For a few years I blogged at Altura as sporadically as I do here. It is a site that deals with thoughts I have about my faith. Wanting to write about more than faith, I started this site with the tagline, “thoughts on God and man,” to bring the Altura thinking together with everything else.
My faith in the Gospel as taught through the lens of Mormonism has developed and grown over the years. I can say with the most sincere honesty that I choose to believe because believing is far and away the best possible way for me to live a satisfying life. Living by my faith’s teachings is somewhere between 1,000 and 1,000,000 times better than when I am not.*
That’s a little backstory before diving right into a much narrower topic — the modern Mormon sacrament meeting (see here for a more detailed description) as compared to a sacrament meeting from 1,900 years ago.
There is a well-regarded post-New Testament document written over 100 years after Christ’s death called The First Apology of Justin. “Apology,” means apologetics, or a defense of a certain belief. Justin was killed for not denying his faith in Christ and is today revered by many Christians as Justin Martyr.
Since the foundational belief in my faith is that Mormonism is a restoration of the early church Christ established, then one can understand my interest in reading and studying early Christian works.
I recently bought a 38 volume collection of prominent early Christians and thought I would start by reading the First Apology. I was struck by the multiple similarities between church service in 150 AD and a Mormon church service today. (Thanks to Christian author David Bercot’s series that pointed me in the right direction within the text.)
Covering a few very brief chapters, Justin Martyr describes baptism of new converts and says that those who are baptized meet together to pray. In Mormon sacrament meeting each Sunday, the sacrament occurs after hymns and prayers, as in most Christian faiths. Justin Martyr then says:
“There is then brought to the president of the brethren [the sacrament]…”
The footnote for president states, “This expression may quite legitimately be translated, ‘to that one of the brethren who was presiding‘” (emphasis added). In the case of Mormon worship service, the presiding priesthood leader is the Bishop, who is also the president of one of the two priesthoods. And he is the first to whom the deacons serve the sacrament.
We use the title of president in various offices in the church, up to the leading priesthood officer, who is currently President Thomas Monson. I’ve had a hard time with that title used in a modern religious organization. We also believe he is a living prophet, a title I would without reservation use for him. But then I read that footnote and realized that yes, he is the one who presides. And to preside is a word that exactly fits.
Justin Martyr then describes the sacrament as:
“…bread and a cup of wine mixed with water;”
Mormons no longer drink wine with the sacrament, but instead drink water after the bread has been served. I find it interesting that the wine in those days was watered down for administration of the sacrament, and that Justin Martyr thought that was worth mentioning twice.
The president then speaks a few words of thanks and all the people “express their assent by saying Amen,” which is what we and most other Christian denominations say after a prayer.
“Those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced.”
Today, our young men are given the priesthood, the first office being deacon. One of their responsibilities is to offer the sacrament to the congregation after it has been blessed.
In the early church, the deacons performed a special service to those who did not attend the service.
“To those who are absent they carry away a portion.”
After Sunday service, our deacons today often take the sacrament to those who have a hard time getting to church, something I did often as a teenager.
Two chapters later under, “Weekly Worship of the Christians,” he says:
“And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things…and we always keep together;”
I think everyone who has ever become familiar with the Mormon way of life will know that this is certainly true in our faith today! And we always keep together… One common complaint is that there is no shortage of meetings and gatherings. But any complaining is usually of the mild sort, that we are merely inconvenienced. We meet because our time together is most often nothing less than purely enjoyable.
“And the wealthy among us help the needy;”
This could also be said of Mormons, who contribute to the poor on a day of fasting held once a month. All who are able go without food and water for two meals, contributing money in an envelope to the Bishop. Christians in Justin Martyr’s day appear to have done the same:
“And what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.”
There is more, which I can write about another time. I’ve said what modern Mormons do, what early Christians did, and I should also add that in the Book of Mormon, the last author Moroni offers a summary of the meetings they held in his day. Remarkably, he hits on all the same points as Justin Martyr: baptism, sacrament meeting, other meetings, fasting, praying, preaching:
4 And after they had been received unto baptism, and were wrought upon and cleansed by the power of the Holy Ghost, they were numbered among the people of the church of Christ; and their names were taken, that they might be remembered and nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, to keep them continually watchful unto prayer, relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and the finisher of their faith.
7 And they were strict to observe that there should be no iniquity among them; and whoso was found to commit iniquity, and three witnesses of the church did condemn them before the elders, and if they repented not, and confessed not, their names were blotted out, and they were not numbered among the people of Christ.
9 And their meetings were conducted by the church after the manner of the workings of the Spirit, and by the power of the Holy Ghost; for as the power of the Holy Ghost led them whether to preach, or to exhort, or to pray, or to supplicate, or to sing, even so it was done.
*When I say living by my faith’s teachings, I could also term it as living the Gospel of Jesus Christ.