And it was so, that when Solomon had made an end of praying all this prayer and supplication unto the LORD, he arose from before the altar of the LORD, from kneeling on his knees with his hands spread up to heaven.
The altar is a sacral edifice in Mormonsim. Kneeling at the temple altars, men and women are sealed in the new and everlasting covenant. Moreover, as Elder Packer described in the The Holy Temple, the altar of the temple is used for prayer. Speaking of the leaders of the Church:
Here, dressed in the proper way for temple ordinance work, they approach the altar in the true order of prayer to seek divine guidance and inspiration as they consider these matters. (pg. 4)
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism states:
The prayer circle is a part of Latter-day Saint temple worship, usually associated with the Endowment ceremony. Participants, an equal number of men and women dressed in temple clothing, surround an altar in a circle formation to participate unitedly in prayer. (Prayer Circle pg. 1120)
Before 1978 (1), prayer circles were held outside of the temple, with many Stake Centers having altars that adjoined the High Council room. Extra-temple prayer circles can be traced back to their foundations in Nauvoo. George Albert Smith preached in the completed Temple in 1845:
When we come together * * and unite our hearts and act as one mind, the Lord will hear us and will answer our prayers…Said that whenever they could get an opportunity they retired to the wilderness or to an upper room, they did so * * * and were always answered. It would be a good thing for us * * every day and pray to God in private circles. (2)
It is, perhaps, from this focus on the quotidian ritual that a fixture emerged among the saints that is generally forgotten: the family altar. The idea of walking into somebody’s house who is Mormon and seeing an altar in their living room borders on the absurd or apostate. However, for the Saints of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the family altar was consistently preached from the pulpit and in Church periodicals (3).
Joseph F. Smith preached in 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. (4)
Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal Brigham Young’s understanding of the family altar:
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. (5)
Brigham had previously preached in public:
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.(6)
It is evident from institutional preaching that prayer at the family altar became very regimented among certain circles. Men tended usurp the prayer duties, leaving women and children out of the ritual (7). President Cannon spoke in general conference on the matter:
I will say here that we should give our wives and children the opportunity to pray in the family circle. There are men who think that unless they pray the Lord does not hear the prayer, and they are in the habit of doing all the praying in their families…We should ask our wives and our daughters to pray. Let them do some of the praying in the family…Brethren, do not get the idea that the Lord will not hear your wives and daughters. He does hear them, and He hears our little children. I would give them the opportunity as soon as they are old enough, to ask a blessing, and to pray around the family altar, and to ask for the things that are in their hearts. (8)
More pointedly, John H. Smith preached:
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. (9)
It is not certain when altars waned in the Mormon home. The 1926 Improvement Era included instructions for M.I.A. Home Study that included reference to the family altar but noted that the kitchen table is more prominent (10). Gordon B. Hinckley was one of the last to mention the family altar in public discourse at a 1966 BYU commencement (11). His remarks may, however, have been metaphorical.
Despite the oddity of the contemporary idea of a family altar, our progenitors’ focus on their use for family prayer is inspiring. Personally, my family prayers revolve around meals and bedtime. Perhaps, I should be taking some more formal time to pray.
Lastly, in 1905, Elder Hyrum Smith promoted the use of the family altar as a means of spiritual self sufficiency:
We ought not to complain if our stake conferences come and go and we do not have in our midst one of the brethren known as the authorities of the Church…You should not feel to complain, even though one of the Twelve, or the First Council of Seventy, or even the First Presidency, find it impossible to be with you. You should read the word of the Lord from the books, and kneeling down around the family altar, you should commune with the Lord and ask Him for wisdom, judgment and enlightenment. You should depend more upon Him and less than some of us do upon those who constitute the authorities of the church. (12)
Perhaps our modern forms of prayer can fill the same purpose.
- On May 3, 1978, the First Presidency announced that all prayer circles outside the temple were to be discontinued.
- Helen M. Kimball, Woman’s Exponent. 15 July 1883. vol. 12, no. 4, pg. 26; reprinted in A Woman’s View pg. 299. See George D. Smith, An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 221 for full transcript. For more information on Prayer Circles see D. Michael Quinn (1978) Latter-Day Saint Prayer Circles. BYU Studies, vol. 19 No. 1 pg. 79
- e.g., 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.
- JD 22:47-48,
- Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, vol. 5, pg. 184
- JD 3: 53-54
- It should be noted that the family prayer circle was viewed as a patriarchal duty. See, e.g. George Teasdale, Conference Report, October 1903. pg. 97:
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. You cannot be a Saint without the fellowship of the Spirit of God;
- Conference Report, October 1899, p.73
- JD 22:272
- The Home a Study for the Advanced Senior Class, M. I. A., 1925-26, Improvement Era, 1926, vol. 29. no. 4
- Gordon B. Hinckley, Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley pg. 416:
There is no supervision like a good mother’s supervision. Every child is entitled to grow up in a home where there is warm and secure companionship, where there is love in the family relationship, where appreciation one for another is taught and exemplified, and where God is acknowledged and His peace and blessings invoked before the family altar.
- Hyrum M. Smith., Conference Report, October 1905. pg. 97