Sociologists Gordon and Gary Shepherd believe that leader rhetoric is generally an accurate reflection of organizational and ideological change, especially in regard to Mormonism. Hoping to learn something about how the LDS church has changed and maintained itself, they made a detailed analysis of general conference addresses. The Shepherds divided Mormon history into five thirty-year periods beginning in 1830 and systematically recorded the themes and subthemes which appeared in each paragraph of each address sampled from conference records. All of the themes identified in a given address generated scores based on the number of paragraphs in which each theme appeared, divided by the total number of paragraphs in the address. The Shepherds focused only on the most salient general themes addressed in each thirty-year period of conference history.
Some scholars will question the underlying assumption of this work and argue that leader rhetoric is representative only of an urbanized, Wasatch Front strain of Mormonism. While allowing that isolated communities of Saints receive (or have received) leader rhetoric in a filtered form, I think it is clear that a majority of Church members in all generations have regarded sermons given by General Authorities at general conference as divine “marching orders,” and that, therefore, the perception of the Shepherds is accurate. Perhaps less accurate is their claim that by examining official records “it is possible to discern organizational patterns and long-term institutional trends which would not otherwise be apparent” (3). Informed students of Mormon history will not find much that is novel in this study, and certainly historians have little need to revise or discard cherished notions. Still, it is reassuring to know that current historical interpretations are validated by statistical analysis.