Of Shirts, Signals, and Sacraments

Those who bless and pass the sacrament should dress modestly and be well groomed and clean. Clothing or jewelry should not call attention to itself or distract members during the sacrament. Ties and white shirts are recommended because they add to the dignity of the ordinance. However, they should not be required as a mandatory prerequisite for a priesthood holder to participate. Nor should it be required that all be alike in dress and appearance. Bishops should use discretion when giving such guidance to young men, taking into account their financial circumstances and maturity in the Church…

…The passing of the sacrament should be natural and unobtrusive, not rigid or overly formal. Those who pass the sacrament should not be required to assume any special posture or action, such as holding the left hand behind the back. The process of passing the sacrament should not call attention to itself or detract from the purpose of the ordinance. 2010 Church Handbook of Instructions, Handbook 2, Section 20.4.1(emphasis added).

The paragraphs above from the CHI address some of the commonly seen/held-yet-false beliefs/practices concerning the administration of the Sacrament: dress codes, hand positions, stances.[1] The topic of white shirts for passing the sacrament is not new in the Bloggernacle (see here, here, or here, for example). I am certainly not the first person to sense some degree of frustration with the counsel regarding white shirts in the CHI, as it takes the form of:

  1. It is better to do something this way.
  2. If you can’t do it this way, then you are still allowed to do it that way.

The presence of such rankings all but ensures that, in the unfortunate event that someone attempts to pass the Sacrament in that way, there will be frowns and furrowed brows and muffled suggestions that someone “get that boy a white shirt.” An interesting question is how these sorts of practices come into existence, and how they endure the test of time so well.


The economist in me insists that such practices cannot be born from random chance; rather, these practices must come into existence and endure the test of time because there is some sort of efficiency that arises from them. If such efficiencies didn’t exist, the practices would have naturally died out ages ago and have been replaced by more sensible ones. So, the question remains: Why are Mormons so oddly determined to needlessly and non-doctrinally micro-manage the administration of the Sacrament?

One answer that I find compelling is found by comparing the Sacrament to the other ordinances in the LDS Church, though the comparison is surprisingly difficult to make.[2] From a doctrinal or theological perspective, there is clearly a difference in the salvific importance between, say, baby blessings or father’s blessings, and the Sacrament. However, the Sacrament is not typically included in the list of “saving” ordinances: baptism, confirmation/gift of the Holy Ghost, and temple ordinances, including sealings. Indeed, it seems apparent that ordinance of the Lord’s Supper does not belong in either group. But it goes further.

Consider the “saving” ordinances in the Church: in each case, the ordinance is highly regulated in virtually every aspect. Everything—who is allowed to receive the ordinance, clothing we wear, the exact words we use, the bodily movements we make, and even the locations where they are performed–is governed by revealed precision.

In contrast, the non-saving ordinances–baby blessings, blessings for healing or comfort, grave dedication–are entirely different. While there are certain required elements, such as invoking priesthood authority, these ordinances are quite free-wheeling compared their saving counterparts: no dress codes, no restrictions on who can receive them, only minor geographic restrictions (for baby blessings), and an admonition to ad lib according to the dictates of the Spirit.

This dichotomy places the Sacrament in an awkward position, because it doesn’t cleanly fit into either category of ordinances. The situation becomes even more complicated when we consider the teachings and rhetoric used to describe the Sacrament in the modern Church: “It’s the single most important thing we do at Church”; “It’s the most sacred part of our week”; “It’s a holy ordinance”; and so on. Thus, the language we use in speaking about the Sacrament suggests that we (want to) think of it as being a closer relative to the saving ordinances than the non-saving ordinances.

In this context—trying to treat the Sacrament as something sacred and holy and like unto the other saving ordinances—it’s easy to see how folk practices like white shirts, wheat bread, holding the tray with our right hands might develop: an attempt to harmonize the Sacrament with the other saving ordinances by making it “more like them” in terms of regulated behaviors, dress codes, and so forth. In short, these folk practices allow us to create a clear mental partition between the non-saving ordinances and “the rest.”


Specifically regarding the use of a uniform, it is worth considering the pros and cons of the current system and alternatives to it.

As noted above, the current guidelines seem like a clear way of guaranteeing a culture of subtle judgment and disapproval for anyone who doesn’t wear a white shirt, even though such is not required. It seems obvious that one way of eliminating judgmental looks is to simply change the requirement, and make wearing a white shirt a requirement. Any concerns about the financial strain on Aaronic priesthood holders are really not an enormous problem—although I am willing to be convinced otherwise, I’m fairly certain that ward leaders could find room in the budget to purchase a white shirt for any Deacon, Teacher, or Priest who can’t afford one.

Given that all of the saving ordinances (as discussed earlier) already have uniform requirements, this position is very easy to explain and justify–it actually even makes sense in the broader view of Mormonism!

Another seemingly practical alternative would be to have no guidelines for what to wear when passing the sacrament—just allow people to wear whatever they like, and not say a word about it in any instructions. Clearly, this works in the opposite direction regarding the ordinancification of the Sacrament that comes from instituting a set uniform, but there is a different benefit to be captured: With no policy regarding dress, all Aaronic priesthood holders in the meeting are always “acceptable” in terms of appearance, and there is no basis for any sort of judgment. It would also reduce the financial cost to wards and families of “church clothes” and likely make teenage youth feel more comfortable during church meetings.

With these two obvious solutions on the table, and the ability to decrease pointless and harmful judgment while simultaneously increasing clarity about the nature of the ordinance, the question is why neither option has been adopted. We still adhere to a policy of “We do not really have a policy, but we still actually have a policy. Sort of.” A possible reason is that both of these alternatives to the current loopholed policy destroy potentially valuable signals which arise from the ability of young men to self-select into different groups.

Before Sacrament meeting begins, the individual tasked with marshalling Aaronic priesthood holders to help pass the bread and water will almost always sort the candidates based partially (but not entirely) on attire. Whether this is righteous or not is irrelevant—it still happens. The reason for this is simple: Each Sunday morning, every young man chooses between wearing a white shirt and wearing a non-white shirt to church meetings. Because of the current guidelines, his choice in shirt will send a signal to his quorum leaders, to his friends, his parents, and to his ward leaders, including the Bishop. If the young man chooses a white shirt, he sends the signal that he is willing to help, willing to participate, willing to conform, and so forth. Moreover, because of the emphasis we place in the Church on being worthy to administer the Sacrament through our teachings on the Word of Wisdom, the Law of Chastity, and other commandments, there is a reasonably-assumed positive correlation between “willingness” and “worthiness.” Thus, by allowing young men to self-select—to choose which signal they send—they may help ward leaders, parents, and friends identify needs, concerns, and problems in the lives of the youth.

Now, it is vital to emphasize that signaling is a two-party game: It requires both an agent (the young man) and a principal (the Bishop, a parent, etc…), but it also requires the ability of agents to efficiently convey the signal (either consciously or not), and the ability of principals to efficiently receive and properly interpret the signal. These are very strong assumptions–certainly, not every red shirt in Sacrament meeting represents a weekend of debauchery, nor does every white shirt reflect a weekend of repentance and devout worship.

Given the range of possible reasons for choosing a shirt—everything from worthiness to spilled breakfast to a broken washing machine to parental force—principals must be extremely careful about interpreting such signals.


If a uniform of white shirts is enforced, or if no guideline is offered, these signals are effectively muted, even though the attitudes and behaviors associated with the signals remain. If we maintain the current policy, we gain potentially beneficial insights into helping the youth of the Church progress toward other desirable outcomes, while simultaneously risking misinterpreting signals in a way that potentially distracts or harms the very individuals who need help. Which policy we prefer likely reflects our own views on the ability of parents and priesthood leaders to effectively and appropriately interpret signals.

It is easy to write off folk practices as non-doctrinal nonsense and foolishness. However, there may be reasons to be cautious about tossing bathwater out the window: There is value in separating the sacred from the worldly, and practices which help us, or our neighbors, increase the clarity or purity of an ordinance through such a separation may increase the power of the ordinance and worship service itself. Because we worship in a community setting, it is important for us to consider the effects that our individual actions during worship may have on ability of others around us to experience the sacred or divine. Breaking down harmful traditions is valuable and important; breaking down harmless traditions may not necessarily qualify for either descriptor. Of course, whether or not a folk practice is harmless or harmful may be in the eye of the beholder.

[1] I’d like to point out that the paragraph cited from the CHI recommends “modest” clothing for boys. Also, it seems to allow jewelry.
[2] Note that, for convenience in writing, I’m using “Sacrament” as a synonym for the ordinance associated with the Lord’s supper, communion, the Eucharist, etc…


  1. To the extent that there is anything worthwhile in this post, I should credit my friend Mike McB., as this post is a reflection of many conversations with him during Sunday school–indeed, too many conversations for me to recall with any precision which ideas were his and which ideas were mine.

  2. I pretty much love everything about this post and have the strong impulse to poach from it.

  3. Ties and white shirts are recommended because they add to the dignity of the ordinance

    I think this is nothing more or less than a reflection of the average age of the people who write/approve the CHI. It was different in the past. It will be different in the future. It has nothing to do with anything “eternal” or “sacred”, but is merely a sociological thing. It may be couched in religious language, much like the societal prejudices against blacks in American were couched in scripture, etc. but at the end of the day, it is not eternal.

  4. as a youth, we would held out hope that there wouldn’t be any water or bread and that we would have to pass out coke and big macs instead.. but alas, that never materialized.

    you raise an interesting broader question in this one example, however, and that is in what form is the CHI2 information when it actually gets to the ears and hearts of the flock. I’d contend that the carefully constructed wording is most often lost, and the instruction to the DQ goes something like ‘wear a white shirt or else you can’t pass’.. which then trickles up to the RS as ‘did you see Johnny in that blue shirt yesterday? I’m glad he didn’t try to bless the sacrament, or I’d have to go to the 2nd ward’s services at 11am to get my sanctified sacrament for the week – don’t his parents know that for it to count, it needs to be white?’ an extreme example of course. I suppose you can train all you want but there will always be those well-intentioned laborers insistent on correcting towards their early childhood memories of farm life in suburban Provo.

  5. Interesting to look at it this way. I’ve seen the signaling example work a couple of different ways; YM who definitely were signaling an unwillingness on their part to participate, and others who were just clueless, and wore their blue shirt without any other thought. However, during the tenure of two previous bishops in our ward, the assumption was that any time one of the YM wore something other than a white shirt, or to wear a white shirt but no tie, the YM were signaling either unworthiness or unwillingness to participate.

    The potential for misunderstood signals, especially false positives, is high.

  6. Steve Evans says:

    Yup, this one is a keeper. Thanks Scott (and Mike).

  7. My thesis, shaped from looking at history:

    Some people — a lot of people — like rules. Some rules are made in response to problems, real or perceived, and some rules are made just because people like rules. Then rules become habit, and everybody forgets the origin of the rules. Then habits become policies. And because people want to believe there is a divine principle behind policies, people speculate and analogize and justify and invest those policies with divine principles.

    We see it happen all the time in our church, our inventing folk “doctrines” (and leaders are “folk” too, when they aren’t legitimately entitled to announce genuine new doctrine) to back up habits and policies: Because they were fence-sitters in the war in heaven. Because those tempos aren’t reverent. Because white is the color associated with all divine ordinances. Because if we knew anything about her we would blaspheme her. Because women are naturally more righteous than men.

    You might be interested in the historical development of these Sacrament dress policies: The Old Written Order of Things and More on Deaconly Uniformity.

  8. John Mansfield says:

    “commonly seen/held-yet-false beliefs/practices”

    Or in my experience, seldom-to-never seen, yet somehow still harped on endlessly. I’ve never seen those passing the sacrament all dressed alike. The last time I saw a deacon holding his left arm behind him was about thirty years ago.

  9. Ardis (7),
    You might be interested to note that both of your suggested links are already linked in the post. (I do my homework, young lady!)

  10. John Mansfield (8)
    Perhaps I should have said “commonly referred to” then…would that have been sufficiently vague to avoid problems?

    I think that the frequency with which one encounters these sorts of things varies tremendously from stake to stake. For my part, I have seen them many times in my life.

  11. J. Stapley (2) & Steve Evans (6),

  12. Hey, you edited that first link, Scott, which was originally to another T&S post. I do *my* homework, too.

  13. As a side note, your analysis of this position: “It is better to do something this way. If you can’t do it this way, then you are still allowed to do it that way.” I think that it relates to the counsel in the handbook regarding certain practices being “not encouraged.” Granted there isn’t the liturgical valence that you bring out, but at the same time, Church leaders don’t encourage most activities. Consequently, explicitly not encouraging something in writing, becomes a discouragement of sorts and may play into that signaling dynamic.

  14. Ardis,
    You must have pulled it up quickly (like through reader?) while I was still editing, because the original one was a mistake that had (almost) nothing to do with this–I think it was a Nate Oman post? Regardless, both were intended to be included, as I only found the second link through your first one at Keepa.

  15. Consequently, explicitly not encouraging something in writing, becomes a discouragement of sorts and may play into that signaling dynamic.

    Exactly, J. In the minds of many members, “explicit discouragement” is understood as “implicit banning.” This door then swings both ways, and “explicit encouragment” becomes “implicit requirement” and so on…

    This was apparent in your recent post regarding home and grave dedication. By specifically suggesting that families without a priesthood holder seek out such an individual to dedicate a home, and only then adding as an afterthought that women can do it also, there is now an explicit encouragement, which I expect many leaders will come to see (over time) as an implicit requirement.

    Sad, at least in this case.

  16. iguacufalls says:

    I do feel that a certain sense of decorum should accompany the Sacrament. In a chapel setting, it wouldn’t feel right if the deacons were passing in shorts and tank tops, for example. It would call attention to the Deacons, when people should be focused on the Atonement. The deacons should be dressed to blend in with the rest of the congregation, so as to be inconspicuous.

    I do remember having a sacrament meeting at 14,000 feet the day before pushing to the summit of Mt. Whitney with my scout troop back in the 80’s. We were in our jeans and tshirts (scout shirts? not sure). And in that setting, we had one of the most reverent and spiritual sacrament meetings I can remember. According to current guidelines, I don’t think that would be allowed any more, but it makes for a great memory.

    So no, white shirts are not *required* for the sacrament, because it’s just a social norm. But what should be required is inconspicuous dress that allows the recipients to reverently ponder spiritual things without distractions.

  17. Yeah, I saw it pretty quickly. Anyway, thanks for linking to both.

    I do think it helps to understand that the way things are isn’t the way they have always been, and sometimes the arguments we have with each other are really about different things, even when they focus on the same issues — especially when multiple generations are involved. As John says, he hasn’t seen the peculiar arm position in a full generation. Yet to somebody reading the CHI who remembers that as a major “problem” from his own youth, or to someone who has just moved to Utah from some branch in central Europe where the deacons are still drilled on arm position as if it were integral to the Sacrament, the signals received aren’t necessarily the ones sent.

  18. I suspect they make exceptions for outings, such as a camping trip. I know we did the sacrament at a camp outing the stake put on and everyone was in dirty jeans and so forth. Although I know they now try and emphasize not having such activities on Sundays. (Which makes it hard to find people to supervise of course – since a multiday camp can’t exactly just be Saturday)

  19. Mike McB. says:

    Scott, A most excellent post. I’d like to push you a little on one thing, though. By your own logic, even if the official policy was no policy or no suggestion (your #2), then other types of signaling, with all the associated pros and cons, could still emerge if the inefficiency the policy was meant to solve still exists. It just might not be via shirts.

    I think we can see this potential in your CHI quote. Words like “modest,” “well-groomed,” and “clean” can be interpreted very differently across geography and time. And saying “Bishops should use discretion” leaves room for local variation. Even if you interpret the bishop’s discretion line as applying only to white shirt enforcement, someone still has to determine if modesty and cleanliness are present. The bishop would have a big say in that.

    From a social scientific point of view, I think it’s fun to consider what exactly are the inefficiencies that need resolving, and what other types of practices might emerge and gain traction.

  20. Steve Evans says:

    Mike, no need to speculate around those practices and inefficiencies – a look at global practices, such as in Polynesia or Africa, already point to big time regional variations.

  21. Certainly, Mike. In true economist fashion, I’ll retreat by saying that I’m only looking partial equilibrium here, and ignore the additional signals that might be sent and received concurrently (or in place of) the one signal we’re looking at specifically in a full equilibrium.

  22. Great post, for sure, but the title is where the money’s at.

  23. Now you’re flirting with my disciplinary commitments, Scott. This kind of thing is the stuff of semiotic anthropology. How is it that we are able to read certain gestures or actions as signs of something? How do those signs acquire a more-or-less agreed upon meaning, and how does cultural context define or delimit the range of meanings a certain sign can carry? Wearing a white shirt carries a certain, relatively predictable and uniform meaning in a Mormon worship setting precisely because of the official-but-not-officially-official nature of the pressure to wear them.

  24. Sunny,
    I chose the title before I wrote the post. :)

    Incidentally, the title is actually the same as “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments,” in the sense that we’re discussing using a shirt as a proxy for the “soul” (or worthiness), and that signals could be similarly described as “symbols.”

  25. I don’t think the Church cares all that much about what we wear for passing the sacrament, but that they have to have guidelines to prevent the two scenarios I saw on my mission:

    1) The deacons were required to wear matching ties, little cummerbunds, and walk in a march like step while handling the trays. This is obviously against the spirit of the ordinance and the simplicity we seek as members of the Church.

    2) Young men who don’t bother to look any nicer than they did during the week. Something about “pants on the ground,” ghetto ball caps, and bling doesn’t really fit the spirit of the meeting either.

    So I think that the Church asks priesthood holders to dress a certain way to prevent the extremes. What gets me, though, is the cultural insistence that ALL men wear a white shirt and tie to the meeting. I can see good in the norm, but overall I’d prefer to wear a nice blue shirt. Oh well.

  26. Not a sacrament issue per se, but I’ve been asked to give the benediction at ward conference on Sunday (a sister is giving the invocation). I’ve already picked out my blue dress shirt for the occasion…

  27. Mike McB. says:

    Steve, Good point. I was thinking more about practices that might emerge beyond local and regional up to the general level, but I didn’t make this clear. I’m not sure something will come along quite like white shirts, but Scott’s reasoning suggests it could happen. Maybe other institutional, etc., factors could prevent some practice from global adoption. Or a deliberate attempt by the top leadership to prevent it from happening.

    No prob, Scott. Like I said, great post. I think there are many directions this line of thought can take us. Can’t wait for signaling post #2. Next week, right? How about this for your next topic: on bringing actual hard copies of scriptures to church rather than just using your phone as a signal of devotion.

  28. “What gets me, though, is the cultural insistence that ALL men wear a white shirt and tie to the meeting.”

    I don’t like the unwritten order of things, generally, but I really hate it when it is in direct opposition to the written order of things.

  29. queuno,
    It was actually something very similar to what you describe that caused me to start thinking about posting some of these thoughts:

    I always got annoyed at what I perceived as stupid traditions, and would actively try to disrupt them in my own little way–I would intentionally wear a striped shirt when I taught lessons, grab the sacrament tray with my left hand, and try to basically break down this sort of thing.

    Then, one day I realized that all I was really doing was trying to distract others’ worship experience. Oddly, in so doing, I found that I was really just distracting myself! My current feelings on this are found in the concluding paragraph to the OP.

  30. Steve Evans says:

    Cumberbunds?! What’s next, tux and tails?

  31. I’ve been trying to send subliminal signals (only wearing colored shirts) to my bishop and/or stake president for five years now. The message is “I don’t want to be in the Elder’s quorum presidency anymore”. It doesn’t work.

  32. Scott, only slightly off the main topic, but when I wear a white shirt and a tie to church every week, it can be seen as a signal of my orthodoxy, despite my progressive political philosophy and other less than orthodox attitudes that most of my ward members are more or less familiar with. I also don’t want to mess with my wife’s ability to do her job as RS president. It really has been a conscious decision on my part.

  33. So, should bishops tell the YM, “Always wear a white shirt to pass the sacrament, but don’t assume that you won’t be asked to pass the sacrament if you wear another color”?

    I think it would help a lot if bishops actually read that little section from the handbook over the pulpit. Some would still feel justified in a preference for white shirts, but maybe they’d be more relunctant to be openly judgmental about it, making someone feel bad.

    What bothers me more than white shirt or not, is when I see sleeves rolled up or unbuttoned collars with a loosened tie. That just looks sloppy to me. It seems like that’s just an effort at trying to look cool, which I get, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for the sacredness of the ordinance.

  34. Left Field says:

    When did the current obsession with white shirts actually begin? I was a deacon around 1971-73, and I don’t remember any issue at all regarding shirt color. I haven’t got the foggiest idea what color shirt I might have worn at the time. I do remember that when I was a priest, they asked in our ward that deacons wear ties, and that priests also wear jackets. But even then, I don’t remember anything about shirt color.

    On my mission (1979-1980), our supervising general authority suggested during a mission conference that we should continue to wear white shirts to church even after our mission. I remember being startled at the suggestion. It hadn’t occurred to me that a missionary white shirt ought or needed to be worn by non-missionaries.

    My experiences or memory may be faulty, but it seems to me that the white shirt thing didn’t really start until sometime in the 1980s. Of course, I didn’t become aware of the existence of CTR rings until 1990 or thereabouts, so maybe I’m not the most astute observer of Mormon culture.

  35. I should add, if there’s no a/c in the building or something, obviously rolled up sleeves might be necessary ;)

  36. It’s become clear that my current full beard + desperately needing a haircut + blue shirts aren’t acting as a deterrant from asking me to pray at ward conference or serving in a highly visible calling. Darn it.

  37. queuno,
    I think that perhaps you’ve misunderstood: what you’re doing is sending signals that you need to be “strengthened” and therefore, you’re being given opportunities for participation.

  38. I mean, seriously–read this paragraph again:

    If the young man chooses a white shirt, he sends the signal that he is willing to help, willing to participate, willing to conform, and so forth. Moreover, because of the emphasis we place in the Church on being worthy to administer the Sacrament through our teachings on the Word of Wisdom, the Law of Chastity, and other commandments, there is a reasonably-assumed positive correlation between “willingness” and “worthiness.” Thus, by allowing young men to self-select—to choose which signal they send—they may help ward leaders, parents, and friends identify needs, concerns, and problems in the lives of the youth.

    What this is saying, essentially, is that if you try and send signals that you don’t want to participate, then you’re quite likely sending a signal that “you need spiritual help.” Since service is the go-to medication for faltering faith, expect your phone to start ringing more.

  39. @Scott B. So the minute I shave/cut my hair/wear a white shirt, I’ll get cut back to only one calling, and one that allows me to attend Sunday School and priesthood every week?

  40. Quite possibly! The importance of not sticking out in a crowd…however, you must do so very slowly over time. If you do it too quickly, it’ll be noticed and people will decide that you’ve undergone some sort of spiritual reformation that means you should be called to a leadership position.

  41. See, I’m trying to get *out* of my quasi-leadership position… You’d think wearing a blue shirt every Sunday would ensure that… :)

  42. kamschron says:

    One of the little nudges that pushed my son away from activity in the church was the decision when he arrived at church one day, willing to pass the sacrament, that he could not participate because he had not worn a white shirt. Years earlier, I knew a young man a few years older than me who gave up on the church because the best shirt that he owned was not considered to be appropriate for blessing the sacrament. As far as I can tell, both young men were trying to do their best, and both were pushed away unnecessarily.

    Until now, it had never occurred to me that a white shirt might be viewed as a statement about a boy’s personal worthiness and willingness to participate. To me, this seems to come much too close to making ties and white shirts into a mandatory prerequisite. It is already hard enough for boys to decide how much to disclose about themselves in periodic meetings with the bishop. Asking for an extra weekly disclosure to a wider audience, conveyed by wearing or not wearing the expected shirt and tie, seems to me to be excessive. The permanent loss of a few boys who don’t understand the game or who don’t want to play by the extra rules is too big a sacrifice.

  43. kevinf, I’ve always said that a white shirt covers a multitude of sins.

  44. J. :)

  45. John Mansfield says:

    More than white shirts in sacrament meeting, I have wondered about white clothes for baptisms. A mandatory requirement of such would be much more apostate than a uniform for deacons, and yet our practice is only a hair’s breadth from a requirement. No one ever wears a striped shirt and dark slacks for the occasion, but instead special white pants and often water-safe white ties that have few other purposes.

  46. John, actually, it is now a mandatory requirement: “A person who performs a baptism and a person who is baptized wear white clothing that does not appear transparent when it is wet.”

    I’d have to go back and check, but my hunch is that white clothes have been required since the early twentieth century.

  47. Steve Evans says:

    Scott, my phone has not been ringing more.

  48. Mike McB. says:

    J. I like the “that does not appear transparent when it is wet” condition. If only that was enforced when I was a missionary. Know when that was added to the white clothes requirement?

  49. Mike McB., I’m not sure. That language is there in the 1998 edition of the handbook. I don’t have all years, and I don’t have the time now to go through all my materials, but I did see that white clothes were required in the 1930s liturgical texts and waders, hipboots and shower caps have been variously proscribed in the mid twentieth century.

  50. The Other Brother Jones says:

    … and I appreciated that he was trying to meet the implied standard. The ex-pres kept insisting, offered his own tie, etc. I had to be very frim with him until we dropped it. I am so glad I did. The kid would have been offfended.

  51. As I read about the idea of signals associated with colored shirts, I wondered if it mattered how big the ward (or quorum) is. I suppose if one had twenty deacons to choose from, he could exclude the non-white shirt wearers. But in our ward with only five deacons and six “slots” for passing, every deacon who attends is tapped to serve. Questions of dress are handled separately and offline.

  52. The Other Brother Jones says:

    *Something odd happened….read this before comment #50*

    I was a branch pres where a newly baptized young man of meager circumstances was preparing to pass the sacrament for the first time. He had a brand new white shirt(with creases and pin holes still) but no tie.
    A former branch pres was visiting and pulled me aside and insisted that I get him a tie. I declined because I knew how he had looked previously (T shirt). Ex pres really twisted my arm but I didn’t back down…

  53. Steve,
    I call BS on that one, dude. What are you doing Sunday?

  54. #50/52 Br J — good for you. As Branch President, it’s YOUR call.

  55. Luckily, my ward (in SL valley even) seems to be much more relaxed – despite the regular presence of general authorities and occasionally an apostle. Probably 30-40% of the men do NOT have on a white shirt on any given Sunday. Probably 10% don’t even have a tie. People have a wide variety of facial hair – ie beards, goatees, mustaches, etc. There is even a member of the bishopric with a mustache (waxed and curled up on the ends even :-) ). No one seems to care.

  56. John and J. Stapley (45/46),

    While the handbooks do state that those in the water for a baptism should wear white, I wouldn’t call it mandatory. In the current edition, the white clothing stipulation appears in 20.3.6 while the instructions for the actual ordinance appear in 20.3.8. I would consider the elements in 20.3.8 to be indisposable, but the clothing stipulation to be subject to local needs and circumstances. Whereas new meetinghouses are provided with a supply of white clothing, and wards maintain that supply, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable stipulation. But if a ward found itself in a position of not having an appropriately sized jumpsuit, using alternate and colored clothing would not render the ordinance invalid.

  57. Observer (f.k.a. Eric. S.) says:

    #2 rank has nothing to do with deacons. it exists for high priests, scott. on occasion, a high priest must to help pass the sacrament, and they’ve been rocking those disco yellowed-out-pits cream snap up kits for years.

  58. Benjamin, I find your analysis to be really quite fascinating. Would you consider yourself a religiously conservative individual? By limiting mandatory aspects of church practice to those items which would otherwise invalidate a given activities salvific or legal function, you pretty much jettison the entire handbook. For example, if a high council didn’t cast lots at the beginning of a Stake Disciplinary Council, would the verdict still be valid? Would casting lots therefor be considered not mandatory practice?

  59. Reagan Republican says:

    I think dark-colored shirts look ugly with ties.

  60. As a teenager growing up in the 80s near Boston MA. I remember that our small group of about 10 total aaronic priesthood holders wore a whole range of different colored shirts, sometimes jackets sometimes not, and there was usually a colorful mix of things each week. I don’t believe many of us wore white shirts ever. It wasn’t really the style back then. We all wore ties and generally looked as nice as teenagers can possibly look in their sunday best, usually un-ironed clothes were the faux pas that you would run into. There was never any issue about a dress code other than preferably a dress shirt and tie, but I do recall our leaders allowing kids without ties and just dress shirts to still pass. I think the focus was on letting everyone participate and get involved since our numbers were few and vital. Fortunately even though our geographic ward boundries were large (covering multiple towns) we had a close ward family and the emphasis was always on inclusion and making people feel welcome and wanted, with less emphasis of how they appeared.

    To this day, I still rarely wear a white shirt, mainly because I think they make everyone look boring and stale, especially myself. There is probably a small part of me too that enjoys this subtle non-threatening act of rebellion.
    And hey, for some reason I still get asked to hold callings and have been working with the youth (gasp) for the past 7 years, in Utah and now Arizona.

    As a direct contrast, my 6 year old son begs me to let him wear his white shirt every sunday. I also finally caved in and bought him a tie (he was thrilled). At least his shirt rarely stays tucked in for more than 10 minutes.

    Interestingly, my brother lives near downtown Seattle and has been in the Bishopric for the past 7 years. He is an artist and designer and thus exhibits some mild non-conformist views and dress. My brother falls under that preciaous commodity of some one who loves the church and loves serving the people in it. The inner city is desperate for sane and dedicated church members. As a result the church uses his talents and efforts along with the handful of others like him over and over again. As a result he has perhaps been able to get away with a neatly trimmed goatie (chin pad) as he calls it, while serving in the Bishopric. His own act of rebellion while conforming to wearing a suit and white shirt is to go for the more fashion forward type of dress shirts with say no pockets or slightly alternate button position, nothing distracting, just little details, but I believe it makes him feel comfortable in his own skin while still being respectful of the position and responsibilities that he holds.

    Could it be that the further away you get from the zion curtain the more variance you see in some of the traditions and habits, because the church is maybe more grateful for anyone who wants to attend and worship?

    Ultimately I think it’s helpful to dress up in nicer clothes when going to church and think that it probably does help our minds to recognize that this time is different and hopefully a more special/uplifting way to spend part of our week. But mindless adherence to baseless codes and social mores takes us off the focus of building ours and others faith while attending church.

  61. I am reminded of Jennifer Aniston’s character Joanna in the movie Office Space posing a similar question:

    “If you want me to wear 37 pieces of flair like your pretty boy over there Brian, why don’t you make the minimum 37 pieces of flair?”

  62. During our priesthood lesson on the sacrament a couple of weeks ago there was a general consensus that while the handbook might be a little soft on the issue, the uniform of the priesthood and proper stances were the “gold standard” to which we should all strive.

  63. J. Stapley,

    I don’t know many people would consider me a religiously conservative person. However, as an ordinance worker in the Boston temple, I remember being instructed that there is very little that can be done to render an ordinance invalid.

    But I disagree that my analysis jettisons the handbook. Instead, I’ve always understood the handbook to be an explanation of how things should normally be done when circumstances permit. Kind of like a description of procedures based on the past and collective experience of church leaders–a way of saying, “It’s worked well for us doing it this way in the past.” But that’s probably my religious non-conservatism speaking.

    I haven’t get much thought to the casting lots thing, and haven’t had much experience, but I’ll look into it sometime today if I get a chance.

  64. We had the lesson on SACRIFICE last sunday in P’Hood and there were some concepts in it that I don’t think are part of the Gospel but obviously many in authority do. “As our testimonies of the Gospel grow, we become able to make greater sacrifices to the Lord.”
    This belief justifies taking the requirement set down and making it more difficult, white shirts are not required- lets teach them to sacrificew more, I see this a lot – haven’t yet seen more than 10% tithing.

    Amusing that white shirts are seen to be dignified. Very rarely see a deacon with his white shirt tucked in at the back – dignified? If you want dignity get the girls to do it.

  65. Scott,

    Excellent post. I would venture to guess that, previous to the guidelines issued in the CHI, the white shirt folk-policy gained staying power because of its function as a precursor to missionary conformity along these lines; “You young men will have to suit up eventually in the mission field with white shirts and ties. Better get used to it.”

    I might hypothesize that, if the uniform of a missionary were a little more relaxed, there might be a little more acceptance of the non-white shirt sacrament passers.

  66. Two experiences from my life: When I was in the Aaronic Priesthood, our ward had an abundance of AP-age kids. We always had enough deacons to pass the sacrament (up to 12, if I’m remembering correctly), so the teachers did the fast offering thing, and we always had four priests at the sacrament table. We didn’t have a white shirt requirement, but there was a tie requirement, and those who tried to get out of passing the sacrament by “forgetting” to wear a tie got to pick from the four or five hideous polyester ’70s ties the bishop kept for just such an occasion.
    As an elder in a “demographic” ward in the SLC Avenues (where families w/ kids from 1-18 went to another ward in the stake), the elders and high priests were responsible for the sacrament on alternating Sundays. The bishop was a stickler for white shirts. I never did pass the sacrament in that ward.

  67. I’ve always had white shirts in my rotation on about a 40/60 basis with blues, both solid and patterned. When initially called into a bishopric, I didn’t change the way I dressed. But then I noticed that the young men passing the sacrament all wore white shirts. I have no idea whether or how that was enforced, but it occurred to me that if they were doing that as an expression of the solemnity of the occasion, I didn’t want to pose a stumbling block to them, so I started wearing white shirts every Sunday. In other words, it wasn’t important to me personally, but if it was important to the young men, then I’d go with it. But I got not even so much as a comment from the bishop or stake president about it. That is probably because I was the second counselor, the position typically reserved for the recently reactivated guy or the guy that otherwise needs some special attention to keep him engaged.

  68. “If you want dignity get the girls to do it.”

    Or start giving all the modesty talks to the boys so that they, too, can become hideously self-conscious and worried about how other people visually perceive them.

    ;) (sort of)

  69. Eric (57),
    Yeah–I know it applies to everyone. I just used deacons as the starting point for the conversation. Actually, we always have 4-5 older brethren helping with the Sacrament every week–I even did so two weeks ago.

  70. Kristine,
    I included the first footnote just for you!

  71. During our priesthood lesson on the sacrament a couple of weeks ago there was a general consensus that while the handbook might be a little soft on the issue, the uniform of the priesthood and proper stances were the “gold standard” to which we should all strive.

    Precisely, Peter. This is exactly along the lines of what Stapley and I were discussing in comments 13 & 15 above.

  72. Observer (f.k.a. Eric. S.) says:

    (64) The untucked shirt phenomena is a good point and leads to others. For example, most deacons in my ward wear white shirts, but most of them also wear fully-flaired ties that some would say distract (I actually like the variety). Then you get into other clothing distractions, like “pants” that are turning into man capris. But as Scott suggests here, since there is not reg on ties and pant lengths or sizes, there is no message there re willingness to participate. Aaronically, the tie and pants can be equally if not more distracting that shirt color.

  73. Peter in #62 shows one of my biggest pet peeves: the “beyond the mark” tendency of some in the Church. If white shirts are encouraged, then you’re better than the other slobs if you wear a white shirt every Sunday. And then you’re better than everyone if you start wearing a white shirt and tie to school. And then you’re better than everyone if you won’t see PG-13 movies, then PG, then anything that President Monson hasn’t mentioned in a conference talk. Sigh. One of the reasons I tend to wear colored shirts, I guess.

  74. “man capris”

    Cue apocalypse.

  75. Observer (f.k.a. Eric. S.) says:

    (73) I have more temple and mission tie pins than anyone in the ward and you. Neener neener neener.

  76. gst 67: “so I started wearing white shirts every Sunday.” I knew you were, at heart, a conformist.

  77. Maybe we should go in another direction altogether and have the deacons dress as Levites. That’d go over well, don’tcha think?

  78. Maybe this “not required but a good idea” attitude descended from the BYU dress and grooming code where it says (or said when I was there) that mustaches are not prohibited but not encouraged.

  79. Steve Evans says:

    gst, I’m glad that finally a thread has developed in which you can casually drop in a mention of your high calling.

  80. Steve, It was clearly the summit of gst’s church career. Still bears a grudge he never made 1st counselor. My guess is he’s back counting sacrament meeting attendance. And adding 2% to the total because he’s still afraid to open the door to the mothers’ nursing room.

  81. Long time lurker, infrequent commenter here. Great post! I had the pleasant time of going to BYU-Hawaii for my undergrad degree. Obviously there’s a large Polynesian population and lavalavas and flip flops were the norm for most the men (largely RMs) and mumus and flip flops for the women in my student wards. Not wanting to stick out in a dark suit and white shirt and tie, I opted for nice dickies shorts, dress shirt (white or blue), tie, and rainbows sandals. I passed the sacrament more than once dressed that way and never felt irreverent or got any comments from the Bishiopric or anyone else.

  82. Scott, great post. I think you’ve articulated some ideas that almost every Aaronic priesthood holder subconsciously knows.
    Also a point that I had never considered before, that the ambiguous rule makes signaling easy and discreet and might actually serve a useful purpose.

    My ward growing up had Sacrament meeting last, which created another easy signal, if you didn’t want to pass (or didn’t feel “worthy”) just show up late. Passing assignments were always given out first thing in Priesthood, so if you showed up 15 minutes late you were free.

  83. Is there a Niblet for most intrinsically hypocritical comment? If so, I’d like to nominate #33. Awesome, just awesome.

  84. Jaron (81),
    Thanks for the comment, and for breaking out of the lurking shadows!

  85. Peter LLC says:

    Jaron, you didn’t happen to go to Cal Poly SLO in the early 1990s, did you?

  86. Benjamin, I apologize for appearing to criticize your position. That was not my intent. I find your description of what “rules” are essential to be simply fascinating. I was just surprised with some of the logical ramifications to it and was interested if you were factoring them into your view and your general approach to such situations.

  87. Steve, former bishopric guys are at least as bad as Harvard guys in that regard. You can’t get through two sentences with them working that in there.

  88. Chris Gordon says:

    Seems like as good a place as any for an anecdote. Apologies in advance for not really furthering the conversation much with it, but it’s further illustration of the perils of over-zealous orthodoxy beyond the scope of the CHI if nothing else.

    Nephew got baptized a few years back. Sister’s married to a non-member and she asks my brother and I to participate. Both of us live out of state. After initially not being able to attend, day before I get presented with an opportunity to go on an early flight, morning of. I find this out late in the evening prior. Lo and behold, only a blue shirt is clean and presentable, which I happily don for my flight and drive to the service. I’m to perform the confirmation.

    Until I get “that look” from the bishopric representative at this, our family baptism. He pulls me aside and tells me that he’s not able to approve my performing the ordinance and technically shouldn’t allow me in the circle at all. Not because I didn’t have my recommend to perform an ordinance (which I didn’t, but also didn’t know I needed one at the time), but because of my shirt.

    Long story short, he ultimately relented. Apparently, as I found out later, the rule came from the stake presidency, one notorious for building such hedges about the law. Other hedges include not giving temple recommends to facial-hair toting brethren and asking about caffeinated beverages and R-rated movies in recommend interviews.


  89. The truth is that the unofficial dress codes are a way of keeping the minorities in line, and ensuring that the gospel ordinances remain lilly white, the way God wants ’em.

  90. Thinking about it, my example in 82 probably isn’t a “signal”, but it had pretty much the same effect.

  91. Peter (85), negatory on Cal Poly SLO; in the early 90’s I was a white shirt and tie wearing deacon (my ward growing up didn’t have the same open minded dress code as my student wards at BYUH).

  92. To Chris Gordon,
    In which geographic region did this occur? You can keep the city or stake confidential.

  93. “So no, white shirts are not *required* for the sacrament, because it’s just a social norm. But what should be required is inconspicuous dress that allows the recipients to reverently ponder spiritual things without distractions.”

    This boils down to developing a sense of a higher law, which is governed by principle not proscriptions. This conflict was a constant issue during Christ’s ministry and one he consistently confronted. Instead of detailed and lip-pursing requirements about every aspect of daily life in order to safely define a righteous life, Christ preached that it was the inner person, with our intentions and thoughts and goals in harmony with our relationships with others, that guided our choices. This is what I hope we can teach our youth in the church today because that is the only way I can see to gradually change us from a parochial culture-governed people into a people that God can trust to take the LEAD in moving His work forward.

    The recent radical changes in the Duty to God program for the AP youth represent a shift from checklists of requirements to a more complex leader/mentor relationship with the young men who are assumed to be growing and learning as they learn and put into practice these principles, not requirements.

    Making personal choices and decisions based on how we can serve, respect, and honor others, our God, and whatever situation we are in and not on what some busy-body grandma from Kaysville, or former super-bishop thinks is appropriate puts the power in our own hands and makes us free. I think that’s part of God’s plan for us, that we mature enough to be able to step away from passive practice of the gospel to complete forward-looking princple-based activity.

  94. I always assumed that the ambivalence on this point was to take into account the needs of a worldwide church that chooses to address the issue of how to pass the Sacrament in every culture and economic condition that exists on the face of the planet.

    To me, the authors of the CHI seem to be saying:
    “White shirts are best when cultural norms and economic conditions allow, but we know that not every culture expects to see white shirts in church on Sunday, and some people can’t afford to buy a white shirt just to pass the Sacrament, so if you need to wear a shirt that is not white so that the ordinance can reasonably be performed, that’s OK so long as what you’re wearing doesn’t distract from the ordinance itself.”

    Of course, if that’s what the authors meant to say, I suppose they could have just said it. So maybe I’m reading too much into it. Or maybe not enough.

  95. Chris Gordon says:

    @Zephram: SoCal near L.A.

  96. I find it interesting that there is nothing in the Handbook about what is (or is not) to be worn over the shirt and tie. I’ve seen a priest wearing a shiny brown leather jacket over his white shirt and tie as he blessed the Sacrament and a teacher wearing a sports warm-up jacket that had a very large, shiny logo printed on the back.

    Regarding rolled-up sleeves, I always have my sleeves rolled to the elbow, and have never had anyone indicate that I look sloppy or unprofessional. I hate long sleeves, so the only time the sleeves are not rolled is when I am required (i.e. in the Temple).

  97. Fresh off my mission I was asked to help with the scouts. Mostly go camping with them. The scoutmaster was only a couple years off his mission and had a nice car and really seemed interested in the boys. (Years later he came out of the closet.)
    These deacons were about the most nasty little boys I’d ever run across. Constant dirty jokes, swearing, spitting, obscene gestures, bodily noises real and faked, yanking each others cloths around, pinching and grabbing and punching each other, girlie magazines in the tent, etc. Scoutmaster thought it was normal, not a problem. We obtained permission to go camping one Sunday as long as we held a sacrament meeting and wore our white shirts and ties.
    I will never forget those little perverts all lined up with their white shirts and ties and not wearing another stitch on down to their shoes. Scoutmaster laughing at them. Rules are rules.

  98. Er, uh. Hrm.

  99. Great post, Scott! It sounds like maybe you’re going to consider other instances of signaling in the church; for example, what would it mean if tithing were just suggested to be 10%, but “give what you can”? Or maybe we already have that with the gross vs. net argument. But then, I guess that wouldn’t work unless the person receiving the tithe knows if it’s gross or net. Plus, with only a couple of people seeing your tithing, how useful a signal could it be? What if you needed to signal the RS president that you’re ready to serve (or not)? Sorry to ramble. I guess I just want to say that I hope to see you write many more posts about signaling.

  100. Mark Brown says:

    Just to follow up on Ziff’s comment, I think there is lots of signalling that goes on with white shirts, aside from passing the sacrament. Tomorrow in church, notice how the the biggest concentration of white shirts is near the front of the chapel. In my ward, at least, the folks sitting on the metal chairs in the overflow section are the marginal members — new converts, barely actives, don’t fit in kind of members — and they don’t wear white shirts.

    The white shirt guideline doesn’t bother me very much, I’ve worn a white shirt with necktie every Sunday for decades. But as I have begun thinking more about why our retention rate for new converts is so abysmally low, I think we need to realize that at least part of the reason is that they don’t think they fit in. And part of the not fitting in probably has to do with wardrobe choices. Maybe we are signalling more than we think with our white shirts.

  101. Mark,
    In my Sacrament meeting today, there were only two men wearing non-white shirts. One sat in the front, and one in the overflow. Both are long-term members, and both are in leadership positions in the ward.

    However, my ward has a very, very low new convert-to-life-long member ratio; the ward is almost entirely retired Newport Beachers or BYU grads. So, I cannot confirm or reject your hypothesis for my ward.

  102. Kevin Barney says:

    Chris no. 88, wow. I would fail on all of those hedges.

    If that happened, would I continue to pay tithing? Very doubtful. Would I continue to even attend? Probably not. If the Church wanted to make it that clear to me that I wasn’t wanted, I’d drop out. Beware the law of unintended consequences.

  103. I was planning on noticing the shirts of those passing the sacrament and I completely forgot. to think of all the signal I could’ve invented or misread.

  104. Chris Gordon says:

    @Kevin (102), I couldn’t agree more. If ever there was an example of looking beyond the mark, I don’t know what it is.

  105. I remember when someone referred to white shirts and ties as the “uniform of the priesthood” and for some reason I felt offended. Different coloured shirts are not acceptable?? My brother at home was completely put off by this. I want my sons to be comfortable at church. Frankly if they feel better wearing a blue shirt, then by golly blue it’s gonna be! One question…you mentioned geographical restrictions with baby blessings??? Can you elaborate?

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