Sacrament Meeting, Brooklyn, 1873

February 26th, 2013, by Kent Larsen

Some elements of our every day lives are so mundane, that we never think to record anything about them. How many of us burden our diaries and journals with the details of our daily commute? Which route we took, whether the light at a particular street was red or green that day and what car we owned at the time just don’t seem like important details. But more than 100 years later these details sometimes make a lot of difference in how we understand the past.

Do you record the details of sacrament meetings in your journal? Has it ever occurred to you that 100 years in the future sacrament meeting might be somewhat different? Fortunately, outsiders sometimes see the mundane of our lives with different eyes, and their accounts of what is mundane to us and unusual to them are, 100 years later, insightful accounts of important parts of every day lives.

Sacrament meeting is a good example, in this case. In 1873 a reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle published an account of a Brooklyn sacrament meeting, leaving us what is, I think, an interesting outsider’s view of the “mundane” of Mormonism:

… The meeting place of their branch, is in Grand street, E. D., in the fourth story of a brick tenement house. Every Sunday afternoon at three o’clock, the principal service takes place. About 120 persons are seated in the benches and chairs, crowding every part of the room. At one end stands a plain altar, bearing a Bible, and on a table in front of it, is a communion service of silver plate covered with a linen napkin. About twenty-five or thirty elders among the saints, are seated behind the altar ranging across the room. The President of the Branch sits on the high seat at the altar, unless one of the twelve apostles or of the seventy elders, or some other superior officer of the universal church is present, in which case he presides instead of the branch officer. The people, for the most part, are from the unintelligent and uncultivated classes—factory hands predominating. They are past middle age, or else are children; few young men or women are to be observed among them. The physiognomical signs of all nationalities are to be seen—French, German, Swiss, Scandinavian, Scotch, Irish and English. The latter take more kindly to Mormonism than any other race.

The service opens with a hymn, sung standing. A prayer follows, and then the Sacrament is administered. During the communion the following hymn is sung:

Ye children of our God,
Ye saints of latter days;
Surround the table of the Lord,
And join to sing His praise.

After another prayer, the meeting is open for speaking, and the elders present are at liberty to address the meeting. Some of these sermons are often eloquent and always earnest; cant phrases are abundantly employed. They refer with special unction to “The Holy Church of Jesus Christ,” of “The Latter Day Saints,” “The Chosen People,” “The Beautiful Valley of the Mountains,” “The New Jerusalem” and “The Hills of Zion.” After all the speakers are through, another hymn is sung, and the meeting is closed with a benediction.



The meeting is at once different and yet the same. The Branch’s Elders sitting in front is certainly unusual, as is singing while the sacrament is being passed. The hymn isn’t anything I recognize either. And 120 people at sacrament meeting with 30 Elders sounds large enough to be a ward today–so did the reporter just fail to mention counselors to the Branch President? Or did he not have counselors?

I love the reporter’s mention of phrases of Mormon cant (we’d call it jargon today). referring to the New Jerusalem doesn’t seem very Mormon, but the Hills of Zion , Latter Day Saints and Chosen People all seem normal today.

The differences are mostly things that changed in Mormon culture over many years, and the changes happened so gradually that I suspect they weren’t recorded by the vast majority of Mormons. What changes do you notice? And what changes are gradually happening today?

  1. “The Mormons.” Brooklyn Eagle, 8 November 1873, p. 2

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8 Responses to “Sacrament Meeting, Brooklyn, 1873”

  1. Amy T Says:


    “Physiognomical” isn’t something we’d say nowadays, either. : )

  2. Mark B. Says:

    Another great find, Kent. I’m curious to find out more about that congregation that met up in Williamsburg 140 years ago.

    A couple of notes:

    That hymn shows up in the 1840 Manchester hymnal that was published by Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt and John Taylor. It’s hymn 146, on page 161. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in that hymnal to indicate who wrote it–or what music it was sung to.

    A copy of that hymnal has been digitized and can be found here:

    I wondered what the “E.D.” in the first sentence stood for. When Williamsburg was incorporated into the city of Brooklyn in 1855, it was known as the “Eastern District” of that fair city.

    Music during communion? Parents of a friend told me of that being not uncommon during their growing up days in Salt Lake City–in the 1930s and 40s. Usually it was instrumental–a violin solo, for example.

    But I wonder if the reporter’s “during the communion” encompassed everything from the time the presiding elder announced it until those passing the sacrament had completed their work. It may be that he viewed the breaking of the bread as part of the communion service. If that’s what he meant by singing during the communion then he wasn’t reporting anything different from current practice.

  3. Grant Vaughn Says:

    Thank you Kent and Mark! You just helped me solve a difficult problem by linking to the old hymnal that led me to the LDS Hymnal Wiki site. I have what I now believe to be a Manchester Hymnal, 12th ed., compiled by George Q. Cannon (Liverpool, England 1863). I am missing the first few pages, including title page and publication info, but it has 331 hymns matching the 1863 edition. It is signed inside the cover by my 3rd Great Grandmother, Louisa Staples, July 23, 1866, and by her son James (no date) as it appears to be a gift from her to him while still in England. I already blogged about it and now have more info in an addendum thanks to you two! I still sing some of the original words to the old hymns if I can get through my wife elbowing me.

  4. Bruce Crow Says:

    If I compare this to meetings in Tennessee from just a few years later, it was not unusual for most of the congregation of that size to be visitors instead of members. Any idea for the actual size of the membership at the time?

  5. Ted Jones Says:

    The branch at Williamsburg had been in a very healthy condition for at least four years prior. Here are some notes from three earlier newspaper articles.
    New York Semi-Weekly Times
    May 25, 1869
    Metropolitan Mormons.
    The Mormon Colony in Williamsburg—
    Interesting Account of their Homes,
    Habits, Business and Religious Services—
    A Mormon Church in Our Midst—
    Curious Phase of Life in New York.

    In this City of many races and many churches it is but natural that multifarious sects should exist. There is hardly a Christian denomination known which has not a branch to represent it in New York and its environs. Even the Mormons, who are generally supposed to be located only in Utah, have a colony and a church in this vicinity.
    Just across the East River, in Williamsburg [Brooklyn area] there is a settlement or congregation of the ‘Latter-day Saints,’ who are English and Welsh principally, and number 175 families. They live in Grand, Sixth, South First and Second streets, occupying the floors above the stores, and living in some of the smaller houses in the rear of the east front of Sixth street. They are nearly all members of the working classes, and have not much pretension to education; neither do they seem to be overburdened with this world’s goods, although want and suffering from privation of any kind are not to be met with among them….
    They are now so numerous as to be called a branch conference, and are ruled by a President, Elders and Deacon. They have a church or chapel at No. 145 Grand Street. It is a tastefully carpeted and furnished room, having at one end a raised dais, on which stands a large walnut desk with corner gaslights, and three green velvet armchairs for the President and Elders, around the sides of the apartment; two rows of green morocco covered chairs are arranged for the accommodation of the audience, and during service additional seats have to be furnished, owing to crowded attendance. The church is free to all persons during service, which commences at 3 p.m., on Sundays. It is opened with prayer and singing, after which a portion of the Scripture (according to the Mormon version) is read and expounded. The sacrament is then administered to the faithful by the presiding officer and his associates. It consists of plain bread and water, and is carried round the room on plates and in glasses or cups, and handed to the partakers by the Elder; after this any member who wishes to do so, may make a few remarks for the benefit of the church. Such was the style of afternoon service witnessed by us not many Sundays ago. There was nothing very remarkable about it, except that the congregation certainly had somewhat the aspect of pilgrims journeying to some distant shrine, and were pausing here to rest. The ladies were not remarkable for any great personal attractions, unless one should look upon age and worldly experience as such, and the male portion of the congregation looked like hard-fisted, hard-working mechanics. On the evening of our visit the service was presided over by two of the most distinguished luminaries lately arrived from Salt Lake City—Joseph A. Young, the great Brigham’s eldest son, and Orson Pratt, formerly President of the Saints in Great Britain. They lectured on the decided indication of the divine approval of the purposes of Mormonism given by the providentially successful completion and opening of the Pacific Railroad, which will render the transit of Saints to Utah, the Canaan of their prophet, more rapid and easy. They were enthusiastically received…..[goes on to discuss after church discussion on polygamy]

    New York Semi-Weekly Times
    Tuesday, January 25, 1870

    Lively Conference of the Faithful on
    Long Island—Efforts to Establish an
    Eastern Community.
    The Mormon missionaries, whose advent here a few weeks ago was duly chronicled in these columns, are laboring hard and earnestly on Long Island to spread, as they term it, ‘the only true Gospel,’ and to gather into the fold of the Latter Day Saints as many as will hear and believe their doctrines. For some weeks past their most able speakers have been traveling over the Island, preaching when and where they could with but little success until receiving some encouragement in the neighborhood of Hempstead, they finally determined to make it the center of a grant missionary effort, and three days ago General Burton, who is Commander-in-Chief of the Mormon Militia and a Bishop of the Church, established his headquarters at Baldwinsville, near Rockville Center, organized a conference of meeting for the discussion and exposition of Mormon doctrines and for the service of prayer. Assisted by a chosen number of priests and elders, Bishop Burton has held protracted meetings at this place since Friday morning until last night, and it is said with a degree of success. His avowed object is to form a new branch of the Church, which he hopes in time will spread itself all over Long Island, so that we may safely infer that an eastern Utah is clearly aimed at. As reported previously, there has been a small community of Mormons in Williamsburg, but so unimportant in a missionary point of view, that Brigham Young, feeling the necessity of having a powerful branch in the Eastern States, sent out a large body of his shrewdest elders, ostensibly to arouse the drooping courage of the scattered members of his flock, but in reality to settle on Long Island, where he had already many subjects and friends, and build there a powerful congregation equal in strength, he hopes, to that of the West. We are assured that this Hempstead demonstration, vigorous though it be, is only the commencement of a still greater effort. Every town and village on the island, it is said, will be visited by missionaries, and if possible the nucleus of a Mormon congregation will be planted at each point. For this purpose nearly all of the missionary force, numbering seventy-five priests and elders, with many more to come, have been assigned to districts, of which they are expected to give satisfactory accounts.
    The services at No. 145 Grant street, Williamsburg, yesterday, were not so largely attended as they have been hitherto. In the afternoon, Elder Thos. Jackson, of Utah, preached on the ‘Revelation of Mormonism to Jos. Smith,’ and in the evening delivered a discourse on the ‘Antiquity of the Gospel.’ (6f).

    New York Herald
    Feb. 8, 1870

    says that Bishop R. T. Burton has established Branches of the Church at Hempstead, Baldwinsville, Patchoque, and other locations near Rockville Center. The Herald continues—

    ‘During the past week the war against the ’Gentile’ world was carried on with increasing vigor, and other laborers have been despatched north and south throughout the island. Several new elders have arrived from the City of the Saints, and during this week an additional force of elders and priests, headed by a bishop, will reinforce those already here. The labors of Bishop Burton during the past week have been very successful at Freeport, the old branch established by Brigham Young about thirty years ago. The church, under the care of J. K. Benedict, an elder baptized by Young on the first establishment of the colony, has been built up and confirmed in the faith as taught in Utah. Twelve persons, most of them wealthy and able and willing to co-operate in the work, have been converted and baptized there by Bishop Burton and his assistants, of whom he has eight or nine. In Baldwinsville twenty Mormons, most of them recent converts, have rented a large upper room in the single hotel of which the village boasts, and there hold forth three times a day to crowds of wondering rustics, telling them of the recent revelations from the Most High, and warning them of the coming trouble by fire and sword, and of the dire destruction of all who refuse to believe in and tender their allegiance to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many of the principal towns in Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, have been set apart as districts which are now being worked, and consequently a grand rally around the banner of Mormonism may be expected. In Connecticut also proselytes are being gathered, and a large staff of missionaries, principally natives of that State, have returned from Utah and come to warn their friends against the approaching day of wrath. Bishop Burton and the other leading Mormon church dignitaries now in Long Island make no secret of their intentions, and express themselves as being certain of the ultimate success of their mission and the spread of Mormonism until it [138] becomes the established religion of the world. The principal congregation of the Saints on Long Island, however, is not to be found in any of the places already referred to, but in a place much nearer home—14 Grand Street, Williamsburg—where there is quite a large congregation, and from which drafts are repeatedly made for colonists for Utah. The movement has obtained a very strong footing in Williamsburg, and the degree of success which they continue to meet with gives rise to much apprehension on the part of the Christian community there. Three sessions are held every Sunday, and the large room engaged by them in Grand Street is rapidly becoming too small for the increasing congregations. A special session was held yesterday to listen to an address from Elder Jackson, a prominent member of the Church recently returned from Utah. The large room was crowded to excess, and a number of the missionaries from Hempstead and district were present. [Millennial Star 32.9 (March 1, 1870): 137-8].

  6. Kent Larsen Says:

    All good points, Mark. I’m also anxious to find out more about the congregation in Brooklyn. I have found out more about the branch leader at the time, Henry G. Bywater (often called Atwater in the Brooklyn Eagle — I assume that Atwater was just a more common name and they misheard given Bywater’s Welsh accent) — I hope to write about him next week. The branch lasted at least through 1879, and perhaps until 1883 or later, given that Bywater went to SLC in 1883.

    I’d love to be able to show that the branch lasted until the 1890s, when the mission was “reopened.” I actually think that the immigration agent was the mission president, and since he wasn’t called that historians assumed that the mission was closed. But I don’t have enough evidence to say that for sure.

    One book I have (2ndary source) claims that the hymn “Ye children of our God” is by Parley P. Pratt.

    I did know that E.D. refers to the Eastern District of Brooklyn and that Williamsburgh was in the E.D., but I haven’t looked to see what the boundaries were, so I didn’t know much about the issue. I didn’t know about the 1855 merger — I’m a little embarrassed about that. I should study the environment a bit more.

    Your ideas about music during the communion are interesting and reasonable. I’m afraid we need more evidence to say for sure — and the reporter wasn’t exactly precise about what happened.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  7. Kent Larsen Says:

    Apparently playing music during the passing of the sacrament was stopped in 1946. See:

    Do Not Raise the Sacred Strain, Gently or Otherwise

  8. Sam Coulson Says:

    Kent and Ted,

    I cannot say how greatful I am for this info on the Williamsburg Branch. My g-g-grandfather Samuel Coulson immigrated from Birmingham on the Ship Manhattan on 4 Jul 1867, but stayed in Williamsburg for several years rather than continuing on with his company of Saints.

    The only written record he left was a genealogy book of names and dates that list several children being born and died in Williamsburg, so the only way I know anything about this period of his life is from other records. I always thought he stayed in Williamsburg because he was a brewer and there was a strong brewing industry in the area, but had no idea that there was also a strong community of saints as well. Eventually Samuel and his surviving family emigrated to Utah on the train.

    I know Samuel was an Elder in Birmingham so reading these records of what the meetings were like and who attended them really illustrates that period of his life. Thanks so much for your research!

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