Free annual conference celebrates Easter, fills JSB auditorium

Historian's Corner

Carmen Cole

Carmen Durland Cole is senior graphic designer at the BYU Religious Studies Center.

Beginning in 2005, the College of Religious Education and the BYU Religious Studies Center (RSC) have helped individuals celebrate Easter by hosting the free BYU Easter Conference.

According to the RSC website, “A General Authority emeritus or former Church leader is invited to give the keynote address. Accompanying the keynote speaker are other teachers, educators, scholars, authors, speakers, historians, or experts on Christ. All speakers talk about the Savior, his life, his mission, his Atonement, and his influence in our lives today. Attending the BYU Easter Conference is an ideal way to prepare to celebrate the Easter season.”[1]

The most recent conference featured Virginia Pearce Cowley, an author and former member of the Young Women General Presidency. The event is well attended, and although usually held in a 900-seat auditorium, overflow space is often needed to accommodate all attendees. However, this was not always the case. How did the Easter Conference develop into what it is today?

History of the Conference

Richard Holzapfel, then director of the RSC, and Thom Wayment, then professor of ancient scripture, created and organized the first Easter Conference. “Most of the credit for the first Easter conference goes to Richard Holzapfel, who recognized the need to celebrate Easter,” says Wayment. “We chose a book launch as an occasion to start the conference, and while our first conference enjoyed the support of Religious Education, we held the first conference in Salt Lake at the BYU Salt Lake Center.” The keynote speaker of the first conference in 2005 was Elder D. Todd Christofferson, then a member of the Presidency of the Seventy.

“That first conference was a great success, and we quickly moved the conference to the Provo campus in order to accommodate the larger-than-expected crowds,” Wayment explained. Due to the early success, “The organizers agreed they would ‘do it again.’” The second Easter Conference was held on BYU campus in the Joseph Smith Building auditorium, and attracted about nine hundred attendants. Speakers included President Cecil O. Samuelson, president of the university; John S. Tanner, the academic vice president; and a number of faculty members.

In the early conference, the organizers emulated the Sidney B. Sperry Symposium format, with breakout sessions and four hours of classes on a Saturday morning, totaling six presenters for one conference. During the next few years, the format changed to be held entirely in the JSB auditorium, the number of speakers decreased to three, and the conference duration changed to less than two hours. Despite some of the changes, over time the conference attendance declined to 200–300 attendants in the 900-seat auditorium.

After several subsequent Easter Conferences, a turning point in its history came in 2013, when Thom Wayment was again asked to lead the Easter Conference committee. Dean Ball, then-Dean of Religious Education, was concerned with the diminishing number of participants and challenged Wayment to attract at least 400 attendees for the next conference in order to justify its continuation.

As Wayment was organizing the next committee, he reached out to Brent Nordgren, the RSC production and business supervisor, who had been involved in planning and facilitating the Easter Conference since 2008. Wayment explained how the conference could not go on with the low number of attendees and asked Nordgren for thoughts and suggestions about how the conference could be improved to raise those numbers.

Nordgren had observed that the timing of the Saturday morning classes made it difficult for people to attend and suggested moving the event to Friday night—Good Friday, when possible. He suggested a specific blueprint for the kind of speakers who should be invited to participate. The program would include three speakers, following this blueprint: (1) a former Church leader as the keynote speaker; (2) a speaker highly qualified to talk about Christ, his life, and his teachings; and (3) a speaker who was well-known for attracting large crowds. The ads to entice attendees included an invitation to “Bring a friend.”

The result? That 2013 conference was the largest in the conference’s history. The Easter Conference committee was hoping to attract at least 400 people; they ended up attracting over 2,200 attendees. Not only did the participants fill the JSB auditorium, they filled classrooms throughout the JSB and auditoriums in adjacent buildings.

Since that huge boom in attendance, the Easter Conference has become a staple for BYU’s Religious Education and the RSC. Each year, the Easter Conference takes place on a Friday evening close to Easter with three exceptional speakers.

Publication of Easter Conference Books

On its first several appearances, the Easter Conference didn’t just edify people, it went on to spawn a successful series of academic books centered on Jesus Christ. Wayment explains, “That first conference came together at an interesting moment, a time when our copublisher, Deseret Book, was interested in taking a chance on a rather academic book. We wanted to celebrate that interest, and the success of the three-volume book series, which led us to believe that we could continue the effort of holding a conference and asking the authors who had contributed to the books to offer a presentation of their ideas.”

The Impact of the Conference

Brock Dowdle, a former RSC media specialist, worked during the 2022 conference at the event booth, ushering guests and distributing programs and promotional flyers. He says, “As part of the team that helped run this event, I had the unique opportunity to speak with conference attendees before, during, and after each talk. Many of the people I talked with at this conference expressed their gratitude for the focus on Jesus Christ and the wonderful spirit that was present throughout the evening. One woman in particular shared with me how much she appreciated the insight of BYU religion professor John Hilton III’s discussion about whether the Atonement of Jesus Christ mainly took place in Gethsemane or on Golgotha. Knowing that Church leaders have repeatedly taught that Christ’s atoning sacrifice occurred to some degree in both locations gave her greater understanding about the Atonement of Jesus Christ.”

The 2023 Easter Conference is scheduled for the evening of Good Friday on April 7, 2023 and will be held in the Joseph Smith Building auditorium. More information about the free conference can be found online at

Possible pull quote:

“Many of the people I talked with at this conference expressed their gratitude for the focus on Jesus Christ and the wonderful spirit that was present.”


[1] “BYU Easter Conference,” Religious Studies Center,