Oftentimes, there is much excitement when a newly elected or appointed leader gives their first public address to their constituents, which is often referred to as a “maiden speech.” Traditionally, this maiden speech consists of a general statement of background and beliefs of the new leader, along with a list of their concerns and strategies for the coming years of their service, and the difference they hope to make. Similarly, whenever a new leader is called to serve as President of the Church, there is much excitement and anticipation for the next General Conference to hear the maiden speech of the newly called president. Such was the case for President Ezra Taft Benson in 1986, but unfortunately, he did not have the opportunity to give his very first conference address has had been planned.
A Very Brief History of LDS General Conference
*** The first General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was held on June 9, 1830, about two months after the church was organized. The Lord instructed the Prophet Joseph Smith that “the several elders composing this church of Christ are to meet in conference … from time to time” (D&C 20:61-62). Initially, conferences were held in various locations and times until most of the scattered members were able to settle in Nauvoo, Illinois, and then the General Conferences began to be held on a semiannual basis starting in 1840. However, no General Conferences were held during the western exodus of the Church from February 1846 until the pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847. Further, during the first few years that the Latter-Day Saints settled in the Salt Lake Valley, the fall conference was often held in August or September so that newly called missionaries could depart for their missions before the mountain passes were closed by winter storms. Since that time, the semiannual sessions have been held during the first weekends in April and October every year. Interestingly, the 1919 April Conference was postponed until June, and the 1957 October Conference was cancelled all together, due to flu epidemics.
Prior to the sessions of General Conference being broadcast by radio in 1923, and even more so once the meetings were transmitted through television in 1949, there were no time constraints placed upon the speakers, who would speak as long as they felt necessary. Once the sessions were broadcast, program managers and directors insisted on specific timetables and schedules. Additionally, prior to 1977, the conference typically lasted for three days, and often April sessions would include a session on April 6th, even if that date fell midweek. The extra day of sessions was often devoted to church auxiliary programs and welfare needs, but then starting in 1986, meetings dedicated specifically to women’s programs were added on the Saturday prior to the other General Conference meetings. This brings us to April 1986, where a special session of General Conference was convened for training of priesthood leaders on Friday, April 4th.
The Power of the Word
President Spencer W. Kimball passed away after an extended illness on November 5, 1985. Five days later, President Ezra Taft Benson was set apart as the 13th President of the Church. The following April, as part of his first General Conference as President of the Church, he called for a special Friday meeting to train priesthood leaders on April 4th, 1986. Unfortunately, some of the speakers went over their allotted time, and when President Benson stood to address the congregation at the close of the meeting, there was not enough time remaining and he was only able to give a small portion of his very first conference address. So he requested that his entire sermon be included in the conference issue of the Church magazines (see the May 1986 issue of the Ensign). Although President Benson’s maiden speech was directed primarily to the priesthood leaders of the church, the principles he taught apply to all members of the Church, and the substance of this first talk would ring familiar and shape many of the topics and themes of subsequent sermons and remarks.
I would strongly encourage you to read this inspired counsel from President Benson (link: “The Power of the Word”) and incorporate these teachings into your daily lives. I would just close with a portion of one of his promises about the power of God’s word in our lives: “… when individual members and families immerse themselves in the scriptures regularly and consistently, … other areas of activity will automatically come. Testimonies will increase. Commitment will be strengthened. Families will be fortified. Personal revelation will flow.” I add my witness that these things are true.
*** see also “General Conference through the years is different but the same,” by Joseph Walker, Deseret News, Faith Section, published April 1st, 2013.