More Jesus, Less Joseph: Changes in Mormon General Conference

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Shepherd 9781607814443With LDS General Conference coming up, there’s always lots of speculation about what topics the prophets, apostles, and auxiliary leaders will cover. Two sociologists take a long view – a really long view, as in all of LDS church history – and point to what we can learn about how Mormonism changes over time by crunching the numbers of what gets talked about at General Conference.

So let’s take a look at some highlights from the new 2016 edition of A Kingdom Transformed: Early Mormonism and the Modern LDS Church, which was first published in 1984 but has now been updated to include all Conference talks up through 2009(You can buy it here from Amazon.)

I spoke with the authors, identical twin brothers Gordon and Gary Shepherd, who are professors of sociology at different universities but have collaborated on many research projects together.

RNS: What pops out in your tables is the growing importance of Jesus Christ as a conference topic, whereas in the earliest decades he didn’t even crack the top ten.

Gary: During the last 30 years, Jesus Christ has been mentioned four and a half times more frequently than Joseph Smith. And of course, Joseph Smith is still one of the more frequently identified terms from our analysis, although he has dropped out of the top twenty items being mentioned in General Conference for the last 30 years. That’s a significant point. The contrast between mentions of Jesus and Joseph Smith over the last 30 years is really very, very notable.

Gordon: Also, it’s not just in the last 30 years that Jesus Christ has become an ascendant conference topic. We saw that in our earlier analysis that by the 1970s it was already clear that there had been a shift in emphasis on Jesus Christ as the head of the church. We see this as a reflection of the accommodation that the Church was going through, fitting in more comfortably with Christian denominations in American society, and emphasizing that Mormonism really is a Christian tradition and not a cult.

LDS General Conference themes, 1830-2009RNS: Another thing that shows up in recent years is the importance of marriage, family, and children. How does that compare to previous generations?

Gary: The topic of parenthood and responsibilities did not emerge among the top themes until the third generation, according to our measure – 1890 to 1919. Prior to that, it wasn’t a topic discussed with any great degree of emphasis at all. But in the late twentieth century, 1950 to 1979, parenthood and marriage and family – all three – were among the top three for the first time.

RNS: Why this new focus?

Gordon: The message is that the LDS Church sponsors the same kind of family and marriage that at least in the mid-twentieth century was the national ideal. Mormons promote the idea that these family values are what is most characteristic about Latter-day Saints. Which in more recent decades has dovetailed with conservative Christianity.

Gary: Even people who don’t hold the LDS Church in high esteem for religious reasons will typically comment on the great appeal of Mormonism being its emphasis on families. So that message has obviously come out of the LDS Church and rebounded very advantageously for the Church’s reputation.

RNS: So those topics are now discussed frequently in conference. What about the opposite: themes that used to be important and are no longer getting much play?

Gary: What we call “utopian” themes are not mentioned anymore with any frequency whatsoever, such as persecution, Zion, enemies, or Gentiles. All of these terms that connote an “us versus them” contrast are gone.

Gordon: This idea of Zion of course has changed. In the nineteenth century it meant the gathering. Mormon missionaries were supposed to be going out and bringing people back to Zion, with definite millennial expectations involved. But now, when General Authorities reference Zion, there’s no emphasis at all on a gathering, and very little on an imminent end of the world. The reorganized concept of Zion does not refer to a particular place, but to a global network of church members who are united in their faith and their beliefs.

RNS: You mentioned a disappearance of talk of the end times, but we do still hear about that now and then.

Gary: Although occasionally a General Authority might comment specifically on themes related to the end times, these are idiosyncratic instances. Given the entire body of conference addresses over a designated period of time, they simply don’t show up anymore. It’s only themes that are referenced constantly and by many leaders that would begin to register in our data.

Gordon: Why has this become less and less frequent? With the passage of enough time, any religious community that in the past has put an emphasis on the end times is going to have to adjust their theology. You can’t keep talking about it as though it’s going to happen tomorrow when you said that fifty years ago. Another thing is that the LDS Church is at the present time very much concerned with its members being actively involved in carrying out all the programs that constitute what it means now to be a Latter-day Saint. There’s a more focused concentration on the programs of the church, not the end of the world.

RNS: You also point out something that surprised me, that the Book of Mormon has only appeared among the top twenty topics in a single decade in all of church history [the 1980s]. And even then it barely squeaked onto the list.

Gordon: The Book of Mormon as a specific conference topic correlated very closely with the presidency of Ezra Taft Benson. He personally crusaded for emphasizing it in every way he could think of, and after his presidency was over it just dropped out.

Gary: And throughout the nineteenth century, there’s very little mention of the Book of Mormon. Both Gordon and I found it very interesting that Joseph Smith himself virtually never referred to the Book of Mormon after it was published. It didn’t emerge as a topic of interest in his speeches or writings, nor those of his associates in the earliest times of Mormon history.

RNS: Why isn’t the Book of Mormon discussed more often now?

Gordon: We interpret that by saying that the Church is concerned about how it is perceived by others who are not LDS. They want to reinforce the idea that Mormonism is a staunch Christian religion, and the Book of Mormon doesn’t support that with critics. It’s a scripture that they don’t recognize as genuine or valid.

This is part of the overall de-emphasis of certain kinds of teachings and doctrines that are peculiar to Mormonism. There’s been a decline in mentioning specifically Mormon ideas of salvation, like exaltation and the Celestial Kingdom. Those are core Mormon theological beliefs, but they don’t get referenced very often at General Conference, especially in the last 30 years.

Gary: When these kinds of concerns are discussed at General Conference, the unique Mormon vocabulary is not employed. They’ll say “heaven” instead of “the Celestial Kingdom,” and “salvation” instead of “exaltation.” Mormon audiences will make a translation in their minds about what that really refers to, but at General Conference that’s not the vocabulary that is employed by General Authorities.

 

  • HarryStamper

    I may point out….no prophet taught us more about Jesus Christ than any other prophet who ever lived than Joseph Smith. In the book “Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith” which is a summary of his teachings….Christ is mentioned 183 times.

    And of course this famous statement…
    Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Section Three 1838–39, p.121
    The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.

  • Chris Warner

    The data is interesting, but not sure I agree with the interpretation of the data given by the authors. The essential idea is that what topics are discussed is generally based on the idea of the church trying to fit in with the rest of Christianity. Couldn’t another interpretation simply be that those are the topics the church needed at the time? For instance, there was an increased focus on family, not because we wanted the world to think we had normal families, but because the family was under attack at the time by changing values?

  • Elder Anderson

    What can I say, Harry, that’s a pretty bold claim. Certainly the number of times Jesus Christ is mentioned in a book doesn’t correlate with the amount nor quality of teaching. You could repeat “Jesus Christ” 1000 times while teaching nothing at all. Also, Christians worldwide repeat the Nicene Creed every Sunday. It contains the almost the exact wording in your Joseph Smith quote and was around for 1500 years before him. Certainly, I’d say there are many notable Christians before and after Smith who’ve taught us more about Jesus Christ and Christianity–whether or not they were called “prophets”.

  • Memba

    Interesting post, Janna. Thanks.

    I find it surprising that “obedience” is emphasized less recently that it used to be. It seems like it gets discussed a lot. It is often talked about as a universal value all by itself, without any qualifications about who and what we should obey.

    Many times, this can be totally confusing and even doctrinally incorrect. No church member is required to be “obedient” to everything we hear or even everything that comes out of a leader’s mouth. In fact, we are commanded search, ponder and pray to get our own revelation and confirmation. Of course, obedience to the wrong authority can really get you into a bad place in life.

    If obedience was emphasized more historically than it is now, it must have been pretty oppressive. I am glad we are moving away from emphasizing it so heavily–if we really are?

  • Mike

    I found it interesting that Jesus Christ was not even in the top ten for a very long time. I have noticed this in Sacrament talks all my life. Topics such as word of wisdom, chastity, scriptures, etc but rarely do I hear a talk on Jesus Christ. Maybe the church should stop trying to inoculate people and do what other church’s do and tell wards to start focusing on Christ.

  • Elder Anderson

    I have noticed this myself. “Jesus Christ” has come and gone from the name over the years. My intuition (with nothing to back me up) is that “Jesus Christ” is there to make the LDS Church appear more mainstream. This is probably because many of the core tenets differ from mainstream Christianity to the point where some denominations claim the LDS Church is *not* Christian.

    Evolution of the name:
    Church of Christ (Smith’s original name)
    Church of the Latter Day Saints (by 1834 resolution)
    Church of Jesus Christ
    Church of God
    Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints
    Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (by an 1838 revelation)

  • HarryStamper

    Simply making the point that Joseph Smith taught salvation through Christ a lot….it was the major theme of his work and teachings.
    Regarding bold claims…..”Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it.”

  • Elder Anderson

    ”Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it.”

    Of course, merely saying something doesn’t make it true. Furthermore, I’d argue that the New Testament prophets, in laying the foundation of the Christian church did more than Smith. Without them, the church wouldn’t even exist to bring salvation. For that matter, speaking of absolute numbers, only a tiny fraction of Christians in the world identify as LDS–I believe it’s on the order of 1%.

  • Kevin

    Thank you for sharing the interesting highlights and conclusions of the Shepherds’ updated book. If they were to focus the book again in a new addition, I would like to see even more focus on specifically the themes from those we hold as prophets, seers, and revelatory (the Quorum of the 12 Apostles and the First Presidency). Or even a more focused comparison of the themes from the prophets themselves, which becomes the “prophetic priority” that the general authorities and area seventies then emphasize on their stake conference assignments in the church. For example, President Monson’s theme has been “the rescue” reaching out to others who need help. Although that theme doesn’t specifically mention Jesus in the title, it definitely involves following the Savior’s example of loving others. A look at the prophetic priority themes in line with the current events of the time would also be interesting. President Monson’s priority is so relevant today with some members leaving…

  • Pr Chris

    You might try Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

    Pr Chris

  • Kevin

    Typo meant to say “revelators” not “revelatory”.

  • ton

    The Mormon church carry out many activities that are not Christ centered. Like
    gays, use of church funds, requiring paying money to get into heaven, lying, etc.
    thrwing people out of the church. Mormons are not part the body of Christ.

  • Joel

    I think the analysis is fatally limited by text-based searches.

    We use a lot of euphemism. For example, “obedience” isn’t mentioned that much, probably because it sounds creepy. But every third talk in GC seems to be about “following the prophet.” And the implication of that concept is obedience.

  • Pingback: The Brink of Change | contemporaryamericanreligion()

  • Anne H

    Interesting that Joseph Smith himself only used the Bible and never really taught from the book of mormon..

  • Ronn! Blankenship

    Looks like there’s either a tyop in the column headers or the speakers in General Conference don’t remember the Sixties and Seventies*, perhaps because like Spock in STIV they did too much LDS then . . . ?

    (For the younger readers: there was a saying back then that if you remember the Sixties/Seventies you weren’t really there . . . referring to the popularity of drug use among certain segments of the population during that period. ? )

  • Gary Shepherd

    Not smoking anything, just a typo in the column heading. Should be 1950-1979 for column V.

  • Gary Shepherd

    Righto regarding euphemism and alternate phrasing. But read the whole book and you will discover that these limitations are dealt with in great detail.

  • I remember when the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics came to town and the LDS Church put on a huge show in the brand new Conference Center. The burden to appear Christian was huge. I wrote about this show (actually a review in Dialogue), and one of the things I noticed as someone who had moved to NYC was that the visitor centers were echoing with the word “Jesus Christ” from the dioramas and webinar-styled infomercials on computers. It was a mixed bag, this make-over as a Christian church. Of course much earlier my father George Pace got crucified, pun intended, for promoting a more Christ-centered Mormon gospel. You can read the Dialogue review here: http://davidgpace.com/2015/12/07/endowing-the-olympic-masses-review-of-light-of-the-world-at-the-2002-winter-olympics/

  • Neon Genesis

    It seems a bit blasphemous to suggest Joseph Smith is more important than the original New Testatement authors.

  • Fred M

    That’s possible. But I think it also may have something to do with the way our concept of family has evolved culturally. There’s a reason that you don’t find the concept of eternal families in the Bible or BofM–the idea of living with your family forever wasn’t something people in either of those cultures thought about. And it also wasn’t something the early saints in this dispensation thought about either. They would be very surprised by the things the church is known for today!

    Speaking of, when you think about it, “families can be together forever” is a concept that’s primarily attractive to parents. We all want to be sealed to our kids. But how many of us really want to live eternally with the family we grew up in? Not me! No thank you.

  • HarryStamper

    I apologize, I didn’t mean to suggest it, I meant to declare it as fact. Joseph Smith taught explained testified more about Jesus Christ than any other.

    I’ve read the writings of Joseph Smith, they surpass all others in content clarity and depth. If Peter James and John were here they would shout with unified voice………….Harry’s correct.

  • Elder Anderson

    You do realize that Jesus Christ himself was a prophet, right? So you are saying that Joseph Smith taught more about Christianity than Jesus Christ himself? Even Joseph Smith wasn’t that arrogant.

    Also, Christianity existed for 2,000 years before Joseph Smith founded Mormonism, only about 1 out of 100 Christians are LDS today, and almost nobody outside Utah has even heard of Mormonism let alone Joseph Smith. It’s ridiculous to claim Joseph Smith taught more than any other person.

    On that basis, I’m pretty sure the prophets would say “Harry Stamper needs a math lesson.”

  • Ben in Oakland

    Closer to 1700 years.posskbly 1800.

  • jojo

    I am guessing there’s a type-o in the chart. Column V should be 1950 to 1979.

  • HarryStamper

    “blasphemous to suggest Joseph Smith is more important than the original New Testatement authors.”

    No….I didn’t say anything about being more important, didn’t even use the word.
    I wrote…..”no prophet taught us more about Jesus Christ than any other prophet who ever lived than Joseph Smith.” The key word is taught. Joseph Smith left us thousands of pages of writings which contain insights about the role of Jesus Christ found no where else….also clarity depth of all basic doctrines taught by Christ.

    Anyone who reads his writings, Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants etc with a sincere prayerful heart will come to the same conclusion.

    Jana….am I right….??? Do you agree…???

  • This is the problem my wife has with the LDS version of Mormonism and why, she feels, we do not have any new revelation. By worrying more about those outside the church than the Lord, the question is raised as to who or whom the leaders serve.

  • Elder Anderson

    “taught us more… thousands of pages”
    St. Thomas Aquinas’s “Summa Theologica” is about 3500 pages long, and that’s just one work. I am pretty sure any theologian would say Thomas Aquinas’s teachings make Smith’s insignificant by comparison. And he’s just he’s just the first name that popped into my head.

    “insights about the role of Jesus Christ found nowhere else”

    Really? How about listing some of Smith’s insights about Jesus Christ that you are certain are found *nowhere else* in Christian and lay literature. So go ahead, Harry. List a few of your best examples. I’ll tell you where Smith cadged them from.

  • Memba

    David:

    I took a class, Gospel Principles and Practices, from your father at BYU–probably around 1977. He was a wildly popular teacher. He was very charismatic and entertaining. His classes were almost always very enjoyable and inspirational.

    However, he taught quite a few things as “doctrine” which were a stretch. Those include: 1) Even though the church is neutral on politics, God isn’t. If you pray, he will tell you whom to vote for (hint: not a democrat); 2) The use of birth control of any kind is a sin. I got a lecture for writing a paper disagreeing with him on this topic; and, the one that got him into trouble, 3) He sometimes prayed directly to Jesus Christ.

    This was all before he became a stake president. I found great irony in the fact that Bruce R. McConkie called him on #3 and released him. Ironic because Bruce R. published the famous Mormon Doctrine which overreached on many, many issues and called them doctrine. God bless your good hearted dad!

  • I agree that my father was not an innocent in the case of McConkie’s dressing him down. My point is that the LDS Church continues to have a tortured history as a Christ-centered faith, especially since the rise of contemporary evangelical Christianity. The 10 years I spent in the Episcopal Church bore out the great differences btwn Mormonism and traditional mainstream Christianity. My Dad just got caught in the crossfire I suppose. The makeover the LDS Church did in 2002 was laughable to and unnecessary in my view since Mormonism is so much more interesting as a new religious tradition than as a Christian sect.

  • Elder Anderson

    “He sometimes prayed directly to Jesus Christ.”

    Most Christians would find it odd that Mormons don’t pray to Jesus Christ. Reading the above sentence as a prohibition would make their eyes bug out. 🙂

    I’ve seen all the LDS scriptural and doctrinal justification against praying to Jesus Christ, but it seems there’s just as much scripture that favors it, and non-Mormons pray to God and Jesus Christ pretty much interchangeably.

    Possibly, the prohibition may derive from the Mormon concept of the Trinity which also differs considerably from mainstream Christianity. I don’t know. It does explain why Mormon prayers address “the Father” and end with “in the name of Jesus Christ”.

    Anyway, this is an interesting fact about Mormons that many “gentiles” probably aren’t aware of.

  • Actually, my father never prayed to Jesus. The objection McConkie had to my father’s book, WHAT IT MEANS TO KNOW CHRIST (Council Press) was that my father wrote that because Christ was our “mediary” our prayers go through him to the Father, and that in turn the Father blesses us through Christ. Whatever that means. It was all kind of sordid, this parsing of words and doctrine by a GA who I think was working out his own weird stuff publicly.

  • Elder Anderson

    Thanks David. Amazing to know somebody with first hand/inside knowledge. Very interesting.

  • Memba

    David:

    I really appreciate your sharing. I have often thought about your father. He was an excellent teacher, even though I didn’t agree with all he taught. Both my parents also knew your dad from the mission field, which is one of the reasons I took his class.

    I was shocked when Bruce R. McConkie did what he did to your father. He did a weird thing when he visited my mission. He picked an Elder up by the lapels and asked him if he wanted to see people damned? And if he didn’t, he had better baptize more–because everyone he didn’t baptize “shall be damned”. I thought it was creepy and harsh.

    I agree w Elder A’s points that LDS are unique for not praying to Jesus. I have never understood why this is such a big deal. In some ways, it is an example of the LDS church’s emphasis on a lot of Old Testament ideas–especially concerning obedience and commandments, but also polygamy and the role of Adam and Eve, Elijah, Isaiah and more.

    I wish we could pray to…

  • Elder Anderson

    @memba

    You got me thinking about who I actually pray to. 🙂

    Usually I open with “(Dear) Heavenly Father” which I always think of as God (but not the same as the Mormon concept of Heavenly Father).

    Alternatively, I open with “(Dear) Lord” which I always think of as Jesus Christ.

    However, as I said, non-Mormons think of these as somehow equivalent, being “the Trinity”.

    I usually close with “in Jesus’s name, Amen” or just “Amen”.

    I think these mannerisms are whatever I heard my parents and grandparents say as I grew up.

  • Mike

    The other thing that is interesting about this is we are supposed to be “The Church” not just “a church” and yet it took us 100 years to get Christ into the top 10 topics in General Conference. This tells me that clearly the brethren are not having face to face interviews with the Savior. They operate just as leaders of any church do by inspiration and their own ideas.

  • Kevin

    Hi David, I also had your father as a BYU Religion teacher during the height of his popularity and loved his class. I’ve got some questions that I don’t know if Jana Riess will allow answered in this blog or it may be something you wish not to discuss. However it is in line with some of the challenges the LDS Church is facing today in light of the exodus of some members for various reasons. I’ve noticed from your comments that you are not likely following the LDS faith anymore and wondered if you wouldn’t mind sharing what influences lead you down an alternative path? In this vein, did Elder McConkie’s talk referring to your dad’s teachings have any influence in your path you chose as well? Also wondering if other family siblings remained in the faith today? Last question – I just ordered your new book on-line, “Dream House on Golan Drive” and wondered if your own personal experiences growing up were used as the inspiration guiding the writing of your book? I hope you…

  • Anon

    I was taught that we prayed to the Father, through the Son, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

  • ben in oakland

    St. Oscar Levant:

    “Imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism.”

  • E. Jota

    Jesus himself laid the foundation of his Church, beginning with the choosing of the Twelve Apostles, who led the Church by direct revelation from himself after he ascended to Heaven. With the death of the Apostles, revelation to direct the Church was lost, priesthood authority was lost, and the Church fell into the hands of men without authority from God. No Christian can trace Priesthood authority to the ancient Twelve Apostles. We have the Christian churches to thank for keeping faith, hope, and charity alive. But salvation has not been in their hands since the second century. Only a new dispensation of authority from Heaven could again bring salvation to mankind. That’s why every sincere person should seriously examine the claim of Joseph Smith, that such a new dispensation is exactly what took place. No one else makes such a claim.

  • Elder Anderson

    “No one else makes such a claim.”

    Well, no one except every other church in the Restorationist movement, e. g. Charismatic Restorationists, Hussites, Anabaptists, Landmarkists, Puritans, Waldensians, Sabbatarians, etc.

    As for being the “one true church”, there are several, e.g. Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodox Communion, Assyrian Church of the East, etc.

    So it’s kind of pointless to claim “we’re the only true church” when lots of other churches say the same and support their claims with evidence just like the LDS.

    You can “bear testimony” and provide “evidence” all day long, but it really boils down to what you believe, and many other peoples’ beliefs are every bit as valid as yours.

  • Joel

    E.Jota,

    Must say, I’ve never been impressed by this central premise of Mormon apologetics: No one else had the shameless nerve to claim what Joseph did. Therefore you must presume he was being truthful.

    Funny that Mormons don’t realize why everyone else finds this assertion dumbfounding and comical.

  • Elder Anderson

    @Joel

    When I Googled “new dispensation” the top suggestion was a wiki on the founder of the Bahá’í Faith. When I read the founder’s bio and tenets of the Bahá’í Faith, there were fascinating parallels. You might say they have the same “flavor” while differing in some details. I’d have never made *that* connection. 🙂

  • Kevin, I’ve actually written about the impact of McConkie’s little war with my father. [see link below] This personal essay was originally a Sunstone talk. Later it appeared in Lavina Fielding Anderson’s Case Reports of the Mormon Alliance, which includes the most comprehensive report on the whole incident. http://davidgpace.com/2015/11/15/mcconkie-and-dad-memories-dreams-and-a-rejection-a-personal-essay/

    To answer your question about its impact, I would have to say that the so-called Pace/McConkie incident certainly helped propel me outside the Mormon universe, but my disaffection began as early as age 14. I now refer to myself as an ethnic or secular Mormon, a monikers I have most recently explored in HuffPost in conversation with author Mette Ivie Harrison.

    The McConkie incident shows up, with some poetic license, in my semi-autobiographical novel DREAM HOUSE ON GOLAN DRIVE that you referred to. Thanks for your interest. I hope you enjoy the book!

  • It sounds a lot like Mormonism continues to shift what they do and say based on how much becomes known about Mormonism.

    What you don’t have is the Mormon hierarchy just coming out and telling the truth.

    The Jesus that Mormonism worships is a different Jesus.

    Philippians 1:18, “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”

    http://downtownministries.blogspot.com/

  • RealReligion

    When Joseph spoke of the centrality of “the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ”, he clearly intended to include his own testimony, those called and commissioned in our own day, and those of the Book of Mormon. Indeed, Jesus Christ is recorded as having taught the need to accept the words of this “man” (See 3 Nephi 21:9-11). A clear example of this centrality of Jesus Christ, as witnessed in the revelations of the restoration, is found in D&C 76:22-24. The testimony of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is not sufficient. We have to heed the living witness.