Guest blog by Clyde Williams, professor of ancient scripture at BYU.
My recollections of general conference as a young boy take me back to the George Albert Smith Fieldhouse and long lines outside the Tabernacle on Temple Square for the priesthood session. I remember in April 1965 as the aging President David O. McKay attended one of his last priesthood sessions. After he gave a brief greeting and expressed appreciation for the priesthood brethren, all stood in the fieldhouse and the Tabernacle and sang “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.” For me the feeling was electric. There came a powerful witness to my heart that he was the Lord’s prophet on earth.
Since those early days, the personal significance and importance of general conference has continued to grow for me. I remember when announcements were made of significant policies, procedures, or administrative changes such as the inclusion of what is now D&C 137 and 138, the new LDS edition of the Bible, the formation of the quorums of the Seventy, the subtitle for the Book of Mormon, the proclamation on the family, President Hinckley’s statements on body piercing and tattoos, and the stand against same-sex marriage.
How do we respond when reminders of principles and practices are given or new policies are announced? Our initial response can be telling or informative. When we are spiritually in tune, we can, like King Benjamin’s people, be blessed with “the manifestations of his Spirit” and thus “have great views of that which is to come” (Mosiah 5:3). We will sense a need for something to be said on an issue, and when it is said we find ourselves in harmony.
A passage struck me as being profound when applied to general conference:
Son of man, the children of thy people still are talking against [meaning near] thee by the walls and in the doors of the houses, and speak one to another, every one to his brother, saying, Come, I pray you, and hear what is the word that cometh forth from the Lord.
And they come unto thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they shew much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness.
And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not. (Ezekiel 33:30–32)
Clearly, Ezekiel here describes a people who think highly of a living prophet but do not heed his words. It is like people speaking highly of President Thomas S. Monson and how good his talks are and yet, when it comes down to it, not following his counsel.
Another trap one can fall into is thinking general conference is like a buffet table. Commenting on this potential pitfall, Elder Neal A. Maxwell explained: “Our relationship to living prophets is not one in which their sayings are a smorgasbord from which we may take only that which pleases us. We are to partake of all that is placed before us, including the spinach, and to leave a clean plate!” (Things As They Really Are [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978], 74).
In October conference in 1975, President Kimball was concluding the conference and spoke of the many uplifting and inspired talks that had been given. I was a bit stunned and sobered by what he said next: “While sitting here, I have made up my mind that when I go home from this conference this night there are many, many areas in my life that I can perfect. I have made a mental list of them, and I expect to go to work as soon as we get through with conference” (in Conference Report, October 1975, 164). Who among the Saints did not feel there were many things we needed to work on? I was moved to tears as I thought about this humble prophet who had given so much of his life and would yet give so much more as he sought to do the Lord’s will.
The seriousness with which President Kimball approached general conference was apparent. He also made it clear as he closed the conference that October afternoon how everyone else should view the conference proceedings:
Well, now, brothers and sisters, this is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to all who are listening in, we have not been fooling. What we have said to you in these three days is truth, downright truth, and it has a definite bearing upon the salvation and exaltation of every soul that could listen and hear. (click to hear President Kimball’s statement)
As you listened to his voice, you can feel the earnest and affirming power by which these word were said. I believe they hold true for every general conference. I am truly grateful for the profound impact that general conference has had and continues to have in my life.