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Determining the topics for conference talks

By Eric Johnson

On Sunday afternoon near the end of the April 2011 General Conference, Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland gave a talk titled “An Ensign to the Nations.” Mid-way through his speech, he said something very interesting that most casual observers may not have caught. He said, “Perhaps you already know (but if you don’t you should) that with rare exception, no man or woman who speaks here [at the general conference] is assigned a topic” (Ensign, May 2011, p. 111).

I find this very hard to believe. Let me give you two reasons why based on the past two general conferences:

1)      In October 2010, Seventy Claudio R. M. Costa (“Obedience to the Prophets,” Ensign, November 2010, pp. 11-13) and Seventy Kevin R. Duncan (“Our Very Survival,” Ensign, November 2010, pp. 34-36) both quoted the main points of Ezra Taft Benson’s famous “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet” speech given three decades earlier. What’s interesting is that, based on my personal research—and I could have missed it—no general authority at a general conference session ever quoted this speech during the past thirty years. Yet, all of a sudden this speech was quoted point by point—not once, but twice! Is this a possible coincidence? This possibility seems far-fetched. In addition, the number of “follow the prophet” comments in conference talks have definitely increased during the past year, which I attribute to the mindset of certain Latter-day Saints who believe that their personal revelation can trump a general authority’s “opinion.”

2)      In the April 2011 general conference, the importance of attending the temple seemed to be a theme repeated by multiple speakers. In fact, each session had at least one or two strong references to the importance of preparing oneself for the temple, being worthy for the temple, or regularly attending the temple. Consider some examples from each session (all quotes coming from the May 2011 Ensign):

  1. The Saturday morning session:

i.      Setting the tone for this theme, President Thomas S. Monson gave the opening message (“It’s Conference Once Again,” p.5), saying: “Each year millions of ordinances are performed in the temples. May we continue to be faithful in performing such ordinances, not only for ourselves but also for our deceased loved one who are unable to do so for themselves.”

ii.      Seventy Walter F. Gonzalez (“Followers of Christ,” p. 14): “To those members who are not active in the gospel, please come back. Feel the blessing of remembering and renewing covenants through sacrament and temple attendance. Doing so is an expression of love and shows a willingness to be a true follower of Christ. It will quality you to receive all the promised blessings.”

2. The Saturday afternoon session:

i.      On tithing, one important requirement allowing participants to get the all-important temple recommend to gain access to the temple, Apostle Russell M. Nelson (“Face the Future with Faith,” p. 35) said: “To develop enduring faith, an enduring commitment to be a full-tithe payer is essential. Initially it takes faith to tithe. Then the tithe payer develops more faith to the point that tithing becomes a precious privilege. Tithing is an ancient law from God….Not only that, tithing will keep your name enrolled among the people of God and protect you in ‘the day of vengeance and burning.” Later, Nelson said, “The greatest of all the blessings of the priesthood are bestowed in holy temples of the Lord. Fidelity to covenants made there will qualify you and your family for the blessings of eternal life” (p. 36)

ii.      Apostle Dallin Oaks (“Desire,” p. 44): “All should desire and seriously work to secure a marriage for eternity. Those who already have a temple marriage should do all they can to preserve it. Those who are single should desire a temple marriage and exert priority efforts to obtain it. Youth and young singles should resist the politically correct but eternally false concept that discredits the importance of marrying and having children.”

3. The Priesthood Session

i.      Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency, “Your Potential, Your Privilege,” p. 58: “Too often we attend meetings and nod our heads; we might even smile knowingly and agree. We jot down some action points, and we may say to ourselves, ‘That is something I will do.’ But somewhere between the hearing, the writing of a reminder on our smartphone, and the actual doing, our ‘do it’ switch gets rotated to the ‘later’ position. Brethren, let’s make sure to set our ‘do it’ switch always to the ‘now’ position!”

ii.      President Thomas S. Monson (“Priesthood Power,” pp. 66-67): “Brethren, there is a point at which it’s time to think seriously about marriage and to seek a companion with whom you want to spend eternity…. When you marry, brethren, you will wish to marry in the house of the Lord. For you who hold the priesthood, there should be no other option. Be careful lest you destroy your eligibility to be so married.”

4. Sunday Morning Session

i.      To me, this speech is the climax of this temple theme, appropriated delivered by President Thomas S. Monson (“The Holy Temple—a Beacon to the World,” p. 92): “Why are so many willing to give so much in order to receive the blessings of the temple? Those who understand the eternal blessings which come from the temple know that no sacrifice is too great, no price too heavy, no struggle too difficult in order to receive those blessings. There are never too many miles to travel, too many obstacles to overcome, or too much discomfort to endure. They understand that the saving ordinances received in the temple that permit us to someday return to our Heavenly Father in an eternal family relationship and to be endowed with blessings and power from on high are worth every sacrifice and every effort.”

ii.      Monson also said, “If you have not yet been to the temple or if you have been but currently do not qualify for a recommend, there is no more important goal for you to work toward than being worthy to go to the temple. Your sacrifice may be bringing your life into compliance with what is required to receive a recommend, perhaps by forsaking long-held habits which disqualify you. It may be having the faith and the discipline to pay your tithing. Whatever it is, qualify to enter the temple of God. Secure a temple recommend and regard it as a precious possession, for such it is. Until you have entered the house of the Lord and have received all the blessing which await you there, you have not obtained everything the Church has to offer. The all-important and crowning blessings of membership in the Church are those blessings which we receive in temples of God” (p. 93).

5. Sunday Afternoon Session

i.      Apostle Richard G. Scott (“The Eternal Blessings of Marriage,” pp. 95, 96): “If you are a young man of appropriate age and are not married, don’t waste time in idle pursuits. Get on with life and focus on getting married. Don’t just coast through this period of life. Young men, serve a worthy mission. Then make your highest priority in finding a worthy, eternal companion….I feel sorry for any man who hasn’t yet made the choice to seek an eternal companion, and my heart weeps for the sisters who haven’t had the opportunity to marry…Eternity is a long time.”

ii.      In a talk on tithing, Seventy Carl B. Pratt (“The Lord’s Richest Blessings,” p. 102) said: “Let us show our faith in the Lord by paying our tithing. Pay it first; pay it honestly. Teach our children to pay tithing even on their allowance or other income…” (Note: Tithing is necessary to be able to obtain the temple recommend, allowing the Latter-day Saints to enter the temple).

6. General Young Women Meeting

i.      Elaine S. Dalton, Young Women General President, “Guardians of Virtue,” p. 121: (Referring to a young woman she observed getting married in the temple) “As she entered the room, I wished with all my heart that every young woman could envision that moment and strive to always be worthy to make and keep sacred covenants and receive the ordinances of the temple in preparation to enjoy the blessings of exaltation….Your years in Young Women will prepare you for the temple. There you will receive the blessings to which you are entitled as a precious daughter of God.”

Even the children were commanded to be contemplating the importance of the temple. On page 130 under the section “They Spoke to Us” (“Making Conference Part of Our Lives”), the unnamed author provides advice to the youth: “Make goals to attend the temple as soon as you can, or discuss ways to remain worthy to enter the temple.”

Despite the fact that the church currently has 134 operating temples (with three new temples announced by Monson), I have a sneaking suspicion that attendance to the most sacred of all LDS buildings has been declining. If this is true, it’s probably because the people aren’t eligible to go inside; indeed, if they’re not fulfilling the requirements, including obeying the Word of Wisdom and tithing, they’re not allowed inside. Perhaps this is why Monson, Nelson, and Pratt all focused on the issue of tithing. After all, it seems logical that the recession and the temptation to not tithe has dropped the number of temple recommends being issued, so the leaders needed to provide a “gentle” reminder to the membership that their eternal salvation depended on this practice.

While some Mormons may be skeptical about my theory, I believe the temples are the carrot before the cart. If a person doesn’t fulfill the temple recommend requirements such as tithing, no admittance is allowed. So how can the leaders get their people more interested in fulfilling these commands? By stressing the importance of the work that’s done there. Getting people interested in temple marriage, which will settle them down as well as require them to become temple worthy to get married in the temple. And letting the Latter-day Saints know that they cannot progress in the next life without the temple. The strategy of emphasizing the temple over and over again as displayed in the April 2011 conference therefore makes perfect sense.

I conclude with two observations. First, the October 2010 conference had two different talks that quoted a speech (en toto) given thirty years previously, and as far as I can tell, it had never been quoted in conference before. (If it had, I’m sure it was a passing reference.) And, while I admit that the temple (and its requirements) is certainly going to be mentioned  one way or another in every conference, it is emphasized throughout the April 2011 conference in a much stronger fashion than I had ever seen before!  As a matter of fact, why does Holland even bring up the idea in his Sunday talk about how the general conference sessions were not orchestrated? Curious indeed.

Regarding the April 2011 conference, I can hardly believe that so many speakers chose their topics so closely related to each other. Could these cases really be coincidences? Didn’t Shakespeare once say something about an awful scent in Denmark? Perhaps he meant Salt Lake City.

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