From the Center to the Periphery: The Place of Sacrament Altars in Mormon Worship Space

By December 12, 2007

(Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Jeffrey G. Cannon is an archivist at the Church Archives in Salt Lake City and works for the Joseph Smith Papers Project. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in theology at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. He has presented scholarly papers at the annual conferences of the Mormon History Association.

Christopher’s recent posts “On Methodist Weddings, Holy Envy, and Mormon Self-Identity” and “A Mormon Megachurch’ Or where is Truman O. Angell when you need him?” have opened the discussion on the Juvenile Instructor concerning Mormon architecture. The Mormon architectural tradition largely begins with the Kirtland Temple. Architectural historians and critics can make their own assessments about the exterior, but the interior is something uniquely Mormon.

If we haven’t seen them in life, we’ve probably all seen pictures of the multi-tiered pulpits in the first Mormon temple. We’ve also probably all heard various explanations of the letters prominently displayed on them. The focus was clearly on the priesthood and its various offices. On the bottom tier of both sets of the Kirtland pulpits are fold out tables intended for administration of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Their placement there put them at the center of focus for the congregation and placed the sacrament clearly under the purview of the priesthood. Kirtland’s legacy can plainly be seen in the old assembly rooms of the early Utah temples and to a lesser degree in some of the old tabernacles.

A church’s orientation communicates the importance the congregation places on different aspects of Christian worship. Liturgically based churches like the Roman Catholic and those in the Anglican Communion traditionally place the altar in the center of the worship space. Calvinist churches, which put more emphasis on preaching, position the pulpit at the center. Today’s megachurches often split the stage between pulpit and bandstand, with large, enthusiastic choirs or bands playing guitars and drums. Giving the priesthood pride of place is a striking departure from the norms of religious architecture and gives the Kirtland Temple and its descendants a distinctively Mormon character.

In the old LDS designs, the priesthood, and one of its most visible functions, were clearly on display. Both the sacrament table and the presiding priesthood officers shared space prominently placed front and center. But in modern chapels both the priesthood and the sacrament table, while still present, have consistently been moved out of the way.The once centrally located administration of the sacrament has been shifted to the side until it is now quite distant from the focus of either the congregation or the presiding authority.

What takes the place of honor in today’s LDS chapels? The pulpit. Could that be because “the glory of God is intelligence” and consequently a liturgy of the Word has become the central focus of Latter-day Saint worship? The pulpit’s central placement could certainly lead one to believe such-at least in most of today’s standard-plan buildings.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. In Hartley’s article “From Men to Boys,” in the JMH has a great picture of the Ephraim or Manti tabernacle (I forget which one), with the elderly gentleman blessing the sacrament in the front with his arms raised to heaven. Great stuff.

    Now it seems to me that the modern chapel structure is utilitarian. Emphasis on the speaker regardless of who it is.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 12, 2007 @ 3:44 pm

  2. This is fascinating stuff, Jeff. Thanks for contributing to JI. Any idea in what era this change from placing the Priesthood and Sacrament front and center to shifting them to the side occured?

    Comment by Christopher — December 12, 2007 @ 3:47 pm

  3. Here’s a link to the photo that J. refered to. It really is a fascinating picture. Not only for what Jeff is discussing, but for the large mural of Moroni’s visit. That’s another thing that has disappeared from our public worship space.

    Comment by David Grua — December 12, 2007 @ 3:56 pm

  4. I noticed that the TLC page dates the photo to around the turn of the century, while the caption in the JMH article dates it to the early 1870s.

    Comment by Justin — December 12, 2007 @ 4:12 pm

  5. It also seems to me that this sort of structure (i.e., the Kirtland Temple and the various assembly rooms in Pioneer Utah temples), highlights the practice of “solemn assemblies.” Our concepts of priesthood have changed a bit since this time. There isn’t a Quorum of Patriarchs and the ideas of the aaronic priesthood quorums voting in such a fashion is an anachronism.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 12, 2007 @ 4:25 pm

  6. The Church Archives catalog dates the picture of the Ephraim Tabernacle to circa 1895. Although an 1870s date is possible, the caption in Hartley’s article dating the picture as “early 1870s” seems to be an error if Richard Jackson is correct in dating the completion of the building in 1877 (Places of Worship: 150 Years of Latter-day Saint Architecture, p. 96).

    Comment by Jeffrey Cannon — December 12, 2007 @ 5:57 pm

  7. Stapley,

    In solemn assemblies to sustain a new prophet, don’t we still vote by quorums and then general membership?

    Comment by kevinf — December 12, 2007 @ 6:05 pm

  8. Thanks for that clarification, Jeffrey.

    kevinf, yes we still hold a solemn assembly type meeting for sustaining a new prophet (among other things). If I am not mistaken, President Hinckley was the first to include non-priesthood holders (including women) in the vote. The reality is that the ritual reflects a Kirtland era hierarchy. Priesthood roles, functions and demographics have dramatically changed since that time and consequently ritual itself, as I mentioned, is a bit anachronistic. That isn’t to say that it isn’t still a valid ritual of the restoration and a great source of spiritual power.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 12, 2007 @ 6:44 pm

  9. I just re-read the title of this post. Interesting that you referred to it as a sacramental “altar.” That isn’t language that we typically hear. From a Mormon usage perspective, there is some merit to it, though it seems to be a strict nineteenth century application. Extra-temple altars were quite common in ward houses up unto th 1970’s as well as family altars in the homes of the Saints at least until the early 20th century.

    Prayer meetings at these edifices were loci for ritual administration. The Saints consecrated their oil and it appears that they administered the Sacrament:

    June 1 [1873] Sunday I Attended the Prayer Circle & A O Smoot Dedicated A New Sacrament Service at the Altar. (Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 7:140)

    It appears, however, that this is quite rare and that the common “sacrament table” is normative for much of our history. E.g.:

    On Sunday, the 4th day of June, 1837,” says Heber C. Kimball, “the Prophet Joseph came to me, while I was seated in front of the stand, above the sacrament table, on the Melchizedek side of the Temple, in Kirtland, and whispering to me, said, ‘Brother Heber, the Spirit of the Lord has whispered to me: “Let my servant Heber go to England and proclaim my Gospel, and open the door of salvation to that nation.” (Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, 103-104)

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 12, 2007 @ 7:18 pm

  10. Truth be told, I had nothing to do with the title. It is actually the product of one of the permabloggers at JI. I do use the term ?altar? frequently when discussing sacrament tables, however. It seems to convey a greater sense of solemnity, while ?table? seems far too pedestrian.

    Comment by Jeffrey Cannon — December 12, 2007 @ 7:42 pm

  11. Cool post. Thanks for sharing it. Interesting that the pulpit takes the place of honor in our chapels today, but the word from the pulpit will often draw our attention to the true purpose of gathering together, “to renew our covenants.” I wonder if there was the same need for such oral reminders in the old tabernacles or if the visual was enough?

    I recall in the Hebron ward record a bit of a dispute among the brethren if they should offer the sacrament prayer standing (I envision with up-stretched hands like in the linked photo) or kneeling. I don’t recall how they resolved that.

    The mural in the linked photo makes me nostalgic for the chapel of my youth with two over-sized pictures, both depicting Jesus, on the walls behind the pulpit and choir seats. They took them down at some point. Anyone know the story behind that? Correlation driven?

    Comment by Paul Reeve — December 12, 2007 @ 11:10 pm

  12. Paul: Josh Probert, currently a PhD. candidate at the University of Delaware, has said he might do a few guest posts for us. He wrote his MA thesis at Yale on images in Mormon liturgical space (and their disappearance). I’ve asked him to write one of the guest posts on his thesis, so hopefully we can get an answer for your question.

    Comment by David Grua — December 12, 2007 @ 11:21 pm

  13. I’ve only heard folklore (though some of it from reliable sources) that a lot of the more impressive ornamentation was lost during a Mark E. Peterson driven iconoclasm. My favorite story involves Elder Peterson with an assistant going around Salt Lake, chisel in hand and defacing public buildings of their all seeing eyes.

    I’ll look forward to Josh’s contributions, David.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 13, 2007 @ 12:19 am

  14. Great post Jeff. When I was younger, like before 10 years old, the chapel at my home ward building in Harlingen, Texas was remodeled. We had sacrament in the cultural hall in the mean time. I remember very faintly that the pulpit was more drawn to one side rather than being right in the center. After the remodel, it was dead on the center. This makes me wonder what the reasoning behind the change was, whether it was incidental or deliberate.

    Comment by Jared — December 13, 2007 @ 5:33 am

  15. What an interesting post! It reminds me of Bushman’s insight in “Rough Stone Rolling” about Joseph Smith’s fascination with quorums and orders represented in the compartmentalization of space in the Kirtland Temple (I don’t have the page reference, but it’s there somewhere).

    In Kirtland, Joseph Smith really embraces a much more high church tradition that than the low church traditions that he grew up in. The placement of priesthood up front with the sacrament really reminds me of medieval cathedrals with the canon chapter (high church officials) sitting in the benches near the altar. Unlike late medieval churches, the Kirtland altar faces the people, as presumably did those who blessed the sacrament–a practice Catholics did not do until after Vatican II, but Protestants did long before.

    One other comment–not only were the carved pulpits for priesthood, the attached side pulpits (seen in the picture) were used in the 1830s for “visiting dignitaries”–presumably apostles and other church officials who had no immediate authority in Kirtland Stake (apostles do not have adminstrative authority in stakes until the 1844 succession crisis).

    Comment by David Howlett — December 13, 2007 @ 10:17 am

  16. #9:
    Keep in mind that the “prayer circle” mentioned in your Wilford Woodruff Journal quotation is specifically a “true order of prayer” circle, which was often held outside the temple at that time. It was common to consecrate oil in these circles, as well.

    When Woodruff mentions dedicating a “New Sacrament Service,” I don’t think he refers to blessing the sacrament. A “sacrament service” would refer to the trays, etc., used to hold the sacrament. The usage is similar to saying a “table service” in reference to plates and silverware.

    Comment by Nick Literski — December 13, 2007 @ 11:06 am

  17. Yeah, prayer circles (meaning official groups who met for prayer meetings) where an official and regular part of extra-temple liturgy up to the 1970’s. I just did a quick search and hadn’t considered that the “sacrament service” were the ritual accoutrements. That is really cool.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 13, 2007 @ 11:16 am

  18. When I was in grad school at the U. we attended the Nibley Park Ward at about 600 East and 2000 south. There were stairs off the main foyer going up to a small upper room that served as the student ward’s bishop office. I was told by one of the old timers in the ward that that room was where they used to conduct prayer circles. The room was a part of the building for that purpose.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — December 13, 2007 @ 11:31 am

  19. Yes, several early Utah chapels and tabernacles have these rooms. Most have been converted to other uses, such as classrooms. A few, such as the one in the Wellsville Tabernacle, were actually sealed off when they stopped being used for their original purpose.

    Comment by Nick Literski — December 13, 2007 @ 11:58 am

  20. #16 – Thanks, Nick.

    Comment by Ray — December 13, 2007 @ 12:15 pm

  21. The fact these prayer rooms have been converted into classrooms in many cases may be an extension of the phenomenon of replacing the sacrament altar as the architectural focus of the chapel with the pulpit alone. Placing the pulpit as the visual and liturgical focus is indicative of the Church?s emphasis on learning and the revealed Word. It is also indicative of a more democratic approach to worship as more people (i.e., non-priesthood holders?especially women) are given greater opportunities to participate. It wasn?t that long ago that women were given the opportunity to pray in sacrament meeting.

    Comment by Jeffrey Cannon — December 13, 2007 @ 12:18 pm

  22. If I remember right, Andrew Jensen talks about the construction of altars in the various ward chapels under their specific entries in his Encyclopedic History. The Bellevue Stake Center a couple of miles from where I currently live and grew up had a special altar room until the 70’s for the Stake High Council circle.

    My research is focused on healing rituals, and this Conference excerpt from Reed Smoot reflects that interest but as well highlights the communal ritualism of the Saints:

    In this connection I may say that we have prayer circles in this Church. Every Bishop has a right to have a prayer circle in his ward, and I sincerely hope that there is no Stake in Zion without one, and if there is, my advice is to organize one as soon as possible. There is not a week passes but these circles meet, and they are composed of men of God, who hold the Priesthood, and who are supposed to be clean in every respect, having a knowledge that God lives, obeying all His commandments, and observing the Word of Wisdom; and the Saints should have the privilege of having their sick remembered in these circles. (Reed Smoot, Conference Report, April 1901, 4-5)

    Jeffrey: It wasn?t that long ago that women were given the opportunity to pray in sacrament meeting.

    I tend to agree with your broader sentiment (Just look at the accounts of Sunday Services in the Tabernacle for a dramatic contrast). I’m not too sure about this specific assertion regarding prayer. It appears that the policy came into effect via Priesthood Bulletin in 1967, with formal codification in the great correlated 1968 handbook (i.e., non-priesthood holders could not pray). I would imagine that traditional priesthood focus would have likely resulted in a preponderance of men praying before that time, but I don’t think women were barred. About a decade later, President repealed the proscription as being contra-scriptural (“Sisters Can Pray in All Meetings,” Church News (October 7, 1978), 6). Various incarnations of the policy have been passed down via word of mouth instruction, specifically that a priesthood holder must open the sacrament meeting, but this of course defies the current handbook.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 13, 2007 @ 12:46 pm

  23. J.: As part of my duties as exec. sec., I assign individuals to give prayers in my BYU ward. I had been told that the opening prayer must be given by a priesthood holder and that the closing prayer could be given by a sister. I recently (by accident) reversed the order, which set off a round of emails from members of the bishopric trying to “correct” the order before the Sunday meeting. The good news in the story is that the little fiasco got the bishop to look in the manual and discover that his policy did not find support there, and I’ve been told since that the order doesn’t matter.

    Comment by David Grua — December 13, 2007 @ 1:58 pm

  24. It is interesting to note that some LDS chapels have a unique set-up that hasn’t been mentioned here. The Parley’s Ward building in SLC has seats for the Priesthood leadership situated front and center on the stand, with the sacrament table to one side and the pulpit on the other side. My understanding is that the building isn’t that old, built in the mid-20th century.

    Comment by Christopher — December 13, 2007 @ 2:37 pm

  25. Interesting stuff. There was a small upper room in an old chapel I used to attend in Hooper. To access the room you would climb a ladder from the stage in the cultural hall. It was used as a classroom at the time, about 1990. The building has since burned down, but I wonder if that upper room was used for prayer circles.

    I’m glad the alter still holds a significant place in the temples.

    Comment by BHodges — December 13, 2007 @ 3:17 pm

  26. David, unfortunately, not all wards and stakes are so fortunate. Still, there are those in the Church Hierarchy that appear to foster such notions.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 13, 2007 @ 4:36 pm

  27. “I?ve only heard folklore (though some of it from reliable sources) that a lot of the more impressive ornamentation was lost during a Mark E. Peterson driven iconoclasm. My favorite story involves Elder Peterson with an assistant going around Salt Lake, chisel in hand and defacing public buildings of their all seeing eyes.”

    J: I haven’t heard this story, but there was some defacing in Spring City, Sanpete County; particularly a small rock schoolhouse, sometimes called the old endowment house, had a square and compass chiseled off the front of it. In a UHQ article Allen D. Roberts attributes the action to direction by Elders Kimball and Benson (in the 70s or 80s) because they felt it might confuse members to see the symbols displayed in public. There are other examples in paint: the interior of the St. George tabernacle had an all-seeing eye on the wall that was painted over at some point and later restored (I’ve heard it was restored for the filming of the movie “Windows of Heaven”). Also, the Assembly Hall on Temple Square used to have ornate murals on the ceiling, including the eye over a beehive, busts of prophets, and early temples. It was painted over during a renovation. I think most ornamentation was lost through demolition of buildings however, like the Kaneville Tabernacle.

    Comment by stan — December 13, 2007 @ 7:39 pm

  28. It strikes me that the relocation of the sacrament altar/table from dead center to one side probably has far more to do with simplifying and standardizing architecture than any (un)conscious theological/liturgical shift. For all our ‘radical theology’, we Mormons tend to be rather pragmatic about a lot of things (cf. Nibley’s comments about the Provo Temple, “It’s not a temple, it’s an endowment house.”). ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — December 18, 2007 @ 9:25 pm

  29. […] By Jeffrey G. Cannon  […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » N. Eldon Tanner on the “Blessing, Ordaining, and Setting Apart” of Spencer W. Kimball — February 4, 2008 @ 5:13 pm

  30. […] who wants to read more on this, see this excellent guest post from Jeffrey Cannon. […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Sacred Space Symposium Notes: Jeanne Halgren Kilde, Sacred Space, and Architecture — June 3, 2009 @ 1:19 pm


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