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An Occurrence at the Tabernacle, 1890

By: Ardis E. Parshall - January 30, 2012

Once a year my downtown Salt Lake City stake holds stake conference in the Tabernacle on Temple Square; our other conference of the year is held in the building where my ward meets on most Sundays, a short stroll from Temple Square. Because of our proximity to that historic place, I am told, the wards in my stake sometimes host interesting guests who come unbidden to Salt Lake because they believe they will be sustained as Church leaders at the next General Conference. Some of these, I am told (I’ve never actually met one), have been the Energy Queen of the Universe, the Archangel Gabriel, and enough Michaels to form their own quorum.

I’ve mentioned before, I think, an interesting Sunday School presentation from four or five years ago, where our bishop instructed us what to do as a ward if one of these people were to drop into our meetings. Assuming there was no threat of violence – and there never had been, he assured us – we should listen quietly and without reaction. Most such people, whether mentally ill or simply disaffected members or politically motivated strangers with a cause, simply wanted an audience for their statements and would leave quietly after making their claims or reading their manifestos. Certain men in the ward (he didn’t identify them, but I’ve thought of them ever since as official Ward Bouncers) had been designated to escort such visitors out, and to take more immediate and drastic action should a situation warrant it.

Our most important task as ward members, the bishop said, was not to make a situation worse by our noise or activity, but instead to help return the spirit to the meeting as soon as an incident was over.

I’ve never actually witnessed such an incident – although there was one stake conference, held in our non-Tabernacle building, when a half-dozen young elders suddenly tackled a man in the overflow seating of the cultural hall and carried him out. Since I hadn’t seen or heard anything beforehand, and the meeting immediately refocused on the speaker, I have no idea who he was or what he might have been doing.

This downtown-as-a-magnet-for-the-demonstrative apparently is not a new phenomenon. Come with me back to the first Sunday in 1890 …

The setting is Temple Square. The Tabernacle is full, with all members of the congregation listening to B.H. Roberts deliver his sermon. In the back of the congregation – the east end of the Tabernacle – a door opens quietly and a man steps inside. No one turns – he makes no sound, so at first there is nothing to attract attention. But as he walks up the left-hand aisle toward the speaker’s stand, heads begin to turn and some people begin to rise and to murmur.

And no wonder. No such sight has ever graced the Tabernacle before. The man is dressed in silks and satins, in a vaguely Turkish style. His pantaloons are scarlet. Above them he wears a blue silk tunic. Hanging from his shoulders and fluttering down to his ankles flowed a white satin robe. In one hand he carried a staff topped with a metal spear point; the staff served as a flag pole for a seven-foot long silken banner, painted with a crucifix. The man carried his hat under one arm, revealing a head of hair and beard dyed an unnaturally deep black.

The man says not a word as he reaches the front of the Tabernacle, crosses in front of the podium, and walks back down the other aisle toward the rear of the Tabernacle. The congregation, though, is beginning to call for police to have the man arrested – they create such a furor that Elder Roberts pounds on the podium and calls for order. The congregation pays no heed and grows rowdier.

When the visitor reaches the rear of the Tabernacle, he finds the first door he tries is locked. Had he been able to pass out at that point, the incident would likely have ended there. But he turns around and begins to march back up the aisle toward the front of the building. At this point he also dons his hat, a black stove-pipe which is somewhat out of keeping with his gaudy mock-Eastern garb. As he does so, he is surrounded by ushers, who lay hands on him and force him out of the building. The commotion continues for a few minutes until Elder Roberts is able to calm the congregation and continue his sermon.

The visitor, A.J. Miller, was a man well-known in Salt Lake City as a delusional man, but one believed never to have made any threat of violence toward anyone. Upon examination at the jail in the nearby City Hall, he reported that he had no intention whatever of disturbing the meeting. He had been visited by an angel, he said, three times in three weeks, who described to him the costume he must wear – and which Bro. Miller made himself, at an impoverishing cost of nearly $50 – and his marching route through the building. He believed “it would please the people” to have him appear among them as he had.

Originally charged with disturbing a religious gathering, city officials soon decided not to prosecute. They believed he meant no harm. His obvious grief at having to leave his novel garb and his banner in the keeping of city officials was sufficient punishment for the disruption.

So … how did your meetings go yesterday?



14 Comments »

  1. No spears at our stake conference yesterday, but there were plenty of people wandering the aisles, including the stake clerk, and a few parents with small children.

    We do, however, have a mosque next door to our stake center, but they lack adequate parking. By mutual agreement, they can use our parking lot when they need the overflow parking, usually on Thursday evenings, and on Fridays. As a result, we often see men and women walking through our parking lot clad in traditional clothing. No one has yet wandered through our meeting. Not that they wouldn’t be welcome…

    Comment by kevinf — January 30, 2012 @ 11:27 am

  2. Fascinating! As intriguing as was AJ Miller’s appearance in the Tabernacle in 1890 is your description of your downtown congregation being a magnet for manifesto-reading types.

    By the way, I looked at the Deseret Evening News for any reporting on the incident, but all I could find was the text of BH Robert’s sermon printed the next day (January 6, 1890, link here). The article indicates that at one point George Q. Cannon leans over and whispers something in Roberts’ ear regarding his subject matter, but no mention of any intruders in the meeting. Bummer.

    Comment by David Y. — January 30, 2012 @ 11:55 am

  3. David, you’ve got a hunter’s instincts.

    There’s a separate news squib on the page following the one you’ve linked to, so they separated it from the report of the Roberts sermon.

    There are occasionally people on the street who preach, or wear strange costumes, or otherwise demonstrate the religious bent of their emotional or mental troubles, but so far none have come into any meeting where I was aware of it. I wonder, though, every conference season, whether this will be the time.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 30, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

  4. Maybe part of the reason we don’t see too much of this in our current general conferences, has to do with these folks having a hard time getting one of the limited number of tickets available to each stake through their stake president. I suppose that wearing a costume like Mr. Miller’s might increase your chances of getting noticed by your stake president. Why anyone would go out of their way to get noticed by their stake president is beyond me. You could get nabbed for some obscure stake calling that way.

    I’d love to see a picture of the Energy Queen of the Universe, though, flanked by the First Quorum of Michaels.

    Comment by kevinf — January 30, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

  5. I’m trying to remember if this is the indecent in the back of my mind…perhaps in the AH Cannon diary, of a meeting being disrupted? I sort of feel like I’m losing it.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 30, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

  6. Sounds like that crowd could have used the same instructions that you’ve had in your ward! Didn’t seem to be much of a reason for the uproar, or for taking Miller’s costume.

    The City of Philadelphia is starting a Mental Health First Aid training program, attempting to train 1,500 people a year in free, 12-hour training courses. The guidelines they mention for these encounters sound similar to what was mentioned in your ward: listen without judgment, assess seriousness, refer for treatment if necessary.

    …just knowing how to approach someone who is having a crisis can begin to resolve the situation. Rather than reacting with alarm, for instance, volunteers are taught to ask questions such as “What would make you feel safer or calmer?”

    The program is also intended to reduce the stigma of psychiatric disorders by demystifying them. [Source]

    And in our meetings? Nothing like this! Just some beautiful, heartfelt messages about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Comment by Researcher — January 30, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

  7. Good memory, J. From AHCannon’s diary, 6 January 1890:

    “At the meeting Elder B.H. Roberts spoke for about 65 minutes, on our political beliefs, and showed by extracts read from the Book of Mormon that the destiny of this people was inseparably connected with this nation. – Just after he began to speak A.J. Möller, a resident of the 11th Ward of unsound mind, entered the building dressed in a white satin cloak that nearly touched the floor; beneath this he wore a blue silk tunic while his lower limbs were encased in scarlet leggings. In his right hand he carried a white banner of silk material, on a pole about seven feet long surmounted by a spear-head. In front of it was a crucifix containing a figure of the Savior. He walked down the front aisle, past the sacrament table and up the north aisle to the north-east door. This he found locked and he therefore retraced his steps to one of the north doors where he was seized by the ushers and taken to the City Hall. Being harmless, however, no charge was preferred against him. He says an angel who visited hm three weeks in succession commanded hm to do this thing. He is said to have lost his reason through the death of his betrothed”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 30, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

  8. The incident reminds me of the opening act for Paul McCartney’s 2002 tour (which was on a much larger scale and entirely planned, but never explained to the audience).

    Comment by Last Lemming — January 30, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

  9. Our meetings went quite well compared to this! Although two weeks after my husband was called as the bishop we got an interesting visit from an old kook who claimed he was Moroni. He got up in Sacrament meeting and started talking nonsense. My husband and two other fellows got up and escorted him out. He came back several more ties in the following month. The last time he got up and declared God had called him to travel on. We haven’t seen him since!

    {we live in northern nevada}

    Comment by Chocolate on my Cranium — January 30, 2012 @ 1:41 pm

  10. From my earliest memories in the church I can recall a few folks who seemed to be mentally unstable who occasionally interupted or bore witness in a testimony meeting. They have generally been ward members who were tolerated and perhaps pitied.

    One specific example from when I served as bishop was on a fast Sunday when a member of another ward attended our ward. He came to the podium in his blue jeans and flannel shirt (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but he was unfamiliar to me) and proceeded to bear an interesting rambling testimony. It was only when he indicated that he could interpret dreams and offered to do so for members of the congregation that I began to be nervous. I waited for the SP counselor to tell me to stop him, but he did not. My counselor (conducting) also offered to intervene, but since the counselor didn’t stop it, neither did I.

    At the end of the meeting, I asked my counnselor to let me close, and I reiterated our teaching that we each can receive our own personal revelation as needed, and I reiterated my own testimony of the Savior and the restoration.

    I never saw the interpreter of dreams again in one of our meetings. Only later did I learn he was actually a member of the other ward that shared our buildings and that he had been advised by his bishop not to bear testimony publicly. (I don’t know if it was because of the nature of his testimony bearing or some other reason.)

    Fortunately we have charitable members who took his “testimony” in stride and then got the meeting back on track with more traditional witnesses of the Lord’s blessings.

    Comment by Paul — January 30, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

  11. I was at a BYU devotional in 1993 when President Hunter was the speaker, and Cody Judy rushed the podium and said he had a bomb in his suitcase, which he would detonate unless President Hunter released the quorum of the 12 and installed him as president. It was all very exciting. http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/22886/Fireside-disrupted-with-threat-of-bomb.html

    Comment by Dave — January 30, 2012 @ 3:38 pm

  12. No interesting strangers in our ward on Sunday, but the Ward Clerk passed out cold in the Relief Society Room just after Sunday School ended, falling across a startled friend of mine. He had been kneeling down as he passed out end of year financial statements. This happened as he stood back up. My friend luckily broke his fall, but almost went down under him herself. Later, he looked pretty green, but was okay.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — January 30, 2012 @ 7:24 pm

  13. We have a woman in our ward who bore her testimony a few times, sharing personal, private things which should never be talked about in a mixed group of people, let alone in Fast and Testimony Meeting or even in RS. As RS president, the bishop assigned me to watch for this in RS and also in testimony meeting, and I was to follow up after her and share my testimony so that the meeting could get back on track. My brother was a bishop at one time. The stake president told all of the bishops to assign one or two people in their ward to do the same thing in case anyone overstepped the bounds of decency or apostasy during the testimony meeting.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — January 30, 2012 @ 7:33 pm

  14. My dad used to work security for General Conference during the ERA years. During one incident, he escorted an armed man from the Tabernacle. Scared him (nearly) to death.

    Comment by Matt — January 31, 2012 @ 11:14 am

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