Data reveals what Latter-day Saint leaders talk about at General Conference and how it changes over time

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) President Thomas S. Monson greets a young girl during the morning session of the 184th Annual General Conference on April 5, 2014.

Not a General Conference goes by that someone among the Latter-day Saint faithful hasn’t uttered words to this effect:

“It seems like [fill in a topic here] has been mentioned a lot this conference.”

One year the heightened subject might be family history or self-reliance or pornography. Another time it could be drugs or the Book of Mormon or the Word of Wisdom.

But unless someone actually researched every sermon, how would members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints know how various themes stack up?

Enter Quentin Spencer, a senior data analyst in Lubbock, Texas, who took on the task. A graduate of Brigham Young University, Spencer used a computer program to analyze all the conference sermons from 1851 to 2020.

He found language patterns that not only identified organizational shifts in the church but also a move by leaders to have a more international view and address contemporary concerns. The data also tracks when these changes happened and who may have helped instigate them.

Spencer presented his 76-page analysis during a recent Sunstone Symposium session, and it’s filled with all sorts of interesting tidbits.

Here are a few to listen for during the 190th Semiannual General Conference this weekend.

• Since the 1900s, the average length of a sermon has hovered around 2,000 words. Before that, though, the talks were considerably lengthier, nearing 5,000 words in the 1870s and 1880s.

• Scripture citations have become more prevalent, jumping from 5,000 references per 1 million words in the 1940s to 15,000 citations per million words in the past five years.

• Word usage ebbed and flowed, depending on what was happening around the globe. The World War II phrase “our boys” was used often before the 1950s; and the Cold War term “communism” peaked in the 1960s, ’70s and again for a short time in the ’80s.

• Church leaders have favorite topics. Ezra Taft Benson, an apostle who rose to church president and served as U.S. agriculture secretary under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, liked American themes and used phrases such as “this nation” in 27% of his talks; the “Constitution” in 25%; and “this land” in 20%.

• Apostle-turned-church President Thomas S. Monson, known for his homespun stories and outreach to widows, discussed grief or grieving in 14% of his sermons and “gratitude” in about 13% of his pulpit preachings.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, left, and counselor James E. Faust at General Conference in April 2004.

• Jesus Christ is the preferred name when speaking about the son of God. But Gordon B. Hinckley, the faith’s 15th president, often called him “Redeemer.” A presidential predecessor, Harold B. Lee, was known to use the name “Master.” And apostle Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the current governing First Presidency, uses “the Savior.”

• When evil is the theme, most speakers stick with the name “Satan.” But “devil” and “Lucifer” creep in as well. And “the adversary” has become increasingly popular during the past decade.

• Not surprisingly, Jesus Christ has always had more references than Satan. In previous decades, Jesus received somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 mentions per 1 million words. Since 2010, his name is mentioned more often, peaking in 2020 with more than 8,000 references per million words.

• Similarly, the phrase “in the sacred name of Jesus Christ” was rarely used in the 1960s and ’70s. It became more common in the 1980s and ’90s. Since 2000, its use has shot up to as high as 100 references per million words. It is a particular favorite of Eyring.

• Genealogy was a popular term before 1990. It has been replaced by “family history.” President Russell M. Nelson, who has stressed temple building and temple work, uses it in 16% of his sermons.

• Leaders often referred to their flock as “brethren and sisters” in the 1950s and ’60s, but now members are simply referred to as “brothers and sisters.”

• Terms such as Indian, welfare services, free agency and Mormonism were once used regularly but have fallen out of favor.

• The term “media” was occasionally used before the 1970s but has been on a steady rise since then, reaching more than 500 references per million words in recent years.

• And leaders have become more polite. The phrase “I invite you,” uttered occasionally before 2010, has flourished, used more than 150 times per 1 million words. It’s a particular favorite of apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf, who has said it in 9% of his sermons.