Hello! Shalom! Aloha! Mabuhay!

If this is your first visit to Modern Apocrypha, I have only two recommendations for continuing on with minimal confusion:

1) Please begin with the first introductory post (found HERE) and work your way forward. Almost all the posts on this blog flow chronologically and will make more sense with the background and context of previous ones. Jumping in anywhere might be disorienting.

2) Please read along in the texts posted off to the right. I try not to summarize too much in the commentary and discussion, and being at least somewhat familiar with what we're discussing or I'm commenting on will be most beneficial and edifying for all involved. Plus, going along with the theme of this blog, any hidden truths to be brought to light will be found within the text itself and not necessarily within my ramblings.

Okay, fine, three recommendations:

3) Please read with an open heart, mind, and spirit. See what truths you can find in these works--ones which speak to you. Namaste : )

Tuesday, July 26, 2016


This post won't get into the validity of prayer circles, which are well attested anciently, or the ritual of "veritable prayer" as Ahkman calls it, though they are closely tied to the present subject. (Quinn's article on LDS prayer circles is a good place to start from an LDS perspective, or much of Nibley's work in ancient religion for that matter ; ) Those practices are perpetuated today within Mormonism (though to a lesser degree than in previous times), however, the family altar around which prayers are offered is not. It has become one of many ubiquitous early Mormon practices that have slowly fallen out of sight, and thus favor, via cultural evolution and extinction of collective knowledge. (A good portion of the following quotes were found at this By Common Consent post on family altars.)

During and after the Nauvoo period, group prayer circles conducted in public and in private were common occurrences. In a talk at the Nauvoo temple site in 1845, George A. Smith recounted:
When we come together and unite our hearts and act as one mind, the Lord will hear us and will answer our prayers.... Whenever [we] could get an opportunity [we] retired to the wilderness or to an upper room, [we] did so and were always answered. It would be a good thing for us every day and pray to God in private circles.
When Brigham Young led the Saints west, he carried the practice forward where prayer circles were conducted in various buildings, including the Lion House, the Salt Lake Endowment House, and stake and ward buildings, to receive the Lord's will concerning various Church and family affairs. Members at this time were encouraged to have prayer circles in their homes if they, like other Church buildings, were dedicated by the priesthood to the Lord and possessed an altar for prayer. In 1855, Brigham Young preached on the importance of prayer in family circles:
Again, suppose a family wish to assemble for prayer, what would be orderly and proper? For the head of the family to call together his wife, or wives, and children, except the children who are too small to be kept quiet, and when he prays aloud, all present, who are old enough to understand, should mentally repeat the words as they fall from his lips; and why so? That all may be one.... There are times and places when all should vocally repeat the words spoken, but in our prayer meetings and in our family circles let every heart be united with the one who takes the lead by being mouth before the Lord, and let every person mentally repeat the prayers, and all unite in whatever is asked for, and the Lord will not withhold, but will give to such persons the things which they ask for and rightly need.
Wilford Woodruff recorded an 1858 visit to Brigham Young's home and his understanding of the family altar in such prayers:
I attended the prayer meeting in the evening. President Young said the family altar was the same as an altar in the prayer circle. It is for parents and children to join hands over the altar and pray.
Early on in 1846, Brigham Young recorded the dimensions of the Nauvoo temple altar, after which these early family altars were patterned:
The altar is about two and one-half feet high and two and one-half feet long and about one foot wide, rising from a platform about 8 or 9 inches high and extending out on all sides about a foot, forming a convenient place to kneel upon. The top of the altar and the platform for kneeling upon are covered with cushions of scarlet damask cloth; the sides of the upright part or body of the altar are covered with white linen.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the central nature of the family altar in family prayer was consistently preached from the pulpit and in Church periodicals. In 1881, Joseph F. Smith taught:
It is absolutely necessary that the Latter-day Saints should come together in the family capacity, and kneeling around the family altar, call upon God for his blessings morning and evening.
Later that year, John H. Smith also references the family altar in teaching the importance of family prayer:
Now, I am sanguine that there are many who call themselves Latter-day Saints, who have neglected their duty in this respect, and many a son is permitted to grow to manhood, whose father has never asked him to bow with them at the family altar. This is a serious neglect upon the part of those who have named the name of Jesus, who have come up to these mountains to be taught in the ways of the Lord.
Sometimes, it seems, prayer at the family altar became very regimented among certain members. Men tended to usurp the prayer duties, leaving women and children out of the ritual. In 1899, George Q. Cannon spoke in general conference on the matter:
I will say here that we should give our wives and children the opportunity to pray in the family circle. There are men who think that unless they pray the Lord does not hear the prayer, and they are in the habit of doing all the praying in their families.... We should ask our wives and our daughters to pray. Let them do some of the praying in the family.... Brethren, do not get the idea that the Lord will not hear your wives and daughters. He does hear them, and He hears our little children. I would give them the opportunity as soon as they are old enough, to ask a blessing, and to pray around the family altar, and to ask for the things that are in their hearts.
In 1905, Hyrum M. Smith promoted the use of the family altar as a means of spiritual self sufficiency:
You should not feel to complain, even though one of the Twelve, or the First Council of Seventy, or even the First Presidency, find it impossible to be with you. You should read the word of the Lord from the books, and kneeling down around the family altar, you should commune with the Lord and ask Him for wisdom, judgment and enlightenment. You should depend more upon Him and less than some of us do upon those who constitute the authorities of the church.
It's not certain when altars began to wane in the Mormon home. The 1926 Improvement Era included instructions for Mutual Improvement Association Home Study that included reference to the family altar but noted that the kitchen table had become more prominent. In 1973, Hartman Rector, Jr. became the last to utter the phrase "family altar" in general conference as he described how "the temple became a 'heavenly family house,' the sealing room became a 'heavenly family room,' and the altar of the temple became a 'heavenly family altar'" as men and women are joined across it and "made 'one,' a family in the Lord."

The following chart depicts the relative frequency (not actual count) by decade of the phrase "family altar" in LDS general conference talks. This serves as a good proxy for its prominence within LDS communal knowledge and practice. (Data was taken from Corpus of LDS General Conference Talks, one of my favorite tools over the past couple years. Check it out! : )

There has never been official Church counsel against or authorized prohibition of prayer altars within Mormon homes. The practice seems to have just faded into oblivion and has now become associated with fundamentalists and apostates. The closest thing affecting the Church at a local level and tangentially related to family altars is a 1978 letter from the First Presidency to bishops and stake presidents discontinuing special ward or stake prayer circles previously held in temples or ward, stake, or other buildings. Designated rooms for those practices in local buildings were thereafter repurposed.

One final quote from the LDS Bible Dictionary: "Only the home can compare with the sacredness of the Temple." This seems to be echoed in Ahkman's instructions to his people.

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