Saturday, October 3, 2009

General Conference

I've always loved General Conference.  Today, I reminisce a bit about some of my earliest memories.  It was President Packer who recently said, "Young men talk about the future because they have no past.  Old men talk about the past because they have no future."  You can decide which I am for yourselves. . .

I grew up in the Church during the administration of President David O. McKay.  From my earliest memories of meeting him and shaking his hand in the parking lot behind the Lion House on the day I was baptized in the Tabernacle font as an eight year-old, until I was in the mission field serving in England, I never knew another president of the Church. 

There's an old black and white press photograph that hangs in my office today, taken at the October 1955 semi-annual General Conference outside the Tabernacle between the pillars of the building.  It shows The Quorum of the Twelve.  Seated on the front row is President Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee, Spencer W. Kimball, Ezra Taft Benson, Mark E. Petersen, Matthew Cowley, and standing behind them are Henry D. Moyle, Delbert L. Stapley, Marion G. Romney, LeGrand Richards, Adam S. Bennion, and the newly sustained Richard L. Evans. 

Following that Conference on Sunday evening the First Presidency and the Twelve gathered at Grandfather's home to mark the completion of yet another General Conference.  I was asked to sing one of President McKay's favorite Primary songs, "A Mormon Boy."  Grandfather accompanied me on the piano.  Then as the dinner and refreshments were being cleaned up later I found myself on the lap of Adam S. Bennion admiring his watch.  It was gold and had a calendar imbedded in the face that he told me would turn over automatically at midnight.  I wanted desperately to stay until midnight to watch the miracle watch, but my mother was persistent in reminding me it was a school night.  Elder Bennion obliged my curiosity by manually advancing the date to my everlasting delight! 

These men were my boyhood heroes.  I wanted to grow up to be just like them!  Being the eldest grandson of Harold B. Lee always assured a front row seat to all the significant events as I grew up.  As an old man now looking back, I am so grateful for one abiding blessing -- proximity.  Rubbing shoulders as I did with great men has been an unexpected boon to my existence.

As a young deacon I accompanied my father to the Tabernacle for my first General Priesthood meeting.  It was the October semi-annual General Conference of 1959.  It was a warm fall evening, and all the doors and windows in the Tabernacle were wide open to provide a cross breeze if such could be found.  President McKay stood at the pulpit to begin the meeting and the first words out of his mouth were a suggestion that if we were too warm we could remove our jackets to make ourselves more comfortable.  The vast majority shifted in their seats, many arose, and did just as he suggested.  Suddenly the audience was transformed into a sea of white as their shirtsleeves predominated the scene. 

There were no television cameras in the Tabernacle in those days.  The Church Security Department hadn't been invented yet.  The Brethren on the stand would often mingle with the audience before and after the meetings.  There was no physical separation between the red chairs and the audience.  There were only a handful of General Authorites -- the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve, Seven Presidents of the Seventy, and the Presiding Bishopric. 

We all remember how unwieldy it seemed when the Assistants to the Twelve were first introduced.  Where would they ever find the room to seat them all on the stand?  Seems funny now, when you look at the ever-burgeoning number of red chairs today in the Conference Center! 

The meetings in those days of my childhood were always more casual and intimate.  Many of the speakers addressed the audience without notes.  Hugh B. Brown, Sterling W. Sill and Bruce R. McConkie were orators in the first rank!  They are just three examples of accomplished public speakers I remember.  There were scores more, but we have seldom seen the equals of these three since. 

I remember watching General Conference sessions on our black and white TV in our family room.  Whenever Elder Bruce R. McConkie stood to speak, I always found a reason to exit the room and find something else to do.  He seemed too overpowering, too overbearing, too dramatic, too over the top.  I shudder to think about that now, but he was BORING to me as a young man.  As I matured, as I learned the gospel, as I spoke and taught the revealed truths of the Restoration, I valued Elder McConkie's teachings more and more.  He became an "acquired taste" over time.  By the time he stood at the pulpit and delivered his timeless prophetic sermon in the Sesquicentennial General Conference on April 6, 1980, entitled "The Coming Tests and Trials and Glory," I was a devoted disciple eager for every word he spoke.  The lesson is this:  He never changed.  He was as solid as the mountains that surround us.  But I changed a lot.  So it must be for all of us, I believe.  If you don't love Conference yet, persist in your faith -- you will someday.

A red light on the podium of the Tabernacle lit up if speakers were taking liberties with their alloted time.  President McKay controlled the switch from his seat.  Elder LeGrand Richards was priceless and always a favorite.  He never had a prepared speech, even after they were mandated later.  He'd stand at the pulpit and let 'er rip.  The red light always stopped him.  It was the ONLY thing that stopped him.  We all loved him.  Toward the end of his life he was living with his daughter in our ward.  He was confined to a wheel chair because his feet had been amputated due to poor circulation.  He was wheeled to the front of the chapel on one fast and testimony Sunday to bear his testimony shortly before his death.  He quipped, "All I can say is that it's a lot better to die from the bottom up than from the top down." 

The proceedings at Conference were much more informal, often humorous and folksy.  Nothing was ever predictable or timed down to the second.  The music was always provided by the men's chorus of the Tabernacle Choir at General Priesthood meeting.  President McKay's favorite hymn was "I Need Thee Every Hour," and it was sung at every General Priesthood meeting I remember.  The  rich harmony of those male voices in four (sometimes eight) parts still wafts through my memories as I write.

Television changed everything.  There was a camera installed with a seat for the cameraman on a hydraulic steel column that could be raised and lowered.  It was planted in the floor of the Tabernacle right in front of the pulpit.  There were two cameras mounted on the sides in the balcony, and another way at the back in the balcony.  Teleprompters were installed.  I'll never forget Grandfather showing us all how it worked after a session.  What a technological miracle that was!  Suddenly, there were time constraints, prepared texts, carefully guarded broadcast limits, and the clock became all-important. 

We always had a seat about thirty feet from the pulpit on the left side as you looked at the red chairs from the audience.  As the speakers would come to the pulpit one by one, Dad would always give me a brief commentary on each one.  Always and forever, when President McKay would take the pulpit to either conduct or speak, Dad would invariably say, "Keep your eye on President McKay.  This may be the last time we see him and hear him speak."  Of course, his longevity is legendary in the Church.  Every year of my youth the ritual was repeated, and the instruction never failed.  And he lived on.  He lived so long I don't think any of us thought he would ever die.  I remember him vividly.  His long flowing white hair, and his signature white suits set him apart from all other men of his era.  Tall and erect, his personna was prophetic.

I well remember his counselors, Stephen L. Richards and J. Reuben Clark.  President Clark had been the first counselor to President Heber J. Grant, and when President McKay succeeded him as president he made a "shocking" announcement that President Clark would be the second counselor instead.  Church members were stunned.  The move was perceived as a demotion.  But President Clark took it all in stride, teaching the ageless lesson to Church members:  It's not where you serve, but how that is important.

I always loved attending General Conference with Grandfather.  Our tradition as a family, particularly on the night of General Priesthood meeting was to gather at his home early in the afternoon.  An early supper was prepared, then we would pile into Grandfather's Buick and he would drive.  The Wilkins from Provo would come whenever they could and that was always my favorite part of the weekend -- to get to see our cousins and sit with Alan and Larry and my brothers and Uncle Ernie.  We'd drive to the underground parking lot, then walk with Grandfather through the tunnel connecting the parking lot to the Tabernacle.  Those were the days, of course, after the other Church Office Building ("the high rise" at 50 East North Temple) had been erected.  Grandfather would invariably point out where the tunnel intersected with the temple precincts en route to the Tabernacle.  He always became reverential.  In later years he rode in an electric cart, but I always remember best the long walks together in the tunnel, visiting and talking as we strode together with him (he always walked fast -- he seemed to always be in a hurry, and he was NEVER late for anything!).

Often we would also attend the general sessions of Conference to hear him speak.  I must have heard him deliver at least a hundred sermons before I was a missionary.  However, I never in all those experiences had an appreciation for who he was until I saw him in action in the mission field.  I spoke of that experience in an earlier post.

There is one particular memory I have of him when he was a counselor to President Smith in the First Presidency.  As we came through the tunnel after the meeting, he exclaimed to all of us, "Did you hear what the Lord had to tell the Priesthood tonight?"  He was referring to his own remarks, made to the brethren without a prepared script.  He was speaking under the influence of the Spirit and we had all sensed it.  Even he, it seemed, had been stunned with the power of what we had just experienced.

Of course, toward the end of his life President McKay needed assistance.  He was often carried into the meeting by others and placed carefully in his chair.  His sons took turns delivering his sermons as his physical condition deteriorated.  I have never forgotten how revered he was by the members of the Church. 

From the earliest recollections of my childhood to this very moment I have never ceased to carry in my heart a deep and abiding witness of the divine calling of the prophets, seers and revelators and others we sustain as General Authorities.  I know they are called of God, and inspired as His instruments to give guidance and clearly defined directions to the saints in these last days, "as if from mine own mouth," said the Lord referring to Joseph and extending down to the least ordained of all His priesthood leaders (see D&C 21:5).  I also know they are mere mortals, however, just like you and me.  I know personally of their humility because of the frailties and personal challenges of their mortal condition.  But I have always known this -- the most accurate measurement of my progress spiritually is the degree to which my heart and mind is aligned with theirs. 

It was President Harold B. Lee who said, "I listened to an excerpt of a testimony of a man who was a member of the Twelve and of whom President Grant had said that he never knew a man who had a greater gift of prophecy than did this man. There was put in my hands a quotation from a sermon that he had delivered some fifty years before, which proved to be the last sermon he had ever delivered as a member of the Twelve. Before another conference, he was dropped from the Council of the Twelve and subsequently left the Church. This is what he said, in that last sermon: 'That person is not truly converted unless he sees the power of God resting upon the leaders of this church and it goes down into his heart like fire.' And I repeat that to you here today. The measure of your true conversion and whether or not you hold fast to those ideals is whether or not you are so living that you see the power of God resting upon the leaders of this church and that testimony goes down into your heart like fire."  (THBL, 520).

All the examples I have cited in this post involve dead men.  Such is the fodder of memories.  But for those of us who still live we must never forget the most important leaders of the Church are the LIVING PROPHETS, not the dead ones!

I look forward to this 179th semi-annual General Conference as it opens today in Salt Lake City.  It's always a special time.  What a Church!!  What other Church on the face of the earth lets you attend services for two days in a row dressed in your jammies in front of your TV? 

What are your favorite memories of Conference?  Please share. . .  your comments are invited.

1 comment:

  1. I loved reading these memories. I racked my brain for specific memories, but came up a little short on particulars. As a child I always loved to hear President Monson's stories. He was my favorite speaker until I gained the "acquired taste" for Elder Maxwell (had to be quick with my pen for his talks) and then Elder Holland and Eyring all became favorites when I was in high school. I just remember good times with the family - all packed into the family room with blankets, pillows, notepads, and yummy food abounding. I of course remember Anne of Green Gables and pizza nights during Priesthood Session, and Conference turned up so loudly it could be heard from anywhere in the house! I love Conference time and am so grateful it was emphasized and prioritized in our home growing up. There was never an option to skip a session for something else. It was the main event and everything else fell into the background.