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.