With the 2010s a year behind us now, I thought it might be a good time to look back at general conference in the 2010s and consider which of the talks were some of the most significant addresses given during that period. I suspect that the Gospel Topics Essays will be the most significant documents from that decade in their long-term impact on the Church, but there are still a few memorable and significant general conference talks worth discussing. Glancing through, here were some of the ones that stood out to me as significant for reinforcing, articulating, or developing the doctrine of the Church in notable ways; for the policies they announced or defended; or for the historical initiatives, moments, or controversies to which they were tied. Together, they also give us a glimpse into the history of the Church in the 2010s. Without further ado, here is my list:
- Todd Christofferson, “The Doctrine of Christ,” CR April 2012
- This talk was likely written specifically for the “Mormon Moment” that accompanied Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign in mind as a way to deal with the fact that things Church leaders had said in the past that didn’t reflect well on the Church today were being dredged up in the news. Most memorably, we had the Randy Bott interview that discussed some of the awful rationales we used to give for the priesthood and temple ban against individuals of black African ancestry, which made national headlines a little over a month before the talk was given. As I remember, however, plenty of other “weird Mormon beliefs” were common fodder for the press at that time as well. In the talk, Elder Christofferson quoted extensively from the 1954 talk given by President J. Reuben Clark Jr. entitled “When Are Church Leaders’ Words Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?” (or, as Elder Christofferson put it, “how doctrine is promulgated in the Church”), and tried to make it clear that “not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine.” It felt significant to have a high-ranking Church leader openly make that statement in general conference and to point back to President Clark’s talk (which, to me, is one of the most significant talks given in the 20th century in the Church).
- Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join with Us,” CR October 2013
- During the 2010s, the Church faced increasingly serious concerns about a significant number of members leaving the Church over a variety of issues. This talk was memorable for being one of the most conciliatory efforts to extend an olive leaf to former members of the Church and ask them to return. President Uchtdorf acknowledging that the reasons people leave the Church are “not that simple” and stated that “we openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of Church history—along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable, and divine events—there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question.” He balanced his approach to this issue, noting that for some things, “when the entire truth is eventually known, things that didn’t make sense to us before will be resolved to our satisfaction” and encouraging us to “doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith,” but also bluntly stating that “there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes.” And finally, he told those who have left the Church that “there is yet a place for you here. Come and add your talents, gifts, and energies to ours. We will all become better as a result.” While I recognize that it’s not always easy to just come back and participate in the Church when you are doubting, unorthodox, or otherwise struggling with the Church (or feel like the Church is struggling with you), it was a heartening talk to hear at a time in my life when I was personally having some struggles with the Church.
- Jeffrey R. Holland, “Like a Broken Vessel,” CR October 2013
- One thing that I appreciate about Elder Holland is that his talks tend to be more sensitive to issues in society that other general authorities overlook. I personally suffer from depression (primarily thanks to genetics), so it was meaningful to have a compassionate talk addressed to “those who suffer from some form of mental illness or emotional disorder, whether those afflictions be slight or severe.” As far as I’m aware it was one of the first talks to focus extensively on the topic of mental illness in general conference (though others, most notably Reyna I. Aburto, have addressed it since then as well). His advice was to balance the approach making an ongoing effort to “faithfully pursue the time-tested devotional practiced that bring the Spirit of the Lord into your life” while also taking the step to “seek the advice of reputable people with certified training, professional skills, and good values,” stating that: “If you had appendicitis, God would expect you to seek a priesthood blessing and get the best medical care available. So too with emotional disorders.”
- Dallin H. Oaks, “The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood,” CR April 2014
- One of the big stories of the Church in the early 2010s was the ongoing efforts of the Ordain Women movement (and similar groups) to pressure the Church to allow to participate more fully in the Church (including in general conference), women to be ordained to the priesthood, and to be allowed to attend priesthood sessions. These efforts often included engaging in large protests near Temple Square during general conference. In a move full of irony, President Oaks addressed the topic during a priesthood session, while the women he was responding to were locked out of the meeting on Temple Square. In this address, took part in a shift in doctrine and teaching during this last decade that has tried to make the priesthood seem more accessible to women without actually ordaining them to the priesthood by stating that they have priesthood authority by way of delegation and receiving ordinances. For example: “We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, but what other authority can it be? … Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties.” That line of the thought has been developed further by other Church leaders, such as during an earlier address by Neil L. Anderson and a few later ones by Russell M. Nelson, as well as by some Latter-day Saint authors, such as Wendy Ulrich in her book Living Up to Our Privileges: Women, Power, and Priesthood.
- Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Are You Sleeping through the Restoration?“, CR April 2014
- This talk is important for giving official sanction to the idea that the Restoration is an ongoing process with the statement that: “Sometimes we think of the Restoration of the gospel as something that is complete, already behind us. … In reality, the Restoration is an ongoing process; we are living in it right now.” This is an important doctrinal concept because it gives emphasis to the idea of ongoing revelation and also gives us greater flexibility in making course adjustments as a religion to adapt to an ever-changing world.
- Russel M. Nelson, “Sustaining the Prophet,” CR October 2014
- During the last few years of President Thomas S. Monson’s life, it was an open secret that he suffered from some form of dementia. While the Church would try to allay concerns that President Monson wasn’t able to actively fulfill his role as the prophet by stating that he was still participating in meetings and making decisions in 2015, this talk by President Nelson also seemed geared specifically towards addressing the situation. In it, President Nelson made it clear that in the Church, we do not “remove people from office or business when they grow old or become disabled” after they have been called as apostles or president of the Church. He then defended that practice by discussing how “the Church today has … a remarkable system of governance that provides redundancy and backup. That system provides for prophetic leadership even when the inevitable illness and incapacities may come with advancing age,” i.e., the remaining members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve can continue to run the Church if some members of those groups are rendered incapacitated. It’s an ongoing concern and consideration in the Church, since we’ve had several presidents now who spent part of their term unable to function (most notably Heber J. Grant, Spencer W. Kimball, Ezra Taft Benson, and Howard W. Hunter), so the talk was significant for outlining some of how we deal with that issue as a Church while maintaining the tradition of the senior apostle serving as president.
- Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Gift of Grace,” CR April 2015
- Historically, we have been a very works-oriented religion and have shunned the word grace because of association with Evangelical theology. This was pronounced enough that at one time, Sterling McMurrin claimed that the Church’s doctrine was “essentially Pelagian in its theology” (i.e., we have the free will to achieve human perfection without divine grace). During the last few decades, however, grace has become less shunned as a term and Church leaders have begun to discuss exaltation in ways that balance our commitment to works necessary for salvation and the need for the Christ’s grace for salvation. This talk was one of the most notable of the decade in that regard, stating that “we cannot earn our way into heaven; the demands of justice stand as a barrier, which we are powerless to overcome on our own. … The grace of God is our great and everlasting hope.” There has also been a greater amount of discussion of grace as something that gives us greater ability to change and become something better. That idea is most notably discussed in David A. Bednar’s BYU address “In the Strength of the Lord” and Sheri Dew’s book Amazed by Grace, but President Uchtdorf also brings up that idea in this talk, stating that grace is the means “through which God pours out blessings of power and strength, enabling us to achieve things that otherwise would be far beyond our reach.”
- Todd Christofferson, “Why the Church,” CR October 2015
- For as much effort as we spend focusing on the institution of the Church, I feel like we put surprisingly little effort into articulating why the organization we participate in is relevant and important beyond our claims to priesthood authority and the idea that priesthood ordinances are necessary for salvation. That lack of explanation is probably part of why Eugene England’s classic essay “Why the Church is As True As the Gospel” is such an important piece that strikes a chord with a lot of people who have read it. This talk by Elder Christofferson stood out to me as an important address to note because it is a robust effort by an apostle to answer the question: “How does [God’s] Church accomplish the Lord’s purposes?” He gives several answers, including “to create a community of Saints that will sustain one another,” that uniting with the Church is “an important part of taking His [Jesus Christ’s] name upon us,” and (in ways that reflect England’s essay) “as the body of Christ, the members of the Church minister to one another in the reality of day-to-day life” in a “hands-on” way that tests and shapes us. He also points out that working together as an organization, we can “achieve needful things that cannot be accomplished by individuals or smaller groups,” such as the humanitarian efforts of the Church or the construction and operation of temples. Again, I felt like this was one of the most important talks of the decade because it was an outstanding effort to explain why the Church is relevant in our day and age.
- Linda K. Burton, “I Was a Stranger,” CR April 2016
- Speaking of humanitarian efforts, at the height of the Syrian civil war and the war with ISIS (among other problems across the world leading to an increase in refugees), Church leaders made a coordinated effort during this general conference to encourage members of the Church to get personally involved in local refugee relief projects. This talk was, to me, the most powerful of the talks directed towards this effort, and significant because the initiative was first announced during the women’s session of general conference. I’m uncertain how much follow-up there has been since that time on refugee relief projects in the Church, but this talk was part of an important moment in encouraging members to participate in the Church’s humanitarian efforts.
- David A. Bednar, “Retain a Remission of Your Sins,” CR April 2016
- Shifting back to doctrine and theology, this talk represented (to me) some important articulation and evolution of our doctrine about ordinances, the Holy Spirit and sanctification. As stated in the talk, “the Holy Ghost is a sanctifier who cleanses and burns dross and evil out of the human souls as though by fire.” This role as sanctifier is central to retaining a remission of sins throughout life and in relationship to the saving ordinances, which are “authorized channels through which the blessings and powers of heaven can flow into our individual lives” (as an aside, for those who have an interest in the Protestant Reformation, that statement is fairly significant in aligning where we stand in relationship to theologians like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli on the subject of sacraments as channels of grace). Elder Bednar states that “baptism provides a necessary initial cleansing of our soul from sin,” but by contrast, “the act of partaking of the sacrament, in and of itself, does not remit sins.” In both cases, the true, long-term remission of sins comes from the Holy Spirit, since “by the sanctifying power of the Holy Ghost as our constant companion, we can always retain a remission of sins,” and that companionship is promised in the covenants we make during confirmation and the sacrament. I enjoy getting into the nitty-gritty details on things like this, so I thought this talk was both interesting and important for doing so about ordinances and remission of sins.
- Dallin H. Oaks, “The Plan and the Proclamation,” CR October 2017
- The Church’s ongoing stand against homosexual unions was a major controversy throughout the 2010s (as it was before and still is). While this was most pronounced with the unpopular policy of exclusion that was in place from 2015-2019, there were plenty of other skirmishes and events that are a part of that controversy. Both Dallin H. Oaks and The Family: A Proclamation to the World were deployed on the frontlines throughout the entire decade to defend the Church’s position on the subject. This talk was one of the more strongly-worded efforts on President Oaks’s part to make it clear that the Church is standing by what it says in Proclamation, stating that “it has been the basis of Church teaching and practice for the last 22 years and will continue so for the future,” with a specific focus on “same-sex marriage and cohabitation without marriage.” He even goes as far as making it a litmus test of faithfulness and true conversion to embrace the Proclamation, stating that: “Converted Latter-day Saints believe that the family proclamation … is the Lord’s reemphasis of the gospel truths we need to sustain us through current challenges to the family,” and that “I believe our attitude toward and use of the family proclamation is one of those tests [a chance to stand and prove ourselves] for this generation.” I have no doubt that this talk will continue to be quoted and used to reinforce the Proclamation—as, indeed, it already has been in the “Come, Follow Me” manual for 2021.
- Russell M. Nelson, “The Correct Name of the Church,” CR October 2018
- The talk gains its significance from the policies that had already been put in place as part of an extensive effort focused on presenting the Church as being Christocentric in its orientation, effectively making “Mormon” a bad word in Mormon circles. This talk was President Nelson’s heavy-handed explanation and defense of that policy. He obviously feels strongly about the subject and, while I still feel attached to the term “Mormon” (as well as other symbols associated with the Church that are being de-emphasized like the Angel Moroni), I know that he is correct in his assessment that the Lord has made it clear in multiple times and places that “Jesus Christ directed us to call the Church by His name because it is His Church, filled with His power.” It is likely that this topic (and, by extension, this talk) will be remembered as the iconic initiative of President Nelson’s tenure as president of the Church.
Those are the talks that stand out most to me as being especially significant. A few more honorable mentions (in addition to the ones mentioned in the discussion above) might include Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s “You Are My Hands” for its beautiful expression of how we can serve as Christ’s hands in serving our fellow human beings; Dallin H. Oaks’s “Two Lines of Communication” for its efforts to balance personal revelation with the right of Church leaders to receive revelation for Church members; Russell M. Nelson’s “The Sabbath Is a Delight” for its connections to an initiative to focus on Sabbath day observance (there was some research that indicated that Sabbath day observance was key to lasting, inter-generational commitment to the Church, which led to an increased emphasis on the idea for a while, including some in-Church trainings); and Dale G. Renlund’s “Abound with Blessings” because of its efforts to work through the balance between works and grace in ways that have some interesting parallels with the Eastern Orthodox belief in synergeia or cooperative salvation.
I recognize that this list is shaped by my own perspectives and interests, so I’m curious to hear your thoughts as well. Do you agree that these talks belong on a list of “most significant general conference talks of the 2010s”? What are the talks that I missed that you would include and why?
 Sterling McMurrin, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1965), 82.