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On Music and the Sacrament

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 05, 2008

May 2nd, 1946.

To Presidents of Stakes and Bishops of Wards.

Dear Brethren,

Inquiries received at the office of the First Presidency disclose the fact that there is a divergence of opinion and varied practices among ward officers with respect to the kind of music, if any, that should be rendered during the administration of the sacrament.

Recently, this question came before the First Presidency and the Twelve, who unanimously approved the recommendation that the ideal condition is to have absolute quiet during the passing of the sacrament, and that we look with disfavour upon vocal solos, duets, group singing, or instrumental music during the administration of this sacred ordinance.

There is no objection to having appropriate music during the preparation of the emblems, but after the prayer is offered, perfect silence should prevail until the bread and the water have been partaken of by the full congregation.

It was further suggested, and unitedly agreed upon, that the sacrament should be first given to the presiding authority in the meeting. This may be the bishop, perhaps one of the stake presidency, or one of the visiting General Authorities. It is the duty of the priest officiating to determine who is the presiding authority present; thus, whenever the sacrament is administered, members of the Aaronic Priesthood officiating will have a lesson in Church government.

When the sacrament is given first to the presiding authority, those officiating may pass the sacrament consecutively to members of the Church who are sitting on the rostrum and in the audience.

It was also the conclusion of the Council to recommend to the Superintendency and General Board of the Deseret Sunday School Union that local Sunday Schools be advised that the significance of partaking of the sacrament will be enhanced if no music be given at that period. Undoubtedly, there will be those who will claim that soft, appropriate music contributes to better order; but careful consideration of the institution and purpose of the sacrament will lead to the conclusion that anything which detracts [distracts?] the partaker’s thought from the covenants he or she is making is not in accordance with the ideal condition that should exist whenever this sacred, commemorative ordinance is administered to the members of the Church.

Reverence for God and for sacred things is fundamental in pure religion. Let every boy and girl, every man and woman in the church, manifest this principle by maintaining perfect order by self-communion whenever and wherever the sacrament is administered.

Sincerely yours,

The First Presidency.

[“Statement on Sacramental Music,” Millennial Star, July 1946, 211.]



  1. I had heard of this practice (of having music played during the administration of the sacrament) from a friend’s parents, both of whom grew up in SLC and would have been in their late teens or early 20s when this letter was published. I should ask my parents (neither from Utah) whether the practice was common where they grew up.

    As to “detract”: every American child should remember one famous use of the word, from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

    But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

    Clearly the first presidency used the word in a different sense from Lincoln–and my OED and my mind are too muddled this morning to figure out if their usage fits within the range of meanings the OED give.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 5, 2008 @ 6:42 am

  2. Further proof of bemuddlement: the OED is fine, not muddled at all. My mind, OTOH, is obviously on holiday this morning.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 5, 2008 @ 6:43 am

  3. Yet another interesting tidbit. I can see where there could be wards that played music while the sacrament was passed, but people singing solos, duets, etc. is a new one.

    Does the first presidency look with “disfavour” or “disfavor” on this?

    Comment by Steve C. — September 5, 2008 @ 7:23 am

  4. Wow, I hadn’t realized that this was the time frame when passing the sacrament first to the presiding authority was established as policy – and that the justification was to teach the Aaronic Priesthood the “a lesson in Church governemt”. Kind of different than it has come to be seen now.

    As to the use of “detract”, it is perfect for the message. The dictionary definition is: “to take away a part, as from quality, value; to draw away or divert; distract”. “Distract” can be used to include positive connotations, like “to provide a pleasant diversion for; amuse; entertain”, while “detract” is always negative. In the context of this letter, “detract” fits better.

    Finally, I have a hard time imagining actual musical “performances” during the administration of the sacrament. That is completely foreign to my mind, which means the letter must have worked better than many others.

    Comment by Ray — September 5, 2008 @ 7:45 am

  5. or a lesson in Church “government” – How did I miss that one?

    Comment by Ray — September 5, 2008 @ 7:47 am

  6. I was working last night from a photocopy from the Millennial Star, and since “detract” seemed odd to me in that specific case, I wondered if the Star‘s typesetter might have misread the word. I have just checked the “Letter of First Presidency Concerning Sacrament,” The Improvement Era, June 1946, 384 — it’s “detract” there, too, so that’s that.

    The “flavour” of “disfavour” is distinctly British, though, Steve C. The Era has it the good ol’ American “disfavor.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 5, 2008 @ 8:14 am

  7. If having some quiet music during the sacrament would distract the congregation from my children pulling faces at each other, I’m all for it.

    On the other hand, I do like the rich feeling of the quiet administration of the sacrament.

    My husband and I just put our foot down and informed the children that there would be no ipod use during homework time this year. (Assuming the teachers ever come off strike and the kids ever have homework.) Even soft music seems to distract the children from their studies and comprehension. There is definitely something to be said for quiet, peaceful contemplation.

    Comment by Researcher — September 5, 2008 @ 8:25 am

  8. “but careful consideration of the institution and purpose of the sacrament will lead to the conclusion that anything which detracts [distracts?] the partaker’s thought from the covenants he or she is making is not in accordance with the ideal condition that should exist whenever this sacred, commemorative ordinance is administered to the members of the Church.”

    I believe there you have the seeds of “white shirts and a tie while passing the sacrament”. As silly as it sounds, that single blue shirt is a distraction.

    Comment by JM — September 5, 2008 @ 8:30 am

  9. I was thinking that there was an earlier FP message on the music, in Clark’s Messages, but this is it. I always smile a bit when I come across a nineteenth century account of preaching, singing or musical performances during the sacrament. This was discussed in one of my favorite ensign articles, written by Hartley. He also cites a book that appears somewhat interesting, Verena Ursenbach Hatch, Worship and Music in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Provo: M. Ephraim Hatch, 1968).

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 5, 2008 @ 8:50 am

  10. It is the duty of the priest officiating to determine who is the presiding authority present; thus, whenever the sacrament is administered, members of the Aaronic Priesthood officiating will have a lesson in Church government.

    I don’t know about others, but this caused much frustration in my deacon life. I had no idea who the stake presidency was, so every time a member of the high council sat up on the stand, I got really nervous thinking if I needed to serve him first.

    Or maybe i’m just weird.

    Comment by Ben — September 5, 2008 @ 9:07 am

  11. Random note: David O. McKay’s April 1946 General Conference address, which makes similar points regarding administration of the sacrament (no music, pass the sacrament to the presiding officer first), also features use of the word detract (he uses distract elsewhere in the address): “If it is beautiful music poorly played, then the discord detracts your attention.”

    When this address was reprinted in later books, detracts in this sentence was edited to read distracts.

    Comment by Justin — September 5, 2008 @ 9:40 am

  12. Ah, thank you, Justin. I have the soul of an editor.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 5, 2008 @ 10:36 am

  13. and my editor soul wishes things weren’t edited that don’t need to be edited. :) (Although I have no problem with editing that keeps out-of-date usage from detracting.) :)

    Comment by Ray — September 5, 2008 @ 11:52 am

  14. Here finally is the OED definition that seems to fit best (except for the words: “the partaker’s thought”):

    2. absol. or intr. To take away a portion. Usually to detract from: to take away from, diminish, lessen (a quality, value, authority, etc.).

    It seems that “anything which detracts from the contemplation of the covenants the partaker is making” would fit this definition better. And it would fit with my sense of the meaning of detract. And I’m like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

    Another possibility is:

    †4. trans. To draw away or aside, withdraw, divert (from an action or undertaking); refl. and intr. To withdraw, refrain. Obs.

    An 1802 usage note is “[To] detract their attention from every thing foreign.” This seems to match the First Presidency usage.

    I don’t know if the “Obs.” notation refers to the entire definition or just the last part. But as obsolete as some of the words and grammatical forms I use, this one’s too old for me.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 5, 2008 @ 12:35 pm

  15. Bro. Dumpty, it’s too old for me, too (except when I’m transcribing something old). Even Ray might agree.

    Thanks for pulling this out.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 5, 2008 @ 1:07 pm

  16. That’s Bro. Humpty Dumpty. It’s a compound last name, sans hyphen.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 5, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

  17. I think I like Bro. Dumpy – I mean Dumpty. :)

    Yeah, I agree – completely.

    Comment by Ray — September 5, 2008 @ 2:25 pm

  18. I may be crazy, but I recall a short period of time when the sacrament was not passed to the presiding authority first. It didn’t last long, but I think I was in the Aaronic Priesthood at the time (early 80s). Everyone I have told about this said I was crazy. Did I just imagine it? Or maybe I was just attending an apostate California ward.

    Comment by BruceC — September 5, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

  19. Bruce C: Now that you mention it, I seem to recall that as well (or maybe my memory is shot). If I remember correctly, the change was made so that the presiding authority didn’t get singled out or something like that.

    Comment by Steve C. — September 5, 2008 @ 3:45 pm

  20. I was in a bishopric from 1981 until 1985, and in stake leadership positions after that, and I don’t remember anything like that, BruceC. There have been instructions given to not make a big deal of it–that the other deacons didn’t need to stand at the sacrament table while the bishop was receiving the sacrament–that if the deacon taking the sacrament to the bishop would leave immediately upon receiving the tray, the others could walk to where they were to begin, and that in the normal course they would be able to start immediately, with just a quick glance to the stand to make sure the bishop had received it. But I don’t remember if those are in the handbook, or if they’re something I dreamed up and gave to the Aaronic Priesthood leaders.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 5, 2008 @ 4:14 pm

  21. 18-19: That’s interesting, if it is generally how you both kinda sorta remember it. Administering the sacrament is mandated; the scriptures are silent as to whether or not there is to be music, or what should be the costume of the officiators, or to whom it should be first passed. One authority directs those details and gives very good reasons for his choices. Then another authority changes a detail, again for a very good reason. The core elements do not change; the trappings, and the meanings assigned to them, have changed, as we’ve seen so often.

    That doesn’t bother me a bit. It *does* suggest that I ought to be flexible enough not to be upset when one/some of the nonessentials change, *and* that I have no real reason to grumble about any of it. (Somebody will be served first; deacons have to wear a shirt of some color; either there is music or there isn’t — why not relax and follow-the-leader on such nonessentials? Why make it a point of personal style, or claim it as a matter of personal agency or integrity, deliberately to go in some other direction?)

    /goody-two-shoes musings

    (written before I saw Mark B.’s comment)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 5, 2008 @ 4:26 pm

  22. Love this. I didn’t know about the music playing that used to exist.

    And here’s another bit of ignorance – do young men still get to figure out who the presiding authority is?

    And love #21, Ardis, you goody-two-shoes you.
    (I guess that makes me sound like one, too.) :)

    Comment by m&m — September 6, 2008 @ 12:56 am

  23. The conclusion to “recommend” to the Sunday School leaders is an interesting glimpse of previous notions of stewardship and lines of authority.

    Comment by John Mansfield — September 9, 2008 @ 3:19 pm

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