A Spontaneous People or a Prepared People?

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.


  1. Interesting questions, David, and thanks for another great post.

    Edison said that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”, and I’m inclined to believe that most LDS would more or less agree. But, a few years ago we changed our missionary approach. Our missionaries are no longer required to memorize discussions, but are encouraged to know the material well enough so they can be led by the spirit. And everybody has been in a meeting where a speaker put aside a prepared talk and announced that she was prompted to speak about something else.

    I used to do simultaneous translation for general conference. We translators would get the talks two or three days before so we could go over them a few times, look up troublesome vocabulary, etc. Some speakers stuck to their prepared sermon, word for word. And others didn’t even bother pretending that what they were saying bore any resemblance whatsoever to their prepared remarks.

  2. Mark, I think you’re probably right that most Mormons prefer prepared events to spontaneity almost every time. Some conference speakers do deviate from their preparations — and in the Spanish simulcast you can usually tell exactly when that happens — but some, and maybe many, Mormons value the talks highly exactly because of the assumed preparation behind them, which at least in the imagination puts the weight of the whole church institution, and not just one leader, behind each word of the conference. Also, at least some missionaries seem to have replaced the old verbatim discussions written by the church with new verbatim discussions in effect composed by themselves — not written in a book, but nonetheless given nearly exactly the same way every time.

    But it isn’t a universal thing. There are very specific places where Mormons value spontaneity. We just hedge it around with careful, formal ritual. Would a preplanned patriarchal blessing, ordination, or ministration to the sick be acceptable? Somehow the systematic ritual of those occasions both enables and requires spontaneity. Something similar is true of Mormon testimonies: although spontaneous, we have developed layers of informal but quite rigorous verbal ritual regarding how a proper testimony is given that may have similar effects of channeling and rendering safe the spontaneous.

  3. I think Joseph is best viewed through out his life as trying capture the power and enthusiasm of God for himself and the Saints in general. Over time, there were increased layers of formalized ritual, the obvious example being the “Endowment of Power.”

    For most of the 20th century, the saints were instructed to not write down the forms for healing and dedicatory rites. It wasn’t until 1968 that Church handbooks included outlines for these ordinances. The transformation of the “Gift of Tongues” is another example.

    Even how we view events is changed. David, your example of the Kirtland pentacost is quite illustrative. Latter-day Saints typically think of the dedication ceremony as the pentacost, but as you note, it was the Priesthood endowment, days later, that was the outpouring. From Joseph’s diary:

    The brethren continued exhorting, prophesying, and speaking in tongues until 5 o’clock in the morning. The Saviour made his appearance to some, while angels minestered unto others, and it was a penticost and [endowment] indeed, long to be remembered. For the sound shall go forth from this place into all the world and the occurrences of this day shall be hande[d] down upon the pages of sacred history to all generations as the day of Pentecost. So shall this day be numbered and celebrated as a year of Jubilee and time of rejoicing to the Saints of the Most High God.

    And a quick note for the reader that is unfamiliar with the events that day. I don’t doubt that there might have been some individuals taken to excess with the wine of the Lord’s Supper, but I appreciate the words of John Corril, LDS historian who ended out leaving the Church:

    The sacrament was…administered, in which they partook of the bread and wine freely, and a report went abroad that some of them got drunk: as to that every man must answer for himself. A similar report, the reader will recollect, went out concerning the disciples, at Jerusalem, on the day of Pentecost. (John Corrill, A Brief History of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints (1839) pg. 23)

  4. An interesting note to this is the comments of a couple of visiting general authorities to stake PH leadership meetings I have attended. One, whose name I do not recall, mentioned that he was told to prepare his conference talks 4 weeks in advance so the interpreters, etc, would have copies. He asked how that was compatible with inspiration, to which he was told that if he could be inspired at the pulpit, he could also receive inspiration 4 weeks earlier.

    Charles Didier, I recall, however, when he came to a Stake Conference, said that he had been instructed that when he goes out to conferences to not have prepared remarks, but to rely on inspiration when he got there and spoke to the the SP.

    The contrast between regular sacrament meetings with their planned agenda and Fast & Testimony meeting, where you are never quite sure what you are going to get, represents both sides of this issue. Some people prefer F&T, while others regularly cringe at the spontaneous aspects of that.

    One of my favorite quotes from the late Pres. Faust was to the effect “Don’t let the manuals keep you from seeking the inspiration you are entitled to in your callings”. It would seem that we are embracing both aspects of this question.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    An interesting set of questions.

    On speaking in church, I know a lot of people who think “speaking by the Spirit” without advance preparation is the ideal. It’s ok with me if someone can pull it off, but these days I would never stand up at a pulpit without having something prepared. Maybe I lack faith, but that would be outside of my comfort zone. It might be easy for someone who is immersed in the Gospel on a full-time basis (missionaries, GAs) to stand up there and riff on their recent experiences, but I don’t have much confidence that if I just stood up there expecting some sort of oratorical miracle that it would come.

  6. We are much more a spontaneous people. The vast majority of our prayers are spontaneous, as are one meeting a month.

    However, there are certain times when something needs to be prepared ahead of time – ie, a timed comference talk – but that doesn’t negate the opprotunity of spontaneaity (however that’s spelled) if it should arise.

  7. David Howlett says:

    Everyone’s comments have been very interesting. As much as I study LDS people, I will never have the insights that many of you have as participants.

    #3–J. Stapley–I also really like John Corrill’s take on the Kirtland Endowment. By the time her wrote this statement, he was a disaffected member, but he still had strong sympathies for the saints. Though accused by some of being a traitor for helping with the surrender of Far West, he died penniless due to his attempts to help destitute saints after the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri. His short history seems very even-handed when compared with other accounts.

    There is a larger question, too, from a religious studies perspective about how certain substances can act alter one’s state and open them to different experiences–potentially divine experienes from a believer’s perspective. I’m not talking about Timothy O’Leary’s famous advice on LSD, either. I’m just thinking about how substances like wine or peyote or ascetic practices like fasting place people between worlds, if you will, in a liminal state. Of course, whatever biologically happens to a person in such a state is meaningless without a tradition that informs the experience. Drinking wine in the Solemn Assembly was certainly different and was not the same experience as drinking wine at a tavern. Context is everything here–even if one drank the same amount. As a believer, I am not at all opposed to imputing a real, spiritual encounter with God through a biologically altered means such as fasting. But this is a digression.

    As to the CofC, I see tensions between “preparation” and “spontaneity played out in several fields at this moment. Some CofC congregations have opted for a contemporary worship format rather than a traditional service. When I attended one such service recently, the people in hccrge of the service emphasized the informality of the worship. ‘If you feel like praising God in the middle of the service or raising your hands, go right ahead,” said the presider. I was surprised, though, that the serice oddly enough took on the traditional hymn-sandwich format of most traditional services–except that instead of four-part hymns, there were praise songs with a guitar in which everyone rose to their feet and clapped their hands. In addition, the praise songs were on powerpoint and had pictures, too, accompanying the text–which of course, took more than your average preparation. So, the informality of the worship was really a style of formality. Everyone knew when to clap, and everyone knew when to be silent and listen. The congregation was filled with people that day, too, with small children everywhere; obviously many were reached by this version of spntaneous formality. And, to be qite honest, though I prefer a more traditional service, I felt ministered to, also.

  8. Frankly, I think the balance each of us chooses between spontaneity and preparation depends largely on our learning modalities and our past experiences. I prepare my talks carefully and far in advance, but I rarely write out a full talk – word-for-word. I usually think about the topic until about two or three days prior to when I am to give it. I then write out a simple outline, sketching out the main points and the scriptures and quotes I plan on using, creating a talk that can last the maximum time I might end up having to use. Sometimes, I write out an entire talk, but that occurs only when I feel like I am being inspired as to the exact message I am supposed to share.

    My last talk fit the fully written and read model; the one before that remained in outline form. The two I am giving this month both are outlined only; one is for an entire congregation and the other is for a PH Leadership meeting.

    My point is that this approach to preparation fits the way I learn and the way I have found success in the past. I like the fact that we aren’t told by the Church how to prepare for and construct our talks and lessons. We are given general guidelines and suggestions, but, ultimately, the exact hows and whats are left up to us. The more experience we gain, the more we are able to combine preparation and inspiration – and gain confidence to prepare then set aside under the immediate influence of the Holy Ghost.

    On the balance, I would say our model is more toward inspiration, while our practical application is anywhere along the spectrum.

  9. Spontaneity makes white people nervous.

  10. “I don’t know; I’m making it up as I go”, Indiana Jones

  11. Razorfish says:


    It is interesting to see a divergent format of worship services within the COC umbrella. I am frankly amazed at how scripted, identical, orthodox and branded our meetings have become. Not only are the meetings so very similiar anywhere in the states, but most of the expressions of worship and language are surprisingly very similar. This is a function of the tightly centralized administrative model (and General Handbook of Instruction and administrative oversight).

    The amount of energy spent by ecclesiatical leaders on standardizing and branding the worship experience down to what instruments are appropriate and what clothing or appearance is appropriate is…stunning.

    Yes, we are very effective at creating a uniquely standardized 3 hour block format, but also at some cost. The cost in my estimation is born out in many facets: boredom, lack of variety, etc. This is usually sacrificed in the mantra of “providing a reverent atmosphere conducisive to the Spirit.”

    This may be partly true, but I know in watching other worship services (non-LDS), the Spirit can certainly be felt strongly (especially with all kinds of instruments) and many of the participants are much more engaged in the worship experience and praising, and worshipping etc. Our pentacostal friends sure look like they are enjoying themselves more at church than many of us.
    Obviously, there is a balance that needs to be struck, but my impression is that we are very far on the conservative end of the worship spectrum.

    There certainly good be additional worship models that differ from our present format that could be viable and productive expressions of our faith. I just don’t see any material changes coming in my lifetime….

  12. #9 What?

  13. This is an STJ church. Spontaneity really does make them nervous. Not only that, but deviation from the Handbook of instructions is frightening.

    In PEC I made a short discourse on the Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith compiled by J.F. Smith. There were people in the room made skittish by that. Too much spontaneity! Too many possibilities.



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