The General Conference Odyssey is a simple if somewhat audacious concept. A group of Mormon bloggers decided that it would be a good idea to read every single General Conference talk starting in April 1971 (the first session easily available online) and proceeding—at a rate of one session per week—until we’re caught up. Every Tuesday we each publish a blog post about our favorites talks from the last session we read, and we also link to each other’s posts.
We called it the General Conference Odyssey because if future General Conferences stick to the current, 6-session format, then in the summer of 2029 we will re-read the April 2029 sessions before the October 2029 General Conference begins. If future General Conferences have more sessions, then it will take us longer. If they have fewer sessions, then we will get there faster. Since we got started in 2015, we’re looking at a project that will last about 14 years. “Odyssey” seemed appropriate.
For me, the idea started growing after I read a quote from an October 1981 General Conference talk by President Hinckley (Faith: The Essence of True Religion) that Mormon blogger J. Max Wilson posted on Facebook. It wasn’t that I loved the quote. It was actually rather the opposite: the quote challenged me. I spent a couple of weeks musing about that, and eventually wrote a blog post expressing my reflections on the talk (The Assurance of Love). As part of that blog post, I wrote this paragraph:
President Hinckley’s talk was given 34 years ago… I did not know that it existed until last week… And I must confess a sense of shame as I read it for the first time and realized that this past year was the first year (since my mission) that I even tried to listen to all the sessions of General Conference. How many more talks have been given over my lifetime that I have never heard? Never read? Never considered? I say that I sustain the apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators, and yet I have nearly two centuries of their official talks given in General Conference and I have never even considered that I might want to go back and systematically read them to see what they had to say. I think it’s time I change that.
So that was when I decided it was time to make a survey of General Conference talks. But as I began discussing the idea with other Mormon bloggers the most surprising thing (to me) was how many of them had already come to a similar conclusion on their own. Some, like J. Max Wilson, had already begun their own projects. Others, like me, had been thinking about the idea but weren’t sure exactly how to execute. Clearly, this was far from an original idea of my own. Something bigger seemed to be unfurling.
That sense led us to band together and turn it into a group project. We kept it simple. One session per week seemed like a sustainable amount to read. Posting on our own blogs but linking to each other’s posts made more sense than starting yet another new blog. Not only was it simpler and faster, but it also avoids the need for too much centralized coordination. We each approach these talks with our own hopes and concerns and histories. It means we might disagree sometimes, but it also means that we have a chance to learn from each other’s individual perspectives.
Our first posts went live on Tuesday, December 2, 2015. (The holiday season might not seem like an idea time to start a big project, but with more than a dozen more holiday seasons to get through there was no good reason to wait.) Our seventh round of posts, covering the Tuesday afternoon session of the April 1971 General Conference, will be out on January 12th. If you’re curious to read some of these posts, I maintain a constantly-updated index at my own blog.
For now, however, I wanted to share the experiences of some of the folks who have been participating since the beginning. So I asked for their feedback about why they wanted to read four decades of General Conference talks, what they hoped to gain from the experience, or what they already had. Here are the thoughts they shared with me.
Sometimes people rightly ask how one can know if a prophet is truly speaking as a prophet. President Eyring gives one important key: we can know when the Lord is speaking to us through prophets “[when] the law of witnesses, authorized witnesses, has been invoked. When the words of prophets seem repetitive,” he declares, “that should rivet our attention and fill our hearts with gratitude to live in such a blessed time.” (“Finding Safety in Counsel,” April 1997 General Conference; also repeated again in the June 2008 and October 2015 Ensign magazines)
In some ways, our time is very similar to Joseph Smith’s day in that there is a war of words and opinions swirling around us. These words and opinions can come to us with more intensity and variety because of social and other media. But our day is very different from Joseph’s in that we have prophets now on the earth, and we have decades of teachings — prophetic patterns — to draw upon. All we have to do is look.
The General Conference Odyssey is giving me an opportunity to watch for these prophetic patterns. We’ve only been doing it for a few weeks, but already clear and unmistakable patterns are there.
Participating in the project is also strengthening my testimony of personal revelation as I see God unfolding patterns for me in my individual life.
There is power in engaging the words of the prophets.
Michelle Linford blogs at Mormon Women.
As someone who joined the Church only six years ago, it has been deeply rewarding to go back and plant my roots deeper into the soil of the good word of God.
I love to be able to see that the Gospel message preached by the Brethren has stayed consistent over the past 45 years. So many of the sermons that we are reading could have been given in the most recent General Conference without anyone questioning its origin. Some might think that this is repetitive or boring. But I instead find that it helps to reveal the topics, issues, and messages that are most important to our Father in Heaven.
I am also struck by how much better our lives and our societies would be if we simply hearkened to the messages from conference. On a societal level, we would have the power to overcome the scourges of divorce, pornography, drug use, and sexual immorality. On the personal level, we would have the power to overcome the natural man and to become more Christlike in our dealings with our families. I have long been convinced that if members simply listened more carefully to General Conference and truly applied what they heard, our Church would experience immense blessings of peace and harmony.
In troubled times, the words of the prophets stand as beacons guiding us back to our Father in Heaven. The talks we have studied so far have helped to clarify for me the urgent need for prophetic guidance. Satan is relentless, subtle, and crafty. Fortunately for us, God has called servants who continually preach the word of God without hesitation and who fearlessly convey his will to the world.
Daniel Ortner blogs at Symphony of Dissent.
Here is what the General Conference Odyssey has been like for me. It’s been like getting to know my parents. As I’ve listened to the general conferences they listened too when they were young, I have felt myself retracing their path spiritually. I did not expect it would bring me closer to my father and my mother. But it has. I look forward to the conferences from when I was alive. It will be retracing my own spiritual journey. I am eager. I get the same sense about it that I would get if somebody somehow offered to let me relive the Christmases of my life.
G blogs at Junior Ganymede.
This project is personal for me. A couple of years ago I felt impressed that I needed to become thoroughly familiar with what the prophets and apostles have taught during my lifetime. So I set out on a project to read every LDS General Conference address given from the day of my birth through the present. During the next year and a half, I read in sequence all of the talks given during 109 sessions of 16 conferences. I used the church’s Gospel Library app to bookmark favorite talks and highlight and tag passages with key words. In recent weeks, it has been a true pleasure to expand the project to included faithful friends who bring their own amazing insights. I am humbled to be associated with these folks.
The project has been an amazingly uplifting and testimony-building experience. There are talks that have touched me and changed me that I would likely never have known except in this way. I feel a connection and brotherhood with the apostles and prophets that I have never experienced before.
Our modern culture tends to consume decontextualized information. But I have learned that the teachings of the prophets are more clearly discerned in context and in the aggregate. Expressions that in isolation might give one impression are balanced, tempered, or brought into focus by additional words from the same or a subsequent sermon. Sometimes the full message cannot be distilled into a few words, but it accumulates and settles into your soul.
J. Max Wilson blogs at Sixteen Small Stones.
I didn’t want to do it at first (I still don’t at times). General Conference is something I admittedly struggle with. I’m prone to cynicism and boredom when I watch/listen to it. So the thought of listening to it every week and then writing about it filled me with absolute dread. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my default GC setting described above was an indication that I should participate in the project. I am a member of a faith that believes in continuing revelation and modern-day prophets and apostles, yet I have become increasingly detached from Church leadership and consequently their counsel. I haven’t done this out of rebellion. More so out of indifference.
The project gives me a chance to immerse myself in the words of those I sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators. It challenges me to take their counsel seriously: not merely accept it blindly, but process it, grapple with it, question it, apply and test it, and seek revelation about it. The project will also give me a chance to uncover historical trends, looking for both consistency and shifts in emphasis. By placing the talks in their proper context, I will be able to mine them for universal principles and points of doctrine. Perhaps most important, it gives me a chance to look at what our leaders actually say versus what we project on to them or what Church culture might distort.
The project thus far has been rewarding. I fully admit that I was surprised to find so many gems among the older sessions. There is warmth, compassion, and love in many of these talks. There is the spirit of Christ in them. Granted, there are still talks that are boring or make me cringe. But sifting through them has been an enriching experience and I hope it continues to be.
Walker Wright blogs at Difficult Run.
We are told that the authoritative teaching of the Church consists in clear, repeated and uncontradicted statements of our prophets and apostles. Surely reading all their conference talks for the last forty-five years will give us a very clear sense of prophetic guidance over the whole range of topics addressed. Our discernment of a revealed alternative to the idols of the age can only become sharper and sharper through this study.
Ralph Hancock blogs at The Soul and the City.
I have really enjoyed the Odyssey so far. On the practical side, I have found after some trial and error that the best way for me to read the talks is on my phone in bed before I go to sleep. I use the Gospel Library app to highlight and make notes as I go, and it’s easy to read one or two talks a night that way. Then, when it’s time to blog about the talks I’ve read, I go to LDS.org and review my notes and the highlighted portions (which are synched through my account) and use them put together a blog post.
On the spiritual side, here are the observations I’ve made so far. First, the talks are full of much more love, compassion, and understanding than I expected. I guess I had certain stereotypical assumptions about talks given in the 1970s. In some cases, those assumptions are born out: the language can be very different from what we’re used to in more recent talks (which is what I think Walker was alluding to). However, it was really humbling to realize that those stereotypes didn’t tell the whole story at all. These talks are full of Christ-like love for the members of the Church, and a deep and penetrating insights into their (by which I mean, our) lives and struggles. One talk that stands out in this regard is Elder Marvin J. Ashton’s discussion of drug abuse in Love of the Right, and one post that I thought was great on this topic (but covering a different talk) was Michelle Linford’s week 6 post Gap Insurance.
Which leads me to the second observation: consistency. While the tone has shifted in some cases, the core, essential messages are (for me) astonishingly similar. I had, in paying attention to other bloggers, gotten the impression that the emphasis on family was in some way a reflection of contemporary political debates, but when I read a talk like Elder James A. Cullimore’s Marriage Is Intended to Be Forever, I see that the Church’s teachings on this issue haven’t changed an iota. (That’s something a lot of us picked up on that week.)
And that brings up my last observation: context. As several of the participants noted, it’s important to read the words of our leaders in context. That way we can see what points are being reiterated again and again. Those are the points that we need to pay attention to. We can also synthesize the way different leaders approach the same issue, sometimes in the same session! Just as one example, consider Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s talk The Lord’s People Receive Revelation and the talk that followed immediately after: Elder Hartman Rector, Jr’s talk Ignorance is Expensive. The sum of these two talks read together is greater than the sum of these two talks read individually. Rather than putting all our emphasis on individual talks, I believe we get closer to the Lord’s intention when we take the time to consider many talks together, and find the common threads and resonances between them.
That’s what I’ve learned so far, 2 months into our 14-year Odyssey. I am excited to find out what I’m going to learn before we finally reach our journey’s end.
If you’d like to follow along the General Conference Odyssey posts, view the complete schedule and an up-to-date index of all posts here.