A couple of months ago, my co-blogger Beatrice pointed out that lds.org applies handy topic labels to General Conference talks. I thought it might be fun to look through these to see which topics have been addressed most frequently in the last 40 years.
The topic labels are posted with each Conference page. For example, here’s the list for the April 2013 Conference. There are a couple of issues that make these data less than ideal. First, some of the terms used, such as “family history” rather than “genealogy,” suggest that the topic labels weren’t assigned at the same time the Conferences occurred, but were rather assigned years later. Second, the labeling appears to have been done in at least three phases, given dramatic shifts at two points in time in the average number of topic labels per talk. This means at least three different people assigning labels, and it’s unlikely they would agree entirely with one another’s choices. But for purposes of this post, which isn’t all that serious anyway, I’m just going to ignore any issues with the data, throw it all in a big pile, and make a few graphs.
Most popular topics
Here are the top ten topics in order of popularity. The vertical axis in this graph, and in all graphs below, shows how many talks were assigned the topic label since 1971. I think there are no real surprises here. I’m disappointed that obedience comes in at #3, but not surprised.
Seven deadly sins
It looks like lust is the favorite of the seven deadly sins. Of course, there aren’t actually any talks labeled with “lust,” so I chose “morality” as maybe referring to the same thing. In this graph and all others below, when I substituted an alternative term to try to find labels that matched a topic, I’ve put the actual topic word used on lds.org in parentheses.
Books of scripture
Not surprisingly, the Book of Mormon beats the pants off other books of scripture.
I guess it’s clear who the favorite member of the Godhead is.
Missions of the Church
It’s tough to pick labels for perfecting the saints. Just about anything could be fit under that heading. So you could certainly argue with my choices there. But it does appear that Conference talks far more frequently address proclaiming the gospel than redeeming the dead.
Necking and petting
So of course we could never have a subject label as blatant as “sex.” That would be gauche! It appears that we also can’t have one as obvious as “chastity.” Here’s my list of vaguely sex-related words that might or might not be euphemisms for sex.
Young women’s values
I wouldn’t have guessed it, but “divine nature” and “individual worth” actually do show up a few times as topic labels for talks. This was actually what prompted me to look at how frequently all the values show up.
Groups of people
I found topic labels that refer to groups by age, groups by marital status, and groups by gender. I’ve added some groups that were never referred in the graph to just to emphasize what is clearly the imagined default person in the Church: married, male, and middle-aged. The unmarked groups don’t get subject labels applied to them. I realize that the topic labels are probably the opinions of just a small number of people, but I think it would signal that women have arrived as being taken seriously as fully members of the Church when they no longer qualify as being a special topic requiring a separate label. The message of this type of label is that there are talks for people in general, who are of course men, and then talks for women, which are a separate class of talks.
After all we can do
Nephi says we are saved by grace “after all we can do.” It looks like Conference talks emphasize all we’re supposed to do a lot more than the grace.
Heavenly Mother always liked you best!
Other Christians give us a hard time for believing Jesus and Satan are brothers. If they are, it’s pretty clear which brother is the favorite. Maybe that’s why Satan rebelled. Older siblings are typically more compliant with their parents’ wishes and younger siblings are the rebels.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery” is the Conference favorite, but only if you believe my attempt to connect the euphemism “morality” to adultery. There’s much less discussion of not killing or stealing.
Obedience vs. sacrifice
Samuel famously told Saul that “to obey is better than sacrifice.” It looks like this difference holds up in Conference talk popularity too. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any mention of Samuel’s next comparison point, hearkening versus the fat of rams, in topic labels. In fact, there weren’t any topic labels referring to animal fats of any kind.
Seven heavenly virtues
We looked at the seven deadly sins, so how about the seven heavenly virtues? Chastity is the favorite, but only because I stuck “morality” in for it again.
And the greatest of these is . . .
Faith? Paul claimed it was charity. What does he know?
Seven habits of highly effective Mormons
While we’re on the lists of seven, let’s throw in Stephen Covey’s famous seven habits. You can see I had to stretch quite a bit to make any of the topic labels match the seven habits. I must admit that I didn’t try all that hard to match “synergize,” a word that I can’t hear without spontaneously rolling my eyes. I’ll just be happy thinking that Conference talks aren’t telling me about synergizing. I do enough eye-rolling while watching it as it is.
Can mercy rob justice?
Alma says no, but it appears that discussion of mercy can at least crowd out discussion of justice.
Is it the attitude or the gratitude?
I’m pretty sure I’ve heard about an attitude of gratitude in Conference several times. Which is more important, though? Clearly it’s the gratitude. Which makes sense if you think about it, I guess. Gratitude with no attitude is still a virtue, but attitude with no gratitude sounds like trouble, as the implication is that the attitude is bad.
Boyd K. Packer’s hit list
President Packer famously labeled feminists, gays, and intellectuals as the three great enemies of the Church. None of them appear to get much discussion in Conference. Of course, this fact really shines a light on the weaknesses of this type of analysis: President Packer routinely condemns gay marriage without saying any explicit words that might lead a label assigner to assign the label “homosexuality” to the talk. Getting back to the graph, tolerance is included because of President Packer’s recent talk in which he mentioned the “tolerance trap.” Finally, President Packer also warned that “Some things that are true are not very useful.” Because he isn’t opposed to truth in general–only the non-useful kind–I added a caveat to the last bar.
In the future I hope to do something a little more substantive with these data, but for now, I hope you enjoyed these mostly frivolous comparisons.