LDS General Conference
In 1877, a small group of pioneers traveled by wagon for three months to bring the traditions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Utah to Arizona.
The influence of these Mormon settlers remains evident in the East Valley today, woven into the fabric of the area’s history, agriculture, government and society.
This weekend, hundreds of Arizona Mormons will make the pilgrimage back to their spiritual roots for the church’s 175th General Conference in Utah, a twice-yearly gathering where the faithful receive encouragement, prophecy and direction from church leaders.
Some will attend the two-day conference at the LDS Conference Center in Salt Lake City, while others will watch or listen via cable television, radio, satellite or Internet in their homes or churches.
“To watch the conference live is an amazing experience,” said Roc Arnett, a member of the high council of the Tempe Arizona University Stake, a group of LDS wards or churches. “But it’s also marvelous that we can watch it at home and still get the spirit of what takes place at the conference.”
The First Presidency and other church authorities use the time to speak on topics of family, faith, prophecy and worldwide charity efforts. Regular church activities are suspended during the conference weekend so nothing competes with the speakers.
Families look at “conference,” as it’s commonly called, as a time to develop relationships, introduce their faith to non-Mormons and refocus spiritually. Children regardless of age are also encouraged to watch and learn.
“We wanted the children to appreciate conference, so we started the tradition of inviting family over and having a meal on Sunday between sessions,” said Shirley Bowles, 45, of Tempe, who has seven kids. “Our children really enjoy it. They won’t let the tradition stop.”
Hundreds of the East Valley’s estimated 125,000 Mormons make the 650-mile trek to Salt Lake City. But with 21,000 seats available, the free tickets are at a premium.
This year, Frank and Alicia Barba of Mesa plan to pack a 15-passenger van with teenagers from Alicia’s young women’s group and head to Utah.
“The girls will hear something that will give them the courage to make righteous choices,” said Alicia, 52. “The world is full of things that pull you away from God and integrity. I want them to know who they are and where they can go by the choices they make.”
It’s that commitment to family, community and high moral standards that has defined Mormons in the Valley for more than a century.
They settled in Lehi
Arriving from Utah in the late 1870s, a small band of Mormons settled in the Lehi area of north Mesa and immediately set about to improve living conditions for their families. It’s that mind-set and strong work ethic that played a major part in the development and expansion of several East Valley communities.
Sandra Gracia Apsey, special collections librarian at the Mesa Public Library, said the Mormon settlers not only were instrumental in founding Mesa, but also in the agricultural growth of the area.
“I think the Mormon settlers’ greatest influence was their determination to provide a home for their families, which led them to clear and rebuild the original Hohokam canals,” Apsey said. “This was the basis for the canal system, which created a reliable source of water and enabled the Valley to grow.”
Don Evans, Arizona spokesman for the church, said the settlers also brought with them an emphasis on family and education. That helped build a strong community and education system that remains.
“Many of the people who move to this area today like the emphasis on family values,” Evans said. “That’s historical. That’s not an accident.”
Local church members continue to take an active role in their communities, participating in politics, education, youth activities and business ventures. Getting involved is a priority in the church, and Mormons use their influence and gifts to shape and guide their cities.
Mesa’s first mayor, Alexander Finlay Macdonald, made it a priority to regulate saloons and get the young town headed in what he considered the right direction.
Since then, about half of Mesa’s 37 mayors have been Mormon, along with dozens of City Council members and other city leaders. Mormons also played key roles in the development of Chandler, Tempe and Gilbert and other East Valley areas, as evidenced in streets, businesses and schools named for longtime LDS families.
– Alan Gomes
Critics of the church
Despite its good deeds, the church has it critics.
From the earliest days, skeptics questioned revelations and visions received by Mormon prophets, and have been critical of what they deem peculiar doctrines and the church’s reverence of spiritual writings other than the Bible.
In 1844, founder Joseph Smith died of gunshot wounds inflicted by an angry mob in Illinois, while other Mormon leaders have endured attacks on their character and beliefs.
“There has been persecution from the very beginning of the restoration (of the faith),” said Arnett, who also is president of the East Valley Partnership. “I think it continues today because people don’t believe, and they obviously have a difference of opinion than the mainstream of the church. They are certainly entitled to that.”
The Mormons can’t escape the criticism, even during their conferences in Utah.
Mesa-based Concerned Christians, a ministry largely made up of former Mormons, will circulate information outside the conference center and tell their stories.
“We help (ex-Mormons) see why they have made the decision to leave the church, so they can feel confident in the decision they have made,” said Jim Robertson, who started the non-profit ministry 32 years ago with his wife, Judy. “And, when I’m talking to somebody who is considering Mormonism, I don’t tell them they can’t be Mormon. That’s their choice. But I want them to see both sides of the story.”
Still, the church’s worldwide missionary efforts ensure and the denomination will continue to grow.
At home, Mormons enjoy the thousands of visitors that one of the most notable buildings in the East Valley brings to their doorstop. Last year, about 253,000 visitors came to the Arizona Temple Visitor’s Center near downtown Mesa to learn about the religion. Only Mormons in good standing are allowed inside the Temple, where various rituals including baptism and weddings have been performed since it opened in 1927.
Bruce R. Christensen, director of the center, said last year’s Easter pageant and Christmas celebration attracted 1.25 million people to the temple grounds.
And they are people the Mormons want in their faith, in their corner.
As they travel back to the Valley after the conference this weekend, they will carry with them the guidance and advice they receive from church leaders on how to reach out.
“The leadership tells us what to focus on for the coming months,” Arnett said. “You try to make adjustments and improve yourself, your family and as a member of the community.”