If reading scripture and LDS General Conference talks is boring, Quentin Spencer told his virtual audience recently, just write a computer program to do it for you.
That’s what he did to track the trends and texts of conference sermons from 1942 to 2020.
Doing so, the data analyst said at the 2020 virtual Sunstone Symposium, offered fascinating tidbits about leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including the ebb and flow of language and topics of concern.
Here are a few of Spencer’s findings:
• The most prolific speakers since 1942 were former church Presidents Gordon B. Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson, with more than 200 talks each, followed by predecessors David O. McKay and Spencer W. Kimball, under 150.
• The most prolific speakers who weren’t church apostles were Eldred G. Smith (longtime church patriarch), followed by Marion D. Hanks (a Seventy) and another Seventy, Bruce R. McConkie, who later became an apostle.
• From 1942 to the late 1980s, New Testament passages were the most cited scriptures. From then on, verses from the church’s signature text, the Book of Mormon, frequently surpassed them.
• The most frequently cited scriptural passage was Moses 1:39 from the Pearl of Great Price. It says: “For behold, this is my work and my glory — to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” It was mentioned more than 400 times.
• Use of the word “drugs” hit its peak in 1970, with more than 250 mentions per million words, but then declined to almost zero between 2015 and 2020.
• The phrase “plan of happiness” was never used until 1980, then it ticked up and even surpassed the “plan of salvation,” which was used often from 1950 to 2020.
• “Pornography” was mentioned sporadically in 1960, then became more common, peaking in 2007 at more than 250 times per million words, with 14% of the uses coming from Hinckley.
• The term “scripture study” was not used until after 1970, then peaked in 2010.
• The “atonement of Jesus Christ” was mentioned fewer than 50 times for every million words at General Conferences from 1942 until the late 1990s, when it reached just under 100. Use of the phrase continued to climb as the decades progressed, topping out at 200 in 2012.
• Church presidents who were mentioned most often after their deaths — faith founder Joseph Smith and pioneer-prophet Brigham Young, followed by Kimball and Hinckley. Those mentioned the least were Monson, Howard W. Hunter and Lorenzo Snow.
• The church president who has talked about works the most is Russell M. Nelson, the faith’s leader today, while the use of “grace-oriented language” continues to rise among a handful of current apostles.
Spencer, a senior data analyst for Neustar Inc. in Lubbock, Texas, noted in an interview that some Latter-day Saint leaders who lean further toward “grace” in their conference addresses, including Gerrit W. Gong (the only apostle who has not yet used the term “Satan”), Jeffrey R. Holland and Dieter F. Uchtdorf “seem to be quite popular with the membership.”
That suggests “there’s a real hunger in the church for that message on grace,” he said, “which hasn’t really been promoted much until this current generation of leaders.”
The analyst was “surprised” to see that “scripture study” was not mentioned before the 1970s,” Spencer said, “and that religious practices such as daily prayer also experienced a new emphasis around that time.”
The absence of those terms points to a time when Mormonism may have been “very different,” he said, “than the one I’m familiar with.”
Spencer was struck by how frequently — or infrequently — some presidents of the church were mentioned after their death.
It can be seen “as a measure of their enduring influence, with Kimball and Hinckley leading the way among those in the past half-century,” he said. “It’s particularly striking how quickly Thomas Monson is fading from memory by that measure.”