Scriptures Citations in General Conference

Times & Seasons commenter and economist Ed Johnson (“ed”) has performed some sophisticated statistical analysis on general conference scripture citations. We discussed the same data, but with the aid of lesser tools and minds, in earlier posts here and here. The finding that most surprised me is that the surge in Book of Mormon citations evident in the previous posts can’t be attributed to President Benson’s famous general conference talks about the Book of Mormon after all: his talks coincide with the crest of the wave.

21 comments for “Scriptures Citations in General Conference

  1. Nate Oman
    August 22, 2005 at 1:10 pm

    Very interesting stuff. I thought it especially interesting that we seem to be substituting the BOM for the NT. This makes quite a bit of sense, as the BOM is filled with Christological material, so it make sense that its natural competitor would be the NT. However, it is striking that during the period when the Church is being percieved as more eager to appropriate the label of “Christian” and Christ has supposedly been given greater prominence in our teachings, we actually see a decline in the use of the NT. This suggests that our increased emphasis on Christ and Jesus seems to be in large part an emphasis on the “Mormon” Jesus of the BOM.

  2. August 22, 2005 at 1:20 pm


    I think you are right to mention the new edition of the scriptures. Someone can tell me when the new edition of the Book of Mormon came out, but I think the timing is about right (very early 80s). The new Book of Mormon, with its cleaner cross referencing and index, plus the new references for the Book of Mormon in the LDS Bible, I found to be much more conducive to study than the rather cramped older edition.

    Oaks, Nelson, and Maxwell really do stand out, though, don’t they?

  3. ed
    August 22, 2005 at 1:21 pm

    Thanks for the link. What I have up there now is supposed to be an early draft,though…I plan to add some more analyis. Also please excuse any typos.

    Also I’d love to hear any ideas for additional interesting questions to ask of the data.

  4. Nate Oman
    August 22, 2005 at 1:23 pm

    BTW, this is another example of why we need economists and other social scientists in Mormon Studies. This is the sort of stuff that you generally don’t get from the historians.

  5. August 22, 2005 at 1:33 pm

    I suspect Pres. Benson was relaying something that had been discussed among the quorum a lot prior to that talk.

  6. Karl D
    August 22, 2005 at 1:34 pm


    Are you suggesting that quorum membership changes in the ealy 80s (Maxwell 81, Oaks and Nelson 84) are explaining some (or even most) of the increase?

    I would like to see the sample split between apostles called pre-1980 and apostle called post-1980. Did apostles called before 1980 shift strongly towards the Book of Mormon or was it the newer apostles?

  7. ed
    August 22, 2005 at 1:50 pm

    Karl, you should be able to see the “split between apostles called pre-1980 and apostle called post-1980” on the last two figures, no?

    I think you are right to be concerned that people like Maxwell, Oaks, and Nelson are having a disproportionate effect on the trends, since their citation rates are so much higher than average. I plan to address this in future analysis by, essentially, down-weighting citations in talks with many citations, thus giving every talk the same total weight. On the other hand, Nelson is pretty much in the middle of the other recent apostles in his citation patterns.

  8. August 22, 2005 at 2:08 pm

    Good stuff, ed. If you get chance, a key telling us who each of the 3-letter intials represents would help. I figured out a lot of them but others reamined a mystery to me (especially the pre-75 initials).

  9. Karl D
    August 22, 2005 at 2:08 pm


    Karl, you should be able to see the “split between apostles called pre-1980 and apostle called post-1980″ on the last two figures, no?

    Kind of. I must admit I was more interested in the change in citations. Specifically, I was hoping to see something like citations by President Hinckley (and other pre-1980 apostles) from 1961-1980 and citations post 1980.

  10. ed
    August 22, 2005 at 2:31 pm

    Geoff: You can find keys for the initials in the PDF files at . But I should definitely add that info to my site (like I said, this is an early draft.)

    Karl…I understand now. Interesting question, I’ll check it out soon.

  11. August 22, 2005 at 2:43 pm

    I agree with Karl that a cohort analysis would be very interesting. In other words, do individual apeakers follow a life cycle path that creates the time trends we observe? Or do these cyclical time effects show up in the life cycle of the speakers?

  12. Karl D
    August 22, 2005 at 3:00 pm


    Another change that occurred around the same time as the beginning of the upswing in citations is the reduction in the number of coferences sessions. I think conference changed from three days to two days in about 77. This may suggest a higher percentage of the talks are given by apostles in the post 76 era. Such a change could affect figure 1, but almost certainly not figure 2. Of course, I have no a priori reason to believe that non-apostle GAs have lower citation counts.

  13. A Nonny Mouse
    August 22, 2005 at 3:01 pm

    While taking an AI class at BYU I wrote a simple bayesian analyzer on the words used in general conference talks for a few of the apostles (Maxwell, Oaks, Perry and Haight, if I remember correctly.) The computer was able to tell based simply on the probabilities of using certain words which apostle was giving the talk. Whenever people tell me that somebody else writes General Conference talks, I always like being able to tell them: Nope. Or if they do, they have a one to one pairing with each apostle :)

    It’d be interesting to see if a computer could tell which apostle was speaking using a simple bayesian analysis on solely which scriptures were cited… Although, I wonder if they cite the same scriptures consistently… Perhaps you could do it based on the book?

  14. August 22, 2005 at 3:05 pm


    On your point, 70s and female speakers give shorter talks than the 12 or the FP. Or at least they do now. Shorter talks may generate fewer citations.

  15. ed
    August 22, 2005 at 3:16 pm

    Karl: I don’t think eliminating the Friday session in 1977 had a big effect, because we don’t see any evidence of a discontinuity in the citation rate around 1977 on the first graph. (Also, the number of sessions per conference has varied for other reasons as well, as I explained in a note at the bottom.)

    Still, looking at apostles vs. others might be interesting. I can also tell (roughly) how many pages a talk is, maybe I’ll see how that affects things.

    Mouse: I did do some preliminary analysis on favorite scriptures by speaker…for example, Maxwell definiitely had favorite chapters, one of which he cited in over 30% of his talks.

  16. A Nonny Mouse
    August 22, 2005 at 4:08 pm

    Ed, have you made your data publicly available? I realize that you just culled it from, but sometimes if you’ve already got it in machine-readable format it’s easier to play around with. It might be fun to hack up a quick bayesian guy and see what I can come up with…

  17. Julie in Austin
    August 22, 2005 at 6:15 pm

    I’ve been using the index a lot to prepare Gospel Doctrine lessons. One thing I had noticed about Elders Oaks and Nelson is that they tend to make a point and then in parenthesis have “see (long list of scriptures).” So, they aren’t *quoting* scriptures or actually using them in their talks, but they are providing them in the written versions. (Which, of course, I find useful in lesson preparation.)

    This makes their use very different from, say, Elder Maxwell, who often would quote little snippets of scripture in the middle of his own sentences.

    I also noticed that different speakers had different ‘favorite scriptures.’ I say this because I might look up a specific verse and find that well over 50% of the references to it came from just one speaker. That would be interesting data to play with as well, if that is possible for you to do, ed.

  18. ed
    August 22, 2005 at 8:28 pm

    Mouse: Email me at mildride-at-wolke7-dot-net.

    Julie: That’s a good point, there really is a difference between a “citation” from Nelson or Oaks and from many of the others. As for “favorites,” I’ll take a look at that.

  19. ed
    August 22, 2005 at 9:15 pm

    I just looked into your question. Among verses that were cited more than 10 times, the most prominent examples of what you describe involve Elder Maxwell. He often cited the following two verses:

    Jacob 4:13 Behold, my brethren, he that prophesieth, let him prophesy to the understanding of men; for the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly, for the salvation of our souls. But behold, we are not witnesses alone in these things; for God also spake them unto prophets of old.

    Mosiah 23:21 Nevertheless the Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith.

    For the Jacob verse, 18 of the 31 citations are by Maxwell, and for the Mosiah verse 13 of 17 citations come from him. Maxwell cited the Jacob verse in over 32% of his talks. Both verses were first cited in 1977, but by Packer and Romney respectively, not Maxwell. These are pretty good verses…I wonder why they’re not more popular.

    There were also a handfull of verses where over half the cites came from LeGrand Richards.

  20. Mark N.
    August 23, 2005 at 1:29 am

    What the heck is Richard Milhouse Nixon doing way up there in the right hand corner?


  21. Edward A. Erdtsieck
    August 29, 2005 at 11:24 am

    Let me begin by saying that I am impressed with the ability of some in broaching the subject of citations per conference talk so imaginatively. It is so untelligible and meaningless. However, I must recognize and give praise to the intelligent beings, who have enticed me to give it a once over. So all you Intelligences, One Grand Round of applause from an admirer.

    Now, a few of my observations after reading ALL the postings.

    #1. BofM was not in the top 20 until after 1975-84.
    Perhaps it was the post Vietnam War gloominess. It was our nation’s first war, we did not know how to stop gracefully. It was Pres. Benson, who made a first major effort for Mormons to educate themselves on what’s really in the BofM. Last year, in our Gospel Doctrine class on the BofM, our teacher [a good one], I thought spent more time and effort discussing the Nephites wars than I would have. I thought he overlooked the doctrinal values of peace, which Jesus Christ proclaimed so eloquently in the BofM. My hunch is, if we want to know: Why the BofM is becoming more prominent as a quoted scripture? We should read Pres. Hinckley’s talk on “War and Peace” during the April 2003 General Conference. It was quite an eye opener for me.

    #2. BofM citations are at the expense of the NT’s.
    This one puzzles me. It is an unknowable thing. A factoid drawn from a review of sterile made up numbers. The BofM is written specifically with us [Mormons] in mind in our day. All things considered, I believe that the day has come, that the BofM will be the entire walk and talk for Mormons as far as scripture is concerned. The NT and the OT, we need to communicate to other Christian denominations. We are bound by it to them. It is they, who must receive the teachings in the BofM. On the other hand, the BofM binds us [Mormons] to God in no uncertain terms. We owe to Him to know what’s in there.

    #3 On those long lists of passages of most cited scriptures, they reveal no substance.
    It is like giving up a nutricious meal in favor of chewing on grass. It is a list of symptoms for a disease without a means of making a diagnosis. All you’ve proven is something occurs a number of time over a given period. That approach might work on the stock market. At least I know then, when to sell what stock for how much and make more money.

    Conference talks are not a list of citations to be reviewed, like the Stock Market listings in the business pages. These talks have a continuity, a message. Each citation has an unseen capacity, that takes us into a world of thinking and doing and making changes in our behavior or mortal environment. Now, if you, Computer Intelligences could add that as a variable in your irresistable equations? I will sing your praises again.

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