Nature Abhors a (Doctrinal) Vacuum

There has been a discussion recently on an e-mail list on which I participate about why it is that men (almost) always give the last talk in sacrament meeting. An answer that was proferred was so that the male priesthood holder would have an opportunity to correct any doctrinal error in the preceding talks. This is an explicit responsibility of the presiding authority, but is it necessarily the role of the concluding speaker? It doesn’t happen very often. I can think of one case where someone (a man, and also a priesthood holder) gave a perfectly fine talk on tithing and said that the Church does not define the basis on which one applies the 10%, whether it is gross, net or whatever. That is up to the individual to determine. The concluding speaker “corrected” the prior speaker, to the effect that tithing absolutely has to be on the gross–ironically getting it wrong himself.

As I thought about this question, it occurred to me that this idea that the final speaker is usually a male so as to be able to correct prior speakers is probably not true. (Again, that is the role of the presiding authority, not the final speaker.) This appears to be an example where, as the title to this post indicates, nature abhors a (doctrinal) vacuum. People observe that men almost always speak last in sacrament meeting, and there has to be some reason for that. But none is explicitly offered. So they come up with their own ideas to fill the void.

(My own theory as to why men speak last is that it is simply a reflection of our preoccupation with deference to hierarchy and order in a patriarchal church. Your own thoughts on this particular question are on topic for this post.)

We Mormons aren’t very big on ambiguity or mysteries. Tertullian said credo quia absurdum est, “I believe because it doesn’t make any sense!”, a sentiment with which few Mormons identify. We tend to want things to have explanations, and when they don’t, we’re quite willing and capable of making up our own.

Sometimes this is a perfectly harmless diversion. Sometimes it can be deeply problematic. Witness, for instance, the folk dogmas that arose to try to explain the otherwise inexplicable practice of not granting blacks the priesthood, such as blacks being less valiant in the preexistence. (Our belief in a preexistence seems to be particularly prone to abuse in these vacuum filling efforts to make sense of things we don’t really understand.)

Do you agree that the folk sometimes fills doctrinal vacuums? What other examples of doctrinal vacuums can you think of? Are there examples where popular efforts to fill a doctrinal vacuum have actually provided solid theology for the Church, or has this phenomenon resulted in mostly nutty, forgettable or hurtful stuff?


  1. Could “we don’t know anything about Heavenly Mother, because Heavenly Father wants to protect her” be one?

    We don’t/shouldn’t drink any caffeinated beverages because that’s why coffee and tea have been proscribed?

    We’ve chosen our parents and are trying to find our eternal companion Saturday’s Warrior said so?

  2. a random John says:

    When my wife and I spoke in our new ward I asked if she wanted to go first or last and she wanted to go last. Since I print the programs I put her last. I was asked by a member of the bishopric why I didn’t “bat cleanup”. I said that I had no idea there was such a concept. He then mentioned that he thought I was probably doing it just to tweak people. When I asked about “batting cleanup” I was told that the husband goes last so he can expand or contract his talk as needed to fill the remaining time. I thought this was odd in that my wife had just done an admirable job of contracting her talk substantially.

    I should also note that when I spoke in our previous ward a little less than a year ago a member of the stake presidency asked to add some comments after I spoke and then basically denounced my whole talk. Oddly, several people told me it was not only the best talk they’d heard in years, but also the funniest. Perhaps it was the lighthearted approach to the subject that brought out the denunciation rather than the completely non-threatening content.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Great examples, meems.

    arJ, yeah, one would think a woman would have the same capacity to expand or contract as needed as would a man. In our ward there have been a number of times when a sister has been slated to speak last, so my bishopric obviously doesn’t see it as an inviolable rule, but still in the vast majority of cases a man is the last speaker. (Being denounced from the pulpit doesn’t sound like much fun.)

  4. Yeah, yeah, john…harmless…right. :)

    I agree, Kevin, that that it probably has to do with old traditions of hierarchy and patriarchy. There seems to be something about prayers in sacrement meeting floating around as well. Practically, however, I think that men spend less time preparing their talks and, in my experience, if there is a siter/brother combo withthe sister going first, she is rarely afraid to double her alotted time. The brother, who hasn’t sufficiently prepared then gets a pass becasue he only has to speak for 5 minutes.

  5. I tend to think having a man speak last stems from the “ladies first” line of courtesy. I know that my wife prefers to go first with a talk or prayer in Sacrament Meeting, so I let her have her preference when we are asked to do either.

  6. But Kevin, don’t you know paying tithing on gross earnings results in “receiving gross blessings?”


  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, J., the prayer thing is interesting. In quite a large number of wards, only MP holders are allowed to say the opening prayer. (Note it is the opening prayer, not closing, which seems counterintuitive in light of men speaking last.) This was based on a silly and short-lived policy that the MP should open and bless the meeting. Within six months the Church wisely rescinded this policy, but it continues to have a life of its own in various pockets of the Church. (Thankfully, not in the area where I live.) And this despite the fact that the current handbook simply says that men and women may pray in sacrament meetings.

  8. Kevin, that is a fascinating insight…I’d love to get my hands on that letter…

  9. I love how, even in wards where speaking/prayer order belief prevails, exceptions are made for Primary programs, Missionary Farewells/Homecomings, and several others.

  10. About four years ago my wife and I gave talks in sacrament meeting and we impishly switched our order despite what the program or announcer said. It was a short-lived frolic, though, as the bishop called my wife to be the Young Women’s president that very day.

    Let this be a lesson to all of you.

    I’d say one of the major reasons things like the order of speaking get engrained is simply because people don’t care to think about mundane details. If the order of speaking is established, then, hey, one less thing for the bishopric to think about, right?

    Why is the first part of the bestowal of the Holy Ghost practiced as an almost word-for-word ordinance, despite it not being a word-for-word ordinance? One less thing to think about.

    Also, in a way, I think church as an institution is a place people go to get some sort of litany. Litany is comfortable. So when a mini-litany comes up that sounds nice or works fine, people are willing to bite.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    As fate would have it, Kristine Haglund Harris references this same old prayer policy in comment 147 of the September Ensign thread at T&S, here.

  12. Kevin, in the Church there’s also a general rejection of the notion that “it’s a mystery” is an adequate response to a doctrinal question or puzzle. That implies doctrines have explanations, so people naturally try to provide them. People may come up with strange, even silly, explanations, but I think the feeling that every doctrine does, in fact, have an explanation explains the habit of providing one when the circumstances seem to require it.

  13. What a scarey thought—that someone who is not presiding would take it upon himself to denounce a previous speaker!

    I like the question you ask and I think that meems gave some good responses. I am also interested in the question you raise but didn’t ask: What doctrines are most commonly employed to fill vacuums? You give the example of Premortal Existence, what others are there? I think priesthood authority is one.

  14. John Mansfield says:

    Now, is explaining practices in terms of prevailing or previous social norms just another way of rushing to fill doctrinal gaps? Speculation (AKA “pondering”) seems like a healthy practice to me.

  15. I invite you all to move into the only true and living ward.

    Last month we not only had a sacrament meeting where the husband spoke first and the wife was the concluding speaker, but we also sang As Sisters in Zion for the concluding congregational hymn.

  16. Nice post, Kevin.

    Whether our beliefs are backed up by scripture and myriad General Authority quotes, or whether they come via folk channels, they perform the same function in our lives. You could argue that we are more dogmatic about adhering to our pet folk doctrines because they haven’t achieved widespread acceptance, and openly following them is a form of proselytizing.

    I guess I think that most doctrine is folk doctrine.

    In your title you say that “Nature abhors a doctrinal vacuum.” I’d generally agree, but I think some communities within “nature” abhor that vacuum more than others. Any fundamentalist community (and I include the Mormon community in that category) that espouses clear-cut, black-and-white rules regarding doctrine, behavior, etc. will be more wont to fill the remaining doctrinal holes. We are largely trained to need clear-cut answers to negotiate our way through the world. I personally wish our tradition trained us more in how to live in the real world, which in my opinion is more ambiguous than our black-and-white doctrine sometimes makes it out to be.

  17. Our ward had one Sunday recently where all speakers were female, including the youth. I have no idea why, since it was not a women’s topic. I was one of the speakers and didn’t think to notice who gave the prayers. Maybe it was just that too many people were out of town over the summer, and the bishopric didn’t care who talked so long as someone did, or perhaps we really are more progressive here in CA.

  18. In my ward we generally leave it up to the couple to decide who speaks first and 90% of the time the sister goes first.

  19. What’s a womens topic?

  20. 19 — Motherhood, Visiting Teaching, Girls camp, getting anything accomplished in the Church, or anything else that only women do.

  21. Kevin,
    I think that many ‘doctrinal’ beliefs in the church are invented to fill ‘doctrinal vacuums’, many more than I think we would like to admit.

  22. Steve Park says:

    To my knowledge, there’s no doctrinal basis for having men speak last. It’s another Mormon cultural golden calf, like green Jello and church basketball.

    On a related note, in the ward where I gave my mission farewell talk, the bishop had a policy where the missionary always spoke first. Every other ward I’ve been in, the missionary spoke last. His reasoning was that the missionary’s time gets eaten up (usually by his or her mother) and the missionary only gets a few seconds at the end. He wanted to ensure the missionary was heard. Because of this, several of my friends walked in late and missed my talk completely. They assumed I’d be on last, so they didn’t have to worry about being on time.

  23. What I meant by women’s topic was something like Relief Society, primary, etc. #20’s got it pretty well.

    But no one seemed to think that we needed a man at the end to set us all straight.

  24. #20 – Excellent! =)

    So, would the fate of missionaries who die on their missions fall into the doctrinal vacuum?

  25. Kevin #7, late response, I know. But while the policy you’re talking about isn’t official any longer, it’s also not altogether gone from the church. During my mission, I learned (while preparing the program for a mission conference at which a member of the Twelve was to speak) that at least one of the Twelve still advocates that policy and makes a note of pointing out when it hasn’t been followed.

    Three different people from SLC called us to inform us of this fact in the week before the conference.

  26. I think mankind by his nature is a truth seeker. I think there is genuine value in seeking to understand the world around us. I think our thirst for understanding is God given and leads us to him. Yes, we don’t like not having any idea why certain things happen, so we come up with explanations to fill the gaps. Joseph F. Smith’s vision that led him to elaborate on the workings of the spirit world and the 139th section of the Doctrine and Covenants came in this kind of manner. So did Nephi’s understanding of the vision of the Tree of Life. I think a testimony can only come after pondering, questioning and study. I don’t think there is anything wrong with our gap filling until we refuse to allow that you could be entirely wrong. Obviously if our understanding of all truth were perfect, we would have no need of revelation.

    Dogmatism, on the other hand, is rooted in pride. Its dogmatism that fractured Christianity and likely was at the root of Apostasy. It is dogmatism that leads to divisions, strife, warfare. No pet doctrine is worth that. I think we are much better leaving to the spirit to confirm to others the truth of our ideas, and to humbly move on with our quest.

  27. Robert Durtschi says:

    I offered to let my wife go last in our recent intro-to-the-new-ward talks so she had opportunity of rebuttle.

    Maybe it’s so,every once in a while we can have the last word.

    I strongly suspect it’s just habit. Left over from earlier more patriarchal times. Similar to the habit up until fairly recently, I’d say within the last 15 years or so, that priesthood holders Always gave the prayers in Sacrament meeting. Now, in some of the wards I’ve been in, opening and closing prayers are often offered by husband/wife. Perhaps because the bishopric member conducting can snag them both at once.


  28. I’m drawing a blank at folk beliefs rushing in to fill a doctrinal void, but I can think of folk beliefs and practices that have grown out of legitimate doctrines:

    The legitimate doctrine of foreordination gets way too specific in folk doctrine when someone claims that they covenanted in premortality to find a particular mate, or to bring the gospel to a premortal friend.

    Abstaining from drink during the monthly fast also means that you shouldn’t use water when brushing your teeth.

    The sacrament must always be taken with the right hand (because right is right and left is sinister?) and unused sacrament bread pieces never get moldy even when they are inadvertently left in the tray (or in a pocket, in the case of the sacrament taken to shut-ins), because they represent Christ’s incorruptible body.

    Not understanding how the temple garment is a protection or is sacred leads to folk beliefs that garments stop bullets and flame, or to practices like washing the body on one side at a time to prevent ever totally removing the garment, or not washing garments with ordinary clothing (even other white clothing), or discarding garments if they brush the floor, or burning marks removed from discarded garments (or saving the bits in a little reliquary). Thankfully I think these last practices have generally died out.

  29. When I went through the Temple three years ago I was instructed to cut out and burn the marks before discarding old garments.

  30. How about people with mental handicaps are being protected from Satan, and therefore are handicapped.

  31. Starfoxy, I also received my endowments 3 years ago and was instructed on that very same thing. Also, after cutting the marks out, if the rest of the garment isn’t going to be brned, it has to be cut up into shreds.

    I also know plenty of people who do not wash their garments with other white clothing. (I do- I hope I’m not alone in this!)

  32. Meems, You are not alone. Also once the marks are removed you can use the garment for other things, you do not need to burn or shred – only the markings.

  33. Really, k-? I thought the temple lady told us to cut out the marks, and then cut up the rest of the garments completely and not to use them, say for dust rags or anything. Maybe I’m not remembering correctly. Thanks for the info.

  34. Old garments make excellent bike rags. Sans marks, they are but cloth.

  35. I think there are a lot more vacuum-filling doctrines than we have managed to come up with although I’m not going to be able to add anything in this category.

    Slightly related, though, for me is the topic of vacuum-filling “comfort” doctrines and their related testimonies. The easiest example (and a sensitive one) is the usually firmly held opinion of mothers who have miscarried fairly late in the pregnancy. The testimonies I have heard on this topic are split 50/50 on whether they will raise the child in the next life or whether that miscarried spirit was born as the next healthy child. Of course the answer could be that it depends on the mother and the spirit and I am creating an artificial doctrinal contradiction.

  36. Here are two doctrinal vacuums filled by members of the ward I grew up in:

    How long were Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? Exactly 1,000 years because God operates in 1,000-year dispensations.

    Why do species go extinct? Because God has run out of, say, dodo bird spirits, and the faster species go extinct the clearer the sign that the world is about to end.

  37. John Taber says:

    Now, in some of the wards I’ve been in, opening and closing prayers are often offered by husband/wife. Perhaps because the bishopric member conducting can snag them both at once.

    And the Brethren in recent years have come out against that more than once. (Something about how it makes singles feel unwelcome.)

  38. Your right John. (It is about singles feeling like they are out of place or not welcome.) Opening and closing prayers should not be offered by husband/wife. My husband is in the bishopbric and they have been reminded several times of this from the Stake Presidency.
    Howevwe, It is easy in our ward because our ward is full of singles or one of the spouses are inactive. None-the-less it is good for everyone to have the oportunity. :)

  39. Not to mention that it is an easy way out. (As having a husband and wife speak on the same Sunday can be.)

  40. “Nature abhors a doctrinal vacuum” would make an excellent shibboleth for quickly sorting church liberals from conservatives in a large group of unknowns. (For what purpose I won’t speculate here.) Those who nod solemnly are ushered to right hand, those who grin, giggle, or guffaw, to the left.

    Planning my mother’s funeral service, I suggested a slate of participants to the bishop, naming one of Mother’s good friends to give the closing prayer and Elizabeth, her best friend (the woman who had brought her into the church) to give the main remarks. The bishop informed me that Elizabeth was quite a “talker” and perhaps would go on at too great a length; (I dismissed that objection and said I would pull on her skirt if she rambled too much); and that the other friend could not give the closing prayer because a priesthood holder was needed for that task. (I accepted that objection.)

    A related observation, I believe: at the home of a most gracious and faithful sister, mother of a very large family, I was invited to take lunch with them. The mother explained that since the father was not there to call upon someone to bless the food, she would call upon one of her sons to call upon someone to do so.I have never quite been able to untangle that one. If I say, “I think someone should take the lead, and I appoint you to take the lead,” doesn’t that make me the leader? Or not?

  41. Karen in Ohio says:

    It is hooey to have a minor child pretend to preside over a perent.
    Dallin Oakes, raised by his widowed mother, said
    “When my father died, my mother presided over our family. She had no priesthood office, but as the surviving parent in her marriage she had become the governing officer in her family. At the same time, she was always totally respectful of the priesthood authority of our bishop and other Church leaders. She presided over her family, but they presided over the Church.”
    Dallin H. Oaks, “Priesthood Authority in the Family and the Church,” Ensign, Nov. 2005, 24
    see also:

    Ideally, the father should preside. In a home without a father, the mother presides.

    “Working Together in Family Councils,” Ensign, Feb. 1985, 28

    The mother is an equal partner and counselor to her husband. She helps him teach their children the laws of God. If there is no father in the home, the mother presides over the family.

    31180, Family Guidebook, Organization and Purpose of the Family, Organization, 1

  42. Karen in Ohio says:

    parent. I meant parent!

    I are one.

  43. I like that you cite “the folk dogmas that arose to try to explain the otherwise inexplicable practice of not granting blacks the priesthood,” Kevin. To me, the most obvious current example of this phenomenon is the parallel set of folk dogmas that have arisen to account for not giving women the priesthood.

  44. Kevin Barney says:

    Good point, Ziff. That just occurred to me as well last night when I was thinking about this. So all the “women are inherently more spiritual than men and therefore don’t need the priesthood” stuff would go on the list.

  45. Bishops (and higher GAs) should be married.

    Males wear white shirt and tie at church. Can be exceptions but the norm worldwide is to dress like the brethren.


    I’ve always felt that the very title of this blog “By Common Consent” brings up an almost demolished paradox. Government of the church by common consent vs. hierarchy. Sadly, I’m not sure the church would have survived a truly democratic system. But a blubbering liberal such as myself can dream of how it could have been!

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