This spring, for the first time in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, general conference will be shared exclusively with a remote congregation through live-streaming and broadcast technology.
The 190th Annual General Conference will mark the first time in two decades that conference proceedings, available to the more than 16 million members of the Church worldwide, will not originate from the 21,000-seat Conference Center main auditorium.
It will truly be a conference “different from any previous conference,” as President Russell M. Nelson stated during his closing remarks of general conference in October 2019.
With an increased focus on commemorating the “bicentennial of the First Vision and the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ in these latter days,” this spring’s general conference sessions were slated to be historic and “unforgettable” when President Nelson asked Latter-day Saints to prepare for them six months ago. However, the circumstances in which conference will be held have shifted greatly over the last month as the Church has announced several changes in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
To better align with guidelines set forth by the World Health Organization and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help stem the spread of COVID-19, the Church is taking unprecedented measures to adjust plans for this historic general conference marking the 200th anniversary celebration of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s First Vision.
One of the first changes made to general conference this year came in November 2019. The First Presidency announced that as part of the bicentennial celebration, the Saturday evening session — which typically alternates between women’s and men’s sessions every six months — would be available and directed to all Latter-day Saints ages 11 and up.
In February and March, as the spread of the coronavirus began to cause concern about large gatherings, the First Presidency announced postponement of the leadership sessions of general conference, which typically bring together general authorities, area Seventies and general officers of the Church in the days prior to the spring sessions of general conference. The leadership sessions were rescheduled for October, but it soon became clear the Church would need to make further adjustments to conference by prohibiting public access.
As the First Presidency noted in a letter to Latter-day Saints worldwide on March 11, “We live in a remarkable age. The Lord has blessed us with the technology and capacity to participate in and receive messages from Church leaders in all parts of the world.”
Utilizing the blessings of technology, only the First Presidency and those speaking or offering opening and closing prayers will be in attendance at each of the live sessions of general conference. The broadcasts of the five conference sessions this spring will originate from a “small auditorium on Temple Square” rather than in the Conference Center, or even the Salt Lake Tabernacle — where general conference was held prior to completion of the Conference Center in 2000.
Additionally, music from the Tabernacle Choir and guest choirs will be pre-recorded, as will be congregational hymns to accompany those gathered around screens in their respective homes around the world.
With the Salt Lake Temple closed and parts of Temple Square closed for major renovations, it is likely this conference would have been a bit different for those attending the sessions live in Utah anyway. But with government advisories for people to social distance and self-isolate and much of the downtown scene in Salt Lake City shut down because of the virus outbreak, Temple Square may seem a bit like a ghost town when conference weekend rolls around — despite myriad members who will tune in to hear the words of those few gathered there.
Another historic element of this conference will come from missionaries currently serving who will be able to join their families to watch general conference while still being set apart to serve. Thousands of missionaries have returned to their home countries due to travel restrictions, many missionaries have been released from service and are self-isolating while waiting for reassignment. And with MTCs closed, those beginning their training and service are doing so via web-based classrooms in place of the MTCs.
In his closing remarks during the final session of October 2019 general conference, President Nelson promised Latter-day Saints that if they would prepare for the bicentennial celebration of the First Vision and the corresponding Easter general conference in 2020, it would be an unforgettable experience. Logistically, the 190th Annual General Conference will be unlike ever before. That much is already certain. But whether or not it will be an “unforgettable” individual spiritual experience seems to be dependent on each person’s preparation for it.
As President Nelson said, “… I hope that every member and every family will prepare for a unique conference that will commemorate the very foundations of the restored gospel.” Encouraging individuals to ponder their own questions about the Restoration of the gospel and to study and seek to find answers to those questions in preparation for conference, President Nelson said, “Select your own questions. Design your own plan. Immerse yourself in the glorious light of the Restoration.”