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?