Friday, April 26, 2019

Altars and Prayer Circles

Some thoughts and events during an early morning hike the other day prompted some research on a really interesting topic.  Altars.  A few findings below.

Altars are part of many ancient religions of the world.  I just saw a picture of Stonehenge on Instagram and it clearly has altar references. Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism and of course Latter Day Saints have altars. They are not nearly as familiar to LDS folks in 2019 as they were in the early days of the Church. Not by a loooong shot. More on that in a minute.

From scriptures we know Adam built an  altar. Noah built an altar. Abraham built an altar. Lehi built and altar. Temples across generations have altars. Various scriptures identify altar building for purposes sacrifice, prayer or offerings. Altars are also used for abominable things and abominable false sacrifices but their misuse is not the point here.  They are a part of the most ancient religions back to the time of Adam.

Most altars are similar to tables, with a flat top on which the sacrifice is offered The materials of an altar in scripture either of raised earth or unhewn stones (RE Exodus 12:15). Sometimes they had wooden casings around it to preserve the shape. Sometimes the casings were overlaid with brass or gold. Horns on an altar were first mentioned in Exodus as part of the furnishings of the tabernacle.  When Solomon built a temple, the altar was made of gold (RE 2 Chronicles 1:24) .The altar seemed to be the place where man and God could interact.  A conduit at times.

What's interesting as a side note is if you take a group of kids playing outside where there is loose dirt, sand, rocks or whatever, before long they will have built a mound. Perhaps altar's are familiar to where our souls came from and even kids instinctively shape dirt and rocks in ways that feel natural.

For me I most commonly hear about altars more as a symbol than I do as a literal object.  In 2019 there's only one place allowed to have an altar in Mormonism.  That's inside a temple.  But each person can be said to have an altar within them where the flesh and spirit battle. When we surrender aspects of ourselves or lives to God, we present that on our inner altar.  Since things on the altar in biblical times were consumed, placing something "on the altar" is in symbol giving the thing up or making it holy for God.  So it seems there are many types of altars.

There are altars in heaven, earth, temples, sacred places.  In the 19th an dearly 20th Centuries Mormons also frequently had them in their homes.

There's a golden altar with horns before God mentioned in revelations:
And the sixth angel sounded, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God, saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, Set loose the four angels who are bound in the bottomless pit.
The book of Mormon has his about Altars. The first example seems symbolic, the second seems like a literal altar in their regular places of worship. 
NC Alma 12:1
And they had been teaching the word of God for the space of fourteen years among the Lamanites, having had much success in bringing many to the knowledge of the truth. Yea, by the power of their words, many were brought before the altar of God to call on his name and confess their sins before him. 
NC Alma 10: 16
And it came to pass that Alma and Amulek — Amulek having forsaken all his gold, and his silver, and his precious things, which were in the land of Ammonihah, for the word of God, he being rejected by those who were once his friends, and also by his father and his kindred — therefore, after Alma having established the church at Sidom, seeing a great check, yea, seeing that the people were checked as to the pride of their hearts, and began to humble themselves before God, and began to assemble themselves together at their sanctuaries to worship God before the altar, watching and praying continually, that they might be delivered from Satan, and from death, and from destruction 
More ideas about altars: This is from the glossary of the T&C and has something really interesting.
    Most Holy:
    (Hebrew qodesh, קֹדֶשׁ ). i Most holy does not mean “very holy”; it means “actively holy, imparting holiness.”(Cf. Exodus 14 : 5; 16 : 2,5; Leviticus 2 : 4.) The Law of Moses prescribed the death penalty for a variety of offenses. One of the ways to avoid the execution of the penalty was to go to one of the safe harbor cities. Another way was to come in contact with the altar, because the altar was considered most holy. Things that are most holy communicate holiness; one cannot profane them. If one comes in contact with something that is “most holy,” while he or she is unholy, they don’t make it unholy; the altar — or the thing that is “most holy” — makes them holy, because it is most sacred. “Part of the rites in the temple are intended to communicate to you things that are most holy. They are intended to make you holy. They are intended to make you a suitable recipient for an audience. They are intended to make you a suitable companion for a walk down a dusty road with the risen Lord who is trying to get you to notice exactly who it is that speaks to you.”

The altar was considered "most holy". Why is that I wonder? What is it about altars that was so connected with holiness or the divine? One reason is likely because the altar was where God and man interacted or God's presence was symbolized or realized in some cases. It was considered to have been sanctified or made holy by what happened there. Hence it was most holy being touched by Him who is most holy.

So what did altars look like at the beginning of the restoration of the Gospel through Joseph Smith?

This brings up a discussion about prayer circles.  Which are not unique to Mormons.  Various cultures of the world have dances or prayers in a circle around a sacred object or altar.

What I didn't know for most of my growing up years is that local LDS stakes and individuals homes used to have prayer circles regularly performed around an altar. Sometimes the prayer circles included dozens of people. That all ended May 3, 1978, when the First Presidency announced that all prayer circles should be discontinued except those performed in a temple as part of an Endowment ceremony (See Spencer W. Kimball, N. Eldon Tanner, and Marion G. Romney, Letter to All Stake Presidents and Bishops. May 3, 1978; “Update,” 3 Sunstone 6, July-August 1978).


Longtime Church Historian D. Michael Quinn in the 1978 issue of Brigham Young University Studies says the first prayer circle, part of the 1833 School of the Prophets, imitated the protestant prayer rings. Quinn writes that participants sought visions of angels, and when that wish was granted, some shrank in fear of what their eyes beheld.  Link.

Petitioning at an altar is something familiar to Latter Day Saints.  Of interesting note here is something Brigham Young taught inside this context.

There are four penal signs and four penal tokens and should I want to address the throne to enquire after Ancient things which transpired on planets that rolled away before this planet came into existence I should use my new name which is ancient and referred to ancient things. Should I wish to enquire for present things I should use my own name which refers to present things and should I want to enquire for future things I would use the third name which refers to the first token of the Melchizedek priesthood or is the third token that is given and refers to the Son.  (Source Here. Also see:  Seventies Record, Book B, 28 Dec. 1845, LDS archives.)

Asking God and getting an answer was also mentioned by Joseph Smith and relates to Prayer Circles and the True Order of Prayer.  From the Teachings and Words of  Joseph Smith 
“we did not know how to pray and have our prayers answered. But when I and my husband had our endowments … Joseph Smith presiding, he taught us the order of prayer.” (Words of Joseph Smith, p. 54)
“He spoke of delivering the Keys of the Priesthood to the Church, and said that the faithful members of the Relief Society should receive them with their husbands, and the Saints whose integrity has been tried and proved faithful, might know how to ask and receive an answer.”(Teachings, p. 226) 
1833 the Prophet taught the brethren of the School of the Prophets "how to get revelation." Also in 1835, Joseph Smith taught the Father of Lorenzo Young how to get the spiritual power to heal his son. "Join in prayer," the Prophet said, "one by mouth and the others repeat after him in unison…[then] continuing the administration in this way until you receive a testimony that he will be restored" ("Biography of Lorenzo Dow Young," Utah Historical Quarterly 14:45).  (Words of Joseph Smith)
Back to Prayer Circles and Michael Quinn's research.  By 1846, it was church policy to not have women in prayer circles with LDS men. Quinn relates, women were encouraged to meet with other sisters in Relief Society prayer gatherings. Such all-female circles were further restricted in 1896, when church leadership advised against any sisters in prayer circles. Quinn writes, “Rarely privileged to join their husbands in the separate prayer circle meetings after 1846, Latter-day Saint women also discontinued even occasional Relief Society prayer circles by the early twentieth century.”

The decision to restrict prayer circles to a part of the temple endowment ceremony, according to Quinn, was an administrative decision spurred by the difficulty of a worldwide church to deal with future stake and ward prayer circle requests. It's a privilege members have lost but not many people are upset about loosing a privilege they were never aware they ever had.  Cue Thanos right now. (Avengers: End Game)  For those who don't like or don't plan to see the movie the villain Thanos at one point makes reference to this same concept.  That people are not upset about loss of privileges they never knew they used to have.  But that's an aside.   

It's well documented that prayer circles in members homes was encouraged by the First Presidency for a time.  The homes needed to be dedicated by the priesthood and have an altar. Wilford Woodruff records that President Young said that these home altars would be the same as the altar in the temple.(Journal of Wilford Woodruff; April 25, 1858)
The dimensions for these altars were even specified by Brigham: The altar is 2 ½ feet long x 2 ½ feet high x (one) foot wide rising from a platform about 8 or 9 inches high and extending out on all sides about a foot forming a convenient place to kneel upon. The top of the altar and the platform for kneeling upon are covered with cushions of scarlet damask cloth; the sides of the upright part or body of the altar are covered with white linen. (Manuscript History of Brigham Young, p. 8)

In 2019 seeing an altar in one of your Mormon friends house would be either absurd or so apostate as to call that persons Stake President Immediately for a swift disciplinary council. However, for the Saints of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the family altar was preached from the pulpit and in Church periodicals.  (A few examples: Improvement Era (1901) vol. 4 no 12; Contributor, vol. 7 no. 3 pg. 97, vol. 10 no. 10. pg 377 & vol. 11 no. 7 pg. 270.  JD 2: 366-367, 17: 291-292, President Anthon H. Lund Conference Report, April 1910 pg. 10; Ballif, Conference Report, April 1920 pg. 60.)

George Teasdale 1903
“The family altar should be in every man’s house; he is the patriarch of the family, and everything should be done under his direction. He should offer prayer; his wife and children also should offer prayer in turn around the family altar.” (General Conference, 5 October 5, 1903)
Joseph F. Smith 1881:
…it is absolutely necessary that the Latter-day Saints should come together in the family capacity, and kneeling around the family altar, call upon God for his blessings morning and evening. And they need not confine themselves to morning and evening prayer, for it is their privilege to enter into their closets and call upon Him in secret, that He might reward them openly. (JD 22:47-48
Wilford Woodruff:
I attended the prayer meeting in the evening. President Young said the family Altar was the same as an Altar in the prayer Circle. It is for parents and Children to Join hands over the Altar and pray. (Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, vol. 5, pg. 184)
Brigham Young:
Again, suppose a family wish to assemble for prayer, what would be orderly and proper? For the head of the family to call together his wife, or wives, and children, except the children who are too small to be kept quiet, and when he prays aloud, all present, who are old enough to understand, should mentally repeat the words as they fall from his lips; and why so? That all may be one…There are times and places when all should vocally repeat the words spoken, but in our prayer meetings and in our family circles let every heart be united with the one who takes the lead by being mouth before the Lord, and let every person mentally repeat the prayers, and all unite in whatever is asked for, and the Lord will not withhold, but will give to such persons the things which they ask for and rightly need. (JD 3: 53-54)
John H. Smith Second Counselor in The First Presidency in 1855:
Now, I am sanguine that there are many who call themselves Latter-day Saints, who have neglected their duty in this respect, and many a son is permitted to grow to manhood, whose father has never asked him to bow with them at the family altar. This is a serious neglect upon the part of those who have named the name of Jesus, who have come up to these mountains to be taught in the ways of the Lord. (JD 3: 53-54)
The 1926 Improvement Era (the precursor to the Ensign Magazine) included instructions for home devotion and study that included reference to the family prayer around the breakfast table or a family altar. (The Home a Study for the Advanced Senior Class, M. I. A., 1925-26, Improvement Era, 1926, vol. 29. no. 4).

If the breakfast table was considered an altar there would have been no need to differentiate. The Kitchen island is the modern breakfast table and has relics of a family altar.  It's a common meeting place, the center of the home in some ways, the family gathers around and frequently prays at the island/table.  So meeting around a central object and offering prayer and saying grace still exists in most Christians behavior although we don't call the kitchen table an altar very often.  

Family altars were prominent during the 19th and early 20 Centuries.  With the First Presidency Letter discontinuing prayer circles out side the temple, in some ways it removed from the home something sacred every member was entitled to have, and it moved it under the control of someone else who could dictate your entrance to that place.  But what if the home can still be a sacred space and structure which can be a place to commune with God?  What if it's not under any religion's power to control or dictate?  

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