26 years, 50 Mormon conferences — here's what stands out

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Peggy Fletcher Stack

On my first assignment covering LDS General Conference in April 1992, I was leaning over the railing of the Salt Lake City Tabernacle’s balcony to scrutinize the appearance and health of the men in red velvet chairs — thrones, really — the top men in Mormonism.

I noted the one designated for then-Church President Ezra Taft Benson was empty.

The 92-year-old leader, suffering the effects of old age and ill health, had not addressed the LDS masses since 1989, a few years before I became the newspaper’s religion writer and inherited the job of covering “conference,” as it is known.

But I soaked in the sights, sounds and smells of that historic turtle-domed edifice, which had hosted every Mormon president since Brigham Young, where leaders had literally pounded the pulpit in that acoustical wonder to challenge and inspire the faithful, where thousands upon thousands of Latter-day Saints had poured out their devotion, where a famous choir was born.

During the next 25 years, I observed lots of men with health issues, vacant chairs, somewhat spry younger men (you know, in their 50s to 70s) take their seats.

But so much more.

In 2000, I mourned the move from the pioneer gathering place to the spacious Conference Center, where it is much tougher to get a close-up look at the leaders. I witnessed the ebb and flow of protesters (even got called a “whore” by one of the more virulent Christian pamphleteers), hurried over to the LDS Church high-rise office building for news conferences, and watched the polite march of Ordain Women backers pushing to join the all-male priesthood (or at least get tickets to the all-male session of conference).

I heard endless mandates to repent, pray, live worthy and avoid the world, become better, kinder and more welcoming — as well as routine warnings about Satan’s devious influence on the human mind.

I reported the calling of a non-American apostle (Dieter F. Uchtdorf of Germany) and the first woman ever to offer a prayer (Jean Stevens) at one of these meetings.

I listened to powerful — sometimes controversial — speeches from leading authorities, including Richard G. Scott on abuse, Jeffrey R. Holland on his own struggle with depression, James E. Faust on Amish forgiveness, Gordon B. Hinckley on losing his wife, Uchtdorf on LDS leaders’ mistakes, and British Seventy Patrick Kearon on serving refugees.

Of the church’s 15 top current leaders, I was there when 11 of their names and positions were announced — starting with Robert D. Hales and stretching to Dale G. Renlund. That means I also reported the final conference sermons of their predecessors.

Neal A. Maxwell offered a potpourri of memories and advice to the all-male priesthood session in April 2004, saying “be grateful for people in your lives who love you enough to correct you, to remind you of your standards and possibilities, even when you don’t want to be reminded.” The popular speaker and writer succumbed to cancer that summer.

“The next time you’re tempted to groan, you might try to laugh instead,” apostle Joseph B. Wirthlin counseled in October 2008, a few months before he died. “It will extend your life and make the lives of all those around you more enjoyable.”

I covered the installation of three men — Howard W. Hunter, Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson — as presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and watched as the members cast their “sustaining vote.”

That symbolic gesture confused at least one Associated Press reporter, who noted in his account that Hinckley was “re-elected unanimously.”

When I called to tell him that was not an election, the writer balked. “I saw them all raise their hands.”

Trust me, that was no election, I assured him, and I should know.

For me, though, covering conference has always been a daunting and difficult task, one which never seems to please anyone. If I write about the meeting’s speeches, outsiders argue, “Our people give inspiring sermons, too. Why don’t you report those?” If I look for and highlight speakers’ statements about social issues, Mormons complain, “That’s not what the talk was about.”

Still, there was no escaping it.

Conference sermons contain “spiritual and lifestyle blueprints for the faithful,” wrote former Salt Lake Tribune Editor James E. “Jay” Shelledy, who hired me. And, because Utah‘s capital city is the Vatican of Mormonism and members constitute the majority of the Beehive State’s population as well its elected leaders, their words are “must reading for the rest of us, too.”

VIP reception with Peggy Fletcher Stack<br>Join us for appetizers, a cash bar and conversation at a VIP reception for Tribune religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack on Oct. 4. The reception precedes “26 Years on the Faith Beat,” a free event at 7 p.m. at the Salt Lake City Public Library, where Stack will share behind-the-scenes stories with Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce.<br>When • Wednesday, Oct. 4, 5:30 p.m. <br>Where • The Leonardo, 209 E. 500 South, Salt Lake City<br> Tickets • $25 at sltrib.com/stack. Includes reserved seating at the 7 p.m. free event.

This month marks my 50th consecutive General Conference (no, I’m not that old – remember, it’s twice a year), reporting the speeches, policies, who’s in, who’s out, new presidencies, statistics and the faith’s take on the world.

Here are some highlights:

October 1992 • Hinckley, as first counselor in the governing First Presidency, addressed the problems of an incapacitated prophet.

“As it was during the time when President [Spencer W.] Kimball was ill, we have moved without hesitation when there is well-established policy,” the future church president said. “Where there is not firmly established policy, we have talked with the president and received his approval.″

Hinckley spoke in this guarded way as a counselor, but after becoming president himself in 1995, the energetic leader found his own voice — like a favorite grandfather giving sage advice about how to live.

October 1993 • Church public relations officials accepted 1,000 white roses as a “gesture of peace″ from a coalition concerned about recent disciplinary actions against the so-called September Six, intellectuals who were accused of apostasy. It was the first real Mormon feminist effort I reported.

April 1996 • I always had to work harder during the last years of apostle David B. Haight’s ministry (he died in 2004). As he aged, Haight (grandfather of Tribune owner and Publisher Paul Huntsman) no longer could read a teleprompter or even pages with large print. He would just wing it. So I had no copies of his prepared text. It forced me to pay greater attention, though, and I heard that when he spoke in the tabernacle, his wife, Ruby, would cough loudly when she felt he had talked long enough.

October 1997 • Hinckley announced the idea of small temples — dubbed “minis” — that would be built across the globe. This dramatically boosted the number of LDS temples worldwide.

April 2000 • The first General Conference sessions were held in the cavernous Conference Center, though the building had not been completed.

October 2000 • In a rare move, the dates of conference were moved back a week, so as not to interfere with Mormon church-owned KSL-TV’s coverage of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. On that weekend the Conference Center was dedicated officially, a ceremony that included a public “Hosanna shout.” Such a ritual, in which members shake a white handkerchief as a symbol of their approval and excitement, normally is reserved for private temple ceremonies, rather than being shown on network television.

March-April 2001 • Hinckley laid out plans for a new program, the Perpetual Education Fund, to provide opportunities for members in developing nations to be trained for the workforce.

October 2001 • The only time I covered conference from outside Utah. I flew back to New York City to rejoin SeaTrek 2001, a group of Latter-day Saints who had re-enacted the Atlantic crossing of their ancestors in tall sailing ships. It was not even a month after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The harbor was eerily quiet (no other boats were allowed) and ground zero was still smoldering. A few days later, I joined other New York Mormons at their meetinghouse near Lincoln Center to watch the conference on big screens. On Sunday morning, Hinckley announced in somber tones, “I have just been handed a note that says that a U.S. missile attack [on Afghanistan] is underway. I need not remind you that we live in perilous times.”

October 2004 • There were two vacancies in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles after the deaths of David B. Haight and Neal A. Maxwell. As usual, I was expected to write a story about potential replacements. It was always pure speculation, given that I had absolutely no information, and there’s no predictable pattern. Often, I would describe the process and talk about categories of leaders that might get tapped. Without fail, none of my predictions came true.

In 2004, I asked my aunt, who was familiar with the hierarchy, what non-American she would pick and without hesitation, she said, “The handsome German. The silver fox.” No one was more surprised than I when Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s name was called.

April 2005 • Pope John Paul II died after a morning session, which Hinckley mentioned in the afternoon.

“We join those throughout the world who mourn the passing of Pope John Paul II, an extraordinary man of faith, vision, and intellect, whose courageous actions have touched the world in ways that will be felt for generations to come,” the Mormon leader said. “The pope’s voice remained firm in defense of freedom, family and Christianity. On matters of principle and morality he was uncompromising. On his compassion for the world’s poor, he has been unwavering.”

That meant I had to cover both the Mormon gathering and get reactions from local Catholics. Editors then would have to decide which to play on the front page. The pope got the cover.

April 2007 • Conference returned for one session to the renovated tabernacle after a two-year overhaul. I had written about historians’ alarm that the pioneer building’s original pine pews had been removed and replaced with oak replicas. Hinckley, alluding to critics, quipped: Now, aren’t these pews more comfortable?

October 2007 • In her first speech as general president of the all-women LDS Relief Society, “Mothers Who Know,” Julie Beck caused a stir across the burgeoning social media community by suggesting Mormon homes should be as well kept as an LDS temple. Beck listened and learned from the pushback, including a petition called, “Women Who Know,” and later sponsored a groundbreaking volume, “Daughters in My Kingdom,” about strong LDS women from the past.

October 2010 • Senior apostle Boyd K. Packer said same-sex attraction could be overcome, a view at odds with his church’s position on homosexuality.

“Some suppose that they were pre-set and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impure and unnatural,” Packer said in the speech. “Not so! Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Remember he is our father.”

I knew instantly the quote would cause problems for the church and would be criticized by many, but I had no idea the extent of the fallout — large protests circled Temple Square in its aftermath. A few days later, the church quietly edited the online version of Packer’s speech, using “temptations” instead of “tendencies” and removing the question about God’s motives entirely. I had rarely seen such a substantive edit of a conference sermon.

October 2012 • President Thomas S. Monson announced that the church was lowering the minimum missionary age for young men from 19 to 18 and for young women from 21 to 19. You could hear an audible gasp in the Conference Center. At a news conference between morning and afternoon sessions, I asked apostle Jeffrey R. Holland of the faith’s Missionary Department, why the length of missionary service for men was still two years, while women serve for 18 months. Why not equalize them? Holland famously responded, “One miracle at a time, Peggy.”

Buy your tickets now to our VIP reception for Peggy Fletcher Stack — a celebration and discussion of her 26 years on the faith beat