Easter Sermons

The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early,
when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre,
and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre.

Christian holidays like Easter and Christmas were not widely celebrated in the United States during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. Such anniversaries were associated with Catholicism, and much of Protestant America saw them as symbols of “popery” and pagan in origin.[1]

It was not that Latter-day Saints were ignorant of the meaning or existence of Easter Sunday. It was mentioned in some diaries for example, but its celebration was either non-existent or muted. Hence, among the surviving reports of early Mormon sermons, there is little evidence that the Easter holiday itself provoked any special homilies. As far as Joseph Smith is concerned there are a few candidates. Here are some.

He delivered short remarks on Easter Sunday, April 11, 1841 but the weather was bad and the meeting adjourned to the river to perform baptisms. On Easter, March 27, 1842, Wilford Woodruff only notes that Joseph spoke on baptism for the dead (certainly a uniquely Mormon topic of relevance). Easter, April 16, 1843, Joseph preached a funeral sermon for Lorenzo Barnes. The holiday is not mentioned in surviving reports. Finally, Easter, April 7, 1844 was the occasion of Joseph’s funeral sermon for King Follett. While this sermon is famous for many reasons, it is little known as, nor does it self-identify as, an Easter Sunday sermon. However, I think it qualifies for that in an important way.[2] It is worth pondering at this Easter season.

In the present, it may seem remarkable that the word “Easter” is never even mentioned in the Journal of Discourses. This does not imply that topics centering on or deriving from the Easter events (atonement, resurrection, etc.) were avoided.

The aforementioned sermons qualify topically I suppose, but to find a focused “Easter Sunday sermon” in Mormonism, we look to the 20th century.[3] My modern selection is one that reflects my own feelings and prejudice. For me, as much as any other I’m acquainted with, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s address of April 5, 2009 (not given on Easter, but celebrates it) captures much of the doctrinal and emotional power of the holiday in Mormonism. I hope you’ll take the opportunity to read, watch or listen to it. Also, please take a look at Kevin Barney’s discussion of the sermon here.

A happy and joyous Easter/Resurrection Sunday. God bless.

——————
[1] A number of the Reformers made holidays an upfront casualty of separation. The Civil War’s modernization of death-dealing, dealing with the dead and the aftermath would be a catalyst for the rise of Easter as an American holiday. The Utah Saints stood mostly as observers rather than participants in that tragedy.

[2] There is a load of controversy among Christians on the proper date for Easter Sunday. I won’t go into that here.

[3] See Seymour B. Young’s remarks on the holiday during the April LDS General Conference of 1904. Scandinavian born Anthon H. Lund broke ground in 1901. Since the Joseph F. Smith era, conference Easter messages are common and the First Presidency began delivering an annual Easter message in the 1970s (perhaps earlier, I don’t know). The 2011 version can be found here.

Comments

  1. Sometimes it seems like Mormon culture largely derives from attitudes and practices in pre-1847 America–i.e., prior to the departure to its isolation from changing American religious customs. Thus, Mormonism’s lack of emphasis on Easter (at least in comparison to most other churches) may derive from the American Protestant customs before 1847.

  2. I’m sure that post 1847 isolation contributed to many aspects of Utah cultural norms.

  3. I found it sad today that the assigned sacrament talks were the usual non-descript fair with nary a mention of easter, which I would think should hold a more important place in the church services than even Christmas. Christ’s birth just got the ball rolling, his death and resurrection is the reason why we even care and attend church.

    Luckily the primary and ward choir came to the rescue, performing an ambitious combined easter themed number complete with uplifting key changes and pensive minor key interludes, made that much sweeter by the out of tune brilliance of the kids that lined the front of the riser 3 deep.

    More good music less talk please.

  4. Not only did the saints during the Joseph Smith era rarely discuss Easter, they didn’t eat chocolate bunnies either. The kind of chocolate that we eat today was not invented until 1848 by Conrad Von Houten. Joseph was martyred in 1844.

    Makes me kinda sad that after all Joseph did for us, he never got to try a chocolate bar.

  5. #3

    Agreed, especially when the message of the talk (at both Christmas and Easter) is hijacked in favor of turning it away from Christ to just another “follow the prophet” mantra. No prophet, living or dead, has ever superseded the importance of the Atonement.

  6. #3 Chris, I’ve seen similar poor handling of talk assignments by Bishoprics in other Wards I’ve attended. Now that I have a direct say in the topics for our Ward when we met to define the topics back in December I immediately attached Atonement as the Easter Sunday topic.

    More thought to the Sacrament meeting topic assignments and how they align with dates of importance in our LDS faith and Christianity in general ensures a stronger connection between our membership and the context of their daily lives. And I think every Bishopric should work to develop some of that context if it’s lacking in their Ward.

  7. RecessionCone says:

    In my ward, we dispensed with all talks and had an Easter program filled with musical numbers and short readings (mostly from the scriptures). It was great. And my ward always does this for Easter – I’ve forgotten that other wards don’t have similar traditions.

  8. We had the ward choir sing two numbers, a soloist, and two talks: one about the events leading up to the crucifixion, and the other (mine, incidentally) about the resurrection.

    The rest of the Sunday meetings were whatever was on the schedule, but it was an excellent Sacrament meeting. I, too, am sad to learn that there are wards that don’t do anything special for Easter.

  9. Oops – forgot to close that tag. Sorry!

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