Ardis E. Parshall: Latter-day Saints love meetings, and these historic conferences far from Utah prove it

From New Zealand to Alabama, Germany to New York, members and leaders went to great lengths and distances to sing, dance, eat, pray, play, preach, learn, listen, testify and worship — together.

(Church History Library) Latter-day Saints gather atop the Hill Cumorah for a centennial celebration of early historical events in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in September 1923 in Palmyra, N.Y.

Before leaving for his fourth mission to New Zealand (his second as president of that mission) in 1928, John E. Magleby of Monroe, Utah, had an interview with Latter-day Saint apostle David O. McKay.

McKay had visited New Zealand in 1921 and participated in a conference there with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That annual conference, called “Hui Tau” in the Maori tongue, “was one of the great events of the world,” McKay told Magleby, “second to the great Mormon conferences held at Salt Lake City.”

The first Hui Tau was held in 1885, when Maori and English Saints from 20 small congregations gathered to listen to preaching and prayers by missionaries. The first formal conferences quickly expanded and, by the 1920s, hundreds (and in later years thousands) of participants gathered for several days, not only to hear sermons but also to feast together, engage in musical and sports competitions, perform plays, recite Maori genealogies and poetry, chant scripture from memory, and sell crafts to raise funds for the next year’s conference. Visitors slept in buildings erected specifically for the conference, selected a queen of the Hui and participated in religious testimony meetings that often lasted for hours.

(From the Improvement Era, July 1921) Haka, like that performed at 1921 Hui Tau witnessed by Latter-day Saint apostle David O. McKay.

The Hui Tau gatherings continued well into the 1950s and are sometimes credited with helping to preserve Maori culture against the onslaught of colonial influences. I’m not so sure McKay was right to rank the Hui Tau as second to conferences in Salt Lake City ... certainly Salt Lake City could boast larger gatherings, with higher ranked speakers and warm gatherings of former missionary groups, but I wonder how many members wouldn’t prefer a Hui Tau?

For Latter-day Saints who lived too far away from Utah’s capital to attend conference in person, and in the days before radio carried at least some conference sessions to distant audiences, gathering for conferences as a mission (as a whole, or in some part) was as much as a meeting-loving people could aspire to, and such conferences almost always involved more time and effort than most of us can conceive today.

(Improvement Era, July 1921) Tent serving as meeting hall, dining hall, and communal bedroom at 1921 Hui Tau.

Alabama gathering

(Courtesy of Ardis E. Parshall) Lewis M. Hall, seated left, with family and unidentified missionaries in Alabama in 1904. Hall helped clear land and build seating for an 1898 conference.

In summer 1898, in Alabama, that effort involved clearing ground in a brushy area of the farm belonging to a member, erecting a brush arbor and buying lumber to make rough seating. It was hot work for the missionaries and locals — every local member listed in the diary of a missionary recording the effort was a relative of mine! — but at least they could look forward to morning and nightly watermelon feasts during construction and the conference.

The 16 elders working in Arkansas in 1897 also gathered on rude benches in the woods for their private sessions of conference at which assignments were made and instructions given. That conference, held in January, benefited from a roaring bonfire. Public preaching meetings, held over the course of three days, took place in the schoolhouse by courtesy of the non-Latter-day Saints in the town of Headley, about 100 of whom attended each session. Providing a meeting place was hardly the only gift offered to the elders: Missionaries traveling to the conference were housed in the best hotels and treated to a turkey dinner for Christmas. Locals took in the elders during their gathering and brought them meals. Besides preaching, the elders sang for residents at an evening gathering. It all may not have met the standards of Hui Tau, but the spirit was the same. Such hospitality toward gathering Saints was far more often the case in that era than the persecutions we tend to dwell on — and is worth remembering.

Palmyra conference

(Church History Library) Latter-day Saints gather in the Sacred Grove for a centennial celebration of early historical events in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in September 1923 in Palmyra, N.Y.

One especially notable conference took place in Palmyra, N.Y., in 1923, to celebrate the centennial of significant events there in the early history of the faith. Under mission President B.H. Roberts, the gathering was supposed to be limited to elders and sisters of the Eastern States Mission, but the location and the months of planning for sessions to be held at the Sacred Grove and the Hill Cumorah — sites considered sacred to Saints — inevitably attracted far broader attention. Missionaries from surrounding missions begged to be allowed to attend; they were refused. No one thought of refusing the attendance of prominent leaders from Salt Lake City, who were invited to speak. Members and their friends from throughout the region planned to attend, but Roberts notified them repeatedly in no uncertain terms that they could not be hosted at the conference site, because its limited facilities were required for the missionaries. Nor, he warned, was the small town of Palmyra prepared to entertain crowds of visitors. Nevertheless, uninvited Latter-day Saints descended on the area, made the best they could of available accommodations, and flocked to the meetings.

The conference, planned for September, was preceded by a summer of unprecedented missionary work. Female missionaries were allowed to travel by train and car to the conference, but elders, no matter where in the mission they were assigned, were expected to make their way on foot, preaching along the way. Whatever effect such travel had on the people through whose towns the elders passed, the elders certainly gained a new appreciation for the labors of their spiritual ancestors in spreading the faith in the same region and through the same methods.

For three days during September, the elders gathered in conference on the grounds of the old Joseph Smith farm, and held testimony and commemorative events on the very sites where those events had occurred. These were no ordinary preaching meetings, either, with elders called at random to give typical missionary sermons. Roberts instead had assigned specific subjects to specific missionaries, expecting his elders to be fully prepared to support the themes of the meetings. All did not go quite as planned. Rain fell, although the conferencegoers were usually sheltered by the tent in which most meetings were held. Roberts himself, who had worked so hard and planned so well a conference to impress his elders with the sacredness of their calling, was too ill with the onset of the diabetes that eventually killed him to speak at length, or even to attend some sessions.

(Church History Library) Latter-day Saints gather atop the Hill Cumorah for a centennial celebration of early historical events in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in September 1923 in Palmyra, N.Y.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Aerial view of the Hill Cumorah in New York.

Roberts had secured permission from the non-Latter-day Saint owner of the Hill Cumorah for events to take place there, and the elders and their leaders marched in formation — as much as muddy conditions permitted — from the Smith farm to the hill for a Saturday sunrise flag raising. Although weather and muddy conditions forced other events planned for the hill to be transferred to the tent on the Smith farm, the recitations and historical themes of the conference are sometimes credited with inspiring the later development of the long-running and now-discontinued Hill Cumorah Pageant.

Sunday featured a testimony meeting, together with the sacrament, or Communion, within the Sacred Grove, a brilliant success in part because of the clearing of the weather. The sun is reported to have broken through the clouds and shone brilliantly as the conferencegoers sang their opening hymn, “O, How Lovely Was the Morning,” about the vision the faithful believe church founder Joseph Smith received in that grove in 1820. It was the emotional and spiritual culmination of a summer’s worth of work by the missionaries and their president. Even the greatest of New Zealand’s Hui Taus must have paled in comparison to the gathering there that day.

Postwar Germany meeting

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Latter-day Saint apostle Ezra Taft Benson, center, visits Germany in 1946.

Another unforgettable set of conferences took place in the ruins of Europe in 1946, when apostle Ezra Taft Benson visited the Saints while working to arrange for welfare shipments to relieve their postwar suffering. One such gathering, in Hamburg, Germany, attracted more than 500 Latter-day Saints, mostly women, old men and children. After offering words of comfort, Benson distributed the few supplies he had with him — chocolate and hard candy for the children, an orange for each expectant or nursing mother. One mother, spying a spool of thread with a needle in Benson’s suitcase, asked his traveling companion, fluent in German, if she could have the needle and thread instead of the orange. On her way to her seat, the woman was stopped by another who said she knew the woman would share her good fortune — “Our need is as great as yours.” As great as was their joy in seeing and hearing from a spiritual leader again, I wonder if the tiny temporal gifts of that conference weren’t better and longer remembered than anything that was said.

Most Latter-day Saints have had the frequent experience of gathering in local conferences, and, if they wish, “attending” General Conference by merely turning on a television or streaming it at home. Some enjoy the physical experience of attending in person, enough to stand in lines hoping for last-minute entry. The Saints are and have long been a gathering, conference-enjoying people, regardless of time and place. Opportunities for hearing church leaders and for engaging in other activities of the faith are, for most of us, easy to find — but in other times and places, the Saints still gathered when conditions were far from easy. Yet they clearly found it worth the effort.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ardis E. Parshall, Latter-day Saint research historian in Salt Lake City, is surrounded by her stacks of books.

Ardis E. Parshall is an independent research historian who can be found on social media as @Keepapitchinin and at Keepapitchinin.org. She occasionally takes breaks from transcribing historical documents to promote the aims of the Mormon History Association’s Ardis E. Parshall Public History Award.