The Old Written Order of Things

The Presiding Bishopric’s Office used to publish a monthly magazine called Progress of the Church, filled with news and statistics and directives to Church leaders at the local level. From the January 1941 issue:

Uniform Dress for Passing Sacrament Not Recommended

Before the practice of requiring boys to dress in white shirts and black ties to pass the Sacrament takes on any greater proportions, will not all Bishops please turn to page 78 of Handbook No. 16 or page 137 of the Aaronic Priesthood Handbook and read carefully the instructions given on this subject? In all kindness, brethren, we ask you to follow these instructions.

Boys are not to be required to dress in white shirts and black ties. They should not be asked to remove their coats or any other clothing for the sake of being dressed like other boys. They should, of course, be clean in body, mind and dress but no further requirements made of them.

If boys will not wash themselves clean and appear manly for this service they should be labored with in all kindness and asked to comply with the principles of cleanliness if they expect to be called upon to pass the Sacrament. In some cases it will be necessary to tactfully approach the parents and solicit their cooperation. Extreme care should be exercised to avoid offense to either the boy or his parents. It is generally just boy thoughtlessness, which a kind word will correct.

It is not in keeping with this sacred service for boys with unclean clothing, faces or hands, to officiate in administering or passing the Sacrament. It is far more in keeping with Church standards to insist on boys being clean than that they be dressed a certain way.

The 1941 Handbook (Aaronic Priesthood Handbook: A Guide for Stake and Ward Committees, Bishoprics, and Quorum Advisers, containing the complete program for Aaronic Priesthood Quorums, the Aaronic Priesthood Extension Plan and the Adult Aaronic Priesthood Plan) reads:

Avoid Formalism in Church Worship

“The gospel of Jesus Christ is the very essence of simplicity and truth. The Church which bears His name must resist the introduction of formalities that may lead to ritual and imposing ceremony. In every Church gathering it is important to consider whether any particular formalities may develop an attitude that might detract from the worship of the Lord. Whatever detracts from a particular ordinance being performed or the true worship of the Lord, will tend toward formalism.

“In the administration of the Sacrament, while it is very desirable that the clothing and the general appearance of those who administer and pass it should be very neat, clean and appropriate, it is not desirable to require such uniformity in dress and action as to smack of formalism. Though white shirts and dark ties for the young men are proper, it should not be required that all be exactly alike in dress and general appearance. Proper encouragement can and should be given to them to be thoroughly neat and clean and with appropriate dress. also, there should not be any requirement as to the posture or action while passing the Sacrament, such as carrying the left hand behind the back or maintaining stiffness in walking or any tendency toward military order in action.

“The passing of the Sacrament should be quietly natural and unobtrusive. Certainly the sacredness of this and every other ordinance justifies the greatest care and preparation to insure order, appropriateness and reverence for that which the ordinance typifies without having the performance detract from the thought and purpose thereof.”

With these instructions in mind it is suggested that the bishopric and the Aaronic Priesthood Committee plan the demonstration and invite suggestions from members as to methods and procedure based upon local conditions, but in harmony with the instructions of the church authorities.

(These are the instructions contained in the bulletin issued by the Presiding Bishopric in February, 1935.)


41 comments for “The Old Written Order of Things

  1. The title alone warmed my heart.

    Once a while back, a relative who was a stake president at the time was hosting a GA for a Stake conference. I was on a business trip and my flight got canceled so I crashed the party. My family being a rather sarcastic lot, the conversation turned to mocking our pet peculiarities. Someone happened to mention a particularly militaristic enactment of the Lord’s supper in one ward and this particular GA jumped right in with the fun. He mentioned that there were two areas of perpetual ritual development (my words): deacons and temple workers.

  2. When I was working as an editor at the Ensign magazine, one of my peccadillos was that I refused to wear a white shirt. My boss sometimes mentioned it but never outright required it, so I never complied. (I think it’s main because I got more than my fill of white shirts on my mission.)

    One day, I returned to my office to find a photocopy of a general conference talk by Elder Holland (I think) sitting on my chair. It was the one in which he called for uniform white shirts among sacrament passers, and indeed that portion was circled on the page.

    I said to myself, “What the hell has this got to do with me?” and threw it into the recycle bin, then went back to editing article with Metallica playing on my earphones (as a hedge against spontaneous translation). I think of this kind of thing as “pharisaic creep,” when some arbitrary standard starts to take on larger significance and scope, such as how BYU’s policy on beards has spread.

  3. Thanks, Ardis. What strikes me is the kindness of the tone: “Extreme care should be exercised to avoid offense to either the boy or his parents. It is generally just boy thoughtlessness, which a kind word will correct.” Would it be wrong to suggest, in Armand Mauss’ terms, that this is a nice example of pre-retrenchment style?

  4. I love “pharisaic creep.” (Can we also use it to describe the sort of person responsible for it?)

  5. @6:
    It is not substantively different from the Current Written Order of Things. From CHI, Book 1, p 37:

    \”Those who bless and pass the sacrament should dress modestly and be well groomed and clean. Clothing or jewelry should not call attention to itself or distract members during the sacrament. White shirts and ties are recommended because they add to the dignity of the ordinance. However, they should not be required as a mandatory prerequisite for a priesthood holder to participate. Nor should it be required that all be alike in dress or appearance. Bishops should use discretion when giving such guidance to young men, taking into account their financial circumstances and maturity in the Church.\”

  6. Nice work Ardis…..

    In my last ward, the bishop required that young men wear white shirts to administer the sacrament. This was supported by the stake president who said that Elder Nelson was encouraging white shirts as a “symbol of purity.”

  7. Once again Ardis, you’ve given me the gift of being delighted by a historical nugget from our own past, the memory of which had been thoroughly and completely erased. As in so many things, “where we are now” seems to be constructed, assumed, and perpetuated as “where we’ve always been” and I always love it when a genuine document can remind us that’s not the case – and how recently we thought differently. I also love the title of the periodical, reflecting our early c20 progressive outlook on so many fronts.

    I would love to see the ensuing discussion if these two letters were re-issued in the Ensign. Maybe Chris Bigelow should have slipped them in while he was working there to see what happened.

  8. Nice find Ardis and CQM (#8). I love the similarity between the current instructions and the old ones; the new ones are more concise, probably allowing some local leadership to just skim and miss the part that says, “However they should not be required as a mandayory prerequisite for a priesthood holder to participate” while the old ones take great pains to instruct the local leader on how to go about talking to the parents and the young men in question, while the new one just says, “Bishops should use discretion giving such guidance to young men”.

    Ardis, you can’t reconstruct who wrote the older version by any chance, can you?

  9. Thank you very much for the interesting post. Last month my wife and I were sick one Sunday, but we sent our older kids to church, the oldest a 16 year old son. He always wears a white shirt to participate in the Sacrament, but this Sunday he forgot that he was wearing a gray shirt. He came home saying he was not allowed to participate in the Sacrament because he was not wearing a white shirt. The Bishop was out of town, and so this was coming from his first counselor.

    I can understand ENCOURAGING the youth to wear white shirts, but requiring white shirts to exercise your priesthood in the Sacrament was news to me.

    My son did not seem bothered by it. In fact I think I am more bothered by it than he is.

    When I think about the incident I have a mind to tactfully refer this counselor to the CHI on the subject.

  10. From the date, it appears that this policy reached back through the Great Depression. I wonder to what extent the circumstances of the time contributed to the policy. I could imagine that the bishops were discouraged from asking the boys to remove their coats to pass the sacrament, because some boys may not have had much on under their coats.

    Of course, I think there is more to it than simply an economic interpretation. There does seem to be an emphasis that what is on the inside is much more important than what is on the outside. A concept that might be difficult for a generation who is obsessed with appearances to understand.

  11. I wonder if that means that my son, who wears a white shirt and tie but has long hair neatly tied off behind his back, would be allowed to participate in any part of the sacrament–preparation, passing, blessing (he is 20)–as he has not been able to do any of these things since he was 15 and the “bishop decreed”. I have saved on my favorites a blog post from BCC about long hair, so don’t refer me to it. They don’t care.

  12. I HATE the white shirt = pure and faithful concept! I get a grrrrr in my throat every time it comes up.

    My ward has gotten very bad about this in the past couple of years. There used to be a fair number of us that would wear a shirt of color, but now its down to just two or three of us. I have a bunch of very nice colored dress shirts that I wear pretty much every Sunday (every once in a while I wear a white one). I never used to care that much, but I noticed a few months ago that it was just me and a couple of the more marginally active members of the ward that weren’t wearing white shirts. Most of the guys have resorted to wearing actual suits!

    DW argues that it is a sure sign of my apostasy that I won’t get in line too. I tell her that I do it in solidarity with the lesser actives, so as to not further stigmatize the white/colored shirt divide. Its probably just because I’m a contrarian jerk, but I really don’t want to do it just to conform.

    The funny thing is that our Bishop isn’t like that at all. He kept his beard since he was called, he frequently wears slacks and a sports coat rather than a true suit, and allowed one of the young men to bless the sacrament with a scandalous ponytail (he’s a great kid, cut the hair to go to BYU). Of course he does stick to white shirts.

  13. This would be a good time to note that at least by 1961, recommendations for dress had changed. From the 1961 edition of the Aaronic Priesthood Handbook:

    Suggestions on Dress and Posture When Administering the Sacrament

    The following instructions on the matter of appropriate dress supersede all other instructions heretofore published.

    With the approval of The First Presidency, we recommend and urge the exclusive use of white shirts and appropriate neckties by all Aaronic Priesthood bearers who perform any service in connection with the sacrament.

    “Appropriate neckties” does not require a uniform color or style but recommends that we get away from extremely loud colors, particularly those with designs not in keeping with this sacred service.

    Priests should wear coats at the sacrament table except where summer temperatures make them uncomfortable.

    Those passing the sacrament should be encouraged to wear appropriate coats but it is optional with them. Sweaters, jackets, or sport coats of loud colors and exaggerated designs should be avoided when performing this priesthood service. When coats are not worn, shirt sleeves should be full length and not rolled up.

    Boys should be encouraged to dress neatly, with their hands and faces clean, hair combed, shoes polished, and to act naturally and becomingly when engaged in this Priesthood activity.

    Young men should be discouraged in any practice of standing with arms folded, or with one hand behind the back, or in assuming any other unnatural posture while officiating in the sacrament ordinance. they should be taught to stand naturally, with hands at their sides when not in use.

    While it’s fun and informative to notice how practices change/stay the same/adapt over time, it would be a mistake to misuse an historical artefact like this as ammunition in an argument over any specific case.

    Nonny (#12), it might be possible to determine who wrote this, but it’s not obviously answerable and not a question I can afford to research right now. It came from the Presiding Bishopric’s Office. I note that Legrand Richards was Presiding Bishop in 1941, but was not the the PB in 1935 when the referenced bulletin was issued.

    Alan’s comment (#14) notes a context of poverty that could very well have been an important factor in forming this policy in the ’30s, and context is always something to consider, now as well as then.

    And like Wilfried (#3), I was struck by the tone and the number of times “kind” and “kindness” appear in those paragraphs. I can’t think of a better way to approach any policy, whether it’s kindness toward boys whose grooming standards need a boost, or kindness to bishops whose myriad responsibilities (many of which are far more consequential than the color of a deacon’s shirt) may leave them short of time and inclination to investigate the reasons behind a teenager’s variant dress and grooming.

    To other commenters, I’m of course glad you share my delight in finding an unexpected bit of our history.

  14. I had to arise from my perpetual lurker status and salute Chris Bigelow in #3 for perhaps the most humorous blog post I have ever read.

    \”Metallica playing on my earphones (as a hedge against spontaneous translation).\”

    Nicely done.

  15. The sad thing is that ‘pharisaic creep’ extends to other cultures. Although we don’t take pictures in sacrament, in my mind’s eye I hope I’ll always remember what it looks like to see young men from other countries wearing their respectful traditional dress to pass & bless the sacrament. Actually, I hope such moments won’t just be memories and continue far into the future. When I see those young men feel inadequate, my heart breaks.

  16. “The gospel of Jesus Christ is the very essence of simplicity and truth. The Church which bears His name must resist”

    What? Talking about Jesus before 1980? This post has to be a form of historical revisionism or of Ardis trying to whitewash our history – I didn’t think the church empahsied Christ before the PR campaigns on the late 1900s (sarcasm).

    Interesting that white uniforms were in use in some stakes prior to these and similar instructions. And praying with uplifted hands. White shirts? My how times have changed, but at the same time have not.

    Excellent post.

  17. I join those who agree with Wilfried (#3) about the striking tone of kindness (quite different that the formal, almost legalistic “supersedes all other instructions” phrasing of a later decade). Typical of Ardis to have ferreted out this one.

  18. Could I invoke the ’61 handbook in my (Pharisaic?) effort to rid sacrament meeting of those $#$%&&$#! Taz neckties? C’mon, how come white + plus necktie featuring Taz dunking a basketball with his tongue hanging to the floor = reverent, while blue Oxford + tasteful stripes or subdued paisley = apostasy?!?

  19. #18- that is good to know they said that position of hand behind back is unnatural. In one of my former wards, they used to stand that way and i did think it appeared unnatural.

    I also appreciate the info about emphasing the importance of kindness in approaching family/youth on dress issues in regards to the sacrament. Awhile ago, a friend shared a small hurt when a leader approached her son and shared due to slightly long hair, he might not be able to pass the sacrament. I am sure this leader said it in a kind way, but maybe as #18 said, this person was short on time. Due to extreme challenges, they had just not had a chance to get to the hair cutting place. What made me feel sad is this lady’s son SHONE in all the areas that truly matter in regards to priesthood service, especially in assisting with the ongoing challenges in this family.

    Saying this, sometimes I do wish there was a “check off” process for passing the sacrament. Specifically, I have a younger brother who would pass it. However, much of the time his shirt would be untucked. He would never listen to me, his older sister, w/suggestion to tuck it in. I know it is the spirit of the priesthood person that matters the most. But when I’d go up to my brother just before church and (to me) kindly and lovingly say to tuck in your shirt, he would just tell me to “go away” or similar words. So I think in these cases, a “check off” from a YM leader, etc might not be a bad thing.

    #3: oh that makes me sad that someone at the Ensign would leave you an article in that manner! I think it is circling the white shirt stuff that bugs me the most. It would have been funny if one day you could have made the PA system play your metallica music!

  20. I almost always wear a white shirt to church, but I remember one Sunday in my old BYU ward I decided to wear blue. The stake president happened to visit our Elder’s Quorum that week and gave a lesson on the “Unwritten Order of Things.” He didn’t bring up the shirt thing until someone asked him, and then he said he didn’t want to bring it up because some of the Elders weren’t wearing white and he didn’t want to single them out, but that yes, we should be wearing white. Of course I was embarrassed (as I’m sure the other 2 were). Now that I’m out in the “real world”, looking back at that experience I think that there must have been more important things for the SP to teach us about than wearing white shirts and which genders should say the prayers in sacrament meeting. Don’t get me wrong, I sustain our leaders, but I’m becoming persuaded that some of the customs in our church culture border on pharasiacal.

  21. I live in Mexico and some of our ward members are really poor, but because the kids here wear uniforms to school all the boys have white shirts and ties. All the AP look great from the belt up, but because of poverty you never know what they will look like below the belt and mercifully no one here cares. Also, no matter how poor, they are always spotlessly clean.

    Not to threadjack, but in the 50’s when I was a child the organ was played softly during sacrament and does anyone remember giving the sacrament gem?

  22. One of my favorite callings was as Seminary Teacher in an Asian branch in MA – where the Teacher’s Quorum President passed the sacrament in his gang shirt, jeans and gym shoes. They were the best clothes he had, and he radiated love and joy while he passed the sacrament.

    Otoh, I encourage my boys to wear their best as they participate, and that happens to be white shirt and tie. Admiring cultural diversity shouldn’t exclude automatically the dominant culture; that dominant culture simply shouldn’t suppress all others – especially as it gradually becomes just another culture and loses its dominance.

  23. Trying to stop the sacrament passers from sticking their left hand up in the small of their back is like trying to stamp out kudzu. You just get the kids to get over the nonsense, and then some missionary shows up, passes the sacrament, does the hand in the back thing and you have to start all over again.

    When my sister lived in Orange County, CA, and the oldest of her six sons was a deacon, the bishopric decreed that all the deacons would wear white shirts, gray slacks, blue blazers and ties (don’t remember the color/pattern). Of course, when the sacrament was over and the first speaker or two was finished, they would then stand for the “congressional [sic] hymn.”

  24. I haven’t finished reading the comments yet (I love this post, Ardis!) but I have to jump in a note that I was laughing out loud at comment number 2, and virtually on the floor by comment 4. :)


  25. Jeremy (23), hear hear! Even as a teenager, I thought those nasty Looney-Toon sorry excuses for neckwear were obnoxious — of course that probably had more to do with me being a tie snob than “quiet dignity.” (I really do have a stellar tie collection.)

    In my current ward, one of the boys, who shows up maybe 2 or 3 times a month (once during hockey season, if we’re lucky), decided to wear his pink-striped shirt, to try to get out of passing. Didn’t work. He’s perfectly worthy, and we don’t have enough boys to bench a kid just for wearing an “off-white” shirt, especially if he’s trying so hard. LOL.

    I’ve seen yellow, green, blue, and pink striped shirts as well as a bunch of really awesome $2 second-hand plaid or camel-hair-with-elbow-patches jackets during the sacrament. We have a great ward (and are always looking for new move-ins if you’re interested!). This reminds me, though, that I saw one of our Liberian refugee boys in a black shirt on Sunday, and I overheard someone saying that he should wear his white shirt next week so he could pass. Not sure about that one.

    Nothing to do with white shirts, but with odd practices: in Germany, one of the wards used an odd multi-tiered contraption with small “shot-glasses” to pass the water (they were cleaned immediately after church). And only the deacons could handle the bread trays and those funky shot-glass towers. Sometimes they’d have to lean across three people, or squeeze in among the seats before going at it from the other side of the row.

    Talk about building a hedge around the law! I’m going to be on the lookout for more pharisaical creep(s) in our ward. Thanks Ardis!


  26. I’ve never yet seen any multi-tiered contraptions in German wards, but I can confirm that the brethren passing the sacrament Do Not Let Go of the Trays.

  27. I seem to recall a quote, I believe from President Grant, that mentioned some of the same things. Interestingly (to me, at least) he also called for discontinuing raising the right arm to the square, as is done with baptism.

    Page 57 of the February 2007 Ensign shows someone administering the sacrament with a red shirt and a black sweater on. Gasp.

  28. while being a missionary in Moab in 1963 i noticed the deacons passing the sac. with the left hand behind the back—asked “why” was told that in the “old days” the boys did not know left hand from the right so that was the way to teach them. later i saw this form in many utah units.

  29. #32 wrote: “Page 57 of the February 2007 Ensign shows someone administering the sacrament with a red shirt and a black sweater on. Gasp. ”

    Yeah for progress!! :)

  30. We had this African American kid in our ward. He joined the church on his own. His single parent family lived in a Habitat for Humanity House. While this kid was a Priest he owned one very nice expensive cream colored shirt. Because he worn this cream colored shirt, he was never allowed to bless the Sacrament. He refused offers from ward members to get him a white shirt. I think that it was insulting to him that he could not wear this very nice almost white shirt. Too bad he was a great kid. I think the white shirt thing is WAAAY out of hand.

  31. So is refusing to wear a white shirt and pass as a point of pride. I have yet to meet anyone who cared about white shirts one way or the other who had any sense in the matter.

  32. In my current ward, we have something like 9 active priests. The priests who happen to show up early enough to sacrament meeting are all the types to wear white shirts. So it’s a self-selection type of thing where we live.

  33. From David B. Haight, April 1988 Ensign:

    Avoiding Formalism. Since the administration of President Heber J. Grant, the First Presidency has emphasized the precaution through the General Handbook of Instructions to avoid any formalism, or uniformity in procedures. These instructions apply to the dress of Aaronic Priesthood youth who pass the sacrament. Boys should be neat and clean, but not required to dress uniformly. It also refers to any formalism, such as Aaronic Priesthood young men walking with one arm behind their back, or standing with arms folded, or priests raising their arm to the square when blessing the sacrament.

    All of these changes were inspired to help the Saints renew their spiritual strength by attending sacrament meeting and partaking of the sacred emblems in a spirit of meditation, reverence, and worship.

  34. i recently heard a sister in my last singles ward say that the white shirt rule is a great way for men to have an excuse not to pass the sacrament when they’re unworthy–and not have to be explicit.

    i’ve heard another say it’s a means for sisters to know which boys are willing to be bad boys (the emphasis being that many sisters appreciate the shortcut–not that they would then avoid those boys). both at least would agree that white shirts tend to separate the holy from the unholy. i almost never wear white shirts–and didn’t much like feeling like i was judged to be a bad boy. not enough to change colors though.

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