talks are far less patterned after Conference talks than they are after whatever has become the norm in the ward. That is, after a certain number of talks begin “For those of you who don’t know us, my wife and I …” then most talks begin that way. I notice that especially when newcomers are called on to speak and they do things a little differently, perhaps the way it was done in their previous wards, and then watch as that pattern gradually modifies the earlier pattern in the ward.

    For a long time now, my ward has followed the pattern of “I was asked to speak about [topic]. I looked on, and it says …” followed by what seems like a 5th grade social studies oral report summarizing findings from (when we’re lucky; when we’re not lucky, it’s a loose association of jokes and rambling personal anecdotes that may or may not have anything to do with the assigned topic).

    Conference talks, on the other hand, if for no other reason (but I think there are other reasons) than that they have to be precisely X-minutes long, tend to be structured rather than rambling, and often the speakers speak with authority rather than merely summarizing what some presumably authoritative earlier speakers have said.

  6. For conference talks there’s a fair amount said about individuals (likes, dislikes, patterns). I have nothing to add on that score. The larger patterns that I think would be interesting (useful? revealing?):

    For general conference, consider types by calling or position in the hierarchy. At a simplistic level, I think we’re more likely to get doctrinal exposition from the top and testimony at the lower (hierarchical) reaches.

    For local meetings, I listen for stories and have a working hypothesis that we’re moving in a bi-modal way. One group focused on quoting from general conference. The other group more and more empowered to use personal experience and story, following the type but not the words of what see done in general conference.

  7. Jack Hughes says:

    I recall reading somewhere that it was once common for conference talks to be unprepared and extemporaneous, as recent as the mid-20th century. Speakers were expected to approach the pulpit with nothing but the spirit to guide them on what to say.

    In my ward, it seems that elderly members tend to follow this pattern when giving talks. In practice, these talks tend to be rambling, unfocused narratives–more like glorified testimonies than substantial sermons. They are my least favorite to listen to.

    I think shades of this practice still persist at the ward level; perhaps some vestigial cultural expectation that extemporaneous speech is somehow “more spiritual” than the written word. We still place lots of value on impromptu testimony. Or perhaps it is just a way for some people to justify their complete lack of preparation.

    I personally chafe at this notion, as an introvert who carefully scripts every word of my talks beforehand–but even more so knowing that today, GC talks are thoroughly prepared, researched, correlated, and read from a teleprompter.

  8. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I have noticed (though haven’t looked closely to confirm) that there is a trend in General Conference talks by those outside the Q12 to quote living members of the Q12. This seems somewhat recent (~15 years), but that may just my limited recollection prior to that point. But, when it happens, I find it gratuitous and indulgent. It does, however, represent to me an effort to emphasize the importance of the living prophets over those who preceded them.

    This is also a modified approach to using a Conference talk as the basis for a subsequent talk – perhaps precedence for what is now de rigueur in Sac. Mtg. talks, generally. Note that these talks do not begin with “I was assigned to talk about Elder Bednar’s recent General Conference talk about faith.” Rather, they construct their own talk and reference another General Authority’s Conference talk as support. Maybe, instead of thinking about the current practice of using a recent General Conference talk as the basis of one’s talk and summarizing it, we could interpret the assigned talk similar to when we used to be asked to use Malachi 3:8-10 as the basis of a talk, and then go on to discuss tithing. If you were assigned that scripture, you wouldn’t just read it, summarize it, and sit down (I hope). So, why is that the default approach when assigned a recent Conference talk for Sac. Mtg.?

  9. I was actually thinking about this the other day, wondering what kind of talks I’ll have to grapple with post-conference.
    My favorite talks are usually involve some sort of thoughtful vulnerability, a different perspective of an issue studied from many angles, a profound, personal connection one makes with a divine principle, or talks that ask resonant questions that stick with me and cause a shift in the status quo.
    My least favorite: lazy talks, talks about talks, talks about one’s spouse, talks involving extended, forced metaphors, talks based fake words, and talks about how they were assigned to give the talk.
    Resistance to vulnerability and the attachment to safe platitudes is one of the hardest things for me to encounter with at church.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Here’s an old post about how to take an assigned GC talk and personalize it into something actually interesting:

  11. My wars typically assigns speakers the same topic as that day’s Sharing Time topic. It’s nice because you can’t just re-hash the talk you were assigned, but I feel like it then precludes a lot of other, deeper topics. (I haven’t been asked to speak since a few years ago, when I based my talk on keeping the Sabbath on an article about kosher elevators. One of our bishopric members likes to dictate what is and isn’t Sabbath-worthy, so I guess he felt triggered. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ )

  12. As Stake Indexing Consultant, I was asked to give a talk in my ward about FamilySearch Indexing. I included step by step instructions on how to do it. By the end of that Sunday, I had 7 members of my ward sign up for Web Indexing online. It was interesting to see who I motivated and what they did about it! Not many talks we give can be tracked on a response meter like this one!!!

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