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President Ballard recalls 46 years of speaking in general conference


When President M. Russell Ballard, the Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was around 12 years old, he attended a general conference session for the first time. He and his friend couldn’t find a place to sit in the crowded Salt Lake Tabernacle, so they ended up sitting on the stairs on the side of the rostrum.

“We were looking at the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve very closely. And they didn’t shoo us off,” he said. “How we ended up there, I have no recollection.”

But he did say to his friend, “It would sure be nice to sit in a nice red chair like that; it looks really comfortable.”

President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, waves prior to the general priesthood session of the 188th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 31, 2018.

President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, waves prior to the general priesthood session of the 188th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 31, 2018.

Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

He ended up in one of those red chairs as a general authority. “And it’s not all that comfortable! It’s comfortable after you’ve given your talk, but not while you are waiting,” he laughed.

Over 46 years, President Ballard has given 84 general conference addresses since April 3, 1976, when he was called as a general authority.

President Ballard’s first general conference talk

President Ballard recently spoke to the Church News from his office in the Church Administration Building in Salt Lake City. The full interview can be heard this Tuesday, March 29, on the Church News podcast.

Church News podcast, episode 76: President M. Russell Ballard shares memories of general conference, emphasizes the need to anchor faith in Christ

He recalled how he and his wife, Sister Barbara Bowen Ballard, were leading the Toronto Canada Mission at the time of his call to the Seventy. The Ballards traveled from their mission to be in the Tabernacle congregation when his name was announced from the pulpit to be a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. He and three other brethren were sustained to that sacred calling.

That Saturday evening, in the priesthood session, President Marion G. Romney, a counselor in the First Presidency, was not able to speak. So the four new Seventies were called upon to bear their testimonies.

“No notes, no preparation, just called on,” remembered President Ballard. “I was told I had four minutes … . I have no idea what I said; I think it was OK — nobody got after me, so I guess I did all right.”

See President Ballard’s first talk, on April 3, 1976

In the 46 years since then, President Ballard said he has always tried to speak at general conferences about practical things that might help Church members right now: “It’s not difficult for me to give a talk; it’s very difficult to say something worthwhile — something that will be relative and helpful for people in their lives.”

That includes family prayer, being kind, strengthening family relationships and other ways, he said, to stay on the right path and increasing one’s testimony of the Savior.

President Ballard said after he has given his talk and sits down for the rest of the conference session, he thinks about the future.

“I actually have thoughts, ‘If I’m still alive in six months, I have [the opportunity to] do this again.’ So I’m listening carefully and try to determine if there’s something being said that I could build a talk around in six months,” he explained.

“I try to think through what the current needs and realities of what people are facing and try to say something that would be helpful to them, all focused on the anchor that everyone needs in their life, regardless of what’s happening, and that anchor is to stay close to the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The grandson of an Apostle

President Ballard did not attend general conferences as a child, even though his grandfather, Elder Melvin J. Ballard, was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from 1919 to 1939. Young Russell Ballard’s parents did not fully participate in the Church at the time, and he did not know what being an Apostle really meant. “All I knew was he was beloved, and he would speak and everybody wanted to listen to him because he was a great speaker. And he was Grandpa.”

President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, smiles during an interview in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 22, 2022.

President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, smiles during an interview in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 22, 2022.

Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Sadly, President Ballard never heard his grandpa speak in the Tabernacle. His grandfather never told him what it meant to be an Apostle. “Just think what he could have told me.”

“So I’ve tried really hard with my grandchildren to talk to them from time to time and let them know what my assignments are and what my testimony is and what my responsibilities are.”

Read more: How seminary blessed the life of President Ballard growing up in a family that didn’t attend church

President Ballard was called to be an Apostle on Sunday morning before the general conference sessions on Oct. 6, 1985. President Gordon B. Hinckley, then a member of the First Presidency, called him on the phone and asked him to come see him at 9 a.m. in his office, where he extended the call.

“He wept, I wept, he embraced me, and it was one of those very tender moments. Then he invited Barbara in, and explained what would happen, and, of course, she cried and I cried and we had a good cry.”

He went to general conference, and he came home that night as a sustained Apostle.

“I count every day that I have the opportunity to get up in the morning and contemplate that I have the blessing of trying to serve the Lord in some way, trying to do a little good, one way or another,” he said. “I try to never lose sight of how precious every one of our Heavenly Father’s children is.”

I try to never lose sight of how precious every one of our Heavenly Father’s children is.

Preparing for general conference

In the year 2000, general conference moved from the Tabernacle to the much larger Conference Center across the street. Capacity increased from a few thousand people to 21,000. 

But President Ballard said his thoughts didn’t change about giving talks in the new space compared to the old space.

“Standing in front of the pulpit at a general conference in any building is an awesome responsibility, and I do it with great anxiety and anxiousness,” he said. “Not that I’m anxious about whether or not I can say what I have prepared, but anxious that what I have prepared to say will help somebody, and will be of some value and some worth.”

While President Ballard’s first talk in 1976 might have taken months to reach every Church member around the world in their own language, his next address, in April 2022, will be translated into 98 languages and heard live by millions of people. 

President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, delivers an address during the Saturday evening session of the 191st Semiannual General Conference held in the Conference Center on Oct. 2, 2021.

President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, delivers an address during the Saturday evening session of the 191st Semiannual General Conference held in the Conference Center on Oct. 2, 2021.

Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

No matter what, President Ballard said, one of the key roles of a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is to try to encourage and lift and help those trying to get through this mortal experience.

Because of that, he hopes Church members can be prepared to hear the messages in general conference. He advised them to try to have a little quiet time over the conference weekend, to be able to listen to what will be presented.

“I don’t think the membership of the Church have any idea how much prayer and effort goes into the preparation of a general conference talk by a general authority,” he remarked. “It’s not that we are interested in being eloquent, but we are desperately interested in being able to tell and say to the Church membership what the Lord would like to have them hear for this day and time.”

Video: President Ballard on how it’s an ‘awesome responsibility’ to speak in general conference

‘It’s His Church’

Sister Barbara Ballard passed away on Oct. 1, 2018, the Monday before general conference weekend. President Ballard had prepared his general conference remarks before her passing, but the topic was timely and poignant: He spoke about Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the redemption of the dead, marking 100 years since the vision was received.

Then-Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelves of the Quorum of the Twelves and his wife, Sister Barbara Ballard, exit at the end of the afternoon session of the Church’s 187th Semiannual General Conference in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017.

Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Barbara Ballard, exit at the end of the afternoon session of the Church’s 187th Semiannual General Conference in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017.

Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“On this special 100th anniversary, I invite you to thoroughly and thoughtfully read this revelation. As you do so, may the Lord bless you to more fully understand and appreciate God’s love and His plan of salvation and happiness for His children,” said President Ballard that day.

He has spoken of his wife in talks since then and shared this with the Church News this past week: “All I can say about my beloved wife, Barbara, is, she is a queen and she sustained and supported me in every way.”

Read more: What President Ballard has learned in over 40 years of service

Through his 46 years as a general authority, President Ballard said he knows the Church will always be secure and safe as long as 15 Apostles are able to assemble and review and discuss those things that will bless the lives of the members of the Church worldwide.

Now 93, President Ballard said no matter how much longer he has on this earth, he will continue to bear testimony of the beauty and power of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“I would say, that’s one of the most important things that people can have in their lives — to never be so busy or so preoccupied in other things that they don’t have time to ponder on the relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Which is why President Ballard is prayerfully preparing for this April general conference, hoping his remarks will bless someone, somewhere — he has been called and ordained to be a witness of Jesus Christ: “It’s His Church, and it has to be His voice sent out to the world.”

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