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Pioneer Life and Worship

by Ronald W. Walker

The first members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints worshiped like the converts of many new religions: their devotions were democratic, fervent, local, and spontaneous. "High Church" priestly gowns, sacerdotal objects, or complicated liturgy were not used—then or later. Equally remote were the formal creeds and confessions of the frontier sects. Only as Church growth brought the need for orderly administration, toward the last third of the nineteenth century, did the Latter-day Saints gain a measure of formal devotion.

The early Saints were not left without direction. As early as June 1829, ten months prior to the formal organization of the church, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery sought guidance about Church performances. "The church shall meet together oft for prayer & supplication," read an early copy of the manuscript that resulted. "Each member shall speak & tell the church of their progress in the way of Eternal life" (Oliver Cowdery, "Articles of the Church of Christ," 1829, LDS Library Archives). The document, which drew on previous revelations and Book of Mormon injunctions, later became the Church's "Articles and Covenants." The first revelation to be canonized, it became, arguably, the Church's single most important statement on religious worship and procedure (see Doctrine and Covenants: Sections 20-21).

It defined a simple structure. There were three sacramental ordinances: baptism by immersion, confirmation of the spirit, and the bread and the cup of the Lord's Supper (see Sacraments). Routines were equally modest, prescribing prayer, frequent meetings, home visits by teachers, local priesthood governance, and quarterly conferences to regulate Churchwide business. Traveling elders took this blueprint to the early, scattered congregations.

Kirtland, Ohio, one of the Church's early centers, typified the resulting system. There were many meetings. Leaders might hold frequent "councils" and "schools" at the Newel K. Whitney store. They joined members in private homes on Sundays and on weekdays for prayer and worship meetings, often with millennial singing and testifying accompanied by the display of pentecostal gifts. Fast and testimony meetings might be held on Thursdays, with attention given to the needs of the poor (see Fasting). Abstinence from food brought piety to worshipers, and what was saved assisted the needy. Kirtland members also attempted wider, congregational assemblies. With no other gathering place at first available, they met in the open air or in Kirtland's sixteen-by-twenty-four-foot schoolhouse. After the completion of the Kirtland Temple in 1836, meetings were held there with as many as several hundred people in attendance.

These routines set the pattern for Latter-day Saint worship as the Church moved from Ohio to Missouri, Illinois, and Nebraska. While leaders might organize and direct meetings, individual Saints could also do so. Prayer meetings, often the redoubt of women, proceeded at times without ecclesiastical direction. General Church meetings were often as democratic. Members simply summoned others by ringing the community bell. Content was also unstructured. "We shall devote this day to preaching—exhortation—singing—praying and blessing children," promised a Church leader prior to the start of the Church's April general conference in 1845 (T&S, 6:953-57). With congregational sessions still held in open air, some might chat on the perimeters while the more centrally situated struggled to hear.

Nauvoo brought the innovation of ward worship. At first a political division as in other American cities, wards in Nauvoo became religious units. Church-appointed bishops presided over the jurisdictions, levying quotas for Church building projects, conducting neighborhood (block) or ward teaching (see Home Teaching), and overseeing the needs of the poor and, increasingly, the holding of meetings. Here began, for the first time, Church-directed neighborhood worship. The system was regularized at winter quarters, Nebraska, during the exodus west. Brigham Young instructed bishops to "organize and watch over their wards, have weekly meetings therein; also see that those under their charge have work and that none suffer through want, also [they should] instruct their wards to establish schools" (Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1846, p. 474, Church Archives).

The Saints' propensity for "going to meeting," as they called congregational worship, increased after they settled in the Great Basin. Community meetings were first held in the Salt Lake City fort, with a haystack affording shade and a small cannon serving as a podium. Later a "bowery" was built within the fort by erecting posts, interlacing them with beams, and covering the affair with boughs and leaves. Boweries became a staple of Salt Lake and outlying community worship—in some communities they were not replaced by tabernacles for several decades. After the abandonment of the fort bowery, Salt Lake City settlers erected another on Temple Square, eventually giving it adobe walls and a ceiling of debris and soil. Still bigger boweries followed, largely to attend to the needs of the Church's general conferences when no community building could seat the flood of the people who attended.

During the pioneer period the most prominent building on Temple Square was the Tabernacle (later called the "Old Tabernacle" to differentiate it from the present-day tabernacle built in the 1860s). Unlike the stopgap adobe and soil bowery, it boasted stone walls and had no interior posts. "The Tabernacle on the inside is built quite in the form of a Theatre," wrote a traveler, "benches rising one behind another until the outer row is a great way from the pulpit. The building is executed on the inside so that it is one story under ground and in entering its steps descend" (Reminiscence of Addison Moses Crane, Huntington Library, San Marino, California). While lacking architectural distinction, it answered practical purposes. Finished in 1852, its 60-by-120-foot expanse provided 2,500 unobstructed seats and fairly good acoustical quality.

At first Temple Square community worship services were most important. The entire settlement was expected to gather each Sunday, usually at ten in the morning and two in the afternoon. A brass band might begin the preliminaries, followed by the "crying out" of the recently arrived post, notices of lost and found articles, or the announcement of upcoming political, social, and religious events. These newsy routines generally ended with the establishment of the Deseret news in 1850.

During opening exercises, leaders might enter the hall to assume positions on the "stand," while followers drifted to their unassigned benches (increasingly members were asked not to occupy the rostrum without invitation). The lack of prepared sermons sometimes brought problems. Without a seasoned speaker present, authorities might summon a Church officer from other activity. The afternoon meeting was occupied by the administration of the Lord's Supper and a continuation of impromptu sermonizing, often by members of the congregation. Each meeting usually lasted for two hours or more.

There was variety and sometimes even theater. Leaders might invite LDS preachers, Indian chiefs, or, more frequently, returning missionaries to speak. Church leaders often preached gospel "discourses" that mixed spiritual and temporal themes—and sometimes the serious and the humorous. Elder Joseph A. Young, President of the First Quorum of Seventy, "got up lively & spirited & caused much merriment," recorded the minutes on one occasion. "Pres[iden]t [Brigham] Young followed—on Charity—amusingly" (September 9, 1855, Minutes of Meetings, Church Archives). Speakers might preach, dialogue with the congregation, issue reproof and correction, and on occasion disfellowship or excommunicate wayward members.

With Temple Square meetings disadvantaged by a growing lack of intimacy due to increased membership and uncomfortable conditions during inclement weather, emphasis slowly shifted to local and ward activity. There, "blessing meetings" were held to confirm the baptized or rebaptized, and to bless. One ward boasted a "singing school." Thursday fast and testimony meetings continued in most neighborhoods, and bishops also held youth meetings. While the male priesthood quorums generally met on a multiward basis, special men's meetings were held in wards to aid immigration, levy taxes, or oversee road, canal, school, and chapel construction. Women continued their prayer meetings, Relief Society meetings in the 1850s for Indian relief, and restructured Relief Society gatherings in the 1870s for instruction, testimony, and relief for the unfortunate.

The most important ward gathering was the Sunday evening worship service, held usually an hour or two after the Temple Square afternoon service. "Meeting at E. M. Saunder's house," read the minutes of one. "Filled to overflowing. Pres John Young opened the meeting by singing and prayer. [He] made some remarks, ex[h]orted the brothern to use their privelages in occupying the time. Was followed by the Brotheren in quick succession. Brotheron and sisters delivered their testimony concerning the work of the Lord. [Many] spake in toungs, and prophesied" (Jan. 18, 1852, Nineteenth Ward Book A, Church Archives). The meeting began at 6 p.m. and ended three and one-half hours later.

Music played an important part in any LDS service. "My soul delighteth in the song of the heart," read an early revelation; "yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me" (D&C 25:12). Emma Smith, Joseph's wife, collected and published in 1835 the first hymnal, which was actually a diminutive volume of poetry (music was borrowed from popular or favorite melodies). The settlers continued their musical tradition in the intermountain West. Only two weeks after their arrival, the nucleus of what would become the tabernacle choir formed around a group of English and Welsh singers. As pioneering progressed, President Young insisted that each colonizing party have a music leader, called "musical missionaries," to sing, lead choirs, and play instruments in outlying settlements. He personally subsidized the Nauvoo Brass Band, which became a prototype. By the 1860s there were at least forty bands in the territory; by 1875 there were twice that number. Travelers Jules Remy and Julius Benchley were impressed. "Mormons have a feeling for sacred music," they concluded. "Their women [particularly] sing with soul" (A Journey to Great-Salt-Lake City, 1861, 2:56, 374-75).

Latter-day Saints also expressed their devotions in sacramental ordinances. Communion, or "the Sacrament," as Latter-day Saints call it, was a primary means. Occasionally suspended due to the unworthiness or insouciance of partakers, the Sacrament generally was a weekly ritual on Temple Square and at least a monthly one in local wards. Forms varied. Sometimes speakers stopped in mid-discourse to bless the emblems, which priesthood teachers then passed to the congregation's men, women, children, and even non-Mormon visitors as the preaching resumed. On other occasions bishops or young men consecrated the bread and water, which increasingly was substituted for wine. For Latter-day Saints the ordinance was a symbolic remembrance of Christ's flesh and blood and a renewal of the covenant of discipleship. Simple and unadorned, avoiding complex formulations such as transubstantiation, it was the central LDS public act of worship.

There were others. During a pioneer's lifetime, baptism might be administered several times as a token of special covenant. In addition to the original baptismal vow, accepting Christ and establishing Church membership, Saints were baptized on such special occasions as the dedication of the Nauvoo Temple, the exodus west, arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, and during the Churchwide reformations of 1856-1857 (see Rebaptism; Reformation of 1856-1857) and 1875-1876, when "reconfirmations" were also administered. Moreover, members used rebaptism in the process of personal repentance and faith healing, and they also performed proxy baptisms in behalf of deceased ancestry. At a time when the acceptance of the restored gospel often severed a convert's ties to family, neighborhood, and vocation, the outward sign of baptism provided powerful emotional and psychological reconfirmation. With weekly meeting attendance figures starkly low, it was the means by which many Latter-day Saints expressed their continuing religious commitment.

The temple Endowment was another way of uniting pioneer life with the sacred. With no temple completed during the pioneer period, members received their endowments on hills or mountaintops or in an upper room, but more frequently, after its dedication in 1855, in the Salt Lake Endowment house. Here they were instructed on mankind's spiritual journey through the eternities and performed ordinances pertaining to eternal life. Without the opportunity for doing frequent proxy endowments, a ritual that became common in the twentieth century, these ceremonies entered everyday pioneer life in two ways. Members wore temple garments or marked shirts as a sign of their temple commitments, and many joined a prayer circle. Salt Lake City had more than seven of these groups, at least one scheduled for each night of the week, and outlying settlements had at least one. At these gatherings, members bore testimony, discussed doctrine, consecrated oil for anointing the sick, reviewed personal and group needs, and united in temple ritual and prayer.

There were broader, community devotions as well. In the early years, quorums of seventy held jubilees, which united dance, exhortation, music, socializing, and general celebration. Starting in 1849 annual, communitywide Pioneer Day fetes used similar activities to mark the coming of the first pioneers. Reminiscent of the community worship and socializing of the biblical feast days, general conferences twice each year gathered thousands to Salt Lake City for worship and mingling. Finally, the Saints often united for "reform." While most often a local phenomenon, at times the "spirit of reformation" spread through the territory or was officially initiated and sanctioned. During these periods, Latter-day Saints subjected themselves to preaching, religious catechizing, confession, and the cleansing of sin, followed by a renewal of the sacramental ordinances.

There was a final expression of LDS worship. Beyond their traditional expressions and devotions, nineteenth-century Saints acted on their religious feeling by seeking to establish the temporal kingdom of God. They "gathered to Zion" (see Gathering; Zion), settled, had children, built homes and communities, and refined themselves. Leaders might complain of their wayward meeting attendance or inattention to detail. Yet their community building, at least in a broad sense, was a sacral experience that revealed their formidable religious energy and devotion.

(See Daily Living home page; Church History home page; 1844-1877 home page)


Though no comprehensive survey of nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint worship exists, several narrower studies are especially helpful. Consult Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, "The Nineteenth Century Ward," in The Mormon Experience, pp. 206-219, New York, 1979; Joseph Heinerman, "The Mormon Meetinghouse: Reflections of Pioneer Religious and Social Life in Salt Lake City," Utah Historical Quarterly 50 (Fall 1982):340-53; and Ronald W. Walker, ""Going to Meeting' in Salt Lake City's Thirteenth Ward, 1849-1881: A Microanalysis," in New Views of Mormon History, ed. Davis Bitton and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, pp. 138-61, Salt Lake City, 1987. For an example of Temple Square preaching rhetoric, see Ronald W. Walker, "Raining Pitchforks: Brigham Young as Preacher," Sunstone 8 (May-June 1983):4-9.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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