Every six months, Mormons from around the world find ways to participate in General Conference, where possible, live, streaming over the internet or later reading the published words. For those of us in time-zone proximity of Utah, this means we have the chance to sit in front of a screen streaming video originating in Salt Lake City, for six sessions, beginning with the women’s session, four additional sessions for the general audience and a session for men and boys jammed in between.
It’s in these sessions that something prototypically Mormon takes place. Mostly men, but some women, nearly all white, nearly all from Utah, with some exceptions, speak for about twenty minutes or so each in these six two hour blocks. Mostly the talks are on very mainstream Christian subjects, mercy, repentance, and Christ. Occasionally they can get controversial, stepping into topics like feminism or LGBT issues. The speakers without exception are substantive people, all with a long pedigree within the church, many having or have had successful careers in business or academia in a variety of disciplines.
This is a church after all, so they have all been called into lives of discipleship. They approach these talks with prayer and study, tapping into the reservoirs of a life-long commitment toward service to God and man. They have strived for holiness and come to these talks prepared to offer some of themselves inspired as they are by God.
Mormons believe in prophets. We believe in modern day revelation. We believe in modern day scripture. We have a scriptural canon that extends beyond the Bible and includes religious texts composed in modern times. Most Mormons believe General Conference acts as a kind of scripture, though none of these talks have ever found their way into the official canon.
Mormons believe that ““whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation“, so in that sense, to the degree conference speakers are moved upon by the Holy Ghost, they do speak scripture. In that sense, so are the things I might say. But I’m not sure any one particular conference talk carries the same weight as our holy books.
Before we go any further, I want to make a point not often made but I think is important and perhaps obvious. Not all scripture is of equal importance. I would place the words of Christ above everything else. Joseph Spencer in his book The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record, makes a really good case that Nephi considered the Isaiah’s portion of his record more precious than what he wrote before or after. And certainly some of the drudge of the Old Testament doesn’t carry the same inspirational power as say the beatitudes.
To that end, I’m not sure individual General Conference talks rise to the level of importance of our sacred text. Most of the talks lean heavily on scripture, so in large part this is a distinction without a difference. But not everything that gets said over the pulpit at General Conference is inspired. Some of it is wrong, misguided, and even hurtful – at least to some. We’re all human beings and we make mistakes. And General Conference is necessarily general, meant for the general population as a whole. It’s up to us to find resonance into the messiness and complexity of our individual lives.
Errant scripture is fundamentally part of Mormonism. The Book of Mormon’s title page admits, “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.” Joseph Smith, under periods of persecution, took the time to attempt to correct significant portions of the Bible. The Doctrine and Covenants makes a point often to chastise the early leaders of the church. And Joseph Smith readily recognized his own weaknesses and frailties.
Given all of this, General Conference is a special event, giving believers an opportunity to sit with these (mostly white, mostly male) church leaders and absorb the messages I know they’ve agonized over ahead of time. It’s to my benefit to prayerfully consider what they have to say.
The Doctrine Covenants describes how we should listen to a prophets words this way:, “5 For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.” I don’t think this means that every word uttered this weekend will be 100% prophetic or even inspired. I think very human opinions often get mixed in. But we should listen to their words as if God was uttering them, “in all patience and faith”. I think this is true each Sunday in Sacrament meeting. My 12 year old son spoke in sacrament meeting last Sunday. I think it is to my benefit to receive his words as if from God’s own mouth, in all patience and faith.
Patience because I may not agree. Patience because they may be delivered in a way that is not inspiring or is hurtful or in ways that contradict my own beliefs. In faith because even with and because of all this, I may need to hear what is being said. Mormon Matters has a good podcast about General Conference. Included here is a discussion with Carol Lynn Pearson, Patrick Mason and Mark Crego. I think they all give good advice some of which has inspired this post.
I love General Conference week. I believe that General Conference should challenge us. If we too readily agree with every word, we are probably not thinking hard enough. We are probably given up too much of our agency. We are probably placing these (mostly) men and a few women up too high on a pedestal meant only for God. If we are too cynical, then we risk dismissing the things of God and will lose out on the blessings that come in that.
Conference should challenge us and we should challenge conference. We need to own our own agency while be willing to sustain, listen to and be convicted by the good word of God, whether it comes through scripture or whether it comes from the words of an inspired speaker over an internet stream on an early April weekend.