An unexpected, sacred General Conference moment

In preparation for this weekend’s General Conference, another website published a list of “9 Conference Moments No One Saw Coming.” It includes some well-known moments, such as the guy who “photo bombed” the conference center camera, smiling at millions of people at once, as well as some lesser-known happenings, such as a speaker who completely ignored a little red light that told him his time was up.

But the most surprising moment, for me, is the first in the list: Howard W. Hunter, a general authority of the church who eventually served as prophet and president for a short time, lost his balance and fell backwards in the middle of his talk in 1989.

In the video, you see him speaking, and then suddenly stop and get a concerned look on his face as he topples backwards. Others come and help him up, and he re-starts the sentence he had been speaking before the fall.

(Not going to lie: The fact that I knew he survived the experience made it hard not to laugh. I admire his ability to get up and keep speaking.)

Watching this caused me to re-live an experience I had during conference several years ago when something very similar nearly happened.

In his October 2007 General Conference talk, the feeble Joseph B. Wirthlin delivered a sermon about “The First Commandment,” the commandment to love God and love other people. His words alone formed a powerful reminder of the importance of sharing the pure love of Christ with others. Among other things, he said—

Sometimes the greatest love is not found in the dramatic scenes that poets and writers immortalize. Often, the greatest manifestations of love are the simple acts of kindness and caring we extend to those we meet along the path of life.

I was not watching this talk. I was at home, listening to it on an audio-only connection. I had my cell phone sitting next to my computer so a friend of mine who was in a mental hospital many miles away could listen to General Conference over the phone. As we both listened, we noticed that Elder Wirthlin’s voice was shaking—a lot.

wirthlin-nelsonAnd as he kept speaking, the shaking increased.

But we also noticed that after he closed his talk and the conference center echoed with “Amen,” he whispered, “Thank you.”

We both assumed that someone had come up to help him stand and finish his talk. Another friend who had seen the talk later confirmed for me that Russel M. Nelson had walked up to Elder Wirthlin and held him.

Just today, with the video of President Hunter’s fall fresh in my memory, I went and watched parts of Elder Wirthlin’s talk for the first time. Not only was his voice shaking, but his whole body was shaking as though it were ready to collapse.

A little more than eight minutes into the sermon, Elder Nelson humbly, calmly approaches the podium and puts his arm around his friend. He grabs Elder Wirthlin’s arm with one hand, and stands, head bowed, as Elder Wirthlin continues:

The most cherished and sacred moments of our lives are those filled with the spirit of love. The greater the measure of our love, the greater is our joy. In the end, the development of such love is the true measure of success in life.

His talk was filled with the spirit of love because not only did he have a firm testimony of the power of the love of God, but also because of Elder Nelson’s selfless demonstration of what we all should do for those we love: support them and strengthen them in the moments when they need us most.