As we approach another general conference weekend, it is well to reflect on some of the momentous and historical events associated with general conferences of the past.
One of these occurred 95 years ago at the opening session of the 89th Semiannual General Conference of the Church on Friday, Oct. 4, 1918. On that occasion, President Joseph F. Smith announced a new revelation he had received just a day earlier in the form of a vision. "He was visably [sic] affected when he arose to make his opening speech which was listened to with profound silence," reported the Improvement Era in November of that year.
At age 79, President Smith was suffering the effects of age and illness. But, as he told the conference congregation, the months leading up to the conference had been for him a period of profound spiritual enlightenment, culminating with a vision of the redemption of the dead, which he was now announcing.
Very soon after the conference the Church president dictated the vision account to his son, Joseph Fielding Smith. The vision received by President Smith opened his understanding to the fact that the Savior did not go in person among those who had been wicked and disobedient in mortality. Instead, from among the righteous spirits He visited, He organized and appointed messengers to preach the gospel to them. Moreover, the spirits of those who die in the faith have the privilege of joining in this effort beyond the veil to minister to and redeem others who have died.
This amounted to a clarification of doctrine for the Latter-day Saints. Previous to that time, it had been understood and taught, by President Smith himself among others, that Christ had ministered personally to all of the spirits, not just those who had been righteous.
Printed soon thereafter in the Deseret News, the Improvement Era and other publications, the account of the vision would be a chapter in the book Gospel Doctrine, a compilation of President Smith's writings and sermons. Then, on April 3, 1976, during another memorable general conference, President N. Eldon Tanner of the First Presidency read an important resolution for the sustaining vote of the conference. President Smith's vision of the redemption of the dead, together with a vision of the Celestial Kingdom received by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the Kirtland Temple on Jan. 21, 1836, dealing with the salvation of those who die without a knowledge of the gospel, would be added to the Pearl of Great Price. Thus, both revelations would now be part of the scriptural canon of the Church.
The import of this action was explained by Elder Bruce R. McConkie in a letter to BYU religion professor Robert L. Millet: "President [Spencer W.] Kimball and all the Brethren thought it should formally and officially be recognized as scripture so that it would be quoted, used and relied upon more than the case would have been if it had simply been published as heretofore in various books. By putting it in the standard works formally, it gets cross-referenced and is used to better advantage by the saints" (Millet, "The Vision of the Redemption of the Dead (D&C 138)," in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Doctrine and the Covenants).
In June 1979, by administrative decision, the two revelations were shifted to the Doctrine and Covenants as Sections 137 and 138, part of a comprehensive new edition of the scriptures.
The act of canonizing the two revelations was amazingly prescient, foreshadowing a prolonged period of what is arguably the greatest outpouring of the spirit of Elijah the world has ever known.
Consider what has happened since:
In 1976, the very year the revelations were canonized, author Alex Haley published Roots, a fictionalized account of his African ancestors. The book and TV program brought immense popularity to genealogy as a hobby.
Personal computers became widely available in the 1980s and were used for storage, retrieval and sharing of family history information, characterized by Church tools such as the Ancestral File, a database pool to which all Church members were invited to contribute.
The Church's Genealogical Library in Salt Lake City (later called the Family History Library) was dedicated in 1985, followed by the rapid propagation of thousands of family history centers Church-wide, most of which have been patronized more frequently by non-members than by members of the Church.
The Internet came into wide use in the 1990s. Family history research and collaboration quickly became one of the two most frequent uses of the Internet, helped along by establishment of the Church website FamilySearch.org.
FamilySearch.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">class="bullet-item">FamilySearch.org has continued development over the years, recently introducing a new section called FamilyTree, which enables relatives near and far – some previously unknown to each other – to connect and collaborate with one another in their genealogical research by means of "cloud" computing.
All of the above has made practical the explosive growth in temple construction, with the number of operating temples expanding from 16 in 1976 to 141 today. Using functions on FamilySearch.org, Church members can identify and clear ancestors' names for vicarious temple ordinance work, almost instantly in some cases.
From the story of the announcement and subsequent canonization of President Smith's vision of the redemption of the dead, we might draw the following conclusion: We should be alert and attuned to the constant flow of revelation as it is delivered to us from the Lord by means of His anointed servants.
May we bear that in mind as we receive the upcoming general conference proceedings.