A Natural History of Sacrament Bread

By March 5, 2014

Cooking? situates us in the world in a very special place, facing the natural world on one side and the social world on the other?The cook stands squarely between nature and culture, conducting a process of translation and negotiation.[1]

Bread is the only food that I have ever prepared that was alive when I placed it in the oven.  Unlike other edibles that we cook, bread contains the breath of life.  It takes in air, it changes form and it grows and shrinks.  Food writers and historians assert that ?entire civilizations are implied in a loaf of bread? ? humans, plants, micro-organisms, agriculture, technologies, social structures and economies are all kneaded together.[2]  Bread-making is a process of transformation which is perhaps why it has been so tied to religious practice. In 19th century Utah, its role as a staple meant that its preparation was an important part of daily life.  It was also an essential part of Mormon ritual that was invested with significance as a symbol of death, resurrection, priesthood and covenants.

By examining how religious objects have been used, forgotten, changed and reclaimed, historians can develop new insights into the materiality of religion. With the notable exceptions of healing and blessing rites, the performance of LDS collective rituals has been largely understood as the exclusive domain of men.  However, when ideas of belief and ritual are expanded to include women?s interactions with sacred objects outside of the moment that ordinances are performed, it becomes clear that women are hidden yet central participants in much of the life of Mormon ritual. Mormon women?s interactions with religious objects have been ignored by scholars on several fronts because they most often derive from the domestic or decorative sphere.  While male rituals are frequently ?presented with explanatory paradigms for the society at large ? women’s rituals often appear as domestic or insignificant, except to the women themselves.?[3]   The mundane materials and processes that often define women?s work can make them problematic to study as they are frequently understood to be tedious, demeaning, or oppressive.  Sacrament bread baking is one of the sites of female activity that presents us with an understanding of a female economy of exchange surround food production.  It illustrates how women created parallel rituals within the larger liturgy and how these domestic ritual acts made the work of women visible in public worship spaces in ways that didn?t challenge gendered norms.

It is difficult to find a systematic way to trace female sacrament bread baking but the life of bread and women are intertwined throughout much of Mormon history and details of bread making can be found in diaries, letters and local records.  Discussions about flour are ever present on the Mormon trail, whether it is in deliberations about how much could be taken, how little was rationed and how bread (or substitutions for it were made during the Western migration and early Utah period).   Concern about bread making can be found in the earliest minutes of the Salt Lake City 15th Ward Relief Society Minutes, In 1868 President Sarah Melissa Granger Kimball ? … spoke upon the subject of breadmaking, thought we should have a ward bakery.? [4] Bread practices provide a window into the lives of women in 19th century Utah and can be described as a communal event –not everybody could bake at home.  Trading for yeast or sourdough starter was one of the many ways that Mormon women bartered within a female economy. Specific women within a Mormon settlement would make large batches of yeast and exchange it for flour or molasses or later sugar.  Mary Wilson remembered that ?the neighbourhood yeast center was a regular part of the community setup of those early days.?[5] Community ties and shared resources ? including the distribution of flour, yeast or starter all illustrate concepts of dependence, self-sufficiency, and other aspects of social relations.  It is also worth noting that bread making could be an indicator of social class ? the records of the Globe Bakery in Salt Lake City reveal the bread consumption habits of several polygamous households.  Many of Brigham Young?s wives did not seem to need to bake their own bread.[6]  The creation of sacrament bread can be placed at the intersection of a pragmatic communal economy and the sacred nature of the Lord?s Supper.  Before the shared sacramental meal, bread had already often passed through a female community of food production and exchange.

Mormon women created their own rituals around sacramental bread baking. Charity Kinder Savage baked sacrament bread in Henrieville, Utah during the 1890s.  Her daughter remembered:

“At that time the Bishopric took turns in furnishing the sacrament. When it was father’s turn, mother had her own way in preparing it. She cut the crusts off the loaves of bread, then sliced it into half inch strips. Preparing it this way made it easier for the Priests to break it evenly. She had crystal plates she kept for the sacrament only. She would put the bread on the plates, cover it with a pretty white linen towel that she kept especially for that purpose. Father was always so proud to take it to church. [7]

Similarly, Ruth Mace Waddell recalled ?The women in the ward took turns providing the bread for the sacrament. Mom would take special care when it was her turn. She made sure the final product was white in color, and that the texture was even. She cut off the crusts, so it would look beautiful in the tray. Mom always made good bread, but for the sacrament, it had to be just right.[8]   Such accounts of special plates, cloths, and attention to details of texture and preparation all underscore the defining influence of routinized activity, the significance of human making and doing, the tendency of women to create rituals from domestic work  and how these innovations went on to impact the larger ritual.  The inventive nature of these unofficial, parallel rituals underscores the idea that that belief is more than a linguistic act.   Baking sacrament bread was a material form of religious worship that connected women to the Lord?s Supper and provided a medium for women to create their own individualized rituals.  It made the domestic work of women visible in public worship spaces in a way that didn?t challenge gendered ideas.   It set their domestic labour on display under the umbrella of a priesthood ordinance.

Like other efforts to feminize Mormon worship spaces (think embroidered sacrament cloths, placing flowers on the pulpit  or in more modern instances Relief Society centrepieces or decorating bulletin boards) sacramental bread baking served to bolster gender norms and roles.  At the same time, it allowed Mormon women to engage in self-definition and identity performance, as well as meaning-making practices that asserted their role in the community.  Sacramental bread baking was the site of women?s ritual performance and innovation.  These material practices and how they changed over time need to be placed closer to the centre of our understanding of Mormon ritual.  Doing so will allow historians to develop  a greater understanding and definition of religious practice.

[1]  Pollan, Michael, Cooked:  A Natural History of Transformation. New York: The Penguin Press, 2013, p. 18.

[2]  In addition to Pollan 209.  Also see Gopnik, Adam, ?Bread and Women? The New Yorker, November 4, 2013 and  Jacob H.E. and Peter Reinhart.  Six Thousand Years of Bread .  New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2007.

[3] Torab, Azam.Performing Islam: Gender and Ritual in Iran.(Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2006).

[4]15th Ward RS Minutes, Fifteenth Ward Relief Society minutes, 1868 March-1869 May

 [5] Godfrey, Kenneth W., Audrey M. Godfrey, and Jill Mulvay Derr, eds., Women’s Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1982), 346.  Also see Cheney, Brock. Plain But Wholesome: Foodways of the Mormon Pioneers (Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2012).


[6] Globe Bakery Files 1858 – 1877, Globe Bakery ledger 1858 March – 1859 May; Globe Bakery Daybook, 1871 September-1872 May.

[7] Garner, David Henry, Treasures among the Tetons : treasured memories of the family of David Lambert Wadell and Mary Ann Mace p. 395.

[8] Garner, David Henry, ed. Treasures among the Tetons :Treasured Memories of the Family of David Lambert Waddell and Mary Ann Mace (2000) p. 395.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Wonderful write-up. I was unaware of the “neighbourhood yeast center.” I’d really like to know more about that.

    The bits about removing the crust is also really interesting. You see that formalized briefly in the 20th century with some ad hoc theology, but this seems to be functional (easier to break?). At the same time, this wasn’t universal as we saw from your work on the preserved sacrament bread from the same decade in the museums (large pieces with crust still on). I find this evolution of ritual practice really interesting. How new ritual forms emerge in a oral contexts and then mean ascribed.

    Thanks again!

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 5, 2014 @ 11:41 am

  2. I hadn’t thought about the need to share starters. It reminds me of this thing going around my mom’s friends a couple years ago: it was a recipe for a bread named “Herman” (and I’m pretty sure you were supposed to talk about it as a living thing), that you’d get from a friend, along with a starter from their Herman bread, and then you’d give someone else the recipe with a starter made from your Herman, and so on and so forth. (Of course, the trick was not to get five people to give you part of their Herman, as I remember the finished product not being that good.)

    Comment by Saskia — March 5, 2014 @ 2:49 pm

  3. Excellent, as always, Kris. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — March 5, 2014 @ 3:39 pm

  4. Fascinating stuff. For me, this had the added benefit of helping me think more about what it meant to have “uncorrelated” rituals, like blessings were back in the 19th century. I’ve read your and Stapley’s paper about how women’s participation in blessings for health declined in large part to the formalization and institutionalization of the ritual as a specifically priesthood ritual, but it was always hard for me to really conceptualize what an informal blessing would have looked like since the current church environment has it all so clearly laid out what a blessing should look like. But rituals of sacrament bread creation, as well as your mention of decorating bulletin boards or making centerpieces, as informal rituals really made the idea click for me for some reason.

    Don’t know if that made any sense, but it made me come out of lurking to share. Anyway, again, this was wonderful stuff. Thank you!

    Comment by austin — March 5, 2014 @ 9:29 pm

  5. This is awesome, Kris.

    Comment by Ryan T. — March 5, 2014 @ 11:07 pm

  6. Always fascinating, in print and in person. Thanks, Kris!

    Comment by David G. — March 5, 2014 @ 11:44 pm

  7. Thanks for looking into this! Love the “breath of life” concept. My husband’s ancestor baked the Sacrament bread in his ward for 31 years, and then his son carried on for the next three decades. I’d love to have more details of their service in that way.

    Comment by anita — March 5, 2014 @ 11:52 pm

  8. In one of my wife’s BYU wards (2002-2004-ish), she occasionally made bread for the sacrament. I don’t know that she had any ritual that went along with making the bread; I’ll have to ask. I do wish we paid more attention to the bread we use for the sacrament. For such an important ritual, it seems a shame that we so often use whatever’s cheapest at the grocery store.

    Comment by Abu Casey — March 6, 2014 @ 1:01 am

  9. Fantastic stuff, Kris. It must have been a marvelous experience to make make the sacrament bread. It also says something to how ritual and practice changes as technology changes (sliced bread vs. baked bread).

    Comment by J Stuart — March 6, 2014 @ 8:30 am

  10. Cool stuff. Interesting to see efforts made towards assuring the whiteness of bread.

    Comment by Ben S — March 6, 2014 @ 11:35 am

  11. Thanks for all of the comments. Anita, I’m particularly interested in yours because I haven’t come across many male bread bakers.

    Comment by Kris — March 6, 2014 @ 11:44 am

  12. Kris for (Mormon History) president.

    Comment by Ben P — March 6, 2014 @ 12:12 pm

  13. Great work, Kris. I love bread.

    Comment by smb — March 8, 2014 @ 11:26 pm


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