Robert Kirby: Confessing our sins before God — and everyone else

Utah’s pioneer-era Latter-day Saints did so for a while, but thankfully the practice stopped.

Robert Kirby

My ancestors have been part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since the early 1850s, joining in England and then migrating to Zion.

They arrived in Utah just in time for the public acknowledgment of plural marriage and a slightly lesser bit of craziness known as “the Reformation.”

Without getting into the history too extensively, the Reformation began in 1856 after Jedediah Grant, a member of the governing First Presidency and worried about an ongoing drought, preached a number of spiritual harangues calling for a serious effort on the part of Latter-day Saints to rededicate themselves to the Lord.

The message caught on with other church leaders and swept Utah, lasting about a year, during which most members sought rebaptism as a manifestation of their recommitment.

There were several other facets to this recommitment, including one encouraged by my great-great-grandfather Korihor Kirby, who insisted that the final step in rededicating oneself to the Lord was eating 2 pounds of live crickets.

Since the only evidence of this claim is in Grandpa Korihor’s rambling journal, it does not appear to have caught on among the Saints.

But something else even worse did. An equally distasteful element of upping your gospel game was to stand up and confess all of your sins before an entire congregation.

Although there is ample evidence to suggest that this was actually done, it probably wasn’t as widespread in practice. I say this because no organization could survive this kind of public honesty for long.

For most people, it’s tough enough to get up in church and acknowledge their “many blessings.” It’s a whole other story to do the same with your sins.

“Good morning, brothers and sisters. In addition to stealing a corset from the clothesline of Bishop Clegg’s third wife, I confess to lusting in my heart after sisters Willden and Packer, whose windows I peek in on a regular basis. And it was I who shot the Smiths’ dog. What else? Oh, I also committed adultery with a Lamanite. Twice.”

While this kind of forthrightness might go a long way toward atoning for your sins, it would almost guarantee getting your face pushed in well before the closing prayer.

There are no records from this time period of sacrament meetings degenerating into small riots, but it might explain the many hurried marriages and mission calls.

Frankly, I just don’t see how public confessing could work. People — even those who profess to love the Lord — just aren’t that forgiving. Despite the pleasant looks on our faces, we carry grudges.

Blessings are easy to recount in a few minutes — love, water, food, weather, health, etc. But a public accounting of sin takes longer, especially if you’re being completely forthright.

For some of us, it would require several meetings. There’s no way I could confess all of my sins in under three sacrament meetings, especially if I was being totally honest.

“OK, now for drugs. I started smoking weed in 1968 and kept doing it until I decided to go on a mission in 1972, which, because of some other stuff that I’ll confess to next week, I had to wait a year and be interviewed by a general authority, who told me...”

See what I mean? It’s a good thing the church didn’t hang on to this public confessing of sin as a regular practice. There would be no time left for regular meetings.

On second thought …

Robert Kirby is The Salt Lake Tribune’s humor columnist. Follow Kirby on Facebook.

Return to Story