Church Conferences

Circuit_rider_illustration_Eggleston

Illustration from Edward Eggleston’s The Circuit Rider: A Tale of the Heroic Age

I was recently given an assignment to speak in sacrament meeting. That’s a normal part of my calling. But the topic was unusual: The assignment was to speak on “the history and doctrine of conferences in the church.” I’m not a historian, but I love reading history, so I was excited to speak on a historical topic. It gave me a good excuse to learn about a part of church history that I hadn’t studied before. This post is adapted from that talk.

 

In 1829 and early 1830, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were working on organizing the church. They had finished translating the Book of Mormon in June 1829 and the prophet had received a revelation directed to Oliver Cowdery that instructed him to “build up my church” and to “rely upon the things that are written,” (that is, the Book of Mormon) to do so.

Oliver took the revelation seriously and in the summer of 1829 he prepared a sort of constitution for the church called the Articles of the Church of Christ. Joseph Smith used his prophetic gift to add to Oliver’s work, and the resulting document, the Articles and Covenants of the Church, is the source of our modern section 20 in the Doctrine and Covenants. As the June 1829 revelation had directed, Oliver relied heavily on the Book of Mormon: the Articles and Covenants follows the Book of Mormon to establish the church offices of Elder, Priest, and Teacher, as mentioned in the Book of Mormon, as well as the sacrament prayers, which are taken word-for-word from the Book of Mormon.

But, from Joseph Smith’s additions, the Articles and Covenants also establishes certain church practices that are not found in the Book of Mormon. One of these is the practice of holding conferences.

The historical Methodist origins of conferences.

The Articles and Covenants provided that “[t]he 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” (see D&C 20:61-62). Conferences were already a familiar practice to Joseph Smith and many of the early saints because the Methodist church had been holding conferences in this area for several decades.

The Methodists began not as an independent church but as a society within the Anglican church of people who yearned for more holiness. They were devoted to frequent scripture study, fervent personal prayer, and missionary work. They were known for their belief that preachers did not need to be formally educated and should not rely on worldly wisdom, but should rely on the scriptures, speak by inspiration of the holy ghost, and follow the example of the New Testament apostles. The Methodists came to the American Colonies in the early to mid-1700s and by the late 1700s as the Methodist societies moved into less populated areas where there were few established Anglican churches, and as Anglican priests fled the revolution, the Methodists began to move into that vacuum and to look more and more like a church themselves. Eventually the American Methodists stopped seeking authority from the Anglican church and ordained their own priests. The church was divided into conferences, with each conference divided into districts and circuits. Preachers would ride the circuits to preach. The idea was to bring the word of God to every person and settlement, no matter how remote. The elders and preachers in each conference would meet quarterly in a conference and the church would hold a general conference of the whole church annually.

The Methodist conferences served three important purposes. They were an opportunity to do necessary church business, such as making decisions, granting preaching licenses, restructuring preaching assignments, making changes in leadership, disposing of finances, etc. They were also a reunion of old friends as preachers that had been spread out over hundreds of miles in far-flung districts got together. Finally, they provided opportunities for large group worship and revival meetings.

These Methodist conferences also played an important role in the restoration of the gospel.[1]

The role of Methodist conferences in the restoration.

In 1810 the Methodists organized the Genesee Conference. It stretched from Western Pennsylvania through Western New York up to Canada. The Methodists had sent preachers into Western New York before the conference was established, but after the conference was established they began to hold conference meetings more frequently in the area. It was common for preachers travelling to and from the conference meetings to preach and hold camp meetings along the way. Remember in his 1838 history, Joseph Smith says that in the mid-to-late 1810s there was “unusual excitement on the subject of religion” in the Manchester Palmyra area, and that “[i]t commenced with the Methodists.” It may well have been that the organization of the Genesee Conference in 1810 was one of the antecedents of the religious excitement in the Manchester area a few years later.

The Genesee Conference held its annual conference in July 1819 in what is now Phelps, New York, which is only about 15 miles from the Smith Farm in Manchester/Palmyra. Joseph Smith would have been 13 years old. That conference brought over 100 preachers from all over Western New York, Western Pennsylvania, and Canada. We don’t know from historical records whether any of the Smith family actually attended the conference meetings themselves, but it does seem likely that Joseph Smith would have attended some of the camp meetings that were held by the preachers travelling to and from the conference in Phelps. Remember that he said in his 1838 history that he “attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit” and that he “became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect,” and “felt some desire to be united with them.”

 

rev-george-lane

Rev. George Lane

One of those preachers that attended the 1819 conference in Phelps was a man named George Lane. Reverend Lane had grown up in the southern tier of New York, in Broome County, and had worked for years on assignments from the Genesee Conference preaching the gospel throughout Western Pennsylvania. At the 1819 Conference, Reverend Lane was appointed the Presiding Elder of the Susquehanna district in Pennsylvania. Historical records don’t confirm it, but it is likely that he would have known the Hale family, who were devout Methodists, and who lived in Harmony in the Susquehanna district only about 10 miles from the home where Reverend Lane grew up in Broome (though in 1819, Joseph Smith still had not met his future wife, Emma Hale). He may have also known Joseph Knight, who also lived in Broome County and who was another early convert to the church.

Reverend Lane was known for his powerful sermons on repentance. Oliver Cowdery said in 1834 that Reverend Lane had visited Palmyra when Joseph was about 14 years old, and that Joseph’s “mind had been awakened” by listening to Reverend Lane’s sermons on repentance and faith in Christ (Latter Day Saints Messenger and Advocate at 42 (Kirtland, Ohio December 1834)). William Smith, Joseph’s brother, remembered Reverend Lane as “a great revival preacher” that visited Palmyra (William Smith, William Smith on Mormonism at 6 (Lamoni, Iowa 1883). William also reportedly said just before he died that he remembered the topic of Reverend Lane’s sermon when he visited Palmyra:

Mr. Lane of the Methodists preached a sermon on ‘what church shall I join?’ And the burden of his discourse was to ask God, using as his text ‘If any man lack wisdom let him ask of God which giveth to all men liberally.’ When Joseph went home and was looking over the text he was impressed to do just what the preacher had said.

Deseret Evening News at 11 (January 20, 1894).[2]

If Reverend Lane’s sermon in the late summer of 1819 was what prompted Joseph Smith to begin asking the questions that led him to the first vision, and if the first vision happened in the spring of 1820, then that means that Joseph Smith was pondering these questions all fall and all winter until early spring the following year. [3] Sometimes we tell the story of the first vision as though it all happened in a day or two, but in his 1838 history, Joseph says that he “reflected on [this scripture] again and again,” and that it was “at length” that he “came to the conclusion that…[he] must do as James directs.” I can imagine him sitting in that small cramped, smoky log home with the dark, bitter upstate New York winter outside, pondering his dilemma. And as the snows subsided and the trees began to bud, I can imagine him feeling hope return to the world, and daring to hope that maybe God would answer his prayer after all.

Elder Ballard gave a talk in general conference several years ago where he said that “We owe much to the many brave martyrs and reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Huss who demanded freedom to worship and common access to the holy books.” I would add in that same spirit that we owe much also to George Lane and the other itinerant Methodist missionaries that scoured this area in the early 1800s stirring people up to repentance and causing Joseph Smith to begin asking the questions that would lead him to the first vision.

The purposes of LDS conferences.

Because of the Methodist example church conferences were not new to the early church members. Aside from Joseph Smith, other early members (such as Brigham Young’s brothers, Phineas and Joseph who were both Methodist preachers), had seen and participated in Methodist conferences, and so LDS conferences were natural and familiar. These church conferences were tremendously important in the early church. Many of the published revelations were received at conferences, directly before conferences, or directly after conferences. [4]

The first church conference was held in June 1830, less than two months after the church was organized. At that conference, the Articles and Covenants were presented to the church for a sustaining vote. A year later, in June 1831, the office of High Priest was revealed for the first time at a conference. And we see that even today important changes to the structure of priesthood quorums and other church work are announced at general conferences.

Early church conferences were similar to the Methodist conferences, and they essentially served the same three purposes: (1) to conduct church business, (2) to fellowship with old friends in the ministry, and (3) to worship together as a large group. We can make church conferences today serve these same purposes for us.

1.  Conduct church business.

In the earliest days of the church, conferences were essential to do church business. There were church offices, such as Elder, Priest, Teacher, and Deacon, but it had not yet been revealed that these offices were part of a the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, and there were no priesthood quorums or presidents. There were no wards or bishops, there were no stakes or stake presidents or high councils. There was no quorum of the twelve, no seventies, and no first presidency. The only real leadership positions were Joseph Smith as “First Elder” and Oliver Cowdery as “Second Elder.” Virtually all the decisions of the church were made in conferences. Over time, as priesthood quorums and additional leadership offices and structures were revealed, much of the day-to-day business of the church was moved from conferences to councils. And today, consistent with that shift, most of the time of conferences is taken up by teaching and instruction rather than business. [5]

But conferences still play an important role in church business because many of the decisions made in leadership counsels are not valid unless they are approved by a sustaining vote of the membership. Sustaining can sometimes feel like an empty, meaningless, formality, but it is an opportunity to carry out an important role that we play as the membership of the church. The Lord does not want his church to just be dictated to. He wants us to take part in the business of the church. Sustaining votes at ward, branch, stake, and general conferences is a way for us to do that.

2.  Fellowship with old friends.

In a stake like ours that spans hundreds of miles from one end to the other, conferences can also be a time to reunite with old friends from other wards and branches in the stake. People that we know from a ward that we used to live in, or people that used to live in our branch that have since moved away. Maybe people that we know from serving together in a stake calling of some kind, or that we met at girls camp. When the weather is good, we often have a picnic after stake conference with friends from the stake at the top of the Hill Cumorah. Stake conference can be a time to see old friends and enjoy their company, just as it was for the early missionaries to see one another after laboring in far-flung branches and districts of the early church.

3.  Worship together in a large group.

Conferences can also be a time to worship together as a large group. In conferences in the early church, members preached and listened to sermons, sang together, prayed together, blessed one another, passed the sacrament to one another, confirmed new members, ordained one another to priesthood offices, and received the gift of tongues and other spiritual gifts. I enjoy small group settings most of the time, and there is a real blessing that comes with the intimacy of small group worship, but worshipping as a large group has its own kind of benefits: we remember that the body of Christ is bigger than our own ward or branch. We don’t pass the sacrament in stake or general conferences anymore, probably just for the practical reason that the congregation is so large, but stake conferences can still provide an opportunity to worship together as a stake. We don’t get that many opportunities to worship together as a stake. But in stake conference we can pray together and sing together as a stake.

As we worship together, we can make it a time for renewal of conversion. The Lord told Emma Smith in a revelation that she was to be ordained to exhort the church, expound the scriptures, and prepare the first hymnbook of the church (D&C 25:6-11). He told her that “the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads. Wherefore, lift up thy heart and rejoice, and cleave unto the covenants which thou hast made” (D&C 25:12-13). When we sing together as one, we are praising God, and that should cause us to rejoice, and to cleave unto the covenants we have made with him. When we sing and pray together as one, we get a little closer to Zion (see D&C 38:27; Moses 7:18).

In those early church conferences, both Methodist and Mormon, people felt the spirit and confessed their sins and became converted. Conferences today can be an opportunity for us to do the same thing as we become re-converted to the gospel and renew our commitment to discipleship.

Conclusion

Speaking of confessing sins, I confess that I’ve often not enjoyed stake conferences. When the meeting is twice as long as a normal sacrament meeting and you’re sitting on a metal chair way back in the gym and you can barely even see the pulpit, let alone see the speaker’s face, and your kids are whining about being bored and hungry or throwing a tantrum about something, well, it can be easy to get grumpy about it. Sometimes a speaker says something that rubs me wrong way. Or sometimes the speaker is just boring.

But when I’ve gone to conference in the right spirit, I’ve come away uplifted and spiritually renewed, even if I sat in the gym on a metal chair, even if the kids were misbehaving, even if the speakers were boring, and even if they said something I didn’t agree with. I find that when I’m engaged with what the speaker says so that I’m taking it seriously and really thinking about it, the spirit whispers to me.

Conferences, I’ve come to learn, are one of the oldest pieces of the church. So much has changed since those early days of the church, but conferences are something we still do that was a part of the church even before wards, stakes, or high priests, or priesthood quorums were part of the church. I’m glad for the opportunity I had to learn more about the history of conferences in the church and I look forward to the opportunity to see conferences not just as something we have to do in the church, but as a part of a long tradition reaching back even before the organization of the church.

And in the spirit of the historical revivals and camp meetings that sprang up around the old Methodist and Mormon conferences in the early 1800s, I look forward to making conferences a time of personal revival and re-conversion for me.


[1] A huge thank you to Christopher Jones, who pointed me to some great background sources on the development of Methodist conferences. Read his thesis for more about the influence of Methodism on the early church.

[2] Back in the 60s, Larry Porter wrote an article about Reverend Lane. It was this article that directed me to the William Smith and Oliver Cowdery sources that mentioned Reverend Lane.

[3] The dating of Reverend Lane’s visit is a little uncertain. Oliver Cowdery says it was in Joseph’s 15th year (which would have been 1820) (Messenger and Advocate at 42), but then says he was mistaken and that it was actually in his 17th year (which would have been 1822)(id. at 78 (December 1835)). William Smith says it was in 1822 or 1823 (William Smith on Mormonism, at 6). The Genesee Conference held its conference in 1819 in Phelps, as noted above, but it held its conference again in Phelps in 1822, and it is possible that Reverend Lane visited Palmyra both times. William and Oliver may have been thinking of either one of these visits. If William was right that Reverend Lane’s sermon was what prompted Joseph Smith to ask the question that led to the first vision, and if Joseph was right in his 1838 history that the first vision happened in 1820, then the 1819 date seems more likely.

Joseph Smith said the first vision happened in 1820 in his 1838 history, and the majority of his accounts are consistent with that. He told a visitor in 1835 that it happened when he was “about 14 years old,” which would have been 1820. And in an 1842 account he said he was “about fourteen years of age” when he began to ponder his salvation, but does not say when the vision itself took place. In his 1832 history he says it happened in his “16th year,” which would have been 1821.

[4] See sections 1, 28, 29, 30, 31, 38, 52, 67, 70, 75, 96.

[5] Incidentally, as Christopher Jones points out in his thesis, Methodists underwent a similar shift over the course of the 19th century. What were once called Conferences eventually became known as “Quarterly Meetings” and the Conference proper was a small component of those meetings where a smaller leadership group attended to business, while the rest of the meetings focused on preaching, fellowship, and group worship, similar to Mormon conferences.

Comments

  1. J. Stapley says:

    This is a great bit of history, and so practical in its application. I really like the idea of inflecting conferences with this trifecta.

  2. That’s quite the compliment coming from you, J.!

    As for the three-part purpose, that comes from Russell E. Richey, The Methodist Conference in America: A History (Kingswood Books, 1996) via Chris Jones’ thesis.

  3. Oh man do I love this. It fleshes the traditional story in a much cooler way for me. I am copying and keeping this.

  4. Thanks, cat!

  5. This is so great – may I use it for our Empty Nesters FHE? I doubt that my Methodist friends know much more about their conference history then I did about our conference history. Thank you!

  6. Have at it, DeAnn.

  7. Great fun, JKC. Methodism!

  8. Thanks, Bill.

    I should also mention, that it was fun driving down to Hornell to speak Sunday morning after preparing this talk, and seeing all the old United Methodist Episcopal churches in the tiny towns. It kind of brings the history alive a little bit to see that the effects of the evangelization effort are still here in some way. Also, kind of fun to note that the branch down there regularly partners with the local Wesleyan church to hold free dinners to feed the needy.

  9. This here is why I love BCC. Brilliant insights like this. I’ll never look at a Conference the same again. Great stuff.

  10. Thanks, Alain!

  11. John Mansfield says:

    Solomon Nunes Carvalho (1815-1897) was a Sephardic Jew born in Charleston, South Carolina who was invited to join John C. Fremont’s 1853-54 expedition as an artist and daguerreotypist. In February at Parowan, Utah, he separated from the expedition due to illness. From there, “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.’”

    In 1854, “Conference” was a thing, in quotes and capitalized. Great to read of their even earlier part in the religious life of latter-day saints.

  12. Hogarth says:

    Interesting. At our last Stake Conference there was likewise an emphasis on the importance of conferences. In that regard, I am of the view that perhaps we have too many conferences and too many speakers. I say that because I feel the bi-annual abundance of General Conference talks (up to 20 hours a year over more than a millennia) has created a diffusion of diverse opinions and priorities that can be more confusing than focusing as to what is our doctrine and priorities.

    There is also a bit of “if everything they say is important, than nothing they say is important”). Members need assistance in prioritizing their limited resources of time, talents and energy.

    Just my personal view that at times our message feels diluted by too many talks, mandating too many tasks, and expressing too many (and occasional inconsistent) viewpoints. Not that it is of any import, but if I were in charge, I would try an annual General, Stake, and Ward Conference (a different conference once a quarter) with special conferences from time to time when important changes need to be made (like last Conference).

    Oftentimes, less is more.

  13. Thanks for the comment, Hogarth. So essentially, you’d be for eliminating one of the two general conferences and one of the two stake conferences, so we have a conference once per quarter.

    I can’t say I disagree with a less is more approach in general. But I actually think more diversity of opinion among leadership is a feature, not a bug. I’d much prefer more diversity of opinion with members having the responsibility to receive personal revelation on how to prioritize than more uniform top-down mandates.

  14. Hogarth says:

    JKC:

    Excellent point. I see how my comment appears to ask for more “correlation.” Heaven forbid! I agree that it is the diversity of opinion and emphasis, such as from folks like Elder Uchtdorf, that keep me listening. Indeed, I am disappointed that we will now hear from him less.

    I’m thinking more of making conference a less-common event that one looks forward to and with fewer but better talks (I count 34 talks last Conference). I can think of conferences where I wished it would not end, but more often I come away feeling overwhelmed and exhausted with almost every talk being a reminder of all the things I’m not doing. I don’t think I’m alone.

    I agree completely about using personal revelation to prioritize. It would do me well to focus more on what I can do rather than what I can’t.

  15. Here is the line-up for my area conferences in the fall. Any calculations for the number of talks we are going to hear?

    Sept 30: Ward Conference
    Oct 6-7: General Conference
    Oct 27-28: Stake Conference (local)
    Nov 4: Stake Conference (SLC broadcast)

  16. Wow. Cramming them all into a few weeks. Interesting that they’re doing Stake Conference the week after a multi-stake broadcast.

  17. Kristin Brown says:

    Thank you for all the information on Reverend Lane. I am wondering if he was the same preacher who taught Joseph his brother Alvin would not be saved because he had not been baptized. I know that experience made an impression on the young lad as well. Wish I had been in the Sacrament meeting to hear it presented. I really liked the ending of your talk. I was touched and felt your humble testimony.

  18. D Christian Harrison says:

    In a conversation I was having with CoC Apostle Lachlan McKay, he mentioned in passing how the Community of Christ had abandoned one of their twice-a-year conferences and, instead, encouraged families to “Conference” together—even purchasing and maintaining a small network of family campgrounds intended for just that purpose. I wish I had asked him more about the history of the change and its modern praxis.

  19. Christian, that’s fascinating.

  20. D Christian Harrison says:

    I’ll have to reach out and ask more questions.

  21. Kristin: Thanks for your comment. I missed it and I apologize it didn’t see it until now. I don’t think Lane would have been the preacher that suggested Alvin was not saved because he had not been baptized. In his 1893 interview William Smith identifies that preacher as the local Presbyterian minister who had preached at Alvin’s funeral. He says that was the reason why Joseph Senior would not join the Presbyterian church with Lucy.

    Of course, the interesting thing is that neither Presbyterians nor Methodists believe that baptism is necessary for salvation, so the preacher would have been out of line either way.

  22. John Mansfield says:

    Reading from Helena Ericksson Roseberry this morning, one of her paragraphs reminded me of the above post on church conferences:

    There were but eight families of Mormons on the Gila when we got there [and] they had been there but one year. [. . .] We had been there two years and had not heard any counsel from headquarters [because] no one came to visit us. In the fall of 1882, there were fourteen wagons [that] went to Snowflake for conference. Louisa went on to Utah to be married. Betsy and I came back home. Many times since, we have had Brethren and Apostles from Utah to help and encourage us in the work of the Lord which make our hearts rejoice. Sister East also came to preside over the Relief Society of the stake which was a great blessing to us. We could not do without her. She often spoke in tongues and blessed us in tongues. Patriarch McBride also met with us. We enjoyed the many meetings the few of us had.

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