A Quick Note on Funerals Among the Early Mormons

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.

9 Responses to A Quick Note on Funerals Among the Early Mormons

  1. J. Stapley says:

    I seem to remember the Methodist Discipline having fairly clear outlines for funeral services. And according to Farrell, didn’t Congregationalist use funerals to strike the fear of God into the listeners?

  2. WVS says:

    The Calvinists often used death to strike fear in the heart (see 2a). As a practical matter, contemporary preachers found little milage in preaching *at* funerals. Instruction manuals of the period (during JS’s lifetime) like Pond’s The Young Pastors Guide (a Congregationalist) give the picture of the funeral sermon as rarely needed or useful. I think the Methodists had a rule about definitely not engaging with the unfaithful. And while the Discipline terms it (funeral sermon) a venerable custom, it’s not clear that there were many in fact for the commoners at Sunday meetings. Considering the large number of sermon collections published between 1805 and 1844, few of them contain anything designated as “funeral sermon” except for the occasional prominent person (Bishop so and so, say). That’s not to say death is not mentioned. It comes in all over the place. But mostly I think, funeral services where a preacher sermonized nearly always involved the death of say a fellow pastor (or his wife) or some other pillar. For example the Rev. Timothy Cooley got a send off from Rev. William Sprague in 1854 (both Yale grads). There are a bunch of those. But generally, I think, actual funerals didn’t involve much real preaching. Happy to be proved wrong though.

  3. This kind of helps me understand a note about an ancestor who died in 1848 a day or two after the company left Winter Quarters. Thomas Bullock notes in the camp journal her death and burial, then says, “leaving the sermon to be preached in the valley.” On the one hand, that suggests that some kind of speech was expected, but on the other it suggests the sermon needn’t necessarily be tied to the event of the burial.

    • wvs says:

      I think Mormon doctrine was important in two ways to the funeral sermon. It was a ripe field for doctrinal seeding (for JS) and it served to remind people of the unique promises in Mormonism. The latter and hardships during and after Nauvoo increased the value perhaps. Your account gives some credence to that. But also, many converts came from other regions and countries with different habits and practices. As an example akin to at least some of American practice, Mary Maughan writes of her first husband’s death in Gloustershire: “He was buried in a nice quiet corner of the grave yard of Tirley, Gloucestershire, and I have never lost sight of that place although fifty years ago. It [was] the custom for the mourners to attend the Church on the next Sunday when the funeral sermon is preached by the clergyman of the Church [of England] but my relatives were called to attend the funeral of a cousin at Grandthackwells at Staunton so I went with the relatives of my late husband. I covered his grave with flowers and then attended the services in the church.”

  4. J. Stapley says:

    You know, I don’t have as good a handle on the lived religion among American Christian churches of the period, but it seems to me that records of formal funeral sermons are fairly common. I would think that on the frontier they would by much less so, as there were likely less formal ministers. But a quick search through google books, e.g., gives many examples. I guess it just seems very odd to me.

    • WVS says:

      I probably communicated poorly here. Let me rephrase. Funeral services were a home exercise – generally. A sermon for the deceased wasn’t usually offered at that point. There were plenty of instances of sermons, on say the following Sunday, about the event. That’s the gist of it. And of course you see this with JS, right? Not a hard and fast rule though. At least that’s where my reading takes me so far. They were still called funeral sermons, but not part of the funeral service (mostly). The prominent could get the funeral in the church with sermon, on Sunday. I think I’m still not being clear, but there you have it in a nutshell.

  5. RobF says:

    wVS, Thanks for citing my ggggrandma Maughan 🙂

  6. WVS says:

    Welcome RobF. She was a tough lady.

  7. WVS says:

    I should add here, that men (I don’t know of a corresponding thing with women) who belonged to some fraternal organization might have the whole funeral service (sans sermon) carried out by that organization, sometimes sort of at the expense of family wishes.

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