It’s Mormon General Conference time again. If you catch every session in the Conference Center, that’s about 10 hours planted in a relatively pleasant environment — soft seats, climate controls, good sound system, nearby restrooms.
Even better is the almost zero chance that anyone in attendance is going to be called out of the audience and immediately packed off on a mission.
You need to remember all this good stuff if you’re complaining about the crowds, the parking, the protesters, the weather and the long talks. It wasn’t always this nice.
Being a communal folk, early pioneers had to have a place where they could gather and be lectured to once they arrived.
Because there were no buildings yet, and conference weather can be capricious, they put up some posts, threw some boughs on top for shade, and, voilà, they had a bowery.
Sounds pleasant. It wasn’t. If the weather was cold, conference was cold. If it was raining, conference was wet. The same with heat, flies, lightning and other natural unpleasantries.
Several versions of the bowery followed through the years, but they all had the same features. They were open to the air, had little in the way of restrooms, and seating was akin to a curse from God.
My pioneer ancestors arrived here in 1863. Great-great-great-Grandpa Korihor Kirby, his twin brother, Kish, and their wives attended their first General Conference on Oct. 6 that year. Weary unto death from just having trekked across a continent, they were undoubtedly in no mood for sermons.
Proof is in Grandpa Korihor’s journal, which contains a summation of his first conference experience here.
“Octobur 6, 1863, G.S.L.
“Attended Genral Confrance with Kish and wives. Not enough room under bowery. Sun and flies bothersome. Hard to hear. Brother Brigham yelled about the curse of a ham. Something about the waste it is for white men to shoot each other over the curse, which he says won’t be lifted until the Lord sayeth, no matter how many thousands they kill. Didn’t understand a word. What kind of idiots fight over a ham? Bored. Went to ‘sprinkle flowers’ behind wagon. Didn’t go back. Crawled in wagon and went to sleep.”
Immediately after conference, Grandpa Korihor and family were sent to help settle the Cache Valley, the joy of which filled an entire page of Korihor’s journal with words that cannot be printed here.
Back to the bowery. Sounds like a place where lovebirds would gather and sing while a brook ran nearby. Somewhere in the distance a beautiful maiden is strumming a lyre. Angels flit. Bees buzz.
Not even close. These boweries were little more than sturdy sunscreens rarely large enough to accommodate everyone who showed up. The early coverings were boughs of leaves but at one point also included sod.
Sod ceilings. That’ll keep you awake, eh? But having to dodge rocks, beetles, clods and mud probably made it harder to focus on whatever message was being delivered.
The meager seating consisted of planks laid across stumps and boxes. No backs for these benches. Those “overcome” by the spirit risked doing a backflip into the laps of the people behind them.
The speakers were almost certainly made comfortable. The rest had to bring their own chairs, parasols and other protections from the elements.
If you’re squirming uncomfortably in your conference seat right now, pause for a moment and consider the sacrifices the early pioneers made so that we can make our own meager ones today.