(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.