Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » More on Deaconly Uniformity

More on Deaconly Uniformity

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 27, 2008

I posted a few months ago on The Old Written Order of Things concerning a 1941 advisory from the Presiding Bishopric’s Office that deacons were not to be required to a prescribed uniform. At the time, we had a lot of fun discussing the waxing and waning of insistence that deacons wear white shirts to pass the sacrament.

We gave relatively little attention, though, to the idea that some quorums might actually have gone beyond a similarity in dress between white shirt and conservative tie. They did, though, and these uniforms were spoken of with great pride in The Improvement Era (precursor to The Ensign) in a report from the Hawthorne Ward (in the Salt Lake Valley) in December 1932:

We had quite a time to put over to the boys the reverence that is needed in passing the Sacrament, so we decided that we would hold a campaign among the Aaronic priesthood members for better order and better reverence during the passing of the Sacrament. We were also allowed to announce in meeting that this campaign was on both in Sunday School and Sacrament meeting and that we expected every member of the ward to cooperate and we have found this to be a wonderful help. We have also adopted the uniform dress in our ward, especially by Deacons. We had some opposition to this when we first started out. I believe that the boy will come out if he has a white shirt and a black bow tie. He feels a little bigger. This also has a wonderful effect on the boys 11 and 12 years of age. When they see these Deacons they long to become a Deacon.

Bow ties? Well, yeah. Here is a picture of the deacons of the LaGrande 1st Ward, also in Salt Lake Valley, in 1932. The reason for the appearance of this photo in The Improvement Era was unrelated to their dress, but I think it’s obvious that these boys dressed the way they did — white shirts, bowties, and light pants — by direction of their quorum leaders, not through random chance.

A September 1933 contribution from Portland, Oregon explained how uniforms worked in their ward:

Uniforms in Sacrament Service

We are meeting with great success in our work this year. We have nearly two quorums of Deacons and have adopted the uniform dress in the passing of the Sacrament. We find that the boys show much greater interest in their work when all are dressed alike. There is also more reverence shown during the passing of the Sacrament by the members as well as the boys themselves.

With these personal duties cared for he has a greater incentive to be courteous, thoughtful and orderly in the performance of his sacred duties. Then too, the boys are more regular in their attendance, both at Sunday School and evening services as well as their quorum work.

Each boy furnishes his own suit, unless he is unable, and then it is furnished to him and he is expected to keep himself neat and clean at all times.

We follow the prescribed course as outlined by the Presiding Bishopric in all of our classes, of Priests, Teachers and Deacons. Our Priests and Teachers classes are fairly well attended. We are very enthusiastic about our Priesthood here in Portland.

It is our aim to make better Deacons so that the future may produce better Elders, Seventies and High Priests.

But then the PBO came out with the 1941 instruction that “it should not be required that all be exactly alike in dress and general appearance.” Clean, yes, and neat, but not uniform.

In 1946, Joseph Fielding Smith, jr. gave an explanation for the discouragement of uniform dress, in one of a set of lessons he prepared for priesthood quorum study that year:

The first changes [to priesthood ordinances, in the primitive church] that came, evidently came innocently because some enterprising bishop or other officer endeavored to introduce into his meetings, or among his congregation something new – just a little different, in advancement of that which was practiced elsewhere. This tendency is very apparent in the wards and stakes of the Church today. These changes and innovations are innocently adopted, but in course of time there is the danger that they will become fixed customs and considered as necessary to the welfare of the Church.

For example, let us consider the ordinance of the Sacrament. It became the custom in many wards throughout the church to have the young men who passed the Sacrament all dressed alike with dark coats, white shirts and uniform ties. This could in time lead to the established custom of dressing them in uniform, such as we see done in some sectarian and other churches.

Then again as they passed the Sacrament they had to stand with their left hand plastered on their backs in a most awkward manner. The priests or elders who administered these holy emblems had to stand in a certain way as the one officiating in the prayer knelt at the table. In some instances the Bishop stood in the pulpit with raised hands in an attitude of benediction.

Other customs among the quorums and in the services of the wards were introduced. members of the Church were instructed that they must not touch the trays containing the bread and water with their left hand, but must take it in their right hand after partaking as their neighbor held the tray in his or her right hand.

In the Priesthood in the wards, we now have “supervisors” directing the activities of the deacons and the priests. How long will it take before these supervisors are considered as a regular part of the Priesthood and it will be necessary to set them apart or ordain them to this office?

So we see that we, if we are not careful, will find ourselves traveling the road that brought the Church of Jesus Christ in the first centuries into disrepute and paved the way for the apostasy.

[Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, 4 vols. (Salt Lake City: The Church, 1946-1949), 1:103.

Still watching for historical references to some of the other innovations JFSjr mentioned – like the episcopal benedictions during the passing of the Sacrament.

In the meantime, I will notice and appreciate the simplicity of the service in my ward later this morning, although in our ward the complete lack of deacons means that elders and high priests assume that duty. Their service is as solemn and dignified as any priesthood ordinance ever was – it is evident that their hearts are right: they do not feel they are “doing a boy’s job” but are serving the Lord and the congregation in a sacred moment.



  1. Very interesting. While reading your post I was actually reminded of a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episode, of all things. Early in the first season Will Smith’s character enrolls in the elite private school his cousins attend, and he goes through contortions trying to maintain his individuality. He wears the prescribed sport coat inside out, for example, and after discovering that the dress code only requires a certain kind of tie and knot, he wears it around his head instead of his neck. It’s juvenile humor, but it’s essentially underlining the same conflict between individual expression and uniformity.

    Comment by Peter — July 27, 2008 @ 10:58 am

  2. Many years ago, some girls in my Seminary class were upset because their Bishop had made a change in how the Deacons passed the Sacrament. In order to reduce the chance that the passing of the sacrament would become a ritual, the Bishop had each boy return to his seat as soon as he had finished passing to his assigned area. It seems that most of us think that the way we do things is the way that all people should do things.

    Comment by Allen — July 27, 2008 @ 1:04 pm

  3. This is a wonderful bit of liturgical history, Ardis. Thank you for pulling it together. It ties in nicely with some research I am doing – I’m even thinking about submitting it for MHA in the spring. I basically posit that there are two interrelated liturgies in Mormonism: a formal liturgy and a folk liturgy. Starting with the death of President Lund there was a concerted drive to eliminate any folk liturgy and to enhance the formal liturgy. I think that the events in your post, especially JFS II, elucidate this commitment to the formal liturgy.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 27, 2008 @ 2:09 pm

  4. All I know is that NOBODY is going to top the uniform James Ferguson worse as adjutant general of the Nauvoo Legion, as pictured in Bill MacKinnon’s “At Sword’s Point.”

    Will Bagley

    Comment by Will Bagley — July 27, 2008 @ 2:14 pm

  5. Nice post, Ardis.

    Except I’m not seeing the picture … maybe it’s just a problem with my end, though.

    What about the tradition where the presiding officer always receives the sacrament first? Is this simply an optional folk tradition?

    Comment by Dennis — July 27, 2008 @ 2:56 pm

  6. Maybe it is just me, but I miss the old southern California days in the 60s, when we could pass and bless the sacrament while wearing long hair, psychedelic shirts, double-wide ties, and bell bottoms. Now those “deacons” would make a picture worth remembering! My minor rebellion at Church these days is that I wear a conservative solid blue shirt with a conservative tie. I am a spot of color in a sea of white.

    Comment by S.Faux — July 27, 2008 @ 5:38 pm

  7. Dennis, I noticed that the sacrament was offered first today in my ward to our visiting stake president.

    If anybody asked me (nobody did), I’d say that since the revelations don’t spell out in minute detail every possible permutation of behavior — meaning that human beings have to fill in according to their best efforts and good will — we’re going to have variant practices that don’t matter much. My choice is that people follow current traditional behavior rather than detract from the service by calling attention to themselves through personal expression, *and* that nobody get bent out of shape if somebody happens to do something-that-doesn’t-matter a little differently. That laissez-faire attitude ends when something becomes important enough to draw a request from general authorities that we adapt the practice.

    That is, I don’t think white shirts affect the effectiveness of the Sacrament one way or the other — but if uniformity has been carried to such an extreme that the Presiding Bishopric’s Office calls for relaxation, or if times change and casual dress is carried to such an extreme that general authorities request a little more formality, my view is that the requests should be honored. I have little patience with the occasional indignant comment from someone who hates ties and demands the right to wear his very, very bestest striped shirt … and almost as little patience with the occasional bishop who reportedly makes a long-sleeved white shirt the sole test of fellowship.

    J., I’d be tickled if something I wrote made it into your work as a one-line illustration of some point you were making.

    Will, nope, I’ve never heard of a ward anywhere proposing gold braid and epaulettes and fancy buttons for deacons’ uniforms.

    Allen, Peter, thanks for your comments. I have the most fun with history when I, or a commenter, can draw a parallel between our Mormon past and some situation within life as *we* know it, and you have both done that.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 27, 2008 @ 6:05 pm

  8. S., I can go you one even better. When I was in the MTC way back when, we were permitted to attend BYU devotionals where all the missionaries sat in the same section. I was the one in the bright red suit in that sea of black and blue. This was before the poor sister missionaries were told to dress like monks — today I suppose I would sigh and put on a dreary jumper.

    But as long as neither you nor I are asked to wear white shirts or somber clothes as members of the congregation, more power to your blue suit and my red dress.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 27, 2008 @ 6:14 pm

  9. Dreary jumper or not, Ardis, your intellect, perspicacity and unbridled candor would have rendered you a most colorful missionary to have encountered…no red jumper needed!

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — July 27, 2008 @ 8:19 pm

  10. In my sister’s ward some years ago, down in the wilds of Orange County, CA, the deacons were told to wear a uniform: gray slacks, white shirt, blue blazer, dark tie. I think my brother-in-law told them, in so many words, to go to hell.

    And, if Joseph Fielding Smith was blasting the deacons of the church 60 years ago for “plastering” their left arms to their backs and if Elder Oaks, within the last decade, spoke disparagingly about the practice, why can the practice not be eradicated?

    Comment by Mark B. — July 27, 2008 @ 10:19 pm

  11. Kind of gives the lie to the charge that we are blind sheep, obedient to every whisper of our leaders, no?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 27, 2008 @ 10:25 pm

  12. In some instances the Bishop stood in the pulpit with raised hands in an attitude of benediction.

    Blimey — I’d like to see that.

    I was in a ward where the YM president got so sick of all of the complaints about the deacons’ appearance that he bought them all red bow ties. They reminded me of a Nation of Islam meeting, except white and skinny.

    Good stuff as usual, Ardis.

    Comment by Norbert — July 28, 2008 @ 5:34 am

  13. Maybe I should add, based upon my comment above, that if the brethren want the deacons to be dressed a certain way, then I am all for it. All I know is that I have a 14 year old who passes the Sacrament every week with a white shirt, tie, and dark suit. He takes it very seriously. Of course, I have told him that there is NO ordinance done in the Church that is more important than the Sacrament. He believes that. So, if I am running a little late in getting to Sacrament meeting, then, believe me, I do not hear the end of it for a week from my faithful but VERBAL 14 year old — who is determined to pass and to be in the Chapel early.

    Comment by S.Faux — July 28, 2008 @ 7:52 am

  14. Re #5:
    The tradition where the presiding officer always receives the sacrament first is actually in the handbook:

    “After the prayer, deacons or other priesthood holders pass the bread to the congregation in a reverent and orderly manner. The presiding officer receives the sacrament first. The bishop (or a counselor in his absence) presides at the sacrament meeting unless a General Authority, Area Seventy, or member of the stake presidency is sitting on the stand. A high councilor does not preside and does not receive the sacrament first.

    “While the presiding officer is receiving the sacrament, others who are passing the sacrament may walk to their designated places.” (CHI p. 38)

    Comment by CQM — July 28, 2008 @ 8:12 am

  15. Catching up, but I couldn’t agree more with #7.

    Comment by Ray — July 28, 2008 @ 8:46 am

  16. #12 – “I was in a ward where the YM president got so sick of all of the complaints about the deacons’ appearance that he bought them all red bow ties. They reminded me of a Nation of Islam meeting, except white and skinny.”

    Norbert, that just might be the funniest line ever written in the Bloggernacle. I can’t get the picture out of my mind, and I haven’t stopped laughing since it got there.

    Comment by Ray — July 28, 2008 @ 8:50 am

  17. Maybe it is just me, but I miss the old southern California days in the 60s, when we could pass and bless the sacrament while wearing long hair, psychedelic shirts, double-wide ties, and bell bottoms.

    I suspect that still out there, buried in ward libraries, are copies of a official LDS photograph (enlarged for SS/Primary lessons) of 3 priests blessing the sacrament. It was taken in 1972. I’m one of the two standing priests. I’m pretty sure we all have white shirts on, but I’ve got sideburns down to the bottom of my ears and I think a sports coat on. Can’t remember what my tie looked like, but I doubt that it was conservative.

    I went looking online for it, but couldn’t find it. On the other hand, I’m not sure why anyone would scan it in. 🙂 ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — July 28, 2008 @ 4:08 pm

  18. My recollection is that we don’t mind having deacons in their super hero outfits AKA Boy Scout uniforms, passing the sacrament on Scout Sunday in February. Military people routinely wear their designated uniforms at church services in combat zones, and their dress uniforms at church services anywhere.

    In places like Tonga, young men often wear a traditional wrap rather than trousers. I assume that a Highland Scot could wear a kilt and be well dressed. In the Philippines, formal dress means a nice embroidered short sleeve shirt without a tie.

    I remember in 1972, when I was newly married and we lived in an apartment in the same stake as my grandparents, going to a stake priesthood meeting and hearing the stake president read a message from the First Presidency that young men were not to be precluded from participating in the Sacrament due to having long hair. My grandfather was always hard of hearing, and his remark was “I’m glad to see that the Brethren finally made it clear that the deacons and priests need to keep their hair short.” My bishop was a barber, and he had been preaching the gospel of the missionary haircut to the Aaronic Priesthood, but backed off after that.

    When I was on my mission in Japan, our supervising general authority was Bruce McConkie. He remarked to our mission president that some of the hair on the elders was a little shaggy. Our president pointed out that in Japan, anyone with a crewcut like Elder McConkie’s is associated with the Japanese Yakuza (mafia).

    There of course is the obvious irony that Brigham Young had long hair (I love the old photo of the back of his head) and later in life a beard, while Lorenzo Snow and Joseph F. Smith and Heber J. Grant and George A. Smith were perfectly able to be apostles while wearing beards of varous lengths. We portray the Savior with long hair and a beard in our meetinghouses and video productions and on the cover of the Ensign and in the Book of Mormon illustrations and official Church visual aids. Yet today, bishoprics, stake presidencies and high councils are discouraged from having long hair or facial hair, even in Latin cultures where a moustache is traditional for most men, though I understand an exception is made for Native Americans.

    We can certainly be neat and clean and conservative without thinking that the Spirit only comes to people who wear their hair in certain ways that are very tied to the slowly evolving men’s fashions that originated in Britain in the last century.

    Comment by Raymond Takashi Swenson — July 28, 2008 @ 5:24 pm

  19. I just got on this posting and it is the best. Ardis, you have a knack for finding interesting topics. We have one ward in our stake which still has the deacons hold their arms behind their backs. I always thought they looked deformed.

    My husband was in the bishopric and in the high council with a full beard, but that was twenty-something years ago.

    My son had hair to his shoulders which he cut to audition for the tabernacle choir. It drove him crazy to keep his hair short enough to pass muster. A couple of times he was called into the choir president’s office during rehearsal where he was told to get a hair cut before Sunday. After singing with the choir for three years (and loving it) he decided it was time to do something else, so he turned his key in to the choir president, who asked why he was resigning. My son said, “I’m tired of being told every week to cut my hair,” then he laughed, because that was not the real reason. But, today his hair is over his ears and he has the start of a nice little beard.

    Comment by Maurine — July 28, 2008 @ 10:33 pm

  20. Bearded maybe … but his left arm hangs at a normal human angle, right? Fair trade!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 28, 2008 @ 10:40 pm

  21. Can anyone point to the history of dressing in white for baptisms?

    Comment by John Mansfield — July 29, 2008 @ 10:40 am

  22. That is a great question John, one which I looked up quickly a couple months ago. I didn’t do an in-depth search, but didn’t find too much. In the nineteenth century, it was of course common to be baptized in whatever. Not so much in recent memory. I checked the pre-1960 Priesthood handbooks and missionary materials and found nothing about the dress of baptismal candidates, except The Missionary’s Hand Book, which I have written on at BCC:

    In preparing for baptism care should be taken to see that the room and font are clean. The candidate, clean in body, should be robed in white if possible, including socks or stockings. The one performing the ceremony should be clothed also in white.

    It is improper for those who are appointed to perform baptisms to use waders or hip boots to avoid wetting the clothing or to keep water from coming in contact with the body. If there are a number to be baptized and the water is cold, several may b appointed to officiate so that none will be unnecessarily chilled. (pg. 137)

    Also: “The wearing of bathing caps by women who are baptized should not be permitted.” (pg. 138)

    I don’t live close to a Research library with access to General Handbooks during this time, so wasn’t able to check there.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 29, 2008 @ 11:19 am

  23. I know that my grandmother, baptized in Alabama in 1906, wore her best red-and-white checked dress — an example of J.’s “whatever” wardrobe. Thanks for this, J.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 29, 2008 @ 11:44 am

  24. Now that I’m wondering about white clothing, I also wonder when it was adopted for service in the temples. This is just guessing, but I suspect white clothing for baptism came after it was adopted for temple work.

    Comment by John Mansfield — July 29, 2008 @ 2:48 pm

  25. John, I think that is almost certainly the case. I have read that individuals wore white for at least some ordinances as early as 1877 after the dedication at St. George. Not sure about the Endowment house, though I would guess not (though I could be grossly mistaken).

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 29, 2008 @ 2:55 pm

  26. Wouldn’t it have been great to have a picture of that baptism, Ardis?!

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 29, 2008 @ 2:56 pm

  27. Oh, yeah! I heard Grandma describe it so often — the pond, the elders, the dress, the hymn — that I have a strong mental image. Eighty years later she remembered it, and I’m not sure but what she would still have said it was the most important day of her life.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 29, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

  28. Raymond (18), my understanding (I think I read it in the CHI, maybe) is that Scout uniforms are not appropriate for passing the sacrament on Scout Sunday in February. Priesthood trumps Scout-hood, etc.

    One ardent Scouter in our ward bemoans much of the “LDS version of Scouting” and he valiantly wears his BSA lapel pin every February.

    Also, my father-in-law is a bishop (again) in Germany, with a beard (again). The bishop before him had one fat moustache.

    In my current ward, many of our African members and visitors show up in their beautiful native garb, colorful and flowing. Kind of makes me feel dull in my standard white and black shirt and suit.


    Comment by Jonovitch — July 30, 2008 @ 8:56 am

  29. I have a dream that one day, a man will be judged by the content of his character, and not the color of his shirt.

    Comment by queuno — July 30, 2008 @ 9:50 pm

  30. Well put, queuno.

    Comment by Steve C. — August 6, 2008 @ 11:21 am

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