Mormon Sundays

Mormon Sundays: A History Since 1830

By William G. Hartley


How was the Sabbath kept during Joseph Smith’s lifetime? Have we borrowed Sabbath ideas from others? What kinds of public worship services took place before we had spacious, temperature-controlled meetinghouses? Why were priesthood meetings shifted from weeknights to Sunday? Why was fast day changed from the first Thursday to the first Sunday of each month? How has administration of the sacrament varied? How have previous generations defined proper and improper Sabbath conduct?

The answers to such questions reveal that today’s busy Mormon Sabbath differs in some particulars from Sabbath routines of previous generations. During the past 147 years the prophets have repeatedly authorized changes in Sabbath activities to help meet the changing needs of the Saints.

When the Church was organized on April 6, 1830—a Tuesday—no revelations had yet explained how the Lord wished his Saints to observe the Sabbath. One revelation commanded them to “meet together often to partake of bread and wine in the remembrance of the Lord Jesus” (D&C 20:75), but did not specify that Sunday was the day for doing it. Not until sixteen months later was the sacrament linked to Sunday by revelation. (See D&C 59.)

So what did these very first members do on Sundays? Basically they observed the day much as they had done as Protestants. Most had New England roots and by tradition felt deep commitments to Sunday worship. Their forefathers in colonial days had made proper Sabbath conduct a matter of law, requiring regular attendance at church meetings, no work or business activities, and no unnecessary travel. By Joseph Smith’s time the commitment to a sacred day of rest was still very prominent in American society, although in some frontier areas like Missouri Sabbath breaking was rampant.

Some churches in 1830 held two preaching services, one before noon and a second after lunch. Early Saints, familiar with that pattern of meetings, adopted it, and our current two-meetings-a-Sabbath for all members continues that tradition.

The very first Latter-day Saint Sabbath meeting of which we have details was a conference held on 9 June 1830. Noted Joseph Smith:

“Having opened by singing and prayer, we partook together of the emblems of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. We then proceeded to confirm several who had lately been baptized, after which we called out and ordained several to the various offices of the Priesthood. Much exhortation and instruction was given.”

Here, just two months after the Church was organized, we see the basic elements of our sacrament meetings today: prayers, sacrament, preaching, and singing.

A month after this meeting, the Lord reinforced the importance of singing by instructing Emma Smith to “make a selection of sacred hymns” for use in Church meetings. “My soul delighteth in the song of the heart,” the Lord counseled, “yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me.” (D&C 25:11–12.) Emma’s hymnal, lacking music but with words to ninety hymns, was finally printed five years later.

Our most detailed revelation regarding the Sabbath, Doctrine and Covenants 59, came in August 1831. Here the Lord tells us that to keep ourselves unspotted by worldly things we are to “go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day.” (D&C 59:9.) The Lord’s Day, or Sunday, is a day he designates for Saints “to rest from your labors, and to pay thy devotions unto the Most High” (D&C 59:10), to “offer thine oblations and thy sacraments. … confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord” (D&C 59:12), and a day when meals should “be prepared with singleness of heart” (D&C 59:13). This revelation serves as our “constitution” for Sabbath observance.

The “house of prayer” in those early days often was a private home, a small schoolhouse, or, for large groups, an open-air clearing or grove. It was a common adage, said Elder George A. Smith in 1855, that during the Joseph Smith years “‘Mormonism’ flourished best out of doors.” He recalled that “we failed to erect a building big enough to hold the Saints previous to the death of the Prophet.” The largest meeting rooms, those in the Kirtland and Nauvoo temples, could hold but 500 to 1,000 people.

Sabbath services in Kirtland in 1835 continued to follow the pattern of prayer, preaching, and the administration of the sacrament. We do not know what sacrament vessels were used during this period, but they probably were goblets or glasses—serving as the common cup—and plates or baskets. While the sacrament was passing from member to member, preaching was common.

Besides the sacrament, the sermon was the next most important part of Sunday worship. Preaching occupied the major part of each public meeting, and members often were deeply affected by it. Noted W. W. Phelps: “President Smith preached last Sabbath. … He preached one of the greatest sermons I ever heard; it was about 3 1/2 hours long—and unfolded more mysteries than I can write at this time.”

Sunday evenings involved a variety of activities, including weddings, prayer meetings in private homes, meetings of quorums, patriarchal blessings, banquets, Church trials, or just visiting with family or friends.

Church Sabbaths in Missouri were similar. “We went regularly each Sunday to Far West,” recalled John Bush. Few of the Saints had teams, and even beasts were allowed to rest on the Sabbath, so people walked the distances to the large frame schoolhouse. Added Bush, “Sunday after Sunday quite a crowd of men women and children could be seen wending their way” to the school. Those who could not get in stood at a window. Other Missouri meetings were held in homes, or under a large tree with a wagon serving as the pulpit.

At Nauvoo, where Church membership rapidly swelled to beyond 10,000, the best Sunday meeting places were an outdoor grove near the temple site and the temple site itself. “This morning I preached at the grove to about 8,000 people,” 7 the Prophet Joseph noted July 3, 1842.

Records fail to inform us how often the sacrament was administered at such huge gatherings, although across the river an Iowa conference resolved in late 1844 “to partake of the sacrament every second Sabbath.” In England and other mission areas small clusters of Saints partook weekly.

It was at Nauvoo that the first wards were created, but these were fortithing purposes, not for regular meeting purposes. Records do not show any ward sacrament meetings in Nauvoo, only the community-wide morning and afternoon meetings.

During the Latter-day Saint migration across the Great Plains, the Saints tried to rest man and beast on Sundays. “Each Saturday night we were to pitch what tents we had and prepare our camps for rest on the Sabbath,” noted Wilford Woodruff in April 1847. But sometimes travel on Sunday was necessary: “Started before breakfast for the want of wood and water,” Eliza R. Snow noted on August 23, 1846.

Heber C. Kimball’s journal describes a spiritual Sabbath the pioneers experienced on May 30, 1847: “At 9 o’clock most of the brethren retired a little south of the Camp, and had a prayer meeting, and as many as chose to, expressed their feelings. At a little before 12 they met again at the same place to partake of the Sacrament.” At midday a select group left the camp, found a secluded spot among the bluffs, put on temple clothes, and “offered up prayer to God, for our selves, for this Camp, and all things pertaining to it, the brethren in the army [Mormon Battalion], our families, and all the Saints, President Young being mouth. We all felt well and glad for this privilege of assembling ourselves together in a retired spot for prayer.” The rest of the day involved rest and reflection—“There is no jesting, nor laughing, nor nonsense,” noted Elder Kimball—a simple dinner, conversation, and at 5 P.M. another prayer meeting by the leaders until dark.

From 1850 to 1900 the Sabbath day in the Church changed a great deal. Meetinghouses for each ward made ward sacrament meetings and Sunday Schools possible for the first time. Holding local meetings in turn meant that more local members participated in Sabbath activities as class teachers and members, officers and sacrament administrators, speakers, prayer givers, and choir members. Special fast Sundays and quarterly stake conference Sundays were introduced.

At first worship services took place outdoors. Two months after the first pioneers reached Salt Lake, a newcomer visited a Sunday meeting and “found them by the side of a haystack.” A year later a Sabbath service was held “on the south side of the north wall of the Old Fort.” One Logan clerk could measure attendance by space occupied: “The meetings today were well attended, the congregation covering over half an acre.”

To shade outdoor meetings from the hot summer sun, boweries were built of pole frames covered with brush. But nature, particularly wind, still was troublesome: in St. George they once had to “nail wagon covers round the bowery to protect us from the gale.”

The first indoor meeting places, other than private homes, were log or adobe schoolhouses. These often were so small (Toquerville, for instance, had a 20? by 16? adobe house—half the main floor space of suburban homes today—for its nineteen families) that youth often stayed home and only adults squeezed into the Sunday meetings. As soon as possible communities built large rock and brick structures, some with a second story. Some of the more populated communities, such as St. George and Salt Lake City, erected large public tabernacles in addition to ward halls.

Whether outdoors or inside, the Saints’ basic Sabbath meetings were the forenoon preaching service and the afternoon sacrament meeting, unless weather prevented them. In multiward areas, where the two worship meetings were stake gatherings, evening ward meetings also were held. Noted George Goddard on the Sabbath in the 1860s: “Went with my wife Betsy to the Tabernacle at 10 A.M. and at 2 P.M. … in the evening went to the 13th Ward meetings.”

Gradually community (or stake) sacrament meetings were replaced by ward meetings. The general morning and afternoon meetings in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, for example, ceased in 1876 and in the 1890s, respectively.

In earlier times, the sacrament was passed in large cups, from which each member took a sip. This beautiful set of cups and basket for the bread were originally used in the Tabernacle on Temple Square.

To lend variety to ward sacrament meetings, outside speakers often were brought in. General Authorities spent much time visiting wards on speaking assignments. Sermons varied in length from a few minutes to nearly two hours.

During the 1870s stakes sent “home missionaries” on regular preaching assignments into the wards.  Home missionaries continued to visit wards monthly until after the turn of the century—a prototype of modern stake high councilors.

“Going to conference” was a notable occasion in early Utah years. Traveling in wagons, buggies, carts, on horseback, by foot, or by train, many used the trip to general or stake conferences to renew friendships. Stake quarterly conferences, held regularly after 1877, often rotated between leading towns in the stake, and planning for conference guests was a highlight for many families.

Some early wards administered the sacrament only once a month, but after the 1850s weekly sacrament services characterized most settlements. A notable exception came during 1856–57 when the sacrament was withdrawn for a short period to help the Saints consider seriously the meaning of their church membership. Bishops often personally administered the sacrament, both in their own wards and in the stake sacrament meetings. One bishop noted in 1874: “At 2 pm I administered the sacrament in the New Tabernacle assisted by my 2 council[ors] and [ward] Teachers.”

An elaborate set of sacrament vessels was crafted for the Salt Lake Tabernacle sacrament meetings. It consisted of twelve cups “of massive design in solid silver, with beautifully carved double handles,” and twelve plates (later baskets) for the bread. When St. George members discussed what kind of sacrament set to buy, one brother reported how Salt Lake got their set: brethren “threw in their silver watches, spoons, etc.,” to make it. Wards likewise obtained their own less expensive sacrament sets, often glass instead of metal.

Sunday Schools were a part of the Protestant background of many early Mormon converts, and records show some sort of Latter-day Saint Sunday School at Kirtland, at Nauvoo, and in 1844 in England. Richard Ballantyne, a former Protestant Sunday School worker, started the first Utah Sunday School in 1849 when fifty youth between the ages of eight and fourteen met in a special room added to his home. Others copied him, so that independent Sunday Schools sprang up in most wards. By the 1870s 200 Sunday Schools involved nearly 15,000 youth and adults. For the first time women and children participated directly in a Sabbath meeting as teachers and students, and many men became busy officers and teachers. Singing, praying, scripture lessons, catechisms, and recitations were all part of the school, as were examination days like one Bishop Kesler attended: “The house was well fild, the pieces ware well spoken & a Large No. of Presants ware given out as Reward of merit which consisted in some verry choice Books.”

Because Sunday School children usually did not attend the afternoon sacrament meetings, the First Presidency asked that the sacrament be administered in the Sunday Schools. Again Bishop Kesler provides us a picture of the situation:

“I visited our Ward Sunday School & spoke a few minets while the Sacrement was passing around It being the 2nd time that it had been administered unto our children in the Sunday Schools. I gave them … instruction in Relation thare unto.”

Another notable Sabbath change was the involvement of youth in the administration of the sacrament. By the 1870s boys from age eleven to seventeen were being ordained as deacons. Previously, adults filled most of the Aaronic Priesthood offices, serving as “acting” deacons, “acting” teachers, and “acting” priests. Boy deacons received two major Sunday responsibilities: ushering at meetings and otherwise caring for the ward buildings, and passing the sacrament. Salt Lake deacons were told in 1874:

“How nice it is to see a good boy nice and clean, with clean hands, and hair nicely combed, and walking on his tip-toes to save making a noise, while finding people seats. A good deal depends on a deacon in making a meeting comfortable. We should be there at least an hour before meeting begins. Have the house nice and clean, a clean table and cloth, and take care to keep it clean.”

In 1896 fast day was changed from the first Thursday of each month to the first Sunday so that working people and students could attend. On occasion fast Sundays have been dedicated to special matters. When the flu epidemic raged in 1918 and public meetings were banned, the Church set aside December 22 as a special fast Sunday “for the arrest and speedy suppression by Divine power of the desolating Scourge that is passing over the earth.” In 1946 we had a special fast day on August 19 ingratitude for the surrender of Japan, and one in December 1947 for the Saints to “contribute the greatest sum they can give to the relief of the sufferers of war-torn Europe.”

One simple Sabbath change in our century was the introduction of tiny, single sacrament cups. The idea was suggested in the 1890s but was not implemented until 1911 when a new type of tray to hold small cups was designed. Quickly the traditional common cups disappeared, replaced by metal, glass, paper, and plastic cups.

Over the years preaching, singing, and musical numbers accompanied the administration of the sacrament. In 1946 the First Presidency abolished all such distractions. The ideal condition, they said, is to have absolute quiet: “We look with disfavor upon vocal solos, duets, group singing, or instrumental music during the administration of this sacred ordinance.”

Another recent change involves music. Because nineteenth century hymnbooks contained songs more suitable for choirs than congregations, congregational singing waned. But since 1909 our hymnbooks have been designed for the congregation so that members participate at least in the opening and closing hymns.

Older members today recall when ward priesthood meetings were on Monday nights, a practice established in 1908. However, some bishops favored a Sunday priesthood meeting, before or after Sunday School, to cut down on travel demands for those who lived far away from chapels. In the 1930s, when wards were permitted to hold priesthood meetings on Sundays or weeknights, most chose Sunday mornings, a practice now standardized throughout the Church.

Since the early days of the Church, leaders have tried to prevent Sabbaths from becoming too occupied with meetings. In 1904 an exasperated Cache Stake officer noted: “Sunday was so closely occupied that it was as hard a day’s work as any other.” Two decades later, Elder Melvin J. Ballard publicly observed that “there are too many activities on Sunday evenings.” Such sentiments have caused periodic efforts to streamline Sabbath schedules.

One attempt was made between 1928 and 1938, when priesthood classes in many wards were merged with Sunday School classes. The Brethren hoped the Saints would wisely use the new spare Sabbath time:

“Sunday Schools and meetings have been so arranged as to meet the convenience of the people and leave a considerable portion of the Sabbath day without Church appointments. We earnestly appeal to the people to keep their meeting appointments faithfully and to utilize that portion of Sunday not appointed for meetings in promoting family association in the home, with the purpose of stimulating and establishing greater home fealty, a closer companionship among parents and children, and more intimate relations among all kindred.”

Modern circumstances sometimes make it necessary for the Church to simplify the normal Sunday schedule in other ways. In some mission areas where travel is difficult, Sunday meetings are held without a time interval in between. The recent energy crisis in the United States caused the First Presidency to direct in December 1973 that “local congregations in areas where members live great distances from meetinghouses were authorized if they choose, to establish a consecutive meeting schedule for all Sunday meetings.” Recently the Church issued special handbooks for smaller units of the Church—small branches, groups, and families—which permit the combining of Sunday School and sacrament meetings, and let Relief Society sisters meet while the brethren are in priesthood meetings.

While meeting schedules have shifted over the years, little has changed in terms of the basic counsel given the Saints about personal conduct on the Sabbath. One rule in United Order constitutions was: “We will observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, devote it to worship, to the study of good books, to rest, to imparting instruction, to attending meeting.” 28Throughout the years since 1830, the restructuring and changing of Sabbath services has been done to help the Saints enhance and fulfill those worshipful purposes. The streamlining of meetings is intended to provide time for individuals to achieve a more spiritually beneficial Sabbath as the Saints return to their homes to meet family and personal spiritual needs.

For a century and a half the Church has provided excellent meetings to help Saints renew their personal covenants, to learn from speakers and teachers, to learn by teaching and speaking, and to sing and pray and meditate. But attendance at Sabbath meetings is not enough: responsibility for making the entire day holy and spiritually beneficial still belongs to the individual Saints.