“Has it ever been the practice for the whole congregation to kneel during the sacrament?” Ensign, Mar. 1978, 23
James B. Allen, Assistant Church Historian Your interesting question makes me suspect that you wonder if Saints might be technically violating some instruction by not kneeling during the administration of the sacrament. Let me assure you that you have no need for concern.
Partaking of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is one of our most sacred ordinances. We have several customs that help emphasize the sacredness of the occasion. They include singing appropriate hymns, reciting scriptures, and asking the priests and deacons to be properly groomed. But such aids to worship are not nearly as important as the special purpose of the sacrament itself. The sacrament prayers were given by revelation—both to the Book of Mormon people and to the Prophet Joseph Smith. If you read them carefully you will find the full meaning of the sacrament, including the commitments we take upon ourselves each week as we partake.
Outward practices change from time to time; according to changing circumstances and as the leaders of the Church receive inspiration from the Lord. The Prophet Joseph Smith once said that “that which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another.” (History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 5:135.) In this spirit the Latter-day Saints clearly understand that external forms may be altered by the living prophets as often as the Spirit so dictates to them.
Historically, I am not really certain what the phrase “kneel with the church” meant, and so far as I have been able to discover Joseph Smith did not elaborate upon it. It would be fruitless for us, it seems to me, to try to interpret too precisely a phrase that was not commented upon by the Prophet.
At the same time, we can recognize with interest some of the changes that have taken place in the external patterns. When the sacrament was first introduced by the Savior, he was seated with his apostles. He simply blessed the bread and wine, explained their meaning, and passed them around the table. (See Luke 22:14–20.) When the Savior appeared among the Nephites, he taught them about the sacrament by having them “sit themselves down upon the earth,” then blessing and distributing the sacred emblems. (See 3 Ne. 18:1–4.) It became the practice, however, for those administering the sacrament in Book of Mormon times to “kneel down with the church” as they said the prayer. (Moro. 1:2.)
In the early days of Latter-day Saint Church history, beginning with Joseph Smith, it was not uncommon for the Saints to hear an uplifting gospel sermon while the sacrament was being passed. This was merely a custom, not a revealed rule, and by the end of the nineteenth century it was discontinued.
Later, it became the custom to play or sing devotional music during the sacrament service, but in 1946 the First Presidency felt inspired to recommend that this be replaced by quiet and worshipful reverence. In a letter to all stake presidents and bishops they explained a principle that could also apply to any such outward practices: “Anything which detracts the partaker’s thoughts from the covenants he or she is making is not in accordance with the ideal condition that should exist whenever this sacred, commemorative ordinance is administered.” (Improvement Era, 1946, 49:384.)
The practice of having the whole congregation kneel during the sacrament prayer was not uncommon during the nineteenth century, though it was not required, either. In 1902, President Joseph F. Smith approved an Improvement Era editorial that observed that it had been the custom “when the congregations were not so large as they are now” for the whole congregation to kneel, and that it was still not improper. This was in response to a question about whether more than one of the brethren administering the sacrament should kneel during the prayer. “This matter, however,” the editorial concluded, “may be regulated by the presiding authority, according to local surroundings, circumstances and conditions.” (Improvement Era, 1902, 5:473–74.) The custom of all kneeling together was clearly disappearing at that time, though we do not know when the practice finally ended. The important thing is that the sacred meaning of the sacrament and the essential elements of the sacrament service—that is, the purpose, the prayer, and the authority of the priesthood—have remained constant. These, after all, are the things that really count.