David Stout, Disciples of Christ minister who wrote a very thought-provoking post for us a few weeks ago, has agreed to write a short series of posts on LDS worship as seen from the outside looking in. This is the first of that series. Thank you, David.
Last summer I had the opportunity to attend Sunday services with my girlfriend at her branch. I very much enjoyed myself and found the experience quite reminiscent of my days in evangelical congregations before the mega church phenomenon. The people were very welcoming, they clearly enjoyed being together, and the service and classes were easy to follow. Several individuals went out of their way to make me feel welcome, taking the time to talk with me, offer me a book so I could follow along in the priesthood meeting, and include me in their conversations.
I also found that there were a number of stereotypical individuals that can be found in almost any small evangelical church: the kindly grandmother that everyone loves, the young mother trying to corral her wandering son, and the somewhat socially inept fellow who knows more than anyone cares to hear. Somewhat to at least one person’s dismay, he was one of the speakers that morning at the sacrament meeting. (Actually I thought his was by far and away the best speech of the morning, though it didn’t take me too long to realize that instead of simply quoting a line or two from President David McKay, he was giving McKay’s entire talk.)
What struck me as a bit odd, however, was the nature of the sacrament meeting seen against the background of Mormonism’s past and desired future. This is what I would like to focus on. Obviously, this is not a prescriptive article nor is it even primarily descriptive. It is instead an impressionistic work from the point of view of someone who is sympathetic towards the LDS and is also reasonably knowledgeable about how worship has been and is conceived in the greater Christian Tradition. Perhaps by combining my outsider’s insight with your own much broader and deeper knowledge of sacrament meetings, some discussion might be generated on what worship means in the LDS and how it expresses the Saints’ basic theological convictions.
From my readings of LDS history and a couple of visits to the Kirtland Temple, the Church of Christ (as the LDS was originally named) put considerable weight on the possibility, reality, and necessity of modern day revelation. One of the Book of Mormon’s chief roles was to validate the prophetic ministry of Joseph Smith, thereby making possible the development of the Doctrine and Covenants and other revelations. Without this emphasis on the restoration of prophetic ministry and authority I don’t see much point in the whole Mormon movement.
This emphasis was certainly present at the Kirtland Temple. Visions, enthusiasm, and even speaking in tongues were all reported and celebrated. Clearly God was doing a marvelous work and there was considerable cause for rejoicing. As a matter of fact, the description of Temple worship strikes me as being very similar to early (and some current) Pentecostalism, albeit 70 years earlier.
There was, however, a counter-weight to this enthusiasm. While the worship service could be pretty “wild” by today’s standards, there was also a very heavy emphasis on education. Classes were held in theology, classics, and even Hebrew. While I know Fawn Brodie’s biography of Joseph Smith is regarded as Mormon Kryptonite, I think her treatment of the Kirtland Temple shows Joseph Smith to be very bright man who was very much interested in education and who, like others of his time period and since, wanted to find a way to integrate faith with the rising field of science. The doctrine of eternal progression can certainly be seen as one way to see the development of energy on a cosmic level. (As an aside, I find looking at it this way makes the doctrine worthy of consideration from even a non-Mormon viewpoint.)
By studying and engaging the issues of the day himself, and by providing classes for his followers to do the same, Joseph Smith gave the early Saints a strong model for education and self improvement. I saw at least some vestiges of this in the Sunday school and priesthood meetings. Perhaps a better modern day example lies in the powerful drive to self improvement within the LDS and the high quality of its educational institutions.
The question that arises here is, “What happened to the ‘fire’ of early Saints’ worship?”
Clearly at some point the worship became less demonstrative and more orderly. This in itself is a very natural development within religious movements. The informal worship (and in some cases, border line chaos) that is described in Acts and I Corinthians eventually became the highly structured Mass. The Montanists (an early revival group) went through the same transition and the same dynamic can be seen in contemporary Pentecostalism. Worship at your average First Assembly of God is not even close to what took place at the Azusa Street revival in 1906.
There are a variety of possible times and reasons for the switch in the LDS. Maybe it was the less than felicitous demise of the Kirtland experiment, or the ongoing persecutions, or the desire to establish greater order and uniformity. Maybe it was something that happened over the years in Utah. Then again, maybe it was the rise of temple ceremonies which offered a different kind of revelatory experience, making the need for such things in corporate worship superfluous. I simply don’t know. I’m sure a good Mormon historian could provide the answer, (If not, there’s a Ph.D topic looking for a scholar.) but whatever the answer, I’m confident there were some good reasons.
Still, from my perspective as a visitor, I found it a trifle strange that morning to discover that a movement which began with such enthusiasm, with such a strong emphasis on current revelation, and that still teaches the truth of personal revelation to each member of the church should have such a “head oriented” order of worship for its sacrament meeting. Two short prayers, three talks, four hymns, and the sacrament itself in a never varying order just doesn’t seem to express a strong belief in ongoing revelation. To put it another way, I think one could learn a lot in a sacrament meeting but I doubt one would be likely to “dream dreams” or “see visions” as Acts 2 describes. Depending on when things changed it’s also possible that Joseph Smith would be a little lost in the meeting, wondering if perhaps he’d wandered into a class of some sort instead of a worship service.
Now this is where the Saint needs to use her or his deeper and broader experience of sacrament meetings to properly interact with my perspective. Doubtless, there is something about the sacrament meeting that I as an outsider just don’t get. Perhaps there is a great revelatory and deeply spiritual current being generated that isn’t visible or perceptible to visitors. Then again, maybe something has been lost. Maybe the eminently understandable desire to maintain order and preserve good teaching has overshadowed the need for spiritual encounter and experience. I think this is a question worth asking, for surely the teaching that God is active and revelation ongoing should be expressed when those who believe such things gather for worship.
Lest I be misunderstood as advocating Pentecostal style worship for Mormons, let me make it clear that I suggest no such thing. What I do suggest is finding ways to allow the Holy Spirit more room to work in the context of a sacrament meeting. Personally, I find silence or meditative music very effective in this regard. There is no need to “whomp up the Spirit” or get overly emotional. One just needs to allow some space and time for God to move in the human heart. Something as simple as quiet prayer or meditation after one of the talks might bring the message home in a considerably more powerful way than just singing a hymn and moving on to the next talk.
That said, I do think the heavy LDS emphasis on education and doctrine could easily serve as a keel (the heavy downward facing blade on the bottom of a sailboat that keeps it from tipping over) for a good deal of emotional/spiritual sail. Such demonstrative worship is probably unnecessary and unwanted in most white LDS congregations. But it might prove quite helpful in other cultural contexts.
What think ye?