Within minutes after a General Conference speech is given, devoted members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints already have tweeted their favorite quotes, posted them on Facebook, shared them on Snapchat or created memes of them on Instagram.
These Latter-day Saints notice if an anecdote or statement has been revised later — especially if it’s on a controversial topic.
At the most recent conference in October, Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the faith’s governing First Presidency, referred to the female leaders who had spoken as “sister presidents.” In the online text, however, “presidents” was changed to “sister leaders.”
In the online version of apostle D. Todd Christofferson’s October 2013 address, he dropped the words “feminist thinkers” from a sentence he had uttered about some who “view homemaking with outright contempt.”
Sometimes the edits make the past statements more, well, palatable to modern sensibilities.
In 2010, then-senior apostle Boyd K. Packer mentioned homosexuality in his conference address, saying that some “suppose that they were pre-set and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impure and unnatural. Not so! Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Remember he is our father."
The suggestion that same-sex attraction “could be overcome” did not match the Utah-based faith’s stance and was altered in its online presentation.
The word "temptations" replaced "tendencies," and the question about God's motives was dumped entirely.
Such editing was much easier to manage in the past.
After all, when church leaders gave public addresses, their remarks were recorded via handwritten notes and not published in the faith’s Conference Reports until sometime later.
Thus, it was possible to expunge the “swearing Seventy” J. Golden Kimball’s “hells” and “damns,” B.H. Roberts’ scathing critiques of his church superiors or even apostle James E. Talmage’s careful use of the “Son of Man” as a title for Jesus (critics argued it would make people think Latter-day Saints worship a human savior).
This practice continued mostly unobserved into the mid- to late 20th century despite the fact that audiotaping was common or, still later, when the proceedings were videotaped.
It would have taken a careful researcher, reading printed talks while listening to the audio, to discover any aberrations.
That’s not so different from other groups, says church spokesman Eric Hawkins.
“Editing of spoken remarks is common practice, not just for church leaders but in many other settings,” Hawkins says in a written statement. “This includes our state Legislature and in the U.S. Congress, where ‘revise and consent’ is the standard practice. A politician may give a floor speech, then has the right to review and modify it prior to publication.”
In the LDS Church’s case, “either the speaker revised the remarks following delivery for clarity or to correct errors, or the church has altered the published versions for the same reason,” Hawkins says. “The original versions are preserved for historic purposes.”
Such changes are rarely, if ever, noted on the official account, however, an observation the spokesman declined to explain. That can be a problem for members and professional scholars.
In recent years, the church has worked toward more openness about its past, prompted in part by members feeling unsettled — if not betrayed — upon discovering facts and information on the internet.
These conference talk revisions, even minor ones, could make believers think the church was hiding the real words, says Mormon historian Benjamin Park, who teaches religious history at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.
For historians, the lack of notation is even more troubling.
It “masks the original context and wording,” Park says, suggesting that historical context “is insignificant.”
Cases in point: In 1976, Packer gave a memorable — and noteworthy — talk to the church’s teenage boys about the dangers of masturbation and homosexuality.
For 40 years, Packer’s advice about their “little factories” was widely distributed as a pamphlet inside the faith and widely mocked outside it. Then, in 2016, the pamphlet was quietly “retired.”
It was removed from the church’s website and store.lds.org for ecclesiastical leaders to obtain printed copies.
The video of Packer’s sermon remains with the 1976 October conference talks online, but there is no text — unlike other speeches that were given that day.
In spring 1981, Hartman Rector Jr. of the First Quorum of Seventy gave a talk titled “Will the Earth Be Wasted?” focused on the themes of family and genealogical work.
In his original speech, Rector, who died last month, promised that if children have a happy family experience, according to a 2012 article in Sunstone, “they will not want to be homosexuals, which I am sure is an acquired addiction just as drugs, alcohol and pornography are. The promoters of homosexuality say they were born that way, but I do not believe it is true. There are no female spirits trapped in male bodies and vice versa.”
Even at that time, the talk proved controversial enough to be picked up by local and national news media, including The New York Times.
By May, however, the talk was published in the church’s Ensign magazine with a new title, “Turning the Hearts,” writes Joseph Geisner in the Sunstone piece. “All references to abortion, birth control, sterilization, vasectomy, homosexuality, and the dying elderly were removed, thereby transforming the speech from an apocalyptic jeremiad to an upbeat pep talk about genealogy.”
When a letter writer asked about the changes, Rector responded:
“Sometimes it is not expedient to make people angry by telling them in too plain terms what their problems are. … Also the church [is] hoping to gain entrance into communist China so didn’t want to make waves,” according to an article in Dialogue A Journal of Mormon Thought. “I presume a combination of things made the First Presidency decide to eliminate certain portions of my remarks even tho’ they had received and cleared the talk before it was given. It is OK. They know best. However, what was said is still true.”
In 1984, general authority Ronald E. Poelman’s conference address came under fire when he tried to make a distinction between the Latter-day Saint “gospel” and the “church.” After some higher-ups objected to the speech, Poelman, who died in 2011, revised it and retaped it.
Scouring the official Conference Reports, which began publication in 1897, Geisner discovered 11 speeches that were “either significantly edited before publication or altogether excised from the official published conference report.”
Two addresses that were given in 1898 did not appear in the reports — one by apostle John W. Taylor, son of the church’s third president, John Taylor, and “Response to Elder Taylor,” by George Q. Cannon, first counselor to church President Lorenzo Snow.
The younger Taylor told of rumors he had heard about women in Kamas who were “already-pregnant brides” as well as a conversation with a Salt Lake City woman who claimed to run a “morning house, “ where, “after the close of practices by the Tabernacle Choir, several members come to her rooming house for immoral purposes.”
Cannon immediately chastised Taylor for his remarks, Geisner writes, saying at the podium, “We have regretted — I speak for the First Presidency — that there should be any mention of any particular place as being worse in this respect than others; for we have no reason to believe that this is the case.”
Cannon added, the article adds, that “if there were a problem, it should be handled in a private, not public, setting.”
In April 1932, apostle Stephen L Richards gave a conference address titled “Bringing Humanity to the Gospel.”
“I fear dictatorial dogmatism, rigidity of procedure and intolerance even more than I fear cigarettes, cards and other devices the adversary may use to nullify faith and kill religion,” Richard declared to the Latter-day Saint faithful. “Fanaticism and bigotry have been the deadly enemies of true religion in the long past. … They have garbed it in black and then in white, when in truth it is neither black nor white, any more than life is black or white, for religion is life abundant, glowing life, with all its shades, colors and hues, as the children of men reflect in the patterns of their lives the radiance of the Holy Spirit in varying degrees.”
Church President Heber J. Grant began getting complaints about the speech from members around the country, but Richards said he would rather resign than change his words.
Grant told his colleagues that “it would have been very difficult to print Richards’ address since the text would need to be accompanied by a statement, which would call more attention to the talk,” Geisner writes. “Grant decided to ‘let the matter drop, and if it doesn’t appear in the conference pamphlet, it will soon be forgotten.’”
In 1965, then-apostle and future church President Ezra Taft Benson warned his listeners about the threat of socialism or the welfare state growing within the United States.
He concluded by saying that “President David O. McKay has called communism the greatest threat to the church,” Geisner writes.
Like Rector’s remarks, Benson’s speech about communism was covered by national media, including The Washington Post, in an article headlined “Benson Ties Rights Issue to Reds in Mormon Rift.”
Within a month, McKay “authorized the elimination,” the Sunstone story says, of two of the most strident paragraphs from Benson’s speech for publication.
In each of these cases, Grant’s reasoning won the day — without a notation on the published text on the church’s official site, most members either never knew or easily forgot.
‘A living faith’
Park, the historian, understands why the church would not want to draw attention to such changes.
In Mormonism, he says, everything needs to fit together, creating a seamless body of belief. It may not be faithful to the original speaker, he says, “but to what the church believes the truth is.”
As perspectives evolve, it may feel necessary for some at the top to make the past sound more like the present, hence the move to eliminate statements on homosexuality from the past that don’t work with the latest stance.
“Silently editing a message,” Park says, “reflects a broader anxiety in the [Latter-day Saint] tradition about teachings and ideas being part of a coherent whole.”
This, though, creates a paradox.
On the one hand, God told church founder Joseph Smith to keep a careful record of his movement’s experiences and developments — which explains the faith’s penchant for extensive minutes of meetings and volume upon volume of personal journals.
It was given not as a suggestion but as a doctrinal mandate.
On the other hand, Park says, Mormonism is “a living faith.”
That means it should be able “to adapt to changing times,” he says, “reflecting the visions of a modern-day prophet.”
Unless the church acknowledges such conference talk edits in some way, Park says, this tension will remain an issue for scholars and the faithful into the future.
Editor’s note • This story has been updated to include the reference to Ronald E. Poelman’s 1984 conference sermon.
Correction • Dec. 20, 2018, 12:50 p.m.: Ezra Taft Benson’s speech about the threat of socialism was given in 1965. An earlier version listed the wrong year.