This is another post from our guest, David Howlett.
Literary scholar Lori Branch argues that by the end of the eighteenth century in England, “a broad-based cultural sense had coalesced that located spontaneity–an unpremediated emotional freshness coveted in phenomena as disparate as poetic effusion, enthusiastic worship, romantic attraction, and consumer desire–at the heart of meaningful human experience” (Rituals of Spontaneity: Sentiment and Secularism from Free Prayer to Wordsworth, Baylor UP, 2006, p. 2). In America, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century evangelical Christians epitomized the ideal of spontaneity; often such religious seekers derided prepared prayers and prepared sermons. Preparation was too reminiscent of. . . well. . . Catholicism (boo-hiss! our ancestors would have cried). For instance, Joseph Smith was criticized by some faithful saints for reading the Kirtland Temple dedication prayer–and even worse, printing it beforehand and writing it with the help of a committee! These saints saw spontaneous prayer as truly divinely inspired–as true as the immediate revelations which fell from the lips of their prophet. When Joseph Smith significantly changed the wording of several sections from his Book of Commandments to their present versions in the Doctrine and Covenants, some members, like the future apostle Lyman Wight, wrote off the alterations as corruptions–a lower law compared with the purer law given at first. Revelation, like poetry, had to be immediate, direct from God, and as close to the original source as possible.
At the same time, early Latter Day Saints fully embraced liturgical prayers over the communion (the sacrament in LDS lingo). Quickly, Latter Day Saints established their own sets of rituals that paradoxically facilitated spontaneous experiences, too. In the 1836 Solemn Assembly in Kirtland Temple, priesthood fasted all day, partook of real wine and bread freely at dusk, and then began to prophecy and speak in tongues in an all night prayer meeting. “Was it the spirit of God at work here, or the spirits of the alcohol?” asked critics. Similarly, revivalists like Charles G. Finney (a contemporary of Joseph Smith) embraced a rhetoric of spontaneous conversion through the movement of the Holy Spirit, but controversially facilitated by “new measures”–carefully planned, promoted, and orchestrated revival meetings that would help bring about the new birth.
The tension between valuations of spontaneous experiences and prepared experiences is obviously still with us. Liturgical revivals are breaking out in mainline Protestant churches even as the Evangelical juggernaut of spontaneous experience in carefully planned “informal” worship rolls on. People are looking for romantic chemistry through online services that boast to facilitate such connections through carefully rationalized screening (well, at least I am!). And the examples could go on and on. Without addressing book-length questions (such as “What do we mean by experience?”),when do contemporary Mormons value spontaneous expressions over prepared expressions? When is spontaneity derided (and why)? When are prepared experiences seen as meaningful and appropriate? When are they seen as mere manipulation? How do these overlap? How do people negotiate the culturally generated tension between these expressions? Take a stab at any of these questions.