This is today’s installment of the General Conference Odyssey project. Previous posts in this series can be found here. Posts by other bloggers writing about the April 1971 General Conference today will be included at the end of this post.
Today we are writing about the Tuesday Morning Session of the April 1971 General Conference.
Since the 1980s, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have grown accustomed to five sessions during each general conference of the church: Saturday Morning, Saturday Afternoon, Priesthood, Sunday Morning, and Sunday Afternoon. In just the last year or so the church has re-labeled the Women’s meeting, which is often held a week before the rest of conference, as the Women’s Session of conference.
But in the recorded conferences from 1971 through 1976 there were often more sessions of conference. In addition to the Saturday and Sunday sessions, there was a whole additional day. Often there were two sessions on Friday, though sometimes they were held on Tuesday, and at least once on the Thursday.
Starting in October 1975 they also added a Welfare Session. So in from October 1975 through October 1976 there were eight sessions each conference. Then in 1977 they discontinued the additional day and simplified to the Saturday and Sunday sessions we are used to now, with the additional Welfare Session which continued to be held through October 1982. The Women’s meeting was included periodically starting in October 1979.
So today we are reading in the Tuesday Morning Session of April 1971. As the first speaker in this session, Elder Boyd. K Packer, who had been ordained an Apostle just one year before, gave an important discourse titled “The Spirit Beareth Record.”
Elder Packer recounts his experience from a year earlier in which he unexpectedly encountered President Joseph Fielding Smith in an elevator:
“As the elevator doors quietly opened, there stood President Joseph Fielding Smith. There was a moment of surprise in seeing him, since his office is on a lower floor.
As I saw him framed in the doorway, there fell upon me a powerful witness—there stands the prophet of God. That sweet voice of Spirit that is akin to light, that has something to do with pure intelligence, affirmed to me that this was the prophet of God.
I need not try to define that experience to Latter-day Saints. That kind of witness is characteristic of this church. It is not something reserved to those in high office. It is a witness, not only available but vital, to every member.”
What strikes me about this experience is the fascinating combination of the mundane and the spiritual. There is nothing grand or romantic or sacred about riding an elevator. I do it every day at work. But Elder Packer had this profound spiritual experience standing at the elevator seeing President Smith.
It reminds me of an experience I had as a young missionary in Santiago Chile. My companion and I were out with some young men from in the local congregation who held the priesthood. We were knocking doors and we decided to split up to cover more ground. We looked at the map of our assigned area and decided that my companion and one of the young men would knock on the doors of set of streets while the other young man and I knocked on the doors in an adjacent set.
I say “knock” doors, but in this part of Santiago we didn’t really knock on doors. Most people had a small fenced-in yard between the street and the door to their home, and it was customary instead of knocking to stand outside the gate and yell “Halo!” until someone poked their head out of the door.
Somehow we got the agreed upon streets confused and I ended up knocking the doors of a street that my companion and his partner had just finished only 5 minutes earlier. So we were inadvertently contacting people who had already seen and rejected a my companion.
There was a lady in her yard, and when I introduced myself as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ and asked her if we could share a brief message, she told me that another missionary had been by just a few minutes before and she had told him “no.” I expected her to tell us to go away and stop bothering her, but instead she said that she was very busy, but that if we were willing to share our message while she prepared lunch with her friend, she would listen.
The discussion we had with her was a disaster. As missionaries we had been taught the importance of minimizing distractions when teaching the gospel, to establish an environment where people can listen and feel the spirit. The time we were trying to tell her about Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith, and the Book of Mormon was completely filled with noise, constant interruptions, and distractions as she cooked, talked to her friend, and didn’t seem to be listening. I was very surprised when we asked if we could come back for another discussion and she said yes.
A couple of weeks later she went to attend a weekday activity with the relief society, but there was some confusion about the time and nobody was there there. She set foot in the church and was told that the women weren’t there, and she left again. Some weeks later, she attended sacrament meeting. We visited to teacher her often, but her religious background was with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and she had many questions and doubts, particularly about Jesus as Jehovah.
To make a long story short, she eventually decided to join the church and was baptized. When she did, I asked her at what point she had felt the spirit and knew that the church was true. She surprised me by saying that it was during that very first discussion, which I had been sure was a disaster, that she had felt a very strong witness from the spirit. And she said she had a second powerful witness from the spirit again that very first time that she set foot in the church, even though nobody was there for the relief society meeting and she left immediately.
She admitted that during the entire time of doubts and questions she already knew that the church was true because of the spirit she had felt, but that she needed time to understand.
So, returning to Elder Packer’s words, I think that his experience with receiving a powerful witness from the holy spirit that President Smith was the prophet of God standing in the elevator shows us that the Spirit can witness to us in any circumstances. Yes, establishing a reverent environment and minimizing distractions when we discuss sacred things is important. And there are environments that can offend the spirit, or make us less susceptible to his communications.
But sometimes we fall into the trap of conflating the Spirit with environmental feelings and factors. We think that by creating a spiritual environment that inspires awe, serenity, peace, reverence, and quiet, that we can make people feel the spirit, or manufacture a “spiritual” experience. But the Spirit isn’t a feeling of peace. Reverence is not a quiet room or architecture that inspires awe. Reverence is a feeling we have toward God, not a feeling imposed upon us by a “reverent” environment. The Spirit is a real spiritual being, a member of the Godhead who communicates with our spirit. He can bring peace and spiritual feelings in the most mundane and uninspiring places. Like an elevator.
When people tell me that they feel the Spirit in all churches, I sometimes wonder if they might have fallen into this trap of conflating feelings and reverent, peaceful ambiance with the Holy Ghost. Because when I feel the Holy Spirit it is quite different than being moved by beautiful architecture or the peaceful setting of a quiet room. It is different than being emotionally moved by a passionate, insightful sermon, a beautiful musical theme, or a film depicting heroism or human resilience. The Holy Spirit is not those things. It is different. It is something that Elder Packer could feel in the elevator. It is something that the sister we taught as missionaries could feel despite the chaos of her home while we tried to tell her about the restoration of the gospel and she cooked lunch.
Elder Packer emphasizes that his experience is not, or should not be unusual. It is “characteristic” of the church, and is not only available to every member, but “vital” for every member. Each of us should be able to have a witness from the Holy Spirit that the president of the church is God’s prophet.
Elder Packer continues his sermon with a topic that many members of the church wonder about:
“Occasionally during the past year I have been asked a question. Usually it comes as a curious, almost an idle, question about the qualifications to stand as a witness for Christ. The question they ask is, ‘Have you seen Him?’
That is a question that I have never asked of another. I have not asked that question of my brethren in the Quorum, thinking that it would be so sacred and so personal that one would have to have some special inspiration, indeed, some authorization, even to ask it.
There are some things just too sacred to discuss. We know that as it relates to the temples. In our temples, sacred ordinances are performed; sacred experiences are enjoyed. And yet we do not, because of the nature of them, discuss them outside those sacred walls.
It is not that they are secret, but they are sacred; not to be discussed, but to be harbored and to be protected and regarded with the deepest of reverence.”
This is a very important principle. Sacred experiences are to be harbored, protected, and regarded with deep reverence, not cavalierly shared and discussed.
Elder Packer cites the Book of Mormon to further expound upon this principle:
“I have come to know what the prophet Alma meant: ‘… It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him.’ ”
There is a defined set of Gospel teachings and experiences that God has authorized to be preached to the world. Unless He authorizes it, other experiences are to be kept sacred and private. In the context of Elder Packer’s talk, this suggests that the apostles and prophets will not speak of spiritual visitations and manifestations unless the Lord specifically authorizes them to do so.
He explains that the words that apostles and prophets use to declare their knowledge are familiar, and virtually indistinguishable from the phrases we hear in testimony meetings throughout the church: “I know that God lives; I know that Jesus is the Christ.”
“Some seek for a witness to be given in some new and dramatic and different way.
The bearing of a testimony is akin to a declaration of love. The romantics and poets and couples in love, from the beginning of time, have sought more impressive ways of saying it, or singing it, or writing it. They have used all of the adjectives, all of the superlatives, all manner of poetic expression. And when all is said and done, the declaration which is most powerful is the simple, three-word variety.
To one who is honestly seeking, the testimony borne in these simple phrases is enough, for it is the spirit that beareth record, not the words.”
The confirmation that the prophets and apostles are true authorized spokesmen for God comes not through elegant rhetoric and impressive experiences. It comes through the Holy Ghost.
He then returns to the question he mentioned above:
“I said there was a question that could not be taken lightly nor answered at all without the prompting of the Spirit. I have not asked that question of others, but I have heard them answer it—but not when they were asked. They have answered it under the prompting of the Spirit, on sacred occasions, when ‘the Spirit beareth record.’
I have heard one of my brethren declare: ‘I know from experiences, too sacred to relate, that Jesus is the Christ.’
I have heard another testify: ‘I know that God lives; I know that the Lord lives. And more than that, I know the Lord.’
It was not their words that held the meaning or the power. It was the Spirit.
I have come to know that the witness does not come by seeking after signs. It comes through fasting and prayer, through activity and testing and obedience. It comes through sustaining the servants of the Lord and following them.”
This is such an important teaching. The way we get that witness, which Elder Packer describes as “vital” for every member of the church, is through fasting, prayer, obedience, putting the gospel they preach to the test of action, and sustaining and following them.
I am touched by Elder Packer’s humility as he finishes his talk:
“Now, I wonder with you why one such as I should be called to the holy apostleship. There are so many qualifications that I lack. There is so much in my effort to serve that is wanting. As I have pondered on it, I have come to only one single thing, one qualification in which there may be cause, and that is, I have that witness.”
This is a powerful sermon, and I encourage you to read the whole thing.
I am thankful for living prophets and apostles and the witness of the Holy Ghost that confirms their authority.
Other posts today from bloggers writing about the Tuesday Morning Session of the April 1971 General Conference of the LDS Church: