Matthew Bowman: Maybe drums are just the cure for ‘boring’ LDS sacrament meetings

The meaning of “reverence” is evolving in the global faith.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A sacrament meeting in Africa.

Stipulated: Sacrament meetings in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are, at some times and for some people, boring.

“Boring” is, of course, a relative term. One person might be deeply moved by the wit and incisive insight in movies based on the works of Jane Austen and somebody else might find them full of indistinguishable corsets and men whose inability to articulate emotion makes their expressions ceaselessly uncomfortable. To each her own.

So the first point to make is that there are a number of reasons why some people might or might not find these meetings boring. Beyond the obvious — that their aesthetics and ritual simply appeal to some people and not others — our definition of “boring” has a lot to do with the rather frenetic world of modern media, which has set the terms for what is boring and what is not in modern America. If you find yourself instinctively moving your thumbs toward the social media on your phone whenever you’re standing in a line, you know this already.

A number of modern religious movements maintain practices that try to force us to step outside the everyday world, and in so doing they teach us that “normal,” and therefore “boring,” are relative terms. Eastern Orthodox services can be several hours long, offer worshippers no chairs, and mostly consist of monastic, repetitious singing, often by a choir rather than a congregation. Similarly, the Hindu practice of meditation (and even the rather commercialized version that many non-Hindu Americans practice) consciously forces the practitioner to examine and hopefully master her unquestioned instincts about what she is paying attention to and how.

It is possible, then, for me to experience a Latter-day Saint sacrament meeting, the faith’s main worship service, as an exercise in interrogating boredom and learning from it. As philosopher/theologian Adam Miller points out, boredom in sacrament meeting is an interior and subjective experience, not an objective, empirical one.

While sitting in a sacrament meeting, I can think about what I expect and why I think of “boredom” the way I do. I can think about how my expectations have been formed in the way they are. I can measure the meeting’s match with my expectations. And, insofar that the meeting fails to match them, I can ponder why that is, I can question the meeting as well as myself, and I can learn something about both things.

In that sense, then, boredom can be wrestled with in a way that may be spiritually enriching.

What is reverent?

But it is also true that specific institutional choices have made sacrament meetings the way they are. In the mid-20th century, church leaders coordinated a campaign to promote what they called “reverence” among the faithful. Dean Davies, then of the Presiding Bishopric, explained in 2020 that reverence is a sense of awe before the divine.

This is well taken. But in practical terms, among middle-class white Americans, “awe” is equated with the ability to sit still. As Davies describes “awe,” it is the presumption that genuine religious experience emerges from contemplative silence rather than, for instance, chanting or loud music or dancing.

“Soft tones are certainly appropriate for our chapels,” Davies said. The word “reverent” is used repeatedly in the church’s General Handbook for conducting meetings, and is equated with “quiet prayer and pondering.”

To achieve reverence, Latter-day Saint leaders pursued a variety of policies, many aimed at taming the music played in sacrament meeting to fit the tastes of the mid-century white American middle class. According to historian Ardis Parshall, apostle Spencer W. Kimball once reportedly observed that music in the church is “generally sung too fast.” In the 1940s, the governing First Presidency directed that music should no longer be played during the passing of the sacrament to promote reverence. By the 1980s, church publications were stating, “Brass and percussion instruments are not appropriate.” Jay E. Jensen, then a member of the Quorum of the Seventy, warned that congregations should ensure that “musical instruments are sacred, dignified and will promote worship and revelation. Music becomes a performance when it brings attention to itself.”

And thus, most American Latter-day Saint wards, or congregations, have come to believe that slow, contemplative organ music is what “reverence” sounds like.

Out of Africa

But it is a mistake to assume that this association of reverence with solemnity is a universal human experience. It is not. Rather, it reflects the particular tastes of the white American middle and upper class. It is not a mistake that Latter-day Saint congregations began to abandon more dramatic worship styles in the early and mid-20th century, precisely when church leaders and members were entering the ranks of the respectable white American middle class.

For instance, in 1908, First Presidency member Anthon Lund recorded in his journal hearing a woman speak and sing in tongues in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. Lund believed this to be a sign of the Holy Spirit. But at the same time other church leaders associated tongues-speaking with the Pentecostal movement, Christians who were generally poor, uneducated and known for raucous interracial worship services. By the 1920s, the First Presidency was sending letters to local leaders discouraging such practices in sacrament meetings. Instead, church magazines encouraged language like “sacred silence” and “solemn.” And in this way Latter-day Saint worship became quiet, and quiet became reverence.

As the church grows, it may be learning a wider notion of reverence. In 2009, scholar Philip Jenkins observed that while the church was expanding rapidly in Africa, that speed might pick up if particularly American presumptions about what a sacrament meeting should look like could be relaxed. When the church began to expand in Africa in the 1980s, many white American church leaders were disconcerted that Africans perceived things like drumming, dancing and chanting to be spiritual. One missionary in 1980 explained that Black African converts “have to unlearn a lot of old things,” like “a lot of Pentecostal hallelujahs, singing, dancing and drums.”

Some of these restrictions have since been eased, with good reason. Local leaders now have much more leeway over what instruments may be played in sacrament meetings.

There is a lesson here. The encounter with Africa (and other non-American cultures) may be teaching white American Latter-day Saints that “reverence,” awe before the divine, may not necessarily look the way white Americans raised in the mid-20th century presume it should. The sort of contemplation, then, that a boring sacrament meeting might provide may also extend to precisely what “reverence” might look like in the future.

Matthew Bowman is Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Matthew Bowman is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.”

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