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  • Writer's pictureShelli Owen

The Power of Meetings

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

“It's the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.” ~ Muhammad Ali


NOTE: quotation marks surround things written in LDS vernacular.


Growing up different than everyone else, being “Latter-Day Saints” (Mormons) together with my church community bonded me with my LDS community. I knew we were not like other people, not even “other Christians.” Other Christians considered us a cult, which was super offensive to us (more on that later). It was an us versus them bond.


I saw the LDS church as God’s church on earth, and anything that came from our church leaders as being from Him. I believed the LDS “truth”—the fullness of the gospel as restored by Joseph Smith—with all my heart. The “truth” of the LDS church made me bold in standing up for the LDS church and its teachings according to all I had been taught. How did this teaching become so ingrained in me from even an early age? And why was I so certain that what I was being taught was true?


Muhammad Ali is reported to have said, “It's the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.”[1] This is a principle that has held true for good and for evil through all the ages of human existence. Adolf Hitler’s version of this was: “By means of shrewd lies, unremittingly repeated, it is possible to make a people believe that heaven is hell – and hell heaven. The greater the lie, the more readily it will be believed.”[2] The LDS people are nothing if not sincere in their belief, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is, as the revelations state, ‘the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.’ (D&C 1:30.)”[3] Was this an often-repeated lie? Or was it the truth?


Besides the teachings of my parents, our many church meetings were the glue that cemented everything for me. It was part of obedience to the commandments from the leaders of the LDS church that we attended all our meetings. My family was “active” in the LDS church, as opposed to those “inactive” members, who were members in name only, who didn’t attend meetings regularly.


Growing up LDS, the church meeting we attended most Sundays was called “Sacrament Meeting.” In preparation, I had to dress in my best—most respectful—clothes. The men and boys wore suits, dress shoes, minimally white shirts and ties, and we women and girls wore nice dresses, hose or tights, and nice Sunday shoes. Sometimes, if I had a new dress or item of clothing, I really liked dressing up, but most of the time I viewed dressing up as a necessary torment I was only willing to do out of respect for and obedience to our church leaders, who I believed taught and represented the Lord’s will to us.


My own and other LDS families obediently followed “the counsel of the church leaders,” especially of the president of the LDS church, who we believed was “God’s living prophet on earth.” Part of their counsel was that families should sit together during Sacrament Meeting. Even in infancy I sat on a parent’s lap or on the seat beside my parents. There was no nursery or teens separating off with friends during this meeting, though in some buildings there was a room with speakers for nursing mothers or crying babies.


Very often my family was an exception. For most of my childhood and teen years, I and my siblings sat with just my mom, while my dad watched us from up on the podium at the front of the church. That’s where the choir, speakers, and “members of the bishopric” or church leadership, who were “presiding over the meeting” would sit. On the Most Sundays in my childhood and many in my teen years, that’s where my dad, who was a member of the bishopric or church leadership, sat.


Sacrament Meetings were at least an hour long. Children were supposed to be “reverent,” which meant for us kids: you must sit still and quietly through the entire meeting. To teach reverence, there was a little verse we were taught and acted out in Sunday school that went: “Close your eyes, and bow your head, and listen while the prayers is said.” Soon, I equated folding my arms and being quiet with being “good.”


When I was little, I don’t think I was ever entirely successful at being good for the entire meeting. But by the time I was seven or eight years old—many cheerios and spankings later—I could generally sit through an entire meeting without causing any major disturbance. I remember being highly pleased to discover my mom would let me draw during the meetings, and that I had finally found something to help me be good for almost the entire time. Being able to play tic-tac-toe and hangman with my sister, when she was finally old enough, was another major break-through. That is as long as we didn’t break out in giggles or in an argument and so lost our pencil and paper or had to be separated.


The meetings ran very similarly each week.[4] Before the main meetings there was always what was called, “prelude music” to “set the tone.” This was “reverent music” before the meeting started to help settle everyone down and set the mood for the meeting.


Before the opening hymn and “invocation” (opening prayer), whoever was conducting the meeting, usually one of the bishop’s counselors, would recognize whoever was “presiding over the meeting.” Usually the “bishop” (an LDS position similar to a pastor’s) was the senior presiding elder. To “preside over” a meeting meant that person was responsible to make sure everything was done correctly in the meeting and to deal with any irregularities—such as someone saying the sacrament prayer wrong (the most common), or someone interrupting or speaking out of turn, or a speaker teaching false doctrine, and so on.


After this, the person conducting would give an outline of the meeting, sometimes including acknowledgements of who was leading the music, playing the organ or piano, giving the invocation, speaking, and so on. The LDS vernacular for speaking was “giving a talk.” For example: “Sister Anderson will give a talk on faith.” Announcements of upcoming meetings or activities would follow, often with a reference to the “bulletin” or printed program handed out to adult members as they entered the chapel before the meeting. Often the young “deacons” or middle-school age young men would be the ones handing out the bulletins at the door.


We sang just one opening hymn, but we sang all the verses. Our hymn book contained many songs borrowed from traditional Christianity, but there were also many songs composed by and for LDS people.


The songs about Joseph Smith or the Mormon pioneers or on other exclusively LDS topics, more than the other hymns, stirred my mind, imagination, and emotions as a child and young teen. They went a long way towards increasing my solidarity with my church.


One of my favorite hymns was “We Thank Thee, O God for a Prophet.” Some of the words to this moving song were:

We Thank Thee, O God for a Prophet

To guide us in these latter days.

We thank thee for sending the gospel

To lighten our minds with its rays.

We feel it a pleasure to serve thee,

and love to obey thy commands.

...Thus on to eternal perfection

The honest and faithful will go,

While they who reject this glad message

Shall never such happiness know.

Other favorite hymns sung to inspiring music were “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer” (a retelling of Joseph’s “First Vision” through poetry and song), “Come, Come, Ye Saints” (about the hardships of, and rewards awaiting the Latter-Day Saints [LDS]), and “Praise to the Man,” with these words:

VERSE 1:

Praise to the man [Joseph Smith] who communed with Jehovah!

Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer.

Blessed to open the last dispensation,

Kings shall extol him, and nations revere.

CHORUS:

Hail to the Prophet, ascended to heaven!

Traitors and tyrants now fight him in vain...

Mingling with Gods, he can plan for his brethren;

Death cannot conquer the hero again.

VERSE 2:

Praise to his memory, he died as a martyr;

Honored and blest be his ever great name!

Long shall his blood, which was shed by assassins,

Plead unto heav’n while earth lauds his fame.

VERSE 3:

Great is his glory and endless his priesthood.

Ever and ever the keys he will hold.

Faithful and true, he will enter his kingdom,

Crowned in the midst of the prophets of old.

VERSE 4:

Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven;

Earth must atone for the blood of that man.

Wake up the world for the conflict of justice.

Millions shall know “Brother Joseph” again.


These songs resonated with my need to belong to something important and greater than myself. They made me feel proud to be LDS and prompted my desire to always be loyal to “the one true church on earth,” which had been restored by Joseph Smith.


After the opening hymn and prayer would be [same as taken from an actual, current, LDS church handbook], Ward [a single congregation] and Stake [a group of congregations] business, such as the following:

· Sustaining and releasing officers and teachers...

· Presenting names of brethren to be ordained to an office in the Aaronic Priesthood...

· Recognizing new ward members, including recent converts. After a few words of introduction, the person conducting asks the congregation to show by an uplifted hand that they welcome the member into the ward.

· When children who are members of record are baptized and confirmed, they are recognized in sacrament meeting.

· Naming and blessing children...usually done in Fast and Testimony meeting [this meeting will be mentioned below]...

· Confirming new converts...[5]

The act of “sustaining officers and teachers” meant church members would be asked to raise their hands if they could affirm a person serving in some specific ward “calling” or capacity. Members would also be asked to raise their hands if they were “opposed” for some reason (if they knew someone was “unworthy”). I think there were only a couple of times while I was growing up, I ever saw anyone raise their hand in opposition. Each time, this opposing person was asked to talk with the bishop after the meeting.


Children weren’t supposed to vote, but sometimes, wanting to participate, I’d raise my hand. If it was at the wrong moment, my mom, embarrassed, might quickly pull my hand back down and hold it. I’m pretty sure I did the same, but in self-righteousness, for some of my younger siblings when I got older.


The LDS church had, and still has, no paid positions (except “board members” in the highest positions in the church). Its members are all “volunteers.” A “calling” or position in a ward is usually decided and extended to an individual by the bishop or someone else in authority in the church. The person can accept or decline a position, but since member’s generally believe their leaders are called by God to their positions, they also believe their leaders are given the inspiration and authority to call them to positions in the church as well. Obedient members don’t usually decline a calling in the LDS Church. This is how all the church positions are filled.


After the Stake or Ward business was finished, the most important part of the meeting took place — “the Sacrament.” The LDS Sacrament is similar to what Christians call Communion or the Lord’s Supper. I would join with the other members of the ward in singing an appropriate “Sacrament hymn,” which was to prepare us for the “administration of the Sacrament.” Us kids were supposed to be especially reverent during this portion of the meeting. While the broken pieces of white Wonder Bread in metal trays with handles or small, paper cups half-full of water, in metal cup-holder trays, were being passed to the congregation by the young deacons, I knew we were supposed to sit very still and quiet and think about what Jesus Christ had done for us in the Garden of Gethsemane and at the cross. My parents wouldn’t let any of us play or draw or do anything else during this time. This was a time of almost total stillness and silence. We were together as quiet as a congregation of maybe around two-hundred and fifty people can get.


The Sacrament was prepared ahead of time, before the meeting began, generally by young “priesthood holders,” men or boys fourteen-year-old or older. It was then covered with a white linen cloth. At the beginning of the Sacrament time one half of the cloth was turned back and the bread was blessed by one of these young men using rote prayers. It was passed or served by even younger (twelve- to seventeen-year-old) “priesthood holders.” The young men quietly walked up and down the isles passing the bread on metal trays with handles. After everyone received the bread, the young men returned to the front where the Sacrament table was. Then after uncovering the trays of water and reading or pronouncing another blessing, they’d pass the water, and we’d finish “partaking of the Sacrament.” We were only supposed to partake of the Sacrament if we were “worthy” (keeping LDS commandments). If we weren’t worthy, we weren’t supposed to “partake of the emblems.” Rather, we were supposed to repent before the next week, so we could take the sacrament then.


Little kids were generally allowed to take the Sacrament, worthy or not, until they reached the “age of accountability,” at eight years of age. That was the age in the LDS Church we were baptized and confirmed or given “the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands” and officially became members of the LDS Church.


After the Sacrament time, next on the Sacrament Meeting agenda would often be “a special number.” This would be a musical performance of LDS music by the choir, or someone singing or playing a violin or other instrument. Secular, or non-LDS music was not generally allowed. It was against the counsel of “the brethren” or leaders of the LDS church to perform non-LDS music in church. I only saw this rule overlooked a very few times, when what people sang or performed (never with drums or guitars) was preapproved by Ward leaders.


The rest of the meeting was taken up by “talks” or speeches prepared (I always hoped) in advance by regular members of the ward. This time began with a couple of “youth speakers.” In turns, different teens would be given a topic by one of the church leaders and asked to prepare a five-minute-talk. Occasionally, these talks were well-prepared and presented. As I got older and was being encouraged to pay attention, I always hoped each next talk would be a good one. When I was old enough, each time my turn came around, I was terrified. I was never as good a speech writer or speaker as I wanted to be. I appreciated—with all my heart—a talk that wasn’t boring.


After the youth speakers, a couple of adult members would give longer ten-to-twenty-minute talks. Their topics were also generally preassigned. Often the whole meeting would be on one topic or theme. Our bishop and his two councilors usually spoke at our annual Ward conferences.


Finally, after the “concluding speaker” and more acknowledgments, the meeting would end with “a closing hymn” and a “benediction” (closing prayer). Filled with relief, as a child, finally released from having to sit still and be quiet, I would want to get up and run to the drinking fountain or run around the “cultural hall.” Before I had to go sit reverently again in Sunday school or “Primary.”


In the 60’s or 70’s, due to gas shortages, meetings were consolidated. We started having our segregated mid-week meetings for men and women and young men and young women and children (the only mixed group) on Sundays as well. This added at least another hour of meetings on Sundays.


As a child it was already very hard work being “reverent” for almost three hours. This change expanded the time in meetings on Sunday to around four hours. Eventually, I mastered what may have appeared to be a high degree of self-control, but in truth I’d found myriad ways to keep quiet while entertaining myself to get through these eternal meetings being “good.” By my late teen years, I generally listened to the speakers, but I was also adept at both note-taking and decorating church bulletins with artistic renderings or doodles.


Once a month instead of Sacrament Meeting, we had “Fast and Testimony Meeting.” As I got older, I grew proud that on the first Sunday of the month we would fast for twenty-four hours, starting with supper the previous evening, ending with supper Sunday evening. The money that would have been spent on food for that day was supposed to be given to the church’s welfare program for helping people in the church who were in need.


When I was young, I was not expected fast. It was a rite of passage I both dreaded and looked forward to when my parents began discussing whether I was old enough to start fasting with them when I turned eight years old or after my baptism.


During the Fast and Testimony Meeting, instead of having “special numbers” and speakers, individual members from the congregation could stand and “bare their testimony.” Even little children were allowed to do this when they could get up the nerve and their parents would let them. Microphones were passed around the congregation by the young deacons. Member’s “testimonies” almost always contained one, some, or all of the following statements: “I know Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God”; “I know the Book of Mormon is true”; “I know the [LDS] church is true”; “I know this is the only true church on the earth”; or “I know the true gospel of Jesus Christ was restored by Joseph Smith.” It was super rare and even seemed to make people somewhat uncomfortable, including myself, to hear a testimony solely about the significance of Jesus Christ in someone’s life. I instinctively sensed that a testimony of Jesus must somehow be connected to the “truth” of the LDS church, or what was said must come under suspicion.


These testimonies, often shared with strong emotion and tears and in relation to people’s stories and their own supporting feelings and experiences were sometime very moving. All these sincere expressions of faith in all things LDS, had a strong influence on me. When I was old enough to understand the words being said, the people who said them seemed very spiritual and righteous to me. I wanted to be like them, to “bare my testimony” so it would touch other people’s feelings like that.


All my years in the LDS church, we were encouraged to get our own “testimony” or “witness of the truth” from “the Holy Ghost” (the Holy Spirit). The sign, we were told, of the witness of the Holy Ghost, would be a “burning in the bosom,” or a strong feeling in our hearts that something was true. We were taught that this is how we could know “Joseph Smith was a prophet of God,” “the LDS church is true,” “the Book of Mormon is true,” and so on. I was frequently caught up in these very feelings as I repeated these phrases or heard others use them in our many meetings—especially in our Fast and Testimony Meetings. How could these things not be true when I felt so strongly that they were?


Fast and Testimony Meetings, taken together, united me with my church more than any other meetings. Though as I got older, I started liking “General Conference” more.


The regular meetings were held except when a Ward or Stake (composed of five to ten Wards or Branches) Conference or one of the bi-annual General (all-church) Conferences was “in session.” (While I was away at college, we also had special Women’s or Men’s conferences.)


These bigger conferences took up a couple of days, starting on Saturday. At the General Conference we got to hear from the current “living prophet and apostles,” and some of the “seventies” of our church. The General Conferences were broadcast over TV stations, world-wide, so LDS people everywhere could watch and listen. I thought it must be one of the greatest spiritual experiences on earth to get to attend one of these meetings in-person in the Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. This was one time when all of the talks were really well prepared and most of them held my interest, especially as I got older and could understand more.

Meetings were (and are) a major part and portion of the LDS way of life. It was the main way we did life together. As I got older, I became proud of all these meetings and programs, because we LDS people were “properly” training and taking care of every member in our church—though this “care” generally only amounted to even more meetings. As a child it was another story.


The LDS church had (and still has) a “Home Teaching” program. Sets of two male members from a Ward were assigned to several families. They were supposed to visit each of these families in the family’s home once a month. Their job or “calling” was to teach them the “lesson” for the month from a church manual and to check up on their temporal and spiritual welfare.


As a child and into my teen years I hated it when Home Teachers came to our home. Once more, I had to be “good” and sit and be quiet and listen to their “lesson”—usually in excruciating boredom, sometimes in mental disdain, because someone was so ill prepared or was just a horrible presenter or because I would have much rather been doing something else, usually all of the above. I also thought we never needed any “help” from any of them, so Home Teaching was useless. As I got older and my own young family sometimes received real help from our Home Teachers, my mind on this changed. Then I thought it was a wonderful program.


There is also a “Visiting Teaching” program solely for the women. Similar to the Home Teaching program, sets of two female companions were assigned to visit maybe three to six women, each in her home (or dorm), and share a “lesson” (from a church manual) once a month.


I also didn’t like it when as a child, I was relegated to a back bedroom to play when the Visiting Teachers came to visit my mom (probably so that the women could hear each other talking). To me, as a child, the times I did hear their conversations, it all seemed like a bunch of gossip and worthless talk between dissatisfied women. I totally despised it. But again later, when I became a Visiting Teacher myself, the program took on a new light. I was proud of our church for making sure every member was visited and accounted for.


Theoretically, when a Ward member needed help, they could contact their Visiting or Home Teacher, and either one would help them, or try to get them the help they need. Sometimes this was true and sometimes it was not. It depended a lot on the Home or Visiting Teachers themselves and what was going on in their own personal lives. Sometimes a visit was mainly done to check off a long list of duties a person has in the LDS church and otherwise, and to avoid feelings of guilt for negligence. Sometimes perceived failings in these programs were the source of hurt or hard feelings. Sometimes people did really care about and help each other. Sometimes friendships were born out of these programs.


One program I did like as a child, which I became awfully proud of, even as a child, and even though it was also just another meeting, was the church’s designated “Family Night.” Monday nights were kept free from any church meetings so that families could gather, and the father could present a “lesson” to his family from the church’s “Family Home Evening” manual.[6]


In our home, this meeting was conducted very like a mini church meeting. We would sing an opening hymn (or primary children’s song) then have an opening prayer. After my dad taught the Family Night lesson (not always from the church manual), we’d have a closing hymn and a closing prayer. But then came the best part—which we never did at church, and which made Family Home evening something to look forward to for me—we’d have “refreshments,” a dessert. I think this last part was encouraged by the church and added to the mix to help us children have something to look forward to. I know my parents were able to use it to help keep us in line, so we would not lose the privilege of a treat at the end by misbehaving during the lesson.


Though all these meetings were more boring to me than not, when it became a practice, I was awfully proud of the fact that everywhere in the world, every LDS church was using the same curriculum or manuals in all these meetings except the one main Sunday gathering (Sacrament, Fast and Testimony, Ward, Stake, or General Conference Meetings). Unaccountably, I loved this aspect of the orderly practices of the LDS Church. It was somehow comforting and affirming, all at once, to be a participant in such a well-run, reliable organization. An organization which I believed was disseminating “the light of the true gospel of Jesus Christ” around the world in a harmonious fashion to all, alike.


Meetings were, and I think still are, the heart of the LDS church; they were (and are) a major way the LDS people did (and still do) life together. They have been a way that Mormon doctrine has been disseminated uniformly and thoroughly to “all the corners of the earth.” And yet, in the end, for me and for some others, there was and is something essential missing.



[1] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/muhammad_ali_120238 [2] https://www.azquotes.com/quote/561220 [3] From a “talk” by Elder Boyd K. Packer, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Ensign, November 1985, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1985/11/the-only-true-church?lang=eng [4]https://tech.churchofjesuschrist.org/wiki/images/0/06/Sacrament_Meeting_Agenda_Extended.pdf [5] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/general-handbook/29-meetings-in-the-church?lang=eng#title_number4 [6] I recently found an interesting article touching on the possible origins of Family Home Evening. Did the L.D.S. “prophet” David O McKay borrow from Christianity without giving credit? Either way, he ended up having a much more extensive influence than the possible originator, J.E. McCulloch. See: https://latterdaysoprano.com/2010/01/08/no-other-success/

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