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Tomorrow (Saturday) and Sunday, the Mormon church is holding a general conference, which happens twice a year, in place of regular church meetings.

There's some basic stuff on their website about it, but I'd like to know more about what it is, how it started, why it is held, its significance to church members, etc.

For example: It's a general conference -- who exactly is invited: is it for members only, like the temples? Is it a collection of sermons or does the format vary? What is discussed, and are there any notable conferences which have impacted Christianity or the world?

Bonus points for scriptural references or parallels.

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Good question and I'm interested to see answers, but it seems a little overloaded with sub questions. I'm sure it's a pretty big subject and this calls for a lot of detail. I would suggest breaking some of the specifics out into independent questions. –  Caleb Oct 6 '12 at 7:32
    
Yah, sorry about that. I just couldn't pick! I welcome edits and if anyone wants to start their own more specific question, that's great too. –  Matt Oct 6 '12 at 14:05
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3 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

General Conference is literally the oldest tradition of the LDS Church, as the church was formally organized at a General Conference meeting on April 6, 1830. Section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants lays out the basic organizational details for the church established during that meeting. Of particular interest to this question are verses 61 and 62:

61 The several elders composing this church of Christ are to meet in conference once in three months, or from time to time as said conferences shall direct or appoint;

62 And said conferences are to do whatever church business is necessary to be done at the time.

The practice of quarterly conferences was changed fairly early on, as the rapid growth of the Church made it impractical. Traditionally conference lasted for three days, and the April conference would always include the anniversary of April 6, which often proved difficult when the scheduling conflicted with weekday commitments to work or school. This was changed in April 1977 and today they are held on a semi-annual basis, the first weekend of April and of October.

The general public is openly invited to General Conference. It is streamed live on the Internet, in addition to being broadcast by television, radio, cable and satellite throughout the world. All stake centers (meetinghouses designated as the administrative center of a stake, or collection of local congregations) and many ordinary meetinghouses have satellite dishes or other equipment installed to receive these broadcasts, and display them to the Church members or any members of the public who wish to stop by.

The format of General Conference tends to be fixed, consisting mainly of sermons delivered over the course of six two-hour sessions by top Church authorities. Church business is also conducted, such as the calling or release of leaders and a statistical reports on the state of the Church "by the numbers". As is common in LDS meetings in general, hymns are sung at every meeting, by various choirs from the Church. It is common to have the Mormon Tabernacle Choir provide the music for at least one session. However, all meetings fall under the guidance of verse 45 of the aforementioned charter in Doctrine and Covenants section 20, which states that those conducting meetings are to do so "as they are led by the Holy Ghost," meaning that changes can be made as necessary. This was done quite memorably on at least one occasion. (See below.)

Notable moments in General Conference:

April, 1830: The organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

October, 1856: Brigham Young, upon receiving word just before the start of Conference that a large group of Mormon emigrants was stranded by a snowstorm with inadequate supplies and people were dying, essentially called off the whole conference. He claimed that the Holy Ghost had "dictated" to him that the highest priority at the moment was "to save the people," that to live by their beliefs was far more important than to talk about them. He gave one short sermon in which he explained the issue and ordered the organization of a rescue party to be made ready and depart immediately, and then dismissed the conference so the members could get to it. (The rescue party headed out later that day and was largely successful.)

October 1890: President Wilford Woodruff read he called "the Manifesto," an official declaration putting to an end the practice of plural marriage in the Church.

April 1998: President Gordon B. Hinckley announced a new plan for building temples at a much smaller scale. Previously, temples, considered the House of the Lord, had been rather palatial in size and scope, (with the best-known example being the iconic Salt Lake Temple,) and correspondingly expensive to build and maintain. Less than fifty had been constructed by the Church since its founding in 1830. By setting up a new option to build more minimalist temples, plans were made over the course of the next year to bring the total up to 100 or more by the end of the 20th century, bringing the blessings of temple worship to many more people throughout the world. By the time of President Hinckley's death in 2008, there were 124 temples in operation and several more under construction, due in large part to this "small temples" program.

October 1998: President Hinckley, gave a strong warning about debt from the pulpit. He specifically mentioned the importance of buying affordable homes, and he quoted from the Genesis account of Pharaoh's dream of seven years of prosperity followed by seven years of famine, ending on the warning from verse 32: "And God will shortly bring it to pass." He stated that he was "not predicting years of famine in the future," but nevertheless it was very important for Church members to "get their house in order" and get out of debt.

October 2001: Three years later, President Hinckley reiterated this warning, again invoking Pharaoh's dream, (and this time, notably, not saying that it would "shortly" come to pass,) and urged members to pay down their debts and specifically to pay down mortgages quickly. At the end of September of 2008, almost exactly seven years after this talk was given, the housing market imploded, bringing an end to a largely prosperous time and plunging the entire world into a severe economic crisis that, political optimism notwithstanding, it has yet to recover from. Church members who heeded their prophet's warning and made the sacrifices necessary to pay their mortgages off (or at least down) quickly were affected far less than most people.

October 2012: President Thomas S. Monson announces a change in the Church's missionary service policy:

I am pleased to announce that, effective immediately, all worthy and able young men who graduated from high school... regardless of where they live, will have the opportunity to be recommended for missionary service... [And] able, worthy young women who have the desire to serve may be recommended for missionary service beginning at age 19 instead of age 21.

He stated that moving the potential age of missionary service back allowed for greater flexibility, to make it easier to allow members to serve a mission without interfering with other obligations, such as national military service requirements.

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I should've just laid back and let you answer it. Please let me know if there's anything incorrect or offensive in my answer. +1. I was looking for that in the D&C but it's been so long I couldn't even remember what to search for. –  David Stratton Oct 6 '12 at 14:10
    
@David: It looks like you did a pretty good job. I wouldn't characterize it as being "like an annual business meeting," though, as I've sat through a few of those and they were never open to the public. :P –  Mason Wheeler Oct 6 '12 at 14:14
    
That's true. I also went back and clarified my impression of the excitement because sitting in on the meeting there wasn't a lot of cheering like you'd see in Apple when Steve Jobs approaches. Me meeting wasn't like that... I was mainly remembering... well, it's in the answer. I know I'm not an expert on it, but it was something I remember fairly vividly considering how long ago it was. Your answer is a lot better in many ways. –  David Stratton Oct 6 '12 at 14:16
    
@David: Well, the next one starts in about two hours, and they're streaming it online. Feel free to watch and refresh your memory on how it works. :) –  Mason Wheeler Oct 6 '12 at 14:18
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Might be worthwhile to include that it's technically age 18 that young men are eligible - though usually it is 18 that they graduate from high school, it's possible to graduate early. –  Wayne Werner Dec 14 '12 at 17:07
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General Conference is a meeting held twice a year for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (or Mormons). It is held on a Saturday and a Sunday where the Prophet on earth today gets to speak to the world and apostles and other authorities of the church speak as well. It is a great meeting and if you haven't watched it, you definitely should! It happens the first week of April and the first week of October. It's amazing.

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Welcome to the site! I'm just, wondering since it sounds like you're a LDS member, if you have more detail to add. This is already somewhat covered in the other answers, and it would be really great to have more insight over and above what's already been posted! Perhaps it would add value to the answer, and give outsiders a peek inside. –  David Stratton Oct 9 '12 at 0:41
    
It could certainly use elaboration, but I think this answer has value because it specifically mentions the target audience for the conference. There's a difference between the audience being Church members with the public invited, and the target audience actually being the world (public), with Church members and others invited. –  Matt Oct 9 '12 at 3:09
    
Definitely check out the church's website because it can elaborate on any question you might have. It's lds.org I'm new to this site so I hope it's okay to refer you to another website on this topic. I'm also willing to elaborate and explain more, but what is it about it that you want to know? –  Aubrey Oct 25 '12 at 19:57
    
@Aubrey, sorry for the delay. I totally missed your comment somehow. I think the other answers covered the rest, but yours specifically mentioned the audience. And yes, citing reliable external references is always encouraged! –  Matt Jan 26 '13 at 2:06
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I should probably let a member of the LDS Church answer this, as I only attended the LDS Church for a few months. There was an LDS conference during that time, and I'm going to attempt to answer based on what I can find for official statements and my own memory of the event.

From the LDS Website:

What is general conference?

General conference is a semiannual gathering of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During general conference weekend, Church members and others gather worldwide in a series of two-hour sessions to receive inspiration and instruction from Church leaders.

Even though the main conference occurs in Salt Lake City, it's something that every member of the LDS Church can attend, in the local congregations. In the one I was attending, it was shown over a projector, and all of the members attended. They also use modern technology like Podcasts, YouTube, and others to give people that absolutely couldn't attend in person, or in their local place of gathering a chance to see and listen to the entire messages. On top of that, the Deseret News provides extensive coverage.

The purpose is to give the leaders a chance to give guidance to the Church (as a whole - all members of the LDS Church, rather than local Churches), to preach, to exhort, and to instruct. Also, announcements such as changes to Church Leadership, new direction, new understanding of doctrine based on divine revelation to Church Leadership is all common as well.

The teachings covered here are considered to be authoritative, and according to the following, are considered inspired.

Again, from the official LDS site: (bold text added by me)

  • Read Doctrine and Covenants 68:2–4. What “scriptures” do we have today in addition to the standard works? (The inspired teachings of modern-day Apostles and Prophets.) Where can we find the teachings of modern-day Apostles and Prophets? (Church magazines and general conference reports.) How have you been blessed as you have treated their counsel as scripture?

For the members, it's a chance to hear directly from those highest in the Church leadership.

As much as I hate quoting from Wikipedia, it covers the basics quite well:

General conferences are held on the weekends containing the first Sunday in April and the first Sunday in October. The April conference is known as the Annual General Conference, and the October conference as the Semiannual General Conference. The April conference includes annual statistical and financial reports not included in the October meeting. Both conferences are identified by the number of years since the church was founded in April 1830; thus, the April 2011 meeting was the 181st Annual General Conference, and the October 2011 meeting was the 181st Semiannual General Conference.

As for the significance to the Church members, aside from the obvious implications of the above:

It's not much different than any other annual or semi-annual business meeting for many secular businesses. It's a chance to make big announcements, and motivation speeches, but of course, related to the Church and revelation from God, rather than the types of things important to businesses.

For someone who has never attended one, it's hard to describe on one hand. To say that the Church Leaders give messages is a true statement, and they make announcements, and in general, give direction to the Church as a whole. That all sounds a bit dry. The official descriptions don't adequately describe the excitement and adoration that is evident. It reminds me of how Apple employees reacted to Steve Jobs. I don't mean that in a derogatory way. I included it to attempt to convey the atmosphere, which is something I've never seen matched in other Church events. (Clarification - the meetings themselves are not like that - I was referring to the excitement of anticipation, the discussion in the car on the way to the Church, in the parking lot, etc. Once the general sessions start, the atmosphere was much more reverent, but everyone gave rapt attention to the leaders.)

The excitement is understandable, considering that those they hear from include the President of the Church, and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Considering that the Church teaching is that these people are still receiving divine revelation from God, it's only one step removed from hearing from God Himself.

You can find much more information simply by searching their amazingly well done online Scripture Citation Index for "General Conference". For example, from there I learned that Elder Paul V Johnson (one of the Seventy) considers it a sacred responsibility for all members of the Aaronic Priesthood to attend.

It is a sacred responsibility to address you in this general priesthood meeting. I always look forward to attending these priesthood sessions with my sons. I have great memories of sitting by them in our stake center as we listened to the teachings of the General Authorities. These meetings made a difference in my life when I was a young man, and they continue to make a difference in my life now. I know they have been an influence on my sons and on millions of Aaronic Priesthood holders around the world.

And, not that it's doctrinally important, it's a chance to listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, who are really quite good.

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+1 Great answer. Just two nitpicks: "As all male members are considered Priests" - this isn't true, as not all men hold the Priesthood (although most do). Also "[the teachings] are considered canonical..." - again, not quite true. In order for something to be Official Doctrine, it must be ratified as such by the members of the Church. (This is a very common misconception, even among Mormons) Doctrine is only found in the four standard works, the official declarations, and the Articles of Faith. –  Dave DeLong Oct 6 '12 at 15:17
    
Thanks, @DaveDeLong. That's true. I made an edit to address that. –  David Stratton Oct 6 '12 at 15:26
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