A Quick Note on Funerals Among the Early Mormons
August 6, 2011 9 Comments
I’ve actually been working on the book for a change, but mostly reading. However, to keep up appearances, I’ll just note some congruencies and contrasts between Mormon and Protestant funeral practice during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.
First, some points of congruence.
1a. Funeral sermons (I mean sermons at funerals in particular) were relatively uncommon among both early Mormons and their Protestant contemporaries. Protestant ministers generally felt no urgency in delivering a funeral address, and for most families who suffered a departed loved one the funeral was not a church service, but a home gathering where friends might call. Parsons felt funeral sermons were not only inappropriate but a waste of time in terms of any useful effect: the common opinion was that people’s lives were not changed and that in any case calls to repentance and reform went unappreciated(!) Moreover, Protestant ministers as a group largely felt funerals should not be held in the church and certainly not on Sunday, replacing the regular service in effect. There was some difference here depending on whether the congregation was located in a city or drew from a rural population. The parson ministered to the family needs in a private way in the urban setting but in the country, there was an expectation of using the church for gathering. However, Sunday was generally avoided.
2a. A memorial sermon might be delivered, not as part of the funeral itself, but perhaps in the church, even on a Sunday and when the decedent was a prominent member of the community (the mayor or some other public figure, say) they might appear in print. Such sermons might laud the dead, but the preacher mostly used the time (and preferred to do so) to warn the congregation about their own salvation status. Specific facts or stories or humorous incidents about the deceased, etc. would not be part of such sermons. There were many sermons in the large churches of the East when Lincoln was assassinated, but partly this resulted from changes initiated by the civil war. Religious thought and practice were altered by the war, but that is another subject.
Some differences between Mormon and Protestant funeral sermons:
1b. A Mormon sermon rarely built around a particular scripture text after the first few years (although that did happen even after JS’s death), whereas this was standard practice in Protestantism. That practice derived from the way sermons were delivered in Catholicism of the 15th century (see note 2). Mormon sermon practice developed from the Protestant method, but changed fairly quickly for reasons I won’t go into here, at least for Joseph Smith. (I promise to do that next month because it is so important in understanding sermon praxis in the LDS Church –besides, General Conference is coming.)
2b. In addition to the theme text difference, Mormon funeral addresses were rarely restricted to Bible texts alone, although they might be prominent. Joseph Smith’s funeral addresses were often rich in ontology/cosmology that simply found no connection to a closed canon. Joseph could expand religious thought in a funeral address. He might use the Bible as a springboard but could rocket off in undreamed directions.
3b. Pastors in larger churches did sometimes publish their sermons (with perhaps a very rare funeral address) but Joseph took little thought for that, relying on listeners to deliver the facts by word of mouth, or from their own note taking. Publishing sermons was a rather late development for the Latter-day Saints and grew out of the last part of point 2a (haha).
Memorial (post funeral) addresses by Joseph Smith seem not too common so we shouldn’t expect that a large percentage of Joseph Smith sermons would be in that category and among the surviving sermon-texts, that’s true (clearly, some of those instances are lost to view unfortunately). On the other hand, those that do survive are important because Joseph used the funeral address in a way that inspired, expanded (and ok, occasionally shocked) his hearers.
Our practice today is quite different, though we rarely hold funerals on Sunday. (And of course the bishop hopes new doctrine doesn’t appear.)
1. Suzzane Smith, “To Serve the Living: The Public and Civic Identity of African American Funeral Directors,” in Public Culture: Diversity, Democracy, and Community in the United States, 252-4.
2. Catholic practice was different because of the nature of services. The Requiem Mass (not necessarily a funeral service) often involved a sermon simply because the Mass made use of a homiletic expansion of the scripture for the Mass. It would rarely have any personal reference. These homilies were the origin of the Protestant sermon. I’ll post elsewhere about this issue.